Major Political Thinkers:
Plato to Mill
This List Is By:
Resident Scholar Liberty Fund, Inc.
Political speculation in the West is as old as the Western tradition itself. Its origins may be traced as far back as Homer, but its foundations were laid by Plato and Aristotle. While many of the questions asked by political thinkers have remained the same —what is justice? — the answers have varied considerably over the last 2,400 years. The following selections represent the principal works of the major political philosophers, from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the mid-nineteenth century.
The American Founders were familiar with the names of all these thinkers (except Mill) and had read many of their works, as evidenced by their own libraries and papers. For a list of the most frequently read political authors of the Founding Era, see Donald Lutz and for an essay on “A Founding Father’s Library,” see Forrest McDonald.
As the first philosophical examination of “justice” in Western literature, the Republic occupies a seminal place in the history of political thought. Written in the form of a dialogue, Plato employs Socrates as a kind of discussion leader who seeks to discover justice in the individual by defining justice in the state. This discursive search leads Socrates-cum-Plato to reach some rather unexpected conclusions and to embrace some unconventional social practices and political arrangements, including the rule of philosophers. In addition to outlining the ideal state, Plato explores “corrupt” or “deviant” regimes (timarchy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny) through an analysis of their leading symptoms and psychological foundations. While often denounced as an enemy of the “open society,” Plato challenges us to reexamine prevailing orthodoxies and reconsider the higher purposes of community.
Plato, The Dialogues of Plato translated into English with Analyses and Introductions by B. Jowett, M.A. in Five Volumes. 3rd edition revised and corrected (Oxford University Press, 1892). Chapter: THE REPUBLIC.
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In the Republic, Plato suggests that ruling is a kind of science or craft and concludes that only those trained in this craft should be permitted to govern. In the Statesman, he attempts to carefully define this “royal science” and distinguish it from other activities. In the process a new element is introduced — adherence to law — which becomes the basis for evaluating good and bad forms of regime types (e.g., monarchy vs. tyranny). Those regimes which follow the law — although inferior to the untrammeled rule of true philosophers — are far better than those that do not. With this concession to non-ideal forms of government, Plato foreshadows his abandonment of philosophic rule in the Republic in favor of the “second-best” state of the Laws.
Plato, The Dialogues of Plato translated into English with Analyses and Introductions by B. Jowett, M.A. in Five Volumes. 3rd edition revised and corrected (Oxford University Press, 1892). Chapter: STATESMAN.
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His last and longest dialogue, the Laws is Plato’s most important contribution to legal and political science. In the form of a discussion between an Athenian, a Spartan, and a Cretan, Plato outlines the “second-best” state (the “law state”) in painstaking detail. While retaining some of the idealism of the Republic, the Laws aims at a more realizable goal, a community based on the principle of moderation. Accordingly, Plato replaces the communal living arrangements of the Republic with private property and permits citizens a voice in the management of public affairs. He also prefigures the famous “mixed” or “balanced” constitution, observing that democracy should be tempered with monarchy. His provisions for making, revising, and teaching the laws is a tacit admission that the “royal science” of philosophers must give way to known and settled rules. Similarly, Plato’s interest in existing institutions and appreciation for imperfect regimes serves as a bridge to the more empirical and realistic politics of Aristotle.
Plato, The Dialogues of Plato translated into English with Analyses and Introductions by B. Jowett, M.A. in Five Volumes. 3rd edition revised and corrected (Oxford University Press, 1892). Chapter: LAWS.
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Like his teacher Plato, Aristotle was interested in the nature of the political as such and deeply normative in his approach to politics. He was, however, more empirical and scientific in his method, writing treatises instead of dialogues and often handling his materials with considerable detachment. The result in the Politics is a far-reaching and often penetrating treatment of political life, from the origins and purpose of the state to the nuances of institutional arrangements. While Aristotle’s remarks on slavery, women, and laborers are often embarrassing to modern readers, his analysis of regime types (including the causes of their preservation and destruction) remains of perennial interest. His discussion of “polity”— a fusion of oligarchy and democracy — has been of particular significance in the history of popular government. Finally, his contention that a constitution is more than a set of political institutions, but also embodies a shared way of life, has proved a fruitful insight in the hands of subsequent thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville.
Aristotle, The Politics of Aristotle, trans. into English with introduction, marginal analysis, essays, notes and indices by B. Jowett. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1885. 2 vols. Vol. 1. Chapter: THE POLITICS.
