In this opening week, led by Program Dean Peter Berkowitz, we introduce the study of politics by exploring the work of Leo Strauss, one of the twentieth century’s most consequential teachers and scholars of political philosophy. Students will read Strauss’ famous essay, “What Is Political Philosophy?” and excerpts from the autobiographical preface to the English language translation of his first book, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion. We will examine key topics in his work including the quarrel between classical and modern political philosophy; the critique of social science positivism, historicism, moral relativism, and Heideggerian existentialism; the conflict between reason and revelation; and the defense of liberal democracy.

Image: Michel Corneille, Apasie au milieu des philosophes de la Grèce, 1670s

Peter Berkowitz on Liberal Education and Our Illiberal Universities


Peter Berkowitz

Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He studies and writes about, among other things, constitutional government, conservatism and progressivism in America, liberal education, national security and law, and Middle East politics.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session



Discussion Questions:

  1. What does Jerusalem stand for (pp. 9–10), and how is it related to the problem of political philosophy?
  2. What is political philosophy, and how does it differ from political theory, political theology, and political science?
  3. What is positivism, and what are its limitations?
  4. What is historicism, and why is it “the serious antagonist of political philosophy” (p. 26)?



Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the theologico-political predicament?
  2. What about Weimar made liberal democracy in Weimar weak? What about liberal democracy made liberal democracy in Weimar weak?
  3. How was Zionism a response to the weakness of liberal democracy in Weimar? What are the limits of the Zionist response?
  4. How was a return to Judaism a response to the weakness of liberal democracy in Weimar? What are limits of the return-to-Judaism response?

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Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

Revisit the quarrel between "the ancients and the moderns" and reflect on human nature with Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

Plato’s Republic

Study Plato’s Republic, perhaps the greatest work of political philosophy ever written.

What Is Liberal Education?

Reflect on the enduring value of liberal education and its importance for a free society.