Sovereigns, Subjects, and the Modern State

Prof David Wiens | Winter 2017 | UC San Diego

Course Description

What do citizens owe to society? How should the government treat citizens? How should power be distributed within society? Should some members of society hold authority over others? Who counts as a citizen? How should political institutions be constituted? What aims should political institutions serve? Who gets to settle the laws?

These questions probe fundamental issues concerning political life. How we answer them depends on how we understand key concepts. What is power? What is authority? What is political membership? What are institutions? What is law? How are these things related to each other? How are they related to politics? (Let's not forget: What is politics?)

In this course, we discuss some of the most influential political theorists from the early modern period (roughly, 1500-1800), a period of significant political upheaval. (Consider, for example, the episode depicted by the painting above: the beheading of Charles I of England in 1649.) Their questions about politics might not be the same as our questions. But their way of formulating their questions and the answers they present offer us a rich stock of concepts and models that can help us articulate questions that are appropriate to our political context.


Niccolo Machiavelli

The Prince
Discourses on Livy

Thomas Hobbes


John Locke

Second Treatise on Government

David Hume

"Of the original contract"
Treatise on Human Nature

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Discourse on the Origin of Inequality
The Social Contract

Learning Objectives

This course aims to help you develop skills that empower you to formulate perceptive questions and think critically about potential answers. These skills include: (1) the ability to summarize and synthesize what you read; (2) the ability to reconstruct and critically evaluate others' arguments; (3) the ability to communicate clearly and construct compelling arguments; (4) the ability to collaborate with others to pursue mutual understanding. One develops these skills by putting them to use. Accordingly, the course is designed to give you numerous opportunities to ask questions and to think critically about potential answers.



Opportunities to participate in small group discussions of the readings.


Low-stakes opportunities to develop your understanding of the readings.


Opportunities to develop your ability to critically assess arguments.


End-of-term opportunity to put everything together.

What Students Are Saying

Excerpts from CAPE student evaluations.

"Amazing!! A great course for laying the groundwork for studying political science."

"A very challenging, but rewarding and interesting class. One of the few classes in which I feel genuinely challenged yet feel rewarded when I get a good grade."

"Professor Wiens lectures in a way that encourages questions and participation on behalf of students, and manages to explain difficult material in an accessible and straightforward way."

"Truly interesting material; Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Hume are essential reads for any political science student."

"Tremendous professor who truly knows and enjoys the material. Always willing to answer any students questions whenever any were present, and did a great job of making class entertaining and stimulating."

"The professor is approachable and kind and has a general passion for teaching and desires that we, the students, take something out of the course. He really does care and that is special to see in a university as big as UCSD."


MWF 10:00-10:50. Location to be determined.

Class sessions are primarily discussion format.

This course satisfies the Roosevelt College Upper Division Writing Requirement.