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Summary Article: political theory
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

The philosophical questioning of the assumptions underlying political life; for example, the grounds on which an individual is obliged to obey the state. It also attempts to formulate theories of how political institutions can be perfected by the empirical observation of existing institutions.

Although all societies have operated some kind of system of social control, politics in the modern Western sense, and hence political theory, seems to have emerged with classical Greek society.

Plato Plato, disillusioned with contemporary Athenian politics, produced the first major work of political philosophy, The Republic, a dialogue in which Socrates describes the form of the ideal state under the guardianship of an elite of omniscient virtuous philosophers. Plato characterized different societies by the predominant value of the ruling group, wisdom in the case of the Republic itself. Imperfect forms of government were characterized by the predominance of military honour (timarchy), the love of material wealth in a few (oligarchy), or many (democracy), or one (tyranny). In a later work, The Laws (c. 347), Plato considers the possibility of a society without philosopher-rulers which would need to be governed by a set of laws rather than the wisdom of individuals.

Aristotle Aristotle, a pupil of Plato's, denied that the omniscience of Plato's ‘Guardians’ was possible in human beings, although he admitted that if such a man, pre-eminent in virtue and wisdom, were to be found, he would have to be made king. For the rest, slaves and artisans apart, human beings were considered relatively equal in moral and intellectual worth. It is this concept of a community of moral equals participating in a common enterprise, ruling and obeying by turns, which lies at the heart of the Western tradition of politics, and Aristotle is its first, and sometimes its clearest, theoretical exponent. Aristotle's interest in politics extended to the particular as well as the ideal form of the state, and his empiricist and classificatory approach to the subject has led some to consider him the father of political science.

His Constitution of Athens is the only extant example of 158 constitutions of city-states collected by him and used as examples in his major work The Politics. Aristotle's classification of states survived as the basic categories of political thought until the rise of modern political science and interest in political forms from other cultures rendered them obsolete in the 19th century. He divides them into six: three ‘proper’ forms where rule is exercised in the interests of the state as a whole, by one man (kingship), a few (aristocracy), or the many (polity); and corresponding to them, three ‘perverted’ forms where rule is exercised in the rulers' interest alone, at the expense of the rest of the community: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy.

Scepticism over the likelihood of the persistence of any of the ‘proper’ forms led Aristotle to propose a ‘mixed polity’, in which rule would be shared by rich and poor, thus combining oligarchy and democracy, in the hope of limiting the bad effects of each. Aristotle had assumed that the small Greek city-state was the most natural and ultimate development of political community.

The incorporation and subsumption of these forms in the post- Hellenic empires of Macedonia, and then Rome, with the resulting impossibility of participation for the citizen, led some to identify themselves not with any actual political community, but with a notional community of all rational beings (all men). This led in many cases to a radical alienation from any partial political authority, and Cynics such as Diogenes preached extreme self-reliance which precluded the need for political association. Nevertheless attempts were made to fit the facts of life within later Republican Rome to the ideals and concepts of the Greeks.

Ancient Rome Polybius attempted to show that the longevity of the Roman Republic could be accounted for within Aristotle's analysis by demonstrating the ‘mixed’ nature of its constitution: the consuls representing the monarchical principle of unity, the Senate the wisdom of the aristocracy, and the popular assemblies the democratic principle of liberty. The checks exercised by each part on the other two prevented their degeneration into the perverted form. This analysis, which involved the substitution of a principle for Aristotle's original class as the characterizing feature of the constitution, was taken up and used by Cicero in his De Republica (On the Commonwealth).

Cicero was important in transmitting many of the Greek political and philosophical ideas to the western Mediterranean. Amongst these was the Stoic notion of ‘natural law’, a moral standard which, it was claimed, applied to all men in virtue of their rationality, and in respect of which they were equal.

The impact of Christianity The impact of Christianity on political thought was important in two respects. Firstly it tended to result in a devaluation of the political life in the classical sense, especially during the period of the expected imminence of Christ's return. ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's’ implied not only a definite political quietism, but also that there was nothing that Caesar had to offer on which a Christian could place much value. The Christianization of the Roman Empire eroded this view, and some, especially Eusebius, began to see that the political power of the Empire might be used in the task of conversion, and even to suggest that there might be something God-given about the Christianized Empire.

