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Introduction Back to Top

Political philosophy is the study of fundamental questions about the state, government, politics, liberty, justice and the enforcement of a legal code by authority. It is Ethics applied to a group of people, and discusses how a society should be set up and how one should act within a society. Individual rights (such as the right to life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness, free speech, self-defense, etc) state explicitly the requirements for a person to benefit rather than suffer from living in a society.

Political philosophy asks questions like: "What is a government?", "Why are governments needed?", "What makes a government legitimate?", "What rights and freedoms should a government protect?", "What duties do citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any?" and "When may a government be legitimately overthrown, if ever?"

Ancient Political Philosophy Back to Top

Western political philosophy has its origins in Ancient Greece, when city-states were experimenting with various forms of political organization including monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy and democracy. Among the most important classical works of political philosophy are Plato's "The Republic" and Aristotle's "Politics". Later, St. Augustine's "The City of God" was a Christianized version of these which emphasized the role of the state in applying mercy as a moral example. After St. Thomas Aquinas's reintroduction and Christianization of Aristotle's political works, Christian Scholastic political philosophy dominated European thought for centuries.

In Ancient China, Confucius, Mencius (372 - 189 B.C.) and Mozi (470 - 391 B.C.) sought to restore political unity and stability through the cultivation of virtue, while the Legalist school sought the same end by the imposition of discipline. Similarly, in Ancient India, Chanakya (350 - 283 B.C.) developed a viewpoint in his "Arthashastra" which recalls both the Chinese Legalists and the later Political Realist theories of Niccolò Machiavelli.

Early Muslim political philosophy was indistinguishable from Islamic religious thought. The 14th Century Arabic scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332 - 1406) is considered one of the greatest political theorists, and his definition of government as "an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself" is still considered a succinct analysis. With the recent emergence of Islamic radicalism as a political movement, political thought has revived in the Muslim world, and the political ideas of Muhammad Abduh (1849 - 1905), Al-Afghani (1838 0 1897), Sayyid Qutb (1906 - 1966), Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903 - 1979), Ali Shariati (1933 - 1977) and Ruhollah Khomeini (1902 - 1989) have gained increasing popularity in the 20th Century.

Secular political philosophy began to emerge in Europe after centuries of theological political thought during the Renaissance. Machiavelli's influential works, "The Prince" and "The Discourses", described a pragmatic and consequentialist view of politics, where good and evil are mere means to an end. The Englishman Thomas Hobbes, well known for his theory of the social contract (the implied agreements by which people form nations and maintain a social order), went on to expand this prototype of Contractarianism in the first half of the 17th Century, culminating in his "Leviathan" of 1651, which verged on Totalitarianism.

Modern Political Philosophy Back to Top

During the Age of Enlightenment, Europe entered a sort of golden age of political philosophy with the work of such thinkers as John Locke (whose ideas on Liberalism and Libertarianism are reflected in the American Declaration of Independence and whose influence on Voltaire and Rousseau was critical), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (whose contractarianist political philosophy influenced the French Revolution, and whose 1762 work "The Social Contract" became one of the most influential works of political philosophy in the Western tradition), and the Baron de Montesquieu (1689 - 1755) (whose articulation of the separation of powers within government is implemented in many constitutions throughout the world today).

An important conceptual distinction (which continues to this day) was made at this time between state (a set of enduring institutions through which power could be distributed and its use justified), and government (a specific group of people who occupy the institutions of the state, and create the laws by which the people are bound). Two major questions were broached by Enlightenment political philosophers: one, by what right or need do people form states; and two, what is the best form for a state.

Capitalism, with its emphasis on privately-owned means of production and the market economy, became institutionalized in Europe between the 16th and 19th Centuries, and particularly during the Industrial Revolution (roughly the late 18th and early 19th Centuries). In his 1859 essay "On Liberty" and other works, John Stuart Mill argued that Utilitarianism requires that political arrangements satisfy the liberty principle (or harm principle), i.e. the sole purpose of law should be to stop people from harming others.

By the mid-19th Century, Karl Marx was developing his theory of Dialectical Materialism and Marxism, and by the late 19th Century, Socialism, Libertarianism Conservatism and Anarchism were established members of the political landscape, and the trade union movement and syndicalism also gained some prominence. The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought the radical philosophy of Communism to the fore, and after the First World War, the ultra-reactionary ideologies of Nationalism, Fascism and Totalitarianism began to take shape in Italy and Nazi Germany.

In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, (along with a resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s), the Feminist movement developed its theories and moral philosophies concerned with gender inequalities and equal rights for women, as part of a general concern for Egalitarianism. After the Second World War, there was a marked trend towards a pragmatic approach to political issues, rather than a philosophical one, and post-colonial, civil rights and multicultural thought became significant. A relatively recent development is the concept of Communitarianism and civil society.

Major Doctrines Back to Top

Under the heading of Political Philosophy, the major doctrines or theories include:


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