Philip Swoboda

Philip Swoboda

Undergraduate Discipline

History

BA, Wesleyan University. MA, MPhil, PhD, Columbia University. Special interest in the religious and intellectual history of early modern Europe and in the history of Eastern Europe, particularly Russia and Poland. Author of articles on early 20th-century Russian philosophy and religious thought; served on the executive committee of the Mid-Atlantic Slavic Conference. Previously taught at Columbia University, Hunter College, Lafayette College, University of Wisconsin-Madison. SLC, 2004–

Current undergraduate courses

First-Year Studies: Becoming Modern: Europe in the 19th Century

FYS

What are the distinctive features of our “modern” civilization? A partial list would include representative democracy, political parties, nationalism, religious pluralism, mass production, rapid technological change, consumerism, free markets, a global economy, and unceasing artistic experimentation. All of these characteristically modern things were established in the 19th century, and most of them were pioneered by Europeans. Yet in Europe, with its ancient institutions and deeply-rooted traditions, this new form of civilization encountered greater resistance than it did in that other center of innovation, the United States. The resulting tensions between old and new in Europe set the stage for the devastating world wars and revolutions of the 20th century. In this course, we will examine various aspects of the epochal transformation in ways of making, thinking, and living that occurred in Europe during what historians call the “long 19th century” (1789–1914). We will also consider how the development of modern civilization in Europe was shaped by the resistance it encountered from the defenders of older ways. The course reading will focus primarily on the most innovative regions of 19th-century Europe—Britain, France, Germany, Scandinavia, and Italy—but we will also give some attention to the Habsburg Empire and Russia, which gave birth to some of the most influential ideas of the 20th century during the three decades that preceded World War I. We will ponder and discuss a broad array of historical evidence, from government documents, revolutionary proclamations, and political tracts to philosophical essays, fiction, plays, poetry, and works of visual art.

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Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Russia and Its Neighbors: From Lenin to Putin

Spring

The aim of the lecture will be to provide students with the historical background required to make sense of Russia’s current predicament and the policies of its present-day leaders. We will first examine seven decades of Communist Party rule, tracing the extraordinary path that Russia took in the 20th century to become a literate, urban, industrial society. We look at such crucial episodes in Soviet history as Stalin’s war on the peasantry and his crash industrialization drive of the 1930s, the Great Purge, the Second World War, the Khrushchev-era cultural “Thaw,” the development of a consumer economy and embryonic civil society in the 1960s and ’70s, and Gorbachev’s failed attempt to reform the Communist system. We will also discuss the methods by which the Communist regime maintained control over the minority peoples of the USSR and the evolution of its relationships with its East European satellites and the non-Communist world during the era of the Cold War. We will devote some attention to the causes and effects of the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990–91 and to Russian policies toward the newly independent states that came into being as a result of the dissolution of the USSR. In the final weeks of the course, we will consider how the travails endured by the Russian people during the unhappy Yeltsin period set the stage for a resurgence of authoritarianism and national self-assertion under Putin. Group conference readings will include a variety of memoirs and literary texts that capture the experience of ordinary Russians over the course of the last 100 years.

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Russia and Its Neighbors: From the Mongol Era to Lenin

Fall

This course will introduce students to the main themes of Russian history from the Middle Ages to 1917. We will begin by examining how history transformed the various Slavic tribes of the East European plain into the three distinct peoples whom we now term “Russians,” “Ukrainians,” and “Belorusians.” We will consider the medieval principality of Moscow—in which Russia’s enduring traditions of autocratic government, territorial expansionism, and xenophobia originally took shape—and trace the course of Muscovy’s protracted struggle with Poland-Lithuania for dominance in Eastern Europe. We will investigate how rulers such as Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great endeavored to meet “the challenge of the West”—to marshal the resources of their huge but economically backward empire in order to compete militarily with the monarchs of more advanced European countries. We will discuss resistance to the oppressive demands of the tsarist state on the part of peasants, Cossacks, religious dissidents, and national minorities. We will consider how the tsars’ response to the Western challenge called into being a new, Europeanized elite that, in the 19th century, grew restive under the tutelage of its government and was increasingly attracted to liberal and socialist ideas. In the final weeks of the semester, we will consider the revolutionary upheavals that convulsed the Russian Empire in the early years of the 20th century and created the conditions for the establishment in Russia of the world’s first socialist regime. In group conferences, students will discuss a wide range of primary sources: saints’ lives, picaresque tales, classic works of 19th-century poetry and fiction, and the writings of leading revolutionary thinkers.

