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From ancient and medieval philosophers such as Confucius and Thomas Aquinas, to revolutionary thought leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and Leon Trotsky, to the voices who have shaped modern politics today — Mao Zedong, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, and more — The Politics Book clearly and simply explains more than 100 groundbreaking ideas in the history of political thought. With easy-to-follow graphics, succinct quotations, and accessible text, The Politics Book is an essential reference for students and anyone wondering how politics works.
1st American
Dorling Kindersley
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:
Big Ideas Simply Explained
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Paul Kelly is a Pro-Director and Professor of Political Theory
at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
He is the author, editor, and co-editor of 11 books. His main
interests are British political thought and contemporary
political philosophy.

Niall Kishtainy teaches at the London School of Economics,
and specializes in economic history and development. He
has worked for the World Bank and the United Nations
Economic Commission for Africa.

Dr. Rod Dacombe is Lecturer in Politics in the Department
of Political Economy at King’s College, University of London.
His research focuses primarily on democratic theory and
practice, and on the relationship between the voluntary
sector and the state.

John Farndon is the author of many books on the history
of science and ideas and on contemporary issues. He also
writes widely on science and environmental issues and
has been shortlisted four times for the young Science
Book prize.

A.S. Hodson is a writer and former contributing editor

Jesper Stenberg Johnsøn is a political scientist advising on
governance and anti-corruption reforms in developing
countries. He works at the Chr. Michelsen Institute’s U4
Anti-Corruption Resource Centre in Bergen, Norway.

James Meadway is Senior Economist at the New Economics
Foundation, an independent British think tank. He has
worked as a policy advisor to the UK Treasury, covering
regional development, science, and innovation policy.

Dr. Anca Pusca is Senior Lecturer in International Studies
at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is
the author of Revolution, Democratic Transition and
Disillusionment: The Case of Romania, and Walter
Benjamin: Aesthetics of Change.

Marcus Weeks studied philosophy and worked as
a teacher before embarking on a career as an author.
He has contributed to many books on the arts and
popular sciences.












If justice be taken away,
what are governments
but great bands
of robbers?
Augustine of Hippo

If your desire is for good,
the people will be good


The art of war is of vital
importance to the state
Sun Tzu

Fighting has been enjoined
upon you while it is hateful
to you Muhammad


The people refuse the
rule of virtuous men

Plans for the country
are only to be shared
with the learned
Until philosophers are
kings, cities will never
have rest from their evils
Man is by nature
a political animal
A single wheel does
not move
If evil ministers enjoy
safety and profit, this
is the beginning of
Han Fei Tzu
The government is bandied
about like a ball

The Church should
devote itself to imitating
Christ and give up its
secular power
Marsilius of Padua


Government prevents
injustice, other than such
as it commits itself
Ibn Khaldun


A prudent ruler cannot,
and must not, honor
his word
Niccolò Machiavelli

30 CE–1515 CE

800 BCE–30 CE



No free man shall be
imprisoned, except by
the law of the land
Barons of King John


For war to be just, there
is required a just cause
Thomas Aquinas


To live politically means
living in accordance with
good laws Giles of Rome


In the beginning,
everything was
common to all
Francisco de Vitoria


Sovereignty is the
absolute and perpetual
power of a commonwealth
Jean Bodin


The natural law is the
foundation of human law
Francisco Suárez


Politics is the art of
associating men
Johannes Althusius


Liberty is the power
that we have over
ourselves Hugo Grotius

140 All men are created equal
Thomas Jefferson
142 Each nationality contains

its center of happiness
within itself
Johann Gottfried Herder

The condition of man
is a condition of war
Thomas Hobbes

104 The end of law is to

preserve and enlarge
freedom John Locke
110 When legislative and

executive powers are
united in the same body,
there can be no liberty
112 Independent entrepreneurs

make good citizens
Benjamin Franklin


118 To renounce liberty is to

renounce being a man
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
126 No generally valid

principle of legislation
can be based on happiness
Immanuel Kant
130 The passions of individuals

should be subjected
Edmund Burke
134 Rights dependent on

property are the most
precarious Thomas Paine

144 Government has but

a choice of evils
Jeremy Bentham
150 The people have a right

to keep and bear arms
James Madison
154 The most respectable

women are the most
Mary Wollstonecraft
156 The slave feels

self-existence to be
something external
Georg Hegel
160 War is the continuation

of Politik by other means
Carl von Clausewitz
161 Abolition and the Union

cannot coexist
John C. Calhoun
162 A state too extensive

in itself ultimately falls
into decay
Simón Bolívar
164 An educated and wise

government recognizes
the developmental needs
of its society
José María Luis Mora
165 The tendency to attack

“the family” is a symptom
of social chaos
Auguste Comte


170 Socialism is a new system

of serfdom
Alexis de Tocqueville
172 Say not I, but we

Giuseppe Mazzini
174 That so few dare

to be eccentric
marks the chief
danger of the time
John Stuart Mill
182 No man is good enough

to govern another man
without that other’s consent
Abraham Lincoln
183 Property is theft

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
184 The privileged man is a

man depraved in intellect
and heart
Mikhail Bakunin
186 That government is

best which governs not
at all Henry David Thoreau
188 Communism is the riddle

of history solved
Karl Marx
194 The men who proclaimed

the republic became the
assassins of freedom
Alexander Herzen
195 We must look for a central

axis for our nation
Ito Hirobumi

196 The will to power

Friedrich Nietzsche
200 It is the myth that

is alone important
Georges Sorel
202 We have to take working

men as they are
Eduard Bernstein
204 The disdain of our

formidable neighbor
is the greatest danger
for Latin America
José Martí
206 It is necessary to dare

in order to succeed
Peter Kropotkin
207 Either women are to be

killed, or women are to
have the vote
Emmeline Pankhurst
208 It is ridiculous to deny

the existence of a
Jewish nation
Theodor Herzl
210 Nothing will avail to

save a nation whose
workers have
Beatrice Webb
211 Protective legislation in

America is shamefully
Jane Addams
212 Land to the tillers!

Sun Yat-Sen


220 Nonviolence is the first

article of my faith
Mahatma Gandhi
226 Politics begin where the

masses are Vladimir Lenin
234 The mass strike results

from social conditions with
historical inevitability
Rosa Luxemburg
236 An appeaser is one who

feeds a crocodile, hoping
it will eat him last
Winston Churchill
238 The Fascist conception of

the state is all-embracing
Giovanni Gentile
240 The wealthy farmers must

be deprived of the sources
of their existence
Joseph Stalin
242 If the end justifies the

means, what justifies
the end? Leon Trotsky
246 We will unite Mexicans

by giving guarantees to
the peasant and the
Emiliano Zapata
247 War is a racket

Smedley D. Butler
214 The individual is a single

cog in an ever-moving
Max Weber

250 Europe has been left

without a moral code
José Ortega y Gasset
252 We are 400 million people

asking for liberty
Marcus Garvey
253 India cannot really be

free unless separated
from the British empire
Manabendra Nath Roy
254 Sovereign is he who

decides on the exception
Carl Schmitt
258 Communism is as bad

as imperialism
Jomo Kenyatta
259 The state must be

conceived of as an
Antonio Gramsci

248 Sovereignty is not given,

260 Political power grows out

it is taken
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

of the barrel of a gun
Mao Zedong

323 The intellectuals


erroneously fought Islam
Ali Shariati


324 The hellishness of war

drives us to break with
every restraint
Michael Walzer

270 The chief evil is

unlimited government
Friedrich Hayek
276 Parliamentary government

and rationalist politics do
not belong to the same
system Michael Oakeshott
278 The objective of the

Islamic jihad is to
eliminate the rule of
an un-Islamic system
Abul Ala Maududi
280 There is nothing to

take a man’s freedom
away from him, save
other men
Ayn Rand
282 Every known and

established fact can
be denied
Hannah Arendt
284 What is a woman?

Simone de Beauvoir
290 No natural object is

solely a resource
Arne Naess
294 We are not anti-white,

we are against white
Nelson Mandela
296 Only the weak-minded

believe that politics is
a place of collaboration
Gianfranco Miglio

297 During the initial

stage of the struggle,
the oppressed tend to
become oppressors
Paulo Freire
298 Justice is the first virtue

of social institutions
John Rawls
304 Colonialism is violence

in its natural state
Frantz Fanon
308 The ballot or the bullet

Malcolm X
310 We need to “cut off the

king’s head”
Michel Foucault
312 Liberators do not exist.

The people liberate
Che Guevara
314 Everybody has to make

sure that the rich folks
are happy
Noam Chomsky
316 Nothing in the world is

more dangerous than
sincere ignorance
Martin Luther King
322 Perestroika unites

socialism with democracy
Mikhail Gorbachev

326 No state more extensive

than the minimal state
can be justified
Robert Nozick
328 No Islamic law says

violate women’s rights
Shirin Ebadi
329 Suicide terrorism is

mainly a response to
foreign occupation
Robert Pape






f everyone could have
everything they wanted
whenever they wanted, there
would be no such thing as politics.
Whatever the precise meaning of
the complex activity known as
politics might be—and, as this
book illustrates, it has been
understood in many different
ways—it is clear that human
experience never provides us with
everything we want. Instead, we
have to compete, struggle,
compromise, and sometimes fight
for things. In so doing, we develop a
language to explain and justify our
claims and to challenge, contradict,
or answer the claims of others. This
might be a language of interests,
whether of individuals or groups,

Political society exists
for the sake of noble
actions, and not of
mere companionship.

or it might be a language of values,
such as rights and liberties or fair
shares and justice. But central to
the activity of politics, from its very
beginnings, is the development of
political ideas and concepts. These
ideas help us to make our claims
and to defend our interests.
But this picture of politics and
the place of political ideas is not
the whole story. It suggests that
politics can be reduced to the
question of who gets what, where,
when, and how. Political life is
undoubtedly in part a necessary
response to the challenges of
everyday life and the recognition
that collective action is often better
than individual action. But another
tradition of political thinking is
associated with the ancient Greek
thinker Aristotle, who said that
politics was not merely about the
struggle to meet material needs
in conditions of scarcity. Once
complex societies emerge, different
questions arise. Who should rule?
What powers should political rulers
have, and how do the claims
to legitimacy of political rulers
compare to other sources of
authority, such as that of the family,
or the claims of religious authority?
Aristotle said that it is natural
for man to live politically, and this
is not simply the observation that

man is better off in a complex society
than abandoned and isolated. It
is also the claim that there is
something fittingly human about
having views on how matters of
public concern should be decided.
Politics is a noble activity in which
men decide the rules they will live
by and the goals they will
collectively pursue.

