Introduction to Political and Legal Thinking: Reading Questions

Reading Questions

Ancient Democracy and Its Discontents

2/10 Paul Woodruff, The Life and Death of Democracy; The Threshold of Democracy 103-115.
    1. According to Ober, what persistent conflict (or stasis) defined Greek political life? How did this conflict manifest itself in philosophical and dramatic works?
    2. Woodruff offers us a quick overview of democratic practices in Athens. What surprises you most? What were the strengths and weaknesses of this system? How does Athenian democracy differ from American democracy?
2/12 The Threshold of Democracy 59-69, 73-102.
    1. What is Pericles' goal in his funeral oration? What does he find most praiseworthy about Athens? How does he distinguish Athens from its enemies?
    2. What is Ischomachus especially proud of (in Xenophon's Oeconomicus)? What needs to be done to run a household well? What parallels might we draw for the government of a city?
2/15 Plato, Apology
    1. Explain the older and newer accusations that Socrates mentions. Why does Socrates find this older accusation harder to deal with than the present ones?
    2. How did Socrates respond to the Delphic Oracle? What was his final interpretation of its claim?
    3. Explain the nature of Socrates' "divine guide" or daemon. How has this guide affected his life? What does he mean by the "unexamined life is not worth living..."?
2/17 Plato, Crito
    1. What does Socrates say about majorities? Can the many hurt you? Why does Crito think so? Why does Socrates think not?
    2. What reasons does Crito give in favor of escape? What arguments does Socrates give to show that escape is unjust?
    3. What do you make of Socrates' claim that to violate the laws is to wrong the city? How does this fit with the arguments of the Apology?
2/19 Plato, Republic, Books I and II.
    1. So what is justice? What does Cephalus say? What does Polemarchus say? Why is Thrasymachus so angry about this conversation? How does he describe justice? Why does Socrates say at the end of Book I that he has not refuted Thrasymachus' position? (336b-354b)
    2. Why does Glaucon bring up the Myth of Gyges? (359d ff) Why does he think that a complete response to Thrasymachus must take into account this myth?
    3. Instead of direct rebuttal, Socrates invites Glaucon and Adeimantus to found a city of speech or the good city (kallipolis). Why? Why this shift in focus? Is the analogy between soul and city convincing to you? Why or why not? (368d-369a)
2/22 Plato, Republic, Books III-V.
    1. What type of education does Socrates think the guardians must have? What is the purpose of this education? Do you think the means he calls for will help achieve his ends? Why or why not?
    2. What is the "noble falsehood"? Why is it necessary? What is true and what is false about this "falsehood"? (414c-415c)
    3. In Book V Socrates proposes a series of three reforms that he fears will provoke laughter. What are these three proposals? Do you think they are feasible? Why or why not?
2/24 Plato, Republic, Books VI and VII.
    1. Socrates offers an extended defense of the philosopher in Book VI. How does he argue for the political "usefulness" of philosophy? Are you convinced? Why or why not?
    2. Instead of talking directly about the Good, Socrates offers us two images of enlightenment, the divided line (509d-511e) and the cave (514a-521b). Consider the details of each image or allegory. What do they mean? What type of political and pedagogical structures would best encourage this type of enlightenment?

