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II. The Common Ground
B. Human Nature
C. The Polis
III. The Study of Ancient Political Philosophy
A. The Problem of Authenticity
B. The Problem of Interpretation
C. The Problem of Truth
D. The Next Step
Western political philosophy is a conversation about the best way to live a good life. The conversation began with the ancient political philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it appeared that the conversation might be over, that the question of the good life had been answered—the good life was the life of liberal democratic capitalism enjoyed by the United States and the other developed nations (Fukuyama, 1992). Most people around the world seem to accept the justice of a democratic government and the goodness of a capitalist lifestyle. Still, one must wonder whether other people at other times also thought that their style of government was just and that the life they were living was the good life.
In the movie Conan the Barbarian, Conan is asked, “What is best in life?” He responds, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you . . . and to hear the lamentation of their women.” How can we be sure that we are right and Conan is wrong? We judge Conan to be wrong because we can look at his society from the outside, from the perspective of our society. To judge most things, it is helpful to get some distance from them—if you zoom out on Google Maps, you can often find your way much easier than you can if you view something at very close range. This is the single most important reason to study ancient political philosophy; it gives us some distance and perspective on our own society. It asks the same kinds of questions, but often has radically different answers.
This distance is, unfortunately, also a small obstacle facing the student of ancient philosophy. The ancients did not write in English; they wrote in ancient Greek or Latin. Most students (and frankly, most professors) do not read ancient Greek and Latin, so we have to rely on translations by other people, but how can we be sure that they are translating the work correctly? If you ever played the game in which you sit in a circle and whisper a sentence from one person to another, you know that meaning is often lost in translation. We will return to this problem below because it relates to a major area of contention within the field.
A second minor difficulty in understanding the ancients is that the words they use are both familiar and strange. When you read Shakespeare in high school, you discovered that even though he wrote in English, it is often not clear what he means. Often words that we use today were used in a different sense, or in a number of different senses, in the past. The same thing is true in Plato (trans. 1991) and Aristotle (trans. 1984): Many of the words they used are familiar to us because they often form the root of words we use today, but they do not mean the same thing. For example, the word polis, which is the root of the modern word politics, refers to the city-state. Greek society was generally organized around a small metropolitan area, or city-state, that encompassed about 100,000 to 150,000 people and the farmland necessary for their support (Barker, 1960). One of the key elements of the city-state is that it was self-sufficient—it had everything that a person needed in order to live a good life. When Aristotle argues that man is the political animal, he means that we can become fully human only within a polis.
This is not how we would understand the term political animal today. We would take it to mean either someone who loved politics or someone who constantly tries to promote his or her own advantage through persuasion and power. This difficulty is addressed by the frequent use of the Greek word in place of English. When studying ancient political philosophy, students probably need to learn a few Greek words, such as polis, that have distinct meanings. Fortunately, the need for new vocabulary is relatively small. The ancients usually start with common opinions about things and discuss them in everyday language. They believe that common opinions contain some truth but that these truths are incomplete and sometimes contradictory. Their normal method is to push the logic of common opinion until we understand its limitations and, we hope, where to go from there.
One last feature of ancient writing is the strange notations in the margins of most editions of the works of Plato and Aristotle (e.g., “454d–e”). These numbers are known as Stephanus numbers, after an early collected edition of Plato’s work. They are used today to allow for easy comparison across different translations of a work and to give the reader a more exact reference point. These minor difficulties sometimes discourage students from reading the ancients. This would be a tragic loss. The ancients saw the world differently from the way we modern people do. Exploring their thinking allows us a perspective on our own lives and thought that can scarcely be gained in any other way.
The remainder of this research paper is divided into two main sections. The first section provides an overview of the basic understanding of politics found in the ancient philosophers Plato (trans. 1991) and Aristotle (trans. 1984). Although there are important differences between Plato and Aristotle, this section focuses on the common ground that distinguishes ancient political philosophy from more modern approaches: its understanding of nature, human nature, and the polis. The second section introduces some of the basic academic questions and approaches that relate to studying the ancients.
