The Philosopher and the Tyrant (Gen Ed 1030)

Semester: 

Spring

Offered: 

2021

In a time of rising authoritarianism and polarized debate, what role can the love of wisdom have in tempering the pursuit of power?

 

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David Damrosch

Philosophers and politicians alike struggle to set the terms for living a good life in a world of conflict. Rulers seek guidance from their counselors, and philosophers have often dreamed of wielding real-world influence. Reading a series of masterpieces of philosophical thought and literary expression, we will examine some striking cases of relations between the pursuit of wisdom and the pursuit of power, from the extremes of conflict (the executions of Socrates, Han Fei, Jesus, Sir Thomas More) to the opposite dream of the philosopher king. How do seekers of wisdom speak truth to power? How do rulers understand their ethical responsibilities toward their often fractious subjects? How do rulers and subjects alike weigh the competing demands of liberty and order, self-fulfillment and self-restraint? Moving from ancient to modern examples, this course will see how the insights and methods of Plato, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, and Hannah Arendt can be useful in working through contemporary conundrums of wisdom and power, amid the heated rhetoric of this fall’s election contests.

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