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Previous courses

Becoming Modern: Europe from 1760 to 1914

Year

What are the distinctive features of our “modern” civilization? A partial list would include representative democracy, political parties, nationalism, religious pluralism and secularization, mass production, rapid technological change, consumerism, free markets, a global economy, and unceasing artistic experimentation. All these characteristically modern things became established in the 19th century, and most of them were pioneered by Europeans. Yet in Europe, with its ancient institutions and deeply-rooted traditions, this new form of civilization encountered greater resistance than it did in that other center of innovation, the United States. The resulting tensions between old and new in Europe set the stage for the devastating world wars and revolutions of the 20th century. In this course, we will examine various aspects of the epochal transformation in ways of making, thinking, and living that occurred in Europe during what historians call the “long 19th century” (1789–1914). We will also survey the political history of the period and consider how the development of modern civilization in Europe was shaped by the resistance it encountered from the defenders of older ways. The course reading will focus primarily on the most innovative regions of 19th-century Europe: Britain, France, Germany, Scandinavia, and Italy; but we will also give some attention to the Habsburg Empire and Russia, which gave birth to some of the most influential ideas and artistic trends of the 20th century during the three decades that preceded World War I. In our group conferences, we will discuss a broad range of contemporary evidence testifying to the changes, tensions, and conflicts of this era—from government documents, revolutionary proclamations, and political tracts to philosophical and scientific essays, fiction, plays, poetry, and works of visual art. 

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Between Baroque and Romanticism: The European Enlightenment

Year

The 18th-century Enlightenment was, arguably, the most important single episode in the last thousand years of European intellectual history—the true watershed between the “pre-modern” and the “modern” world. Yet historians have found the Enlightenment a singularly elusive phenomenon. Enlightenment thought was woven of several very different strands. The champions of “enlightenment” shared a surprisingly large number of assumptions with their supposed opponents, and some of the beliefs that we regard as most characteristic of the Enlightenment were already being attacked by Rousseau and other adventurous pre-Romantic thinkers before the century was half over. This course will examine the development of the Enlightenment from its origins in the age of the Baroque to its demise in the era of the French Revolution and Romanticism. While the course’s central focus will be ideas, values, and sensibilities, we will also consider the economic, social, and political context of the Enlightenment and examine the revolutionary upheavals in European politics and culture that brought it to an end. We will conclude by discussing several key texts of the 1790s—including works by Schiller, Goethe, and Novalis—that typify the revolt against the Enlightenment outlook with which the 18th century ended.

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Christianity and Classical Culture: An Enduring Theme in European Thought

Year

The distinctive civilization of Europe is founded on two very different legacies: the heritage of pagan antiquity and the heritage of Christianity. The fusion of these elements in a single culture was never without its tensions; but as long as the Middle Ages lasted, the potential for open conflict between them was held in check by the authority of the Church. With the Renaissance and Reformation, however, Europeans acquired a sharpened awareness of the dissonance between the cultural presuppositions of pagan Greece and Rome and biblical revelation. The philosophers of the Enlightenment and their spiritual offspring, rejecting the authority claims and ethical teachings of medieval Christianity, turned to Classical civilization to find the basis for an alternate system of values. A rival tradition was constituted by modern thinkers who, wishing to preserve the best of both legacies, sought to establish a new and better synthesis of the values of Christianity and those of Classical civilization. In this course, students will read and discuss a number of works produced by celebrated representatives of both traditions. In the fall, we will begin our inquiries by looking at a number of the key texts of Greco-Roman ethical thinking (Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius) and of early Christianity (Gospels and Pauline letters, acts of the martyrs). We will consider how the relationship between Christianity and Classical culture presented itself to the first group of intellectuals who were compelled to define it explicitly: the Fathers of the Christian Church (Irenaeus, Augustine). We shall then jump forward to the Early Modern period and consider how issues that these writers had addressed resurfaced in the works of Erasmus, Montaigne, Pascal, Lessing, and Kant. In the spring, our attention will focus on 19th- and 20th-century writers such as Goethe, Hölderlin, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Tennyson, Arnold, Newman, Nietzsche, William James, Berdiaev, and Bonhoeffer.

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First-Year Studies: The Age of the French Revolution

FYS

The revolution that convulsed France between 1789 and 1799 and the subsequent dictatorship of Napoleon mark the true beginning of the modern era. Thanks to the worldwide impact of the “ideas of 1789” and the astounding conquests achieved by French armies between 1792 and 1812, the age of the French Revolution and Napoleon can be seen as a watershed not only in the history of France but also in global history. The French Revolution radically affected the development of every country in Europe and altered the destiny of the Middle East and the Americas. The purpose of this course is to introduce students to the study of modern history through an investigation of the origins, nature, and consequences of the French Revolution. We will begin by examining the civilization of 18th-century Europe and the crucial developments in the spheres of politics, economic life, culture, and thought that set the stage for the French Revolution. We will then trace the course of political events in France and neighboring countries from the accession of King Louis XVI in 1774 through the final downfall of Napoleon in 1815 and consider how people inside and outside of France reacted to the French Revolution and to Napoleon’s military domination of the European continent. In the spring, we will study the modern ideologies and artistic trends—liberalism, conservativism, socialism, nationalism, and romanticism—that were either born of the French Revolution or decisively shaped by it.