II. The Common Ground
Ancient political philosophy is dominated by three related figures, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates was the founder of political philosophy, Plato was his most famous student, and Aristotle was the most famous student of Plato. All three spent major time in Athens during the 5th and 4th centuries BC. During their lives, Athens was an incredibly powerful and vibrant city-state with a flourishing culture. Out of this crucible of intellectual and artistic creation, political philosophy was created with the recognition of the distinction between nature, convention, and the divine.
Natural things are the way they are without human action or manipulation. Conventional things are the way they are because of human action or manipulation. Divine things are beyond human action or nature; they are supernatural. The main focus of political philosophy is to distinguish what is natural from what is conventional in human beings and society. As Plato (trans. 1991) points out in the Republic, it is conventional that women wear their hair longer than men do. In different societies, and even at different times in the same society, the fashionable length of a person’s hair has been long or short, tied back or worn loose, dyed purple or spiked. What is conventional changes over time and place; what is natural is eternal and cannot be changed by society. The fact that women bear children is not a product of our society, and no matter how many movies Hollywood makes about it, men will never be able to give birth. The understanding of nature is one of the major distinguishing features between ancient and modern political philosophy.
There are two related senses in which we use the term nature. Imagine that you and a friend are flipping channels trying to decide what to watch on TV. If your friend wants to watch a nature program, you would assume he or she wants to watch a show about walking dinosaurs or marching penguins. This first sense of the word nature means the physical external world. While continuing through the channels, you come across a detective show. In the scene, a detective has just burst into the library and found a dead man with a beautiful women standing over him. The detective asks, “What is the nature of your relationship to the deceased?” The women could answer, “He was my brother,” “my husband,” “my secret lover,” “my boss,” or many other things. Any one of these descriptions would tell the detective something important about the case. This second sense of the word nature tells us the essential character of a relationship or a thing—to know the essential character of a thing is to know its nature. It is the nature of water to flow downhill. Ancient political philosophy focuses on this second sense of nature, the essential unchanging character of human and political things.
To better understand what differentiates the ancient understanding of nature, consider Aristotle’s four causes: the material, efficient, formal, and final cause. These can be illustrated by the construction of the three little pigs’ houses. The material cause is the physical matter or raw materials that go into each house—the straw, sticks, or bricks. The efficient cause is the motion or activity that went into constructing each house—the straw house requires the least work, the brick house the most. The formal cause is the plan or blueprint. Each little pig had to have some idea of what the house would look like when it was done. Last, we have the final cause, or purpose (telos), of the house—to keep them safe from the big bad wolf.
The ancients would argue that we can understand the house, including what caused the house, only in terms of its plan or purpose. Modern science, conversely, tends to look only at the first two of Aristotle’s causes: matter and motion. This is the essence of the Newtonian worldview. Modern political philosophy follows the lead of natural science by focusing on the basic drives, or physical nature, of human beings in order to explain why we act the way we do. This atomistic view is taken up by Hobbes and most of the modern political thinkers who reject any notion of a plan or purpose to human existence; they tend to build their philosophies from the bottom up.
The ancients, on the other hand, thought that the nature of a thing included a purpose or goal that is inherent in the thing itself, its nature. This sounds a bit strange to modern ears, but it does have a certain logic to it. For example, the purpose of an acorn is to grow into an oak. This is the reason acorns exist, their telos. The fact that not all acorns will become oaks does not deny their purpose. The telos of a thing does not guarantee its completion; it provides only the end at which the thing aims. Humans, and hungry squirrels, can prevent acorns from becoming oaks, but they cannot change the acorns’ nature. Humans and squirrels cannot make acorns grow into elm trees or pineapples.
