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POL S 308 A: The Western Tradition of Political Thought, Ancient and Medieval

Meeting Time: 
MW 12:30pm - 2:20pm
AND 008
Jamie Mayerfeld

Syllabus Description:

University of Washington
Course website:


**Study Guide for the Final Exam**
**1st essay assignment**
**2nd essay assignment**

Professor Jamie Mayerfeld                                                     Autumn 2022
Office: 35 Gowen Hall                                                           008 Anderson Hall
Office Hours: Tue. 1:30-3:00, Fri. 10:30-11:30, by Zoom    MW: 12:30-2:20


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Course Overview: This course examines prominent works of political theory produced in the city-state of Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE.  In the first half of the course, we will read Sophocles’ Antigone, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (selections), and Plato’s Apology and Crito. These texts focus attention on the problems of tyranny, rebellion, war, and injustice.  In the second half of the course, we will read selections from Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics.  These are works of utopian political theory intended as a guide to the creation of a just political order.  The course readings present us with hard questions about war, imperialism, patriotism, democracy, political order, social hierarchy, political culture, human psychology, individual ethics, and social justice.  We will develop our own thoughts on these questions through critical engagement with the texts.   


We will set aside four sessions to discuss the climate crisis, a looming disaster that threatens human society, animal creation, species diversity, and the natural world. We have an opportunity in this course to think together about this challenge, what it means for us today and in the future, how it raises questions of justice, why it has not been halted, and what we should do about it. We may discover that the ancient texts will help us approach these questions.


Texts: The following books are on sale at the University Book Store, and will be placed on reserve at Odegaard Undergraduate Library:


Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays, trans. Robert Fagles (Penguin)

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (Penguin)

Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates, trans. G. M. A. Grube (Hackett)

Plato, Republic, trans. C. D. C. Reeve (2004 Hackett ed.)

Aristotle, Politics, trans. C. D. C. Reeve (Hackett)


You will find it most convenient to read these editions, but other editions can be used, provided you identify and read the assigned passages. (In the course calendar, common page references are listed in parentheses for the benefit of students using different editions.)




  1. You are expected to complete the readings on time and come prepared to discuss them in class. The texts are challenging, but also rewarding. You will get the most out of them though careful, critical reading (and re-reading). In the course calendar, I include some questions to guide your reading of the texts. Please bring the assigned text to class, since we will devote some time to re-reading and analyzing specific passages.


  1. Two essays, 5 pages long, will be assigned. You will be presented with a challenging question, intended to give you an opportunity for in-depth reflection on the texts and the questions they pose. Essays will be graded according to accuracy, clarity, and level of critical thought. The first essay is due on Friday, November 4. The second essay is due on Monday, December 12 Tuesday, December 13. Essay topics will be distributed approximately two weeks before the due-date. You will be asked to submit your essays electronically, using VeriCite to check for plagiarism.


  1. A final exam, more straightforward in nature, will test basic understanding of the course material. It will be held on Thursday, December 15, from 8:30 am to 10:20 am. A study guide will be distributed beforehand.


  1. Discussion is an essential part of this course. Part of your grade will be based on the quality of your contributions to class discussion. Shy students must make an effort to speak up. Talkative students may need, in some instances, to practice restraint. I am looking for regular, thoughtful class participation, informed by knowledge of the assigned readings.


Grading: The course grade is calculated as follows:


First paper: 35%

Second paper: 35%

Final Exam: 20%

Participation: 10%


Office Hours: You are all encouraged to visit me during my office hours, Tuesdays between 1:30 and 3:00 and Fridays, between 10:30 and 11:30.  You can come to my office in Gowen 35, or visit me by Zoom at this link:


Students with Disabilities Provisions:  If you wish to request academic accommodations due to a disability, please contact the Disability Resources for Students Office (DRS), 011 Mary Gates Hall,, or 543-8924.  If you have a letter from DRS indicating that you have a disability that requires special accommodations, please present the letter to me.


Religious Accommodations. Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, can be seen here. Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form.


