History of Western Political Thought: A Thematic Introduction by John Morrow

BOOK By John Morrow, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

The third edition of this highly-regarded core textbook offers an accessible and impressively comprehensive account of Western Political Thought over the last two millennia. Structured in four main parts, the chapters are organised around a wide range of key themes, covering everything from Absolute Government and Revolutionary Political Thought to Politics and Freedom and Theories of Civil Disobedience. This new edition concludes with an Epilogue that considers the challenges posed to the history of Western political thought by the perspectives of post-colonialism and post-modernism. The use of boxes throughout the book to explain key thinkers in more detail, as well as the author’s ability to express complex ideas in clear and jargon-free language, makes this the perfect text for helping students to understand the key debates, issues and continuities in the long history of political ideas.

For undergraduate and postgraduate students studying courses on the history of political thought and theory, this is an indispensable guide.

New to this Edition:

  • Expanded material on the history of international relations thinking, race consciousness, diversity and gender politics.
  • A completely new Epilogue which focuses on a discussion of post-colonialism and postmodernism in relation to political theory.
  • Additional ‘Thinker’ boxes, alongside revised and updated suggestions for further reading

From the introduction to the Second Edition 

This book is intended to provide a succinct but comprehensive treatment of a range of thinkers, issues and debates that have been of central importance in the Western tradition of political thought. Many introductions to the history of political thought survey the ideas of an extensive number of ‘great thinkers’ who are taken to represent the high-points of a tradition jokingly referred to as extending ‘from Plato to Nato’. This approach provides a way of outlining the ideas of particular thinkers that is both chronologically coherent and allows for a consideration of the biographical and historical background in which their works were produced. At the same time, however, it makes it difficult to include considerations of a range of less commonly noted but historically significant political thinkers, and prohibits identification of thematic patterns in the history of political thought. 

In order to overcome these difficulties while at the same time taking account of chronological and contextual considerations, this book is organized around themes that extend across wide tracts of European history. These themes provide frameworks for considering various aspects of the political writings of a far wider range of political thinkers than could be accommodated in a manageable book organized along ‘Plato to Nato’ lines. The purpose of this approach is to highlight questions about politics that have played an important role in Western political thinking, and to present a consideration of them that identifies continuities and changes in the ways in which these questions have been posed and answered over long periods of time. 

Changing perspectives on issues of enduring concern and the appearance of questions that would not have occurred to earlier thinkers are related to developments – in economic and social structures, in forms of political organization, in religious beliefs and in ways of viewing human beings and the world – that have occurred in the West in the two and a half thousand years that separate the ancient and modern worlds. These changes mean that it would be anachronistic to treat Western political thinking as a homogeneous whole. At the same time, however, it is important to acknowledge that Western political thinkers have been aware of at least aspects of their past and have often formulated their ideas by reference to the ideas of their predecessors. These considerations explain why it makes sense to talk of patterns of change and continuity, and they also explain why this book makes only passing reference to non-Western political thought. For the most part, Western political thinkers have not reflected on systematic statements about politics developed in other cultures.


The two and a half thousand year span of European history with which this book deals is conventionally divided into a number of periods. These periods do not form absolutely discrete historical entities, but they are useful ways of capturing distinctive features of the political, economic and social structures of Western societies at different stages in their development, and the sets of intellectual, religious and political beliefs that correspond to them. The first thousand years, that is, from about 500 BC until 500 AD, is referred to as the ‘ancient’ period. During this period Western political thought focused on the city states of Greece, and on the Roman Republic and the Empire that succeeded it. There were some similarities between the governments of the Greek city states and that which emerged during the history of the Roman Republic, and thinkers who reflected on the experience of the latter were aware of the ideas of their Greek predecessors. For most of this period political thinking focused on pre-Christian societies, but in late antiquity it had to come to grips with the growing influence of Christian ideas in the Roman Empire.

The medieval period extends from the sixth century to the late fifteenth century. Medieval political thought reflected the Christian basis of Western culture, the erosion of the authority of the Holy Roman Empire, the emergence of the complex system of economic, political and social organization known as ‘feudalism’, and the appearance towards the end of the period of increasingly unified ‘nation states’. These states dominated the political history of the early modern period, which extends from the early sixteenth to the late eighteenth century. During the first two centuries of the early modern period the religious and political ramifications of the division of Western Christendom into two camps as a result of the Protestant Reformation had a major impact on political thought. The Reformation, which began in 1517 in Germany and quickly spread throughout Europe, was met by a counter reformation conducted by rulers who remained attached to Roman Catholicism.

