That our society’s social and political arrangements are imperfect, is a given. There is bipartisan support for the belief that improvement is possible. Whether that improvement should take the form of innovation or return to tradition, and whether it should happen gradually or more immediately are core divisions between the progressive Left and the conservative Right. Conservatives often hold that tradition provides wisdom, stability, and a bulwark against encroachments on liberty. Progressives imagine more room for the perfectibility of humans and political institutions, and they envision a collective responsibility to lift society out of a restrictive past into a more just and free future.
This course seeks to understand the historical particularities as well as the more transcendent truths which characterize this debate. Students will familiarize themselves with the core tension between progress and tradition by examining Socrates’ challenge of Athenian morals and his Polis’ responding defense of the status quo. Juxtaposes Hobbes’ and Locke’s theories of sovereignty and revolution, students will then read philosophical underpinnings for supporters of a strong state and supporters of a right to major reform or even revolution. These philosophical stances will be tested through in-depth case-studies of the American and French Revolutions as well as reactions to them. Finally, the course will weave its way into American civil disobedience, American revolt, and contemporary progressivism and conservativism. We will use history and philosophy to better understand contemporary politics debates and perspectives on reform and preservation.