Key Themes in the History of Political Thought

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Signy Gutnick Allen


This course is available on the BSc in Government, BSc in Government and Economics, BSc in Government and History, BSc in International Social and Public Policy with Politics, BSc in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, BSc in Politics, BSc in Politics and Economics, BSc in Politics and History, BSc in Politics and International Relations, BSc in Politics and Philosophy and BSc in Social Policy with Government. This course is not available as an outside option nor to General Course students.

This course is capped at two groups.


Students will normally be expected to have taken Introduction to Political Theory or equivalent, in a previous year.

Course content

A thematic study of political thought in Ancient, Medieval/Renaissance and Modern periods. This advanced course treats some of the major themes in the history of western European political thought as drawn from the writings of selected political philosophers of the ancient Greek, Roman, Medieval, renaissance, early modern and modern periods. The aim is to demonstrate, and explain, some of the continuities and discontinuities in ethical and political problems and their solutions over time and changing context.

Examples of such themes: different views on the nature of "man" and the consequences for political agency of different perspectives on human reason, will, desire; debates on the origins of law and the purpose of legislation; changing conceptions of justice; different views on government and the state's relation to the individual; on the sources of public authority and the nature of legitimate sovereignty; on the relation of property ownership to personal identity and to participation in collective governance; the historical and socio-political presuppositions behind the different constitutional regimes: democracy, monarchy, republic etc; on the role of religion in politics; the changing perspectives on the relationship between life in the family and a life of active citizenship; theories of natural law and natural rights; social contract theories; idealist political theory; utilitarianism; nationalism; liberal, conservative and socialist traditions of thought; anarchism and feminism.

The themes, thinkers and primary texts will be selected each year to reflect the current debates in contemporary scholarly literature on them and the research interests of the lecturer. This year, we will focus on debates over the nature and political status of ‘rights’ in the theories of Hobbes, Locke, Wollstonecraft and Arendt.


This course is delivered through a combination of classes and lectures totalling a minimum of 50 hours across Michaelmas Term and Lent Term. This year, some or all of this teaching will be delivered through a combination of online and on-campus lectures and classes.This course includes reading weeks in Week 6 of each term.

Formative coursework

There will be 3 formative assignments over the year, with a passage analysis of up to 1000 words and an essay of up to 1,500 words due & returned in the MT, and a second essay of up to 1,500 words due towards the end of the LT.

Indicative reading

Primary Sources: A selection of the following (this list should not be taken as exhaustive): Plato, Republic; Aristotle, Politics, Machiavelli, Discourses, Hobbes, Leviathan, Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Rousseau, On The Social Contract, Hume, Political Writings, Kant, Political Writings, Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, Marx, The German Ideology, Sieyes, E. Political Writings, Carl Schmitt, The concept of the Political


Essay (40%, 2500 words) and group presentation (10%) in the LT.
Essay (40%, 2500 words) in the ST.
Continuous assessment (10%) in the MT and LT.

For the continuous assessment element, students will be assessed on their individual participation in online activities in the MT and LT.

Student performance results

(2017/18 - 2019/20 combined)

Classification % of students
First 33.8
2:1 64.7
2:2 1.5
Third 0
Fail 0

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Government

Total students 2019/20: 32

Average class size 2019/20: 16

Capped 2019/20: Yes (30)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Problem solving
  • Communication