The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas

History of Political Philosophy

One of the chief concerns of the Jefferson Center is to help students think about how the society in which they live in constituted, and how it answers the basic questions of who ought to govern and with a view to what purposes. The texts discussed below, all of which are taught regularly in the Jefferson Center, represent the best efforts of the human mind to grapple with those fundamental political questions.

Part of what we hope to make accessible through these readings is the development of distinctly modern republicanism or constitutionalism—characterized by emphasis on securing individual rights as the purpose of government, leaving a wide sphere for individual freedom. The readings below give some of the key statements from classical and medieval political thought, and some of the most important critiques of them, which led to the modern approach to politics. The list below also represents important late-modern critics of modern liberalism from the radical Left and Right: above all, Rousseau, Marx, and Nietzsche, who saw the consequences of political liberalism firsthand and spoke out against them.

John of England Signs the Magna Carta

King John signs the Magna Carta

Aristotle, Politics

Aristotle’s Politics is the first comprehensive, philosophic treatise on politics ever written. Based on his survey of all of the different regimes known to his time, this book contains Aristotle’s key and massively influential statements on the nature of political life. It is also a kind of defense of political life, which portrays in vivid detail what it means to be an involved member of a republic, and tries to show how and why participatory republican life is preferable to absolute rule.

The best place to begin a study of the Politics is with a careful reading of the first and third books. In Book I, Aristotle claims and then elaborates on his claim that human beings are by nature political animals. He provides both a brief account of how cities naturally come into being, and an analysis of some of the basic components of the household.

In Book III Aristotle turns to the question of who ought to rule, and entertains in turn the competing claims of democracies, aristocracies, and kingships. There may be no more complete or more nuanced attempt to address the question of who ought to rule than this one.

After that, Aristotle’s survey of different proposals for the best regime, in Book II, which includes an extensive critique of the city in speech proposed in Plato’s Republic, and his account of his own best regime, in Books VII and VIII, are of particular interest.

Politics of Aristotle

Recommended Translation: Peter L. Phillips Simpson,
University of North Carolina Press

The Politics of Aristotle

St. Augustine, City of God

Augustine’s City of God is the classic Christian statement on how one ought to see earthly political life in its relation to our final, God-ordained end. In doing so, it presents a vivid contrast between the Christian approach to politics and the ancient one, highlighting above all the difference between the virtues as Christians understand them and as the Greeks understood them. Indeed, Ernest Fortin (a leading teacher of Christian political thought) said of this work that “more than in any other ancient Christian work, the contest between Christ and Socrates… achieves its true proportions.” Through the book, Augustine develops his understanding of what it means to be a citizen of the City of God while still living as a mortal, that is, as a citizen of the City of Man.

The most influential part of City of God, and a very useful place to begin, is Book XIX, which begins with a critique of the Stoics who sought to untether happiness from any sense of hope for a future world (or even this world!), and which culminates in the suggestion that the only true city, and thus the only political entity truly worthy of our full devotion, is the City of God.

City of God

Recommended Translation: Henry Bettenson, Penguin Classics

City of God

St. Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on Law (from the Summa Theologiae)

The Treatise on Law is the part of Summa Theologiae in which Thomas explains his four-fold typology of law. For students of political philosophy, his doctrine of natural law is especially important. He maintains that there are certain rational standards of right and wrong action, whose basic principles are written by God into the conscience of every adult human being. These standards constitute the natural law. Although this law must be supplemented and perfected by the divine law hat God gives through specific revelation, it remains valid at all times and in all places. He ties that natural law to a certain hierarchy of human ends: self-preservation, continuation of the species, the good of one’s community, and the knowledge of God. In this text, Thomas explains on what basis one can assert that there is a natural law, and how it relates to the other types of law by which we ought to govern our lives. In doing so, he gives the core of his teaching on the proper roles of both natural reason and divine revelation in providing guidance as to how we ought to live.

We recommend beginning with a reading of Summa Theologiae Ia IIae QQ. 90-97.

Treatise on Law

Recommended Translation: Richard Regan, Hackett Publishing

Treatise on Law

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

The Prince is Machiavelli’s short handbook of advice to princes and potential princes. It includes famously wicked advice, such as the claim that it is more important for a prince to appear to keep his word than to keep it, and that “inhuman cruelty,” when properly deployed, may be counted as a virtue. The book therefore raises very radical questions about what virtue is, and whether even terrible seeming acts may be regarded as virtuous, if they are done in service of some worthy political end. Indeed, Machiavelli at times even suggests that immoral acts may be done for no higher purpose than the glorification of the prince himself. In that sense, Machiavelli presents a powerful counterpoint to Thomas Aquinas, denying that there is any such thing as a natural law, and suggesting that belief in such a law tends to be politically deleterious. There are few works that challenge basic moral beliefs so profoundly.

