Power over People: Classical and Modern Political Theory

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

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
 |  Average 46 minutes each
  • 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

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  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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DVD Includes:
  • 16 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 160-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 160-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Bibliography

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Your professor

Dennis Dalton

About Your Professor

Dennis Dalton, Ph.D.
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...
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Power over People: Classical and Modern Political Theory is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 71.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Political Theory from Eclectic Choices This is the second course that I have taken from Professor Dalton, the other being “Freedom: The Philosophy of Liberation”. That course as with this one began with early Hindu philosophy, mostly centered on The Upanishads. And both course then move to classical Greece, especially Plato who gets two lectures. As this course is 16 lectures long (each 45 minutes), Dr. Dalton is not quite so restricted in his material and he spends some time setting the stage for Sophocles (Antigone), Plato and Aristotle by inserting a fascinating lecture on Thucydides and his history of the Peloponnesian War. This is primarily so we can understand why Plato was opposed to democracy. Strangely, at least for me, after spending six lectures on classical Greece, he leaps forward about 18 centuries to the Machiavelli in order to discuss his theories of power and politics. Then Rousseau and then Marx, followed by Freud, before going to the New World and Thoreau. I as with many other reviewers find it strange that Mill, Locke, Madison and others of the Enlightenment are ignored, especially when much time is spent on (what I consider to be) the somewhat shoddy thinking of Rousseau and the strange inclusion of Freud. To be sure, Dr. Dalton is consistent in the rest of this course in continuing to include Freud’s thinking and theories as he discusses other, later and differing theories. For me, talking about the Superego and the Id as they apply in some collective sense when bringing up Hitler and Gandhi is as close to nonsense as I’ve seen in a serious academic discussion, most especially as these ideas of Freud have been largely discounted by current thinkers. Still to be fair to Dr. Dalton, this did make me think about these issues in a way that I never had before. And that is a positive thing. Professor Dalton does the same with many of Marx’s ideas, but here the contrast and comparison with other thinkers works much better. Thoreau seems a reasonable inclusion, especially as preparation for the last lecture on Gandhi (sort of a bookend with the first lecture on the early Hindus) and the penultimate lecture on Hitler. But the two intervening lectures on Dostoyevsky’s chapter on the Grand Inquisitor and Emma Goldman’s views on anarchism seem oddly out of place. I’m guessing that Professor Dalton must have written a paper on Goldman, as he also devoted a lecture to her in his other course. Nothing wrong about discussing anarchism in this course, but it might have been nice to take a view from some other thinkers. As an example, I kept wanting him to compare and contrast anarchists and communists during the Spanish Civil War. George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” would have been a good change from his last course, especially as he was often used literary works in this course to make his points. The above may seem like a negative review (I gave his other course 5 stars), but they are just a series of things that kept making me want this course to be better. There were so many lectures with so much meat, that for me the strange inclusions left me wishing he had done better on a more consistent basis. The course materials are among the very best that I have seen from TTC. I loved the inclusion of background material that highlighted most of the men and women in each lecture after the lecture outline. Very nice to not have to do that research on my own—for example it has been many years since I read “The Brothers Karamazov”. To have some of that seminal chapter in the course material was a major plus. Professor Dalton is fine presenter. I was always easily able to understand him, and unlike some other reviewers, I quite liked his occasional digressions, such as the one where he tell how to get from Boston to Walden’s Pond. Really an interesting though flawed course. Recommended for a really different take on presenting theories and for the overall theme and consistent comparisons of the philosophers and writers and their ideas from beginning to end.
Date published: 2020-07-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting class with interesting ideas I enjoyed this class, and it certainly enhanced my knowledge on the subject. The professor’s fondness for Indian thought was interesting (a bit odd for me), but, as a listener more steeped in the Western tradition, I found the chance to think “outside the box” quite stimulating.
Date published: 2020-04-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Perfect level of detail! This was a great survey of critical thinkers in history. Prof Dalton does an excellent job making this material accessible to somebody without prior education in these thinkers. It worked great as just an audio subscription because the material is so clearly communicated. I loved it.
Date published: 2020-03-10
Rated 1 out of 5 by from #3 After being "moderated" twice - this is my third attempt: NO
Date published: 2019-10-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course. First I ever had from The only problem with this course is the title. It sounds devious. The course discusses philosophies on societies. Very broad view.
Date published: 2018-08-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course I have listened to many of The Great Courses. This is one of the best. D. Dalton is a tremendous teacher.
Date published: 2018-07-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant Please do read BGZRedux's first rate review of the course. I totally agree with the analysis, so I will keep it short... Contrary than BGZRedux's final judgment, however, I found that even considering the relative lack of real life political analysis of the course, the course was not at all a disappointment - I think that the, beautifully crafted strong theoretical presentation of Professor Dalton made hearing the course more than worthwhile.
Date published: 2018-06-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good series on history of political philosophy I bought this to promote discussion in an Adult Forum series at my Unitarian Universalist Church. We've had four to nine or ten people at our recent meetings. We've divided each 45-minute lecture into two segments of about 22 minutes each, so we have time to watch the segment and have discussion afterwards. Dalton is well-informed on the topics and intellectuals (philosophers, political activists, a playwright, a historian) and the topic is especially interesting given the most recent Presidential election which threatens a constitutional crisis of sorts. I've not given it the highest ranking because my own academic expertise included Ancient Greek philosophy, specifically Aristotle, and I've found some of what Dalton says about Aristotle to be not false but misleading, though motivated by a reasonable wish to connect Aristotle with recent social, economic and political debates. I like the way he integrated Hindu thought, Thucydides, and Sophocles' Antigone into the ongoing dialogue that the course covers, and I think his choice to end the selection of thinkers/persons discussed with Hitler and Gandhi very useful under present conditions. There has been much discussion of the similarities or not between a recent political phenomenon and fascism and there are promising developments on the other side that reflect Rev. King's efforts in mid-20th century, which in turn were shaped by Gandhi's example in the early 20th century..
Date published: 2017-04-21
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