Philip Swoboda

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–

Undergraduate Courses 2017-2018

History

Spiritual Autobiography

Open , Seminar—Spring

Around 398, Christian bishop and theologian Augustine of Hippo produced one of the most influential books of all time: his Confessions—a lengthy meditation on events during the first 33 years of Augustine’s life, undertaken in an effort to comprehend how God acted through those events to transform an ambitious but confused young Roman, attracted by the exotic Asian cult of the Persian prophet Mani, into a dedicated Christian. Augustine’s book is arguably the first real autobiography ever written, and the author’s profound exploration of his own motivations and feelings led William James to term Augustine the “first modern man.” The Confessions also served as the model for hundreds of other spiritual autobiographies written over the course of the next 1,600 years, including masterworks such as The Life of St. Teresa of Ávila, William Wordsworth’s Prelude, John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua, Leo Tolstoy’s Confession, and Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. In this course, students will read and discuss these and other classics of Christian autobiography. They will also be invited to examine a number of comparable works by writers standing outside the Christian tradition, including the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and M. K. Gandhi’s Story of My Experiments With Truth. These readings are gripping, because they attempt a uniquely challenging feat: to capture the history of an individual soul’s relations with the Infinite through the language that we use to describe our everyday experience. We will combine detailed literary analysis of the autobiographies, with an examination of their content in the light of recent writing on the phenomenology of religion. Conference projects may address a wide range of topics in the general area of the history of religion and religious expression.

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The Russian Revolution

Open , Seminar—Fall

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the two Russian revolutions of 1917: the February Revolution that overthrew the tsar and the October Revolution, nine months later, that put the Communist Party of Vladimir Lenin in control of the world’s largest country. Arguably, the seizure of power by Lenin’s party was the decisive political event of the 20th century. If that hadn’t occurred, there would probably have been no turn toward fascism in Europe, no Hitler, and no World War II. A large part of the world’s population would not have found itself, after 1945, under the rule of Marxist dictatorships. Students in the course will read and discuss a variety of texts that discuss the causes of the 1917 revolutions, the nature of the regime that Lenin and his followers instituted following their conquest of power, and the global repercussions of their success in establishing what they claimed to be the world’s first “Workers’ State.” The course will therefore serve not only as an introduction to the history of modern Russia but also to the history of world communism and anti-communism in the four decades after 1917. Students may choose to pursue conference research devoted to events in Russia but also will be encouraged to develop projects dealing with the reverberations of the Russian Revolution in other parts of the globe.

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Becoming Modern: Europe from 1760 to 1914

Open , Lecture—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. Group conference readings will include novels, plays, political programs, philosophical and scientific writing, and recent studies on the history of 19th-century art.

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Previous Courses

The Disreputable 16th Century

Open , Seminar—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 that we will be reading were, in most cases, denounced by Protestants and Catholics alike.

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Germany Confronts the Enlightenment

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, German-speaking Europe was the scene of one of the most remarkable explosions of human creativity in history. This was the age that gave the world the philosophy of Kant, the poetry of Goethe, the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and many of the pioneering works of European Romanticism. In this course, we will read and discuss writings by a number of eminent German thinkers and men of letters of the period; besides Kant and Goethe, we will read works by Lessing, Herder, Schiller, Fichte, Novalis, Hölderlin, Hegel, and Kleist. These writers chose very diverse genres in which to express their ideas, and their views on important issues were often opposed. Yet it may be argued that they were all responding to the same challenge. The 18th-century Enlightenment undermined the credibility of orthodox Christian belief among educated middle-class Germans without persuading them that the Enlightenment’s own answers to the problems of human life were adequate. It therefore stimulated a search for a new faith, a new ethics, and a new vision of what human beings could and should achieve. Since the assumptions of the Enlightenment remain in many ways the determining principles of our culture, the works created by German thinkers in their efforts to formulate an alternative system of values have also retained their relevance, continuing to inspire critics of modernity (Marx, Nietzsche) up to the present day. Even when we are not conscious of their influence, their thought continues to shape our own. To familiarize oneself with their ideas is to acquire an indispensable key to understanding the intellectual history of the modern world.

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Russia and Its Neighbors: From Lenin to Putin

Open , Lecture—Spring

This course is a continuation of Russia and Its Neighbors: From the Mongol Era to Lenin but is open to students who have not taken that course.

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

Open , Lecture—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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First-Year Studies: Becoming Modern: Europe in the 19th Century

Open , 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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Between Baroque and Romanticism: The European Enlightenment

Open , Seminar—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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Winds of Doctrine: Europe in the Age of the Reformation

Sophomore and above , Seminar—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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