Political moralism
Aristotle did not think that all
human beings should be allowed
to engage in political activity: in
his system, women, slaves, and
foreigners were explicitly excluded
from the right to rule themselves
and others. Nevertheless, his basic
idea that politics is a unique
collective activity that is directed
at certain common goals and ends
still resonates today. But which
ends? Many thinkers and political
figures since the ancient world
have developed different ideas
about the goals that politics can or
should achieve. This approach is
known as political moralism.
For moralists, political life
is a branch of ethics—or moral
philosophy—so it is unsurprising
that there are many philosophers
in the group of moralistic political
thinkers. Political moralists argue
that politics should be directed


toward achieving substantial goals,
or that political arrangements
should be organized to protect
certain things. Among these
things are political values such
as justice, equality, liberty,
happiness, fraternity, or national
self-determination. At its most
radical, moralism produces
descriptions of ideal political
societies known as Utopias, named
after English statesman and
philosopher Thomas More’s book
Utopia, published in 1516, which
imagined an ideal nation. Utopian
political thinking dates back to the
ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s
book the Republic, but it is still
used by modern thinkers such as
Robert Nozick to explore ideas.
Some theorists consider Utopian
political thinking to be a dangerous
undertaking, since it has led in the
past to justifications of totalitarian
violence. However, at its best,
Utopian thinking is part of a
process of striving toward a
better society, and many of the
thinkers discussed in this book
use it to suggest values to be
pursued or protected.

Political realism
Another major tradition of political
thinking rejects the idea that
politics exists to deliver a moral

or ethical value such as happiness
or freedom. Instead, they argue that
politics is about power. Power is
the means by which ends are
achieved, enemies are defeated,
and compromises sustained.
Without the ability to acquire and
exercise power, values—however
noble they may be—are useless.
The group of thinkers who focus
on power as opposed to morality
are described as realists. Realists
focus their attention on power,
conflict, and war, and are often
cynical about human motivations.
Perhaps the two greatest theorists
of power were Italian Niccolò
Machiavelli and Englishman
Thomas Hobbes, both of whom
lived through periods of civil war

and disorder, in the 16th and
17th centuries respectively.
Machiavelli’s view of human
nature emphasizes that men
are “ungrateful liars” and neither
noble nor virtuous. He warns of the
dangers of political motives that go
beyond concerns with the exercise
of power. For Hobbes, the lawless
“state of nature” is one of a war
of all men against each other.
Through a “social contract” with
his subjects, a sovereign exercises
absolute power to save society from
this brutish state. But the concern
with power is not unique to early
modern Europe. Much 20th-century
political thought is concerned with
the sources and exercise of power.

Wise counsel

For forms of Government
let fools contest. Whate’er
is best administered
is best.
Alexander Pope

Realism and moralism are grand
political visions that try to make
sense of the whole of political
experience and its relationship
with other features of the human
condition. Yet not all political
thinkers have taken such a wide
perspective on events. Alongside
the political philosophers, there is
an equally ancient tradition that is
pragmatic and concerned merely
with delivering the best possible
outcomes. The problems of war
and conflict may never be
eradicated, and arguments ❯❯


about the relationship between
political values such as freedom
and equality may also never be
resolved, but perhaps we can make
progress in constitutional design
and policy making, or in ensuring
that government officials are as able
as possible. Some of the earliest
thinking about politics, such as that
of Chinese philosopher Confucius,
is associated with the skills and
virtues of the wise counselor.

Rise of ideology
One further type of political
thinking is often described as
ideological. An important strand
of ideological thinking emphasizes
the ways in which ideas are
peculiar to different historical
periods. The origins of ideological
thinking can be found in the
historical philosophies of German
philosophers Georg Hegel and
Karl Marx. They explain how
the ideas of each political epoch
differ because the institutions
and practices of the societies
differ, and the significance of
ideas changes across history.
Plato and Aristotle thought
of democracy as a dangerous
and corrupt system, while most
people in the modern world see it
as the best form of government.
Contemporary authoritarian

regimes are encouraged to
democratize. Similarly, slavery
was once thought of as a natural
condition that excluded many
from any kind of rights, and until
the 20th century, most women
were not considered citizens.
This raises the question of
what causes some ideas to become
important, such as equality, and
others to fall out of favor, such as
slavery or the divine right of kings.
Marx accounts for this historical
change by arguing that ideas are
attached to the interests of social
classes such as the workers or the
capitalists. These class interests
gave rise to the great “isms”
of ideological politics, from
communism and socialism to
conservatism and fascism.

The philosophers have only
interpreted the world… the
point is to change it.
Karl Marx

The social classes of Marx are
not the only source of ideological
politics. Many recent political
ideas have also emerged from
developments within liberalism,
conservatism, socialism,
and nationalism.
Ideological political thinking
has also been the subject of
hostility and criticism. If ideas
are merely a reflection of historical
processes, critics argue, that must
mean that the individuals caught
up in those processes are playing
an essentially passive role, and that
rational deliberation and argument
have limited value. Ideological
struggle is rather like the
competition between football
teams. Passion, as opposed to
reason, matters in supporting one’s
team, and winning is ultimately
all that counts. Many worry that
ideological politics results in
the worst excesses of realism, in
which the ends are seen to justify
brutal or unjust means. Ideological
politics appears to be a perpetual
struggle or war between rival
and irreconcilable camps.
Marx’s solution to this problem
was the revolutionary triumph of the
working class and the technological
overcoming of scarcity, which
would solve the problem of political
conflict. In light of the 20th century,


this approach to politics seems to
many to be highly overoptimistic,
since revolutionary change has
been seen to have replaced one
kind of tyranny for another. In this
view, Marxism and other ideologies
are merely the latest forms of
unrealistic Utopian moralism.

A disputed future
According to Georg Hegel, political
ideas are an abstraction from the
political life of a society, state,
culture, or political movement.
Making sense of those ideas,
and the institutions or movements
they explain, involves examining
their history and development.
That history is always a story of
how we got to where we are now.
What we cannot do is look forward
to see where history is going.
In Roman mythology, the Owl of
Minerva was a symbol of wisdom.
For Hegel, the Owl only “takes flight
at twilight.” By this he means that
understanding can only come
retrospectively. Hegel is warning
against optimism about developing
ideas for where to go next. He is
also issuing a subtle warning
against his other famous claim that
the rise of the modern state is the
end of history. It is very easy to see
ourselves as the most progressive,
enlightened, and rational age

ever—after all we believe in open
economies, constitutional
government, human rights, and
democracy. But as we will see in
this book, these are not simple
ideas, and they are not shared by
all societies and people even today.
The last 80 years of world
history have seen the rise of
new nation-states as a result of
imperial retreat and decolonization.
Federations such as Yugoslavia and
Czechoslovakia have fragmented
into new states, as has the former
USSR. The desire for national
sovereignty is also strong in places
such as Quebec, Catalonia,
Kurdistan, and Kashmir. Yet,
while peoples have struggled for
statehood, states have sought
complex federations and political
union. The last three decades
have seen the rise of the European
Union, which aspires to closer
political integration, as well as the
North American Free Trade area
and many other organizations for
regional cooperation.
Old ideas of state sovereignty
have an awkward role in the
new political world of pooled
sovereignty, economic cooperation,
and globalization. Hegel’s point
seems very pertinent here—we
cannot predict how we will appear
to those in the future, nor whether

what seems common sense to
us will be seen as persuasive
by our descendants.
Making sense of the present
requires an understanding of the
variety of political ideas and theories
conceived throughout history. These
ideas serve as an explanation of the
possibilities of the present, as well
as a warning against overconfidence
in our own political values, and
they remind us that the demands
of organizing and governing the
collective life of society change in
ways that we cannot fully predict.
As new possibilities for the exercise
of power arise, so will new demands
for its control and accountability,
and with these will come new
political ideas and theories. Politics
concerns all of us, so we should all
be involved in that debate. ■

Politics is too serious a matter
to be left to the politicians.
Charles de Gaulle

800 BCE–30 CE


The Spring and
Autumn period
begins in China, and
the “Hundred Schools
of Thought” emerge.

Confucius proposes a
system of government
based on traditional
values, administered
by a class of scholars.

The Roman
Republic is founded.

In Greece, Sophists
including Protagoras
maintain that political
justice is an imposition
of human values, not a
reflection of justice
in nature.

C.770 BCE

600–500 BCE

C.510 BCE

C.460 BCE

600 BCE

The Chinese general
Sun Tzu writes his
treatise The Art of War
for King Helü of Wu.


olitical theory can trace
its beginnings to the
civilizations of ancient
China and Greece. In both places,
thinkers emerged who questioned
and analyzed the world around
them in a way we now call
philosophy. From around 600 BCE,
some of them turned their attention
to the way we organize societies.
At first, both in China and Greece,
these questions were considered
part of moral philosophy or ethics.
Philosophers examined how society
should be structured to ensure not
only the happiness and security of
the people, but to enable people to
live a “good life.”

Political thought in China
From around 770 BCE, China
experienced a time of prosperity
known as the Spring and Autumn

594 BCE

Solon creates a
constitution for
Athens that paves the
way for a democratic

476–221 BCE

399 BCE

During the Warring
States period, the
seven largest
Chinese states vie
for supremacy.

After years of
questioning politics
and society in
Athens, Socrates is
sentenced to death.

period, and various dynasties ruled
over the separate states relatively
peaceably. Scholarship was highly
valued in this period, resulting in
the so-called Hundred Schools of
Thought. By far the most influential
of the philosophers to emerge was
Confucius, who combined moral
and political philosophy in his
proposals for upholding traditional
Chinese moral values in a state led
by a virtuous ruler, and advised by
a class of administrators.
This idea was further refined
by Mozi and Mencius to prevent
corruption and despotic rule, but
as conflict between the states
increased in the 3rd century BCE,
the Spring and Autumn period
came to a close, replaced by the
Warring States period and the
struggle for control of a unified
Chinese empire. It was in this

atmosphere that thinkers such as
Han Fei Tzu and the Legalist school
advocated discipline as the guiding
principle of the state, and the
military leader Sun Tzu applied the
tactics of warfare to ideas of foreign
policy and domestic government.
These more authoritarian political
philosophies brought stability
to the new empire, which later
reverted to a form of Confucianism.