These events stimulated an upsurge in speculation on political questions,

and they overlapped with the reappearance, particularly in Italy, of forms of government that focused on city states and the recovery of philosophical works from the ancient world. These developments meant that late medieval and early modern political theory was set in a framework that capitalized to some degree on ideas derived from the Greek and Roman worlds. Sometimes the use of ancient works produced conceptions of politics that ran counter to lessons derived from the Christian tradition. The influence of the latter was also blunted to some degree in the seventeenth century by the burgeoning interest in scientific investigation, and in the eighteenth century by the stress placed on human reason by the ‘enlightenment’ movements in a number of European countries. Taken together, these developments prepared the ground for the more secular perspectives on politics advanced by a number of ‘modern’ writers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the modern period political theory not only became increasingly, oalthough not exclusively, secular in orientation, but it also focused on issues that were distinctive to the recent experience of Western societies and the other countries of the world that were influenced by them. Unprecedented developments in the economic life of these societies, conventionally categorized as the ‘industrial revolution’, and the democratization of social and political relationships, had a marked impact on the way that people thought about politics. The modern period witnessed the appearance of a wide range of complex political theories, elements of which were incorporated into the political ideologies that were attached to the perceived interests of distinct groups or classes within society. Thus while the political thinking of the modern world exhibited some continuity with that of earlier periods, it was also marked by the appearance of theories of mass politics, and those promoting deliberate, revolutionary change. Both of these developments involved a significant departure from the approaches to politics that had characterized earlier periods.

The focus of the book

For the most part, this book focuses on ideas of rule and sets this issue within the framework of the state. Central to this conception of politics is a series of questions concerning the purposes of political authority, the persons who should possess it and the ways in which it should be exercised. The perspective adopted here does not provide a framework that exhausts the subject matter of ‘politics’; it focuses on the internal aspect of politics rather than its international dimensions or alternative perspectives that bear on class, gender and race. Nonetheless the latter are not excluded from consideration; gender issues play a limited role in the discussions that follow, as do those of class. As we shall see, theories of class politics have posed important challenges to a tradition that has been largely concerned with rule and the state, and conceptions of gender and race politics seem set to have the same effect. The fact remains, however, that the perspective on politics employed here has been at the centre of Western political thinking from the time of the ancient Greeks until the modern era.

As is made apparent throughout this book, political thinking has always had a strongly prescriptive tendency. That is, attempts to arrive at an understanding of the nature of politics and of particular political problems have almost invariably given rise to arguments that favour certain political institutions, ideas and practices, and question the alternatives to them. The themes used to structure the following chapters identify sets of prescriptions relating to the purpose and nature of political rule and the structures within which it takes place. Part I of the book examines a number of responses to the question: to what ends should political authority be directed? In Parts II and III the focus of the discussion shifts to arguments about who should exercise supreme authority and how such authority should be exercised. Finally, Part IV examines theories that justify resistance to political superiors and those that promote revolutionary challenges both to rulers and to the systems of government in which they are located.

From the Preface to the First Edition

This book is designed to provide an introduction to the history of political thought that will be useful for students studying this subject in both history and politics programmes. It considers the full range of Western political thinking from the ancient world until the middle decades of the twentieth century and concludes with some brief indications of important developments in contemporary political theory. Although the book focuses on Western thought, it also contains a few side-glances at non-Western treatments of similar or related issues. 

Unlike many introductory surveys that present a series of chronological chapters discussing the ideas of a more or less exhaustive list of important thinkers, this book focuses on themes and explores the ways in which the issues raised by them have been addressed by a range of historically significant political thinkers. This approach has been chosen with a view to identify varying responses to common or at least related concerns that have been of lasting significance to Western political thinkers. Each chapter discusses a number of thinkers who have had interesting points to make about the issues under consideration. An attempt has been made to identify the relationship between various thinkers and to trace patterns of development across extensive periods of time. Some thinkers are discussed in a number of chapters while others make a more fleeting appearance. 

Three charts reflecting the conventional distinction between the ancient and medieval (c.400 BC–1500 AD), early modern (1500–1800) and modern (1800–) periods (see pp. 7, 8–9, 12–13) provide a chronology that relates thinkers to one another and to major historical events. Boxes located within the text present biographical information on a wide range of important thinkers discussed in the book: the location of these is indicated by bold entries in the personal name index.

From the Preface to the Second Edition

In addition to making a large number of minor changes to the main body of the text, the revisions undertaken for the second edition have concentrated on a significant expansion of the ‘thinker boxes’ for more major figures and adding key reading suggestions to all of the boxes. New sections on multiculturalism and aspects of contemporary democratic thought have been added to the concluding chapter; this has undergone considerable revision. Brief references to contemporary concerns have been included in the conclusions to a number of chapters where this seemed appropriate. The title has also been changed to emphasize the fact that the book primarily focuses on western political thought. Finally, the suggestions for further reading have been updated and rearranged to distinguish a few key general surveys for each period from a range of detailed indications of readings relating to the thinkers considered in each chapter. 

University of Auckland, New Zealand JOHN MORROW

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