Is ancient history useful to an understanding of international relations today? For students of grand strategy, classical texts not only provide a plethora of case studies that can be used to test hypotheses, they also offer important and unique insights that may help us understand current and future strategic challenges. What ancient history can show us is, in some ways, the flip side of the lessons of the modern scientific approach. Ancient texts remind us that human affairs cannot be simplified to logical models, and that the ideas, talents, and foibles of individuals can be crucial to the intentions, capabilities, and strategies of a state.

In this two-week seminar, students will grapple with the continued relevance of premodern geopolitical insights. They will begin with a study of statesmanship through a classic text — Plutarch’s Lives — and then turn to a study of war — with Thucydides’s history of the struggle between Athens and Sparta.

 

Hugh Liebert on Plutarch's political philosophy

Faculty

Hugh Liebert

Hugh Liebert is an Associate Professor of American Politics in the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. His primary areas of interest are the history of political thought and American politics and foreign policy. He is the author of Plutarch’s Politics.

Jakub J. Grygiel

Jakub Grygiel is an Associate Professor at the Catholic University of America. From 2017–18, he was a member of the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State. His most recent book is Return of the Barbarians: Confronting Non-State Actors from Ancient Rome to the Present.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Readings: 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do republican lawgivers reconcile their own excellence with the equality of the regimes they establish?
  2. Solon says that the laws he gave Athens were the “best they would receive.” What would the simply “best” laws be? Why wouldn’t the Athenians receive them?
  3. What do the lives or biographies of Solon and Publicola reveal about the challenge of lawgiving that philosophical treatises and histories would not reveal?
  4. Who is the superior lawgiver, Solon or Publicola? Why?
  5. Why did Madison, Hamilton, and Jay select Publicola or “Publius” for their pseudonym in the Federalist Papers? How would the Federalist Papers have changed if they were written by Solon?

Readings: 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. In the introduction to the Pericles and Fabius, Plutarch says that observing virtuous deeds necessarily leads men to want to imitate them. What does Plutarch mean by this? Why is this an appropriate introduction for this pair of Lives in particular?
  2. Thucydides says that under Pericles Athens was “a democracy in name, but a monarchy in fact.” Does Plutarch agree?
  3. Plutarch stresses Pericles’ association with the philosopher Anaxagoras. How does this association influence Pericles’ political career? Why does Pericles pursue politics rather than philosophy?
  4. To what extent can Pericles be blamed for Athens’ loss of the Peloponnesian War and subsequent decline?

Readings: 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. In Pericles and Fabius, Plutarch shows two famous cities overcoming profound crises and reaching a kind of peak in their political development. What challenges do existential threats and unprecedented success pose to republican statesmen? How well do Pericles and Fabius respond to these challenges?
  2. Fabius shares power with other Roman statesmen at key points in his career. Is he as excellent a colleague as a solitary general? How does the Roman regime take advantage of shared and unified commands?
  3. At times in the Life of Fabius Hannibal seems to outshine Fabius himself. How are we meant to understand Fabius’s relation to the Carthaginian general? What do we learn, through Hannibal, about the Carthaginian regime?
  4. What does the Pericles/Fabius comparison reveal about the difference between Athens and Rome?
  5. Who is the superior statesman, Pericles or Fabius? Why?

Readings: 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. In the introduction to the Phocion and Cato, Plutarch says that these Lives will allow us to understand the relationship between fortune and virtue. How does Plutarch understand that relationship?
  2. How does the decline of Athens influence Phocion’s ability to act as a statesman? How do the challenges facing Phocion compare to those faced by Solon and Pericles?
  3. Why does Phocion, as opposed to Demosthenes, favor conciliation rather than opposition to Macedon? Under what conditions is retreat or surrender the best course of action for a state?
  4. Plutarch concludes Phocion’s Life by linking his execution by the Athenians to the death of Socrates. What are the salient similarities and differences in these two episodes?

Readings: 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. In light of the decline of Athens and Rome portrayed in this pair of Lives, how might we say that republics fall? To what degree can statesmen resist or reverse this decline?
  2. The Romans admire Cato for his rigid, austere virtue. Are they right to do so?
  3. Can Cato’s Rome sustain a republican regime? Why or why not?
  4. Cato and Phocion respond quite differently to the decline of their regimes. Which response is preferable and why?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Great powers fear “entrapment” (being dragged into small and peripheral wars by their allies) while their allies fear “abandonment” (being left alone by their distant security patron). How can these fears be mitigated? Do they reflect the reality of international politics?
  2. What is the importance of allies for the U.S.?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. The Peloponnesian War was a conflict between a sea power (Athens) and a land power (Sparta). What are the features of such a conflict? What are the differences in how they conduct war?
  2. How did the strategy of Archidamus differ from that of Pericles?
  3. What strategy should the U.S. pursue against its continental rivals (China, Iran, Russia)?

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