Academic Integrity:  Cheating and plagiarism are offenses against academic integrity and are subject to disciplinary action by the University.  Plagiarism is copying someone else’s work and presenting it as your own (by not attributing it to its true source).  If you are uncertain what constitutes plagiarism, please ask me or your TA. The Political Science/JSIS/LSJ/CHID Writing Center also offers guidance on plagiarism:


Turnitin.  The University has a license agreement with Tunitin, an educational tool that helps prevent or identify plagiarism from Internet resources. I will require students to submit their research papers electronically to be checked by Turnitin. The Turnitin Report will indicate the amount of original text in your work and whether all material that you quoted, paraphrased, summarized, or used from another source is appropriately referenced.


Maintaining a Respectful Learning Environment: This course may lead into discussion of controversial social and political topics.  Discussion should be open to a wide range of perspectives, and everyone should feel comfortable about participating.  We will facilitate learning if we engage discussion with respect and empathy for one another.  Contradictory views are encouraged, and can contribute to learning as long as everyone remains open to new information and willing to learn from people with different perspectives and life experiences.  Please avoid inflammatory, derogatory and insulting words and personal attacks. Such conduct inhibits learning and prevents the free exchange of ideas.  No one, not even your instructor, is perfect.  We all make mistakes and have the potential to learn from our mistakes.  I generally advise against using social media to comment negatively on individuals in this class.  If you have concerns or complaints, please communicate them to me.



(Readings are due on the date indicated.)


Wed. Sept. 28: Introduction, Historical Background


Mon. Oct. 3: Sophocles, Antigone, entire


What underlies the conflict between Antigone and Creon? Is this a clash of principles, or merely of personalities? What would you describe as Antigone and Creon’s main flaws? Are their flaws detachable from their virtues? How would you compare them to Ismene and Haemon respectively?


Wed. Oct. 5: Antigone, cont.


Was the tragedy inevitable, given the moral commitments of Antigone and Creon? Do Antigone and Creon prove faithful to their principles? Which character displays a greater sense of responsibility? Does Antigone’s gender work as a constraint or a source of empowerment?


Mon. Oct. 10: Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, pp. 35, 47-49, 72-87, 118-23 (Book I, sections 1, 22-23, 66-88, 139-46)


At the Conference in Sparta, Athenian foreign policy is analyzed by the Corinthians, the Spartans, and the Athenians themselves. What explanations are offered, and why do they differ from each other? How do the Athenians defend their empire? Is it a convincing defense? Are Athens and Sparta fated to fight each other?


Wed. Oct. 12: The Climate Crisis: What's at Stake. Readings to be announced.  Today we will start our class an hour later, at 1:30.  Before our lecture, you are encouraged, but not required, to attend a lecture by the George Washington University political theorist Elisabeth Anker from noon to 1:20 in the Petersen Room of Allen Library.

“Is scaring people the best way to talk about climate change?” Hot Mess, July 30, 2019 (10-minute video featuring David Wallace-Wells)

Bill McKibben, “This Is How Human Extinction Could Play Out,” Rolling Stone, April 9, 2019. (PDF version)

Jonathan Watts, “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN,” The Guardian, October 8, 2018 (PDF version)

Fiona Harvey, “Major climate changes inevitable and irreversible – IPCC’s starkest warning yet,” The Guardian, August 9, 2021 (PDF version)

Jeff Tollefson, “Climate change is hitting the planet faster than scientists originally thought,” Nature, February 28, 2022 (PDF version)

By Brad Plumer and Raymond Zhong, “Stopping Climate Change Is Doable, but Time Is Short, U.N. Panel Warns,” New York Times, April 4, 2022 (PDF version)

Rebecca Hersher, “Climate change likely helped cause deadly Pakistan floods, scientists find,” NPR, September 19, 2022

Bill McKibben, “Pakistan’s Floods Beggar the Imagination,” Substack, August 15, 2022

David Wallace-Wells, “The American West’s Haunting Smoke-Filled Future,” New York Times, August 24, 2022 (PDF version)


If you have time:

David Wallace-Wells, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” New York Magazine, July 10, 2017 (PDF version)

Umair Irfan, “What’s the worst that could happen? These five climate scenarios show us what the future of the planet could look like,” Vox, September 10, 2021 (PDF version)

Damian Carrington, “Greenland ice sheet on brink of major tipping point, says study,” The Guardian, May 17, 2021 (PDF version)

“WMO update: 50:50 chance of global temperature temporarily reaching 1.5°C threshold in next five years,” World Meteorological Association, May 29, 2022


Mon. Oct. 17: Peloponnesian War, pp. 143-64, 212-23 (Book II, sections 34-65; Book III, sections 36-50)


What is Pericles trying to achieve in the Funeral Oration? Why does he call Athens “an education to Greece”? What is a citizen, according to Pericles, and what are the duties of a citizen? Would Antigone have a role to play in Pericles’ Athens? Would Creon? What do we learn about Athens from the Plague, and from Pericles’ last recorded speech? How do Cleon and Diodotus try to persuade the Athenians concerning the proper treatment of the Mytilenians? Why are the Athenians moved to clemency?


Wed. Oct. 19: Peloponnesian War, pp. 236-45, 400-08. (Book III, sections 69-85; Book V, sections 84-116). OPTIONAL: pp. 414-29, 503-13, 522-37 (Book VI, sections 8-32; Book VII, sections 42-56, 69-87).


What explains the hellish chaos of the Corcyran civil war? Does the Corcyran experience mirror the war between Athens and Sparta, or is it fundamentally different? Does Corcyra teach us a general lesson about the human condition? How do the Athenians justify their treatment of the Melians? Is their justification persuasive? Did the Melians behave wisely? Optional reading: What motives and beliefs led the Athenians to embark on the Sicilian expedition? Did they reason wisely? Does the story reveal anything about the perils of empire?


Mon. Oct. 24: Plato, Apology


What is Athens’ complaint against Socrates? How does Socrates defend himself against the accusations, formal and informal, leveled against him? If you were in the jury, how would you have voted?

How should we live, according to Socrates? What service does Socrates believe he provides to Athens? Does Pericles’ Athens practice the self-examination recommended by Socrates? Does the contemporary United States?


Wed. Oct. 26: Plato, Crito


Are you persuaded by Socrates’ argument that he should suffer the death sentence imposed on him by his fellow-citizens? Do you believe you have a moral obligation to obey the laws of your country? If so, why? Do you have an obligation to risk or indeed sacrifice your life if commanded to do so by your government?


Mon. Oct. 31: Plato, Republic, Book I, entire


Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus each offer a definition of justice. Why is Socrates dissatisfied with all three? What is the underlying disagreement between Socrates and Thrasymachus? Are you persuaded by Socrates’ rebuttal of Thrasymachus?


Wed. Nov. 2: Climate Policy and Politics.


Leah Stokes, “The Narwhal Curve” (3-minute video) (2020)

Benjamin Franta, “What Big Oil knew about climate change, in its own words” (2021)

Robinson Meyer, “History’s Greatest Obstacle to Climate Progress Has Finally Fallen” (2022)

Optional: David Dayen, “How Policy Got Done in 2022” (2022)


**Fri. Nov. 4: Your first essay is due today.**


Mon. Nov. 7: Republic, Book II, entire; Book III, pp. 66-79 (386a-398b)


According to Glaucon and Adeimantus, most people do not cherish justice for its own sake. What is their argument, and is it persuasive? What is Socrates’ account of the origin of the state? What is his theory of child rearing? Would you endorse it?


Wed. Nov. 9: Republic, Book III, pp. 94-102 (410c-417b); Book IV, entire


Why must the architects of Socrates’ ideal state resort to mythmaking? Is mythmaking an indispensable feature of any stable political regime? How does the organization of the individual soul resemble that of the state? How does Socrates define the four virtues, including justice? How would you characterize Plato’s vision of human excellence, and do you accept it?


