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Unit of study_

GOVT2112: Modern Political Thought

Semester 1, 2021 [Normal day] - Camperdown/Darlington, Sydney

This unit considers key themes in modern and contemporary political thought. It uses primary texts to address topics such as sovereignty, democracy, fascism, liberalism, human rights, politics and religion, violence, and political identity. Authors may include Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Kant, Nietzsche, Marx, J.S. Mill, Tocqueville, Rawls, Arendt, Schmitt, and Foucault.

Unit details and rules

Unit code GOVT2112
Academic unit Government and International Relations
Credit points 6
12 credit points at 1000 level in Politics or International Relations or 12 credit points in Jewish Civilisation, Thought and Culture or 12 credit points at 1000 level in Philosophy or 12 credit points at 1000 level in Government and International Relations
Assumed knowledge


Available to study abroad and exchange students


Teaching staff

Coordinator Alexandre Lefebvre,
Lecturer(s) Alexandre Lefebvre,
Tutor(s) Rory Torrens,
Lucy Williams,
Type Description Weight Due Length
Assignment Final essay
50% Formal exam period
Due date: 15 Jun 2021 at 23:59
2500 words
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO2 LO3
Assignment Midterm essay
40% Week 08
Due date: 27 Apr 2021 at 23:59
2000 words
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO3 LO2
Assignment Weekly Questions
Weekly questions, submitted online
10% Weekly n/a
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO3 LO2

Assessment summary

Weekly questions: Each week students are expected to prepare two questions based on the relevant reading. Each question can be as long as a paragraph or as short as a sentence. The questions will be counted, not graded. But to count they must reflect a real engagement with the relevant reading. (E.g., to ask when reading Tocqueville, “Why does Tocqueville hate democracy so much?” is not a real engagement. A good question is: “Tocqueville seems to have a lot of reservations about democracy: it can lead to uniformity, mediocrity, even despotism. How does he think democracy can be saved, without just going back to feudalism?”) These questions must be submitted on Canvas before 11:59pm on Monday before class. Please write your name and tutorial time (e.g., Jane Smith, Tuesday 2-3 pm). Each set of questions will count as 1% toward your final grade, up to a maximum of 10%.

Midterm Essay: On April 13th, you will receive a 2000 word (maximum) midterm assignment. Essay questions will be posted on Canvas. The midterm assignment is due April 27th. A late penalty of 5% per calendar day will apply, and work submitted more than ten working days after the deadline will not be assessed and a mark of zero will be recorded.

Final Essay:  On May 25th, you will receive a 2500 word (maximum) final essay assignment. Essay questions will be posted on Canvas. The final essay is due June 15th. A late penalty of 5% per calendar day will apply, and work submitted more than ten working days after the deadline will not be assessed and a mark of zero will be recorded.

Assessment criteria

The University awards common result grades, set out in the Coursework Policy 2014 (Schedule 1).

As a general guide, a High distinction indicates work of an exceptional standard, a Distinction a very high standard, a credit a good standard, and a pass an acceptable standard.

Result name

Mark range


High distinction

85 - 100



75 - 84



65 - 74



50 - 64



0 - 49

When you don’t meet the learning outcomes of the unit to a satisfactory standard.

For more information see

For more information see guide to grades.

Late submission

In accordance with University policy, these penalties apply when written work is submitted after 11:59pm on the due date:

  • Deduction of 5% of the maximum mark for each calendar day after the due date.
  • After ten calendar days late, a mark of zero will be awarded.

Academic integrity

The Current Student website  provides information on academic integrity and the resources available to all students. The University expects students and staff to act ethically and honestly and will treat all allegations of academic integrity breaches seriously.  

We use similarity detection software to detect potential instances of plagiarism or other forms of academic integrity breach. If such matches indicate evidence of plagiarism or other forms of academic integrity breaches, your teacher is required to report your work for further investigation.

You may only use artificial intelligence and writing assistance tools in assessment tasks if you are permitted to by your unit coordinator, and if you do use them, you must also acknowledge this in your work, either in a footnote or an acknowledgement section.

Studiosity is permitted for postgraduate units unless otherwise indicated by the unit coordinator. The use of this service must be acknowledged in your submission.

