REVOLUTION AND PROGRESS
Revolution and Progress, 1780–1820
Is the world progressing or regressing? Some argue that life for humans is better than ever before, that we are living the wildest dreams of those who lived on this earth centuries or even decades ago. But others insist that such a view overlooks the magnitude of human suffering that exists around the globe today, and the sheer number and scope of problems that humans face, such as climate change, economic inequality, political unrest, and more. Clearly, a consensus is yet to be reached regarding what progress really means.
The question of progress became central in the Romantic period (1780–1820), during which a series of revolutions brought the world closer to the form that we recognize today. The American Revolution, for example, gave rise to a new nation-state, and to the ideals of liberty and democracy. These ideals were championed by the French Revolution, which dismantled old ideas about social structure, the individual, and happiness, and by the Haitian Revolution, the self-liberation of slaves in Haiti from French colonial rule. The Industrial Revolution, as critic Michel Serres writes, “destroyed the agrarian, cool society of water mills and windmills” in England, and “created a new and burning society.” At the heart of these revolutions was the idea that things were changing for the better, that progress was taking place.
In this course, we will explore what the individuals who lived during the Romantic period, and grappled with the concepts of progress and revolution, can teach us about these concepts, as well as related ideas about the individual, society, liberty, democracy, and happiness, by examining a variety of Romantic-era texts. Readings will include works of Romantic poetry by William Blake, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Smith, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and others, political and philosophical writings by J. J. Rousseau, Edmund Burke, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Malthus, and more, documents from the Haitian Revolution, the slave narrative by Olaudah Equiano, and two novels, Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) and Mary Shelley’sFrankenstein (1818). Assignments will include short reflection papers and medium-length essays.