In order that the seminar method be successful, the teacher must be careful in the assignments he gives for the students to read and discuss. The best texts will have a degree of complexity, richness, and even ambiguity. The readings must be able to provide in themselves the means for addressing the questions and difficulties that should naturally arise; they should also be able to give sufficient guidance for some sort of resolution. A work that will require the teacher to interject key facts, or necessary information from outside the text, should be avoided. Remember the fundamental point: the author of the work is the principal teacher.

Program of Readings

It is important to keep in mind that, although one can make good progress in understanding the assigned reading, it can seem to the students that they would get farther if someone just told them what the key points are. To give students a real and fuller grasp of the texts they study, it is helpful to develop a program of readings. Such a program, based upon some unifying principle, will allow the students to experience progress in two ways. They will becomes better readers, and more articulate in expressing their ideas; and they will also come to see rich themes develop over several classes, so that they will realize that they have made intellectual progress.

Readings can be organized in many different ways. Here are a few examples of weekend reading programs used by The Agora Foundation:

Friendship (Aristotle, selections from Nicomachean Ethics)
Tyranny & Justice (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar; Aquinas, On Kingship and Summa Theologiae (selections); Machiavelli, The Prince)
Human Suffering (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus; The Bible, The Book of Job; Epictetus, The Handbook)
Law and Conscience (Sophocles, Antigone; Plato, Apology and Crito; Lincoln, selections)
Morality and Human Action (Sophocles, Oedipus Rex; Aristotle, Ethics (selections); Flannery O’Connor, The Lame Shall Enter First)
The Origin for Knowledge (Plato, Meno; Aristotle, Posterior Analytics; Descartes, Discourse on Method)

Readings selections can also follow a longer theme, taking place over a series of weekend, such as the example below:

Morality and the Language of Rights

Pierre Manent once observed that “the notion of human rights is today the common political and moral reference point in the west.” At first, this might seem curious since there is little agreement about moral and political principles in our times. Yet that there are rights, and that they are the foundation of moral and political thinking seems to be an unquestioned axiom. Another curious point is that the language of rights is a relatively new addition to the discussion of morality. In fact, the ancients never even spoke about rights, although they wrote extensively about ethics and politics.

This series of seminars will address the issue about what the language of rights means. Are there such things as rights? If so, what are they precisely? What are the bases of rights? Are there natural rights, or are all rights conventional? What are the consequences of thinking about politics and morality in terms of rights?

A good beginning to this subject requires an investigation into some of the great ancient positions on moral obligation and justice. Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, in particular, stand out as extremely influential thinkers who treated these matters. Thomas Aquinas has a treatment of “jus”, which is often translated as “right”, and so he is apparently one of the earliest to adopt the language of rights. This language becomes prevalent largely because of Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, and Hume. These thinkers are among the most prominent modern authors who have treated extensively of rights. And, as the U.N. declaration on human rights makes clear, the language of rights has become the universal way of speaking about our obligations.


Morality and the Language of Rights

1.
Plato, Protagoras
Plato, Gorgias (447-481b)
Plato, Gorgias (481c-527e)

2.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. V, chapters 1-4
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. V, chapters 5-8
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. V, chapters 9-11

3.
Cicero, De Officiis, (On Duties) Bk. I
Cicero, De Officiis, Bk. II
Cicero, De Officiis, Bk. III

4.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q.57 (On the “Just” or “Right”)
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 58 (On Justice)
Lecture: “The Ancient Conception of Obligation.”

5.
Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise, Preface, chapters XVI-XX
Spinoza, A Political Treatise, chapters I-II
Spinoza, A Political Treatise, chapters III-V

6.
Hobbes, Leviathan, Part I, Introduction, chapters 1-13
Hobbes, Leviathan, Part I, chapters 14-16
Hobbes, Leviathan, Part II, chapters 17-21

7.
Locke, Second Treatise on Government, chapters I-V
Locke, Second Treatise on Government, chapters VI-IX
Locke, Second Treatise on Government, chapters X-XIX

8.
Hume, An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, sections I-III
Hume, An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, sections IV-IX
Hume, An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, appendices 1-4

9.
United Nations: “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, Introduction, I-IV
Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, V-VI