The ancients would go further. They would argue that the purpose of the acorn is not simply to grow into any oak but to grow into the best possible oak. In other words, inherent in the idea of an oak is the idea of the best possible, or excellent, oak. The best possible oak is not a utopian idea, where every leaf, every branch, every cell is perfectly constructed. Rather, the best possible oak is what would happen if an acorn were raised in the best soil, with clean water, adequate wind, and no hungry squirrels. This idea of the excellent oak is why the ancients are often called idealists. It is important to remember, however, that the ancients’ idea is not a perfect world but the best that can be attained on this earth with the things that already exist on this earth.
Obviously, not all acorns will become the best oak; in fact, none may ever have achieved this goal, because the right circumstances have never occurred. This does not mean that it is impossible but merely that it is unlikely. The idea of the excellent oak allows us to judge all other oaks, even if we have never seen the best possible oak. We can tell whether an oak is stunted by poor soil, bent by too much wind, or rotting from fungus. The idea of the excellent oak forms a universal and eternal standard by which we can judge every other oak we see (Best, 1997).
B. Human Nature
Socrates appears to be the first person to take this type of analysis and turn it toward the study of human beings and the city. Philosophy becomes political when it turns to the study of human nature—the essence of what it means to be human. The ancients believed that human beings have an essential character, or telos, just like an acorn does. For the ancients, human beings are distinguished from other animals by their capacity for reasoned speech, or logos, and by the subject of their reasoned speech— justice, or what is the good life. As Aristotle (trans. 1984) explains, “It is peculiar to man as compared to other animals that he alone has perception of good and bad and just and unjust . . . and partnership in these things is what makes a household and a city” (1253a1). Lions do not debate whether killing that sickly little zebra will ultimately benefit the zebra population. They act on instinct and kill the easiest target. Human beings, by contrast, organize their social structures by choice, at least when they reach the level of the polis.
Aristotle (trans. 1984) describes the movement from the smallest natural society of men and women to the creation of villages that meet nondaily needs and then to the melding of several villages into a polis, a partnership founded on an idea of justice. The critical aspect of the polis is that it is self-sufficient: It contains everything that a person needs in order to live a good life. Most important, the polis allows us to debate justice and the best way to live. The polis is natural because it is inherent in humans to discourse about justice, and this leads inevitably to the construction of the polis. This is why humans are the political animal: because outside the polis, we could not fulfill our natures; we could not be fully human.
A second fundamental aspect of human nature for the ancients is the division of human nature into two parts, the body and the soul. The body is the physical aspect of our existence, and the soul is the mental aspect. The soul is another word that has many modern connotations that are not entirely meant by the ancients. The Greek word for soul is directly related to the modern word psyche, the root of psychology or the study of human thought and behavior. The Latin word for soul is anime, the root of the modern word animation. So for the ancients, the soul is the source of voluntary movement and behavior, as opposed to the involuntary movements of the body.
The soul is further divided into at least two parts, with a basic distinction made between the logos, or reasoning part, and the more emotional part of the soul. The fulfillment of human nature for the ancients is the proper development and balancing of the parts of our nature. The body should be ruled by the soul, not the soul by the body. Our bodies are often hungry or thirsty, but we do not instantly gratify our physical urges by shoving any available food and drink into our mouths as fast as possible. Our soul compels the body toward the proper fulfillment of our urges in the right time and the right measure. Further, the reasoning part of the soul should rule over our emotions or appetites. We are often angry and would like to say something offensive to our boss, or even our professor. Most of the time, our reason can calm our anger, and we can hold back the snide comment or offensive remark. Part of what it means to become an adult is learning to control our emotions and channel them in constructive ways.
