CLAFI offered its first seminar, “Lincoln in His Own Words,” back in 2009. Lincoln himself was a student of the liberal arts. He absorbed the style of Shakespeare, the wisdom of the Bible, the wit of Aesop’s Fables, and the story of English and American history. His speeches are emeralds among the jewels of the western tradition. Though Lincoln wrote his speeches as political campaigns and addresses, his poetic prose bears lessons in political philosophy, history, morality, and rhetoric. Students discussed one or two of Lincoln’s speeches every week. Prof. Lowenstein guided the discussion, expanded on the historical background, and illuminated Lincoln’s message born by beautiful writing.
The next two courses offered were the co-requisite classes on American Political Thought and European Political Thought. The same twelve students took both classes together, sparking camaraderie to plow through the copious and dense, though fascinating readings. Camaraderie bloomed into common interest and even friendship as classroom discussions on politics and civics sprung up in casual conversation outside of class. The European and American Thought classes complemented each other. The European Thought course studied the writings of John Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill. Students saw the influence of these four philosophers in the works we read in the American Political Thought class. We studied the writings of the founding fathers of America, including the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, and George Washington’s Farewell Address. The influence of the European philosophers continued even later into American history in the writings of Samuel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Abraham Lincoln. The subject matter of these courses intersected so often that the comments of a particular day’s seminar would quote the reading or reopen the discussion from the other class. We studied the concepts of justice, rights, the good, freedom, security, war, and peace.
The next class offered was a Fiat Lux seminar, Introduction to Samuel Johnson. We read one or two of Samuel Johnson’s short and witty essays every week. We also read his novel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. Rasselas is a young prince on a quest to find true happiness—a question long pondered in the western tradition of the liberal arts. Though the style of Johnson took getting used to, the students did not leave one class without the satisfaction of having steeped their curiosity in the mind of someone who sought the truth. Johnson often garnished his pondering with tongue-in-cheek humor, which left us all laughing.