Fall 2015 Courses

Fall has arrived! I'm thrilled to return to Bryn Mawr to teach two courses: Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ancient and Early Modern," an introduction to western political thought from Herodotus to Machiavelli, and "Arts of Freedom," a seminar that investigates questions of freedom in American politics.

In "Ancient and Early Modern Political Philosophy," we begin with the ancient world around the Mediterranean, considering the different political forms that arose in both the “east” and the “west” before turning to a closer study of the ancient Athenian democracy and its defenders and critics: advocates for democracy like the Pericles of Thucydides’ "Funeral Oration" as well as critics such as Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias. We’ll also consider how critics of Athens served or harmed the democracy, examining Socrates’ own activity through the lens of Plato’s Apology as well as Aristophanes’ satirical depiction of Socrates in Clouds.

After considering the transition from city-states to empire in the Greek world through our reading of Aristotle’s Politics, we turn to republican Rome to examine another political form as well as questions about leadership, rhetoric, gender, and freedom that arose within it. Influential as the Athenians were to founders of modern political regimes, it was most often as a negative examples; the Romans were much preferred, as testified by the American “Senate,” among other institutions. We’ll study early articulations of the virtues of the Roman Republic in Polybius and then turn to its most ardent defender, Cicero, who also anticipate the corruption that spelled its end. Plautus’s comedy, Capitivi, gives us a view of the structures of authority in their gendered inflection as Rome became an empire. The philosophical arguments of Epictetus, a slave in the empire, opens questions about the possibility of living well in an unjust world.

We conclude our journey across space and time by leaping forward to Renaissance Italy and Niccolo Machiavelli’s from Florence. Machiavelli stands as a pivot between the ancient concerns for virtue achieved through community and the creation of the modern state.

Click here for a draft of the "Ancients and Early Modern" syllabus (revisions pending).

In "Arts of Freedom," we begin with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014) as a kind of invocation for the entire course. Rankine raises the question of what it means to be a citizen in the United States, a democracy that still prides itself on the freedom it promises yet also contains within it various modes of subjection and subordination: the powerlessness of the impoverished; continuing racial domination; and the highest per capita rate of imprisonment in the world. Rankine invokes these themes while also crafting an art of resistance in the poem itself, a stunning and powerful creative act against the broader structures she details. Rankine also serves to remind us of the personal and positional experiences of the broader theoretical and political questions that we will pursue in the course.

From Rankine we move backwards to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835 – 1840). A visiting observer of the early United States, Tocqueville famously saw Americans and the American democracy they had fashioned more clearly than they could see themselves. Reading Tocqueville will help us understand not just the promise of America but also particular American delusions, the simultaneous commitments to equality and liberty that also blind citizens to the exclusions and violence that these entail. Reading W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) will further illuminate the implications of these exclusions, in particular those of African Americans ostensibly freed after the Civil War but still living in the ruins of their subjection and enslavement. In the wake of Tocqueville and DuBois we will ask, along with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010), which brings Tocqueville’s and DuBois’s concerns to the present: What are the conditions of freedom today? What arts of freedom survive and where might they be located?

To begin to imagine contemporary arts of freedom we will again step back from the present moment to study the Freedom Struggle – what was later called the Civil Rights Movement – as it developed in the American South and inspired the Student Movement and Women’s Movement in the 1960s. Reading Charles Payne, Doug McAdam, and Sara Evans alongside primary texts, works of art, and songs from these movements we will try to theorize arts of freedom in different modes – political organization, consciousness raising, artistic creation, and so forth – as part of broader social movements. In the final stage of the course, we will then take our conceptual and theoretical lenses to analyze three recent movements that have laid claim to their own arts of freedom: Occupy, #blacklivesmatter, and prison abolitionism.

 Click here for a draft of my "Arts of Freedom" syllabus (revisions pending).

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