Greek democracy
At much the same time as these
developments in China, Greek
civilization was flourishing. Like
China, Greece was not a single
nation, but a collection of separate
city-states under various systems
of government. Most were ruled by
a monarch or an aristocracy, but
Athens had established a form of
democracy under a constitution

Chinese philosopher
Mozi proposes a purely
meritocratic class of
ministers and advisors
chosen for their virtue
and ability.

In his Politics, Aristotle
describes various forms
of rule of the city-state,
and suggests polity
government—as the
most practical.

Mencius popularizes
Confucian ideas
in China.

The Han dynasty
adopts Confucianism
as the official
philosophy of China.

C.470–391 BCE

335–323 BCE

372–289 BCE

200 BCE

C.380–360 BCE

In the Republic, Plato
advocates rule by
“philosopher kings” who
possess the wisdom and
knowledge to understand
the nature of a good life.

introduced by the statesman Solon
in 594 BCE. The city became the
cultural center of Greece, and
provided an intellectual space in
which philosophers could speculate
on what constituted the ideal state,
what its purpose was, and how it
should be governed. Here, Plato
advocated rule by an elite of
“philosopher kings,” while his pupil
Aristotle compared the various
possible forms of government. Their
theories would form the basis for
Western political philosophy.
After Aristotle, the “golden age”
of classical Greek philosophy drew
to a close, as Alexander the Great
embarked on a series of campaigns
to extend his empire from Macedon
into northern Africa and across
Asia as far as the Himalayas. But
in India, he met with resistance
from an organized opposition.

C.370–283 BCE

300 BCE

Chanakya’s advice
to Chandragupta
Maurya helps to
establish the
Mauryan empire
in India.

In the attempt to unify
China, the authoritarian
ideas of Shang Yang
and Han Fei Tzu are
adopted as the
doctrine of Legalism.

The Indian subcontinent was
composed of various separate
states, but the emergence of
an innovative political theorist,
Chanakya, helped to transform it
into a unified empire under the
rule of his protégé, Chandragupta
Maurya. Chanakya believed in a
pragmatic approach to political
thinking, advocating strict
discipline, with the aim of securing
economic and material security for
the state rather than the moral
welfare of the people. His realism
helped to protect the Mauryan
empire from attack, and brought
most of India into a unified state
that lasted for more than 100 years.

The rise of Rome
Meanwhile, another power was
rising in Europe. The Roman
Republic had been founded in

54–51 BCE

Cicero writes De
republica, modeled
on Plato’s Republic,
but advocating a
more democratic
form of government.

about 510 BCE with the overthrow
of a tyrannical monarchy. A form
of representative democracy
similar to the Athenian model
was established. A constitution
evolved, with government led
by two consuls elected by the
citizens annually, and a senate
of representatives to advise them.
Under this system, the Republic
grew in strength, occupying
provinces in most of mainland
Europe. However, in the 1st
century BCE, civil conflict spread
in the Republic as various factions
vied for power. Julius Caesar seized
control in 48 BCE and effectively
became emperor, bringing the
Republic to an end. Rome had once
again come under a monarchical,
dynastic rule, and the new Roman
empire was to dominate most of
Europe for the next 500 years. ■



CONFUCIUS (551– 479 BCE)


A leader should be a junzi,
a “superior man.”

Less than perfect people
can be changed
by an example
of sincere goodness.

1045 BCE Under the Zhou
dynasty of China, political
decisions are justified by the
Mandate of Heaven.
8th century BCE The Spring
and Autumn period begins,
and the “Hundred Schools
of Thought” emerge.
5th century BCE Mozi
proposes an alternative to
the potential nepotism and
cronyism of Confucianism.

The junzi possesses the qualities of
virtue, faithfulness, and sincerity,
which he shows in rituals and ceremonies.

The junzi therefore sets
a good example for his people.

4th century BCE The
philosopher Mencius
popularizes Confucian ideas.
3rd century BCE The more
authoritarian principles of
Legalism come to dominate
the system of government.


ong Fuzi (“Master Kong”),
who later became known in
the West by the Latinized
name of Confucius, lived during
a turning point in China’s political
history. He lived at the end of
China’s Spring and Autumn
period—around 300 years of
prosperity and stability during
which there was a flowering of art,
literature, and in particular,
philosophy. This gave rise to the
so-called Hundred Schools of
Thought, in which a wide range of
ideas was freely discussed. In the
process, a new class of thinkers

If a leader’s desire is for good,
the people will be good.

and scholars emerged, most of
them based in the courts of noble
families, as valued advisors.
The influence of these scholars’
new ideas inspired a shake-up of
the structure of Chinese society.
The scholars were appointed on
merit rather than due to family
connections, and this new
meritocratic class of scholars was
a challenge to the hereditary rulers,
who had previously governed with
what they believed was a mandate
from Heaven. This caused a series
of conflicts as various rulers vied
for control over China. During this

era, which became known as
the Warring States period, it
became increasingly clear that
a strong system of government
was necessary.

The superior man
Like most educated, middle-class
young men, Confucius pursued a
career as an administrator, and it
was in this role that he developed
his ideas about the organization of
government. Seeing firsthand the
relationships between the ruler and
his ministers and subjects, and
keenly aware of the fragility of the

See also: Sun Tzu 28–31 ■ Mozi 32–33 ■ Han Fei Tzu 48
Sun Yat-Sen 212–13 ■ Mao Zedong 260–65

political situation of the time, he
set about formulating a framework
that would enable rulers to govern
justly, based on his own system of
moral philosophy.
Confucius’s moral standpoint
was firmly rooted in Chinese
convention, and had at its heart the
traditional virtues of loyalty, duty,
and respect. These values were
personified in the junzi: the
“gentleman” or “superior man,”
whose virtue would act as an
example to others. Every member
of society would be encouraged to
aspire to the junzi’s virtues. In
Confucius’s view, human nature is
not perfect, but it is capable of
being changed by the example of
sincere virtue. Similarly, society
can be transformed by the example
of fair and benevolent government.
The notion of reciprocity—
the idea that just and generous
treatment will be met with a just

The ruler sets an
example for his subjects.


and generous response—underpins
Confucius’s moral philosophy, and
it is also a cornerstone of his
political thinking. For a society
to be good, its ruler must be the
embodiment of the virtues he
wishes to see in his subjects; in
turn, the people will be inspired
through loyalty and respect to
emulate those virtues. In the
collection of his teachings and
sayings known as the Analects,
Confucius advises: “If your desire
is for good, the people will be good.
The moral character of the ruler
is the wind; the moral character
of those beneath him is the grass.
When the wind blows, the grass
bends.” In order for this idea to
work effectively, however, a new
structure for society had to be
established, creating a hierarchy
that took account of the new
meritocratic administrative class
while respecting the traditional ❯❯

Confucius believed that a wise and
just sovereign had a benign effect on
the character of his subjects.

His policies and
ideas are dispersed
through his ministers…

… and his people
begin to emulate
his goodness.

Despite his importance in
Chinese history, little is
known of Confucius’s life. He
is traditionally believed to
have been born in 551 BCE, in
Qufu in the state of Lu, China.
His name was originally Kong
Qiu (he earned the honorific
title “Kong Fuzi” much later),
and his family was both
respected and comfortably
well off. Nevertheless, as a
young man he worked as a
servant after his father died in
order to support his family,
and studied in his spare time
to join the civil service. He
became an administrator in
the Zhou court, where he
developed his ideas of how
a state should be governed,
but his advice was ignored
and he resigned from the
position. He spent the rest of
his life traveling throughout
the Chinese empire, teaching
his philosophy and theories of
government. He eventually
returned to Qufu, where he
died in 479 BCE.
Key works
Doctrine of the Mean
The Great Learning
(All assembled during the 12th
century by Chinese scholars.)




The sovereign was regarded
by Confucius as inherently
superior. His task was to model
perfect behavior, setting a good
example to those below him.

Ministers and advisors played
an important role as “middle men”
between the sovereign and his
subjects. They had a duty of
loyalty to both parties.

The people, given a good
example to follow and a clear
idea of what was expected of
them, would behave correctly,
according to Confucius.

rule of the noble families. In his
proposal for how this might be
achieved, Confucius again relied
very much on traditional values,
modeling society on relationships
within the family. For Confucius,
the benevolence of the sovereign
and the loyalty of his subject mirror
the loving father and obedient
son relationship (a relationship
considered by the Chinese to be
of the utmost importance).
Confucius considers that there
are five “constant relationships”:
sovereign/subject, father/son,
husband/wife, elder brother/
younger brother, and friend/friend.
In these relationships, he emphasizes
not only the rank of each person
according to generation, age, and
gender, but the fact that there are
duties on both sides, and that the
responsibility of the superior to the
inferior in any relationship is just
as important as that of the junior
to the senior. Extending these
relationships to the wider society,
their reciprocal rights and
responsibilities give society its

cohesion, creating an atmosphere
of loyalty and respect from each
social stratum toward the next.

Justifying hereditary rule
At the top of Confucius’s hierarchy
was the sovereign, who would
unquestionably have inherited this
status, and in this respect Confucius
shows the conservative nature of
his political thinking. Just as the
family provided a model for the
relationships within society,
the traditional respect shown
to parents (especially fathers)
extended also to ancestors, and
this justified the hereditary
principle. Just as a father was
considered the head of the family,
the state should naturally be ruled
over by a paterfamilias figure—
the sovereign.
Nevertheless, the sovereign’s
position was not unassailable in
Confucius’s thinking, and an unjust
or unwise ruler deserved to be
opposed or even removed. However,
it was in the next layer of society
that Confucius was at his most

innovative, advocating a class
of scholars to act as ministers,
advisors, and administrators to the
ruler. Their position between the
sovereign and his subjects was
crucial, since they had a duty of
loyalty both to their ruler and the
people. They carried a high degree
of responsibility, so it was essential
that they be recruited from the
most able and educated candidates,
and that anybody serving in public

Good government consists
in the ruler being a ruler,
the minister being a minister,
the father being a father,
and the son being a son.

office should be of the highest
moral character—a junzi. These
ministers were to be appointed
by the sovereign in Confucius’s
system, so much depended upon
the sovereign’s own good character.
Confucius said: “The administration
of government lies in getting proper
men. Such men are to be gotten by
means of the ruler’s own character.
That character is to be cultivated
by his treading in the ways of duty.
And the treading of those ways of
duty is to be cultivated by the
cherishing of benevolence.”
The role of these public servants
was mainly advisory, and ministers
were not only expected to be wellversed in the administration and
structure of Chinese society, but
also to have a thorough knowledge
of history, politics, and diplomacy.
This was necessary to advise the
ruler on matters such as alliances
and wars with neighboring states.
However, this new class of civil
servants also served an equally
important function in preventing
the ruler from becoming despotic,
because they showed loyalty to
their superior, but also benevolence
to their inferiors. Like their ruler,
they too had to lead by example,
inspiring both the sovereign and
his subjects by their virtue.

