Hans J. Morgenthau

Hans J. Morgenthau books and biography

Hans Morgenthau

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Hans Joachim Morgenthau (February 17, 1904 – July 19, 1980) was an International Relations theorist and one of the most influential ones to date. He was born in Coburg, Germany, and educated at the universities of Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich. He taught and practiced law in Frankfurt before going to the United States in 1937, where he became professor at the University of Chicago. Along with Edward Carr, he is one of the main authors of the realist school. This school of thought holds that nation-states are the main actors in International Relations, and that the main concern of the field is the study of power.

His book Politics among Nations literally defined the IR field in 1948 as it heralded the post–World War II paradigm shift in American thinking about diplomacy, as it emphasised the power interests. The period before WW II was on the other hand defined by idealism that focused on values.


Principles of political realism

Some claim that Morgentau is the founder of International relations as an independent discipline. Before him, it was studied under history, political thought or international law. The more interesting side of Morgenthau is his function as a witness to his time. Why is his approach, after 50 years, still deemed relevant? What is the relevance of political realism a) to his own time, and b) to this day?

The theoretical aims of political realism: to introduce a conceptual framework that helps us understanding: i) what happened in the first half of the 20th century? => a crisis of the western civilization ii) why it happened => because of a general decay in western political thinking (the dominance of liberalism), and iii) what can be done to prevent it from happening again? => introducing a better theory and practice of politics (political realism). Note: the main reason why political realism refers to an underlying philosophical trait coming from Thucydides to present day is its contention that it was a deficiency of philosophical nature that led to the crisis.

the main dictum of 'liberalism' as described in Morgenthau's "scientific man vs. power politics" is the belief in the redeeming powers of science and reason. In this depiction, liberalism is a school of thought that believes in the transformation of man through education in order to solve social problems. It was articulated through the historical rise of the middle classes. Liberalism has misunderstood the nature of man since it believed that society, pretty much like the nature, is subject to specific general laws. What it did not contemplate was the intrinsic human nature that rendered human affairs completely unforeseeable. Morgenthau contends that in politics, there are no fixed formula, it is not a technical question as liberals take it to be. It is the wisdom of the statesman who operates in this environment of uncertainty that counts. The moral responsibility of the politician appears exactly at this point where the statesman uses the 'art of statecraft', knowing that there is no pre-established certainty of success.

Six principles of political realism (summarized by J. Ann Tickner)

1. Politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature, which is unchanging: therefore it is possible to develop a rational theory that reflects these objective laws.

2. The main signpost of political realism is the concept of interest defined in terms of power which infuses rational order into the subject matter of politics, and thus makes the theoretical understanding of politics possible.

3. Realism assumes that interest defined as power is an objective category which is universally valid but not with a meaning that is fixed once and for all. Power is the control of man over man.

4. Political realism is aware of the moral significance of political action. It is also aware of the tension between the moral command and the requirements of successful political action.

5. Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe. It is the concept of interest defined in terms of power that saves us from moral excess and political folly.

6. The political realist maintains the autonomy of the political sphere; he asks "How does this policy affect the power of the nation?" Political realism is based on a pluralistic conception of human nature. A man who was nothing but "political man" would be a beast, for he would be completely lacking in moral restraints. But, in order to develop an autonomous theory of political behaviour, "political man" must be abstracted from other aspects of human nature.


Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Hans Morgenthau
  • "The statesman must think in terms of the national interest, conceived as power among other powers. The popular mind, unaware of the fine distinctions of the statesman’s thinking, reasons more often than not in the simple moralistic and legalistic terms of absolute good and absolute evil."[1]


  • Scientific Man Versus Power Politics (1946) Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (1948) New York NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • In Defense of the National Interest (1951) New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • The Purpose of American Politics (1960) New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Crossroad Papers: A Look Into the American Future (ed.) (1965) New York, NY: Norton.
  • Truth and Power: Essays of a Decade, 1960-70 (1970) New York, NY: Praeger.
  • Coauthor with David Hein. Essays on Lincoln's Faith and Politics. (1983) Lanham, MD: Univ. Press of America for the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the Univ. of Virginia.


  1. ^ Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Thompson, Politics Among Nations, 6th edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985), p. 165.

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