The Science of Politics A synopsis of the development of political philosophies that form what is often referred to as “Democratic Liberalism.”

Professor John A. Sterling, MA, JD

Overview- Politics has been defined as the process whereby power is distributed or denied. As applied to government, it is about who gets what, when, and how. Politics is both a science and an art form.

It is science in that it lends itself to methodical study, analysis of empirical evidence, and predictions of future behavior. It is art in that it evokes emotion, and possesses an intangible element of personal flair and charisma.

The study of politics is interesting but made more difficult by the intensity of emotions that can de-rail rational thought. It is often said that politics, like religion, is a subject that should be avoided at family reunions and other social gatherings because the discussion evokes such intense (and varied) emotions.

This is not a book. It is a highly-condensed presentation of ideas that represent the development of Western political thought for the last 2500 years. Eastern Political thought and expression is even older and is a study of its own. It is Western political philosophy that is the basis for the American system of government and, therefore, of more relevance to college students doing course-work in Political Science or American Government.

Definitions Epistemology- A theory of acquiring knowledge; what we can know and how we can know it.

Dialectic- The process of learning through questioning. It begins with conjecture (opinion) of the student which is challenged by a series of questions from teacher until, seeing the inadequacy of his first opinion, the student is forced to learn the truth.
The method (also called the Socratic method) is designed to build upon a structure of logic and reason until all exigencies are explored and countered.

Hermeneutics- The attempt to understand the relationship between idea systems and political reality by focusing on the purposes, or reasons, behind the ideas expressed.

Rhetoric- Public speaking in a way that influences people’s opinions.

Classical and Medieval Political Theory


Approximately five hundred years before Christ, Greek philosophy dominated political thought. Itinerant professors of political theory traveled from city to city and publicly argued various political ideas, for a fee, to an audience of wealthy young men interested in becoming successful in life. (Rather like a modern Dale Carnegie, holding seminars and workshops around the country, only for weeks or months at a time.)

Socrates opposed the Sophists (teachers) on many fine points but they all were concerned about the quality of life and in living ethically. Although they did not agree on how to measure it, the political teachers of the day believed that happiness was the ultimate purpose of life.

The Sophists argued that happiness was best achieved by the acquisition of things that make people happy (material possessions and wealth) but Socrates argued that happiness was the ethical knowledge of how people are supposed to live. Moreover, governments, rather than being merely powerful organizational entities, should embody the ethical principles that will promote moral well-being. The political expression of government, according to Socrates, was the common good of all citizens rather than the triumph of the individual over society’s rules.


Plato was a contemporary and a student of Socrates (427-347 B.C.) Plato is considered to be the first real political philosopher of the Western world. He developed the Academy, a university of political science. Plato endeavored to teach political principles to rulers but was confronted continually with the failures of the human spirit brought about by the human condition. IN his famous book, The Republic, Plato argues that society requires a successful division of labor- differently skilled people (artisans, craftsmen, statesmen, etc.) performing their skilled labor to the best of their ability, under the leadership of philosopher-kings. Plato believed, as did Socrates, that justice was the primary virtue and that justice is achieved by properly balancing wisdom, courage, and temperance. It is important to note that these attributes were possessed in sufficient quantity and balance only by philosophers. That is why only philosophers were competent to be kings. Yet, the great paradox of The Republic, is that philosophers are not interested in ruling- they are interested only the acquisition of more knowledge.

How to make philosophers desire to rule, without desiring the material gain that comes with ruling (power corrupts) can be achieved through proper education. It is significant that Plato attempted to implement his ideas throughout his life yet he nearly suffered the same fate as Socrates.   He was arrested and imprisoned, almost lost his life for his beliefs, and was frustrated in his attempts to influence leaders of his day. Even some of his former students overthrew the tyrannical king and then became tyrants themselves.

Perhaps his most famous presentation of his theories of the reality of belief and knowledge is the allegory of the cave dwellers. Plato was never able to make the “ideal” conform to the “real” events of life. He would insist the “real” world is illusory, like the world in his allegorical cave. Only philosophers, after years of training, are able to see and understand the truth.

