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Political Thought through the Ages

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Tags EducationWorld HistoryPolitical Theory

05/23/2012David Gordon

[David Gordon will teach Political Thought through the Ages, a 6-week online course at the Mises Academy, starting June 7, 2012.]

In a famous essay, Benjamin Constant distinguished between the "liberty of the ancients" and the "liberty of the moderns." Ancient political thought subordinated the individual to the community, Constant argued, while modern political liberty respects the rights of individuals.

In this course, we'll use Constant's essay as a guideline to understand the development of political thought. For ancient thought, Plato's Republic will be one of the main works discussed. Does Constant's generalization apply to Plato? Can one go further, as Karl Popper did, and view Plato as an advocate of the "closed society" and thus a precursor of totalitarianism?

Aristotle criticized Plato, and we'll look at his own distinctive political views. Is he in part an exception to Constant's generalization? We'll look at the important argument of Fred Miller, in his Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle's Politics, which finds in Aristotle an anticipation of individual rights.

We will next look at Thomas Hobbes, who abandoned the Greek search for the highest good. Motivated by the fear of violent death, people established an all-powerful state. What, if anything, is wrong with Hobbes's argument?

John Locke, like Hobbes, began from people in a state of nature, but his conclusions differed greatly from those of Hobbes. He supported individual rights, including the acquisition of property. How close did he come to libertarianism?

We'll next look at Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who combined elements of ancient and modern thought in his Social Contract. Is his "general will" a recipe for totalitarianism?

Finally, we will look at libertarian arguments from Lysander Spooner and Murray Rothbard that challenge altogether the authority of the state.

The course consists of six lectures, and here is a tentative schedule:

  • Week 1: Plato

  • Week 2: Aristotle

  • Week 3: Hobbes

  • Week 4: Locke

  • Week 5: Rousseau

  • Week 6: Spooner and Rothbard

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