Significant Movements in the History of Political Thought

Significant Movements in the History of Political Thought
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  • 0:05 Development of…
  • 0:35 The Classics
  • 1:55 Enlightenment & Nation-States
  • 2:36 Revolutions & the Nation-State
  • 4:25 Economics at Play
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Want to know how Western countries went from being ruled by absolute monarchs to having democracies? This lesson explains some of the major historical developments in political thought.

Development of Political Thought

For much of ancient history, grand empires ruled by despots held power over much of the known world. These arrangements were justified by a number of public reasons, ranging from tradition to religion, but, in short, what really mattered was that they had the loyalty of the soldiers in these empires. However, in the span of 2,500 years, we've gone from this 'rule by might' system to a surprisingly wide array of political viewpoints on how to best run a government. Just how that journey progressed is one that tells a great deal about Western civilization.

The Classics

If you look at the meaning of the words 'democracy' and 'republic', the two most commonly used terms to describe the current ideal arrangement in political philosophy, you'll find they share similar meanings. Democracy comes from the Ancient Greek for 'rule by the people,' and for the Classical Athenians more than 2,300 years ago, that's exactly what it meant. However, 'people' here was a pretty narrowly defined group. In short, you had to be male, Athenian, and, at some stages of the city's history, you had to own land. Still, this idea that some group of people should choose instead of just a king or emperor was a massive departure.

It reached even greater potential under the Roman Republic. The word republic comes from the Latin words for 'pertaining to the public.' For almost 500 years, the Roman Republic's Senate ruled the city and its growing collection of provinces in line with the wishes of the people. Of course, it was a balancing act. Most of the benefits went to the rich; however, every politician recognized the power of the poorer masses. In this, we see a definite transition from the Greeks. Whereas the Greeks only gave power to the rich, the Romans gave most of the power to the rich but some power to the poor. However, following the fall of the Roman Republic, it would be several hundred years before its ideas were revisited.

The Enlightenment and Nation-States

Around the 17th and 18th centuries, enough people were finally learning enough Greek and Latin to revisit the writings of the Greek and Roman political philosophers. What they found was truly different from the despotisms that had once again gained power in the Western world. This period of revisiting the old classics and thinking about them in new ways was known as the Enlightenment, and it spurred forth a new round of political thought. Of course, it was self-serving to a great extent, as many of these new philosophers were aristocrats, people who were wealthy, but had no noble ties. In short, they would have held power in the Greek and Roman systems, but had no such authority in the current rule of law.

Revolutions and the Nation-State

In some places, especially England, change towards a more broad-based governing system that incorporated the views of these newly enlightened people went rather peacefully. However, in other areas, open violence resulted. One of the most paradigm-shifting examples of this was the American Revolution, in which the American colonists, especially middle class and wealthy merchant colonists in the Northeast, challenged the idea that they should be deprived of political power.

Ultimately, the colonies won their independence and formed the United States. Subsequently, the French Revolution looks very different, but it is again on similar lines - the newly rich Third Estate challenges the stronghold on power that the clergy and the nobility have in the First and Second Estates, resulting in a completely new direction for the French government.

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