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DIY Syllabi: Modern Political Thought

DIY Syllabi: Modern Political Thought

If we still acknowledge the old rule, there are only two topics that can’t be discussed at a dinner table: politics and religion. Why? Even if the rule isn’t followed – even if you’ve never heard of the rule, much less followed it – its nervous existence is revealing. Arguably the two most universal and human concerns, perhaps even the two most pressing – let’s not discuss those. Two of the most important factors contributing to our identity – let’s secret those away for the time being. Not at the dinner table; not now that we’re all conveniently gathered in the same spot, which, of course, won’t happen again until tomorrow night – which, of course, same time, same place, same rules.

It wasn’t always this way, or was it? Socrates certainly would’ve broken down the dinner table rule into numerous competing arguments, and, in so doing, would’ve broken the rule in an aptly Socratic way; he talked politics incessantly, but it earned him many enemies and eventually cost him his life. Something similar happened to Jesus four hundred years later, who was killed primarily because he represented a political threat; where some heard revelation, the centurions heard revolution.


We’re reluctant to discuss politics because politics can be zero-sum, insoluble, dangerous, and, perhaps most importantly, messy. It’s not trite to say. It’s safer to talk about the latest movie or this weekend’s game, which is why those are dinner table fodder, easily digest-able and relatively trivial. Still, the urge to debate the nature of governing is indeed uniquely human, and, even for the devoutly apolitical, politics aren’t going away. So for those willing to take part in that ancient debate, we’ve structured an introductory political science syllabus, combining aspects of theory and practice, which hopefully will provide an adequate background to politics then and now, in the United States and around the globe.


Not very many people liked Socrates. For as weird as he was, he was that much uglier. He walked around Athens bothering people, was in a constant state of dizzying cross-examination, told people that they knew nothing, and that he knew nothing, but that because he knew that he knew nothing, was better off. He had questionable friends, rich and flamboyant aristocrats like the infamous Alcibiades, who betrayed Athens over and over and was perhaps more responsible for its collapse than any other citizen. So in 399 B.C.E, following Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War and the installment of the Thirty Tyrants, Socrates was put on trial and condemned to death by hemlock. With the exception of Jesus’ crucifixion, it is the most important case of capital punishment in history. Soon after, his student Plato began to write.

This is where Stephen Smith’s class begins, with Plato’s account of Socrates’ trial in the Apology. Plato’s main concern – the nature of justice – would preoccupy him and political philosophy as a whole from there on out. (As Alfred Whitehead put it, generally speaking, European philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”) Following Plato and his pupil Aristotle, the course leaps to Machiavelli and Hobbes, and finally to Locke, Rousseau, and Tocqueville, wherein we begin to see modern political thought take form. Consisting of twenty-four video lectures, Dr. Smith’s course is among the most extensive available online, including full transcripts of each class and complete corresponding texts (The Republic, Politics, The Prince, Leviathan, Second Treatise, Democracy in America)



moral foundations of politics
More than most periods in history, the Enlightenment begins in doubt. Copernicus and Galileo had thrown the universe off its axis, more than perhaps we can imagine today, and so behind them came Descartes, who took the implications of their revolution and applied it to philosophy: If something so essential to our understanding of the world turns out to have been wrong, what else have we have missed? The only way to determine an answer is through radical doubt – an attempt to question the existence of everything – after which the only thing we can confirm is the Self. Cogito ergo sum. The Enlightenment, then, begins in earnest, and with it modern political thought.

Our second course on theory is an examination of the major political movements of the 18th and 19th centuries – Utilitarianism, Marxism, and the social contract tradition – which continue to have a profound impact on our world. Indeed, Yale Professor Ian Shapiro’s first lecture considers the Third Reich and the infamous Eichmann trial: how do we determine legitimate governments? From there, we move to Bentham and Mill’s groundbreaking utilitarianism; Marx as an Enlightenment figure and failure; Locke, Kant, Rawls, and Nozick; and the Anti-Enlightenment position, as represented by Edmund Burke during the French Revolution and Alasdair MacIntyre today. The final module examines the nature of, and justifications for, democratic politics. Professor Shapiro has written several books, including The Real World of Democratic Theory, Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy against Global Terror, and Politics against Domination.



How strange it must have been to live in America between the Septembers of 1783 and 1787. You had won your independence, presuming you wanted it, but you were now faced with the unique prospect of life in a vast, at best, provisionally governed land. We might be tempted to envy this period of innocence, hope, and adventure now; the revolutionaries, for their part, were eager to get on with it. Considering the sheer novelty of the American experiment, it’s worth noting the four-year turnaround of the Constitution, ratified by 11 colonies in 1788 and all by 1790. For as much as it was – and is – debated, its necessity was never in doubt.

