How to Get into Political Philosophy

by Philip Damico  /  @philipsdamico

Political philosophy is an ancient and wide ranging discipline. People have long been heavily invested in the manner by which they are to be ruled or rule – be it by a benevolent dictator or dedicated group effort. Many people have a desire to better understand the history of political philosophy but feel lost as beginners in such a complex discipline. This article aims to help you find a good starting point in political philosophy. With one exception, the list does not include any secondary explanations of political philosophy, only “primary” works. These texts were chosen for their influence on modern politics and society and readability for a beginner to the field.

1: An Introduction to Political Philosophy by Jonathan Wolff

I don’t recommend this book unless you have almost no understanding of what political philosophy is or you feel you need a refresher. The book is good but I find that one stands to gain much more from reading texts first hand rather than reading explanations of them. However, it is a useful text if you need a basic introduction to the field.

2: Common Sense by Thomas Paine and The Constitution of the United States

These two texts are short and to the point. They come from the same time in history and are examples of a beautiful marriage between philosophy and action. I recommend you start with these because of their quality and historical importance that remains relevant to this day.

3: Crito by Plato

Crito is, in my opinion, one of Plato’s best works because of how much information and value is contained within its 40 pages. The text is written in the dialogue format which makes it accessible and engaging. Crito discusses justice and contains an early example of the social contract theory of government, something that will appear a lot later in your journey through political philosophy. It’s a great introduction to the density of Greek philosophy and essential to anyone who seeks to understand politics.

4: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

On Liberty is exceptional. The 1859 text introduced many concepts that stick with us to this day thanks to its emphasis on the importance of individuality. It’s a bit more dense than the previous items on this list but the slight effort you have to put in to get through the book is worth it. You’re guaranteed to walk away from On Liberty with a new perspective and better understanding of contemporary society.

5: Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

Last but certainly not least is Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Leviathan is a dense masterwork of political philosophy that deals with the structure of society and government. It’s long and difficult to read yet influential beyond measure. Leviathan is more than worth the time and effort required to read it. I recommend it to anyone who seeks an understanding of political philosophy.

 

The goal of this list is to introduce the reader to a short but wide ranging selection of political philosophy. I am currently working on a much longer, comprehensive guide that will include a history of the field and a reading list that includes texts from every time and area of political philosophy. Please comment or contact us if you have anything to say.

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