Modern Political Thought: A Reader

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Sort order. Jan 21, Alexa Petre rated it really liked it. This book was used in my Political Philosophy class and it was a good companion to the lectures we've had.

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A nice selection of thinkers and interesting introductions to each of them. Sep 21, Ike Sharpless rated it liked it Shelves: political-philosophy. I use this as a reader for my political thought class - it has snippets of primary text from Machiavelli to Marx. Mostly I assign it because my students can get it for cheap online, and it's not a pound uncut tome like some of the other 'classics of political philosophy' texts I have, which are problematic both on portability and first-time-readability grounds.

Seleno marked it as to-read Jan 04, Caleb Scoville marked it as to-read Jun 04, Ahmad Abdul Rahim marked it as to-read May 09, Jasmin Kocaer marked it as to-read Jul 02, Heather Perkins marked it as to-read Jul 12, Lauren Donovan marked it as to-read Aug 01, John Varner marked it as to-read Sep 16, As Thomas Hobbes welcomes the reader to Leviathan , he signals his intention to highlight the perils and promise of the meaning of words.

In one striking early example, he notes that the purpose of reading his book is to teach one how to read human beings, beginning with oneself.

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Taking issue with those who overuse but fail to grasp the importance of "nosce teipsum," Hobbes takes the liberty of translating the command as "read thyself," before moving on to pronounce the reading of mankind an activity "harder than to learn any Language, or Science. Rather less attention has been devoted to the prerequisite activity, writing.

By "writing," I do not mean Hobbes's own writing and his relationship to his readers, but the concept of writing in general, as it pertains both to the epistemological problems that animate Hobbes's political philosophy and to the ways in which nature imprints human beings with qualities that lead to conflict.

One of the great virtues of Yves Charles Zarka's book is its consistent attention to these dimensions of writing, which allow him to thread a variety of issues in Hobbes's political thought together into a narrative running from the problems that Hobbes was called to solve to the ways in which he constructed his elaborate solutions and, thereby, shaped modern political thought. Apart from the translator's introduction, it consists of twelve chapters and a conclusion. In Chapter 1, Zarka addresses two large questions. The first is methodological and concerns the way in which one should approach older philosophical texts.

The second is "why Hobbes? His approach is thus "simultaneously historical and philosophical. Using Leo Strauss and Quentin Skinner as exemplars of approaches that tend to focus on one or the other, Zarka asks whether we can be freed from the "fruitless" choice between "a political philosophy that affirms its identity as tearing away from history" and "a historicism that constructs a history of thought only at the expense of an [exhaustion] of the idea of political philosophy" 2 , and suggests that his approach offers a better alternative.


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Zarka notes that there is much more to say on the issue of method, and some of it has been captured in a debate he and Skinner had in Invoking Strauss, Zarka argues that "historicism does not rest upon the incontestable observation of a fact, but on the interpretation of a fact" 6. Yet, certain thinkers -- and Hobbes is among them -- declare their intention to write not "of such and such particular state form but of the state in general, whatever the time and place" 7. Unless one were prepared to take such statements of intent seriously at least some of the time, all examinations of past political thought would be not much more than studies of ideologies.

Thus, while Zarka's inquiry is framed by an awareness of the historical circumstances in which Hobbes wrote, his focus is squarely on Hobbes's texts and the ways in which Hobbes's ideas evolved, less as responses to specific historical stimuli and more as attempts to perfect a political philosophy.

Modern Political Philosophy

This focus is also evident in Zarka's three main reasons for choosing Hobbes. First, while Hobbes's philosophy asks and attempts to answer fundamental questions, those are "inevitably masked by an exclusively historico-political interpretation" 8 , masking its philosophical stakes. Second, Hobbes collected the concepts developed between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries and made them objects of rational deduction.

Modern Political Thought

As such, his philosophy is "simultaneously an outcome and a point of departure," offering a "canonical" version that fueled modern inquiries into politics 9. Third, Hobbes is the one who perceived most clearly the "paradoxical character of politics" 9. Thus, using Hobbes as his point of departure, Zarka's aim is to provide "some clarifications of the concept of politics, more precisely, of the internal articulations of the modern concept of politics" The main body of the book consists of four parts.

Chapter 3, "The Hobbesian Idea of Political Philosophy," begins with what Zarka sees as Hobbes's attempt to render the study of politics philosophical by moving away from civil history and towards a civil philosophy. At the heart of this claim lies an important decision about what to make of Hobbes's own description of his project and method and the many ways in which his works challenge them. Zarka argues that "One of the major turns that Hobbes carried out in the domain of political or civil philosophy consisted in giving to it a demonstrative status by discovering principles not in history, but in human nature" This raises the obvious question of where these principles are to be discovered, to which Zarka replies that in Hobbes's hands "history became a source of examples from which we could eventually take lessons, but not a source of principles from which we could deduce consequences" Yet, in the same work Hobbes also declares that the science that produces "true and evident conclusions of what is right and wrong, and what is good and hurtful to the being and well-being of mankind, the Latins call sapientia , and we by the general name of wisdom," adding that "generally, not he that hath skill in geometry, or any other science speculative, but only he that understandeth what conduceth to the good and government of the people, is called a wise man" II.

In Leviathan , Hobbes would reinforce this claim by pointing to the difference between experience prudentia and wisdom sapientia , but he would also pronounce sapientia "infallible" V.