POLS 350

Ancient & Medieval Political Theory


Fall 2007



Prof. Ross J. Corbett                                815-753-7044                                     rcorbett@niu.edu

Tue., Thu. 3:30–4:45 pm                                                      Office Hours:    Wed. 3:00–4:00pm

DuSable Hall 461                                                                                              Thu. 1:00–3:00 pm

                                                                                                                                  Zulauf Hall 412



It has been quipped that all Western philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.  Yet a comparison of contemporary political thought with that of the philosophers who flourished in Athens in the Fourth Century BCE suggests that something of a profound break has occurred.  Contemporary thought speaks of a state that is separate from the society which it orders, of human or natural rights, of the individual, etc.  Plato and Aristotle, by contrast, have lengthy discussions of rhythm and harmony in their political works; Aquinas speaks of politics only in the confines of theology.  That is, the concerns of ancient and medieval political philosophers and theologians are different from our own.  They are foreign to our modes of thought, even bizarre.  In order to assess the radical shift that occurred within Western philosophical thought, we must recover what political philosophy once was.


This course will explore the political philosophy that developed within the Socratic school (usually called “ancient political philosophy”) and, to a lesser extent, its incorporation into the Christian scholastic tradition by Thomas Aquinas.  We have access to their thought only through their writings, and so this course will also focus on the peculiar care that must be exercised in reading philosophical texts.


Attentive students can expect to leave this course with a greater understanding of the fundamental political problems as a result of a searching encounter with perspectives very different from their own.  Students will have a deeper knowledge of what was said in the works which we will study, and will have the tools to be able to profitably read other books of philosophical interest.

Required Translations

            (do not use any other translations)

Aquinas.  On Law, Morality, and Politics.  Trans. Richard Regan and William Baumgarth.  Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2004.  ISBN:  9780872206632

Aristotle.  The Politics.  Trans. Carnes Lord.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1994.  ISBN:  0226026698

———.  Nicomachean Ethics.  Trans. Joe Sachs.  Newburyport, MA:  Focus Publishing Group, 2002.  ISBN:  9781585100354

Four Texts on Socrates.  Trans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West.  Revised Ed.  Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1998.  ISBN: 0801485746

Plato.  The Republic.  Trans. Allan Bloom.  2d ed.  New York:  Basic Books, 1998.  ISBN: 0465069347


10%     Weekly Papers, no more than 300 words in length, due by the beginning of each Thursday seminar on topics assigned in class.  There will be no paper due in weeks where you hand in an essay, the last class, or any cancelled class.  The lowest paper will be dropped (i.e., ten papers, nine of which count).

15%      Class Participation.

35%     First Essay, due October 18 by 5:00pm.  Essays should not exceed 1000 words.

40%     Second Essay, due December 6 by 5:00pm.  Essays should not exceed 1500 words.


While NIU does not allow for final grades that have plusses or minuses, work during the semester will be assessed with plusses and minuses.  I will convert these grades to number scores, and convert them back at the end of the semester (stripping all plusses and minuses from the grade).  I use the following scale:


























Course Expectations & Policies

APPOINTMENTS:  I can arrange to meet students by appointment if the above office hours are inconvenient.  Students are encouraged to come to office hours to further discuss course material or any problems they might be having in the course.  It is best to discuss incipient problems before they become large ones.


PREPARATION:  This course centers around ideas that are found in classic texts of political theory.  We will treat not only these ideas but also how to find them in the text itself.  It is vital, therefore, that you read the assigned texts at least once before I discuss them in the lectures.  It is best to focus on what is confusing or counterintuitive, as this will help you participate in the class discussions.  Do not worry if you did not see everything in the book that I go over in lecture when you were reading it — that is what the lecture is for.  Worry if you still do not see it in the text after my lecture, or call me on it.


ATTENDANCE:   It is expected that you attend every scheduled lecture and participate knowledgably.  Attendance will be taken before the start of each class.  Students not in their seats when attendance is taken will be considered absent.  Students who leave class early without prior permission will also be considered absent for that class.  Final grades will be reduced by one full letter for each unexcused absence over three.


CANCELLATIONS:  If I am more than ten minutes late to class, you may assume that I have been delayed and that class is cancelled.  Leaving earlier than this risks being marked absent.


PARTICIPATION:  Classes will largely follow a lecture format, and will supplement (but not replace) what is in the text.  I will interrupt my lectures to ask the class questions, and you are encouraged to interrupt me to ask questions of your own.  Fruitful participation includes answering questions intelligently, probing and challenging what is said in a manner that shows knowledge and understanding of the text, and otherwise advancing the level of discourse in the class.