Plato argues that, even if an ideal society could be developed, it would certainly self-destruct because of the inevitable human condition. Symptomatic of the decline will be people in pursuit of their passions and the emphasis on equality rather than the necessary hierarchy of classes and virtues. He calls this degraded class of people democratic, and the government they create a democracy.


Born in 384 B.C. Aristotle was Plato’s most brilliant student at the Academy. Unlike his teacher, who believed that pure happiness was linked to pure logic, Aristotle believed that political science was an imperfect expression of imperfect beings and he was always looking for ways to improve politics without demanding perfection. Likewise, government’s primary purpose is to promote virtue in its citizens through that form that will require practice and habit. Aristotle wrote, “A State exists for the sake of a good life, and not for the sake of life only: if life only were the object, slaves and brute animals might form a state, but they cannot, for they have no share in happiness or in a life of free choice.” [1] 

Politics is the highest form of human expression, according to Aristotle and the state is the highest form of politics. Because the state is the culmination of debate and speech, and it is the end result of man’s highest expression of sociability, it is that which distinguishes man from the animals. (In this thought, Thomas Jefferson agreed)

Aristotle proposed that there are six types, or forms of government that accomplish the distribution of political power. Three are good forms and three are considered “bad” forms, although in varying degrees. The most desirable form is the monarchy (rule by one), followed by aristocracy (rule by a few), followed by polity (rule by many). The least desirable forms of government are tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy and these represent the “arch-types” or the perverted manifestations of the desirable forms. The distinctions between “good” and “bad” forms have largely to do with economics and class-struggle (a theme echoed by Karl Marx fifteen centuries later) and the notion that tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy will always act in their own class interest rather than in the best interest of the whole society.

Aristotle’s is considered by many to mark the beginning of Western Traditional Political Philosophy partly because it is the first include the notion of plurality in politics. He also did not ignore the realities of life and of the human condition by insisting, as did Plato, that the “ideal” was the only reality.


Cicero was born, 100 years before Christ, in Rome at the point in history when the Roman Republic was being transformed into the Roman Empire. >He was educated in Rome and Athens, where he learned Greek Politics and Philosophy. Cicero’s writings greatly influenced the American Founders who likewise believed in a ruling elite rather than a popular democracy. Cicero’s plan includes the idea of a Senate composed of life-tenured ex-magistrates who ostensibly had the training and experience to govern.

Although his work is very similar to Plato, Cicero’s writings emphasize the written law. Where Plato’s ideal political system was ruled by a philosopher-king, unconstrained by written law, Cicero could not envision a government run without laws. Further, Cicero understood the pursuit of justice to be based upon, on constrained by, the rule of law. It is obedience to the law that prevents monarchs from becoming tyrants, aristocracies from becoming oligarchies, and polities from becoming democracies. Civil law is the mechanism that guides the statesman in the pursuit of truth and justice. The law itself is seen as an expression of morality and natural justice flowing to all citizens. All governors are bound by the same laws they must administer.

St Augustine

Born in A.D. 354, Augustine’s mother was a Christian and his father a pagan. Augustine was sent to school in Carthage and then, later, in Rome where he was first introduced to Christianity. At age 32, Augustine accepted Christ as savior and Lord and embarked on a life of Christian service, spending his last years as the Bishop of Hippo, in Northern Africa. It was there, around 410 A. D. that Augustine wrote his masterpiece, The City of God.

St. Augustine’s great contribution to political thought was that man’s sin nature predisposes him to do evil and that only through devotion to God can man hope to have victory over his base nature. Moreover, since only some people are called to a life of repentance and salvation, the political process must find common ground upon which the saved and unsaved may mutually coexist. Augustine found this common ground in the context of civil peace. He reasoned that both Christians and non-Christians desire peace because, without it, neither could achieve their desired ends. In other words, social order serves the self-interests of both groups and thus is the aim of civil government.