The sack of Rome in 410 put an end to this view, and the reformulation of the older view was undertaken by St Augustine of Hippo in his De Civitate Dei (The City of God), which is for the most part a radical rejection of the importance of anything temporal, and therefore of anything political, from a Christian point of view. Secondly, Christianity provided a superhuman source of the justification for the exercise of political power.

Medieval thought Most of the controversies in medieval political thought centre around the competing claims of pope and emperor (or king) to the divinely sanctioned political authority. Whilst there were a number of works treating how monarchs ought to behave (St Thomas Aquinas's De Regimine Principum being amongst the best known), there were hardly any works offering justifications for resistance by subjects to monarchs who behaved tyrannically. The rediscovery of the political works of Aristotle (translated into Latin by William of Moerbeke c. 1260) reopened the possibility of such justifications, as well as that of demonstrating the autonomy of political life itself, as a pagan alternative to Christianity. This potential threat was averted by the work of St Thomas Aquinas whose synthesis attempted to demonstrate the congruency of Aristotle's teaching with the wider perspective available to Christians. Despite this, attempts to demonstrate the independence of political life continued, notably by Marsilius of Padua (in Defensor Pacis 1324).

The culmination of this movement to secularize political thought took place amongst the Florentine humanists of the 15th century, and ultimately in the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli. His best known work Il Principe (The Prince, 1513) was seen as a description of and justification for tyranny, and his reputation has owed much to the persistence of this view.

Machiavelli This is, however, misleading. The Prince deals with the measures which might be necessary in a particular phase of the life of a state, and he makes clear in his Discorsi (Discourses, c. 1517) that his real preference is for popular republican government. Machiavelli owed much to earlier writers in the Florentine tradition, Leonardo Bruni and Coluccio Salutati, who had re-explored the classical inheritance of Renaissance Europe. The concepts used were those of Aristotle and of Polybius's theory of the cyclical development of constitutional rise and decay. The ruthless ‘Prince’ is a character who is only necessary when a state is being founded, or when its citizens have become degenerate and corrupt.

Machiavelli, although not a defender of tyranny, was subversive of a Christian morality in a more far-reaching and insidious way, since he placed the good of the state and the political virtues necessary for its survival far above the traditional Christian values, and indeed blames the chaotic state of his contemporary Italy on the intervention of the papacy as an institution, and on Christianity as a set of values.

17th-century England The constitutional conflicts of the 17th century in England produced perhaps the most rigorous piece of political philosophy written in the language: Thomas Hobbes'sLeviathan. In it Hobbes, using the conventional social contract argument, attempted to demonstrate that, assuming men act from motives of self-interest, the only rational form of behaviour is for them to contract obedience to an absolute sovereign for as long as his power to enforce civil peace persists; since he held that the only alternative was civil war with its attendant disasters. This argument, an embarrassment to Royalists, and a convenient target for Parliamentarians, was so idiosyncratic that it attracted little support at the time.

The theoretical justifications for the positions adopted during the Civil War found their classic expression on both sides towards the end of the 17th century. Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha was a justification of monarchy as analogous to the power of a father, exercised absolutely and divinely sanctioned in God's original grant to Adam; it was finally published posthumously in 1680. John Locke'sTwo Treatises of Government 1690, was written to refute the argument in Filmer's work and published as a defence of the action of the English Whigs in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which ousted James II from the throne.

Locke's tract argued that legitimate governmental power must conform to the law of nature, and can only be exercised with the consent of the members of the political community concerned, although such a consent can be assumed (‘tacit consent’) where it is not actively witheld. It was not, consequently, intended as an argument in favour of institutionalized democratic government. His theory did, nevertheless, have the important result of convincing people that they were actually entitled to resist governments who exceeded their trust. This was an important change since adherents of theories of the divine right of kings such as Filmer's were convinced of the incompatibility of Christian obedience with the belief in the right to resist, except in cases of enforced idolatry and impiety.