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In Tolstoy’s Time

Spring

Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) wrote what are generally agreed to be two of the greatest novels of all time, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. But in addition to writing epic novels, Tolstoy lived an epic life. The young Tolstoy was a dissolute aristocrat who won literary fame with stories about his experiences as a soldier during the Crimean War. As he aged, Tolstoy became increasing preoccupied with spiritual questions and with the sufferings of Russia’s peasants. His spiritual turmoil eventually precipitated a conversion that transformed Tolstoy into the champion of a drastically simplified Christianity and a pioneer advocate of nonviolence who, as such, greatly influenced Gandhi. By the end of his life, Tolstoy was one of the world’s most famous people, a moral teacher who was an object of adulation to millions inside and outside Russia. But the leaders of Russian culture, while admiring his novels and his advocacy for the oppressed, were meanwhile articulating visions of their country’s future completely at odds with the principles for which Tolstoy stood. In this seminar, we will study the intertwining of one man’s biography with the history of the country that produced him—a country that he, in turn, portrayed with brilliant insight in his novels and stories. Students will be introduced to Tolstoy’s remarkable life and to his extraordinary achievement as a writer. We will read and discuss his major novels and some of his smaller works. The course will also provide an introduction to the history of Russia during Tolstoy’s long lifetime. We will examine how his Russian upbringing shaped him, how the problems of Russian society are reflected in his novels, and how Russians responded to the preaching and humanitarian activism in which he engaged from 1880 onwards. The course is intended to help students acquire a sophisticated understanding of Russian culture and society at the dawn of the 20th century.

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The Disreputable 16th Century

Fall

In this course, we will examine fundamental beliefs about the world shared by most 16th-century Europeans and discuss the writings of a number of 16th-century thinkers and men of letters who challenged one or another on these beliefs. We will be paying particular attention to beliefs that secular-minded modern Westerners are likely to find “disreputable”—intellectually preposterous, morally outrageous, or both. Almost all well-educated people in 16th-century Europe believed that the Earth was the center of the universe; that human destinies were dictated, at least to some extent, by the influence of the planets and stars; that the welfare of their communities was threatened by the maleficent activities of witches; and that rulers had a moral duty to compel their subjects to practice a particular religion. It is a valuable exercise in historical imagination and human sympathy to learn what 16th-century people believed and how these beliefs fit together to form a coherent picture of the world. Given the gulf between this vision of the universe and our own, it should not be surprising that many of the 16th-century writers whose names are most familiar to us today were “disreputable” in their own time. We remember them because the unconventional views with which they scandalized their contemporaries prefigured features of our own outlook. There is much to be learned about the mind of the 16th century by studying the various ways in which these dissidents challenged the received wisdom of their age; there is also much to be learned by considering to what extent, in spite of their intellectual daring, they continued taking for granted many of their society’s basic assumptions. The 16th century was the century of the Reformation and early Counter-Reformation. But this course is not primarily concerned with the theological beliefs that separated Protestants and Catholics. On the contrary, the beliefs about the world that will engage our attention were cherished by virtually every respectable person, whether Catholic or Protestant, in 16th-century Latin Europe; and the ideas of the dissident thinkers we will be reading were, in most cases, denounced by Protestants and Catholics alike.

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Winds of Doctrine: Europe in the Age of the Reformation

Year

In the 16th century, Europe entered upon a religious crisis that was to permanently alter the character of Western Christianity. Between 1520 and 1580, the religious unity of Catholic Christendom was destroyed, as believers throughout Central and Northern Europe severed their ties with the papacy to form new “Protestant” communities. But the impact of the religious crisis was by no means confined to the emergence of the churches of the Reformation. Luther’s revolt against the Roman church ushered in an era of soaring religious creativity and savage religious conflict that lasted for nearly two centuries and revolutionized thought, art, music—and politics. The modern state is ultimately a product of the Reformation crisis, as is the system of international law that still governs the relations among sovereign states. Students in this course will examine multiple aspects of the religious, intellectual, and political history of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. Our reading will focus attention on the diversity of religious thinking and religious experience in this era. Besides tracing the rise of the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican churches and the complex history of the “radical Reformation,” we will consider forms of belief independent of any church and new varieties of skepticism and doubt. We also will devote considerable attention to the reform movements that transformed Roman Catholicism during these two centuries and the upsurge of missionary energy and mystical spirituality that accompanied them. We will investigate the effects of the Reformation crisis on politics and the state and on the social order that Europe inherited from the Middle Ages. To this purpose, we will look at a number of political struggles waged in the name of religion, including the Peasants’ Revolt and Thirty Years War in Germany, the Dutch revolt against Spain, the French Wars of Religion, and the English Revolution.

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