Teaching Core Texts of Moral and Political Thought

Wide-scope survey courses in the history of political thought are a great challenge both to teach and to take as a student. Texts like Plato’s Republic, Hobbes’s Leviathan, and Augustine’s City of God can be difficult for undergraduates to read profitably the first time around. Teaching them can be just as daunting due to their immense and intimidating scope.

To help both educators and their students, I’m sharing reading/discussion questions for the full year’s set of texts from my Contemporary Civilization class, which I taught at Columbia University for four years. I would circulate these questions to students at the end every class for the subsequent class’ readings. The questions provide them with a rough guide for their reading and with thematic focus. The questions also provide a basis for class discussion.

As I prepped for CC in the summer of 2015, I was struck by the dearth of useful discussion questions available online. This page is my small attempt to improve the situation. I offer these materials freely to be used and adapted by anyone, so long as they are not privatized or used in a for-profit capacity. Please also note that the questions reflect my own and my students’ interests in these texts and the selections we teach in CC. I hope they’re useful!

I also have begun developing a new version of Introduction to Political Theory taking what I call a conceptual literacy approach, and am sharing the work-in-progress materials here.

Fall Semester:

Plato: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito

Plato: Republic

Aristotle I: Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle II: Nicomachean Ethics and Politics

Aristotle III: Politics

Hebrew Bible: Exodus, Deuteronomy, Job, Ecclesiastes

Christian Scripture: Matthew, Romans, Galatians

Augustine I: City of God

Augustine II: City of God


Medieval Philosophy: Ibn Tufayl, Hayy ibn Yaqzan; Al-Ghazali, Deliverance from Error or Autobiography

Medieval Philosophy: Thomas Aquinas, On Kingship, Selections from The Summa of Theology, Selections from The Summa Against the Gentiles

Machiavelli I: The Prince

Machiavelli II: The Discourses

Martin Luther: Freedom of a Christian Man, On Governmental Authority, Friendly Admonition to Peace (Response to Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants)

Descartes: Principles of Philosophy (Preface), Selections from Correspondence with Elisabeth, and Selections from Passions of the Soul.

Hobbes I: Leviathan

Hobbes II: Leviathan

Hobbes III: Leviathan

Locke: Letter on Toleration and Second Treatise of Government

Spring Semester:

Smith: Wealth of Nations

Rousseau I: Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

Rousseau II: The Social Contract

Rousseau III: The Social Contract

Hume I: Enquiry on the Principles of Morals and “Of the Original Contract”

Hume II and Kant I: Enquiry cont’d and Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Preface and Section 1

Kant II: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Section 2

Utilitarianism I: Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation and Fragment on Government

Utilitarianism II: J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism

Revolutions!:  Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen; selection from Sieyes, “What is the Third Estate;” Robespierre, “On the Moral and Political Principles of Domestic Policy;” and Bentham, “Anarchical Fallacies.”

Revolutions!: Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

Revolutions!: De Gouges, Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen; Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Mill, Taylor, Stanton, and Truth: Mill and Harriet Taylor, The Subjection of Women; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Address to the New York Legislature;” Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?”

Mill I: Mill, On Liberty

Mill II: Mill, On Liberty

Marx: Karl Marx, Selections from “On the Jewish Question;” Selections from CapitalManifesto of the Communist Party

DuBois: W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk

Nietzsche I: On the Genealogy of Morals

Nietzsche II: On the Genealogy of Morals

Beauvoir: Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex