What is the best form of government?

What is the proper relationship between the individual and the state?

Ain’t I a Woman - Black Women and Feminism

Ain’t I a Woman

This text shines a light on a major gap in feminism and civil rights movements and traces the damaging and pervasive oppression and disregard for black women. She makes visible and clear the struggles of black women in America while also tracing the origins and roots of a dual racial and sexist oppression through slavery and into the 20th century. It is the first major study looking at the intersection of racism and sexism in the lives of black women.

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The Complete Greek Tragedies, 3rd edition. Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Trans. Elizabeth Wyckoff


Antigone confronts the audience with the questions- is what is legal always what is just? Creon’s law denies Polyneices a basic burial rite. It is illegal to break this law, but Antigone makes the case that Creon has no right to make this law since is flies in the face of the will of the gods. She refuses to obey an unjust law. The play makes clear that Creon offends the gods with his unjust law and that he perverts the relationship between the living and dead; first by refusing to allow Polyneices to be buried and then again by burying Antigone alive. The play also offers an interesting reflection on leadership and the role of the state.

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Civilization and its Discontents Sigmund Freud

Civilization and its Discontents

Admittedly, Civilization and its Discontents paints a bleak view of the possibilities for both the individual and civilization. In Freud’s view, human beings are caught, seemingly eternally, between a rock and a hard place. But the book itself provides so many opportunities for debate—about religion, which Freud considers a “mass delusion.” About the Arts, which are not something that anyone “would care to put . . . in the background as trivialities” but which are also “useless” and “with no practical value whatever.” About love. About suffering. About addiction. At its core, the book invites a debate about basic human nature—are we capable of transcending aggression? Is our core hostile and selfish?

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Manifesto of the Communist Party Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Communist Manifesto

The Manifesto of the Communist Party is a pamphlet that discusses economic disparity. The primary aim of the text was to demand equal rights for all social classes. The inequalities of wealth discussed by the authors are ubiquitous in our present society, and the first-year students enrolled in community colleges are quick to recognize and can relate with the disparities of wealth discussed in the text. Marx and Engels argued that the capitalistic system established in Europe was inherently flawed, and presently our students are experiencing a world that is reeling with the aftereffects of a highly industrialized world. The present climate change and environmental degradation, food insecurity, pollution, inequality in pay, and refugee crisis are all products of the industrialized capitalistic world.

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Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Published by The Library of America, 2004. ISBN-13: 978-1931082549

Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America allows students to grapple with complexities and paradoxes associated with democracy and democratic government. Furthermore, Democracy in America allows students to explore how democracy has changed in the United States over time. Tocqueville’s purpose for writing Democracy in America is to examine why democracy worked in the United States by the early-nineteenth century, while previous attempts in France failed. Tocqueville’s purpose will require students to examine how certain social, economic, and political conditions in individual nations can influence the success and failure of certain forms of government.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”

Letter From a Birmingham Jail

In addition to its transformative impact on the civil rights movement, King’s speech also grapples with a timeless human question: is it just to disobey an unjust law? How do you overcome and end oppression? What in fact is the difference between a just and an unjust law? Is it wrong to fight for what is right if you know it will lead to violence?

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Hobbes, Thomas, and E. M. Curley. Leviathan : with selected variants from the Latin edition of 1668. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 1994. Print.


Hobbes’ text is one of the most transformative texts in this history of political thought. This text is a classic of political philosophy and foundational for social contract theory, which in part influenced the framing of the US Constitution and other modern political forms. While pre-hobbesian politics was concerned with the moral and spiritual development of citizens, the modern political projects ushered in by authors like Hobbes were decidedly not. Hobbes was a pioneer in applying the modern scientific method to the study of politics. He saw his work as bringing light into the “kingdom of darkness”, which is how he characterized the understanding of human moral and social life before the application of the scientific method to their study. Hobbes was to the study of politics what Francis Bacon was to the study of nature; truly revolutionary. The political thought of Hobbes continues to influence us today in our taste for representative political institutions, our deference to the will of the majority and in our understanding of the pursuit of power as fundamental to all human action.

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Lincoln-Douglas Debate 7

Lincoln Douglas Debate 7

Lincoln-Douglas Debate 7 highlights the problems that confronted American society on the eve of the Civil War. By 1858, issues over slavery, both the immorality of the institution as well as its possible expansion, had polarized the United States. The debates highlighted a major problem with American democracy. How can a society consider itself a democracy when a portion of it cannot be treated like human beings?

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This text raises very directly questions about the role of women in society, about the place of war, and about the role of sexual desire both in individual relationships and in relation to the state. Students are likely to sympathize strongly with the Lysistrata, who is far more than simply the leader of the sex strike. In her attempts to persuade the women to forgo sex (which, the play makes very clear, they enjoy as much as the men) and in her conversations with the magistrate, she reveals herself to be a talented leader and someone who has given serious thought to the proper administration of the state.

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he Essential Neruda

Neruda, Poems

Pablo Neruda’s poetry is rich and varied, ranging from the romantic and lonely to the political to direct and humorous. His works seek to examine important issues love to the oppression that he witnessed in his native Chile. Moreover, Neruda’s poetry also sought to examine philosophical issues that focused on humanity. Despite the variety of poetic topics Neruda covered, his poetry has a unity of style that ties his diverse works together.

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F.H.T. Willetts translation, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1991 (ISBN 978-0374534684)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

This book was transformational upon publication because of the way in which it exposed the harsh reality of the lives of even unexceptional political prisoners in the huge system of camps that made up the Soviet Gulag. Along with Solzhenitsyn’s other writings and the works of other artists coming out of the Soviet Union, it contributed to the eventual demise of that system. This can be a good place to start, but for most students the truly transformative aspect of the work will be the questions it raises rather than the abuses it uncovers.

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Parable of the Sowe

Parable of The Sower

Butler helps readers consider what good things we may lose if we do not fight for the future, or are too blinded by our comforts today to notice the precarious social and political context which makes their enjoyment possible. The text also helps raise questions about the origin of prophecy, imploring the reader to imagine Lauren and Moses as involved in a shared struggle to articulate a message of freedom from bondage and suffering to a people made nearly deaf to it by despair. It is fruitful to consider the allegorical significance of the “Pyros” who, possessed by a drug, put on costumes of diversity before entering into an ecstatic orgy of murder and immolation, which they understand as justice. Readers may consider what ideological narcotics may encourage similar behaviors today.

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Second Discourse (Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Equality)

Second Discourse

Rousseau with his Second Discourse is a superlative example of the self-critique of the Enlightenment project from within the Enlightenment project itself. The development of civilization and political society, while bringing great benefits to mankind, is paradoxically the source of most of our evils. In fact, the ultimate progress of political society will end in tyranny! This is an innovative text featuring methods and conclusions new to the history of thought. Along with his revolutionary explanation of the origins of inequality in the invention of property, he has equally revolutionary proposals about the origins of language and its development. He engages in the earliest anthropological studies, utilizing physiological and biological arguments, especially in his notes to the text, to make many of his points about the peacefulness of the state of nature.

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The Analects Confucius

The Analects

Analects is about morality, and introduces students to the Confucian way or, path. While students may not choose to agree with Confucius understanding of morality and social hierarchical relationships, it is in this disagreement and dialogue that lies the essence of Analects. It is important that students can connect with the text and can reflect on it through their experience. Confucius lived in a period of acute political and cultural crisis, and this is reflected in the text. First year students who also face climate, moral or social crises can reflect on the text and come to their own conclusions about an ideal society and government.

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Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers

The arguments of Publius are alive today. In 1821, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote of The Federalist Papers, “It is a complete commentary on our constitution; and is appealed to by all parties in the questions to which that instrument has given birth. Its intrinsic merit entitles it to this high rank, and the part two of its authors [i.e., Hamilton and Madison] performed in framing the constitution, put it very much in their power to explain the views with which it was framed.” This view has not waned. The Federalist Papers continue to be cited in US Supreme Court cases as the authoritative interpretation on the original intent of the US Constitution as well as in thousands of law review articles and cases of the lower courts.

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The History of the Peloponnesian War

The History of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War represented a change in how historical narratives were written. While previous historical works by people like Herodotus tended to at times depart from the facts or used literary novelties, Thucydides communicated his intention to write an accurate account. He outlines how he acquired the information he used in writing his history. As such, present-day historians have praised the methodology Thucydides used in writing The History of the Peloponnesian War. The idea that one must have and use evidence in reconstructing the past, though, to be sure, Thucydides had his own interpretations and opinions.

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The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

The Prince

Considering the reputation of the author of The Prince allows students to see the value of interpreting works in historical and generic context. Machiavelli and his works demonstrate that reception is as important as the content of the work itself. The term Machiavellian typically evokes the idea of “The ends justify the means,” with the implication that Machiavelli himself must have supported absolutism or tyranny. The Prince upset contemporary readers because it is the first printed work that separated civic virtue from morality. As a result, the author’s name became associated with despotism and violence, and the menacing figure of a Machiavel became a common figure in drama at the time.

