What’s Done Is Done: What Is History Good For? – SOLD OUT

Big Three at Yalta

We take it for granted that everyone should know something about history. We teach history in schools, we commemorate anniversaries of famous events, we post historical markers along roadsides and on old buildings. On television and in newspapers, we hear appeals to history made on a regular basis: as justification for national action, explanation for conflict, and model for civic, social, and personal leadership and morality.

But what is it we’re looking to when we look to history? Why is history important? What do we actually mean by ‘history’? What can it teach us, if it can teach us anything at all? Our seminar course will explore these and other fundamental questions about history, how it’s told and how it’s used.

We will frame our thought at the beginning of the week through discussion of two similarly titled works: Friedrich Nietzsche’s classic essay “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life”; and The Uses and Abuses of History by acclaimed Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan. In the succeeding days, we will take a close look at history-telling in a variety of media. We will discuss selections of narrative history from two foundational authors of the Western historical tradition, Herodotus and Thucydides; a fine contemporary work of historical fiction by Pat Barker; a classic film by Sergei Eisenstein; and iconic paintings by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Théodore Géricault, John Trumbull, and Eugène Delacroix.

Images courtesy opendemocracy.net and Wikimedia Commons

“History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illuminates reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity.”

– Cicero


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Mark Cwik is the president of Great Books Great Discussions, a new organization promoting and supporting lifelong liberal education through discussion of great texts and ideas. His previous courses at Classical Pursuits include The Histories of Herodotus, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Moby Dick, and the Five Books of Moses.

Participants are required to obtain the specified editions in order to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion.

"On the Use and Abuse of History for Life", by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Ian Johnston (PDF download)

In the U.S.: Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, by Margaret MacMillan (Modern Library, reprint edition, 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-0812979961

In Canada: The Uses and Abuses of History, by Margaret MacMillan (Penguin Canada, 2009)
ISBN-13: 978-0143054788

Regeneration, by Pat Barker (Plume, 2013)
ISBN-13: 978-0142180594

The Histories, by Herodotus, and History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides, will be provided electronically.

Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Eisenstein

Selected images, including works by Théodore Géricault, Pablo Picasso, Jacques-Louis David, John Trumbull, and Eugène Delacroix, will be discussed in the seminar.

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