Simple extensions

If you encounter a problem submitting your work on time, you may be able to apply for an extension of five calendar days through a simple extension.  The application process will be different depending on the type of assessment and extensions cannot be granted for some assessment types like exams.

Special consideration

If exceptional circumstances mean you can’t complete an assessment, you need consideration for a longer period of time, or if you have essential commitments which impact your performance in an assessment, you may be eligible for special consideration or special arrangements.

Special consideration applications will not be affected by a simple extension application.

Using AI responsibly

Co-created with students, AI in Education includes lots of helpful examples of how students use generative AI tools to support their learning. It explains how generative AI works, the different tools available and how to use them responsibly and productively.

WK Topic Learning activity Learning outcomes
Week 01 Introduction: Modern Political Thought Read: Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Yes (and apologies), there is a reading assigned for Week 1. Please read it before our first lecture. Reading posted on Canvas. Lecture and tutorial (3 hr)  
Week 02 Locke, Second Treatise. Read: Preface, §1-§21, §87-§101, §113-§136, §149-§151, §159-§168, §211-§243. Note: these are paragraph numbers, not page numbers. Reading posted on Canvas. Lecture and tutorial (3 hr)  
Week 03 Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto. Read all of the Manifesto, except for Part III ("Socialist and Communist Literature"). Reading posted on Canvas. Lecture and tutorial (3 hr)  
Week 04 Tocqueville, The Advent of Democracy. Read Democracy in America: pp 3-15, 27-65, 82-93. Lecture and tutorial (3 hr)  
Week 05 Tocqueville, The Tyranny of the Majority. Read Democracy in America: pp. 165-172, 235-258, 274-288, 298-302. Lecture and tutorial (3 hr)  
Week 06 Tocqueville, The Three Races. Read Democracy in America, pp 302-348, 358-61. Lecture and tutorial (3 hr)  
Week 07 Tocqueville, The Cultural Life of Democracy. Read Democracy in America: pp. 399-415, 417-424, 479-492, 500-517, 530-532. Lecture and tutorial (3 hr)  
Week 08 Tocqueville, Democratic Despotism. Read Democracy in America: pp 535-539, 639-676. Lecture and tutorial (3 hr)  
Week 09 Rawls, Justice as Fairness. There are two readings for this week. 1. Rawls, "The Four Roles of Political Philosophy" (short excerpt from Rawls's final book, Justice as Fairness: a Restatement). Reaading posted on Canvas. 2. A Theory of Justice: Preface for the Revised Edition, Preface, Chapter 1. Justice as Fairness. Lecture and tutorial (3 hr)  
Week 10 Rawls, Freedom and Equality. Read A Theory of Justice: Chapter 2. The Principles of Justice, Chapter 3. The Original Position. Lecture and tutorial (3 hr)  
Week 11 Rawls, The Rational Agent. Read A Theory of Justice: Chapter 7. Goodness as Rationality. Lecture and tutorial (3 hr)  
Week 12 Rawls, The Sense of Justice. Read A Theory of Justice: Chapter 8. The Sense of Justice. Lecture and tutorial (3 hr)  
Week 13 Rawls, Why Be Just? Read A Theory of Justice: Chapter 9. The Good of Justice. Lecture and tutorial (3 hr)  

Attendance and class requirements

  • Attendance: according to Faculty Board Resolutions, students in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences are expected to attend 90% of their classes. If you attend less than 50% of classes, regardless of the reasons, you may be referred to the Examiner’s Board. The Examiner’s Board will decide whether you should pass or fail the unit of study if your attendance falls below this threshold.
  • Lecture recording: most lectures (in recording-equipped venues) will be recorded and may be made available to students on the LMS. However, you should not rely on lecture recording to substitute your classroom learning experience.
  • Preparation: students should commit to spend approximately three hours’ preparation time (reading, studying, homework, essays, etc.) for every hour of scheduled instruction.

Study commitment

Typically, there is a minimum expectation of 1.5-2 hours of student effort per week per credit point for units of study offered over a full semester. For a 6 credit point unit, this equates to roughly 120-150 hours of student effort in total.