Just as the telos of the acorn is to become an excellent oak, so the telos of a human is to become an excellent person, and an excellent, or virtuous, person has a soul that is in harmony, where each part minds its own business. In other words, excellent, virtuous people have a healthy body with normal urges. They have emotions, but at the right time and the right place and for the right reasons. Finally, they are reasonable, debate justice and the right way of life, and have the ability to live by what they decide to be correct. Aside from this basic ordering of the soul, there are specific virtues, such as courage, moderation, and justice, that are a major part of the debate about human excellence in ancient thought. One thing modern students often find frustrating about the ancients is that they do not provide simple answers to the moral questions of life. The moral questions of life are unique and require that we consider them within our political community. Ultimately, good moral choices require us to be raised in a way that allows us to be good moral people, and this can occur only within a polis.
C. The Polis
The central political unit for the ancients was the polis, and only through understanding the polis can we understand human nature. Our nature is never directly accessible to us because we are all raised within a particular society— the conventional laws under which we were raised and live always condition our underlying human nature. To understand the polis, the ancients looked at the constitution of the polis—the fundamental values and principles that form a particular society. The U.S. Constitution, for example, identifies the fundamental values and principles of the country, those of the Declaration of Independence, and then goes on to construct institutions and distribute power in the way thought best to secure those principles. Most countries do not have written statements of their principles, but their principles can be discerned by looking at who rules the society.
In both the Republic of Plato and the Politics of Aristotle, the question of who should rule is a central focus. Those who rule imprint their values on the society through their example and through the laws. For the ancients, laws are more than a statute or legal pronouncement; they are the fundamental values that underlie and bind a society together. The rulers embody the principles of their society by possessing those characteristics that are revered or valued by society. In an oligarchy, for example, it is the wealthy who rule because the society is primarily concerned with the accumulation of wealth. The creation of wealth demonstrates the characteristics that the society values—not simply the wealth itself, but hard work, savings, management ability, and the other things that allow people to gain wealth.
A number of groups contend to rule, with the three most prominent being the many, who support democracy; the few wealthy, who favor oligarchy; and the few virtuous, who favor an aristocracy. According to Aristotle (trans. 1984), these groups each “fasten on a certain sort of justice, but proceed only to a certain point, and do not speak from the whole of justice in an authoritative sense” (1280a1). Some, like the oligarchs, believe that because they are unequal in wealth, they should be unequal in rule, that is, they should have more of everything. The many, or demos, believe that they are equally free citizens, and, therefore, they should have an equal share in ruling. The central question is “equality in what sort of things and inequality in what sort of things . . . for this involves a question—and political philosophy” (Aristotle, trans. 1984, 1282b1: 21–24). Here we have the essence of political philosophy, deciding what kinds of human equality and inequality matter and then figuring out how they should be incorporated into the society.
Ultimately, the ancients resolve the question of who rules in favor of those who possess the most virtue. Those who have the most knowledge and the best moral character are most likely to make the best decisions for the community as a whole. The ancients generally believed the rulers should be granted whatever power is necessary to make the best city. In order to produce the best possible oak tree, we would need to control its environment, the soil, water, sun, and wind. If the goal of the polis is to produce the best people, the ancients argue that we have to control the social environment of human beings—family, wealth, education, even entertainment and music. Only in the polis can the environment be constructed in such a way that people will be directed toward fulfilling their nature: the complete practice of virtue. If people receive a proper education, they will internalize the values of the regime, and there will be little need for written laws and punishments. Much of Plato’s Republic (trans. 1991), for example, is an effort to construct a hypothetical city in speech in order to find out the truth about justice and the just life. In the course of this discussion, the characters in the Republic determine what stories people should hear, what music they should listen to, how they should exercise, whom they should marry, and numerous other things we would view as private.
This understanding of nature, human nature, and the polis provides the common ground of ancient political philosophy (Best, 1997). This broad agreement hides the rich diversity of opinions and perspectives that exists between Plato and Aristotle and among other great writers of the ancient world: Xenophon, Cicero, Thucydides, and Saint Augustine. The depth and diversity of ancient political philosophy are why succeeding generations have returned to it again and again and why the study of ancient political philosophy is still a major part of political science.
