It is usually easy for others to understand why politics interests me - the market for political news is a considerable one, and the many ways that government affects our life (good and bad) create a great deal of public interest. But interest in political philosophy is not as common, so my fascination with it can be somewhat strange to others. Why would you read political works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? Why would you read books about political theory, rather than focus more exclusively on how government works in practice? And why would you read something about government from Ancient Greece?
Plato, Greek philosopher
Part of it is undoubtedly an interest in history: the study of political philosophy - and other kinds of philosophy, for that matter - has a long and rich history. There are good ideas and bad ideas; theories that work and theories that fail; so one can learn a lot about history by studying these things. But why focus on this kind of history? Why not the history of art, or music, or science? It should be noted that I do have an interest in these things as well; but the reason political philosophy engrosses me so much is that the ideas found in it are all around us. It's in the values we espouse - whether we value equality of condition, for example, or prefer the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It's in the assumptions we make - both the workable and the unworkable ones. And it's in the arguments we engage in: the dialogue about politics, both among and between the different camps; and the endless discussions about the best way to govern society.
Baron de Montesquieu, a political philosopher I like
Politics in a democratic society is by nature competitive, and one has to be something of a debater to engage in it. But my interest in political philosophy goes beyond my often-argumentative personality, and strikes something deeper in my character - a need to understand the "why," and the reason that some ideas work while others don't. How do democracies succeed in preventing the concentration of power into a tyranny, when other systems fail to do so? Why do Marxist systems never work in practice as they do in theory, and why is it inevitable that they fail? All of these are questions that I want to answer; and all of them get to the heart of why some societies succeed, while others fall short of the standard.
The reading of our Founding Fathers' words does not strike most people as strange - there is a great reverence for our Founding Fathers, and rightfully so. Their words are works of political philosophy in every sense of that phrase; but we don't often see it, because the influence of philosophy is often invisible. I can't see the air around me with my naked eye, but that doesn't mean it's not there - it exerts a tremendous influence on my life, even if I can't see its presence around me. Philosophy of all kinds is much the same way, and we all engage in philosophy whether we realize it or not - the difference between people is whether or not they do it well. At its best, philosophy is "common sense with big words," in the words of James Madison; and we would do well to keep it at its best.
Friedrich Engels, Marx's co-author
Likewise, the desire to understand Marxism does not strike people as strange - even among its opponents, there is a common recognition of the effect that it's had on the world; with the only real debate being about whether the effect is good or bad. The concept of opposition study is not a hard one for people to grasp - there's an old saying in war to "know thine enemy," and it has been heeded by every successful civilization from the time of Adam. My desire to read Karl Marx is much the same way; born of a curiosity to understand the opposing views, if only to know better how to argue against them. (This is not to say that I don't keep an open mind when reading them, as even Karl Marx got some things right; but the desire to know my opponent is the most powerful motive for reading him, and it's a desire that most fellow conservatives can understand.)
What does strike people as strange is my interest in the other guys: the unknown people like John Locke and Adam Smith (or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for that matter), who have had such a profound influence on how we think. There's a reason we don't hear much about them, which is that the schools don't place much emphasis on philosophy's long and ancient history (good or bad), and so people are unlikely to hear their names. But when people hear their ideas, the arguments seem vaguely familiar - like ones they themselves have espoused, or sometimes like ones their opponents have adopted; but vaguely familiar just the same. People would understand philosophy better if it were explained more capably; but alas, it is not; with the consequence being that it is often seen as just another abstract and useless major, far removed from the realities of everyday life. There is philosophy that meets that description, but much of it does not; and even the faulty ideas are often worthy of study, if only to be able to debunk them. Such is the need to understand philosophy in everyday life.
Why do free-market economies produce goods more efficiently? Why does nothing get produced in command economies? And what are the lessons from history about the two systems? These are all questions I want to answer when I read philosophy, and when I see how different the experiences of people in the two systems are. Political philosophy is about finding these answers, and about providing (or sometimes debunking) the different justifications used for the competing views.
So that's a little about why I find political philosophy so interesting. I hope I've kept the soapboxing to a minimum, and confined this post more to my own feelings on the subject, and why political philosophy interests me.
The works I have read in their entirety, in chronological order of the authors, are:
Plato's Republic (one of the first works on philosophy of any kind)
Sun Tzu's The Art of War (required reading for some Master's of Business Administration programs)
Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince (a book I disagree with because of its advocacy of dictatorship)
John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration
John Locke's Second Treatise on Government (which influenced America's Founding Fathers)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality
Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract
Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (the first modern book on economics)
The Federalist Papers (written by three American Founding Fathers to convince people to ratify the Constitution that America uses today)
John Stuart Mill's On Liberty
John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism
The Communist Manifesto (a work I disagree with) by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Works I read a significant part of are:
Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (which I read the first book of)
Baron de Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws (a book quoted favorably by American Founding Fathers in the Federalist Papers)
Other posts about philosophy