The history of political thought dates back to antiquity. The political history of the world, and thus the history of political thinking by man, stretches up through the Medieval period and the Renaissance. In the Age of Enlightenment, political entities expanded from basic systems of self-governance and monarchy to the complex democratic and communist systems that exist of the Industrialized and the Modern Era. In parallel, political systems have expanded from vaguely defined frontier-type boundaries, to the definite boundaries existing today.
Plato (left) and Aristotle(right), from a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco byRaphael. Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics secured the two Greek philosophers as two of the most influential political philosophers.
As an academic discipline, Western political philosophy has its origins in ancient Greek society, when city-states were experimenting with various forms of political organization including monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, and democracy. One of the first, extremely important classical works of political philosophy is Plato’s Republic, which was followed by Aristotle’s Politics, both created in the context of Athenian democracy. Roman political philosophy was influenced by Greek schools of thought, particularly Stoicism, in conjunction with the Roman tradition of republicanism, as evidenced by the political philosophy of the Roman statesman Cicero.
Independently, Confucius, Mencius, Mozi and the Legalist school in China, and the Laws of Manu and Chanakya in India, all sought to find means of restoring political unity and political stability; in the case of the former three through the cultivation of virtue, in the last by imposition of discipline. In India, Chanakya, in his Arthashastra, developed a viewpoint which foreshadowed both the Legalists andNiccolò Machiavelli. Ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations resembled Greek civilization in that there was a unified culture divided into rival states. In the case of China, philosophers found themselves obliged to confront social and political breakdown, and seek solutions to the crisis that confronted their entire civilization.
The early Christian philosophy of Augustine of Hippo was by and large a rewrite of Plato in a Christian context. The main change that Christian thought brought was to moderate the Stoicism and theory of justice of the Roman world, and emphasize the role of the state in applying mercy as a moral example. Augustine also preached that one was not a member of his or her city, but was either a citizen of the City of God (Civitas Dei) or the City of Man (Civitas Terrena). Augustine’s City of God is an influential work of this period that refuted the thesis, after the First Sack of Rome, that the Christian view could be realized on Earth at all – a view many Christian Romans held.
The rise of Islam, based on both the Qur’an and Muhammad strongly altered the power balances and perceptions of origin of power in the Mediterranean region. Early Islamic philosophy emphasized an inexorable link between science and religion, and the process of ijtihad to find truth – in effect all philosophy was “political” as it had real implications for governance. This view was challenged by the Mutazilite philosophers, who held a more Greek view and were supported by secular aristocracy who sought freedom of action independent of the Caliphate. By the late medieval period, however, the Asharite view of Islam had in general triumphed.
Islamic political philosophy, was, indeed, rooted in the very sources of Islam, i.e. the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the words and practices of Muhammad. However, in the Western thought, it is generally supposed that it was a specific area peculiar merely to the great philosophers of Islam: al-Kindi (Alkindus), al-Farabi (Abunaser), İbn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Bajjah (Avempace), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and Ibn Khaldun. The political conceptions of Islam such as kudrah, sultan, ummah, cemaa -and even the “core” terms of the Qur’an, i.e. ibada, din, rab and ilah- is taken as the basis of an analysis. Hence, not only the ideas of the Muslim political philosophers but also many other jurists and ulama posed political ideas and theories. For example, the ideas of the Khawarij in the very early years of Islamic history on Khilafa and Ummah, or that of Shia Islam on the concept of Imamah are considered proofs of political thought. The clashes between the Ehl-i Sunna and Shia in the 7th and 8th centuries had a genuine political character.
The 14th century Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun is considered one of the greatest political theorists. The British philosopher-anthropologist Ernest Gellner considered Ibn Khaldun’s definition of government, “an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself”, the best in the history of political theory.
Medieval political philosophy in Europe was heavily influenced by Christian thinking. It had much in common with the Islamic thinking in that the Roman Catholics also subordinated philosophy to theology. Perhaps the most influential political philosopher of medieval Europe was St. Thomas Aquinas who helped reintroduce Aristotle’s works, which had only been preserved by the Muslims, along with the commentaries of Averroes. Aquinas’s use of them set the agenda for scholastic political philosophy, dominated European thought for centuries.
