Medieval Political Theology

MWF 10:30-11:20

course guidelines
course calendar
writing an essay
political theory
Internet Medieval Sourcebook
library resources


course description:

In terms of the development of political theory, the medieval era was anything but a Dark Age. Christian, Islamic, and Jewish scholars wove ancient philosophy into the various strands of each tradition's Abrahamic belief creating a metaphysical map of God's blessed kingdom. This course considers the works of major medieval thinkers who help us remember what it was like when reason and faith, as well as poetry and politics, relied on each other's good company.

In the first and last class of the course, we'll look at two essays by Vaclav Havel on the need for transcendence in the postmodern world. In a world of chaos, confusion, and technological solutions, Havel claims that we are lost without the ability for self-transcendence. Most of our authors were living in a time when miracles were in abundance and when metaphysics connected the lowest organism to the highest order of being, God. Part of the effort of this class is to consider what it would be like to think like a medieval, not just as an academic exercise but as necessary therapy for our own disordered times.



St. Augustine, Confessions, translated by Chadwick (Oxford);

Jean Bethke Elshtain, Augustine & the Limits of Politics (Notre Dame);

Anselm of Canterbury, The Major Works (Oxford);

St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics, trans. by Paul E. Sigmund (Norton);

Ernst Kantowowicz, The King's Two Bodies (Princeton);

Oliver Leaman, A Brief Introduction to Islamic Philosophy (Polity)

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papers & daily assignments:

In order to develop your medieval voice, you will write two one-page essays each week for most of the semester. The first one-page (double-spaced) essay of the week will explore a passage from the day's readings. The second one-pager will explore a passage from the reading and will tie in a theme from a classmate's one-pager.

Exploring a passage is a fairly specific activity. First copy down the quotation. As you do so, pay attention to what words are used, what metaphors are employed, and what images are invoked. Move inside of the world created by this passage, palpate the meaning from the inside and then extend it gently into your experience. Exploring a passage does not mean quoting someone else and then running off in an entirely different direction. It does not mean springboarding into a random free association. On the first Friday, I will give you my one-pager on the reading so that you can get a sense of what I'm looking for.

The weekly schedule will run as follows: At the end of Monday's class, you will exchange a one-pager with a classmate. On Fridays, you'll hand in a one-pager that engages with both the reading and your classmate's essay. The interdependent nature of this assignment means that you can't afford to blow off an assignment. First, it will jeopardize someone else's process. Second, it will jeopardize your standing in the class.

Along with these one-pagers, you'll also be growing two five-page essays and one extended essay. The five-page essay might be an extended argument, or a meditation, or an explication of a difficult passage. It should be focused on a particular theme or a particular author; there just isn't room for taking on more. The ten-page essay should be beyond one position, one side, or one solution. It should be an experiment in medieval synthesis, of weighing and considering various positions and then finding where you stand in the midst of it all.

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grading criteria:

Show up. Write. Read with a pen in your hand. Have a thesauraus near by. Let your brain stretch in new directions. Consider changing a deeply-held belief. Develop a political and theological vocabulary. Cultivate an aesthetic for being.

Students who miss more than three classes will see a drop in their grade. Failing to pass in one of the three essays translates into a D. Don't take this class if you can't stay on top of the daily assignments.

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