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 Lives – Solon/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).
PREVIEW THE SYLLABUS BY WEEK/SESSION
Week I: Plutarch
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
Week II: Lincoln
- To the People of Sangamo County, March 9, 1832
- Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838
- Address to the Washington Temperance Society of Springfield, Illinois, February 22, 1842
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?
- Fragment on Slavery, 1854
- Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria, Illinois, October 16, 1854
- Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act (continued)
- To Joshua F. Speed, August 24, 1855
- Speech on the Dred Scott Decision at Springfield, Illinois, June 26, 1857
- “House Divided” Speech at Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858
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?
- To Henry L. Pierce and Others, April 6, 1859
- Fragment on the Constitution and the Union, January 1861
- Address at Cooper Institute, New York City, February 27, 1860
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?
- Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois, February 11, 1861
- First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861
- Message to Congress in Special Session, July 4, 1861
- To Orville H. Browning, September 22, 1861
- To Erastus Corning and Others, June 12, 1863
- Proclamation Revoking General Hunter’s Emancipation Order, May 19, 1862
- Appeal to Border-State Representatives for Compensated Emancipation, Washington, DC, July 12, 1862
- To Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862
- Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862
- Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, September 22, 1862
- Final Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863
- To Albert G. Hodges, April 12, 1864
1. Why is secession unconstitutional? Why is the suspension of habeas corpus constitutional?
2. Before his election, Lincoln often stated that he had no intention, and no constitutional authority, to interfere with slavery in the states where it existed. How, then, did he come to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and how did he justify it?
- Address at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 1863
- Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, December 8, 1863
- To Michael Hahn, March 13, 1864
- To Allen N. Ford, August 11, 1846
- Handbill Replying to Charges of Infidelity, July 31, 1846
- Proclamation of a National Fast Day, August 12, 1861
- Order for Sabbath Observance, November 15, 1862
- Meditation on the Divine Will, c. early September 1862
- Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865
- To Thurlow Weed, March 15, 1865
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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Robert C. Bartlett is the Behrakis Professor of Hellenic Political Studies at Boston College. His principal area of research is classical political philosophy, with particular attention to the thinkers of ancient Hellas, including Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle.
Vickie Sullivan is a Professor of Political Science who teaches and studies political thought and philosophy. She has published extensively on Machiavelli, including the monographs Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the Formation of a Liberal Republicanism in England and Machiavelli’s Three Romes: Religion, Human Liberty, and Politics Reformed.
Paul Carrese is the founding Director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, having served for 19 years as professor of political science at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he co-founded and served as director of the Academy’s great-books honors program.
Darren Staloff is Professor of History at the City College of New York and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Professor Staloff has published numerous papers and reviews on the subject of early American history and is the author of The Making of an American Thinking Class: Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts and Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding.
James W. Ceaser is Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1976, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He has written several books on American politics and political thought, including Presidential Selection and Liberal Democracy and Political Science.