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LTRS 4503-900 - Capstone Course: The Idea of Freedom

Dr. Wilfred M. McClay, Spring 2017 - Mondays 4:30-7:10pm
Office Hours in Carnegie - Mondays 2:00-3:30pm

No concept is more central to the way we think about life in the modern Western world, and perhaps especially the United States, than the concept of freedom. For us, “freedom” is a “god term,” meaning that its goodness and worth are taken to be foundational and beyond question. We tend to value freedom unequivocally, and without reservation. We value freedom not only for the benefits it produces, but we think of it as a supremely good thing in itself, a core expression of our dignity and worth as human beings.

Even the occasional misuse of our freedom for poorly considered ends is seen as a price we are quite willing to pay, for the sake of freedom’s larger good. We believe that it is better to be able to err because we are free to do so than to be unable to err because we are forbidden to do so. The best thing of all, we generally believe, is to be able to embrace the good and the true freely, not out of blind or mechanical obedience, or by the force of external compulsion, but out of an uncoerced and rational willingness of the mind and heart. We often take it for granted that this view is universal and timeless, that it is what the rest of humanity feels, and has always felt.

But that is an ill-founded assumption. The idea of freedom was not present at the dawn of human history. It emerged where it has only slowly and haltingly, out of a long and complex series of events and debates in that history. Even in the history of the modern West over the past four centuries, the idea of freedom took many centuries to take shape and develop. As a consequence, it has not always enjoyed the commanding and prestigious position it occupies today, and it has always had enemies and discontents. Its current high status is a relatively recent, and always fragile, accomplishment.

It a concept that becomes complicated and problematic the more closely we look at it. In our own time, when freedom reigns almost unchallenged, it can be said to there are many different ways of understanding freedom—political, economic, social, intellectual, religious, spiritual, sexual—it is not easy to know exactly what we mean by “freedom” in any one of them. Or whether we may have more freedom than is good for us, or than we know how to handle.

It is the purpose of this course to provide an overview of this still-unfolding meaning of freedom in the West, by examining some of the most powerful and exemplary moments in its evolution, from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans and Hebrews, to the advent of Christianity and the medieval worldview, to the Renaissance and Reformation, and the emergence of modern political thought and institutions, and with them eventually the conception of inviolable and universal human rights. The course will also be attentive to the evolving relationship between freedom and other important needs and values, such as those of community, democracy, loyalty, and justice, and to the sustaining institutions that embody those values.