DECORUM:  Use your common sense.  Turn off your cell phones.  Do not insult or threaten anybody, or use abusive language.  Do not eat — it only makes the rest of us hungry.  Refrain from private discussions, interrupting people, and in general anything that would disrupt the class.


WRITTEN WORK:  Papers and Essays will be graded on the ideas they contain, but good organization and grammar are essential to getting those ideas across.  All written work should conform to the rules of standard English, and students should also expect that better-written work will get a higher grade.  Poorly-written work will suffer.  It is expected that students will cite the texts we are using in class, and they are the only authority in this course:  students who make use of secondary literature must cite that literature, but cannot rely upon it to prove whatever point they wish to make.  All work must be submitted via Blackboard.


LATE ESSAYS:  No weekly papers will be accepted if submitted late.  Late essays will be penalized 5% per day (including holidays and weekends).


INCOMPLETES:  Incompletes will only be given in rare circumstances, such as illness, death in the immediate family, or other unusual and unforeseeable circumstances.  Incompletes are given at the discretion of the instructor and only when it is possible that the completion of the remaining work could result in a passing grade. An incomplete must be resolved within the appropriate time limit or it will automatically be changed to an F.  The student is responsible for seeing that incompletes are made up before the expiration date.


ACADEMIC DISHONESTY:  All work must be the produce of the student’s own original effort.  It is the student’s responsibility to familiarize him- or herself with university policy regarding plagiarism and academic dishonesty.  Students should take the university’s Academic Integrity tutorial (http://www.ai.niu.edu/ai/).  All infractions will be severely punished, up to and including a failing grade for the course and disciplinary action by the university.


DISABILITIES:  Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, NIU is committed to making reasonable accommodations for persons with documented disabilities.  Students who believe that their disability may have some impact on their coursework and for which they may require accommodations should notify the Center for Access-Ability Resources (CAAR) on the fourth floor of the Health Services Building.  CAAR will assist students in making appropriate accommodations with course instructors.  It is important that CAAR and the instructor be informed of any disability-related needs during the first two weeks of the semester.


AWARDS:  The Department of Political Science will recognize, on an annual basis, outstanding papers written in conjunction with 300-400 level political science courses or directed studies.  Authors do not have to be political science majors or have a particular class standing.  Winners are expected to attend the Department’s spring graduation ceremony where they will receive a certificate of $50.00.  Papers, which can be submitted by students or faculty, must be supplied in triplicate to the department secretary by the end of February.  All copies should have two cover pages – one with the student’s name and one without the student’s name.  Only papers written in the previous calendar can be considered for the award.  However, papers completed in the current spring semester are eligible for the following year’s competition even if the student has graduated.


POLITICAL SCIENCE WEBSITE:  Students are encouraged to consult the Department of Political Science website on a regular basis.  This central source of information will assist students in contacting faculty and staff, reviewing course requirements and syllabi, exploring graduate study, and researching career options.  Undergraduates may find this website especially useful in tracking down department events and for accessing important details related to undergraduate programs and activities.  To reach this site, go to http://polisci.niu.edu.

Tentative Class Schedule




[Class Cancelled]


Plato, Apology of Socrates, 17e-27e


Plato, Apology of Socrates, 28a-42a; Weekly Paper Due


Plato, Crito


[Class Cancelled]


Plato, Republic, Book I


Plato, Republic, Book I; Weekly Paper Due


Plato, Republic, Book I


Plato, Republic, Book II; Weekly Paper Due


Plato, Republic, Book II


Plato, Republic, Book III – IV; Weekly Paper Due


Plato, Republic, Book V


Plato, Republic, Book V; Weekly Paper Due


Plato, Republic, Book VI – VII


Plato, Republic, Book VIII – X; First Essay Due


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book V


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII – IX; Weekly Paper Due


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX – X


Aristotle, Politics, Book I, chapter 1; Weekly Paper Due


Aristotle, Politics, Book I, chapter 2


Aristotle, Politics, Book I, chapter 3 – Book II; Weekly Paper Due


Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapters 1–9


Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapters 10–18; Weekly Paper Due


Aristotle, Politics, Book IV


[Thanksgiving Recess]


Aristotle, Politics, Book VII, chapters 1-3


Aristotle, Politics, Book VII, chapter 4 – Book VIII; Weekly Paper Due


Aquinas, pp. 1–32


Aquinas, pp. 33-75, 249-60; Second Essay Due