This seminar looks at politics from the perspective of what is, at first glance, not politics, both from beneath politics (the household or family) and from beyond it (the divine). We contend that these perspectives have much to contribute to politics: they not only illuminate politics by shining light from across its borders; they may also inform politics rightly considered.

We can distinguish three different senses of “limits” of politics: (a) Limits in the sense of “boundaries” and “limitations”: What are the boundaries of the political domain? What are the limitations of its authority? Does it hold sway, e.g., over birth and death, private life (the household, thought), or the divine? (b) Limits in the sense of “sources” and “standards”: What are the sources of political authority and legitimacy? What are the standards for its teachings and pronouncements? Do these come, for example, from nature, from human reason, or from God or gods? (c) Limits in the sense of “goals”: What is the purpose or aim of politics? As war is for the sake of peace, what is politics for: (i) Something beneath politics? (ii) Something beyond politics? (iii) For its own sake—e.g., for the sake of self-governance?  More concretely: Is the purpose of politics the securing of individual rights and the safeguarding of private liberty? The promotion of virtue or the perfection of our humanity? Service to the divine, in part through the sanctification of human life and community? We submit that a proper understanding of politics will require attention to all three senses of limits: limitations of political authority, standards for judging political ways and teachings, goals toward which politics point.

To make things complicated and interesting, we will offer two perspectives on these matters, one from Greek tragedy, one from the (Hebrew) Bible. Both look at the city in relation to what is not the city. Yet they offer different views of man’s relation to nature and the divine, and profoundly different views of the divine’s relation to the human. They therefore point to different answers to our questions about limits. For the most part, we will come at these matters indirectly, concentrating instead on the texts themselves, read carefully for their own meaning. But we hope to show that a deeper understanding of politics—including American politics—requires thinking hard about the matters we will be examining this week.

Images: Moselli, Promulgation of the Written Law through Moses, fresco, 1480 | Henry Fuseli, Oedipus Cursing His Son, Polynices, oil on canvas, 1786

Amy & Leon Kass on liberal education & citizenship

Faculty

Amy A. Kass

Amy Apfel Kass (1940 – 2015) was a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, Senior Lecturer Emerita in the humanities at the University of Chicago, and coeditor of What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and SongShe was an award-winning teacher of classic texts.

Leon R. Kass

Leon R. Kass, M.D., is the Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago and the Madden-Jewett Chair at AEI. He was the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2001 to 2005. He has been engaged for more than 40 years with ethical and philosophical issues raised by biomedical advances and, more recently, with broader moral and cultural issues.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

The Tragic View: “The Double Frame of Tragedy: Human Being and Citizen”

Reading:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is wrong with Babel, the universal city of man?

 

The Biblical View: “The Meaning of the City and the Trouble with Politics”

Reading:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the essential elements of tragedy and the tragic view of human life?

The Tragic View: “The Case For and Against Antigone”

Reading: 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What animates Antigone?
  2. How does she understand the family?
  3. How should we judge her?

 

The Biblical View: “Biblical Correctives: Founding through Enslavement, Deliverance, and Divine Covenant”

Reading:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why this path to people formation?
  2. What is a covenant, and what difference does it make for politics?

The Tragic View: “The Case For and Against Antigone”

Reading:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What animates Creon?
  2. How does he understand the city?
  3. How should we judge him?

 

The Biblical View: “The Divine Lawgiver: Principles for a Better Polity”

Readings:

Discussion Questions:

  1. What’s new here?
  2. What unifies the God-centered and the human-centered principles of the Decalogue?
  3. What follows for the polity founded on such a set of principles?

The Tragic View: “The Divine Messenger: Teiresias”

Reading:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does Teiresias know?
  2. Why does he have the effect that he does?

 

The Biblical View: “The Character of the Divinely Given Law”

Reading:

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the overall tenor and drift of these ordinances?
  2. What follows for the polity founded on these principles and laws?

The Tragic View: “The Teachings of Tragedy”

Reading:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What light does the Ode shed on the tragedy we have witnessed?
  2. What is the purpose of tragic-drama?
  3. What are its teachings for politics, and for human life generally?

 

The Biblical View: “The Goal of Politics: Holiness”

Reading:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why the Tabernacle?
  2. What is this summons to “holiness”?
  3. What follows for the polity so summoned?

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