David Hume The hegemony exerted by the device of the social contract as an instrument of political theory was decisively broken by David Hume in his Treatise of Human Nature 1739–40. He pointed out that the justification for political obedience generated by the social contract theory was logically dependent on the general justification for keeping promises, of which the social contract was merely one. Such a justification, he claimed, could be provided by pointing to the usefulness (utility) of promise-keeping within a society. But, Hume argued, if utility was the justification for promise-keeping in general, why not invoke utility as the justification for political authority directly instead of using the intervening and historically dubious notion of a social contract.

Although the social contract argument continued to be used until the end of the 18th century, it never regained its earlier authority. Hume was responsible also for undermining another theoretical device with a long history in political thought: the notion of natural law. Theorists from the later Greek followers of Aristotle, Christian thinkers such as Aquinas, and most 17th-century writers had supposed the existence of a set of moral laws governing human behaviour, which could be deduced from the nature of the world, or the observed needs of human society, and corroborated from the revealed word of God. Hume's religious and philosophical scepticism led him to question all of this.

Most fundamental was his claim that observations of what is the case can never lead to propositions concerning what ought to be the case. As all natural law formulations involved some such move, anyone accepting Hume's analysis could not also endorse a natural law position and was in practice forced to fall back on some version of ‘utility’ as a criterion of moral or political action. With the possible exception of thinking about international relations, the natural law argument declined very rapidly after a brief resurgence during the period of the French Revolution.

The psychological picture of man produced by Locke in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding 1690, and further elaborated by Hume was no less influential than their overtly political works. By postulating that the human mind was largely a product of the experience it had undergone, and was not filled with innate ideas or moral truths, they made possible the radical theories of the French Philosophes, whose new belief in the malleability of human behaviour led to the prospect of wide- ranging social and political innovation. Such a climate of ideas has been held responsible for the widespread aspiration for total social change found in the later phases of the French Revolution.

Jeremy Bentham In England the fusion of such social optimism with the utilitarian (see utilitarianism) ethics outlined by Hume found more expression in the writings of Jeremy Bentham (especially in his Fragment on Government 1776 and the Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation 1789). Bentham argued that pleasure and pain represent the only two motivating forces of human action. Statements about what is morally or politically desirable could, he held, be reduced to assertions about the amount of pleasure produced or else were meaningless.

Bentham devoted much of his work to the destruction of such ‘legal fictions’. The degree of pleasure or pain was calculable according to various dimensions, originally four: intensity, duration, certainty, and propinquity. Later, considerations such as fecundity, the likelihood of a given pleasurable action leading to other pleasurable actions, were also introduced. The application of these criteria is clearly not without its problems, but Benthamite reforms in the spheres of legislation and especially in administration were relatively effective in undermining the 18th-century tendency to regard every office or position as the personal property of the office holder.

Bentham, although not originally a democrat, was eventually converted to this position. Government, as a body which exercised coercion, could only be justified on utilitarian grounds if it ensured greater pleasure than the pain which its sanctions imposed, and this could only be ensured under a democracy, since a partial representation would be bound to lead to a partial system of rules and distribution of goods.

Bentham and James Mill were also instrumental in inspiring a political reform group known as the ‘Philosophical Radicals’ who campaigned for democratic reform in the 1830s and 40s. The most famous of these was the latter's son, John Stuart Mill , who attempted to accommodate the cruder formulations of the early utilitarians to a more humanistic and culturally self- conscious set of values, in which utility was judged not against the subjective pleasures of the moment but against a wider notion of social and cultural progress. Mill's was the classical statement of liberal political theory, although it has since been amended and criticized by other liberal thinkers, many of whom have emphasized the degree to which personal liberty is dependent upon a nexus of social and legal rights and obligations. This constitutes a further move from the classical liberal assertions that all restraint is bad in itself, and that the optimum social situation is one in which any restraint is minimized.

Recent liberal theorists have tended to diverge again on the same issue, some championing the principle of absolute minimum government intervention (for example, von Hayek) whilst others have developed utilitarian and contractarian arguments to show how government intervention might be justified (for example, John Rawls).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau The utilitarian tradition derives its arguments concerning government from the postulated interests of individual human beings considered in isolation from their social and historical circumstances. But another tradition of thought also stems from the 18th century to the present day, one which pays much closer attention to the historical circumstances of a people's life.