Mon. Nov. 14: Republic, Book V, pp. 136-64 (449a-471b)


How can Socrates support inequality between social classes yet rigid equality between the sexes? Why must the governing class practice total communism? What are Socrates’ arguments for exercising restraint in warfare, and are the proposed restraints adequate?


Wed. Nov. 16: Climate Injustice

Sonja Klinsky, “Climate change is a justice issue – these 6 charts show why,” The Conversation, November 3, 2021

Renée Cho, “Why Climate Change is an Environmental Justice Issue,” State of the Planet, September 2020

Fiona Harvey, “World's richest 1% cause double CO2 emissions of poorest 50%, says Oxfam,” The Guardian, September 20, 2020

Oxfam, “A billionaire is responsible for a million times more greenhouse gas emissions than the average person,” November 6, 2022

Mon. Nov. 21: Republic, Book V, pp. 164-75 (471c-480a); Book VI, entire; Book VII, pp. 208- 15 (514a-521b)

Why, according to Socrates, should only the smartest people rule? What makes potential philosophers both so promising and so dangerous? What is knowledge, according to Socrates, and what is reality? Does he help us see what constitutes the good? What is the meaning of the metaphor of the cave?


Wed. Nov. 23: Republic, Books VIII and IX


What are sources of political and personal corruption? Why does Socrates think that the character of the state and the character of its citizens are intertwined? Are all the stages of political and personal corruption equally regrettable? How would you describe Socrates’ attitude toward democracy? Why is the tyrant the most miserable person on Earth? Has Socrates succeeded in refuting Thrasymachus, Glaucon, and Adeimantus?

Mon. Nov. 28. In the first hour of class, we will reflect on Plato’s Republic. In the second hour, we will turn to the topic of “Individual and Collective Responsibility in the Climate Crisis.” Please read

Rebecca Solnit, “Big oil coined ‘carbon footprints’ to blame us for their greed. Keep them on the hook,” The Guardian, August 23, 2021.

Sami Grover, “The Messy Truth About Carbon Footprints,” Mother Jones, September 11, 2021. 

Optional: If you’re interested, listen to the three podcasts on “What Can I Do?” A Matter of Degrees (2022), Series 3, episodes 1-3.


Wed. Nov. 30: Aristotle, Politics, Book I, entire; Book II, chs. 1-5


What does Aristotle mean when he says that “man is a political animal,” and why does he say it? How is the household different from the polis (state), and why is this important? What is Aristotle’s defense of slavery, and how persuasive is it? Does Aristotle’s political theory require slavery? What is his defense of patriarchy?

How would you describe Aristotle’s economic views? Is he a capitalist, a communist, or neither? What is his criticism of Plato’s Republic?


Mon. Dec. 5: Politics, Book III, chs. 1-13, 15; Book VII, chs. 1-3, 9-10, 13; Book VIII, chs. 1-2


What is the purpose of the state? What is a citizen? How is citizenship connected to, and in tension with, self-fulfillment? What are the principles of education in the virtuous state? Do you agree with Aristotle that the state should try to instill virtue in its citizens?


Wed. Dec. 7: Politics, Book IV, chs. 1, 4-6, 11; Book V, chs. 1-6; Book VI, chs. 1-7


Why do most city-states take the form of either oligarchy or democracy? Why does Aristotle like the middle class? What are the causes of faction, and how are the states best protected against the dangers of faction? How can we fashion a constitution that combines the virtues, and avoids the vices, of democracy and oligarchy? Which of Aristotle’s recommendations do you recognize in our own political system?


**Mon. Dec. 12: Tue. Dec. 13: Second essay is due.**


**Thur. Dec. 15: Final Exam, 8:30 am -10:20 am.**


Catalog Description: 
Origin and evolution of major political concepts from ancient Greece to the medieval period.
Department Requirements: 
Political Theory Field
GE Requirements: 
Social Sciences (SSc)
Writing (W)
Last updated: 
May 4, 2022 - 10:04pm