On Classical Political Philosophy

"On Classical Political Philosophy," Social Research, Vol. 12, No. 1 (February 1945).  Reprinted (revised) in What Is Political Philosophy?


TODAY the status of political philosophy is more precarious, and its meaning is more blurred, than at any time since political philosophy emerged many centuries ago, somewhere in Greece. Its present condition is sufficiently illustrated by the fact that it has become possible, and indeed customary, to speak of the “political philosophies” of vulgar impostors.

In the past political philosophy had a very precise meaning. The galaxy of political philosophers from Socrates to Rousseau, and even certain more recent thinkers, conceived of it as an attempt to replace opinions about political fundamentals by genuine knowledge concerning them or by the science of political fundamentals. These fundamentals include two groups of subjects: “the nature of political things” (that is, of laws, institutions, power, authority, duties and rights, conditions, actions, decisions, programs, aspirations and wishes, human beings as political agents or as objects of political action); and “the best, or the just, political order.” Political philosophy, as formerly understood, was identical with political science, or, if not identical, then the relations between the two were regarded not as those between one field of inquiry and another, but as those between the way and the goal. Moreover, political philosophy was thought to be fundamentally distinguished from history: it was not considered a historical discipline.