What is a Political Theory, its Subject matter, Methods, and Purpose

What is a Political Theory?

Political theory refers to a subfield of political science whose main focus is the ideas of the past and present political thinkers. The field also explores doctrines and proposals of various political groups and movements. Notably, political theory investigates what a better political world would look like and how it can be created (Sabine & Thorson, 2018). According to Sabine and Thorson, political theory entails an interdisciplinary endeavor focusing on humanity’s happiness via politics. The field is characterized by a commitment to diagnose, theorize, and critique the practices, norms, and political actions of the past and the present times. This usually involves critical reflection of political various political ideas to assess and understand political practices. Notably, political theory is undergirded by the concern for demand for justice and how to fulfill the said demand. The concern steers the field to tackle topics such as the ideal form of government, freedom, equality, individuality, et cetera (Hoffman & Graham, 2015). Thus, political theory involves exploring concepts as to how political order adheres, develops, or decays.

Political theory is an interdisciplinary endeavor. It shares a relationship with multiple disciplines including political science, history, and philosophy. Political theory relies on political science principles to investigate and interpret various political practices and actions. Given that political theory must diagnose and criticize to theorize, it must rely on political science. Regarding its relationship with history, political theory uses history as a point of reference. Without history, political theory is a structure without foundation since it is only by analyzing the past that it can understand current political practices and systems. Regarding philosophy, it has been the most influential discipline to political theory.  Political philosophy stands out as the most abstract expression of political theory and, as such, the foundation on which the field has established itself (Hoffman & Graham, 2015). Thus, the subject matter of political theory is an interdisciplinary field.

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What is the Purpose of a Political Theory?

The main purpose of political theory is to create a better political world. The field achieves this by critiquing political systems, practices, and actions to identify improvement opportunities (Hoffman & Graham, 2015). According to Hoffman and Graham, political theory not only allows for a better understanding of events and concepts that have shaped politics but it also allows for critiquing present political events and practices to identify improvement opportunities. For instance, modern political theory investigates the past and the present to gain a better understanding of concepts such as freedom, equality, democracy, individuality, and justice. Rather than merely inquiring about a concept to understand it, political theory delves further to ask how it can be improved (Sabine & Thorson, 2018). For instance, rather than asking the question “what is democracy?” it asks “what should democracy be?” Consequently, this allows for the identification of improvements that can improve the political world. Thus, the main purpose of political theory is to improve the political realm by investigating what a better political world would look like and how it can be created.

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What is a Classical Political Theory?

Classical political theory refers to the political thought of the classical period in Ancient Greek. As such, it entails the ancient Greek and Roman political ideas and views from the 5th century BCE to the fifth century CE. Notably, this excludes the development of the Jewish ideas regarding politics during the era. Classical political theory was largely founded on philosophy since most political theorists of this period were philosophers (Ryan, 2012). According to Ryan, political philosophy as a field was invented during this period. Classical political theory tackled many political concepts including the ideal states, justice, freedom, equality, constitution, citizenship, and ethics, among others. Classical political theory laid the foundation for investigating what a better political world would look like and how it can be created. Therefore, it was instrumental to the modern political theory, especially due to its introduction of philosophy to politics.

Examples of Classical Political Theorists and How they do Political Theory

Some of the classical political theorists include Plato and Aristotle. Plato is considered the father of Western political philosophy. He approached political theory from a philosophical point of view. Plato believed that society consists of various parts with conflicting interests but they can be harmonized. His ideas had a profound impact not only on classical political theory but subsequent political theories (Kottman, 2022). Concerning political theory, Plato’s greatest contribution to political theory is his work titled the Republic. In it, Plato sought to identify the ideal state/government. Plato critiqued democracy, giving reasons why it is not the most ideal form of government (Ryan, 2012). As a result, he ignited a debate that led to the modern democracy enjoyed by almost all countries worldwide.