Professor Thomas Patterson’s course, from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, takes the U.S. Constitution as its premise, covering it from the perspectives of political culture, limited government, representative government, federalism, civil liberties, and civil rights. Next, students will review the particular institutions of the U.S. government and their functions as related to domestic and foreign policy. The course’s unit on “Mass Politics” examines the challenges of governing such a large, admittedly unwieldy thing as the United States, through topics like public opinion, the media, and interest groups; and the course wraps up with lectures on social, fiscal/monetary, welfare/income, and foreign policies. Patterson’s The Unseeing Eye was named one of the 50 most influential books on public opinion in the past half century by the American Association for Public Opinion Research.



What is diplomacy? It’s among the very oldest of political actions, central to the ancient civilizations in Egypt and the Near East, where tablet records date back to the 14th century B.C.E. The word itself derives from Greek, predictably enough, and its successes and failures arguably serve as the watermarks of the Aegean city-state experiment, from victory at Thermopylae to the thirty-year Peloponnesian War. Still, the days of stone tablet diplomacy are long since vanquished. What does diplomacy mean in the modern globalized world, where communication is instant and international relations are increasingly fragile?

The Senior Lecturer in Diplomacy and International Studies at The University of London, Dr. J. Simon Rofe’s course consists of five units, with video instruction and corresponding readings from Hans Morgenthau, Robert Lansing, Chas Freeman, Alan Henrikson, and Harry R. Rudin. Topics include defining successes and failures in diplomacy; the qualities of a ‘good’ diplomat; diplomacy in action, and more. The final unit features videos from a variety of political leaders across the world and a reading and discussion of the Action Group for Syria Final Communiqué, issued by the United Nations in 2012 in response to the ongoing Syrian Crisis. Dr. Rolfe is the inaugural director of CISD’s Global Diplomacy Masters program and the co-editor of Bloomsbury’s Key Studies in Diplomacy book series.



Public Policy Challenges of the 21st Century

This course focuses on some of the more specific political challenges the United States faces today and in the future. In particular, students will learn how issues are advanced by private sector interests, non-governmental organizations, and government policymakers, and how those parties form, frame, and win. The course consists of nine modules covering the relationship between media and politics; healthcare systems and insurance markets; federalism and the role of state governors; US-China relations; congress and politics; war powers, and more. UVA’s Gerry Warburg is the lead instructor, but students also hear from an impressive cast of guest lecturers, including Senator Tim Kaine, Clinton White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers, Congressman Gerry Connolly, and former House Republican leader Tom Davis.

International Law in Action

Essential for students with an interest in international law, this course examines the role of each court and tribunal in The Hague. Structured around the themes of law & politics, state consent, and global values, key subjects include: the history of The Hague; diplomatic versus judicial settlements; the International Court of Justice; arbitration of international disputes; international criminal courts (specifically the ICC), and more. Each module also reviews relevant current/historical case studies to contextualize concepts. The main instructors teach law at the Universiteit Leiden, one of the oldest universities in the Netherlands, and many videos feature prominent guest lecturers.


Data Literacy and Data Visualization

Any practical study of contemporary political science must consider the rise of big data. Ohio State’s course is among the most comprehensive introductions to data analytics and visualization available online – and one of the only ones dedicated to politics. In particular, students will learn about voting behavior, the correlates of war, the determinants of development, political economy, psychology, institutions, and conflict, among other topics. Delivered through iTunes U, videos are short (none longer than 30 minutes) and engaging, with no previous experience in statistics required. (Separate captioned videos are available, as well.)

  • The Signal and the Noise: Nate Silver’s bestseller was one of the Wall Street Journal‘s ” Best Ten Works of Nonfiction in 2012.”
  • Weapons of Math Destruction: This National Book Award finalist, written by a former Wall Street quant, warns of the dangers of big data and its potentially corrosive effects on democracy.

The Leo Strauss Center Archive


The University of Chicago’s recordings and transcripts of Leo Strauss’s lectures are a veritable treasure trove for any political philosophy nerd. Here, find one of the twentieth century’s most influential and debated thinkers discussing nearly all of Plato (whom Strauss wrestled with all his life), Aristotle, Grotius, Hegel’s Philosophy of History, Vico, Rosseau, Kant, Marx, Montesquieu, and Nietzsche, among others, in courses spanning 1953-1973. The Center also offers interviews, recollections, and a selective bibliography.


Politics and Strategy

Consisting of nineteen lectures at about an hour each, this course serves as an introduction to political strategy, with additional studies in game theory and other formal modeling strategies. Professor Kathleen Bawn specializes in political parties, electoral systems, and U.S. policymaking, and her work has appeared in American Journal of Political Science, American Political Science Review, British Journal of Political Science, Perspectives on Politics, and elsewhere. Politics and Strategy is one of the most popular courses in ULCA’s political science department.

British Government


For those interested in the mechanics of British government, the London School of Economics offers a 20-module primer covering a wide range of topics: philosophical influences, policymaking, party politics, parliament, Scotland and the UK, public finance, the role of the media, accountability and finance, and recent reforms. Professor Tony Travers has served on the board of the Centre for Cities and New Local Government Network, and has advised the House of Commons. His work has appeared in a number of academic journals.