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 69.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Presentation of varied ideas This is certainly an interesting set of lectures. Professor Dalton is a very engaging speaker who delivers each lecture with passion. You certainly find yourself listening intently and taking in what he says. The content is solid and different from a lot of political philosophy courses containing material that you would not usually find such as Hindu thought, but also missing a comprehensive treatment of many key thinkers such as John Locke, John Rawls and Robert Nozick. I have given it four stars instead of five because I felt it lacked a coherent structure as a course. It was more a collection of interesting individual lectures than a course. The lectures on Thucydides and Sophocles’s play Antigone were very interesting (I happen to like Ancient history and Greek Tragedies) but to spend two lectures out of 16 giving the historic and cultural background to Plato's Republic was probably over the top. Overall very enjoyable and I would certainly recommend the course to anyone looking to learn more about political philosophy.
Date published: 2010-04-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very enjoyable This is a very enjoyable philosophical discussion. If you like philosophy, you will probably like these lectures.
Date published: 2010-03-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Graceful Performance This is a graceful course. It delivers what it promises, it is pithy, to the point, and Dr Dalton knows his stuff and how to deliver it with, yes, grace. I bought this course eight years ago and can add timeless my assessment. I have listen to this course three times and it shows no signs of aging. In 16 trenchant lectures Dr D gives a thorough overview of history political theory and its proponents. Anyone with an interest in intellectual history, politics, or just a an interesting tale of ideas told well should consider this course and Dr D's other TC offerings.
Date published: 2009-11-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Classic Authors, Great Prof - BUT... The greatest works of the stars of political theory are presented here with clarity and passion by a master lecturer. With remarkable depth for a survey course, Prof. Dalton introduces us to political thought from Plato to Gandhi. We gain a familiarity with and a basic understanding of the thinking of many towering figures, and with the very wide range of aproaches and perspectives which they provide. Prof. Dalton's lecture style is riveting and powerful, and he has no hesitation in adding his personal judgments with unabashed emotion to his academic explications. He clearly missed his calling - he would have been an unforgettable preacher, in the mold (I would imagine) of Jonathan Edwards. For these reasons, this is an extremely worthwhile course. BUT - The course, for me, was ultimately disappointing because it almost entirely fails (with the exception of the final two lectures) to critique the worldviews of the theorists, and just as importantly, fails to show in practical ways how their theories connect, if they do, with the real world. If political theory is to have any more than academic use - and I'm sure the authors would insist that it must - then it must be shown how it may be applied to the actual governance of human communities. This is simply not done. The devil may be in the details, but we can't assess this because there are no details - just overarching hypergeneralizations about "the" nature of civilization, "the" basic goodness or inhumanity or stupidity of humankind, and "the" best way of governing them. If any of the thinkers considered the limitations of single-minded views of these extraordinarily complex phenomena, there is no evidence of that here. My understanding is that recently political "science" has been attempting to make itself more empirically grounded and subject to observational testing, and it would have been extremely appreciated if this aspect of the subject had been presented. As mentioned the last lectures were exceptions. These were on Hitler and Gandhi, and clearly showed how their diametrically opposed philosophies guided their very practical and incredibly effective movements. But - these lectures also make clear that the most important element of their success was not their philosophies but the remarkable charisma and personalities of their leaders. If anything, this draws us to the conclusion that in the right hands any political philosophy, regardless of whether or not it is based on a correct picture of human nature and society, can be the basis of government - just pick the one that best suits your ulterior aims. This course, then, is outstanding as a presentation of the canonical authors and works in a fascinating field, and as intellectual history. It fails, in my view, to make a case for the relevance of these thinkers to the real-life, practical work of encouraging human flourishing.
Date published: 2009-10-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Good,Bad and the Ugly of politics What are the main issues in classical and modern political thought? What is the role of the individual and society?Who has the most accurate view of politics,those who are political idealists or political realists? Dr. Dalton formerly of Columbia is a teaching company all star. He looks at the main concerns in politics from ancient Indian thought to 20th century thinkers. This is a terrific survey of political giants that includes Sophocles, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Marx and Thoreau. Competing visions of 20th century thought are examined in a discussion of Hitler and Gandhi. (Dr. Dalton is an expert on Gandhi and he has written several important books on him)This course not only examines the key political texts of the aforementioned individuals, but the professor includes important biographical context. The course book is quite detailed and it includes excerpts from the discussed political texts.
Date published: 2009-06-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thought-provoking intro for this novice I'm a novice to political theory (although with at least some exposure to most of the thinkers covered in the course), and I found this course thought-provoking and challenging (in a good way). I normally zip through TTC courses pretty fast, but this one took me a while because I had to think and process a lot after every lecture. The course isn't long enough to be exhaustive, but the professor does a great job of both explaining the contributions of the individuals who are covered and framing/comparing them across universal dimensions (idealism vs. realism, inclusivity vs. exclusivity, the state as legitimate vs. illegitimate, etc.). His passion for and deep knowledge of the topic make him engaging to watch. I'm not in a position to judge how helpful this course would be to an expert, but I really enjoyed it as an intro to political theory and highly recommend for anyone starting from a similar level of knowledge.