The Prince

Recommended Translation: Harvey Mansfield, University of Chicago Press

The Prince

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is a pivotal statement in the emergence of modern liberalism. Though Hobbes was not himself a liberal — he held that the best regime was a hereditary monarchy, since it provided most effectively for political stability — his thinking held massive influence over the liberal founders in several key respects. First, he makes the claim that man by his nature exists outside of political society, and that the state exists and has authority because people consent to it in order to escape the terrible state of nature. He therefore sees the state, not as an organic whole whose purpose it to cultivate virtues, but as a construction whose purpose is to secure certain goods, especially security, for individuals. He even develops a doctrine of natural law that is fundamentally based on the individual need for self-preservation, appropriating the terminology of Thomas, but limiting its meaning by not including duties to one’s family, one’s community, or to know God. This all rests on a foundational new teaching on human nature, according to which “happiness” is to be understood only as the “continual progress of the desire, from one object to another,” and which rejects the idea of any simply supreme good for human beings.

The Leviathan is an original defense of many of the principles of the modern state. For new readers, we recommend a sequence that includes the chapters 6, 11, 13-19, and 46.


Recommended Edition: Hackett Publishing, edited by Edwin Curley


John Locke, Second Treatise of Government

Locke’s Second Treatise may be the classic statement of liberal principles. It contains Locke’s basic argument that the proper purpose of political society is to secure certain rights, to life, liberty, and property. Like Hobbes, he begins with a picture of life in the state of nature. But Locke’s picture of good government is very different from Hobbes’. Contrary to what Hobbes had suggested, he holds individual rights are severely endangered by absolute kings, and argues for a form of government which allows for regular elections of representatives, and specific limits on government power. He even describes certain extreme conditions under which citizens might choose to revolt. Beyond that, the book’s fifth chapter also contains Locke’s defense of a right to property, and together with that, a crucial, early defense of capitalism and the pursuit of profit as principles that will benefit mankind as a whole.

The Second Treatise is also important for the study of American politics, as many of its principles were adopted more or less directly by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, and by the framers of the Constitution.

two treatises

Recommended Edition:

In Two Treatises of Government,
edited by Peter Laslett,
Cambridge University Press

Montesquieu: Spirit of the Laws

Other than Aristotle’s Politics, The Spirit of the Laws is the only comprehensive treatise written by a political philosopher. He begins by providing a broad, thorough survey of the different political forms that have emerged throughout history, giving a rather traditional-seeming division of regimes in the manner that Aristotle had. He offers very high praise for ancient republics and for the extraordinary virtues to which they gave birth. But as one reads The Spirit of the Laws, it becomes increasingly that this typology is provisional. Montesquieu sees a new, modern political form emerging and spreading throughout the world, which is animated by a concern for political liberty and a commercial spirit, and embodied above all in contemporary England. By the end of the treatise, it seems clear that Montesquieu views this new kind of regime as preferable in virtually all important respects, despite, or perhaps because of, the decline of the demanding virtues found among the ancients.

There are certain passages which will be of particular interest in tracing out this development: Montesquieu’s description of the character of ancient republics in Books II-VI; his exposition of political liberty and of the English regime in Books XI and XII, and especially his explanation of the doctrine of separation of powers in Book XI, Chapter 6; and his description of the moral and political effects of the rise of commercialism in Book XIX, Chapter 27, and Book XX. What emerges is a powerful vision of a new kind of politics, one that demands less devotion of its citizens and offers more in return, that is more flexible than the old forms, and that is gentler, more humane, and truer to human nature.

spirit of the laws

Recommended Translation:
Anne Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, Harold Samuel Stone,
Cambridge University Press

Montesquieu: The Spirit of the Laws

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, First and Second Discourse

Social Contract, Books I and II, and Book IV, Chapter 8


Rousseau was the key figure in a movement that later has come to be known as the Counter-Enlightenment. He raised radical questions about the developments in political philosophy that took place during the 17th and 18th Century. He asked whether the expansion of the arts and science, being hailed so widely as a kind of progress, was really benefitting human beings. To the contrary, it seemed to be creating an unhealthy, bourgeois culture, which did little to make human beings happy. What is most striking about Rousseau is that he raises these questions on the basis of many premises that were accepted by the Enlightenment philosophers themselves, especially their teaching that the state is not natural and that human beings are naturally equal.

In order to develop an understanding of the nerve of Rousseau’s thought, perhaps the best place to begin is with his two Discourses. In the First Discourse, Rousseau argues, against the prevailing opinion among intellectuals of his day, that progress in the arts and sciences has, on the whole, been profoundly harmful for human morals, and as a consequence, for human happiness. In the Second Discourse, he addresses the origins of inequality, and his rhetoric becomes even more overtly radical. He presents a picture of man in the state of nature that powerfully contradicts Hobbes’. He claims that life in the state of nature is basically good, even though most of what we now consider distinctively human qualities — language, reason, family life — are not yet present. He suggests that it is not only modern society that is a cause of ills for mankind, but society simply: Even early societies tended to alienate man from his nature. In its second part, the Second Discourse explains how man, having left the state of nature, ended up in the modern situation, which is characterized by so much oppression and abuse.

