Topics: Justifying Europe (1667-1793)
Meeting Pattern: Wednesday, 9:30-12:15
In 1755, a massive earthquake came close to demolishing Lisbon, then the fourth largest city in Europe. The earthquake’s aftershocks, however, were also intellectual: Across Europe, writers struggled as they asked how God (or nature) could possibly be benevolent if so terrible an event could take place. The “justif[ication of] the ways of God to men” was an ancient project, of course, but writers in the eighteenth century were unusually preoccupied with the problem, and it was also the first time that the task of defending God or finding meaning in a world in which there is horrific suffering got a name: theodicy (taken from the title of Leibniz’s 1710 work).
This semester, we will look in depth at works that explicitly frame themselves as justifications or vindications of God or nature, but we will also look at works that disavow the theodicies they undertake, works that justify the status quo in registers that appear to have little to do with the divine. As we do so, we will read seventeenth- and eighteenth-century works, along with twentieth- and twenty-first-century criticism and theory. In what ways are defenses of existing orders or descriptions of “the way things are” the instruments of existing structures of power? What do philosophical and literary treatments of theodicy have to do with political and social life, for instance with eighteenth-century rationalizations of colonialism and slavery? How does the work of justification appear as a question of form? What does justification, rationalization, or theodicy have to do with the task we call “thinking,” with understanding correlation and causation? (In other words, “justifying” in the title above is both gerund and present participle.)
Primary texts include works by Milton, Pope, Leibniz, Kant, Hume, Voltaire, Diderot, Smith, Jefferson, Burke, and others. Secondary readings will take us from sociological theories (e.g., Weber, Boltanski) to liberation theology (e.g., Jones’s Is God a White Racist?), recent critiques of neoliberalism (e.g., Vogl, Connolly), as well as other works of twentieth- and twenty-first-century critical theory and literary criticism.
A working draft of the syllabus is available here.