Date published: 2009-05-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb After viewing 50+ Teaching Company titles, I maintain this is the model course. The course is clearly the product of years of personal reflection, teaching, student feedback, and refinement. Dalton has reportedly been teaching the same material in an introductory course for years at Barnard and Columbia to great acclaim, and, to me, it shows. Dalton has superb mastery not only of the content but how to best present it to college-level students. But the many years of teaching this course have not removed the passion and authenticity in Professor Dalton that made spending 16 lectures of 45 minutes with him a true pleasure for me. The political theories presented are far ranging and diverse (from Hindu, to Classical Greek, to Marx, Freud, and, even, Hitler), but Dalton has selected them with careful purpose, each contributing to providing fuller understanding. The framework Dalton introduces at the course's outset for evaluating political theories is extremely effective. I found it progressively easier to apply this framework with each new political theory studied, leaving me with a great appreciation for how thoughtfully constructed and integrated was the course. In addition to the standard lecture notes, Dalton has also provided compact essays of his own in the Guidebooks along with each lecture to draw out additional comparisons between the political theories. I found these essays extremely helpful, especially in retrospect to previous lectures. The inclusion of these essays are yet another indication of Dalton's standard. I give this course my highest recommendation.
Date published: 2009-04-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is perhaps the first time, at least to my knowledge, that a Western Academician has acknowledged and established that the Hindu Vision as given in the Ancient Scriptures, the Upanishads, is the first to talk of the Universal Oneness and give the philosophy that was later elaborated by Greek and many others phillosophers.
Date published: 2009-02-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great overall view If you want a great overview of power and politics without getting too deep, and boring in some cases, this is the course. The course gives many examples of the philosophy of power, how it has been used and how those ideas and principals carry though to this day. After this course, you are able to discern the areas or people you wish to study further. Dalton was engaging and presented the material with enthusiasm. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2009-02-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb Course This lecture series was a delight from start to finish. Dalton's passion for the subject was obvious. He infused even the driest and most challenging material with enthusiasm. His discussions of Marx and Freud were particularly illuminating. He's the kind of professor we all wish we had more of in college.
Date published: 2009-02-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from GREAT COURSE ON THE INFLUENCE OF POLITICS Politics -- we should all be fairly fed up with it by now, after the last two years. Yet this course is fresh and insightful and shows you how politics began and how it continues to cast a long shadow over man's voyage through history. I loved every minute of this course and it helped me better understand current politics and the people who practice it.
Date published: 2009-01-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Introduction to the Teaching Company This title is one of my first purchases from The Teaching Company, and I feel it is the best introduction to these lectures. After listeing to this course I immediately purchased more...in fact, I own more than 150 titles from the Teaching Company. Professor Dalton is an excellent lecturer, and covers this topic well, though I agree it does not have the breadth of a survey course. With that said, what is included is a revelation for anyone-whether interested or not-about political theory as influenced by the remarkable people covered.
Date published: 2009-01-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good But Incomplete Dalton covers his chosen material quite well in this course, but I felt that the course is incomplete in two major respects: (a) some important political theorists such as Hobbes and Rawls receive little or no mention, so the course is more of a sampler of political theory rather than a proper survey, and (b) the course description indicates that various themes will be explored throughout the course, presumably tying the lectures together, but I found the course to be lacking in this regard, instead having more of a fragmented feel. Considering these issues, I can recommend the course only to people who already have a strong interest in political theory, or who suspect that they might develop such an interest, with the understanding that the limitations of the course have to be kept in mind. For people seeking a reasonably complete introduction to political theory, this isn't the course for you, and I hope TTC will develop such a course in the future (along with standard courses in political science, international relations, etc.)
Date published: 2008-12-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This course opens doors. The rich diversity of subjects in this series of lectures takes the student around the world and through time. Each different lecture opens a door to a set of studies and one could spend a lot of time doing additional readings in each area covered. The lecture on Machiavelli prompted me to order the course "Machiavelli in Context" taught by William Cook. The lecture on Hitler's Use of Power led me to order the course "History of Hitler’s Empire" taught by Thomas Childers. Be prepared to want to order "Peloponnesian War" by Kenneth Harl after watching the lecture on Thucydides and The Pelopennesian War. Several other lectures will inspire you to order the grand lecture course, "Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition" of which Professor Dalton is one of many wonderful lecturers. I am still pondering many of the concepts of freedom which Professor Dalton teased us with in his lectures on Thoreau's Theory of Civil Disobedience and Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor. My shelves are full of supplementary readings I was awakened to by this course.
Date published: 2008-12-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Not a struggle to listen to! Dalton's presentation was clear and direct. I felt comfortable with his style and his transparent personality. I would recommend this one!
Date published: 2008-12-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The course was an excellent review of the various and most influential political theories of our time. It was well designed, lucid, and well thought!
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof Dalton put together ideas that had been disparate (to me) into a comprehensive whole.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Finally! A professor who brings East and West together. Brilliant, engaging, accessible. Prof. Dalton is magnificent!
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Power over people was the finest course I've ever listened to and superior to any course I've attended. Prof Dalton's lectures helped me to understand complex ideas in such a way that I'll be able to incorporate them into my own thinking.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Dalton's lectures are more relevant to today than ever! The quality and creative approach of these lectures not only satisfiesmy own intellectual hunger, but impels me to send gift copies to my relatives.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 1 out of 5 by from I did not like Power Over People. Professor Dalton sounds like a Sunday preacher. The course was fuzzy and soft- not intellectually disciplined. To me he was a windbag.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof. Dalton inspired me to go back and read works I had not read since college with a fresh appreciation.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This course is mentally challenging & thought provoking. professor dalton is knowledgeable & really interesting to listen to. He's into his subject and, even though the CD medium involved me.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Remarkable insights into the factors that shaped the development of the many pivotal figures in human history, Exhaustively researched and dynamically presented.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dalton is an electrifying lecturer
Date published: 2008-10-17
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