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What is Politics?

Government is the regulation of public affairs, and politics is the means by which people determine whose views of government will prevail. “Politics ain’t beanbag,” said the American humorist Finley Peter Dunne, pretty much summarizing Niccolo Machiavelli’s advice to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici in The Prince (1513). 

Politics itself is a mixture of the high and the low. Politics is the realm in which we attempt to make real some of our highest aspirations: our desire for political freedom, our longing for justice, our hope for peace and security. At the same time, politics is laced with individuals and groups seeking their selfish interests at the expense of others. 

The academic discipline of political theory examines what great thinkers have discerned about the nature of human government. Plato and Aristotle sharply disagreed about the principles that should inform politics, and any serious effort to grasp political theory begins with the contrast between Plato’s hypothetical account of a truly just society in The Republic and Aristotle’s attempt in Politics to identify the actual qualities of the successful state and the statesman. 

Politics deals with messy and complicated situations. For this reason, the study of politics is concerned not only with the political ideal, but also with the best that can be achieved here and now. When should we compromise and when should we stand fast on principle? Political theory helps us to see such questions clearly. The American Revolution took place when a group of statesmen decided to stand on principle and reject further compromise. But shortly after the Revolution, many of the same statesmen worked together to draft the United States Constitution, built on a series of compromises. The Federalist Papers, urging the adoption of the Constitution, offer a brilliant account of how a principled government can thrive in a world of self-interested factions. 

Christians are often ambivalent about politics. On one hand, the Bible often presents God in the language of politics: a sovereign ruler over his kingdom, with Christians called to help build the kingdom. On the other hand, the Bible distinguishes between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of heaven. The King’s College is rooted in the tradition that urges Christians to engage the political realities of their time. We study politics, in part, to learn how to transform our largely secular and pluralistic society for the better.

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