Course Syllabus

POLS 251, Introduction to Political Philosophy

Instructor: Mr. Whidden

Instructor’s email address (use this to contact me):

This class meets on TTh 12:30-1:45 in MC 208

Office hours: TTh 2-3, Zulauf 424.  If you unable come then, we can schedule an appointment at

another time that is mutually convenient.


Course Objective:  This course provides an overview of political philosophy.  Broadly, our task is to trace the complex and exciting relationship between action and thought, or between politics and philosophy.  If politics is, as Aristotle says, the “architectonic science,” then the sometimes-narrow concerns of politics enlarge to include broader and more fundamental issues.  We will examine the following questions, by examining different and competing answers to them as formulated by several philosophers:


What does it mean to be a liberally educated human being?  What is justice?  What is the best regime?  Are there any limits to our ability to create the best regime?  What role does nature play in political life?  What effect does philosophy have on political life?  What does it mean to live a virtuous life?  Do we have a duty to obey unjust laws?  Are rulers sometimes justified in acting cruelly?  What kind of wisdom is necessary in order to be a good ruler?  In politics, do the ends justify the means?  Is empire good or bad?  What role does human desire play in political life?  What is the goal of politics?  What is prudence?  Do human beings possess rights?  What is tyranny, and why is it bad?  What are the merits of democracy, and what are its drawbacks?   


By the end of the semester, students will be able to point out the positions of several political philosophers with regard to the above questions.  Particular attention will be given to the philosophic disagreement between the authors, especially between the ancients and the moderns.


Readings: You are required to purchase your own copy of following.  Use only the editions mentioned below.  Bring the book I assign you to read to every class session.  Do not come to class without the book we are reading.  We will be reading aloud from the texts in class, and you will want to have them in front of you.  The books are available in the Holmes Student Center Bookstore and at the Village Commons Bookstore.  They are typically also available at many online booksellers, as well as many other commercial bookstores in the area.  


Plato.  Four Texts on Socrates.  Translated with notes by Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West.

Plato.  The Republic of Plato.  Translated with notes by Allan Bloom.

Machiavelli.  The Prince.  Translated and with an Introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield.

Locke.  Second Treatise of Government.  Edited by Richard Cox.


The following reading is on reserve in Founders’ Library.  I may place other readings on reserve as we go.

Leo Strauss.  “What is Liberal Education?” You need to read this essay as soon as possible.  I would also advise you to reread it periodically throughout the semester.  Expect the first quiz in the second week of class to cover this essay, along with the first half of Plato’s Apology of Socrates. 


Attendance Requirement: In this course your success depends in part upon your being present in class.  Students are required to attend each class session.  Students who are accustomed to skipping classes and showing up only occasionally or on exam days should not take this class.  Any student who has more than five absences should expect to fail the course.  I take attendance at 12:30 sharp.  If you are not present when I call your name or when the sign-in sheet comes around, you are considered absent.  In addition, shortly after class begins I will shut the door.  If you arrive late and the door is open, you may still enter the class, as discretely as possible.  If you are late and the door is shut, do not enter.  You need to be in class and on time.  Students who are consistently late or absent will be told to drop the class. 


Class Schedule:  Readings for the next class will be assigned at the end of each class.  After spending 2-3 classes on Plato’s Apology, expect to spend about three to four weeks on each of the remaining books.  In general, we will proceed at a comfortable pace.  The goal is not to read a lot so much as to read carefully and critically.  Expect to read about 20 pages for each class session.  In the rare event that you have to miss a class, ask a classmate for the assignment pertaining to the next class.   




Quizzes:  There will be 11 quizzes given this semester.  I will typically announce when a quiz will be given the class before I give it.  They will be given at the beginning of class and will ask short answer questions that can be easily answered by anyone who has read the assignments and reviewed their lecture notes from the previous class or classes (since the previous quiz).  Together they comprise 30% of the final grade.  There are no makeup quizzes.  Instead, I will drop your lowest quiz grade.  If you are absent, you will receive a zero for that quiz, and that grade will be dropped at the end of the semester.  