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The Rihla Ibn Battuta

The Rihala

Rihla is about passion for traveling, learning, and experiencing new cultures. Battuta had a great appetite for travel and adventures, and this sentiment comes across to the readers. The beauty of the text lies in its vivid description of people, flora-fauna, food, and customs of the land he travelled. Ibn Juzayy, the writer of the text brilliantly interspersed these physical descriptions with poetry and satirical personal anecdotes. Rihla is an exceptional travelogue and exposes the global interconnectedness of the medieval world, something that is challenging for first year students to comprehend. The text is also an excellent commentary on fourteenth-century global economics, polity, and international relations.

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John Locke The Second Treatise of Government

The Second Treatise of Government

John Locke’s The Second Treatise of Government represented a marked shift in political thought during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At a time when the political power of many nations vested in a monarch or emperor, The Second Treatise of Government placed power in the hands of the people. Furthermore, Locke’s The Second Treatise of Government demonstrates that the people are deserving of the power that they receive in a state of nature. When a government violates life, liberty, and property, the people can depose of the existing government and create a new one. This highlights Locke’s belief that people can improve with experience, as they can establish a better government than the one before. Locke’s philosophy on government helped influence the American Revolution. After all, the structure Thomas Jefferson used to write the Declaration of Independence followed the argument presented by Locke. Jefferson highlighted the colonists’ right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and then proceeded to outline how Great Britain violated it. As a result, the colonies were justified in becoming independent.

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Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

The Wealth of Nations

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is the foundational argument for capitalism, classical liberalism, neoliberalism, and derivatively, libertarianism. It is the central text of political economy. While the work is often invoked by the ideologues of free-market capitalism, it is just as often misunderstood, misread, or ignored by those same proponents. Smith’s analyses of how interventions and changes in one section of the economy have unforeseen ramifications elsewhere is always fascinating and insightful. His fundamental belief that the self-interested economic behavior of individuals can lead, as an epiphenomenon, or as he says, by an “invisible hand,” to economic prosperity for the whole of society, can be seen as the ultimate conclusion to a line of thought initiated by Thomas Hobbes.

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Things Fall Apart_Achebe, Chinua

Things Fall Apart

Okonkwo is a man among men. Raised by a “weak” father, he is determined to undo the legacy of laziness his father left behind. Okonkwo works hard, has the best farm in the land, many wives and multiple children. He is, according to his village, a successful man. He is also one of the most feared men. His prowess on the battlefield is no less impressive. When he accidentally kills the son of a village elder, he is banished to the land of his mother for seven years. When he returns to his village, everything has changed. The colonialists have arrived and everything he knows about manhood and what it means to be a leader has changed. On one hand, he is angered and embarrassed by his village’s refusal to fight the colonial forces; on the other he is subject to the indignities of their rule on a daily basis. Ultimately he takes his own life.

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One Thousand and One Nights

Thousand Nights and a Night

Tales from 1,001 Nights shed light on a different world for modern readers. Although highly fictionalized, even fantastic, the stories reflect social mores, political structures, family life, and daily occupations of another time and place, while simultaneously connecting to human concerns like the desires for happiness and justice, the presence of negative emotions like jealousy and anger, inequity and misunderstanding between genders, and the morality of those in power. Since almost all students have some familiarity with subgenres of folk literature, these stories are recognizable and accessible. They are also ideal for the classroom because they are (mostly) easy to extract and teach as free-standing pieces of literature. Further, students tend to find these stories interesting, funny, frustrating, entertaining, and even delightful.

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The True History of the Kelly Gang

True History of the Kelly Gang

The question at the heart of the novel is whether an outlaw is born or made. While Kelly certainly can’t be taken as a wholly trustworthy narrator (he is, after all, writing his own legacy), he makes a compelling argument that poverty, abuse, lack of positive male role models, lack of education, and abuse pushed him into a life of crime. Students will see many parallels in both American popular culture and real life, and the book invites conversations about nurture vs. nature, the importance of supportive social structures for children and young adults, the exercise of free will, justice, and personal responsibility. Further, the novel offers perspectives on rural life, race, heroes and anti-heroes, and culture from an Australian perspective, which could spark discussions about the ways in which these topics are depicted differently or similarly to how they are in the U. S. There is no question that the novel also interrogates history, the writing of history, and the veracity of historical documents.

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Mill, Utilitarianism


The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals “utility” or the “greatest happiness principle” holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.

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