Studying Political Philosophy via Revolutions (Well, Three of Them)

Today, I’m going to think out loud about the syllabus I’m designing for the coming fall semester’s seminar on Political Philosophy. (I’m conducting this rumination in a public forum in the hope of helping me finalize this pesky business; please do chime in with suggestions, critiques, bouquets, brickbats etc.) My class will meet twice a week–two hundred-minute classroom sessions–count for four credits, and is roughly re-describable as ‘Classical and Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy.’ (This would clear things up considerably were it not for the fact that our department also offers Social Philosophy, which I’m told, is also redescribable as ‘Classical and Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy.’)

In the fall, I plan to center my class’ discussions and readings on political revolutions; to use the French, American and Haitian Revolutions to introduce and illustrate  many central questions of political philosophy: the nature of political power and the state, political resistance, the rights of citizens, the nature of citizenship, the legitimacy of legal regimes, the varieties of political unions, the nature of conservatism etc. The readings then, should be a mix of contemporary polemics and retrospective evaluation.

For the French Revolution, we’ll begin with SieyesWhat is the Third Estate, then read Edmund Burke‘s classic, Reflections on The Revolution in France, followed by some yet-to-settled-on excerpts from Michael Walzer‘s Regicide and Revolution and Tocqueville‘s Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, and close with Maistre‘s Considerations on France. I will probably include: some material by Robespierre and William Doyle’s A Very Short History (to start things off).

For the American Revolution, we will probably begin with excerpts from Trenchard and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters before reading Thomas Paine‘s The Rights of Man and Common Sense. (A new Verso edition that collects these two looks promising.) Then we’ll read some of The Federalist Papers. The current list includes 1-3, 9-10, 14-15; time permitting: 22-23, 26-27, 37, 39, 47-48; and then 84, 78, 70, 39, 51.

Having read a bit about the French and American Revolutions, we will read Hannah Arendt‘s On Revolution before moving on to the Haitian Revolution. As historical background, we’ll read CLR JamesBlack Jacobins. (I’m also considering Laurent Dubois’ Avengers of the New World.) For theoretical assessments, we’ll read excerpts from Nick Nesbitt’s Universal Emancipation (I’m inclined to think the Nesbitt’s writing is likely to present a challenge to many of my students) and Susan Buck-MorssHegel and Haiti. (I’ve just been pointed to Aristide’s edited collection of Toussaint L’ouverture‘s writings, collected in The Haitian Revolution (Verso) and will probably include selections from there.)

So: This isn’t a perfect syllabus by any means. There is possibly too much reading–but I had to leave so much out!–and too little balance. But I think it does well in providing a historically situated debate on most of the central questions of political philosophy. The writing is accessible; indeed, there are a few stylists in there (Burke,Paine, the Federalist Papers etc) so the reading assignments should be quite enjoyable. Most of the pieces are provocative with a few that have real polemical bite.

It should make for an entertaining fourteen weeks.

14 thoughts on “Studying Political Philosophy via Revolutions (Well, Three of Them)

  1. It’s not philosophy, but Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s chapter on the Haitian Revolution as understood in the U.S. is amazing. It’s in his book, “Silencing the Past.”

  2. I do think this is a terrific theme to frame philosophy (philosophy in its most literally applied sense). Shame you can’t fit in Cuba, which would give you a chance to more directly address contemporary (Marx/post-Marxist, maybe also some anti-colonialists though those mostly aren’t philosophers per se) philosophies. (Really, if it’s not there already, “philosophers who (directly?) inspired armed revolutions” might be a very interesting Wikipedia page/category.)

    Also, it looks like you’ve got enough reading, but Hardt’s essay on Jefferson in the Verso edition of the Declaration of Independence is pretty good. In particular, it might not be a bad way to beat it into your student’s heads that the Revolutionary War was, you know, a revolution – something even I often forget.

    1. Luis,

      Thanks for the comment. I really wish I could have included more – I sort of picked this as a cluster more than anything else. Another way would have been to have done this on a longer time-frame but I felt that would be more difficult to do. (I might still sneak in some other material if some of the readings in there drag – it shouldn’t too difficult to find material online). I’ll chase down the Hardt essay; I think the Arendt book does a very good job of emphasizing the revolutionary character of the American Revolution while making clear what its crucial differences from the French Revolution were.

      1. I haven’t read the Arendt, so can’t comment; really should pick it up but I’m trying to hold to a new rule: only buy a new polisci/philosophy/history book when I’ve finished (or given up on) the previous one. That slot is currently held by Ober’s excellent, but slow-going, Democracy and Knowledge in Athens (which someday I will have the time to analogize to libre software, but not any time soon 😦

  3. Luis,

    I hear you – I’ve stopped going to second hand book stores for the reason. I’m so badly backlogged that it’s causing me anxiety. Thanks for the Ober reference – sounds very interesting. The analogy you mention sounds interesting – Dewey also says things that are relevant to FOSS.

  4. HI Samir! This looks like will be a fascinating class. I’m not sure if you were able to see the “Revolution!” exhibit at the the New York Historical Society, but we edited a book in relation to that which precisely attempts to lay out the connections between the three revolutions through a range of essays. Perhaps too expensive for students to get, but it could be a useful resource. Hope the class goes well,

    Laurent Dubois

    1. Dear Laurent,

      What a pleasure to see you here. Thanks for your kind words. Can you please send me a full reference to the title you mention – it sounds fascinating and at the least, I should get a copy for our library so that our students can have it on reserve.


  5. I forget now what possessed me to write this, a negative mood or maybe the evening news but anyway….

    Revolutions And The People

    It is rare today that I read something that sparks a large question mark in my mind, but consider this, no revolution has ever helped the people in need of change. Our own founding included slavery, and while in principle it was egalitarian, our history has shown another side. Did women even exist then. The French revolution soon deteriorated into a mass killing of the very people it was supposed to help. Jesus died before he could create a heaven on earth, while he talked a good game, his heaven had to wait, his followers were quickly busy killing each other. The Russian revolution soon deteriorated into Stalinist paranoid communism. Mao’s people’s revolution killed millions and hardly changed the lives of the common people. Even material or technological revolutions only create problems of alienation, slave labor conditions, and societal disruptions. The Industrial revolution destroyed farming, created cities full of lives of misery, polluted the environment, and may today finally destroy the earth. Out of our contemporary world of such vast promise, autism figures grow, one in eight women encounter breast cancer, and poverty figures increase. Free market Capitalism creates large trails of misery and regularly collapses as the Great Depression and the recent great recession testify. Think also of the Katrina failure. Communism failed, Socialism is an interesting concept but like Christianity never tried. And so it goes….

    Why is this, are not revolutions the means to create a society that supports the people. Wasn’t the enlightenment about Reason and wasn’t Reason the answer to injustice and violence? Wars of the 19th and 20th century show how far reason has gotten humanity. Look only at the wars of the moment. It is always the other side that is unreasonable. Look today at the fact most people on earth live on less than two dollars a day. A child dies every few seconds in the world from preventable causes. Revolutions in Africa become killing fields. One hundred and fifty million children in the world work in sweatshops. Even in America the poor grow poorer, this in a wealthy nation that cannot even provide healthcare for all its citizens. British youth rebel. Egyptians have had enough. Maybe revolutions of all sizes have goals of not a better world, maybe they are for some other purpose. Anyone know?

    Will humanity ever advance to a state of nature, a state of peace, that only small tribal groups have ever approached or possessed.

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