Government authority comes directly from God and, in Augustine’s view, it matters not whether that government is “good” or “bad” since obedience is required of all. To be sure, his wish is that all government would be in the hands of Christians, but he acknowledges that such is not the case.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A. D.)

St. Thomas committed his life to God at an early age. In the eight hundred years since Augustine, the political landscape had changed and the works of Aristotle had been re-discovered. The medieval church was slowly being replaced by the nation-state as the cultural and social hub of the people.

Like Aristotle, St. Thomas believed that the state authority was rooted in natural law and that the written law should be the embodiment of justice. The happiness of the people could be achieved through the actualization of their communal existence. Unlike Augustine, however, St Thomas believed that politics was not incompatible with Christianity and that citizen’s political energies could be consistent with their spiritual achievements. Thomas makes a connection between Eternal law, Natural law, and civil law which, he declares, are but levels of Divine Revelation.

Modern Political Theory


Author of “the Prince, ” the quintessential book about power politics. Machiavelli advocates for a strong monarchy as that form of government most likely to achieve peace in society. He cautioned against any monarch sharing his power since the extent to which that power is shared is the extent to which that monarch’s power will be weakened.

Machiavelli warns against the use of excessive power, however, since that would cause hatred which, in turn, causes a lack of control. Monarchs must have control or society becomes unstable.

Although not religious himself, Machiavelli argues that religion is indispensable to good social order because it lends credibility to the law and thus, serves to endear the common people to the monarch. He was definitely not a Christian and believed that the best form of religion was one that glorified men of valor or action- particularly military or political leaders. In this sense, then, Machiavelli believed that the church and the state should be one, at least to the degree that the religious body encouraged civic virtue. People must be compelled to obedience because they perceive legitimacy of the monarch’s authority rather than the force of the monarch’s power.


Hobbes attempted to transform the logic of power into a comprehensive science of power. He is noted most, not for accumulating more evidence political processes, but for his ability to make deductions about human political behavior based upon mathematical models and scientific principles.

Because man is a rational creature, he collectively assents to the creation of a political machine for the accomplishment of his desires. This assent is in the form of a legal contract that moves the parties from a state of nature (conflict) to a state of relative social balance (peace.)

Locke ( 1632-1704)

John Locke, a contemporary of Thomas Hobbes, been called the “father of classic liberalism” in politics. (do not confuse the political philosophy of “liberalism” with the term “liberal” as used today to describe advocates of big government) As a philosophy, Liberalism advocates a democratic system of government where citizens have a more active and direct involvement with the political process.

Because the political process involves a high order of reason, and expression of reason requires freedom of speech, Locke was an early advocate of tolerance for the belief’s of others.

Locke is perhaps most famous for his exposition of “natural rights” theory which flow out of “state of nature” that, unlike Hobbes, Locke perceives as being a state of equilibrium. Locke maintains that the creation of a strong government does not guarantee the absence of conflict and, moreover, a strong state is perfectly capable of becoming tyrannical. Any authority possessed by the state must be by and with the fully informed consent of the people through both a “social contract” and through a “political contract.” Locke considers the latter contract to be less a contract than a “fiduciary agreement” and thus, the government is but a trustee of the people. It is Locke’s position that revolution against the social order is an expression, not of the people’s warring tendencies, but of the violence of the government in breach of the contract. (The reader will be quick to note how this theme is repeated in the Declaration of Independence.)

Another significant contribution of Locke is the notion that every man has a “near-absolute” right to property. Property includes that which is necessary to sustain life itself, as well as the product of one’s own labor in the accumulation of other goods. Because the acquisition of property is a “natural right,” it is the duty of government to protect that right. If the government abdicates its legitimate duty and violates the rights it was created to protect, whether by passing laws that contradict these principles, or by other material breach, the right remains in the people to disregard the law (civil disobedience) or replace the government (rebellion). (Again, the reader will recognize these ideas in the Declaration of Independence.)

