What makes political leaders great? In this two-week seminar, students will examine the idea of statesmanship through a classic text on the subject — Plutarch’s Lives — and then turn to a study of the speeches and deeds of America’s greatest statesman: Abraham Lincoln.

Over the first week, led by Professor Hugh Liebert, author of Plutarch’s Politics, students will study selections from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. A “bible for heroes,” as Emerson put it, the Lives aimed to shape readers’ souls by uncovering the virtues and vices of the greatest Greeks and Romans. But the Lives were far from works of hagiography. They were a reflection on the fundamental problems of politics: the nature of republican government, the temptations of empire, the rise and fall of regimes. It was not only for inspiration, but for instruction in such matters that American statesmen like Hamilton, Lincoln, and Truman turned to Plutarch. This week will approach the Lives in their spirit. Students will read three pairs of LivesSolon/Publicola, Pericles/Fabius, and Phocion/Cato – in order to consider how the birth, peak, and fall of republican regimes reveal the nature of statesmanship.

The second week, led by Professor Diana Schaub, delves into the American essence through reflection on Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and writings. Lincoln is often credited with having saved or re-founded the American Union by giving it a “new birth of freedom.” He is also often recognized as the creator of a new form of public speech. In this course, students will seek to understand Lincoln’s statecraft in conjunction with his literary craft. Throughout the course, students will inquire into the nature of political debate and argument, the role of passion and reason in public speech, and the legacy of the Founding (with particular reference to the issue of slavery).

Image: Philipp Foltz, Pericles’ Funeral Oration, 1877

Diana Schaub on Lincoln's political thought

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.

Diana Schaub

Diana J. Schaub is Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland and a member of the Hoover Institution’s task force on The Virtues of a Free Society. From 2004 to 2009 she was a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

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?

Recommended Reading:

Lincoln and the Constitution, What So Proudly We Hail

 

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is your impression of the 23-year-old Lincoln? What is the nature of his “peculiar ambition”? Why is education “the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in”? What is his attitude toward change in laws? Is he a conservative or a progressive?
  2. According to Lincoln, who has the harder task — the revolutionary generation or the current generation? What are the direct and indirect consequences of mob rule, and how are they related to “the perpetuation of our political institutions”? Does Lincoln’s solution — a political religion of reverence for the laws — allow for the possibility of civil disobedience, or is disobedience always uncivil? What is the link between mob law and the threat posed by those who belong to “the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle”? Is Lincoln such an individual? What does Lincoln mean by “passion” and “reason”? What is “reverence”?
  3. What sort of reformers does Lincoln praise and what sort does he criticize? If you were to apply what Lincoln says about the temperance movement to the abolition movement, what lessons would you draw? What does this speech reveal about Lincoln’s understanding of human nature?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is Lincoln’s view of slavery? Is he a bigot? In thinking about these questions, pay close attention to two passages in which Lincoln speaks of the role played by universal feelings in political life.
  2. What does this speech reveal about the relation between public opinion and statesmanship?
  3. What are the “lullaby” arguments offered on behalf of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and how does Lincoln dispense with them? What about “the one great argument” (Stephen Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty)? What are the elements of Lincoln’s critique of Douglas?
  4. Given what Lincoln said about reverence for the Constitution and the law, is he contradicting his own principles in criticizing the Dred Scott decision? What is his view of judicial precedent?  What is Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration of Independence? Why is there so much talk of racial amalgamation in this speech?
  5. Why can’t the nation remain “permanently half slave and half free”? Wouldn’t the restoration of the Missouri Compromise (which Lincoln desires) leave the nation a house divided? According to Lincoln, what will be the end result of adopting a policy of quarantine (preventing slavery from spreading into the territories)? Why? What result will follow from the alternative policy of allowing slavery to spread?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Lincoln establish that the Framers agreed with the Republican rather than the Democratic view of the powers of the federal government respecting slavery in the territories?
  2. What is Lincoln’s message to the Southerners? Are the Republicans a sectional party? Are they conservative, as Lincoln claims?
  3. What is Lincoln’s message to the Republicans?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is meant by the “new birth of freedom”? Does it refer to the emancipated slaves? If so, what is Lincoln’s vision of their place within the polity? How does the new birth of freedom relate to the argument of the Lyceum Address about the requirements for the perpetuation of our republic? (You might think too about the ballots and bullets passage of the Special Message to Congress.)
  2. What interpretation of the Civil War does Lincoln present and why? What is Lincoln’s theology? What is the role of charity in political life?

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