Reflecting on Civic Life

In this course we read reflections on civic life by philosophers, historians, poets and social theorists writing at different times and in different social circumstances. We read ethical advice from aristocrats and from formerly enslaved persons, from the wealthy and from authors born into poverty, from individuals holding power and from individuals suffering persecution. We will read different genres of writing, from philosophical dialogues and tragic plays to social theory and poetry, with a good dose of public oratory too.

Our theme is “citizenship and the city”: What important questions arise when human beings live together in cities? How have thinkers asked and answered these questions in different times and places? What can we find in these works that might help us understand our own roles and responsibilities today? How could we change our city for the better?

Please read each assignment completely the evening before it will be discussed in class. There are two seminar discussion topics each morning, labeled (a) and (b).

Schedule of class discussions and reading assignments

Most Recent Syllabus

Monday: Cities and Human Flourishing

How does the design of a city influence the lives of its citizens? How might living in a city improve our chances to live full and happy lives? What special challenges come with living together in cities? What does it mean to be a citizen of a particular city or country?

- Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming our Lives through Urban Design
- Aristotle, Politics, selections on citizenship from book 3

Tuesday: The Common Good and Freedom

Today we compare two ancient Greek cities, Sparta and Athens. Sparta was famous for the discipline and public-spirit of its citizens, while Athens viewed itself as a standard-bearer for freedom. Consider how the Spartan emphasis on the common good that appears in Plutarch’s description differs from the Athenian emphasis on freedom in Pericles’s speech to the Athenians. How did the Spartans produce public-spiritedness in their children? Was the Spartan educational system compatible with freedom? What were the strengths and weaknesses of the Athenian way of life? Which city would you rather live in?

- Pericles’s “Funeral Oration” in Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
- Plutarch, “Life of Lycurgus,” selections

Wednesday: Questioning the City’s Norms

Socrates, the most famous philosopher of ancient Greece, was brought to trial as an old man on charges of failing to believe in the city’s gods and of corrupting the youth. Plato offers us a version of the speech Socrates gave in his own defense at his trial – where he was sentenced to death for his crimes. Why did the Athenian jury convict Socrates? Can asking philosophical questions in the way that Socrates did really be dangerous to the city? Why or why not?

- Plato, The Apology of Socrates

Thursday: Law and Justice (I)

If you were in jail on death row for violating a law that you knew to be unjust, and a friend offered to sneak you out – would you escape? Socrates refused to escape in that situation. Why?

Thousands of years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a famous letter from jail arguing that it was acceptable to break the law of the land if that law was unjust and if one was ready to accept the punishment. King referred to Socrates three times in that letter. How was his position similar to Socrates’s, and how was it different?

- Plato, Crito
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Friday: Law and Justice (II)

Sophocles’s great tragic play explores what happens when a young woman insists on burying her brother’s body, even after the king and law of the land forbid her to do so. Antigone claims she is obeying a higher law. Does she act justly? What would you have done in her place?

- Sophocles, Antigone

Monday: Politics, Morality, and Human Nature 

Is a happy, moral city really possible or even desirable? In her short story, Le Guin challenges readers to imagine the perfect city and consider the role that suffering plays in politics and art. In Machiavelli’s advice-book for Renaissance princes, a book that was banned and condemned for centuries after he wrote it, he asks, is it possible for political leaders to be both effective and moral in politics? How do we define the common good and what responsibilities follow from it?

- Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” 
- Niccoló Machiavelli, The Prince, selections

Tuesday: Consent, Freedom and Equality

How can it be just for free individuals to come under the authority of a government? Locke famously proposed a standard of consent. His argument was then invoked by the authors of the Declaration of Independence. What assumptions about human nature and about political life lie beneath this argument? Have you consented to be governed by the government of the United States today?

- John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, selections
- The Declaration of Independence

Wednesday: The Legacy of the Declaration

The Declaration’s demand that governments respect individual rights did not apply to everyone at first. As a corrective, in 1848 for the Women’s Rights Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton penned, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal…” What is the impact of these words on a reader today? Frederick Douglass’s Independence Day speech illuminates both the hypocrisy and promise of the ideas professed in America’s founding documents. How does Douglass use rhetoric to make his critique? 

With a much shorter speech, Abraham Lincoln made the Declaration the centerpiece of the American experiment. Why do you think he emphasized the Declaration instead of the Constitution?

- Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Declaration of Sentiments”
- Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?”
- Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address”

Thursday: Self-governance, Exclusion, and Education 

What kind of education do democratic citizens require? Is there a differnece between education and schooling? Should there be qualifications for self-governance, or is it a basic right? W.E.B. Du Bois, Audre Lorde, and James Baldwin offer differing perspectives on the role of education in an unjust and unequal society. These thinkers challenge us to consider the purpose and meaning of education. 

- W.E.B. Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, selections
- Audre Lorde, “Poet as Teacher—Human as Poet—Teacher as Human”, “Poetry Makes Something Happen” 
- James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”

Friday: Democracy and City Life

Who is the little man behind the stove? Ralph Ellison’s essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station” invites us to examine the American artist and his audience. Is there such a thing as an American identity? How does democracy shape our ideas about hierarchy, diversity, and artistic taste? 

How can words best capture the promise and the challenges of city life? How does Thoreau’s mocking of gossipy social life compare with Whitman’s reverential treatment of diversity and possibility? What truths does Brooks capture that the others miss? 

- Ralph Ellison, “The Little Man at Chehaw Station” Henry David Thoreau, Walden, “The Village”
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden, “The Village”  
- Walt Whitman, “Broadway,” “Democratic Vistas,” and “Mannahatta” 
- Gwendolyn Brooks, “Kitchenette Building”