Required readings


  • Locke, The Second Treatise of Government (1690). Posted online.
  • Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848). Posted online.
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835/1840). Translated by Harvey C Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. THIS EDITION IS REQUIRED and you need to purchase your own copy. A Kindle edition is available on for $19. A paperback on Amazon costs $28 (and is a very handsome book).
  • Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1999.  THIS EDITION IS REQUIRED. You can purchase a paperback copy on for $60 (make sure it is the revised 1999 edition. Don’t buy the Kindle version, which is the original 1971 edition). You can also access the e-book through the library catelogue. 

Learning outcomes are what students know, understand and are able to do on completion of a unit of study. They are aligned with the University's graduate qualities and are assessed as part of the curriculum.

At the completion of this unit, you should be able to:

  • LO1. analyse core concepts in modern political theory, such as power, consent, sovereignty, rights, democracy, equality, justice, and pluralism
  • LO2. contrast the following major political theorists: Locke, Marx, Tocqueville, and Rawls
  • LO3. develop critical reading skills of primary texts.

Graduate qualities

The graduate qualities are the qualities and skills that all University of Sydney graduates must demonstrate on successful completion of an award course. As a future Sydney graduate, the set of qualities have been designed to equip you for the contemporary world.

GQ1 Depth of disciplinary expertise

Deep disciplinary expertise is the ability to integrate and rigorously apply knowledge, understanding and skills of a recognised discipline defined by scholarly activity, as well as familiarity with evolving practice of the discipline.

GQ2 Critical thinking and problem solving

Critical thinking and problem solving are the questioning of ideas, evidence and assumptions in order to propose and evaluate hypotheses or alternative arguments before formulating a conclusion or a solution to an identified problem.

GQ3 Oral and written communication

Effective communication, in both oral and written form, is the clear exchange of meaning in a manner that is appropriate to audience and context.

GQ4 Information and digital literacy

Information and digital literacy is the ability to locate, interpret, evaluate, manage, adapt, integrate, create and convey information using appropriate resources, tools and strategies.

GQ5 Inventiveness

Generating novel ideas and solutions.

GQ6 Cultural competence

Cultural Competence is the ability to actively, ethically, respectfully, and successfully engage across and between cultures. In the Australian context, this includes and celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, knowledge systems, and a mature understanding of contemporary issues.

GQ7 Interdisciplinary effectiveness

Interdisciplinary effectiveness is the integration and synthesis of multiple viewpoints and practices, working effectively across disciplinary boundaries.

GQ8 Integrated professional, ethical, and personal identity

An integrated professional, ethical and personal identity is understanding the interaction between one’s personal and professional selves in an ethical context.

GQ9 Influence

Engaging others in a process, idea or vision.

Outcome map

Learning outcomes Graduate qualities

This section outlines changes made to this unit following staff and student reviews.

No changes have been made since this unit was last offered

Our focus this year is on liberalism, which is the main social and political ideology of the modern era. Its best known doctrines, such as the rule of law, individual rights, division of powers, and internationalism are mainstays of advanced democracies around the world. Moreover, its ideas of individualism, privacy, tolerance, reciprocity, pluralism, and irony define the culture, selfhood, and psychology of our times.

In this unit of study we will undertake an in-depth study of two thinkers who stand at the beginning, and perhaps the end, of the liberal tradition: Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and John Rawls (1921-2002).

We will spend five weeks with Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835/1840), arguably the greatest book ever written on both democracy and America. Tocqueville himself was an aristocrat and very clearly saw both the pros and cons of the coming democratic age. With him we will explore ideas of freedom, equality, individualism, majority rule and tyranny of the majority, racism and genocide, and power.

With Rawls, we will dedicate five weeks to A Theory of Justice (1971), which is the most influential book of political philosophy of the twentieth century. With him we will look at ideas of justice, impartiality, fairness, merit, self-interest, moral education, shame, and love.

Guest appearances will also be made by Jonathan Lear (whose book “Radical Hope” will be used to frame the course), John Locke (one of the first great liberals) and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (two fearsome early critics of liberalism). The goal of the unit of study is to achieve a better understanding of liberalism in general, and especially as it inform our own sense of what makes for a decent and legitimate polity, as well as a meaningful and enjoyable life.


The University reserves the right to amend units of study or no longer offer certain units, including where there are low enrolment numbers.

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