The Floating University

Reading Guide


Thomas Hobbes, Selections from Leviathan:

·         Book I, chapter XIII, paragraphs 1-14

·         Book I, chapter XIV, paragraphs 1-5

·         Book II, chapter XVII, paragraphs 1-15

Note: Hobbes’ text – originally published in 1651 – is written in a somewhat archaic style. If you find some passages difficult, you might find it helpful to read them alongside Jonathan Bennett’s modernized version, which can be found at:


The British philosopher Thomas Hobbes lived from 1588-1679 (he was born roughly 25 years after Shakespeare, who lived from 1564-1616.)  His most famous book—Leviathan—is one of the most important works of early modern political philosophy.

Additional details about Hobbes’ moral and political theory can be found at:

Leviathan is divided into four Books, each containing between 4 and 16 chapters. We are reading selections from near the end of Book I (chapters 13-14) and the beginning of Book II (chapter 17.) A table of contents for the entire book, along with a reproduction of the book’s famous frontespiece, can be found at:

Hobbes helpfully includes summaries of each paragraph’s main point in the margins.

Reading Questions:

As you read through the selection, keep in mind the following questions:

Chapter XIII

(1)   In what ways, according to Hobbes, are all human beings approximately equal? What implications does he take this to this have? (XIII:1-5)

(2)   What, according to Hobbes, causes human beings to quarrel with one another? Why does he think that “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war”? What are the characteristics of this state of war? What is day-to-day life like in such a state? (XIII:6-9)

(3)   What are the two objections that Hobbes considers in paragraphs 10 and 11, and how does he respond to them? (XIII:10-12)

(4)   What, according to Hobbes, motivates people to seek peace? How does this provide a transition to his discussion in the next chapters? (XIII: 14)

Chapter XIV

(5)   Make sure you understand the following terms and concepts:

·         Right of Nature (XIV:1)

·         Liberty (XIV: 2)

·         Law of Nature (in general)  (XIII:14; XIV:3)

   (6) What is the First Law of Nature? What is the Second Law of Nature? In what way is each of these an instance of a Law of Nature in general? (XIV: 4-5) [In subsequent chapters, Hobbes goes on to derive more than 20 additional Laws of Nature.]

Chapter XVII

(7)         What does Hobbes mean by the term “commonwealth”? With what goal do human beings enter into what Hobbes calls “commonwealths”? Why does Hobbes think entering into commonwealths is the best way to achieve that goal? What alternatives does he consider and dismiss? (XVII: 1-15)

(8)         What are some of the reasons that Hobbes thinks it is not possible for human beings to live as ants or bees do? (XVII: 6-12)

(9)         What role do the italicized words in paragraph XVII: 13 play in Hobbes’ theory? What is the connection between these words, and the formation of the commonwealth? What does Hobbes mean by the term “Leviathan”?


John Rawls, Selections from A Theory of Justice

·         Chapter I, opening paragraph (p. 3)

·         Chapter I, section 1, paragraphs 1-2 (pp. 3-4)

·         Chapter I, section 2, paragraph 1 (p. 7)

·         Chapter I, section 3, paragraphs 1-8 (pp. 11-16)

·         Chapter I, section 4, entire (pp. 17-22)

·         Chapter II, section 11, entire (pp. 60-65)


John Rawls (1921-2002) is considered by many to have been the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century. His major work – A Theory of Justice (1971 rev. 1999) – has been enormously influential both inside and outside the academy. Our selections are taken from the opening sections of this book.

In addition to “TJ” (as insiders like to call A Theory of Justice), Rawls published a number of other books. These include: Political Liberalism (1993 – known to insiders as “PL”), The Law of Peoples (1999) and Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001), as well as two volumes of lectures on the history of philosophy: Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (2000) and Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (2007), and a volume of Collected Papers (1999).

In TJ, Rawls defends a view that he calls justice as fairness. According to this view, a just society is one in which all citizens are equal with respect to their basic rights and access to opportunities, and in which inequalities persist only if removing them would worsen the condition of those who are worst off. Rawls argues for this view in a number of ways, the most famous of which involves appeal to the idea of the “original position” (which you will learn about in the course of your reading.)

