This class attempts three things:
- To situate ancient concerns throughout political intellectual history such that those concerns are brought to light in contemporary discourse.
- To introduce students to dialectics as a method of analysis, political reflection, philosophical discussion and view of that which stands and gives shape to life in “civilization.”
- To equip students with a constellation of three interrelated terms: Capital, Democracy, and Populism; through historical deep dives favoring functional definitions of concepts rather than abstract notions constructed a priori.
These attempts, it will be shown, are simply that. No class can hope to connect the great thoughts of great thinkers throughout history, across languages, times and places sufficiently such that students become masters of those greats. However, the idea of our course is an attempt at gaining a vantage point on the progress of political theory itself – not in its answers but through its questions. To that end, the readings selected for the course may, at times, fall outside the confines of a “period” class, but the concerns raised by selected authors should be taken as perennial.
I shall refer often to thinkers and their political theories who have not been assigned to the reading list. These thinkers will be referred to through links, video, and other outlets that display their philosophies or otherwise offer cuts into their thoughts. I am not at liberty to read Attic Greek, nor Latin and I do not want to misrepresent myself or our tasks as one of truth preservation throughout history or of faithful translation of meaning throughout time. Many of the theorists referred to and mobilized will be referred to tangentially and the links provided are recognized sources within political theory and philosophy…or at least do a reasonably faithful job in philosophical exegesis.
Instead, we will link the thoughts of the ancients to our present time through historical arcs constructed around key vocabulary. We shall see that capital and conquest went hand-in-hand for the Hellenistic Greeks, that Plato distrusted democracy to deliver a just society, and that populism contains the germ of the polis which concerned Aristotle. In these ways, the course displays the progression of political thought through perennial problems, and ones that must be addressed if one is to be a student of politics.
We will not concern ourselves too deeply with definitions handed down from on high. Our theorists will give us the start and our job is to batter the bulwarks of definition with empirical reality in an attempt to make our definitions lived and felt. Political discourse must be seen as more than mere squabbling and be taken for its material effects. Our thinkers will display a method of thinking and inquiry that can be called “dialectics,” or “dialectical.” In a short hand, but rough and ready way, we may think of dialectics as the interplay of seeming opposites in the construction of reality. Our world has been made by the struggles of history that have given shape to our intellectual history, the inheritance of our political and philosophical language, and the contours of the environments in which we find ourselves. One should see the history of a term as undergoing change and challenge throughout time, and our job is to carefully examine them as they change and as they stand currently. We will do this by interrogating our texts through careful reading; looking for the terms and the contexts in which they are used to seat a definition – and we will carefully and respectfully argue for our positions. If, as Marx wrote in his famous Manifesto “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” then class struggle must be found – empirically – in evidence of every society that stands or stood and this can be found in the clash of opposites.
The United States is and was a grand experiment in political thought. It emerged from the stings of battle, to be sure, but also from grand philosophical schemata, changes in the mode of production, and the history of argument within the crumbling English monarchy. Our capitalist republic persists but the meaning of those terms “capitalist,” and “republic” are and have been contested through philosophical and theoretical fisticuffs as well as the bodies of those who threw themselves into the fray for their ideals. Our task is to see how terms are mobilized, how they get their meaning and from where they come in understanding the firmament of our lives.
They’re in the water. Trump’s populist charge against established political ideals shows another side of republican and Republican politics. The rejection of Bernie Sanders by the Democratic establishment displays relationships to capital and history on both sides. At stake in both currents is the shape of democracy, and with it, the contours of our civilization. The terms and the thinkers we examine are alive and continue to live with us. They are legion but we can only consider a few as we jump through history and come to connect our milieu with theirs and, in so doing, make the past live again.