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Cities of God: Religion and Political Thought

Course Times & Enrolment

This course is currently unavailable.

Course Summary

This course will examine the development of political philosophy in the western tradition by paying particular attention to the role that ‘God’ and religion have played in that evolution. We shall focus on notions of individual rights, debates surrounding how best to organise society and the nature of government, the perennial tension between church and state, and questions relating to the concept of human nature.

Course Details

Pre-requisites for enrolment

No prior knowledge required.

Content of Course

1. What is Political Philosophy? Why religion?

Political philosophy is humanity’s concern with how best to organise our existence, to mediate between the claims of the individual and those of the group. This class will introduce students to the major questions of political thought and the role religion has played in shaping these. This will set the groundwork for the remainder of the course.

2. Socrates and Plato.

This class will examine the birth of Western political thought by exploring the death of Socrates and Plato’s reflections on justice and the correct form of society. Particular attention will be paid to Plato’s notion of a divinely ordered universe which earthly political society must strive to achieve.

3. Aristotle.

A student of Plato, it was Aristotle who established a distinctly non-Platonic vision of politics. Aristotle argued that political society is of natural origin and is a result of nature achieving its goal or ‘telos’. Foundational to the entire history of political thought, we will discuss Aristotle’s notions of a well ordered society with all members aiming towards the good while also asking whether Aristotle ultimately appeals to religious beliefs in order to substantiate his views.

4. Augustine

It is from Augustine that the course draws its title. In his thought we witness the combination of Platonic philosophy and Christian theology in a system of politics that has remained relevant (though debated) ever since. We will focus on his consideration of human nature – are we born sinners or saints – and examine how this informs his discussions of the death penalty, earthly authority and whether war can ever be just.

5. St. Thomas Aquinas.

Where Augustine turned to Plato, Aquinas reintroduced Aristotle to the medieval Christian world. His notions of political society combined with his religious beliefs remain relevant today. We will focus particular attention on his views of divinely sanctioned authority and the place of the individual within such a hierarchy, reflecting on humanity’s tendency to submit to external authority. Is authority natural or contrived, of human or divine origin? These topics will be the focus of our discussion.

6. Luther and Calvin.

The two great reformers are not usually considered political thinkers. Both, however, argued for a divinely sanctioned political realm while presenting their case from different theological perspectives. Modern Europe is still influenced by these differences: from Lutheran Germany to Calvinist Scotland. We will look particularly at their notions of authority, individual rights and their vision of religion as central to a well governed political order and reflect on the ways in which we are still, often unconsciously, influenced by their views.

7. Hobbes.

Thomas Hobbes is widely regarded as the first modern political thinker, establishing politics as a science. This marked a revolutionary change in the way authority was conceived – no longer legitimate because of divine sanction but wholly grounded in nature, arising out of the need to overcome the state of nature. We will explore the significance of this revolution.

8. Locke.

Like Hobbes, John Locke emphasised natural law. Unlike him, though, Locke held that universal natural law – summed up in his claim that all are born equal and free – cannot make sense without reference to a divine guarantor. As a result, Locke attempted to establish the merits of democracy based on theological commitments. For us living in the 21st century this appears, at first glance, to be counterintuitive if not paradoxical. We will discuss the manner in which these issues are still being debated today.

9. John Stuart Mill.

This class will focus on politics and morality as grounded in utilitarianism, grounded on the pursuit of individual happiness and the best form of government in which to have this succeed. Mill’s political thought is one separated from a notion of religious authority and divine guarantee and marks a watershed in the history of liberalism.

10. Politics and Religion Today.

From the war on terror to middle-eastern peace, from Christian democracy to atheistic communism, politics and religion remain inextricably and controversially bound in our own time. In this final class we will discuss our contemporary world and examine whether our collective past might provide compelling resources to address our most pressing, shared contemporary concerns.

Teaching method(s)

Each class will consist of a lecture, centred on the critical evaluation of a key text (primary source) and incorporating class discussion.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • Describe the key features of political philosophy and the role religion has played in shaping Western political thought;

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the historical development of political philosophy;

  • Evaluate the relevance of past debates to the problems facing the contemporary world.


Core Readings


Key readings for the course will be excerpts from primary sources by each of the theorists covered (below), distributed in class for the following week:

  • Plato, The Republic

  • Aristotle, Politics

  • Augustine, The City of God

  • Aquinas, Summa Theologiae

  • Luther, On Secular Authority

  • Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

  • Hobbes, Leviathan

  • Locke, Second Treatise

  • Mill, Utilitarianism


  • Plato. 2003. The Last Days of Socrates. London: Penguin.

  • Ryan, A. 2012. On Politics. London: Penguin.

Class Handouts

Lecture summaries and excerpts of key texts will be provided.


If you have questions regarding the course or enrolment, please contact COL Reception at Paterson's Land by email or by phone 0131 650 4400.

Student support

If you have a disability, learning difficulty or health condition which may affect your studies, please let us know by ticking the 'specific support needs' box on your course application form. This will allow us to make appropriate adjustments in advance and in accordance with your rights under the Equality Act 2010. For more information please visit the Student Support section of our website.