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As for Aristotle, he was Plato’s student for about 20 years. Aristotle also approached political theory from a philosophical point of view mainly focusing on ethics but his political views highly diverged from those of Plato. He believed that all communities aim to achieve some good. Hence, the goal of politics should be to investigate what makes good and bad governments aiming to identify which factors are favorable or unfavorable to the preservation of a constitution (Ryan, 2012). However, it is worth noting that Aristotle has been heavily accused of political and philosophical prejudices with many finding his views repugnant. Aristotle’s search for the natural order of things, which is the premise he used to justify his views, was not straightforwardly empirical. For instance, regarding the topic of slavery/freedom, Aristotle argues that the natural order of things dictates that all humans are not equal. Therefore, it is some people’s natural position is to serve as slaves (Ryan, 2012). This approach to political theory is seen in most of his views.

What is a Christian Political Theory?

Christian political theory refers to the political perspective that succeeded the classical perspective theory. It is a political school of thought that was largely influenced by the Christian worldview. Notably, starting from the 1st century, the Christian religion, specifically, the Roman Catholic Church, spread across Western Europe. Over the centuries, Christianity gradually spread across the region involving itself in the political life of Western Europe. By the 16th Century, it had achieved far-reaching impacts on the social, political, and economic aspects of the region (Kottman, 2022). Notably, the Christian political theory falls into two categories namely the political perspective of the medieval Roman Catholic Church and the one of the reformation period. The power and the wealth that the Roman Catholic Church had acquired over the centuries led to its corruption as a spiritual force leading to an upheaval that splinted it causing the emergence of Protestantism (Sabine & Thorson, 2018). The reformation had a significant impact on Christian political theory.

Examples of Christian Political Theorists, one Medieval and one Reformed, and How They do Political Theory

Some of the Christian political theorists include Augustine and John Calvin. Augustine, a medieval theorist, approached political theory from a theological perspective. Notably, he considered the Christian scriptures to be the touchstone against which political philosophy must be questioned. Unlike the classical theorists who viewed the unfolding of political history as a cyclical phenomenon, he strictly conceived history in linear terms, having a beginning and an end. Augustine’s political theory incorporated his conception of peace whereby he believed that God’s wish is for all human beings to live together in peace. However, the fallen human race tends to oppose this divine will hence the chaos characterizing society. Augustine’s philosophical/theologian approach to political theory is formulated in terms of two cities; Rome, which symbolizes all that is worldly, and Jerusalem, which he defines as the city of God (Kottman, 2022). Thus, Augustine grounded his approach to political theory on distinctively Christian philosophical concepts.

As for Calvin, he was a Reformed theorist; notably, Calvin was one of the greatest leaders of the Reformation. Similar to Augustine, he approached political theory from a theological point of view. Calvin’s political theory demonstrates his theological beliefs, which are based on his study and understanding of the Bible (Ryan, 2012). Unlike the medieval political theorists who believed that the church should be involved in state matters, Calvin believed in separation of the church and state. He believed that both the church and the state share a common mission, which entails fighting evil to produce model citizens hence evil though they should remain separated they must combine forces. Calvin insisted that the state has jurisdiction over the church on matters related to ruling but they are both spiritually equal since they are under God’s authority since He is sovereign. Hence, even though the church and the state must remain separated, religion and state should not be separated (Kottman, 2022). Calvin approached all his arguments regarding politics from a theological perspective, with his primary concern being on creating a world that aligns with God’s will.

What is a Modern Secular Political Theory?

Modern secular political theory refers to the political perspective birthed from the separation of the church and the state. According to Kottman (2022), modern political theory sprouted around the 17th Century. Notably, the modern secular political theory came after the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, there existed a strong tendency for people to meditate on God and, as a result, they approached political discourses from a religious point perspective. However, after the medieval period, people started shifting from the approach leading to secularism. Secularism exhibited itself in the evolution of humanism, which involved people showing interest in human cultural achievements and their fulfillments in this world, without giving much attention to the afterlife (Kottman, 2022). It is this worldview that influenced the emergence of secular political theory, whereby political theorists started approaching the political discourse from a worldly rather than a spiritual point of view. By separating religion from state, modern secular political theory views the state as a national asset belonging to all citizens (Sabine & Thorson, 2018). Thus, modern secular political theory allowed political theory to approach politics from an objective rather than an idealistic perspective.

