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Power over People: Classical and Modern Political Theory

Power over People: Classical and Modern Political Theory

Professor Dennis Dalton Ph.D.
Barnard College, Columbia University
Course No.  443
Course No.  443
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Course Overview

About This Course

16 lectures  |  46 minutes per lecture

Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Marx, Gandhi—these exceptional thinkers sculpted, piece by piece, Western political thought from its inception in 5th-century (B.C.) Athens.In so doing, they grappled with such imposing questions as:

  • What is the correct relationship of the individual to society?
  • What is the connection between individual freedom and social and political authority?
  • Are human beings fundamentally equal or unequal?

In 16 in-depth lectures, Professor Dennis Dalton puts the key theories of power formulated by several of history's greatest minds within your reach.

Dr. Dalton traces two distinct schools of political theory, idealism and realism, from their roots in ancient India and Greece through history and, ultimately, to their impact on the 20th century—via the lives and ideas of two charismatic, yet utterly disparate, leaders: Adolph Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi.

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Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Marx, Gandhi—these exceptional thinkers sculpted, piece by piece, Western political thought from its inception in 5th-century (B.C.) Athens.In so doing, they grappled with such imposing questions as:

  • What is the correct relationship of the individual to society?
  • What is the connection between individual freedom and social and political authority?
  • Are human beings fundamentally equal or unequal?

In 16 in-depth lectures, Professor Dennis Dalton puts the key theories of power formulated by several of history's greatest minds within your reach.

Dr. Dalton traces two distinct schools of political theory, idealism and realism, from their roots in ancient India and Greece through history and, ultimately, to their impact on the 20th century—via the lives and ideas of two charismatic, yet utterly disparate, leaders: Adolph Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi.

Explore the Fundamental Questions of Western Political Theory

Professor Dalton (Ph.D., Political Theory, University of London) was dubbed by Newsday "the guru of Barnard"; his courses are so popular that the Columbia Student Guide warns, "To get a seat in his class, you must arrive half an hour early (we're not joking.)"

The issues Professor Dalton addresses in these lectures—and in Western political theory generally—fall into three sets of fundamental questions.

His lectures show how these competing theories of political power address these three sets of questions. And the lectures show how those answers determine when it is legitimate for one person to have power over another.

The first set of fundamental questions involves the essential characteristics of human nature and the good society.

Is human nature essentially spirit or matter? Is it directed by reason or dominated by passion? Is it fixed or malleable? Is it innately sinful, aggressive, and violent, or is it fundamentally benign, cooperative, and nonviolent?

Will the good society be characterized by perfect harmony or by continued conflict? If conflict is inevitable in the good society, must it be controlled through the leader's discretionary use of coercive power, or can it be contained constructively within political institutions?

Are social unity and harmony achievable or even desirable? Do the progress and vigor of society depend, by contrast, upon some form of struggle?

The second set of fundamental questions involves the relationship between the individual and society.

What is the right relationship of the individual to society? What is the relationship of individual freedom to social and political authority?

What constitutes legitimate political authority? Does it come ultimately from God, the state, or the individual? Are human beings fundamentally equal or unequal?

The final set of fundamental questions involves theories of change.

Are there inexorable laws of history that produce change? What role is played by discretionary leadership or moral values in effecting change? Is an unchanging, enduring, universal system of ethical values possible? Must such a system be grounded in a theory of absolute truth?

If an enduring, universal system of values is possible, what precisely are those values, and what is their relevance for political and social action? Should transformative leadership be based on the hard facts of political reality and human weakness or on the knowledge of absolute truth? Is the most fundamental change ideological, economic, or psychological in nature?

Should agents of change pursue reform through gradual, evolutionary means, or should they pursue the total transformation of society and human nature through revolution? Should radical change be pursued through violence or nonviolence? Should it rely mainly on spontaneity or on authoritarian organization?

Are There Definitive Answers? Addressing Those Fundamental Questions

Those questions orient our study of a wide range of theories of power and its use. Professor Dalton contrasts Plato's idealism with Aristotle's realism, Marx's optimism with Freud's pessimism, and Hitler's exclusionism and exaltation of violence with Gandhi's inclusionism and insistence on nonviolence.

"For centuries such questions have eluded final solution, and we should not expect to answer them definitively here," says Professor Dalton. "The questions should prompt us, however, to think more deeply about ourselves, the standards that guide our behavior, and our obligations, if any, to society."

As Professor Dalton addresses these fundamental questions, you'll learn, for example, how Hindu idealism prefigured Socratic and Platonic thought in emphasis upon self-mastery and its focus on teaching by example.