The importance of ritual
Many parts of Confucius’s
writings read like a handbook of
etiquette and protocol, detailing
the proper conduct for the junzi
in various situations, but he also
stressed that this should not merely
be empty show. The rituals he
outlined were not mere social
Actors performing a Confucian ritual
in Shandong Province, China, convey
the importance of restraint and respect
to modern visitors unversed in their
highly formalized tradition.

niceties, but served a much deeper
purpose, and it was important that
the participants behaved with
sincerity for the rituals to have any
meaning. Public servants not only
had to fulfill their duties virtuously,
they also had to be seen to be
acting virtuously. For this reason,
Confucius laid great emphasis on
ceremonies and rituals. These also
worked to underline the positions
of the various members within a
society, and Confucius’s approval
of this illustrates his tendency
to conservatism.
The ceremonies and rituals
allowed people to manifest their
devotion to those above them in the
hierarchy and their consideration
toward those below them.
According to Confucius, these
rituals were to permeate the whole
of society, from formal royal and
state ceremonies right down to
everyday social interactions,
with participants meticulously
observing their respective roles.
Only when virtue was sincerely
and honestly manifested in this
way could the idea of leading by
example succeed. For this reason,
Confucius held sincerity and
honesty to be the most important
of virtues, next only to loyalty.

The superior man
governs men according
to their nature, with
what is proper to them,
and as soon as they change
what is wrong, he stops.

Many of these rituals and
ceremonies had their basis in
religious rites, but this aspect
was not important to Confucius.
His moral philosophy was not
founded on religion, and the
political system he derived from
it simply acknowledged that there
was a place for religion in society.
In fact, he seldom referred to the
gods in his writings, except in
terms of a hope that society could
be organized and governed in
accordance with the Mandate of
Heaven, which would help to ❯❯

unify the states vying for power.
Although he firmly believed
in rule by a hereditary sovereign,
he did not feel the need to justify
it as a divine right.
This implicit dismissal of the
divine right, combined with a class
system based on merit rather than
inheritance, showed Confucius at
his most radical. While he advocated
a hierarchy reinforced by strict
rules of etiquette and protocol, so
that everybody was very aware of
their place in society, this did not
mean there should be no social
mobility. Those with ability (and
good character) could rise through
the ranks to the highest levels of
government, whatever their family
background; and those in positions
of power could be removed from
office if they failed to show the
necessary qualities, no matter how
noble the family they were born
into. This principle extended even
to the sovereign himself. Confucius
saw the assassination of a despotic
ruler as the necessary removal of

a tyrant rather than the murder of a
legitimate ruler. He argued that the
flexibility of this hierarchy
engendered more real respect for it,
and that this in turn engendered
political consent—a necessary basis
for strong and stable government.

Crime and punishment
The principles of Confucius’s moral
philosophy also extended into the
fields of law and punishment.
Previously, the legal system had
been based on the codes of conduct
prescribed by religion, but he
advocated a more humanistic
approach to replace the divinely
ordained laws. As with his social
structure, he proposed a system
based on reciprocity: if you are
treated with respect, you will act
with respect. His version of the
Golden Rule (“do as you would be
done by”) was in the negative: “what
you do not desire for yourself, do not
do to others,” moving the emphasis
from specific crimes to avoidance of
bad behavior. Once again, this

He who governs
by means of his virtue is…
like the North Star: it remains
in its place while all the
lesser stars pay homage to it.

could best be achieved by example
since, in his words, “When you meet
someone better than yourself, turn
your thoughts to becoming his
equal. When you meet someone not
as good as you are, look within and
examine your own self.”
Rather than imposing rigid laws
and stern punishments, Confucius
felt that the best way to deal with
crime lay in instilling a sense of
shame for bad behavior. Although
people may avoid committing
crime if guided by laws and
subdued by punishment, they do
not learn a real sense of right and
wrong, while if they are guided
by example and subdued by
respect, they develop a sense of
shame for any misdemeanors
and learn to become truly good.

Unpopular ideas
Confucius’s moral and political
philosophy combined ideas about
the innate goodness and sociability
of human nature with the rigid,
The Chinese emperor presides over
the civil service examinations in this
Song dynasty painting. The exams
were introduced during Confucius’s
lifetime and were based on his ideas.

Religious functions were absorbed
into Confucianism when it became the
official philosophy of China. Confucian
temples such as this one in Nanjing
sprang up throughout the country.

formal structure of traditional
Chinese society. Unsurprisingly,
given his position as a court
administrator, he found an
important place for the new
meritocratic class of scholars.
However, his ideas were met with
suspicion and were not adopted
during his lifetime. Members of the
royal and noble ruling families were
unhappy with his implied dismissal
of their divine right to rule, and
felt threatened by the power he
proposed for their ministers and
advisors. The administrators might
have enjoyed more control to rein in
potentially despotic rulers, but they
doubted the idea that the people
could be governed by example,
and were unwilling to give up their
right to exercise power through
laws and punishment.
Later political and philosophical
thinkers also had their criticisms
of Confucianism. Mozi, a Chinese
philosopher born shortly after
Confucius’s death, agreed with his
more modern ideas of meritocracy
and leading by example, but felt

that his emphasis on family
relationships would lead to nepotism
and cronyism. Around the same
time, military thinkers such as
Sun Tzu had little time for the moral
philosophy underlying Confucius’s
political theory, and instead took a
more practical approach to matters
of government, advocating an
authoritarian and even ruthless
system to ensure the defense of
the state. Nevertheless, elements
of Confucianism were gradually
incorporated into Chinese society
in the two centuries following his
death. Championed by Mencius
(372–289 BCE), they gained some
popularity in the 4th century BCE.

The state philosophy

What you know, you know;
what you don’t know,
you don’t know.
This is true wisdom.

Confucianism may have been
adequate to govern in peacetime,
but it was felt by many not to be
robust enough for the ensuing
Warring States period and the
struggle to form a unified Chinese
empire. During this period, a
pragmatic and authoritarian system
of government known as Legalism
supplanted Confucius’s ideas, and
continued as the emperor asserted

his authority over the new empire.
By the 2nd century BCE, however,
peace had returned to China, and
Confucianism was adopted as the
official philosophy of the state under
the Han dynasty. It continued to
dominate the structure of Chinese
society from then on, particularly
in the practice of recruiting the
most able scholars to the
administrative class. The civil
service exams introduced in 605 CE
were based on classic Confucian
texts, and this practice continued
into the 20th century and the
formation of the Chinese Republic.
Confucianism has not entirely
disappeared under China’s
communist regime, and it had a
subtle influence on the structure
of society right up to the Cultural
Revolution. Today, elements of
Confucian thinking, such as
those that deal with societal
relationships and the notion of filial
loyalty, are still deeply ingrained in
the Chinese way of life. Confucian
ideas are once again being taken
seriously as the country shifts from
Maoist communism to a Chinese
version of a mixed economy. ■


SUN TZU (C.544–C.496 BCE)

Diplomacy and war
8th century BCE A “golden
age” of Chinese philosophy
begins, which produces
the so-called Hundred
Schools of Thought.
6th century BCE Confucius
proposes a framework for
civil society based on
traditional values.
4th century BCE Chanakya’s
advice to Chandragupta
Maurya helps to establish the
Mauryan empire in India.
1532 Niccolò Machiavelli’s
The Prince is published, five
years after his death.
1937 Mao Zedong writes
On Guerrilla Warfare.


n the late 6th century BCE,
China was reaching the end of
an era of peaceful prosperity—
the so-called Spring and Autumn
period—in which philosophers had
flourished. Much of the thinking
had focused on moral philosophy or
ethics, and the political philosophy
that followed from this concentrated
on the morally correct way that the
state should organize its internal
affairs. The culmination of this
came with Confucius’s integration
of traditional virtues into a hierarchy
led by a sovereign and administered
by a bureaucracy of scholars.
Toward the end of the Spring
and Autumn period, however, the
political stability of the various

See also: Chanakya 44–47


Han Fei Tzu 48


Niccolò Machiavelli 74–81


War punishes those
who threaten or harm
the state…

Planning, waging, and
avoiding war determines
foreign policy…

…just as criminals
within the state
are punished…

…and military
strategies provide a
framework for domestic
political organization…

Mao Zedong 260–65

…to ensure a stable and
prosperous state.

The art of war is of vital
importance to the state.

states of China became fragile, and
tensions between them increased
as the population grew. Rulers of
the states not only had to manage
their internal affairs, but also to
defend themselves against attack
from neighboring states.

Military strategy
In this atmosphere, military
advisors became as important as
the civil bureaucrats, and military
strategy began to inform political
thinking. The most influential work
on the subject was The Art of War,

believed to have been written by
Sun Tzu, a general in the army
of the king of Wu. The opening
passage reads: “The art of war is
of vital importance to the state. It is
a matter of life and death, a road
either to safety or to ruin. Hence it
is a subject of inquiry which can
on no account be neglected.” This
marked a distinct break from the
political philosophy of the time, and
Sun Tzu’s work was perhaps the
first explicit statement that war and
military intelligence are critical
elements of the business of the state.


Che Guevara 312–13

A terra-cotta army was built to line
the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang,
showing the importance of the military
to him. Qin lived 200 years after Sun Tzu,
but would have read his works closely.

The Art of War deals with the
practicalities of protecting and
maintaining the prosperity of the
state. Where previous thinkers had
concentrated on the structure of
civil society, this treatise focuses
on international politics, discussing
public administration only in
connection with the business of
planning and waging wars, or the
economics of maintaining military
and intelligence services.
Sun Tzu’s detailed description
of the art of war has been seen as
providing a framework for political
organization of any sort. He gives a
list of the “principles of war” that
are to be considered when planning
a campaign. In addition to practical
matters, such as weather and
terrain, the list includes the moral
influence of the ruler, the ability
and qualities of the general, and
the organization and discipline of
the men. Implicit in these principles
of war is a hierarchical structure ❯❯

The Five Fundamentals
of Warfare

The Dao, or the Way, allows all soldiers
to be of one mind with their rulers.