Examples of Modern Secular Political Theorists, one Early Modern and one Technocratic, and How They do Political Theory

Some of the modern secular political theorists include Thomas Hobbes and John Rawls. Hobbes was an early modern secular political theorist. His approach to political theory is characterized by the integration of science into political philosophy. Hobbes considered himself the first political theorist to put politics on the scientific lens.  He believed that the greatest obstacle to his predecessors, the one that restrained them from creating a genuine science of politics, was their self-interest. Hobbes insisted that the self-interest of the Scholastic philosophers such as Plato, the rhetoricians such as Aristotle, and topologists such as Augustine served as an obstacle to the integration of science into politics. Hobbes’s science of politics is founded on his investigation of human nature whereby he sought to develop a deeper understanding of the nature of sovereign authority, the nature of justice, and the nature of law (Kottman, 2022). It is worth noting that whereas Hobbes claimed to approach politics scientifically, many contemporary political scientists question his use of the empirical process in his investigations.

Rawls is a modern secular technocratic political theorist. Rawls approached political theory from a philosophical point of view to give an all-encompassing account of political, economic, and social arrangements in the modern world. In his masterpiece titled A Theory of Justice, he argues that the best political system is one in which the worst-off person does as well as possible. Rawls defined the terms worst-off and better-off based on access to means of a self-respecting existing. Thus, Rawls’s approach to political theory incorporates not only political but also social and economic considerations. Rawls strongly believed that the protection of individual liberties and political rights take priority over economic welfare. He argues that the protection of individual liberties and political rights shields citizens from aggression and ill-treatment by those in power (Ryan, 2012). Thus, Rawls advocated for liberal democracy, approaching the subject from a modern philosophy point of view.

The Body Politic

            Body politic refers to a political metaphor, originating from the ancient Western political thought, by which the state, society, or church and its institutions are perceived as a biological body (usually human body). The metaphor carries a strong autocratic connotation as it relates to hierarchical leadership and the division of labor in society. Whereas body politic can be traced to as back as 1500 BCE, it was refined in the Classical period by political philosophers such as Plato. In the Republic, Plato’s metaphoric perception of the state emphasized fitness and well-being of the body over illness. Plato elucidated that illness occurs when the various parts of the body (state) fail to properly perform their functions. In the classical body politic, the sovereign was king as the head, the Senate as the belly, the knights as the hands, and the commoners as the legs. The provosts, bailiffs, seneschals, and other judges were considered the eyes while the counselors and wise men were compared to the heart (Kottman, 2022). Each body part must effectively serve its function for the body to be healthy.

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Brief Account of the Classical, Medieval Christian, Reformed Christian, Early Modern, and Modern Secular Technocratic Bodies Politic.

            In the medieval Christian, the roles of some of the body parts changed following owing to the influence of the Christian worldview. The king was perceived as the head, the councilors as the heart, the priest was considered the soul, magistrates of the law as the ears, eyes, and tongue, the hands as the army, and feet as commoners. Notably, in the medieval Christian body politic, one hand held a weapon and the one was without. The hand that held the weapon symbolized the army and the one without represented the realm’s justice (Kottman, 2022). The Reformed Christian body politic also brought some changes to the roles of the various parts of the body. The most notable is that while the medieval argued that the root cause of illness is lack of harmony among the body parts, the Reformed Christian body politic stressed that the root cause of the illness was the corruption of the church as a spiritual force and its pervasion to state matters. Consequently, this body politic rejected the idea of the priest representing the soul of the body (Kottman, 2022). Notably, this was motivated by the Reformation political theorists’ determination to see the separation of the church and the state.

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Read also A Comparison Between Classical and Medieval Body Politic

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            By the early modern secular political period, body politic had been stripped of most of its classical, medieval, and Christian essentials. This period saw the increasing debate for freedom and equality. This political thought sought to eliminate the hierarchical arrangement in society by arguing that all humans are equal.  However, early modern theorists such as Hobbes still expressed their concerns reading equality. Hobbes argued that a state where all citizens are equal creates the fear and danger of violence and can easily lead to anarchy (Kottman, 2022). The modern secular technocratic political perspective ushered a natural death to the body politic. This period’s political theorists advocated for liberal democracy characterized by political rights and civil liberties, whereby all citizens are treated equally (Kottman, 2022). However, it introduced the concept of bodies of government: legislative, executive, and judicial.

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