You'll understand exactly how Plato's Republic set the parameters for subsequent Western political theory.

You'll examine how Machiavelli's brutally realistic theories about politics marked the transition between the classical and modern political traditions.

You'll study the Romantic idealism—the social and political utopias, if you will—of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx.

Professor Dalton also shares several unique perspectives to better explain the realism vs. idealism debate.

You will, for instance, examine the writings of the Greek playwright Sophocles, whose long-celebrated work Antigone offers a literary context for Plato's philosophy, where the state is an agent of virtue.

You'll also explore psychiatrist Sigmund Freud's pessimistic vision of man, which contrasted sharply with those of Rousseau and Marx.

And, you learn how author Henry David Thoreau, in his timeless work, Civil Disobedience, echoed the Hindu tradition and emphatically rejected a fundamental contention of Plato and Aristotle that the state has any moral authority.

Finally, Professor Dalton takes you on an intellectual expedition that juxtaposes and explores Hitler's violent politics of exclusion with Gandhi's equally powerful, but strictly non-violent, politics of inclusion.

What You Will Learn

Through this course you will be able to:

  • Identify the fundamental questions and concerns that shape classical and modern political theory.
  • Explain the essential differences between the "idealist" and "realist" traditions in political theory.
  • Describe the influence of one's understanding of human nature upon one's vision of the good society.
  • Compare and contrast the views of theorists regarding the purpose of the state, the relationship between politics and ethics, and the qualifications for exercising political power.
  • Discuss views of leading political theorists regarding the meaning of freedom, the sources of legitimate political authority, the legitimacy of individual resistance against constituted authority, and the obligations of individuals to the state or society.
  • Distinguish among the differing attitudes toward the use of violence that are held by the theorists examined in this course.

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16 Lectures
  • 1
    The Hindu Vision of Life
    Professor Dennis Dalton discusses early Hindu philosophy and its values. Ancient India had separate castes for spiritual, or philosophical,leadership and political leadership. x
  • 2
    Thucydides and The Peloponnesian War
    This lecture examines the tragic history of Athens in the times of Socrates and Plato. x
  • 3
    Law and Rule in Sophocles’s Antigone
    Antigone is the story of a young woman risking her life by doing what is right and disobeying a powerful tyrant. It gives us insight into ideas about law and leadership in ancient Greece. x
  • 4
    Socrates and the Socratic Quest
    Socrates was Plato's teacher and the hero of many of Plato's dialogues. Plato portrays him as a man on a quest for truth. In Plato's Gorgias, Socrates asks the quintessential question of philosophy, "What course of life is best?" x
  • 5
    Plato—Idealism and Power, Part I
    The Republic—Plato's great work on politics—takes the form of a dialogue with Socrates as its hero. Plato seeks to define right conduct in a political sense and ties the state into the Socratic quest for the best course of life. x
  • 6
    Plato—Idealism and Power, Part II
    The Republic—Plato's great work on politics—takes the form of a dialogue with Socrates as its hero. Plato seeks to define right conduct in a political sense and ties the state into the Socratic quest for the best course of life. x
  • 7
    Aristotle’s Critique of Plato’s Republic
    Aristotle, Plato's student, attacks Plato's three waves of radical change: gender equality, the status of private property, and rule by philosophers versus the citizens. x
  • 8
    Machiavelli’s Theory of Power Politics
    Machiavelli's The Prince is the most extreme example of realism. Machiavelli lived in an Italy composed of war-torn city-states. He felt that power and the security it brings should be the ultimate goal of the prince and that ethics should not interfere with the ruthless pursuit of this goal. x
  • 9
    Rousseau’s Theory of Human Nature and Society
    Rousseau believed human nature was basically good. He saw modern society as corrupt and rotten, and believed that a political solution, a new social contract, could lead to the establishment of a civil state, his ideal society. x
  • 10
    Marx’s Critique of Capitalism and Solution of Communism
    Karl Marx's communism provided what is probably the best known ideal society. He blamed not only private property, but the entire institution of capitalism for the inequality and injustice in society. x
  • 11
    Freud’s Theory of Human Nature and Civilization
    Freud's dark view of the human psyche as divided into three parts, with conflicting drives, contrasts sharply with idealist philosophy's view of human nature as good. x
  • 12
    Thoreau’s Theory of Civil Disobedience
    Thoreau goes beyond the bounds of the liberal tradition established by John Locke in his essay "Civil Disobedience." Many Americans believed—and many still do—that government that governs least governs best, but by taking that belief to its logical conclusion and stating "that government is best that governs not at all," Thoreau shocked his contemporaries. x
  • 13
    Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor
    "The Grand Inquisitor" is a single chapter from Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov. It focuses on the concept that Satan has better understood human nature than Christ. This understanding says that humans fear freedom and seek the security from following and being dominated by someone who is stronger. x
  • 14
    The Idea of Anarchism and the Example of Emma Goldman
    The idea of anarchism started in ancient Greece and is illustrated here by the example of Emma Goldman, a 19th-century Russian-American woman, who was known for expounding that "women need not always keep their mouths shut and their wombs open." x
  • 15
    Hitler’s Use of Power
    How did Adolph Hitler come to power? How could the German people not only accept, but support, the actions of Hitler and the Nazi Party? Professor Dalton looks at two common explanations of Hitler's rise to power and then develops his own theory. x
  • 16
    Gandhi's Use of Power
    Gandhi is as uplifting as Hitler is terrifying. Gandhi leads a movement in India to end British rule, not by seeking power, but by promoting ideals. Professor Dalton explains five key concepts of Gandhi's idealist political thought. x

