Spring 2009 Course on Origins of Modern Governments and of Reason

Jan 4, 2009

Ever wonder why many countries in the world today -- especially the most powerful and affluent ones -- are characterized by imposing nation-state governments, and that the people in those countries tend to view their world not only as governed by predictable physical laws, but also largely capable of rational explanation? As complex as the question may be, learning about Europe from 1648 to 1789 can help us answer it, if only because this was the time and place in which such attributes began to appear. Indeed, nation-state governments as we now know them started to take shape in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, largely through the building of centralized bureaucracies and professional militaries. At the same time, though, modern notions of science and rationalism slowly gained adherence among the European elite, in effect calling into question long held worldviews in which spiritual understanding, mystery, and enchantment were central.

Although it cannot explain everything about our world today, this course can enable you to make more sense of the most important political, socio-economic, and cultural trends that characterize modernity. Aside from considering the nation-state government and rationalistic worldviews in their infancies, it takes up the emergence of capitalism and economic globalization, the rise of ideas about popular sovereignty, democratic representation, and universal human rights. The course traces, moreover, the birth of the most dangerous and destructive ideas and practices that the modern world has had to offer: militarism, nationalism, imperialism, and notions of sexism and racism supposedly endorsed by reason and science.

Don't care about such things? Wait, there's more. Aside from the heady ideas critical to both the past and present, Europe from 1648 to 1789 offers a complete cast of fascinating and weird characters. There's Louis XIV -- a megalomaniac if there ever was one. And there's Isaac Newton who, despite uncovering some of the most important laws in physics, was a closet alchemist who thought that lead could be turned into gold. Don't forget Baruch Spinoza, a believer in the idea that a little piece of God was in everything. Consider Peter the Great of Russia, a man so ruthless that he had his own son murdered. One of his successors, Catherine the Great, did the same to her insane husband while unjustly gaining a reputation as a nymphomaniac. Want to study a real head case? Jean-Jacques Rousseau may be the person for you -- a brilliant thinker if there ever was one, but also a total creep to virtually everyone who knew him.

History 426(G) will meet on Monday evenings from 6:30 to 9:00 during Spring 2009. Required course materials consist of a textbook and two sets of primary-document sourcebooks concerning Absolutism and the Enlightenment. Discussions of both the textbook and the primary documents in the sourcebooks will be the central feature of class meetings. Forty-five-minute lectures about ordinary people, including such things as village life, marriage, public executions, and murder will be given during most class meetings as well. Course requirements include three exams, two papers based on both primary and secondary sources, written summaries of reading assignments, attendance, and participation.

For more information about this course, feel free to contact Dr. Edward J. Woell .

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