Lectures prepared beforehand and spouted in the presence of a throng have in them more noise but less intimacy. Philosophy is good advice; and no one can give advice at the top of his lungs. Of course we must sometimes also make use of these harangues, if I may so call them, when a doubting member needs to be spurred on; but when the aim is to make a man learn and not merely to make him wish to learn, we must have recourse to the low-toned words of conversation.--Seneca, Letter 38.translated by Richard Mott Gummere.
Last Spring, for the first time, I taught a 14-session (7 week) required, survey course -- an extended sprint really -- on the history of political theory. (I teach in a political science department.) Each session involves a 90 minute lecture (interrupted by a fifteen minute break.) The course I inherited was organized around excerpts from primary texts by the usual canonical figures. These were all male, except for Wollstonecraft, and the underlying vision involved commitment to progress made during European modernity.* It had been previously taught in Dutch. Because our department was transitioning to a taught English language BA (which ended up more than doubling our undergraduate major), it seemed like an opportune moment to attempt a redesign of the course in order to make it more cosmopolitan in outlook,+ especially because there had been considerable campus discussion and controversy about de-colonizing the canon.
I was nervous about taking on the course because I view speaking for a large audience as a pact with the devil. You have to be willing to be an entertainer. Since I prefer seminars on a single text, I knew that this course would demand a discarding of my educational principles. But I decided the intellectual challenge of redesigning the course might be worth the effort.
Then the panic hit.
I have no training in comparative history of philosophy/political thought. Even so, I had been aware that this is something worth exploring since 2013, when, while I was trying out some ideas for my introduction to an edited volume on Sympathy: A History, a commentator at NewAPPS, Patrick S. O'Donnell, called my attention to the resonances between sympathy in the post-Platonic tradition and Buddhist thought. It was too late to change the volume, but the point had been made to me.
As it happens, shortly after that blog post, after switching disciplines and moving to The University of Amsterdam, I was encouraged to develop a course in 'non Western political theory.' (Of course, I had moved to a political science department, in part, to do more 'applied' research (on bank regulation; modern expertise, etc.) not to broaden my historical scholarship!) Regular readers know, I dislike the phrase 'western philosophy'(recall here and here), and when it comes up in class, I tell my students that Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushd, writing in what we would call Spain (and so to the west of Amsterdam), both understood themselves as western theorists (trying to scale the heights of occidental philosophy as epitomized by Ibn Sinna, Al-Ghazali, and Al-Farabi)! I chose to offer a course on classical, Islamic Political theory (these days the course runs from Al-Farabi to Ibn Khaldun.)**
The choice for Islamic political theory is partly motivated by the fact that contemporary Dutch political culture has an entirely negative obsession with Islam. It is completely routine in the Dutch media to see Dutch journalists and intellectuals treat 'Islamic' as synonymous with 'backward' and lacking any intellectual content at all. These intellectuals also project ignorance of earlier Dutch engagements with Islam, most notably the colonial past in Indonesia, onto the present. The aim of the Islamic political theory course is to correct this ignorance in a visible fashion, by treating the political theory of its golden age nearly entirely on its own terms.++ Because in graduate school, I had taken a fantastic seminar by the late Ian Mueller on medieval philosophy, which emphasized late platonism and Maimonides, and I am somewhat of an expert on Spinoza, I figured Islamic political theory would be a natural extension of my expertise. I even hoped it would help me in my ongoing research on Spinoza.*
Because of my near total lack of Arabic and lack of grounding in the history of Islam, I still feel like an imposter while teaching the course. But sometimes I have native Arabic speakers in the course, and I let them help with translation issues. While I would never pretend to be a scholar of the period, teaching Islamic political theory annually gave me confidence to try to teach a survey of comparative history of political thought. It helps that I am rather doubtful about the very idea of progress.
Much to my surprise, my colleagues took an active interest in the evolving (notes toward a) syllabus of the course. There was genuine fear that I would displace shared background knowledge for unknown figures (some colleagues even revealed themselves as ardent lovers of the Enlightenment), that I would offer an unprincipled smörgåsbord or rijsttafel, of authors, that I was caving to political correctness, or engaging in empty symbolism. Because my ideas were in flux there were also quite legitimate fears that the course would simply fall flat.