Lecture Titles

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Dennis Dalton
Ph.D. Dennis Dalton
Barnard College, Columbia University

Dr. Dennis Dalton is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University. He earned his B.A. from Rutgers University, his M.A. in Political Science from the University of Chicago, and his Ph.D. in Political Theory from the University of London.

Professor Dalton has edited and contributed to more than a dozen publications and has written numerous articles. He is the author of Indian Idea of Freedom and Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action. His fields of interests include classical and modern, Western, and Asian political theory; politics of South Asia, particularly the Indian nationalist movement; nonviolence and violence in society; and ideologies of modern political movements in Europe, India, China, and Africa.

Dr. Dalton served as a review editor for the Journal of Developmental Studies (London) and as a U.S. correspondent for the South Asian Review (London). He is a member of both the American Political Science Association and the Association for Asian Studies.

Professor Dalton has been honored with numerous teaching awards, scholarships, and grants, including the Barnard College Margaret Mead Award 2009 for Distinguished Teaching, the 2008 Barnard Commendation for Excellence in Teaching, a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, a senior fellowship with the American Institute of Indian Studies, and a Gandhi Peace Foundation Grant.

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Reviews

Rated 4.3 out of 5 by 52 reviewers.
Rated 2 out of 5 by Disappointing This course generally just concentrates on one aspect of the thinkers it discusses, with no attempt at a systematic presentation showing how that feature illuminates the rest of their philosophy. The professor often quotes long passages from the works of various authors, but offers surprisingly little critical commentary. The overall superficiality of the lectures is surprising compared to the usual high quality of the Great Courses, and it seemed to me that no difficult issues were addressed, no puzzles were solved, and no new insights were offered. Perhaps the worst aspect of the course is its digressive quality, with large amounts of time devoted to minor anecdotes such as the Kitty Genovese story, details about Marx's living arrangements in London, or directions on how to get to his gravesite, at the expense of any serious investigation of the ideas. Often the course seemed to lose all connection with its official topic of classical political philosophy and collapse into lessons about proper individual behavior. Everywhere Professor Dalton's bias was evident, and he seemed more interested in blackening the black hats of those he disliked and whitening the white hats of those he preferred, with no appreciation of the subtleties. The only good point was his effort to draw connections between the various views presented, though this never went very deep. Those interested in political philosophy would do better to buy Professor Cahoone's excellent 'Modern Political Tradition.' October 20, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Really Enjoyed This Lecture I found this lecture video tape while pet sitting at a client's house. I was so impressed by it that I had to buy a copy for myself. I recommend this lecture to others and I had the great pleasure of meeting Prof. Dalton a couple years ago out west. A delightful man! May 26, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Lots to Think About Dr. Dalton does a masterful job tying together the many approaches to power throughout the ages. His lectures on the Hindu Vision of Life and Gandhi's Use of Power are precious gems. The sequence of lectures was very thoughtful, giving the student the ability to build upon each one. Professor Dalton's lecture about Emma Goldman was fantastic and I learned a great deal from it. I'm hoping to see a new Great Course from Dr. Dalton expanding upon Gandhi's philosophy. Dr. Dalton's presentation style is excellent. Don't miss this wonderful course. October 17, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Outstanding I took classes in college on all of these thinkers and philosophical positions, but this course far surpassed them all. The continuing thread of the course impressed me, as did each lecture on its own. Highly recommended. September 4, 2013
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