Political Philosophy: What to read

Philosophers have written copiously about politics. There is, moreover, no sharp dividing line between “philosophical” writings on politics and other kinds of writing on this topic. So there is no end to what one might read under the heading of “political philosophy”. Here is a list of 15 significant texts, some classical and some modern, some short and some long, some famous and some not so famous, some highly readable and some very demanding. The selection is, of course, mine; others might add to it or subtract from it. I will add some comments on what makes these writings interesting and important.


  1. Plato, Protagoras

The ancient Greeks invented democracy, but we know little of their reasoning about this new form of government. The first philosopher to have developed a “democratic theory” seems to have been Protagoras, the founder of the Sophistic School and a close associate of Pericles, the great democratic leader of Athens. Unfortunately, all of Protagoras’ writings have been lost. The best account we have of his thinking about democracy is found in the dialogue Protagoras written by Plato, a sharp critic of both the sophists and of democracy.

Protagoras appears to have argued that all human beings have an equal basic capacity for fairness and companionship. We can develop this capacity through education and thus create a condition in which all (mature, educated) citizens are equally capable of making political judgments.

Also of interest is Plato’s dialogue The Statesman (Politikos) in which he lays out his counter-picture to Protagoras’ democratic conception of politics.

2.  Plato, Republic

The ancient Greek title for this dialogue is Politeia which means the constitution or order of the polis, i.e., the Greek city state, and this is, in fact, the concern of the dialogue. The name “Republic” goes back to Cicero’s Latin and may be misleading for modern ears.

This dialogue is the first comprehensive treatise on politics written by a Western philosopher – at least, the earliest we have. Protagoras is supposed to have written another Politeia, now lost, from which Plato is said to have borrowed. We are, however, not in a position to say whether and to what extent he did.

Plato’s dialogue covers a wide range of topics: the concept of justice and of a just institution, the origin of the polis, forms of government, the rise and the decline of systems of government,  the place of the philosopher in the polis, and, above all, the blue-print of an ideal (or happy) city ruled by philosopher kings who live a completely socialized life without private property and without individual families. In addition there is in this happy city an athlete-warrior class and a civil society concerned with the matters of daily practical life; in a well-ordered city each class will perform its assigned role and not aspire to more.  On the basis of this account Plato has been hailed as a forerunner of a socialist conception of the state and also derided as a proto-fascist. A third possibility is to see Plato as anticipating the modern idea of the political rule of experts.

One of the central themes of the dialogue is the assumption that the order of the polis corresponds precisely to the order of the human soul. There is thus not only a democratic form of government but also a democratic man; not only tyranny but also tyrannical man. In Plato’s story, a well-ordered human mind corresponds to the order of the ideal, happy city.

Plato’s dialogue raises fundamental questions about politics that are still of interest today and it remains for that reason still worth reading, even though our political world is so very different from Plato’s.

As far as Plato’s political thinking is concerned, it is also useful to look at his later dialogue The Laws which offers what one might call a more realistic picture of politics.

3.  Aristotle, Politics

Like his master, Plato, Aristotle wrote philosophical dialogues; but in contrast to Plato’s dialogues, none of Aristotle’s have survived. His Politics contains – scholars assume – an edited version of Aristotle’s lecture notes. These may even have originated on different occasions. This would explain certain apparent inconsistencies in the text.

Aristotle begins his Politics famously with the claim that we are political beings by nature. Even some animals, such as the social insects, are political beings, though in a lesser sense than humans.  Distinctive of human beings is that they possess reason and can therefore deliberate on which form of life is the best.

Like Plato, Aristotle holds that we have the choice between different forms of government and that we must determine which of them is the best. Also like Plato, he argues that this is not democracy. But he is equally opposed to the Platonic idea of a state ruled by philosopher-kings. In book 2 of the Politics he strongly defends private property and the individual family as natural and, indeed, necessary for a good life.

In a further contrast to Plato, Aristotle concerns himself also with the question which form of government is viable at a given moment. Departing from Plato’s idealistic reconstruction of politics and adumbrates thus a standpoint of political realism.

Aristotle’s Politics should be read in conjunction with his Nicomachean Ethics which adds significantly to his understanding of politics. In particular, Aristotle elaborates his conception of justice in two books of the Ethics. In Book 1 he argues, moreover, that ethics should be considered a part of politics since it is the political community that ultimately determines what ethical principles get taught. And in book 10, he maintains that political life is not the highest possible form of existence. Higher than it is contemplative life which we can partake in when we philosophize. But we have practical needs and even the philosopher is human. Pure contemplation is possible only for “the God.” For us, political life – complemented, it seems, by philosophical reflection – is the highest, most desirable, and most natural form of existence.

4. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

This is really a political pamphlet rather than a philosophical treatise but it reverberates with political idea. Machiavelli seeks to instruct a prince on how to establish and maintain a territory and to eventually unify Italy under his rule. Such a prince must be both strong like a lion and wily like a fox. He must be ready to use violence, though in a controlled and deliberate fashion. Conflict is an inherent part of politics. The prince can’t be guided only by moral principle but must act according to political opportunity and necessity. He has to rely on reason but is also dependent on luck (fortuna).

Machiavelli seeks to advance in this way a “realist” view of politics. This view is further developed in his History of Florence. In his writings we also find a new emphasis on the distinction between the institution, the state (lo stato), and its ruler.

5. Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan

6. Benjamin Constant, Political Writings

7. Immanuel Kant, Toward Eternal Peace

8. F. W. G. Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of Right

9. Karl Marx-Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

10. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

11. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political

12. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

13.  Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty

14. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish

15. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

16. Raymond Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics



One Reply to “Political Philosophy: What to read”

  1. Good blog, thanks for sharing… I quote Niccolo Machiavelli: “It is about a citizen who becomes the prince of his country not by wickedness or any intolerable violence, but by the favour of his fellow citizens. We can call this ‘civil principality’. Now, this kind of principality (princely state)—·this way of becoming a prince·—is obtained with the support of the common people or with the support of the nobles.”

    I tried to write a blog abouth, hope you like it:

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