In Rousseau this took the form of a critique of what he regarded as the corrupt society of his day. French society was corrupted in that men's independence was eroded by the love of luxury, the desire to please those they regarded as their social superiors, and ultimately by their economic dependence on others. Consequently, thought Rousseau, men could not be trusted with political liberty. He traced the growth of these inequalities and corruption in society in his prize-winning essay ‘On the Arts and the Sciences’ 1749, and in the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality 1753. The blessings of civilization, science, and technology were, he claimed, the very aspects of civilization which had rendered men servile and vicious.

His Social Contract 1762, was an outline of a society in which men could be free and equal, and consequently where the exercise of political power would not be corrupt. The social contract took the form of a surrender by each and all of their natural rights, not to any sovereign but to the whole society under the sovereign direction of ‘the general will’. Since, therefore, each individual receives in exchange, as it were, an inseparable part of the whole communal sovereign power, he is, Rousseau claimed, in the last resort, as free as he was prior to entering into the social contract.

The resulting paradox is that there is no sovereign in Rousseau's state in the sense in which Hobbes, Locke, and other writers use that term, the community itself being at once a corporate sovereign entity and an aggregate of unrelated subjects, governed not directly but only mediately by whatsoever form of government may happen to exist in the particular community. Rousseau's theories have but little to say on legality, for the simple reason that with him the laws imposed by the general will cannot be unjust, and to be the true expression of the general will must themselves be characterised by generality.

The most obvious and far-reaching implications of Rousseau's theories are: (1) that all men are equal; (2) that no monarch has any title to sovereignty; (3) that all existing governments inevitably strive to monopolize sovereign power; (4) that political society is generally overwhelmed by its rulers and so perishes (a palpable invitation to the French people to save themselves); and (5) the futility of British representative government as an alternative to the ideal Greek city-state, because it is utterly inadequate to express the general will. The greatest difficulty lies in the translation of the general will into actual government. Rousseau himself provides no satisfactory solution.

Rousseau thought that of the countries of Europe, only Corsica was a possible candidate for the institution of such a constitution, since all others were already too decadent. Indeed, since the operation of the ideal constitution would require morally regenerate citizens, the establishment of such a polity could only be envisaged through the intervention of a semi-divine figure, the legislator, who would be capable of persuading the unregenerate citizens to act virtuously and thus bring about the possibility of a general social and political renaissance. This pessimism was not shared by the two foremost historical theorists of Britain and Germany, Edmund Bruke and G W F Hegel.

Edmund Burke Burke is most famous for his attack on the principles of the French Revolution in his Reflections on the Revolution in France 1790. Although almost histrionically outspoken at the time, his criticism became more applicable as events overtook his rhetoric. Burke's political thought rests on the view that all societies are the unique product of an historical process which is not susceptible to rational analysis; consequently they are not lightly to be changed. Social institutions, such as parliament, its laws, and even popular prejudices, having evolved over the ages, are almost certain to embody more wisdom than any criticism of them which could be offered by a single living man, however wise. Hence his fury at the revolutionaries' attempts to reform by the application of abstract theoretical principles, rather than follow the British example of modifying existing institutions.

This attitude to the conservation of a nation's historical heritage, a predisposition to conserve, yet a willingness, where necessary, to modify obvious evils has led the old Whig statesman to be called the ‘father of modern conservatism’.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel Hegel claimed a greater degree of insight into the historical process which, however, he regarded with similar optimism. According to Hegel, mankind has developed through a series of characteristic modes of consciousness, each representing a logically and morally superior position to the one it has superseded. For example, to take the notion of freedom: under an oriental tyrant the notion of freedom has only a limited meaning, not only in the sense that only he is free, but also in the ways in which he is, or can be free. He has no equals to converse with, no similar personalities against whom he can define himself. He is in this sense dependent for his consciousness on his slaves; each defines the other, and the supposed freedom of the despot is an illusion.

