Readings in Power and Politics: Plato, Machiavelli and Nietzsche (55+)

Power remains a problematic concept in politics—especially in democracies. To what end is the power of the state properly directed? What defines power, and who legitimately wields it? These questions take on new meaning in the context of many citizen-led protests that have unfolded in recent years.

We will explore power as one of the key parts of political life. We’ll examine the different perspectives and attitudes toward power in three pieces of political writing: Plato’s discussion of the purpose of politics in The Republic, Machiavelli’s analysis of power in The Prince and The Discourses, and Nietzsche’s examination of power as articulated in The Genealogy of Morals.

Note: Back by popular demand, from summer 2012. This seminar involves required reading and active participation in group discussion.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

What will I learn?

Week 1: Power

This week introduces the guiding questions of this course: To what end is the power of the state properly directed?  What defines power? Who legitimately wields power? These questions take on new meaning in the context of the many citizen-led protests the have unfolded in recent years, including the Arab Spring, demonstrations against Putin in Russia, and the Occupy movement. We will discuss and challenge the notion that politics is simply a means of exercising power.

Week 2: Plato, The Republic, Book I and II

We will begin with a brief positioning of Plato in his historical context so we can understand the political concerns that were most acute in his theorizing. We will explore Plato’s view of the purpose of the state, focusing in particular on the notion of justice that he articulates. For Plato, the power of the state, properly oriented, serves justice; this week, we will explore the implications of this important insight.

Week 3: Machiavelli, The Prince

This week offers perhaps the most intuitive and familiar reading of power and politics. In The Prince, Machiavelli offers a defence of autocratic power—or does he? We will explore the many subtleties and complexities of this most intriguing text.

Week 4: Machiavelli, The Discourses

In The Discourses, which is often over-shadowed by The Prince, we will explore a less well-known side of Machiavelli. Here, he offers an often-impassioned defence of republican government—we see him pondering the relationship between citizen and government while continuing to explore how governments might lead their citizens to greatness.

Week 5: Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals

Nietzsche is the least conventionally political of the writers we are examining, yet his view of power has influenced modern life to a degree that is hard to overstate. We will investigate Nietzsche’s deliberately provocative position regarding power and the individual, emphasizing the implications of this view for political life.

Week 6: Abiding questions: power in political life

Power remains a problematic concept in politics—especially in democracies. Is the political power of democratic citizens fully absorbed in the formal political processes of voting? If not, what other obligations might we imagine deriving from our power as citizens? What are our expectations of the state in its exercise of power? Where are the limits of the rights of states to exert their power?

How will I learn?

  • Discussions
  • Readings
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

The following books are required for this course. You may purchase any version from the SFU Bookstore or at your local or online bookstore.

  • Plato, The Republic
  • Machiavelli, The Prince
  • Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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