Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Thinking About War


This course examines classic approaches to war as an intellectual problem, looking at how a matter of such great physical violence and passions can be subjected to understanding and used in philosophy, history, political theory, and art. The questions to be examined will include the definition of war, its causes, its moral value (or lack thereof), the nature and identities of its participants, its use in the self-definition of individuals and societies, war's relation to political authority, warfare and gender, and the problem of civil war. The readings will follow a chronological order, beginning with Thucydides's The Peloponnesian War and Sunzi's Art of War. The former, perhaps the single most important treatment of war in the western world, explores the tragic character of war, of how it is rooted in what is noblest and most vital in humanity, and yet how feeding on its own logic and momentum it drives states on to self-destruction. It also gives us the classic descriptions of the horror of stasis, the total social breakdown caused by civil wars. Sunzi set the terms for all thought about the nature and uses of war in East Asian civilization, focused on the roles of the commander and the ruler, and consequently treating war as primarily a mental and moral problem. In many ways it anticipated the current use of game theory. This will be followed by reading an excerpt of Clausewitz's On War, the work that provided the single most influential theorization of war as a tool of the modern nation-state, and also the most philosophically critical examination since Thucydides of the fundamental nature of war. The course will conclude with a reflection on the nature of guerilla warfare, and about the construction of a state out of a rebel army, based on a lengthy essay by Mao Zedong.

This course is based on discussion of readings, sometimes led by smaller groups who prepare to lead discussions on specific readings. The emphasis is on close reading, brief response papers (which are not graded, but serve to help students formulate their ideas), and hopefully lively discussion (with classmates and one-on-one with the professor) rather than on lengthy essays or exams.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Mark Lewis

Mark Edward Lewis received his B.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Chicago and studied Chinese at the International Chinese Language Program. His research deals with many aspects of Chinese civilization in the late pre-imperial, early imperial, and middle periods, and with the problem of empire as a political and social form. His books include Sanctioned Violence in Early China, which studies the emergence of the first Chinese empires by examining warfare, hunting, sacrifice, punishments, and vengeance. His second book, Writing and Authority in Early China, covers the same period from a different angle and traces the evolving uses of writing to command assent and obedience. Lewis has also completed the first three volumes of a six-volume survey of the entire history of imperial China. In addition to recounting the major political events, these volumes devote chapters to the most important aspects of the society of each period: geographic background, cities, rural society, kinship, religion, literature, and law. Lewis is currently writing a monograph on the emotions in early China, and how feelings such as anger, love, joy, and sorrow were defined and incorporated into all aspects of society.