A comprehensive and reasonably accurate overview of his political philosophy can be found at: A more detailed discussion of the “original position” appears at:

Reading Questions:

As you read through the selection, keep in mind the following questions:

(1)   What does Rawls mean when he says that “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought”? How does he go on to explain this idea? (§1)

(2)   Make sure you understand the following terms and concepts:

·         principles of social justice (§§1-2)

·         basic structure of society (§2)

·         justice as fairness (§§3-4)

·         reflective equilibrium (§4)

·         original position (§4)

·         veil of ignorance (§§3-4) 

(3)   What is “the main idea of the theory of justice”? (§3)

[Note that Rawls is working in the “social contract” tradition, which we learned about in our discussion of Hobbes. But (as he notes in footnote 4), he is working with a somewhat different framework than Hobbes.]

(4)   What does Rawls mean when he says that “the original position is the appropriate initial status quo which insures that the fundamental agreements reached in it are fair”? (§4)

(5)   What are Rawls’ two principles of justice? (§11)

(6)   What are the basic liberties with which the first principle is concerned? What are the sorts of inequalities with which the second principle is concerned? (§11)

(7)   What does it mean that the principles “are to be arranged in a serial order with the first principle prior to the second”? (§11)

(8)   What is the connection between Rawls’ claim that “injustice…is simply inequalities that are not to the benefit of all” and the two principles of justice? (§11)


Robert Nozick, Selections from Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974)

·   [Optional: Preface, entire (pp. ix-xiv)]

·   Chapter 7, Introduction (pp. 149-150)

·   Chapter 7, Section I, up to “Sen’s Argument” (pp. 150-164)


Robert Nozick (1938-2002) was an American philosopher who spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University.  He is best known for his early (1974) work Anarchy, State and Utopia, from whose seventh chapter our reading selection is taken. His other academic philosophical writings include Philosophical Explanations (1981), a wide-ranging work in which he addresses many of the central questions in philosophy; The Nature of Rationality (1993) in which he develops a theory of practical reason; and Invariances (2001) in which he offers a theory of the nature of objective reality.

Anarchy, State and Utopia (“ASU”) was published three years after John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, from which you just read an excerpt. Nozick and Rawls were colleagues at the time, and although ASU is a self-standing work, Nozick was prompted to write it as the result of thinking about Rawls’ work. (Yes, the two were on excellent terms throughout their lives.)

Reading Questions:

As you read through the selection, keep in mind the following questions:

(1)   What is the problem of distributive justice, according to Nozick? (149ff)

(2)   What does Nozick mean by each of the following expressions, and why does he introduce them?

·    Original acquisition of holdings (150)

·    Transfer of holdings (151)

·    Rectification of injustice in holdings (152)

(3)   What is the distinction between “historical principles” and “end result principles”? Why does Nozick introduce this distinction? What role does it play in his larger argument for the libertarian conclusion that “the minimal state is the most extensive state that can be justified?” (153-155) 

(4)   What is “patterning” and how does liberty upset patterns? Why might someone think this is a problem? How does Nozick respond? What role does the Wilt Chamberlain example play in this discussion? (155-164)


Kenneth E. Shepsle and Mark S. Bonchek, Selections from Analyzing Politics: Rationality, Behavior and Institutions (1997)

·   Chapter 8, entire (pp. 198-218)

·   Chapter 10, selections (“The Problem of the Commons”), (pp. 288-296)

[Note: Though the “Conclusion” on pp. 295-296 makes reference to some material that we have not read, it should nonetheless be largely understandable.]


Ken Shepsle is a Professor of Government (that is, Political Science) at Harvard whose areas of research include formal political theory, congressional and parliamentary politics, public policy, and political economy. You can read more about him at: Mark Bonchek is a business executive who was a graduate student of Ken Shepsle’s.

Analyzing Politics is a highly-accessible introduction to rational choice theory, drawn from the lectures for Ken Shepsle’s undergraduate course “Thinking about Politics.”

Reading Questions:

As you read through the selection, keep in mind the following questions:

(1)   Make sure that you understand:

·         the structure of “Hume’s Marsh-Draining Game” (or the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” – see footnote 3, page 202) (198-204)

·         why the Nuclear Disarmament during the Cold War exemplifies this structure (204-206)

·         the complications introduced by repeat play (207-210)

(2)   What is the tit-for-tat strategy? Why is it not a surefire way to guarantee cooperation in a prisoner’s dilemma scenario? (209-210)

(3)   Make sure that you understand the mechanisms available for inducing cooperation (internalized values and external enforcement.) How do you think these mechanisms apply to the issues introduced in the Hobbes selection? (210-218)

(4)   What is the “Problem of the Commons”? What mechanisms are available for mitigating this problem? (288-296)