Generals must be aware of Heaven,
which is Yin and Yang, and the cycle
of the seasons.

A strategist must take into account the
Earth: high and low, near and distant,
open and confined.

with a sovereign at its head,
taking advice from and giving
commands to his generals, who
lead and organize their troops.
For Sun Tzu, the role of the
sovereign is to provide moral
leadership. The people must be
convinced that their cause is just
before they will give their support,
and a ruler should lead by example;
this was an idea that Sun Tzu shared
with Confucius. Like the bureaucrat
of civil society, the general acts as
both advisor to the ruler and
administrator of his commands.
Unsurprisingly, Sun Tzu places
great emphasis on the qualities of
the general, describing him as the
“bulwark of the state.” His training
and experience inform the counsel
he gives the sovereign, effectively
determining policy, but are also
vital to the organization of the
army. At the head of the chain of
command, he controls the logistics,
and especially the training and
discipline of the men. The Art of
War recommends that discipline
be rigorously enforced with harsh
penalties for disobedience, but
that this should be tempered by a
consistent application of rewards
and punishments.

Knowing when to fight

Command is shown by wisdom,
integrity, compassion, and courage.

Organization and the proper chain
of command instill Discipline.

While this description of a military
hierarchy mirrored the structure of
Chinese society, The Art of War
was much more innovative in its
recommendations for international
politics. Like many generals before
and since, Sun Tzu believed that
the purpose of the military was to
protect the state and ensure its
welfare, and that war should always
be a last resort. A good general
should know when to fight and
when not to fight, remembering
that an enemy’s resistance can
often be broken without armed
conflict. A general should first try

to thwart the enemy’s plans; failing
that, he should defend against
attack; only failing that should
he launch an offensive.
To avoid the necessity for war,
Sun Tzu advocated maintaining
a strong defense and forming
alliances with neighboring states.
Since a war is harmful to both
sides, it often makes sense to come
to a peaceful settlement. Prolonged
campaigns, especially tactics such
as laying siege to an enemy’s city,
are such a drain on resources that
their cost often outweighs the
benefits of victory. The sacrifices
that have to be made by the people
put a strain on their loyalty to the
moral justness of the cause.

Military intelligence
The key to stable international
relationships, argues Sun Tzu, is
intelligence, which was then the
responsibility of the military. Spies
provide vital information on a
potential enemy’s intentions and
capabilities, allowing the generals
who command the spies to advise
the ruler on the likelihood of victory
in the event of conflict. Along the
same lines, Sun Tzu goes on
to explain that the next most
important element in this
information warfare is deception.

If you know both
yourself and your enemy,
you can win a hundred
battles without jeopardy.
Sun Tzu


A leader leads by example
not by force.
Sun Tzu

The Great Wall of China, begun in
the 7th century BCE, acted to fence
off newly conquered territories. For
Sun Tzu, such defensive measures
were as important as attacking force.

By feeding misinformation to the
enemy about defenses, for example,
war can often be averted. He also
advised against what he saw as
the folly of attempting to destroy an
enemy in battle: this decreased the
rewards that could be gained from
the victory—both the goodwill of
any defeated soldiers and the
wealth of any territory gained.
Underlying the very practical
advice in The Art of War is a
traditional cultural foundation

Sun Tzu

based on moral values of justice,
appropriateness, and moderation.
It states that military tactics,
international politics, and war exist
to uphold these values and should
be conducted in accordance with
them. The state exercises its
military capability to punish those
that harm or threaten it from
outside, just as it uses the law to
punish criminals within it. When
done in a morally justifiable way,
the state is rewarded by happier

people and the acquisition of
territory and wealth. The Art of War
became an influential text among
the rulers, generals, and ministers
of the various states in the struggle
for a unified Chinese empire. It was
later an important influence on the
tactics of revolutionaries, including
Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh.
It is now required reading at many
military academies, and is often
included as a text in courses on
politics, business, and economics. ■

Traditionally believed to be the
author of the legendary treatise
The Art of War, Sun Wu (later
known as Sun Tzu, “the Master
Sun”) was probably born in the
state of Qi or Wu in China in
around 544 BCE. Nothing is
known of his early life, but
he rose to fame as a general
serving the state of Wu in many
successful campaigns against
the neighboring state of Chu.
He became an indispensable
advisor (equivalent to a
contracted military consultant
today) to King Helü of Wu on
matters of military strategy,

writing his famous treatise to
be used as a handbook by the
ruler. A concise book, made
up of 13 short chapters, it was
widely read after his death in
c.496 BCE, both by state leaders
fighting for control of the
Chinese empire, and military
thinkers in Japan and Korea.
It was first translated into a
European language, French,
in 1782, and may have
influenced Napoleon.
Key work
6th century BCE The Art of War


MOZI (C.470–C.391 BCE)

6th century BCE Chinese
philosopher Laozi advocates
Daoism—acting in accordance
with the Way (dao).
5th century BCE Confucius
proposes a government system
based on traditional values
enacted by a class of scholars.
4th century BCE The
authoritarian ideas of Shang
Yang and Han Fei Tzu are
adopted in the state of Qin as
the doctrine of Legalism.


oward the end of the
“golden age” of Chinese
philosophy that produced
the so-called Hundred Schools of
Thought between the 8th and the
3rd centuries BCE, thinkers began
to apply their ideas of moral

Only virtuous people
should be given positions
of authority.

philosophy to the practical
business of social and political
organization. Foremost among
these was Confucius, who proposed
a hierarchy based on traditional
family relationships, reinforced
with ceremony and ritual. Within

Only capable people
should be given positions
of authority.

Virtue and ability do not necessarily come
from adherence to tradition or belonging
to a noble family.

Virtue and ability can be learned through study.

372–289 BCE The philosopher
Mencius advocates a return to
a form of Confucianism.
20th century Mozi’s ideas
influence both Sun Yat-Sen’s
Republic and the communist
People’s Republic of China.

Plans for the country are only
to be shared with the learned.

See also: Confucius 20–27


Plato 34–39

For Mozi, skilled workers such
as carpenters could—with training
and aptitude—be made into able
administrators in government.

this hierarchy, however, he
recognized the importance of an
administrative class to aid and
advise the ruler, an idea that was
later developed by Mozi.
Both Confucius and Mozi
believed that the well-being of the
state relied on the competence and
dependability of the bureaucratic
class, but they differed over the
way that administrators should
be chosen. To Mozi, Confucius
adhered too closely to the
conventions of the noble families,
which did not necessarily produce
the virtue and ability essential to
a successful bureaucracy. Mozi felt
that the qualities and skills for high
office resulted from aptitude and
study, regardless of background.

A unifying code
“Elevating the worthy,” as Mozi
described his meritocratic idea,
forms the cornerstone of Mohist
political thinking, but it is also
linked to other aspects of Mozi’s
moral philosophy. He believed in
the inherent goodness of people,
and felt that they should live in an


Han Fei Tzu 48


Sun Yat-Sen 212–13

atmosphere of “universal love.” At
the same time, he recognized the
human tendency to act in selfinterest. This, he believed, often
happened in situations of conflict,
which arose not from a lack of
morality, but from differing ideas
of what is morally correct. It was
therefore the task of political
leaders to unite the people with
a coherent moral code that was
enforced by a strong and ethical
system of government. This code
would be based on what was
necessary for the greatest good of
society, and formulating it required
knowledge and wisdom that was
only available to the learned.
Mozi’s preference for a
ministerial class chosen on merit
and ability no doubt stemmed from
his own experience of working his
way up to high office from humble
beginnings. He saw the potential
for nepotism and cronyism when
the nobility appointed ministers.
He also believed that government
needed to be run in such a way
that it would cultivate the
prosperity of the state for the
welfare of the people as a whole.

It is believed that Mozi was born
around the time of Confucius’s
death, in Tengzhou, Shandong
Province, China, into a family
of artisans or possibly slaves.
Named Mo Di, he was a
woodworker and engineer, and
worked at the courts of noble
families, rising through the civil
service to establish a school
for officials and advisors. His
philosophical and political views
gained him a following and the
title Mozi (“Master Mo”).


Mao Zedong 260–65

Exaltation of the virtuous
is the root of government.

Although Mozi attracted a large
group of followers, he was regarded
as an idealist, and Mohism was
not adopted by the Chinese rulers
of the time. However, elements
of his political thinking were
incorporated into later political
systems. For example, his emphasis
on enforcing a unified moral code
was a significant influence on the
authoritarian Legalist regimes
that arose in the 4th century BCE.
In the 20th century, Mozi’s notions
of equality of opportunity were
rediscovered by Chinese leaders
Sun Yat-Sen and Mao Zedong. ■
Mohists, as his followers were
known, lived according to Mozi’s
principles of simplicity and
pacifism during the Warring
States period, until the Qin
dynasty established its Legalist
regime. After his death, Mozi’s
teachings were collected in
The Mozi. Mohism disappeared
after the unification of China in
221 BCE, but were rediscovered
in the early 20th century.
Key works
5th century BCE The Mozi





PLATO 427–347 BCE

36 PLATO

The role of rulers is to ensure
the people follow the “good life.”

Philosopher kings
594 BCE The Athenian
lawmaker Solon lays down
laws that act as the foundation
for Greek democracy.
c.450 BCE Greek philosopher
Protagoras says that political
justice is an imposition of
human ideas, not a reflection
of natural justice.
335–323 BCE Aristotle
suggests that polity
(constitutional government)
is the most practical of the
better ways to run a state.
54–51 BCE Cicero writes
De republica, advocating a
more democratic form of
government than suggested
by Plato’s Republic.


t the end of the 6th
century BCE, a cultural
golden age began in
Greece that was to last for 200
years. Now referred to as the
Classical period, it saw the blooming
of literature, architecture, science,
and, above all, philosophy, all of
which profoundly influenced the
development of Western civilization.
At the very beginning of the
Classical period, the people of the
city-state of Athens overthrew
their tyrannical leader and
instituted a form of democracy.
Under this system, government

Knowing what the “good life” is
requires intellectual ability and
knowledge of ethics and morality.

Only philosophers have this
ability and knowledge.

Political power should only
be given to philosophers.

Until philosophers are kings, cities
will never have rest from their evils.

officials were chosen by a lottery
from among the citizens, and
decisions were taken by a
democratic assembly. All the
citizens could speak and vote at
the assembly—they did not elect
representatives to do this on their
behalf. It should be noted, however,
that the “citizens” were a minority
of the population; they were free
men aged over 30 whose parents
were Athenians. Women, slaves,
children, younger men, and
foreigners or first-generation
settlers were excluded from
the democratic process.

