Duke University: Ancient Political Thought

POLSCI 49S: Classic Readings in Ancient Political Thought
Dr. John David Lewis
Fall, 2009
Monday and Wednesday, 1:15 to 2:30

This course is an examination of classic readings in ancient Western political and social thought. We will focus on the ideas of first-rank thinkers and artists, including Homer, Plato, Thucydides, Sophocles, Aristotle, Cicero, Polybius, and Augustine. We will situate each in the particular historical period in which he lived, and analyze the various answers that each offered to questions about human nature, justice, freedom, the good life, proper political rule, the origins of the state, social organization, and law.

We will read these works not only as evidence from a long-dead past, but as living guides to the most important questions still confronting us today. We will consider the norms and assumptions that guide these writers, the implications of those assumptions for the development of political and ethical thought, and their meaning for the modern day. By considering the texts from social, ethical, institutional and historical perspectives, students will be able to evaluate modern works with awareness of their deeper intellectual roots.

Course Requirements:

Attendance, preparation for class discussions, and active participation in those discussions.
3 short papers (1000 words each)
Final exam paper (3,000 words)


P. J. Steinberger, ed. Readings in Classical Political Thought (Hackett, 2000). ISBN 0-87220-512-6.
B. Jowett, tr. Aristotle: Politics (Dover, 2000). ISBN 0-486-41424-8.

Class Schedule

Week 1 (8/24): Tradition and Authority in Early Poetry
Read: Steinberger 1-17 (Homer, et al)

Week 2 (8/31): Presocratic Thought and the Historians
Read: Steinberger 17-59 (Presocratics, Herodotus, Thucydides)

Week 3 (9/7): Revenge and the Law
Read: Steinberger 59-78 (Aeschylus Furies)

Week 4 (9/14): Justice and Law
Read: Steinberger 117-135 (Sophocles Antigone)

Paper #1: What is the relationship between justice and the law, in Homer as contrasted with Sophocles? (Due 9/16)

Week 5 (9/21): Human Being and City
Read: Steinberger 136-166 (Death of Socrates)

Steinberger 166-181 (Plato Republic I)
Week 6 (9/28): The Ideal City?

Read: Steinberger 181-229 (Plato Republic II through IV)

Week 7 (10/5): BREAK (SORRY! No Class) (10/7) Class resumes
Read: Steinberger 229-276 (Plato Republic II through IV)

Week 8 (10/12): The Second-best City?
Read: Steinberger 317-357 (Plato Laws)

Paper #2: What is a human beings’ place in Plato’s Republic, and does this resound from the portrayal of Socrates? (Due 10/14)

Week 9 (10/19): The Origins of the City
Read: Aristotle Politics I, 1-53 (includes the translator’s introduction and analysis)

Week 10 (10/26): Various Cities
Read: Aristotle Politics II, 54-99

Week 11 (11/2): Citizenship
Read: Aristotle Politics III, 100-144

Paper #3: How does Aristotle’s citizen compare with the citizen in Plato’s ideal city? (Due 11/4)

Week 12 (11/9): Forms of Constitutions
Read: Aristotle Politics IV, 145-186

Week 13 (11/16): Mixed Constitutions and Cycles
Read: Polybius VI (selections, handouts)

Week 14 (11/23): The State, Society and Excellence
Read: Steinberger 446-460 (Cicero)

Week 15 (11/30): The Christian Political Challenge
Read: Steinberger 461-504 (Augustine)

Week 16 (12/7): Final Exam
Final Exam paper: Consider the relationship between justice and the citizen, as seen in the pure and mixed forms of constitution found in Plato, Aristotle and Polybius. What form of constitution is, in your evaluation, most proper for a citizen? Why? Connect this directly and solidly to evidence in the texts (do not quote the evidence; cite it). How do Cicero or Augustine agree, or differ, with your choice? (Due 12/9)