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The John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy

The Souls of Nations and the Prospects for Democracy


Autumn Quarter
Winter Quarter
Spring Quarter


Literature and philosophy for a long time spoke as if each nation had an essence or character or soul that defined it or distinguished it from universal human nature, in which that character was also understood to participate. To speak of national character today seems to be difficult, possibly offensive, and yet unavoidable even in an age of heralded globalization, sub-national ethnic fragmentation, and rejection of "essentialism." We all recognize the characteristic manners of various nations, even as we also know the horrors produced by perverted theories about national character. We wish to ask such questions as what is a nation, and what is the relevance for politics of national identity. In particular, we wonder whether the literature, art, or music of a nation discloses that character, providing a privileged glimpse into the soul of the nation. Finally, we wonder whether the characters of particular nations bode ill or well for the prospects of democracy in them.


Autumn Quarter

October 14

National Character and National Soul

Professor Wilson Carey McWilliams
Department of Political Science, Rutgers University

November 4

French Unconsciousness

Professor Rémi Brague
Department of Philosophy, Université Paris I

November 18

Enduring Change: Confucianism and Human Rights

Professor Anthony Yu
Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago

Winter Quarter

January 20

Neither in Heaven nor Beyond the Sea: Reflectionson Jewish National Character

Professor Hillel Fradkin
American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C.

February 3

Nationalism, Democracy, and Religion in England

Professor J.C.D. Clark
Department of History, University of Kansas

February 17

Does America Have a National Character?

Professor Andrew Delbanco
Department of English, Columbia University

Spring Quarter

April 14

Political Alternatives in Nineteenth Century Literature, With Special Emphasis on Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov

Professor Donna Orwin
Russian Department of Slavic Languages, University of Toronto

May 26

Iran, A Nation in Exile: Women, Culture and the Islamic Republic's Identity Crisis

Professor Azar Nafisi
SAIS, Johns Hopkins University

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Revised: January 2nd, 2000