The Origins of Political Philosophy

Danielle Allen

in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy

Published in print May 2011 | ISBN: 9780199238804
Published online September 2011 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Philosophy

The Origins of Political Philosophy

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  • History of Western Philosophy
  • Social and Political Philosophy



“Political philosophy” betrays by its name that its origins lie in Greece. Both words, “political,” and “philosophy,” derive from ancient Greek. “Philosophy” comes from philia (“love”) and sophia (“wisdom”) which, taken together, indicate the love of wisdom. “Political” derives from the adjective politikos, which means “belonging or pertaining to the polis.” Typically translated as city or city state, a polis was distinguished from other types of community by the presence of distinct activities, among them commercial exchange, judicial proceedings, and public deliberation. The Greek urban settlements that came to be called poleis date to some time around 1000 bce; they were generally built around an agora or marketplace. We might identify the origins of political philosophy as lying in the conversion of traditions of wisdom literature, under the pressure of the needs of democracy, into analytical accounts of politics that relied increasingly on an abstract and systematic conceptual vocabulary. This article looks at how Greek political thinkers such as Herodotus, Solon, Thucydides, Gorgias, and Lysias contributed to the birth of political philosophy.

Keywords: Greece; political philosophy; polis; democracy; politics; Herodotus; Solon; Thucydides; Gorgias; Lysias

Article.  11276 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy ; History of Western Philosophy ; Social and Political Philosophy

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