During the Renaissance secular political philosophy began to emerge after about a century of theological political thought in Europe. One of the most influential works during this burgeoning period was Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, written between 1511–12 and published in 1532, after Machiavelli’s death. That work, as well asThe Discourses, a rigorous analysis of the classical period, did much to influence modern political thought in the West. A minority (including Jean-Jacques Rousseau) could interpret The Prince as a satire meant to give the Medici after their recapture of Florence and their subsequent expulsion of Machiavelli from Florence. Though the work was written for the di Medici family in order to perhaps influence them to free him from exile, Machiavelli supported the Republic of Florence rather than theoligarchy of the di Medici family. At any rate, Machiavelli presents a pragmatic and somewhat consequentialist view of politics, whereby good and evil are mere means used to bring about an end, i.e. the secure and powerful state. Thomas Hobbes, well known for his theory of the social contract, goes on to expand this view at the start of the 17th century during the English Renaissance.
John Locke in particular exemplified this new age of political theory with his work Two Treatises of Government. In it Locke proposes a state of nature theory that directly complements his conception of how political development occurs and how it can be founded through contractual obligation. Locke stood to refute Sir Robert Filmer’s paternally founded political theory in favor of a natural system based on nature in a particular given system.
European Age of Enlightenment
Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830, Louvre), a painting created at a time where old and modern political philosophies came into violent conflict.
During the Enlightenment period, new theories about what the human was and is and about the definition of reality and the way it was perceived, along with the discovery of other societies in the Americas, and the changing needs of political societies (especially in the wake of the English Civil War, the American Revolution and the French Revolution) led to new questions and insights by such thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu and John Locke.
These theorists were driven by two basic questions: one, by what right or need do people form states; and two, what the best form for a state could be. These fundamental questions involved a conceptual distinction between the concepts of “state” and “government.” It was decided that “state” would refer to a set of enduring institutions through which power would be distributed and its use justified. The term “government” would refer to a specific group of people who occupied, and indeed still occupy the institutions of the state, and create the laws and ordinances by which the people, themselves included, would be bound. This conceptual distinction continues to operate in political science, although some political scientists, philosophers, historians and cultural anthropologists have argued that most political action in any given society occurs outside of its state, and that there are societies that are not organized into states which nevertheless must be considered in political terms.
Political and economic relations were drastically influenced by these theories as the concept of the guild was subordinated to the theory of free trade, and Roman Catholic dominance of theology was increasingly challenged by Protestant churches subordinate to each nation-state, which also (in a fashion the Roman Catholic Church often decried angrily) preached in the vulgar or native language of each region. These ideas did not spread to cultures outside of Europe until considerably later.
The political structure of the Iroquois Confederacy may have inspired some institutions adopted at the foundation of the United States.
Industrialization and the Modern Era
Karl Marx and his theory of Communism developed along with Friedrich Engels proved to be one of the most influential political ideologies of the 20th century.
The industrial revolution produced a parallel revolution in political thought. Urbanization and capitalism greatly reshaped society. During this same period, the socialist movement began to form. In the mid-19th century, Marxism was developed, and socialism in general gained increasing popular support, mostly from the urban working class. By the late 19th century, socialism and trade unions were established members of the political landscape. In addition, the various branches of anarchism and syndicalism also gained some prominence, particularly in Spain and France. In the Anglo-American world, anti-imperialism and pluralism began gaining currency around the start of the 20th century.
World War I was a watershed event in human history. The Russian Revolution of 1917 (and similar, albeit less successful, revolutions in many other European countries) brought communism – and in particular the political theory of Leninism, but also on a smaller levelLuxemburgism (gradually) – on the world stage. At the same time, social democratic parties won elections and formed governments for the first time, often as a result of the introduction of universal suffrage. However, a group of central European economists led by Austrian School economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek identified the collectivist underpinnings to the various newsocialist and fascist doctrines of government power as being different brands of political totalitarianism.