Contemporary Political Ideas

Do not be misled into thinking that these ideologies fit neatly into any 20th century American Political situation of circumstance. These doctrines are much more complex than can be presented in this brief overview and further, must be studied in light of the historical context in which they occurred. For example, CONSERVATISM, as a political ideology, may have nothing whatsoever to do with something the Republican congress might want to accomplish in America in the 1990’s. Likewise, LIBERALISM, as a political ideology, may not be related at all to the Democratic National Committee’s presidential platform. The reader is encouraged to study further the conflicts and defenses that gave rise to the development of these ideas before attempting to conform too precisely these ideas to American political phenomenon.

PHILOSOPHY: A basic theory about, or an attempt to explain, the fundamental beliefs of a person or group. Philosophies seek empirically verifiable evidence to make reliable predictions of human behavior based upon that evidence. Philosophies tend towards complexity. Philosophies do not demand that their explanations are the only possible answer.

IDEOLOGY: a belief system developed to encourage action. As such, ideologies are less complex and unconcerned about intellectual inconsistency or logical coherence. Ideologies tend towards exclusivity-declaring themselves to be the only “solution” in the pursuit of truth - the only viable vehicle for social change. Ideologies tend to be more “black and white” with little or no room for alternative solutions.


Conservatism began as a philosophical rebuttal to a very bloody and chaotic French Revolution. Edmund Burke, a British Parliamentarian authored a book in 1790 entitled, Reflections on the Revolution in France in which he totally rejected the political objectives of the French reformers. This is particularly interesting when one considers that the French patterned their revolution after the same principles articulated in the American Declaration of Independence and that Burke was a staunch defender of those principles before Parliament.

Where Burke’s Conservatism differs from Locke’s Liberalism is known as pragmatism. Burke argues that tradition creates a presumption “rational thought” and “reasoned response” that, because it represents a social model that has endured over time, has greater credibility that some new political philosophy. When a form of government has worked over a long period of time, and has been generally accepted by those governed thereby, it is folly (Burke’s words) to attempt to change it for some “purely theoretical” notion, no matter how “reasonable” that notion might be. That the French system had worked reasonably well for so long, even though it lacked many of the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, was sufficient reason to move slowly towards any kind of social reform. Burke argued that radical reform- sudden change- would be so disruptive to the social fabric that it could collapse the entire French social order into chaos.

History proved Burke right. Napoleon Bonaparte was believed initially to be the great warrior who would lead France out of rebellion and back to political stability but instead, he became an absolute dictator, ultimately declaring himself to be emperor.

Burke, as have Conservatives after him, understood, that sometimes it is better to make changes slowly and with the great weight of public opinion behind them, than to move suddenly and radically. Tearing down an established social institution and replacing it with another, even where the other has worked elsewhere, is no guarantee of success. Violently attacking deap-seated tradition may even produce such upheaval as to ultimately destroy every good thing associated with the former order.

Classic Liberalism

Most characteristic of this philosophy is that it extends the right of political participation to a broader segment of the citizens. Classic Liberalism assumes that all people are (more or less) equal politically and that the participation by the masses will promote political stability. It supposes, further, that the rising middle class, empowered by their newly acquired economic standing, will reform and elevate society. Individual self-realization could be achieved through one’s labor and the acquisition of property. Government, according to this theory, should be limited in scope so that individuals will enjoy the maximum freedom to acquire more goods and promote economic and social prosperity. Classic Liberalism advocates that the breadth and scope of government should be very limited so that each citizen retains the maximum ability to employ his labor and, thus, (to use the Army Recruiting slogan) “to be all that he can be.” Classic Liberalism is liberal relative to the older philosophy of Feudalism that characterized Europe in the Middle Ages wherein only the rich elite made up the ruling class.

Modern Liberalism

This philosophy reacts to and proposes changes in the structure of a “Classical Liberal” form of government. It soon became apparent that the economic principles articulated by Lockean Liberalism did not achieve the “elevation” of society that its proponents hoped for. The emerging middle class, rather than seeking to improve the condition of all members of society, was intent only on furthering its own economic security. (Remember this when you read later about Karl Marx.)