While these works present Rousseau’s diagnosis of contemporary problems in vivid detail, neither offers simple and persuasive solution to them — and indeed, readers of Rousseau may be frustrated by the fact that he never offers a single, clear solution to our woes. Those interested in possibilities that he entertained, however, should look at the Social Contract, especially Books I and II and Book IV, Chapter 8, in which Rousseau develops his very striking political doctrine. Also of great interest is his philosophic novel, Emile, in which he presents a model education for a young man, based upon his new principles.


Recommended Translations:

The Discourses, Victor Gourevitch, Cambridge University Press

Emile, Allan Bloom, Basic Books

The Social Contract, Victor Gourevitch, Cambridge University Press

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and Political Writings

Although Kant’s writings are not easy, they are not entirely inaccessible and they represent an essential stage in understanding the development of modern liberalism. Though his concrete political teaching is very close to that of the early liberals like Locke and Montesquieu, he grounds it on very different principles. He places central importance on autonomy, that is, the capacity of each individual to live in accord with his or her own moral choices, and so, maintains that it is the purpose of each political community to make it possible for individuals to live freely in accord with standards that they choose for themselves. But this freedom is not worthwhile merely because it allows people to live however they want. Instead, its primary importance is to allow people to act in accord with their duty, but in a way free from coercion: For the highest function of a human being is to freely choose to live in accord with the moral law. Indeed, Kant goes further than any classical thinker or any of the early liberals in suggesting that we should subordinate our concern for our individual happiness to our concern to follow the moral law.

Kant’s basic moral teaching is laid out in detail in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, especially the first two parts. This includes Kant’s famous development of the categorical imperative, which he offers as the root of the rational, moral law.

In order to see how this translates into a political teaching, perhaps the best place to begin is with Kant’s reply to Hobbes in section II of his essay, “Theory and Practice” (pages 73-87 in the Cambridge edition of the Political Writings). For Kant’s vision of a progressive society which increasingly realizes his ideal of autonomy, his Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purposes (Political Writings 41-53) is essential, together with the third part of “Theory and Practice” (87-92).

Those who are interested in seeing how his political teaching applies to relations among states should consider Kant’s essay, “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophic Sketch,” (93-130) , and even more importantly, Part II, Section II of the Metaphysics of Morals (164-171).

kant's morals
kant's political writings

Recommended Translations:

Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals,
H.J. Paton, Harper Torchbooks

Political Writings,
Cambridge University Press,
H.S. Reiss and H.B. Nisbet

Friederich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil,
and The Genealogy of Morals

Nietzsche was perhaps the boldest critic of Enlightenment thought. He argued that the ultimate consequence of the modern approach to politics was not to usher in a new era of enlightenment or moral and spiritual maturity, but rather, that it ushered in an age of last men, nihilists who live lives of shallow, empty complacency. The prologue to Zarathustra contains Nietzsche’s disturbing and unforgettable portrait of the last man. It also contains some important pointers to a better possibility that Nietzsche hopes might emerge out of liberal society — the “overman,” who is able to live at a time in which “God is dead,” but who nevertheless retains his spiritual depth.

For all of its memorable imagery, the opening of Zarahustra contains very little argument. In order to get a better sense of its philosophic basis, we recommend turning to Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals. The Genealogy offers a particularly powerful and affecting critique of Christian morals in the name of “life.”


Recommended Editions:

Thus Spoke Zarathustra,
Graham Parkes, Oxford World's Classics

Beyond Good and Evil,
Walter Kaufmann, Vintage

Genealogy of Morals,
Clark and Swensen, Hackett

Thomas Pangle and Timothy Burns, The Key Texts of Political Philosophy: An Introduction

This book introduces readers to analytical interpretation of seminal writings and thinkers in the history of political thought, including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Marx, and Nietzsche. Chronologically arranged, each chapter in the book is devoted to the work of a single thinker. The selected texts together engage with 2000 years of debate on fundamental questions, which include: What is the purpose of political life? What is the good life, for us as individuals, and for us as a political community? What is justice? What is a right? Do human beings have rights? What kinds of human virtues are there and which regimes best promote them? The difficulty of accessing the texts included in this volume is the result not only of their subtlety but also of the dramatic change in everyday life. The authors shed light on the texts' vocabulary and complexities of thought and help students understand and weigh the various interpretations of each philosopher's thought. • Accessible interpretive essays on the greatest texts in the history of political thought, from Plato to Nietzsche. • Includes key passage plus a succinct discussion that glosses the text, examines later-day interpretations, and guides students in forming their own interpretations. • Allows students to learn from, rather than only about, each thinker, and to apply their thought to the present day.

Key Texts Image

Other suggested readings:

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto and Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1848