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Statesman, orator, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero became the most widely read and admired Roman author following the recovery of his major works during the Renaissance. Best known for his public orations, he also penned two theoretical works on politics, the Republic and theLaws. Cast in the form of dialogues, each work addresses several leading concerns of political life, e.g., the relation between liberty and equality, the nature of political leadership, and the interplay of institutions. The Laws is particuarly noteworthy for its treatment of Natural Law, which can be traced down through the centuries to our own day. (Echoes of Cicero may be found in such luminaries as Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson.) Regrettably, only a portion of the dialogue survives, yet its author’s reflections on law and public morality remain fresh and relevant.
Marcus Tullius Cicero, The Political Works of Marcus Tullius Cicero: Comprising his Treatise on the Commonwealth; and his Treatise on the Laws. Translated from the original, with Dissertations and Notes in Two Volumes. By Francis Barham, Esq. (London: Edmund Spettigue, 1841-42). Vol. 2.
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Like Plato’s dialogue of the same name, Cicero’s Republicembodies a comprehensive and ideal vision of political life. In addition to a search for justice, the discussants explore such foundational issues as the relation between the individual and the state, the qualities of the ideal statesman, and the nature of political knowledge. Additional themes include constitutional forms and their evolution, the social harmony of classes, and the influence of education on private morals and public virtue. Like the Laws, the Republic is a fragmentary work, but one that still resonates in the modern world.
Marcus Tullius Cicero, The Political Works of Marcus Tullius Cicero: Comprising his Treatise on the Commonwealth; and his Treatise on the Laws. Translated from the original, with Dissertations and Notes in Two Volumes. By Francis Barham, Esq. (London: Edmund Spettigue, 1841-42). Vol. 1.
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The Online Library of Liberty hopes to add Thomas’s writings on law and justice in the near future.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas. A Translation of the Principal Portions of the Second part of the Summa Theologica,with Notes by Joseph Rickaby, S.J. (London: Burns and Oates, 1892).
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The Prince is at once the most famous and infamous work in the canon of political thought. Instead of considering questions of justice and the ideal state, Machiavelli proposed to advise a “new” prince on how to succesfully maintain power. Given the realities of human nature and politics, it is sometimes necessary for a prince to “do evil,” including acts of violence, deceit, and cruelty, in order to survive. For Machiavelli, the capacity for such acts is not an aberration of the political art, but an essential part of a ruler’s “skill set.” Such stark realism and the hard break with the Classical-Christian tradition has led many to denounce Machiavelli as an “immoralist,” an “advisor to tyrants,” and a “teacher of evil.” Others have defended the Prince for its author’s realistic appraisal of politics, shrewd psychological insights, and tough-minded advice for a dangerous world. This “little book” (as Machiavelli called it) will undoubtedly continue to provoke highly varied responses.
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, tr. from the Italian, by Christian E. Detmold (Boston, J. R. Osgood and company, 1882). Vol. 2. Chapter: THE PRINCE.
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The Discourses on Livy is often described as Machiavelli’s “book on republics,” but this is not entirely accurate. He does focus on republics, ancient and modern, but he also discusses monarchies or princedoms. On the other hand, his advice in the Prince is often relevant to leaders of republics. There is, however, a tension between the republicanism of theDiscourses and the autocracy of the Prince, for the same author who champions the cause of liberty and self-government in the former gives advice on preserving one-man rule in the latter. It is, however, possible to find a common thread in Machiavelli’s mode of analysis (realist and historical) and to view the Prince as a special instance of his political science and the Discourses as the core of this science, as well as the heart of his political creed. In recent years, it is the Machiavelli of the Discourses who has gained the attention (and often admiration) of scholars for reviving the republican tradition in the modern world.
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, tr. from the Italian, by Christian E. Detmold (Boston, J. R. Osgood and company, 1882). Vol. 2. Chapter: DISCOURSES on the FIRST TEN BOOKS OF TITUS LIVIUS.
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Best known as the “father” of modern absolutism, Hobbes is also credited as the “father” of modern political science. InLeviathan, his principal work, the English philosopher endeavored to establish a new “science of politics” on the basis of the first principles of human nature. While his conclusion — that without an all-powerful Sovereign life would be a “war of all against all” — was largely rejected by his contemporaries, the novelty of his method and his reliance on natural law inaugurated a new era in political thinking. His use of the “social contract” as a method of explaining the origin and legitimacy of public authority would be adopted to more liberal ends by thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau. Moreover, Hobbes’s contention that men possess “natural” rights — that by nature individuals are free, equal, and autonomous — readily lent itself to theories of limited government. For this reason, Hobbes is often identified, paradoxically, as the “father” of modern liberalism. See, in particular, chapters 13-31.