III. The Study of Ancient Political Philosophy
The academic study of ancient political philosophy began almost as soon as ancient political philosophy. From the very beginning—because Aristotle disagreed with Plato—there has been a sustained debate over the question of the good life that has provoked new participants to join the conversation. The conversation was alive through the rise of Rome in the writings of Cicero and at the birth of Christianity in the writings of St. Augustine. It went almost silent in the West during the Dark Ages, only to be revised by the Renaissance and the writings of modern political theorists. With the birth of modern political science in the past century, the conversation over the good life has continued. The rise of science has generated three problems that confront the modern student of ancient political thought: the problem of authenticity, the problem of knowledge, and the problem of truth. Despite these problems, or perhaps because of them, a number of current streams of research can be identified.
A. The Problem of Authenticity
One aspect of ancient political philosophy that is different from most modern political philosophy is the debate over the authenticity of the texts. There is virtually no debate over which books or pamphlets were written by modern political theorists such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau. Conversely, the ancient political theorists, who wrote thousands of years ago, have provoked a wide and extensive debate on the authenticity of the texts. Approximately 36 dialogues and a few letters are attributed to Plato. We have all Platonic dialogues discussed in ancient writings, but we cannot be entirely certain that Plato in fact wrote all of them. Starting in the 19th century, there has been an extensive academic debate over the authenticity of the dialogues (Irwin, 2008; Taylor, 1964). What we have of Aristotle’s writings are much less complete. Aristotle is known to have produced numerous dialogues and other finished pieces, but all these have been lost to history. What we have of Aristotle’s writings seem to be collections of lecture notes. There is even some debate whether they are Aristotle’s notes or a student’s or colleague’s (Barker, 1948; Lord, 1984).
A second major debate within academia is the attempt to trace the development of a philosopher’s thinking through the timeline of his writing. It is felt that Plato, for example, changed his thinking over time and that we can understand the development of his ideas over the course of his life by arranging the dialogues in the order he wrote them. For example, the Laws is widely considered to be Plato’s last work, and yet some of the ideas presented in it seem to disagree with elements of the Republic or other works. This difference might reflect the development of Plato’s thought, or it might be a different presentation of the same basic ideas to a different audience (Taylor, 1964).
B. The Problem of Interpretation
There are a number of ways to read the texts of political philosophy. At first the issue seems straightforward: Just read what was written, and then you will understand. But this is not always the case. Let us imagine two people, John and Jane, who have been dating for a couple of months. One day, John senses that something is amiss, so he asks Jane what’s wrong. She responds, “Nothing.” Should John take this at face value and go out with his friends, or should he consider the context of her remarks? Are Plato and Aristotle telling us the truth in their writings, or do we have to consider the context in which they wrote to understand their thinking?
A second problem immediately emerges: Which of the many opinions put forth by Plato, and to an extent Aristotle, represents what they really thought? Plato wrote almost entirely in dialogues, which read more or less like plays, but Plato himself is never a character. In most of the dialogues, Socrates is a central character, and we are left with the task of separating the character of Socrates from the thought of Plato. Aristotle, on the other hand, frequently explores numerous different positions and rarely comes down with hard and fast rules for behavior. If their intent was to convey their thinking to the future, then dialogues (or lecture notes) seem a confusing way to do so.
Most readers believe that the format of the dialogue was chosen specifically to avoid simply telling people what to think. The Socratic and Platonic idea of education is that it takes place through dialectic—reasoned conversation. It would be counter to this idea to write down a set of truths for people to memorize and recite. They would not learn them but only memorize them. In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy always has the power to return to Kansas, but she can do so only after she has learned some things for herself. In the same way, Plato is trying to teach us something in the dialogues, and this means he cannot just give us all the answers; he has to develop our reasoning and point us in the right direction. In a similar way, Aristotle’s two main political works, the Politics and the Ethics, do not reach many hard and fast conclusions. Rather they mull topics over, considering them from different perspectives at different times. These ancient philosophers do not want us to simply follow their teachings; they want us to learn the truth for ourselves.