This political environment quickly
made Athens a major cultural
center, attracting some of the
foremost thinkers of the time. One
of the greatest of these was an
Athenian named Socrates, whose
philosophical questioning of the
generally accepted notions of
justice and virtue gained him
a following of young disciples.
Unfortunately, it also attracted
unwanted attention from the
authorities, who persuaded the
democratic assembly to issue
Socrates with a death sentence, on
charges of corrupting the young.

See also: Confucius 20–27 ■ Mozi 32–33 ■ Aristotle 40–43
Augustine of Hippo 54–55 ■ Al-Farabi 58–59

Democracy passes
into despotism.

One of Socrates’ young followers
was Plato, who shared his teacher’s
inquisitive nature and skeptical
attitude. Plato was to become
disillusioned with the Athenian
system after what he saw as its
unfair treatment of his teacher.
Plato went on to become
as influential a philosopher as
Socrates, and toward the end of his
career he turned his considerable
intellect to the business of politics,
most famously in the Republic.
Unsurprisingly, given that he had
seen Socrates condemned and was
himself from a noble family, Plato
had little sympathy for democracy.
But neither did he find much to
commend in any other existing
form of government, all of which he
believed led the state into “evils.”

The good life
To understand what Plato meant
by “evils” in this context, it is
important to bear in mind the
concept of eudaimonia, the “good
Socrates chose to drink poison
rather than renounce his views. The
trial and conviction of Socrates caused
Plato to doubt the virtues of the
democratic political system of Athens.


Chanakya 44–47


life,” which for ancient Greeks was
a vital aim. “Living well” was not
a question of achieving material
well-being, honor, or mere pleasure,
but rather living according to
fundamental virtues such as
wisdom, piety, and above all,
justice. The purpose of the state,
Plato believed, was to promote
these virtues so that its citizens
could lead this good life. Issues
such as protection of property,
liberty, and stability were only
important in so far as they
created conditions that allowed
citizens to live well. In his opinion,
however, no political system had
yet existed that fulfilled this
objective—and the defects
within them encouraged what
he saw as “evils,” or the opposite
of these virtues.
The reason for this, Plato
maintained, is that rulers, whether
in a monarchy, oligarchy (rule of the
few), or democracy, tend to rule in
their own interests rather than for
the good of the state and its people.
Plato explains that this is due to a
general ignorance of the virtues
that constitute the good life, which

Cicero 49


in turn leads people to desire
the wrong things, especially the
transitory pleasures of honor and
wealth. These prizes come with
political power, and the problem is
intensified in the political arena.
The desire to rule, for what Plato
saw as the wrong reasons, leads
to conflict among citizens. With
everyone seeking increased power,
this ultimately undermines the
stability and unity of the state.
Whoever emerges victorious from
the power struggle deprives his
opponents of the power to achieve
their desires, which leads to
injustice—an evil that is exactly
contrary to the cornerstone of
Plato’s notion of the good life.
In contrast, Plato argued, there
is a class of people who understand
the meaning of the good life:
philosophers. They alone recognize
the worth of virtues above the
pleasures of honor and money, and
they have devoted their lives to the
pursuit of the good life. Because of
this, they do not lust after fame and
fortune, and so have no desire for
political power—paradoxically this
is what qualifies them as ideal ❯❯

rulers. On face value, Plato’s
argument would seem to be simply
that “philosophers know best,” and
(coming from a philosopher) might
appear to contradict his assertion
that they have no desire to rule, but
behind it he gives a much richer
and more subtle reasoning.

The shipowner,
who represents the general
populace, has no
knowledge of seafaring.

Plato used the metaphor of the ship
of state to explain why philosophers
should be kings. Though he does not
seek power, the navigator is the only
one who can steer a proper course—
much as the philosopher is the only
one with the knowledge to rule justly.

The sailors, who
represent politicians,
vie with each other for the
shipowner’s favor.

The navigator, who
represents the philosopher,
is not involved in the
struggle for power.

examples of these Forms, and may
show only a part of their nature.
They are like inadequate reflections
or shadows of the real Forms.
These ideal Forms, or Ideas,
as Plato called them, exist in a
realm outside the world we live in,
accessible only via philosophical
reasoning and inquiry. It is this that
makes philosophers uniquely
qualified to define what constitutes
the good life, and of leading a truly
virtuous life, rather than simply
imitating individual examples
of virtue. Plato had already
demonstrated that to be good,
the state has to be ruled by the
virtuous, and while others value
money or honor above all, only
philosophers value knowledge and
wisdom, and therefore virtue. It
follows then that only the interests
of philosophers benefit the state,
and therefore “philosophers must

become kings.” Plato goes as far
as to suggest that they should be
compelled to take positions of
power, in order to avoid the conflict
and injustice inherent in other
forms of government.

Ideal Forms
From Socrates, Plato had learned
that virtue is not innate, but
dependent on knowledge and
wisdom, and in order to lead a
virtuous life it is necessary first to
understand the essential nature of
virtue. Plato developed his mentor’s
ideas, showing that while we might
recognize individual instances of
qualities such as justice, goodness,
or beauty, this does not allow us to
understand what gives them their
essential nature. We might imitate
them—acting in a way that we
think is just, for example—but this
is mere mimicry rather than truly
behaving according to those virtues.
In his Theory of Forms, Plato
suggested the existence of ideal
archetypes of these virtues (and of
everything that exists) that consist
of the essence of their true nature;
this means that what we see as
instances of these virtues are only

The chief penalty
is to be governed by
someone worse if a
man will not himself
hold office and rule.

Educating kings
Plato recognizes that this is a
utopian stance, and goes on to
say, “…or those now called kings
must genuinely and adequately
philosophize,” suggesting the
education of a potential ruling class
as a more practical proposition. In
his later dialogues Statesman and
Laws, he describes a model for a
state in which this can be achieved,
teaching the philosophical skills
necessary to understanding the
good life, in the same way as any
other skills that can be of use to
society. However, he points out that
not every citizen has the aptitude


Democracy… is full of
variety and disorder,
dispensing a sort of equality
to equals and unequals alike.

and intellectual ability to learn
these skills. He suggests that where
this education is appropriate—for
a small, intellectual elite—it should
be enforced rather than offered.
Those chosen for power because
of their “natural talents” should be
separated from their families and
reared in communes, so that their
loyalties are to the state.
Plato’s political writings were
influential in the ancient world, in
particular in the Roman empire,
and echoed the notions of virtue
and education in the political
philosophy of Chinese scholars
such as Confucius and Mozi. It is

even possible that they influenced
Chanakya in India when he wrote
his treatise on training potential
rulers. In medieval times, Plato’s
influence spread to the Islamic
empire and to Christian Europe,
where Augustine incorporated
them into the teachings of the
Church. Later, Plato’s ideas were
overshadowed by those of Aristotle,
whose advocacy of democracy
worked better with the political
philosophers of the Renaissance.
Plato’s political notions have
been seen as unacceptably
authoritarian and elitist by later
thinkers, and they fell out of favor
with many in the modern world
while it struggled to establish
democracy. He has been criticized
as advocating a totalitarian, or
at best paternalistic, system of
government run by an elite that
claims to know what is best for
everyone else. Recently, however,
his central notion of a political elite
of “philosopher kings” has been
reappraised by political thinkers. ■
Emperor Nero is said to have stood
by and done nothing to help while a fire
raged in the city of Rome. Plato’s ideal
of a philosopher king has been blamed
by some for the rise of such tyrants.

Born around 427 BCE, Plato
was originally called
Aristocles, later acquiring the
nickname Plato (meaning
“broad”) because of his
muscular physique. From a
noble Athenian family, he was
probably expected to follow a
career in politics, but instead
became a disciple of the
philosopher Socrates and
was present when his mentor
chose to die rather than
renounce his views.
Plato traveled widely
around the Mediterranean
before returning to Athens,
where he established a school
of philosophy, the Academy,
which numbered among its
students the young Aristotle.
While teaching, he wrote a
number of books in the form of
dialogues, generally featuring
his teacher Socrates, exploring
ideas of philosophy and
politics. He is believed to
have carried on teaching and
writing well into his later
years, and died at about the
age of 80 in 348/347 BCE.
Key works
c.399–387 BCE Crito
c.380–360 BCE Republic
c.355–347 BCE Statesman,



Political virtue
431 BCE Athenian statesman
Pericles states that democracy
provides equal justice for all.
c.380–360 BCE In the
Republic, Plato advocates
rule by “philosopher kings,”
who possess wisdom.
13th century Thomas
Aquinas incorporates
Aristotle’s ideas into
Christian doctrine.
c.1300 Giles of Rome stresses
the importance of the rule of
law to living in a civil society.
1651 Thomas Hobbes
proposes a social contract to
prevent man from living in a
“brutish” state of nature.


ncient Greece was not a
unified nation-state as
we would recognize
one today, but a collection of
independent regional states
with cities at their center. Each
city-state, or polis, had its own
constitutional organization: some,
such as Macedon, were ruled by
a monarch, while others, most
notably Athens, had a form of
democracy in which at least some
of the citizens could participate
in their government.
Aristotle, who was brought up
in Macedon and studied in Athens,
was well acquainted with the
concept of the polis and its various
interpretations, and his analytical

See also: Plato 34–39 ■ Cicero 49 ■ Thomas Aquinas 62–69 ■
Giles of Rome 70 ■ Thomas Hobbes 96–103 ■ Jean-Jacques Rousseau 118–25

People come together
to form households,
households to form villages,
and villages to form cities.

The purpose of our lives
is to lead a “good life.”

We have developed ways of
organizing city-states
in order to live a “good life.”

Living in a society
organized by reason,
such as a city-state, is
what makes us human.

Anybody who lives
outside the city-state is
either a beast or a god.

Man is by nature a
political animal.

mind made him well qualified
to examine the merits of the citystate. He also spent some time
in Ionia classifying animals
and plants according to their
characteristics. He was later to
apply these skills of categorization
to ethics and politics, which he saw
as both natural and practical
sciences. Unlike his mentor, Plato,
Aristotle believed that knowledge
was acquired through observation
rather than intellectual reasoning,
and that the science of politics

should be based on empirical data,
organized in the same way as the
taxonomy of the natural world.

