BOOKS: A STUDENT’S GUIDE TO POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
- Reading: Pages 2–22, 50–54
- Intro: Harvey Mansfield of Harvard University is one of the leading contributors to conservative thought today. He is also part of a tradition founded and championed by Leo Strauss, a tradition that interprets political philosophy by way of the great thinkers of the Western canon. This student’s guide is an introduction to that Straussian way of thinking. The history and progression of political philosophy can be found woven into the fabric of the Western canon, most clearly by the great masters of philosophy and dialectic. A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy begins by marking the first spark of political philosophy as simultaneous with the beginning of the Western tradition: that is, with Socrates. The reading we have chosen from this book covers Plato and Aristotle, arguably the two greatest philosophers to ever live and the men who did the most to lay the foundations that the rest of this course will be built on.
- Discussion Questions:
- This book presents the study of political philosophy through the lens of great thinkers—thinkers who did not necessarily represent the dominant philosophies of their day. Would you prefer a different approach to the study of the evolution of political philosophy?
- Mansfield says that political philosophy is the completion of the partly rational nature of politics (page 3). What does this mean?
- How would politics be altered if politicians today used the language of political philosophers—if the dialogue of politics shifted toward virtue and ends instead of needs and means? What would be gained and what would be lost?
- Is Mansfield right when he says political science came from political philosophy (page 6)? How could one argue that, in fact, the reverse is true?
- Why is it important whether natural justice exists? How does this question of political philosophy bleed into policy issues?
- Plato’s best regime is governed by those who have achieved the highest philosophic virtue, while Aristotle’s is ruled by men of moral virtue (page 16). Which do you think would be the more successful government?
- A political constitution is neither entirely natural nor entirely artificial (page 19). What parts of the U.S. Constitution seems natural and what parts seem artificial?
- Who is more suited for politics: the philosopher or the historian?
- What ideas are in tension between Mill and Burke?
- How important is context in understanding political philosophy? Do we need to know what Plato’s and Aristotle’s contemporaries were thinking? What are the dangers of deriving a political philosophy from great philosophers alone?
- Further Reading/Activities:
- Consider finishing the book.