C. The Problem of Truth
The central debate over how we should interpret the ancients is conditioned by a larger debate within the social sciences over the nature of truth. The tradition of political philosophy is a search for unchanging truth, but we are faced with an immediate problem: Philosophers each claim that they have discovered some eternal wisdom about human nature, society, and the good life, and yet their answers do not agree with one another. These divergent views on the truth of human life have resulted in two major reactions regarding the idea of truth. On one side are those who still believe that there is eternal wisdom about human nature and the polis and that these truths can be discovered by human reason and used to guide human life. They argue that we need to join the conversation and work to separate truth from error and discover for ourselves the essential truth of a good life—in other words, to become philosophers.
The second major reaction to the diversity of viewpoints is to recognize that each society has produced a set of values that define truth for that society. Human beings naturally produce a set of values that define right and wrong, and these can be understood only on their own terms in the context of the society that produced them. These “truths” make sense within a particular social structure, but they do not represent truths that transcend time and place; they are not eternal truths. The idea that all people and ideas are a product of the social, political, and economic systems of which they are a part is called historicism.
Of course, to be honest, there is a third reaction: give up. Most people choose to stop reading political philosophy, accept the truth that society gives them, relax in their La-Z-Boy, turn on the TV, drink beer, and eat pork rinds. The vast majority of people are satisfied with the answers they are given and choose not to question them. There are always a few, however, who want to know more, who do not accept the truth of their situation without question. The careful study of political philosophy provides these few a way of waking themselves from the all-too-comfortable daze of modern society.
The question of how we should interpret ancient writings is conditioned by whether one believes in the possibility of eternal truth or in historicism. Those who believe in the possibility of eternal truth generally focus very closely on what the authors have literally written in the texts themselves. The assumption is that Plato and Aristotle wrote their works to communicate their ideas to others, so to understand their ideas, we need to focus on exactly what was written. This perspective is very concerned with the accuracy and consistency of translations to ensure that nothing comes between the thought of the ancients and our minds. The majority of scholars who accept the possibility of truth read Plato and Aristotle in this way, as if they always say what they mean (Barker, 1948; Taylor, 1964).
An offshoot of this approach to understanding the text, developed primarily by Leo Strauss (1988), is to consider whether Plato and Aristotle might have hidden some of their most provocative ideas between the lines. Strauss believed that the search for truth always requires calling into question some of the accepted truths of the current society. Philosophy, as the search for truth, is therefore always under the threat of persecution from the authority of the state because it must challenge the fundamental beliefs that underlie that authority. This persecution “gives rise to a peculiar technique of writing, and therewith a peculiar type of literature, in which the truth about all crucial things is presented exclusively between the lines” (p. 25). This kind of literature, of which Plato and Aristotle are examples, is divided into an exoteric, or surface, teaching and the esoteric, or hidden, teaching. The problem of interpretation is then trying to read between the lines to discover this hidden teaching. The answers are still within the text, but they are hidden because, according to Strauss, “There are basic truths that would not be pronounced in public by a decent man, because they would do harm to many people who, having been hurt, would naturally be inclined to hurt” the philosopher in return (p. 36).
Interpreters who believe that truth can be understood only in the context of the society are less concerned with what the text says and more concerned with the social and political context in which it was written. Scholars from this perspective are less concerned about the accuracy of translations, because there is no real need to analyze and decipher the literal, or hidden, meanings of the text. Rather than pursuing some eternal teaching on truth in the writings of ancient philosophers, the reader needs to interpret their writings in light of the historical context in which they wrote. For example, to understand Aristotle’s justification of virtue, we must understand how this understanding of virtue fit into the economic and social structure of Athens at the time. Only through an analysis of the social and political system can we understand how this truth fits into the system of thought that was ancient Athens.