Naturally social
Aristotle observed that humans
have a natural tendency to form
social units: individuals come
together to form households,
households to form villages, and
villages to form cities. Just as some
animals—such as bees or cattle
—are distinguished by their
disposition to live in colonies ❯❯

The son of a physician to
the royal family of Macedon,
Aristotle was born in Stagira,
Chalcidice, in the northeast of
modern Greece. He was sent
to Athens at 17 to study with
Plato at the Academy, and
remained there until Plato’s
death 20 years later.
Surprisingly, Aristotle was not
appointed Plato’s successor to
lead the Academy. He moved
to Ionia, where he made a
study of wildlife, until he was
invited by Philip of Macedon
to be tutor to the young
Alexander the Great.
Aristotle returned to
Athens in 335 BCE to establish
a rival school to the Academy,
at the Lyceum. While teaching
there, he formalized his ideas
on the sciences, philosophy,
and politics, compiling a large
volume of writings, of which
few have survived. After the
death of Alexander in 323 BCE,
anti-Macedonian feeling in
Athens prompted him to leave
the city for Euboea, where he
died the following year.
Key works
c.350 BCE
Nicomachean Ethics

or herds, humans are by nature
social. Just as he might define a
wolf by saying it is by nature a pack
animal, Aristotle says that “Man
is by nature a political animal.” By
this, Aristotle means simply that
Man is an animal whose nature it
is to live socially in a polis; he is
not implying a natural tendency
towards political activity in the
modern sense of the word.
The idea that we have a
tendency to live in large civil
communities might seem relatively
unenlightening today, but it is
important to recognize that
Aristotle is explicitly stating that
the polis is just as much a creation
of nature as an ants’ nest. For him,
it is inconceivable that humans
can live in any other way. This
contrasts markedly with ideas
of civil society as an artificial
construct that has taken us out
of an uncivilized “state of nature”—
something Aristotle would not have
understood. Anyone living outside
a polis, he believed, was not human
—he must be either superior to
men (that is, a god) or inferior to
them (that is, a beast).

The good life
This idea of the polis as a natural
phenomenon rather than a manmade one underpins Aristotle’s

ideas about ethics and the politics
of the city-state. From his study
of the natural world, he gained a
notion that everything that exists
has an aim or a purpose, and he
decided that for humans, this is to
lead a “good life.” Aristotle takes
this to mean the pursuit of virtues,
such as justice, goodness, and
beauty. The purpose of the polis,
then, is to enable us to live
according to these virtues. The
ancient Greeks saw the structure
of the state—which enables people
to live together and protects the
property and liberty of its citizens
—as a means to the end of virtue.
Aristotle identified various
“species” and “sub-species” within
the polis. He found that what
distinguishes man from the other
animals is his innate powers of
reason and the faculty of speech,
which give him a unique ability
to form social groups and set up
communities and partnerships.
Within the community of a polis,
the citizens develop an organization
that ensures the security, economic
stability, and justice of the state;
not by imposing any form of social
contract, but because it is in their
nature to do so. For Aristotle, the
different ways of organizing the life
of the polis exist not so that people
can live together (since they do this

Law is order, and
good law is good order.

by their very nature), but so that
they can live well. How well they
succeed in achieving this goal,
he observes, depends on the type
of government they choose.

Species of rule
An inveterate classifier of data,
Aristotle devised a comprehensive
taxonomy of the natural world, and
in his later works, especially
Politics, he set about applying the
same methodical skills to systems
of government. While Plato had
reasoned theoretically about the
ideal form of government, Aristotle
chose to examine existing regimes
to analyze their strengths and
weaknesses. To do this, he asked
two simple questions: who rules,
and on whose behalf do they rule?
In answer to the first question,
Aristotle observes that there are
basically three types of rule: by a
single person, by a select few, or by
many. And in answer to the second
question, the rule could be either
on behalf of the population as a
whole, which he considered true or
good government, or in the selfIn ancient Athens, citizens debated
political affairs at a stone dais called
the Pnyx. To Aristotle, the active
participation of citizens in government
was essential for a healthy society.

interest of the ruler or ruling class,
a defective form of government.
In all, he identified six “species”
of rule, which came in pairs.
Monarchy is rule by an individual
on behalf of all; rule by an
individual in his own interests, or
tyranny, is corrupted monarchy.
Rule by aristocracy (which to the
Greeks meant rule by the best,
rather than rule by hereditary noble
families) is rule by a few for the
good of all; rule by a self-interested
few, or oligarchy, is its corrupted
form. Finally, polity is rule by the
many for the benefit of all. Aristotle
saw democracy as the corrupted
form of this last form of rule, as in
practice it entails ruling on behalf
of the many, rather than every
single individual.
Aristotle argues that the selfinterest inherent in the defective
forms of government leads to
inequality and injustice. This
translates into instability, which
threatens the role of the state and
its ability to encourage virtuous
living. In practice, however, the
city-states he studied did not all
fall neatly into just one category,
but exhibited characteristics
from the various types.
Although Aristotle had a
tendency to view the polis as a
single “organism,” of which the

The basis of a
democratic state
is liberty.

Aristotle’s Six Species of Government
Rule By
A Single

Rule By
A Select

By The






citizens are merely a part, he also
examined the role of the individual
within the city-state. Again, he
stresses Man’s natural inclination
to social interaction, and defines
the citizen as one who shares
in the structure of the civil
community, not merely by electing
representatives, but through
active participation. When this
participation is within a “good”
form of government (monarchy,
aristocracy, or polity), it fosters the
ability of the citizen to lead a
virtuous life. Under a “defective”
regime (tyranny, oligarchy, or
democracy), the citizen becomes
involved with the self-interested
pursuits of the ruler or ruling class
—the tyrant’s pursuit of power, the
oligarchs’ thirst for wealth, or the
democrats’ search for freedom. Of
all the possible regimes, Aristotle
concludes, polity provides the best
opportunity to lead a good life.



Although Aristotle categorizes
democracy as a “defective” form
of regime, he argues that it is
only second best to polity, and
better than the “good” aristocracy
or monarchy. While the individual
citizen may not have the wisdom and
virtue of a good ruler, collectively
“the many” may prove to be better
rulers than “the one.”
The detailed description and
analysis of the Classical Greek polis
seems on the face of it to have little
relevance to the nation-states that
followed, but Aristotle’s ideas had
a growing influence on European
political thought throughout the
Middle Ages. Despite being
criticized for his often authoritarian
standpoint (and his defense of
slavery and the inferior status of
women), his arguments in favor
of constitutional government
anticipate ideas that emerged
in the Enlightenment. ■



6th century BCE The Chinese
general Sun Tzu writes his
treatise The Art of War,
bringing an analytical
approach to statecraft.
424 BCE Mahapadma Nanda
establishes the Nanda dynasty
in India, and relies on his
generals for tactical advice.
c.65 BCE The Mauryan empire,
which Chanakya helped to
found, reaches its height and
rules over all but the southern
tip of the Indian subcontinent.
1904 Texts of Chanakya’s
treatises are rediscovered
and, in 1915, are translated
into English.


uring the 5th and 4th
centuries BCE, the Nanda
dynasty slowly gained
control over the northern half of the
Indian subcontinent, defeating its
rivals one by one and holding off
the threat of invasion by the Greeks
and Persians from the west. The
rulers of this expanding empire
relied on generals for tactical advice
in battle, but they also began to
recognize the value of ministers
to advise on matters of policy
and government. Scholars,
especially those from Takshashila,
a university established c.600 BCE
in Rawalpindi, now part of Pakistan,
frequently became these ministers.
Many important thinkers developed

See also: Confucius 20–27
Niccolò Machiavelli 74–81


Sun Tzu 28–31


Mozi 32–33


Plato 34–39


Aristotle 40–43

A ruler is responsible for the welfare,
security, and discipline of his people.

He needs to have a wide range of knowledge,
skills, and personal qualities.

He must be trained in
self-discipline and statecraft
before taking office.

While in office, he must
be advised by able and
experienced ministers.

Governance is possible only
with assistance. A single wheel
does not move.

their ideas at Takshashila, but
perhaps the most significant
was Chanakya (also known as
Kautilya and Vishnugupta). He
wrote a treatise on statecraft titled
Arthashastra, meaning “the science
of material gain” or “the art of
polity.” Arthashastra combined the
accumulated wisdom of the art of
politics with Chanakya’s own
ideas, and was remarkable in its
dispassionate, and at times ruthless,
analysis of the business of politics.

Advising the sovereign
Although sections of the treatise
dealt with the moral qualities
desirable in the leader of a state,
the emphasis was on the practical,

describing in direct terms how
power could be gained and
maintained, and for the first time
in India, it explicitly described a
civil structure in which ministers
and advisors played a key role
in the running of the state.
A commitment to the prosperity
of the state lies at the heart of
Chanakya’s political thought, and
he makes repeated references to
the welfare of the people as the
ultimate goal of government. This,
The lion capital of Ashoka stood on
top of a pillar in Sarnath at the center
of the Mauryan empire. Chanakya
helped to found this powerful empire,
which came to rule nearly all of India.


he believed, was the responsibility
of a sovereign who would ensure
his people’s well-being and security
by administering order and justice,
and leading his country to victory
over rival states. The power to carry
out his duties to his country and its
people is dependent on several
different factors, which Chanakya
describes in Arthashastra: the
personal qualities of the ruler,
the abilities of his advisors, his
territory and towns, his wealth,
his army, and his allies.
The sovereign, as head of
state, has the central role in this
system of government. Chanakya
emphasizes the importance of
finding a ruler with the appropriate
qualities, but then goes on to say
that personal qualities of leadership
are not sufficient on their own: the
sovereign must also be trained
for the job. He must learn the
various skills of statecraft, such as
military tactics and strategy, law,
administration, and the arts of
diplomacy and politics, but in
addition he should be taught the
skills of self-discipline and ethics in
order to develop the moral authority
necessary to command the ❯❯


All things begin
with counsel.

loyalty and obedience of his people.
Before taking office, the sovereign
needs assistance from experienced
and knowledgable teachers.
Once instated, a wise sovereign
does not rely solely on his own
wisdom, but can turn to trusted
ministers and advisors for
counsel. In Chanakya’s view, such
individuals are as important as the
sovereign in governing the state.
In Arthashastra, Chanakya states:
“Governance is possible only with
assistance—a single wheel does
not move.” This is a warning to the
sovereign not to be autocratic, but to
arrive at decisions of state after
consulting his ministers.
The appointment of ministers
with the necessary qualifications is
therefore just as important as the
people’s choice of leader. The
ministers can provide a range of
knowledge and skills. They must
be utterly trustworthy, not only so
that the sovereign can rely on their
advice, but also to ensure that
decisions are made in the interests
of the state and its people—if
necessary, preventing a corrupt ruler
from acting in his own interests.

