Philosophy: Political Philosophy from Plato to Tom Paine

Ref: C2223433

The course introduces the learner to ideas discussed by key political philosophers from Classical Greece to the French Revolution. We discuss how thinking about democracy, justice, power etc, has changed over time, and how previous ideas relate to current debates.

Course aim

To examine how philosophers, up to the 18th century, have discussed key questions relating to the nature of politics and the practice of government.

Who is the course for?

What topics will this course cover

1. The beginnings: do we have control over our own destiny (or does fate - or the gods - determine the future)? Can philosophers tell us what is the right way to organise ourselves in society? Is there a science of politics? (Plato and Aristotle) 2. Early Christianity in the West and its view of politics (St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas). Is our most important duty to God, or to our fellow men? 3. Individual conscience and freedom - the Protestant revolution. Can religion be separated from politics? (Martin Luther, Jean Calvin) The universal Church and the conflict with and between nation states. 4. Can we bring about a utopia - or is it a waste of time thinking about such an ideal? What would your utopia be like? (Thomas More and others). 5. The nature of power - is the ruler's main responsibility to hold on to power and so keep the country ordered and safe? Is a ruler above the law? (Nicolo Machiavelli). 6. What are the rights of the individual, and what responsibilities does the state have to protect these rights? Should there be a 'social contract' between the state and its citizens? The importance of individual freedom. (Thomas Hobbes, John Locke) The exclusion of the property-less and of women from politics. 7. Does the state have a responsibility to make its citizens better people? Inequality as the source of conflict. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution). 8. Reactions to the French Revolution of 1789: was it wrong to try to change society on the basis of 'ideals'? (Edmund Burke) We can create a new and better world (Tom Paine, the rights of man, anti-colonialism, and the idea of a welfare state).

What will it be like?

WEA classes are friendly and supportive. You will be encouraged to work together with your fellow students and tutor. You will be asked to share your ideas and views in the class and work with the group to give and accept feedback in a supportive environment. The WEA tutor will use a range of different teaching and learning methods and encourage you to be actively involved in your learning. You may be asked to undertake work to support your course outside of your class.

By the end of the course I should be able to:

1. Demonstrate an awareness of the key ideas of a number of political thinkers. 2. Identify arguments for and against a number of political beliefs or theories. 3. Find parallels between earlier debates and those affecting us today. 4. Show that they have critically examined their own beliefs. 5. Evaluate the usefulness of philosophy (that is, the application of logic and analysis) in understanding the nature of the theory and practice of politics.

How will I know I'm making progress?

It is anticipated that for most students philosophy will be a new area of study. Students will be encouraged to gain confidence in discussing philosophical and political ideas, and the person who best knows if this is happening is the student! The tutor aims to ensure that progress is achieved by all students, and will give feedback on contributions to discussion and on pieces of written work (a few short pieces will be set during the course). Students will be introduced to extracts from some of the political philosophers, and will be asked to discuss these - feedback will be given, and direction to commentaries that should help the student to deepen their understanding.

What else do I need to know, do or bring?

No special materials - handouts will be provided.

Reading and information sources

No prior reading or preparation required. It is hoped that students coming on this course will already be aware of current issues in politics, and will be reading a serious daily paper, or following programmes concerning current affairs and political ideas on the radio or television. The tutor has a website with a good deal of detailed information: Students will be encouraged to use online resources. Examples of recommended books: Ball, T. and Dagger, R.: Ideals and Ideologies, a Reader, Harper Collins 1998 (Recommended) Redhead, B.: From Plato to Nato, Penguin/BBC 1995 (Recommended) Berki, R.N.: A History of Political Thought, Dent 1977 (Background) McClelland, J.S.: A History of Western Political Thought, Routledge 1996 (Background) Miller, D.: Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, OUP 2003 (Background) Handouts will be given with both summaries of each session and extracts from political thinkers. Learners will also be encouraged to read original works in series such as the Penguin Classics. Bertrand Russell: A History of Western Philosophy (further reading: covers philosophy in general, not specifically political philosophy).

What could the course lead to?

Further study of politics or political philosophy. My courses: Political Philosophy from the French Revolution to the present day; The 18th Century European Enlightenment.

Download full course outline

Philosophy: Political Philosophy from Plato to Tom Paine Course Outline

Enrolment Conditions

You can enrol online if you meet all of the following requirements:

  • are paying the standard fee or are on any of the qualifying benefits
  • are paying with a credit/debit card or are not paying a fee because of a qualifying benefit
  • have a valid email address
  • have been resident in the UK, EU or EEA for the last 3 years
  • are aged 19 years or older on 1st September 2016
  • have read and accept the standard terms and conditions
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