Recently, an offshoot of this approach has developed that can be called contextualizing (Richter, 2009). Whereas historicism interprets the ancient writers by looking at the social and political context in which they wrote, contextual interpretation tends to focus on how the ancient philosophers have been read. Different epochs in human history have read Plato and Aristotle differently. Sometimes they are read as essentially democratic, other times they have been read as supporting kingship and monarchy. A contextual approach focuses on the context of the readers more than the context of the writings: Contextualists look at how different contexts influenced the interpretations of the texts. For example, some feminists would argue that the tradition of Western political philosophy is biased, not only because it focuses almost exclusively on the writings of men but also because it has been interpreted only by men (Saxonhouse, 1985; Shanley & Pateman, 1991).
D. The Next Step
There is no substitute for reading the writings of Plato and Aristotle, available in many editions, for yourself. Philosophic commentaries are like movie reviews. They can help us notice some things we might miss, but they are not a substitute for seeing the movie ourselves. Two of the most accessible Platonic dialogues are the Apology and the Crito. Each is fairly short and considers a limited range of issues. The Gorgias, although not as popular in the discipline, is a good intermediate step in preparation for the Republic. The Gorgias follows a fairly straightforward narrative structure and contains a series of interconnected arguments on rhetoric and the best life. The Republic, on the other hand, considers a wide array of topics within a fairly complicated narrative structure. Although the Republic is a tremendously rewarding work, it is also quite intimidating and requires careful consideration and effort to work through. Aristotle’s two principal political works are the Politics and the Ethics. These works complement one another nicely although the Politics is more directly of interest to political scientists.
Students who tend to like a more creative style of writing often find Plato more accessible, while students who prefer a more logical, systematic exposition often gravitate toward Aristotle. The study of any of these works is best done in a class or in a reading group, as it is very useful to have other people to test your ideas and interpretations on. If this cannot be done, you can read a good interpretive essay along with the work. The long interpretive essay that accompanies Allen Bloom’s translation of the Republic (Plato, trans. 1991), for example, provides a lot of food for thought (see also White, 1979). Mary P. Nichols (1992) provides a solid exposition of the Politics. Whether you agree or disagree with it, a good interpretation compels you to read and understand the work more thoroughly. For a general overview of the subject, The Mainstream of Western Political Thought is a very clear and readable overview (Best, 1997). For a more thorough treatment, the History of Political Philosophy (Strauss & Cropsey, 1987) contains short interpretive essays on almost every philosopher of note.
This research paper has outlined the basic foundation of ancient political philosophy and how modern scholars approach its study. The different understandings of nature, human nature, and the polis developed by the ancients provide an excellent antidote to the parochialism of our time. The ancients raise questions that challenge many of our fundamental beliefs and thereby make us defend them, turning our blind prejudices into reasoned arguments and beginning the process of education.
Within the discipline of political science, the need to challenge our fundamental beliefs is no less critical. Our basic understanding of the major texts of Plato and Aristotle is constantly being challenged by new interpretive methods and approaches. In addition, there has been increasing interest in exploring less–well-known thinkers of antiquity such as Xenophon, Augustine, and Cicero. Another approach is to focus on a particular theme as opposed to a particular work. The thinking on justice, slavery, economics, democracy, and many other topics is increasingly considered across texts or theorists. Yet another approach is to try to apply the thought of the ancients directly to the modern world to shed light on modern problems (Koivukoski & Tabachnik, 2005).
The study of ancient political philosophy is partly directed at understanding the development of Western political thought through time. Whether one generally agrees or fundamentally disagrees with the ancients, their thought is critical to beginning our ascent from the parochial views that surround us. More important, the ancients considered the eternal question of how one leads a good life. Should I be moral or immoral? Should I pursue a life of physical pleasures, or are the pleasures of the soul more valuable? These questions are front and center as students work through their education, even though many classes do not seem to try to answer them. Ancient political philosophy speaks directly to the problems of living a good life, and students who study it are rewarded with a clearer understanding of these problems and, perhaps, their solutions.
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