“Knowledge of the past gives guidance to our counsels and our practical judgement, and the consequences of similar undertakings…encourages or deters us according to our circumstances in the present. History moreover, will be the most commodious source of that stock of examples of outstanding conduct with which it is fitting frequently to embellish our conversation.”-Leonardo Bruni. The Study of Literature.
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Ancient and Modern Realism: Thucydides and Mearsheimer
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In spite of its pessimistic and unromantic account of politics and human nature, realism has nonetheless remained one of the most enduring and influential schools of thought in political thought. In this course, we will look at two of the most important thinkers in this school. The theory of political realism argues that power and interests are the primary motivators of states and this tends to drive them into competition and conflict. We will look at the ancient Athenian historian Thucydides whose History of the Peloponnesian War’s dramatic and often harrowing account of the conflict between Athens and Sparta illustrates the principles of political realism. Thucydides produces a brilliant analysis of statecraft in the classical age of Greece that retains its relevance today. Then we will look at John Mearsheimer’s works The Tragedy of Great Power Politics and The Great Delusion. Mearsheimer is one of the most influential contemporary realists of our time and a critic of liberal internationalism. We try to pair the ancient and the modern to show some of their differences and similarities. Mearsheimer is an offensive realist who thinks that the anarchy of the international system drives states into security competition and leads them to attempt to expand their power. Thucydides discusses security dilemmas but also the permanence of human nature, and the vital significance of human leadership and decision-making in understanding politics. Perhaps, more importantly, our course will shed light on the continuities of realist principles across thousands of years of human history that make an ancient classic like that of Thucydides truly (as he called it) “a possession for all time”.
Bust of the Greek historian Thucydides. In Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons.
The Making of Europe
“…these ages which have not unjustly been called dark, are the most interesting of all, since they contain the germ of a thousand years of cultural development…”. Christopher Dawson, The Formation of Christendom.
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The great British Catholic historian Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) belongs with Arnold Toynbee among the most significant “metahistorians” of the 20th century. In an era of crisis for Western civilization, when Europe was being torn apart by extreme nationalism and the modern totalitarian ideologies, Dawson called forcefully for understanding and reinvigorating of the spiritual, moral, and intellectual foundations of Europe´s unity as a civilization. Dawson is attentive to all aspects of history including the political, economic, artistic, and geographical. But in a time of growing secularization, Dawson is particularly notable for highlighting the central importance of religion for an understanding of the human culture complex. His classic text The Making of Europe takes the unusual focus of “the dark ages” (i.e. the early middle ages) as a formative period for European civilization. Dawson had a profound interest in epochs of “cultural fusion” which are on full display in this early medieval era. There is on the one hand the process of fusion between the classical Greco-Roman tradition and Christianity; and there is a gradual integration of the Roman and Germanic cultures, as well as others such as the Slavic and Celtic. In this course, we examine the section of this text called “The Foundations” which deals with the cultural traditions that will interact and determine the subsequent course of Europe during the Middle Ages- the Greco-Roman classical tradition, the Roman imperial tradition, the Roman Catholic Church, and the barbarian invaders. In doing so we hope this survey will shed light on the foundations of Europe, which is, in turn, the historical basis of Western civilization.