During the pandemic I read a lot of political philosophy and theory.
All the news I had been watching was making me more politically conscious and opinionated, and I wanted a grounding in the great works of political thought that set the current debate stage and influence its participants.
Below are 4 books that helped me break into political philosophy without really any prior knowledge:
- An Introduction to Political Philosophy by Jonathan Wolff
- Plato’s Five Dialogues by Plato
- The Prince by Machievelli
- The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses by Rousseau (includes critical essays by contemporary scholars)
In this article I’ll explain what each book covers, why it’s great for beginners, and what I loved about it.
An Introduction to Political Philosophy
I came across An Introduction to Political Philosophy while perusing the Oxford University’s notorious Politics, Philosophy, and Economics program preparatory reading list, to find some books for starters in those fields.
Wolff’s beginner-friendly book covers the most important debates and thinkers in the history of political philosophy and is arranged by topic:
- The State of Nature
- Justifying the State
- Who Should Rule?
- The Place of Liberty
- The Distribution of Property
- Individualism, Justice, and Feminism
For each topic, Wolff presents the arguments put forth by great thinkers. Usually, these arguments clash with those of the other thinkers presented in the section, who may or may not have been alive at the same time.
For example, in section one, many of the thinkers, like Hobbes, argue that the state of nature is a bad place to live — it’s ”solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Some people, like Rousseau, disagree, thinking that the state of nature is a peaceful condition for mankind, where people lived mostly in solitude and were driven by natural urges to eat and have sex, and that there was generally enough of both to go around, and that inequality came only when society developed and people started living close to each other. (more on this if you read book number 4).
I took way too many notes reading this book, which is a great sign:
This structure of topical-based debate is effective for an introduction because it shows you how political philosophy is in many ways an ongoing political conversation that you yourself can take part in.
Few of the philosophers in the book were alive at the same time, yet, as Wolff makes clear, many of the later thinkers were well-versed in the ideas of their predecessors.
Another reason I loved this book is that it introduces you to key philosophical terms like “tacit consent” or “normative vs. descriptive arguments,” that will help you think more critically about the other political philosophy books you read.
Plato’s Five Dialogues
Plato’s Five Dialogues — Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo — are great for beginners for two reasons (influence and accessibility):
- Influence: They represent some of the first political philosophy done in the Western world, making them super influential to later thinkers. (read why Plato is often the best starting point for self-learning philosophy).
- Accessibility: They’re also short, and comprehensible to even the total beginner. Also, they’re set up as dialogues, which makes them engaging.
In addition to exploring key philosophical questions about politics, ethics, and metaphysics, the five dialogues also chronicle the trial, imprisonment, and execution of Socrates, the main character of each dialogue. This adds some drama to the book.
The most interesting and moving dialogue for me is Crito, where Socrates denies a chance to escape prison and his death sentence and gives his reasons for staying and accepting death.
Mainly, he states that his escape would undermine the law, and that a weakened law, along with an example of a reputable, rational person breaking it, would be bad for the society and thus the citizens he’d leave behind.
The Prince lays out principles of good governance and political strategy that will enable a prince to acquire and hold onto power over their principality.
After detailing the several types of principalities and ways they are acquired, he touches on:
- How to organize your militia.
- How to act to win honor.
- How to honor your word.
- To be loved or feared.
- Why Italy lost its state.
- And more.
I loved this work because Machievelli was well-read in history, and regularly uses historical events to back up his claims, much like Robert Greene does in his famous book the 48 Laws of Power.
The book is only around 100 pages, and the writing is to-the-point and easy to understand as a beginner in philosophy.
I distinctly remember reading it while sitting by a community pool in my parent’s neighborhood in North Carolina.
There’s something humorous about reading a rant about the uselessness of mercenary troops while kids are splashing and yelling in the pool in front of you.
“For mercenaries are disunited, thirsty for power, undisciplined, and disloyal; they are brave among their friends and cowards before the enemy…”
I underlined that for some reason. Not sure how practical it’ll be in my everyday life but I guess if I ever have to hire people some day I’ll focus on finding people who care and attaching their success to the success of the company.
Note: If you’re interested understanding US politics, not just theory, check out my 13-step roadmap on how to self-learn US politics.
The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses
The Social Contract and the First and Second Discourses contains three of Rousseau’s most important political works, as well as some critical essays by modern-day political philosophy scholars.
The three works:
- Discourse on the Origins of Inequality: His views on the state of nature and how inequality originated with society.
- On the Arts and Sciences: His iconoclastic essay on the question of whether the development of the arts and sciences is good or bad for morality. He said bad.
- The Social Contract: One of the most important works of all time in political philosophy.
This makes it a great introduction to the political philosophy of Rousseau, which influenced the French revolution, the American transcendentalists, the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, and modern-day views on the state of nature and our relationships with it.
Rousseau also happens to be one of the most poetic and literary philosophers on this list — really on any list. So his writing in itself is something to behold.
I actually wrote out some of his most cutting paragraphs by hand in On the Arts and Sciences to try to learn from his prose style. (this writing practice is known as copywork).
Here’s a beautiful passage I underlined in Discourse on the Arts and Sciences:
“The daily ebb and flow of the tides are not more regularly influenced by the moon that lights the nighttime sky than the fate of our morality and integrity by the advancement of the arts and sciences. We have seen virtue gradually flee as their light dawned above the horizon, and the same phenomenon has been observed in all times and in all places.” — On the Arts and Sciences, Rousseau
And the famous one-liner from The Social Contract:
“Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” — The Social Contract, Rousseau
One time in Puerto Rico I spotted my buddy writing a short essay on the problems with the dentist school’s grading system (something about how it tests rote memorization not understanding), and this very book was next to him.
Later, when I read the essay, I couldn’t help but notice how comically similar in style his sentences were to those of Rousseau. He must’ve used their grammatical setups as scaffoldings for his own ideas.
So it’s not only his ideas that invade your mind, but also his eloquence of expression. Be warned.
Take Your Self-Directed Studies a Step Further
If you read these books and find that you have a bit of an obsession with political philosophy, consider following our 8-step political philosophy self-education roadmap, which includes courses and other books, arranged systematically so as to give you a foundation in the subject.
Self-Study Philosophy With a University-Style DIY Curriculum
If you want to self-study philosophy and get a foundation in the entire field, not just in the branch of political philosophy, check out our free DIY curriculum (based off Yale’s PHIL Major requirements).
I researched Yale’s requirements for getting a philosophy degree and then used that to create the curriculum of 12 courses (each course comes with online course/lecture and book recommendations).
Sign up for our monthly newsletter in the form above to get the curriculum in your email inbox.
I hope this all helps you with your self-directed studies!