Greek and Roman societies transcended this limited notion of freedom both conceptually and in terms of the range of individuals covered, yet the existence of slavery meant that the conception of freedom was still limited. Only the modern age has seen the assertion of freedom for the whole of mankind, manifested, in a primitive fashion, in the French Revolution. Hegel considered a limited constitutional monarchy to be the culmination of the attempt to realize freedom in political institutions; it only needed humans to become aware of this for them to accept the state and its institutions and be happy and free. Attempts to exercise freedom in individualistic, anarchic, or capricious ways were symptoms of intellectual immaturity, since true freedom was the recognition of necessity, and every aspect of the constitutional monarchy could be shown to be necessitated by the inadequacies and contradictions inherent in alternative forms of behaviour and organizations (The Philosophy of Right 1821).

Hegel's teaching was highly influential in Germany and Europe, but permeated only slowly and late in Britain and America. In Germany his most illustrious disciples turned critics and both Feuerbach and Marx tried to demonstrate the purely idealistic basis of his analysis, and show that ideas were a product of particular social and material circumstances, a position that Hegel had not altogether denied. Against the claim that man's unhappiness lies in the illusions he has about the world he lives in, Marx responded with the assertion that the demand (made by Hegel and Feuerbach) that we renounce illusions is implicitly a demand to renounce a world that requires illusions; and so a call for a revolution in consciousness becomes a call for a social revolution to abolish the evils which made men seek an illusory happiness in religion, in philosophy, or in money-making, instead of in each other.

Karl Marx The growing industrial proletariat were, thought Marx, the only social group capable of bringing about this revolution since they alone had no vested interests in the existing society; they had ‘nothing to lose but their chains’. In his middle and later years Marx turned to the study of economics in an attempt to detail the weaknesses and life history of capitalism, the ultimate downfall of which would lead to the final stage of human history: communism. This massive analysis is contained in his major work Capital (1867–94). Shorter sketches of his economic analysis can be found in his Wage, Labour and Capital 1849, and his Preface to the Critique of Political Economy 1859, and in his famous polemical call to arms written jointly with Friedrich Engels The Communist Manifesto 1848.

The failure of capitalism to fall and the increasing concessions granted to the working class in the advanced industrial nations produced splits amongst Marx's disciples. Some, such as Eduard Bernstein, became social democrats, contending that socialism and communism were now possible without revolution since the gradual assumption of political power through the ballot box made it unnecessary. Others such as Liebknecht and Luxembourg were even willing to welcome the defeat of Germany in World War I if it seemed likely to herald a general communist revolution throughout Western Europe.

The success of revolution in Russia posed further problems for Marxists, since Russia was an economically undeveloped country which, according to Marx's analysis, seemed to require a bourgeois revolution and the development of a capitalist economy before the working class revolution could succeed. Lenin's problem was to adapt Marxism to the backward context of Russia, and to produce a theoretical justification of the role of the Party in producing an industrialized economy after the revolution which was itself supposed to be produced by it. Trotsky took the line that the only hope of avoiding the isolation of Russia lay in fomenting revolution elsewhere in Europe, and the only hope of avoiding the bureaucratization of Russia's internal administration lay in ‘permanent revolution’. Under Lenin and later more thoroughly under Stalin, both policies were rejected. Stalin used the Party as the means of establishing control and effecting the industrialization of the country, and pursued an isolationist policy of building ‘socialism in one country’.

Post-war English thought English-speaking post-war political theory has been largely analytic. An offshoot of Oxford philosophy largely concerned with analysing the meanings of terms used in political discourses, it claimed to eschew normative argument, and at one point in the early 1960s it became fashionable to suggest that traditional political philosophy, in the sense of the advocacy of moral aims, values, and purposes within a state, was in fact an extinct pursuit. It was argued, however, that the normative implications of even scrupulously analytical treatments could not be ignored, and that a totally value-free political theory was an impossibility.

Since that time a number of writers have used the analytical tools elaborated during the period in order to construct political theories of a more traditional kind, producing persuasive arguments as to why certain criteria should be adopted in political practice. The most important works produced by this movement are: Politics, Philosophy and Society edited by Laslett and Runciman, series I, II, III, and IV (with Skinner) 1956–72, and John Rawls A Theory of Justice 1974.

Many comtemporary political theorists employ concepts borrowed from the language of economics in an attempt to provide explanatory models of political behaviour. This has much in common with the utilitarian tradition, especially in the assumption of self-interest as the motivating factor of human action.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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