History of Political Thought to c.1700

Course Material 2021/22
Aristotle in Nuremberg Chronicle

Why did the language of natural rights develop? How did Christian thinkers cope intellectually with the extraordinary changes in the political status of the early church? Was Aristotle an apologist for ancient slavery? Why and how did early modern thinkers draw on the inheritance of the ancients in debates over sovereignty and freedom? These are some of the important questions which this paper will enable you to explore, as you encounter some of the classic texts in the origin of Western political thought and come to understand the way that they expressed and engaged with the intellectual controversies and assumptions of their times.

Like Paper 20/4, this paper offers two kinds of intellectual adventure. In Part A, you will focus on a close reading of major texts within political and intellectual contexts. This allows you to explore how philosophical argument and analysis emerges within an historical period and so to develop philosophical skills within the Historical Tripos (or Human, Social and Political Sciences Tripos for those borrowing this paper). In Part B, you will focus on groups of texts which are thematically and historically connected, developing your ability to understand the way that a given political language is inflected, used and challenged in specific historical circumstances. For those considering doing other papers in the history of political thought or who have done them, this paper will provide a crucial basis to enrich and deepen your understanding of the foundations of modern politics.

Because the material to be covered is both diverse and especially challenging in that many students will not have studied the history of political thought before, more lectures are offered for this paper than for some others. This need not cause you alarm as you are not required or expected to attend them all since you will cover in supervision only 7 or 8 of the 30 named topics, and need answer in the examination only on 3. There is a convention that (at least) one examination question will be set on every named A and B topic. The result of all this is that you have the opportunity in conjunction with your supervisor to chart your own intellectual pathway through this paper. You may choose to concentrate entirely on ancient and medieval material, or on medieval and early modern, or to choose some other combination of thinkers and topics recommended by your supervisor.

The Reading List is the invaluable guide and resource which lists all of the topics with specified primary reading and recommended secondary reading. This leaflet is to be read in conjunction with the Reading List and will help you select those lectures which will be most relevant to your chosen topics, as well as those which are closely related, since you will often benefit from attending lectures on topics closely related to your specific supervision topics as well. Note that lectures from other Faculties may be included in this list because the expertise in the history of political thought in Cambridge is shared among several Faculties.

The lecturers will

  • provide a guide to the contents of their lecture course
  • offer advice on further reading
  • give the opportunity for questions at the end of each lecture
  • encourage feedback both informally and through questionnaires

For further information please follow the link below.

Section notice

This material is intended for current students but will be interesting to prospective students. It is indicative only.