The end justifies the means
It was this recognition of the
realities of human nature that
distinguished Chanakya from other

Indian political philosophers of the
time. Arthashastra is not a work of
moral philosophy, but a practical
guide to governance, and in
ensuring the welfare and security
of the state it often advocates using
whatever means are necessary.
Although Arthashastra advocates
a regime of learning and selfdiscipline for an ideal ruler, and
mentions certain moral qualities,
it doesn’t flinch from describing
how to use underhanded methods
to gain and maintain power.
Chanakya was a shrewd observer
of human weaknesses as well as
strengths, and he was not above
exploiting these to increase the
sovereign’s power and undermine
that of the sovereign’s enemies.
This is particularly noticeable
in his advice on defending and
acquiring territory. Here he
recommends that the ruler and his
ministers should carefully assess
the strength of their enemies
before deciding on a strategy to
undermine them. They can then

choose from a number of different
tactics, ranging from conciliation,
encouraging dissent in the enemy’s
ranks, and forming alliances of
convenience with other rulers, to
the simple use of military force. In
deploying these tactics, the ruler
should be ruthless, using trickery,
bribery, and any other inducements
deemed necessary. Although this
seems contradictory to the moral
authority Chanakya advocates in
a leader, he stipulates that after
victory has been achieved, the ruler
should “substitute his virtues for
the defeated enemy’s vices, and
where the enemy was good, he
shall be twice as good.”

Intelligence and espionage
Arthashastra reminds rulers that
military advisors are also needed,
and the gathering of information
is important for decision-making.
A network of spies is vital in
assessing the threat posed by
neighboring states, or to judge the
feasibility of acquiring territory; but

A ruler is a single
wheel, and cannot
guide the state well.
His advisors form a
second wheel to help
move the state forward.

In Chanakya’s analogy, the
state is like a chariot with the
sovereign forming one wheel and
his ministers making up the other;
in order to move and be steered in
the right direction, the chariot
needs both wheels.


Through ministerial eyes
others’ weaknesses are seen.

Chanakya goes further, suggesting
that espionage within the state is
also a necessary evil in order to
ensure social stability. At home and
in international relations, morality
is of secondary importance to the
protection of the state. The state’s
welfare is used as justification for
clandestine operations, including
political assassination, should this
be necessary, aimed at reducing
the threat of opposition.
This amoral approach to taking
and holding on to power, and the
advocacy of a strict enforcement of
law and order, can be seen either
as shrewd political awareness or
as ruthlessness, and has earned

The birthplace of Indian
scholar Chanakya is not certain.
It is known that he studied and
taught in Takshashila (modern
Taxila, Pakistan). Leaving
Takshashila to become involved
in government, he traveled to
Pataliputra, where he became
an advisor to King Dhana Nanda.
There are many conflicting
accounts of what happened
next, but all agree that he left
the Nanda court after a dispute,
and in revenge groomed the
young Chandragupta Maurya to

Arthashastra comparison with
Machiavelli’s The Prince, written
around 2,000 years later. However,
the central doctrine, of rule by a
sovereign and ministers, has more
in common with Confucius and
Mozi, or Plato and Aristotle, whose
ideas Chanakya may have come
across as a student in Takshashila.

A proven philosophy
The advice contained in the pages
of Arthashastra soon proved its
usefulness when adopted by
Chanakya’s protegé Chandragupta
be Nanda’s rival. Chandragupta
overthrew Dhana Nanda and
founded the Mauryan empire,
which governed all of modern
India except the very south.
Chanakya became chief advisor
to Chandragupta, but is said to
have starved himself to death
after being falsely accused by
Chandragupta’s son, Bindusara,
of poisoning his mother.
Key works
4th century BCE

Elephants played a big role in Indian
warfare, often terrifying enemies so
much that they would withdraw rather
than fight. Chanakya developed new
strategies for warfare with elephants.

Maurya, who successfully defeated
King Nanda to establish the
Mauryan empire in around 321 BCE.
This became the first empire to
cover the majority of the Indian
subcontinent, and Maurya also
successfully held off the threat
from Greek invaders led by
Alexander the Great. Chanakya’s
ideas were to influence government
and policy-making for several
centuries, until India eventually
succumbed to Islamic and
Mughal rule in the Middle Ages.
The text of Arthashastra
was rediscovered in the early
20th century, and regained some
of its importance in Indian political
thinking, gaining iconic status
after India won independence
from Great Britain in 1948.
Despite its central place in Indian
political history, it was little known
in the West, and it is only recently
that Chanakya has been
recognized outside India as
a significant political thinker. ■


HAN FEI TZU (280–233 BCE)

State laws
5th century BCE Confucius
advocates a hierarchy
based on traditional family
relationships, with the
sovereign and his ministers
ruling by example.


uring China’s Warring
States period, between the
5th and 3rd centuries BCE,
rulers were vying for power over a
unified Chinese empire, and a new
political philosophy emerged to suit
these turbulent times. Thinkers
such as Shang Yang (390–338 BCE),
Shen Dao (c. 350–275 BCE), and Shen
Buhai (died 337 BCE) advocated a
much more authoritarian approach
to government, which became
known as Legalism. Formalized
and put into practice by Han
Fei Tzu, Legalism rejected the

4th century BCE Mozi
proposes a purely meritocratic
class of ministers and
advisors chosen for their
virtue and ability.
2nd century BCE After the
Warring States period ends,
China’s Han dynasty
rejects Legalism and
adopts Confucianism.
589–618 CE Legalist principles
are revived during the Sui
dynasty in an attempt to
unify the Chinese empire.

To govern the state by law
is to praise the right
and blame the wrong.
Han Fei Tzu

Confucian idea of leading by
example and Mozi’s belief in the
innate goodness of human nature,
and instead took the more cynical
view that people naturally acted
to avoid punishment and achieve
personal gain. The only way that
this could be controlled, the
Legalists argued, was by a system
that emphasized the wellbeing
of the state over the rights of the
individual, with strict laws to
punish undesirable behavior.
Administration of these
laws was handled by the ruler’s
ministers, who in turn were subject
to laws that held them accountable,
with punishments and favors
given by the ruler. In this way,
the hierarchy with the ruler at the
top could be maintained, and
corruption and intrigue among the
bureaucracy could be controlled.
It was vitally important to the
safety of the state in times of war
that the ruler could rely on his
ministers and that they should
be acting in the interests of the
state rather than for their own
personal advancement. ■

See also: Confucius 20–27 ■ Sun Tzu 28–31 ■ Mozi 32–33
Thomas Hobbes 96–103 ■ Mao Zedong 260–65



CICERO (106–43 )

Mixed constitution
c.380 BCE Plato writes the
Republic, outlining his ideas
for an ideal city-state.
2nd century BCE Greek
historian Polybius’s The
Histories describes the rise
of the Roman Republic and
its constitution with a
separation of powers.
48 BCE Julius Caesar is given
unprecedented powers, and
his dictatorship marks the
end of the Roman Republic.
27 BCE Octavian is proclaimed
Augustus, effectively the first
emperor of Rome.
1734 Montesquieu writes
Considerations on the Causes
of the Greatness of the Romans
and Their Decline.


he Roman Republic was
founded in around 510 BCE
along similar lines to
the city-states of Greece. With
only minor changes, it ruled for
almost 500 years. This system of
government combined elements
of three different forms of regime
—monarchy (replaced by the
Consuls), aristocracy (the Senate),
and democracy (the popular
assembly)—each with distinct
areas of power that balanced one
another out. Known as a mixed
constitution, it was considered by
most Romans to be an ideal form
of government that provided
stability and prevented tyranny.

from the tyrant, it is taken by the
aristocracy or the people; and from
the people it will be seized by
oligarchs or tyrants. Without the
checks and balances of a mixed
constitution, the government,
he believed, would be “bandied
about like a ball.” True to Cicero’s
predictions, Rome came under the
control of an emperor, Augustus,
shortly after Caesar’s death, and
power was passed from him to a
succession of despotic rulers. ■

Checks and balances
Roman politician Cicero was a
staunch defender of the system,
particularly when it was threatened
by the granting of dictatorial
powers to Julius Caesar. He warned
that a break-up of the Republic
would prompt a return to a
destructive cycle of governments.
He said that from a monarchy,
power can be passed to a tyrant;

The Roman standard carried the
legend SPQR (the Senate and the
People of Rome), celebrating the central
institutions of the mixed constitution.

See also: Plato 34–39 ■ Aristotle 40–43 ■ Montesquieu 110–111 ■ Benjamin
Franklin 112–13 ■ Thomas Jefferson 140–41 ■ James Madison 150–53

30 –1515



According to Catholic
tradition, St. Peter is
made the first Bishop of
Rome, and his successors
become known as popes.

Emperor Theodosius I
establishes Christianity
as the official religion
of Rome.

Muhammad writes
the Constitution
of Medina,
establishing the first
Islamic government.



C.30 CE


Al-Kindi brings
classical Greek
texts, including those
of Plato and Aristotle,
to the House of
Wisdom in Baghdad.


306 CE




Constantine I becomes the
first Christian emperor of
the Roman empire.

Augustine of Hippo
describes a
government without
justice as no better
than a band of robbers.

Charlemagne is
crowned emperor
of Rome, effectively
founding the Holy
Roman empire.

In The Virtuous City,
Al-Farabi applies the
ideas of Plato and
Aristotle to imagine
an ideal Islamic state.

rom its beginnings in the
1st century BCE, the Roman
empire grew in strength,
extending its reign over Europe,
Mediterranean Africa, and the
Middle East. By the 2nd century CE,
it was at the height of its power,
and Roman imperial culture, with
its emphasis on prosperity and
stability, threatened to replace
the values of scholarship and
philosophy associated with the
republics of Athens and Rome.
At the same time, a new religion
was taking root within the
empire: Christianity.
For the next millennium,
political thinking was dominated
by the Church in Europe, and
political theory during the Middle
Ages was shaped by Christian
theology. In the 7th century,
another powerful religion, Islam,

emerged. It spread from Arabia
into Asia and Africa, and also
influenced political thinking in
Christian Europe.

The impact of Christianity
Roman philosophers such as
Plotinus returned to the ideas
of Plato, and the “neo-Platonist”
movement influenced early Christian
thinkers. Augustine of Hippo
interpreted Plato’s ideas in the
light of Christian faith to examine