Recognizing the inherent dangers of “tyranny of the majority,” modern liberalism advocates for more open expression of ideas and the encouragement of many, and varied, associations of people. One of the best known advocates of Modern Liberalism, Alexis De Tocqueville (1805-1859), noted that too much emphasis on democracy created a (mistaken) belief in the political equality of the masses. History, he suggests, proves that equality of political participation will destroy a nation because it will ultimately result in individuals seeing themselves as isolated from other individuals and thus dependant upon the central bureaucracy for their continued support.

However, America was unique, said De Tocqueville, because it was comprised of a people who possessed diversity of thought but shared common values. Because Americans tended to associate themselves into small groups governed by rules of their own making (beginning in grade school and continuing to find expression through civic clubs, recreational clubs, professional associations, and finally, into municipal and township governments), that this associational tendency would insulate them from an over-zealous federal government.

Another advocate of Modern Liberalism, James Stuart Mill (1806-1873, son of Classic Liberalist, James Mill) believed that by providing for a public education for the masses, the state could raise the moral and intellectual levels of society. This notion repudiates the theory that all people are politically equal (as in Classic Liberalism) or that all people are equally capable of sufficient reason to govern themselves. However, Mill does not advocate that the state determine WHAT should be taught- only that it should provide and opportunity for public education. Mill recognized a potential danger- that public education might have the effect of stifling free thought by creating a “mass public opinion” and thereby, would destroy what DeTocqueville observed was the great strength of Americans- their associational life.


Generally speaking, Socialism grew in response to the obvious failures of Modern Liberalism to achieve the kind of moral and economic standards envisioned. The rapid development of industry resulted in the subsequent failure of the working class to accomplish anything more than to sell their labor to the capitalists. Liberalism assumes that acquisition of property was a natural right and that the chief end of government was to protect that right. Implicit was the assumption that the masses were, if not approximately equal in their abilities, at least approximately equal in their opportunity to acquire property and, thereby, to control their political and social destinies. In the harsh light of reality, it became apparent that Modern Liberalism and its adoption of free-market capitalism did not free (most) men to achieve their full potential. Rather than becoming “self-actualized” through their labor, (most) men were becoming virtual slaves to the “capitalists.”

Socialism is the Philosophy that advocates for state ownership and control of means of economic production. By controlling production and distribution of resources, the state may obtain the best prices and the worker’s labor is maximized. Since the national economy is thereby strengthened, every worker (and his family) achieves the maximum “self-realization.”

In practice, Socialism has been a dismal failure. Private matters become state matters and the state control of every major service is necessary so that all citizens become dependants of the state. Private gain is seen as being in direct conflict with the interests of the state.


Karl Marx was a complex and radical thinker. His political and economic views cannot be explained in a few short sentences. Marx started with basic Socialism and added some important elements. Everything that happens, or does not happen, in the development of social order, according to Marx, is because of class conflict. Anytime a division of labor arises, were different abilities are rewarded at different rates (i.e. lawyers get paid more than plumbers, etc.) then a basic inequality is set in place that will result in inevitable class conflict. At least it should be inevitable unless artificial forces are put into place to keep that conflict from ultimately resolving itself. Religion is one of those artificial constructs that fools people into believing that everything is alright (they will receive an eternal reward if they silently endure their earthly “lot” in life). Marxism is an ideology that advocates action- militant, violent action if necessary- to force social change. Communism is the ultimate social nirvana- the end-all be-all of a perfect society. Marxism is the ideological vehicle by which the philosophy of Socialism would be “forced” to accomplish ultimate Communism, the perfect social condition.


It is impossible to do justice to any of these philosophers or their works in a few paragraphs. There are complex, dynamic arguments made by each that, to be fully appreciated, must be read in the context of history. Additionally, there are many more philosophers than those referenced above, each of whom brings a different twist or angle to the fascinating study of political philosophy. The student is encouraged to explore more fully each of the ideas expressed above.

[1]  Benjamin Jowett, trans., Aristotle’s Politics (New York: Random House, 1953)



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