Final Exam: The final exam will be cumulative, i.e., over the entire semester from day one.  It will be comprised of essay and short answer questions.  Rather than asking you to remember more specific material (the kinds of questions I will ask you on quizzes), I will ask you broader questions, which in many cases ask you to compare and contrast two philosophers’ views on a particular subject they both address.  The final exam will take the entire two hours allotted for it, and will be worth 35% of the final grade.


Papers:  You will be assigned two take-home essays, the first on Plato’s Republic, and the second on Machiavelli’s Prince.  Each essay is to be no longer than 1,000 words.  The first essay will be assigned around October 1.  The second essay will be assigned the first week of November.  Students will always have at least one week from the time the essay is assigned in order to prepare the essay.  Each paper is worth 15% of the final grade, i.e. the papers together count 30%.


Class Participation: Students are expected to be able to answer questions when called on in class.  In addition, you should always feel free to ask questions when there is something you do not understand.  As you will quickly discover, much of my lecture revolves around me asking questions that serve to guide our discussion.  I look very favorably upon students who consistently make an attempt to thoughtfully respond to my questions.  Please note that I often find that students who stand out in class participation are not the ones who simply talk often so much as they are the ones who are at least occasionally insightful.  Strange as it may sound, asking good questions is one way of demonstrating insight (we’ll see Socrates showing insight in this way over and over) You should never feel that questions are not welcome.  Chances are good that if something is not clear to you, it probably isn’t clear for a number of your classmates.  So don’t be afraid to ask.  To help encourage your participation, I make it worth 5% of the final grade.

Finally, a brief note on classroom decorum: While there will be ample opportunity for discussion, there is to be only one person speaking at any given time in the classroom.  If you are distracting your classmates or your instructor by chattering or consistently coming in late you will be told to leave.  Be sure to turn your cell phone off before you come to class.  Cell phones that ring during class will be smashed with a gigantic hammer.


The Final Grade:  Refer above for percentages each assignment in the class is worth.  Please note that, contrary to what justice would require, Northern Illinois University does not permit me to assign a plus or minus after the grade you earn.  Please plan accordingly.  You will be graded on a ten point system.  Hence, the cutoff for an ‘A’ is 90%, and so on.  Please note that in the event a student is borderline between two grades, class participation and the final exam grade will be used to determine whether the student has earned the higher or lower grade.  


How to succeed in this course: 

(1)    Attend each class. 

(2)    Ask questions when you are confused.  Do not be shy.  I find that students who have the courage to say “I don’t understand” always do better by the end of the semester.

(3)    Find a study partner that you can meet with once a week or at least email to talk about the readings. 

(4)    You will be encouraged to write and speak with a level of precision that you may not be used to.  You will also find that your success has less to do with your ability to memorize than it does with your ability to think and read carefully.  Thinking requires your learning how to analyze arguments, which consist of one or more premises offered in support of a conclusion.  Many of you are not used to critically analyzing arguments.  While you might not be used to analyzing arguments now, it will become easier for you as the semester progresses. 

(5)    Do not be intimidated by your instructor or the readings.  Both will likely challenge you.  Just as some of you are not used to analyzing arguments, so too are many of you not used to being intellectually challenged.  I am confident that just as you will quickly learn to analyze arguments, so too will you hopefully learn to enjoy being challenged to think.

(6)    Please note that I will often make additional remarks not found in the text that are fair game for quizzes, papers, and the final exam.  When I am lecturing, you will want to take notes and listen carefully.  Students who do not take notes almost never do well in the course.  One advantage of taking notes is that you become adept at asking yourself, “What is the instructor telling me?”  If you can’t write down what I just said into your notebook, then that is a good sign you didn’t understand the point.  When that happens, ask me a question such as “Can you go through that again?”  I cannot stress enough that you must actively take notes in order to do well in this course.  Frequently, I will make arguments that require you to able to move from point A to point B to point C to point D.  If you cannot remember what point A was, you will not be able to understand the argument.  In your notes, write down the arguments I make in class.  When I refer you to a specific passage in the text, write my comments directly beside the passage in the text so that when you reread it, you will have your notes right in front of you to help you. Or simply write the appropriate page number after your notes in your notebook.

(7)    The best way to succeed in the class is to read the assigned passages slowly and carefully, and come to class prepared to talk about them.  After our discussion, go home and reread the text again, supplementing your reading with the notes you took in class.  Do this routine every night: Review the lecture before and read for the next lecture.