Guntis I. Smidchens
Each colloquium examines a different subject or problem from a comparative framework. A list of topics is available from the CHID office.
Poets, Philosophers and Politicians: Toward a history of ideas in the Baltic
The territory of present-day Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania has been home to great thinkers in European history: To name a few, Johann Gottfried Herder, Elijah ben Solomon (the Gaon of Vilna), Czeslaw Milosz and Yuri Lotman, all passed critical years of their life in the Baltic. And yet, these scholars, poets and philosophers are often thought of as belonging to national or territorial groups that do not coincide with the Baltic region: they are usually identified, for example, as “German,” “Jewish,” “Polish,” “Russian,” or simply “European” thinkers. Can they also be called “Baltic” thinkers?
A German scholar once argued that Herder became “Herderian” in the Baltic; this course will expand on that idea. Is there, perhaps, something about the place in which these thinkers lived—a multiethnic, multireligious, “marginal” and oft-contested territory of the world—that resonates in a common theme or themes? Is this common theme shared with thinkers of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian ethnicity? Somewhere in the background looms a third question: Is there a “Baltic region” in the European history of ideas, or in other words, do these thinkers share ideas that distinguish them from European thinkers outside of the Baltic territory?
The relationship between poetry, philosophy and politics is another problem to be discussed in this course, as poetic texts have been an intrinsic element in the philosophies as well as political activities of many Baltic thinkers. An analytical framework is laid out by another Baltic-born thinker, Isaiah Berlin. Course readings include poems written or studied by Baltic philosophers, and even a play by the Latvian national poet, Rainis, which is usually read as a philosophical treatise. The poetic art of rhetoric is examined in speeches by three favorite Baltic presidents.
Student learning goals
General method of instruction
The course will meet two times a week for intensive discussion of the assigned readings.
Class assignments and grading
Students will be required to write brief response papers to the readings. They will also write an essay about a Baltic thinker of their choice, on a topic to be agreed upon with the instructor. The final exam will include a question for a take-home essay and a class discussion of that question on the scheduled exam day.
25% class participation and response essays; 25% final exam (take-home essay); 50% research paper.