Reading Revolutions: Intellectual History
The following lectures were part of an event based on
a collection of over 40 rare and first editions
from the Remnant Trust focused on the writers who have had great impact
on our ideas of science, government, and social standards. If you click on the title of a presentation you will reach either a paper written by the author or a paper written based on their talk by a student or myself.
More photographs of the books and background information are available
under the Alphabetical List.
Origins of the Scientific Worldview:
Euclid's Elements is one of the most influential works in history. It
set a standard of formal logic, proof and reasoning that was emulated
not only in mathematics but also in science, philosophy and even
politics. This talk offered a brief summary of the Elements and
offer one example of its influence by examining the Declaration of
Everyone knows that Galileo correctly divined how the planets move and
that a tyrannical Church tried to crush him. Everyone is wrong. Why
did his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, a book
containing untruths and partial truths, set off a revolution in how to
seek scientific truth? Is there in fact a conflict between science and
faith? How did Galileo reach back to the past, to Pythagoras and
Euclid, to set the stage for the future triumphs of Newton and Einstein?
We all know the name of Sir Isaac Newton, but why? What was he doing
under that apple tree? Why was his Mathematical Principles of Natural
Philosophy a revolutionary text? What was the revolution about? Is the
revolution still going on? Why does a book published in 1689 still
Leviathan is well known for Hobbes's theory of the state, which was
revolutionary is its substitution of the people in place of God as the
ultimate source of political power. By banishing God from government,
Hobbes accelerated the separation of state from church, with significant
long-term consequences for Western governments. Perhaps more
significantly, Hobbes was one of a handful of "enlighteners" who
transformed the medieval world into the modern world. Science could not
have become the full-blown ideological alternative to religion it became
without Hobbes's contributions. Surprisingly, of the four pillars of
so-called Newtonian science - modern empiricism, modern materialism, the
scientific/causal theory of perception, and universal causal determinism
- Hobbes, not Newton, invented three and a half. And without Hobbes,
there could have been no Darwin. How could Hobbes be among the very
greatest of scientists?
Reformation, Renaissance, Political Theory, Education, & Feminism:
Machiavelli's The Prince is infamous for bluntly stating the case for
power politics, or Realpolitik: In a tough world filled with humans
driven more by passion and greed than virtue and reason, a good leader
has to be willing to lie, kill, and do whatever necessary to achieve
results. This talk considered Machiavelli in the historical context
of politics in Italy at the time, and will refer to other works by
Machiavelli, in order to understand Machiavelli's argument and why he
made it. In addition, Machiavelli's approach was compared to that
of thinkers such as Augustine and Grotius, who try to develop
moral/legal frameworks for politics.
Michele de Montaigne, a French nobleman of the 16th Century, is regarded
by some as "the greatest essayist who ever lived." Others see him as the
"father of the personal essay," the inventor of a way of writing about
the self that, until his time, had never occurred. Why were his
writings, especially his Essais, so influential and significant? What
did they offer the common reader that he or she had never been offered
before? What more contemporary writers did Montaigne influence and how?
A critique of Milton's work on censorship, intellectual freedom, and the
nature of books themselves.
Rousseau opens The Social Contract with the statement, "Man is
born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains." He then proceeds to
explain how the problem of human loss of liberty can be remedied, namely by
creating a society which exists in harmony and operates always according to
the "general will." Robespierre found Rousseau's ideas sufficiently
convincing to make them the foundation of the revolution's new government,
thus ensuring that Rousseau would always be associated with the French
Revolution and its ideals.
Wollstonecraft's pinnacle work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
(1792), was the first great feminist treatise. Wollstonecraft asserted
that intellect and reason were the ways to obtain equality. Excessive
concern for romantic love and physical desirability, she believed, were
not natural but rather socially-imposed restrictions that kept women
enslaved by male domination. Many contemporary feminist writers assert
that Wollstonecraft's ideas are still revolutionary as equality between
the sexes does not yet exist in the 21st century.
American Culture & Thought:
Crevecoeur and Tocqueville arguably initiated a trend in American
studies focused on American uniqueness. They stressed characteristics
such as egalitarianism and individualism. This presentation began with
some of their ideas, traces them through subsequent writing and
political discourse in the United States, and offers some thoughts
regarding the contemporary role and impact of American Exceptionalism as
This presentation included the reading of the First Amendment directly from the Constitution of the United States and excerpts from
various First Amendment-related writings (for example, some of the text
from the Alien and Sedition Act, Miller v California, the USA PATRIOT
Act, Lenny Bruce, Lady Chatterly's Lover, news reports on research
stating that high school students think the First Amendment goes too
far). The presentation was followed by a period of discussion with
the audience about freedom of speech and of the press.
The three main themes of Emerson's philosophy - self-reliance, the
inevitability of natural justice, and the unity of mind and nature -
combine to form a highly optimistic view of the meaning of human life.
When you are down in the dumps, or tired, or too caught up in the muddle
of daily problems, if you open up his essays at random and just start
reading, he often says exactly what you need to hear.