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Level 5

5AAH1001 The History of Western Political Ideas I: From Plato to c.1700

Credit value: 15

Module convenor/tutor: Dr Jessica Patterson
Teaching pattern: 10 x 1-hour lectures (weekly), 10 x 1-hour seminars (weekly) 
Availability: Please see module list for relevant year
Assessment: 1 x 1,500-word formative essay; 1 x 3,000-word essay (100%)

Students are reassessed in the failed elements of assessment and by the same methods as the first attempt.

Assessment (2018/19): 2 x 2,500 word essays (100%)

The modules offered in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand: there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary between years

This module will introduce students to the key texts, arguments and controversies in European political thought from ancient Greece to the end of the seventeenth century. This will be based on the close reading of classic and complex texts, situated in their broader intellectual and historical context. A single canonical thinker – such as Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes or Locke – will typically be central to each week’s teaching, but these thinkers will be read in relation to the political environments that shaped them and the debates in which they participated. Where possible these key thinkers will be considered alongside the work of other thinkers as well as other relevant primary texts. Module participants will explore the early development of key ideas and issues – such as kingship, natural rights’, republicanism, and the relationship between church and state – that have formed, and continue to form, the conceptual bedrock of Western social and political debate. This provides both an extremely valuable underpinning for the study of history in general and an excellent framework for the development of skills of analysis and argument.

Provisional teaching plan

  1. Introduction: What is the History of Ideas?
  2. Plato, The Republic
  3. Aristotle The Politics
  4. Augustine, City of God
  5. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologicae
  6. Machiavelli, The Prince
  7. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy
  8. Thomas More, Utopia
  9. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
  10. John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government


Suggested introductory reading

This is suggested reading and purchase of these books is not mandatory

The best way to get a taste of what we do on the course is to read one of the primary texts: Plato’s Republic or Machiavelli’s the Prince are recommended. 

Suggested preliminary secondary reading:

Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present (London, 2012)

Christopher Rowe and Malcolm Schofield, eds. The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought (Cambridge, 2000)

Q. Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (2 vols; Cambridge, 1978)

Q. Skinner, Visions of Politics, Volume I: Regarding Method (Cambridge, 2002)

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