Modern Liberalism and Its Discontents

3/24 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, selections. Also see the frontispiece to Leviathan.
    1. In his introduction, Hobbes introduces the great Leviathan, the "artificial man." What is it and what are its parts? In what way does its construction require the observation of "natural man"? How are we going to know if we have it right?
    2. How does Hobbes describe the state of nature? What is "justice" in such a state? How is the commonwealth a solution to the problem of our natural condition? Who or what is the sovereign for Hobbes and why does the sovereign require so many rights?
    3. How does Hobbes distinguish between right and law? What does he mean by "laws of nature"? Why do individuals have a natural propensity to form commonwealths?
3/26 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, selections.
    1. Hobbes argues that the should be no limit to the rights of the Sovereign. Why must that be the case?
    2. What type of liberty does Hobbes argue exists within the commonwealth for subjects? How does this compare with the liberty of the ancients? What are the limits of this liberty?
    3. What are the diseases or infirmities of the commonwealth according to Hobbes? What should be done to maintain its health?
4/7 John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, selections.
    1. How does Locke describe the State of Nature? Does (or did) this state actually exist? How does his description of this state compare with that of Hobbes?
    2. What is the law of nature according to Locke? How are violators of that law punished? Why is this method of punishment problematic in the state of nature? Why does this difficulty lead to the establishment of the commonwealth?
    3. Whose property is man (that is, who "owns" an individual) according to Locke? How is property rightfully acquired in the state of nature? What are the limits to this acquisition? How does money arise, and what is its significance?
4/9 Voltaire, The Philosophical Dictionary, selections; Denis Diderot, Encyclopedia, selections. For additional Encyclopedia entries, see The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert at the University of Michigan.
    1. What are the diseases or infirmities of the commonwealth according to Hobbes? What should be done to maintain its health?
    2. Voltaire both defends openness and learning and shows his readers what it looks like. Find an example of how Voltaire demonstrates the toleration that he praises. Find an example of how he uses his biting wit to ridicule his opponents.
    3. Consider several of Diderot's entries (some important ones include Atheists, Beast, Bible, Craft, Encyclopedia, Fanaticism, Farm Laborer, Government, Humanity, Intolerance, Jew, Natural, Equality/Natural Law, Natural Rights, Political Authority, Political Economy, Salve Trade, Reason, Representation). In what way is this encyclopedia cynical? In what way is it optimistic? In what way revolutionary?
4/12 Rousseau, First Discourse in Rousseau, Burke, and the French Revolution 68-80. Begin reading The Social Contract.
    1. In what way is Rousseau arguing against the common assumptions of his age in the First Discourse? What does he think is so bad about the "arts and letters" defended by Voltaire and Diderot?
    2. What societies does Rousseau point to as morally superior to his own?
    3. According to Rousseau, how does the advancement of knowledge relate to luxury? Why is this so detrimental for society? How does it reinforce pernicious social distinctions and inequality?
4/14 Rousseau, The Social Contract I and II.
    1. Freedom is a crucial theme in The Social Contract. What does Rousseau mean by the first line of chapter one? What does he mean later in the first book, when he says that it is slavery to be under the impulse of appetite, but freedom to obey a law which we prescribe to ourselves? Do you think, as Rousseau does, that we can be "forced to be free"?
    2. How does Rousseau describe the terms of social contract? Why does he insist that the "total alienation" of all rights to the whole community is necessary for a fair and equal society? How does this relate to his notion of the "general will"?
4/16 Rousseau, The Social Contract III and IV.
    1. Who or what is the legislator? Why does Rousseau insist that he be so extraordinary? How can he argue that his function has nothing to do with domination? Explain his claim that the legislative authority can "compel without violence and persuade without convincing."
    2. What does Rousseau consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of democracy? aristocracy? monarchy? Carefully consider his discussion of "deputies and representatives." Why are the English not truly free?
    3. Rousseau defends several seemingly "undemocratic" institutions in order to maintain a regime based on the General Will. What exactly does he say about dictatorships and censorship? Does this remind you of some of Plato's proposals?
    4. What does Rousseau have to say about Christianity? Why does he think that a civil religion -- understood "not as dogmas but as sentiments of sociability" -- is essential for a stable and just society? Is this religion a tolerant or an intolerant faith?
4/19 Burke Selections in Rousseau, Burke, and the French Revolution 81-118.
    1. Consider how Burke explains the relationship between nature and "artificial institutions." Why is nature, as Burke defines it, a vital component in the maintenance of civil society and political culture? To what extent, at this point and elsewhere, does Burke value reason?
    2. Burke suggests that chivalry is central to his ideal of civic life and governance. How do you understand the term "chivalry," and why is it so important to Burke's argument? How is this term connected to the concept of social rank or status?
    3. How does Burke portray gender roles in his depiction of the mob's storming of Versailles in the opening stages of the French Revolution? Why are these depictions of gender roles significant for his critique of the French Revolution?
    4. What is wrong with the philosophy of the revolutionaries and what bad consequences, according to Burke, will flow from their errors?