Before I finalized the syllabus, I recognized that my lack of commitment to progress would allow me (i) to adopt a kind of symmetry principle such that all the authors and traditions could contribute to the unfolding narrative from a vantage point of equal standing: I was eager to convey to my students that (ii) political theory was not just the normative counterpart to empirical social science, but also a means toward thinking alternative models of reality and that (iii) political theory could be highly relevant to international relations (the primary interest of most of our undergraduates).
Because there were constraints to the number of pages and texts I could assign, I decided on a half-way house: the first half of the course would be a truly comparative introduction with no author and tradition being privileged; the second half of the course would provide a version of the modern-arc, Hobbes to Weber (this year: Hobbes to Marx.) But the two parts would be connected thematically: first, by treating all my authors as part of a single debate on who should rule and how to select them (with sortition, meritocracy, kingship, elective kingship, and democracy all getting a fair hearing). Second, by discussing the same themes in different eras and traditions. So, for example, I would use Master Mo and Plato to offer models of the social contact that could complement, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Rousseau, and Kant. I would use the Arthasasthra, alongside Machiavelli and Kant's Perpetual Peace to talk about international relations theory; I would use Mencius, Plato, and Weber to talk about the role of theory in correcting status quo bias; I would use Ibn Rushd and Wollstonecraft to contrast Platonic Feminism and egalitarian feminism; I used Al-Farabi, Locke, and Cugoano to contrast attitudes toward slavery, etc; I used Mill and Master Mo to discuss not just consequentialism, but also conformism; Wollstonecraft and Kant both end up in a fierce debate with Rousseau (my students' natural favorite).
Some themes emerged by accident: my comparative introduction emphasized the benefits of (benevolent) social hierarchy, low taxes, and the rule of law; the challenges of pluralism and stability in any political order ran through the whole course, so did the relationship between politics and religion.
The final syllabus required making some genuinely tough decisions: it contained (almost) no Aristotle; no Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Hume, Montesquieu, and Madison. I ended with Weber (and so gave up Marx--this year I will try to end with Marx w/o Weber), emphasizing the connections to contemporary social science. While feminism was now an integral part of the course, I still only had one woman. (Something I will correct this year, probably by assigning de Pizan.) Due to limitations of source materials, I kept the focus on authors and particular texts, but where I was capable of doing so I immersed them in political and institutional context. (I am not sure that would work with philosophy students; political science students like political history.) And that allowed me to convey why political theory can be both immersed in a time, and offer models for alternative possibilities then and now. In all cases I tried to highlight why thinkers may be thought attractive and what one may find limiting. All the way, trying to convey key concepts that my students ought to remember. (The tests primarily focused on checking if they could recall concepts.)
Much to my own amazement, the vast majority of the students liked the course a lot despite finding it very challenging. It's too early to say if this course really works.+++ I could not have taught it without help from experts in Ancient Asian philosophical thought and encouragement from Meena Krishnamurthy who also considers the Arthasasthra a major work in political philosophy. I intend to tinker with it during the next three to five years, while leaving the basic structure alone. (This year I may give up the session on Burke and Hegel, to do a session on empire and commerce.) In about four years I want to try to re-think it one more time and try to teach it as a genuine, comparative introduction to the history of political theory.
Let me close. I don't think this is the only way that comparative history of political thought can be taught. (Feel free to email me if you want a syllabus.) And I do not deny that my course is not yet fully comparative. It still exhibits important patterns of exclusion, and it's quite likely that from a pedagogical perspective I tried to do too much.**** Intellectually it is a half-way house between a true comparative course and three cheers to the Enlightenment. But even so, I found it terrifying and exhilarating to teach; and (see here) now I understand myself as part of a larger trend of rethinking the undergraduate curriculum. I would love to hear your experiences, if any, in articulating a comparative curriculum.