Thomas Hobbes, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury; Now First Collected and Edited by Sir William Molesworth, Bart., (London: Bohn, 1839-45). 11 vols. Vol. 3.
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Spinoza’s fame as a philosopher largely rests on his Ethics, but he also made an important, if rather engimatic, contribution to political thought. While employing much of the language and framework of natural rights thinkers, Spinoza rejected natural law as a regulative principle and adopted an entirely prudential approach to questions of civic formation, obligation, legitimacy, and freedom. Often described as a Hobbesian, Spinoza differs in important respects from his English predecessor. He advanced ideas of religious toleration and freedom of expression, held that peace was more than just the absence of war, and identified positive aspects in different forms of government. That he adopted these positions on pragmatic, rather than principled, grounds and denied inherent natural rights, places Spinoza outside the mainstream of modern liberalism, but he ultimately endorsed a relatively democratic and open society.
Benedict de Spinoza, The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, translated from the Latin, with an Introduction by R.H.M. Elwes, vol. 1 Introduction, Tractatus-Theologico-Politicus, Tractatus Politicus. Revised edition (London: George Bell and Sons, 1891). Chapter: A POLITICAL TREATISE
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Few political thinkers have had such a profound and lasting influence as John Locke. His Second Treatise, written against the backdrop of political crisis and revolution, contains classic arguments against arbitrary and despotic government. Drawing on the tradition of natural law, Locke developed a theory of natural liberty that placed limits on civil authority. For Locke, government is founded in human need and arises from “inconveniences” in the “state of nature.” Like Hobbes, he finds the origins of political authority in the “social contract,” a voluntary agreement to enter into civil society. Unlike Hobbes, however, the sovereignty of the people is not permanently transferred to an absolute “Sovereign,” but is temporarily delegated to a government of limited power. Locke’s Second Treatise also made important contributions to the concepts of equality, rule of law, separation of powers, majoritarianism, and the right to revolution. Along with its theory of (private) property, the Second Treatise remains the seminal text of classical liberalism.
For additional reading see Eric Mack’s Introduction to the Political Thought of John Locke (in particular his Second Treatise of Government).
John Locke, The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes,(London: Rivington, 1824 12th ed.). Vol. 4. Chapter: OF CIVIL GOVERNMENT.: BOOK II.
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Unlike Hobbes and Locke, Hume’s reputation as a major political thinker does not rest on a single systematic treastise, but rather on a series of topical essays. Hume also diverged from his English predecesors in his approach to politics, adopting a less abstract and more historical perspective. This led Hume to reject the idea of the social contract as an ahistorical fiction of dubious value: utility and interest are the mainsprings of government and the bases of community. In theEssays, Hume addresses many of the leading themes of political reflection, including property, obligation, liberty, and the forms of goverment. His essays on money, taxes, and commerce did much to establish modern political economy, and anticipated the doctrines of Hume’s friend, Adam Smith. His remarks on political parties and the balancing of opposed interests are believed to have significantly influenced James Madison, whose famous treatment of factions in Federalist 10 has a distinct Humean ring. See, especially, Part One, Essays 2-9, 12 and all of Part Two.
David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, Literary, edited and with a Foreword, Notes, and Glossary by Eugene F. Miller, with an appendix of variant readings from the 1889 edition by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, revised edition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1987). Chapter: FOREWORD
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Like Hume, Montesquieu’s approach to political thinking was historical, and his aim was less to construct a political theory than to understand law, liberty, and government in their various relations. In the Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu explores these relations in great detail, considering the effects of climate, commerce, religion, and the family. This attention to the influence of social factors on law and government has led modern scholars to call him the “father” of sociology. Montesqueiu also engaged in the more conventional practice of regime analysis, with particular emphasis on the conditions that support political liberty. He is best known, however, for his discussion of the English constitution, his model of a modern free government. For Montesquieu, English liberty is the product of a balanced constitution, and specifically the separation of legislative and executive power. These reflections, as well as his observations on the conditions which support republics, would exercise a powerful influence on the American Founders, who appealed to Montesquieu — “that great man” — with considerable frequency. See in particular, Books 1-5 and 11.
Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Complete Works of M. de Montesquieu (
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“Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” Thus begins the Social Contract, Rousseau’s principal work of political thought. Like Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau made use of the “social contract” to explain the origins of civil society, but in his version sovereignty is neither transferred nor delegated to the government, but remains with the people collectively. In Rousseau’s ideal republic, the citizens legislate directly in accordance with the “general will,” the common good. To recognize this good, citizens must be trained in virtue and roughly similar in circumstances. Only then will they be fit for self-government; only then will they be truly free. Rousseau’s model of a small city-state was out of step with the times, but his general ideas on liberty, equality, and democracy were highly influential. His treatment of these themes, however, is not without paradox, for there is a tendency toward collectivism and orthodoxy in many of his prescriptions. This aside, the Social Contract continues to inform debates over civic virtue and popular democracy, as well as present-day efforts to reconcile liberty, equality, and order.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ideal Empires and Republics. Rousseau’s Social Contract, More’s Utopia, Bacon’s New Atlantis, Campanella’s City of the Sun, with an Introduction by Charles M. Andrews (Washington: M. Walter Dunne, 1901).
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Begun as a series of newspaper articles, the Federalist papers were written under the pseudonym “Publius” in defense of the proposed Constitution drafted in the summer of
George W. Carey, The Federalist (The Gideon Edition),Edited with an Introduction, Reader’s Guide, Constitutional Cross-reference, Index, and Glossary by George W. Carey and James McClellan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001).
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Had Burke never penned the Reflections on the Revolution in France, he might be best remembered as the British politician who defended the rights and liberties of the American colonists. As it is, Burke is best known as an apostle of order, tradition, and authority; indeed, as the “father” of modern conservatism. Writing in response to the outbreak of the French Revolution, Burke predicted that the attempt to remodel French society and government on the basis of abstract notions, such as the “rights of man,” would end in disaster. His warning was not so much directed at the French as his own countrymen, some of whom were drawing inspiration from events in France to initiate reform in Britain. In the process of excoriating the leaders of the Revolution and their “preposterous way of reasoning,” Burke addressed the central questions of political speculation, arriving at general principles by way of history, human nature, and circumstances. If his conclusions appeared reactionary to many, his approach to the social order, with its emphasis on prudence, utility, and prescription, reflects a depth and subtlety that has few rivals in the history of political thought.
For additional reading see the Debate about the French Revolution.
Edmund Burke, Select Works of Edmund Burke. A New Imprint of the Payne Edition. Foreword and Biographical Note by Francis Canavan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999). Vol. 2.
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A century-and-a-half after its appearance, On Liberty remains the classic defense of individual freedom and the open society. For Mill, human happiness — the “greatest good” — is only possible in a free society where individuals are at liberty to make decisions about their lives. These decisions, including what to think, say, read, and write, should be free from state interference and left to the discretion of individuals. Believing that discussion, debate, and diversity were essential to the progress of society, Mill called for the widest degree of latitude for individual expression and even encouraged “experiments in living.” As long as people respect the rights of others, they should be allowed to think and live as they choose. Some beliefs and ways of living might be better than others, but it was not the proper role of the state to regulate such matters. Unlike classial liberals, Mill did not base his argument for liberty on natural right, but on utility or the “greatest happiness” principle. While this led him into some curious paradoxes, his strong defense of individual liberty and self-determination place him in the vanguard of liberal thinkers.
John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII - Essays on Politics and Society Part I, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Alexander Brady (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977). Chapter: ON LIBERTY 1859
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Considerations on Representative Government is sometimes characterized as the mold into which Mill poured the principles contained in On Liberty. With the belief that a government is never neutral in its effects, Mill proposed a number of broad reforms designed to better represent the electorate, improve the quality of representatives, and give experts a dominant role in legislating. If not exactly “illiberal,” a number of his proposals are less than democratic, even by the standards of the day. Basically, Mill envisioned an administrative state in which an elite bureaucracy would govern with the advice and consent of the legislature, whose principal function was to serve as a check on the executive. He did embrace popular government for its tendency to galvanize the energies of the people as well as encourage self-reliance and public- spiritedness. For Mill some type of high-toned republic represents the ideal. He did not, however, believe this model was suitable for less advanced peoples, whose level of development might require more autocratic methods.
John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XIX - Essays on Politics and Society Part II, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Alexander Brady (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977). Chapter: CONSIDERATIONS ON REPRESENTATIVE GOVERNMENT 1861
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