Tuesday, September 2, 2014

European History, Day 3

Re-charged after the three-day week-end, we had a fairly lively discussion about Locke, Hobbes, and their respective views of state and society in “Europe Since 1648” at UNLV.  Students came having read selections from Thomas Hobbes’ De Cive and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government
The frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes' De Cive.
After wrapping up last week’s sketch of religion and politics in 17th century Europe, we set about defining the concepts of “state” and “nation”.  I offered students a schematic assessment consisting of a list of “attributes” and “imperatives” that might be useful for defining the concept of “the state” that will be with us for the remainder of the semester. 
Even before I reminded them that my list was drawn from a political scientist’s monograph about post-colonial states in Africa, students noted that there were limits and pitfalls associated with constructing too tight a definition of any term or concept, a salutary reminder that the theories we use to evaluate events and trends are useful tools rather than perfect descriptions.
Having laid some groundwork, we then talked our way through our first primary sources of the course, thinking about what conclusions we could draw from an examination of the frontispieces, the wording of the titles, the year of publication (given what we know about the “big picture” of the 17th century), etc.
We proceeded to the text itself, juxtaposing two very different conceptions of the social contract, human nature, and the ideal structure and nature of the state…debates which continue into the present day, departing from equally fundamental premises about the relationship of people to their leaders and to each other.
Near the end of our conversation, we touched on the manner in which both Hobbes and Locke drew on the Americas and their perceptions of Amerindians there to discuss their respective “states of nature”.  In our next class, in addition to wrapping up a discussion about some critics of 17th century absolutist and constitutionalist states, we’ll think about how Europeans’ sense of self was shaped by their contact with Americans, using a text penned by a French missionary and traveller on the Mississippi. 

Time-permitting (never something that can be taken for granted given my propensity for falling behind), this will be part of a larger conversation about transportation, communication, and power…

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