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General Studies - GS101: Freedom and Authority: "Freedom from what? Freedom for what? On whose authority?" Tracing the arc of the discussion from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Blocks 1 and 2: Robert Steck 
A cuneiform inscription, the earliest known appearance of the word “FREEDOM,”  from about 2300 BCE, in today’s Iraq.

This two-block course satisfies the Critical Perspectives: The West in Time requirement. 

The state of New Hampshire displays its proud motto on every license plate: “Live free or die”.  Several years ago one of New Hampshire’s citizens decided to exercise his freedom by fashioning a license plate without the slogan.  The authorities refused to allow it.

That paradox demonstrates in a simplistic way two conceptions of freedom that have been in tension for centuries.  One conception of freedom centers on the individual’s right to live however she wishes so long as her exercise of freedom doesn’t infringe on the freedom of others. On this view the freedom of my fist ends where another person’s nose begins.  In the case of New Hampshire, the absence of the motto on one citizen’s license plate presumably would not cause any harm to other citizens.

Another conception of freedom points to the fact that we all live in political organizations, and can only reach our fullest potential and freedom to the extent that we identify, at least to some extent, with that larger unit:  in the words of a contemporary political slogan, “to serve a purpose larger than oneself.”   On this conception of freedom the state of New Hampshire might claim a duty to forbid an individual’s actions which could threaten the felt bonds that tie the community together. 

There’s another part to the New Hampshire license place:  “Live free OR DIE.”  The reality is that whether or not we live free we will die.  Our mortality often fosters a robust and close identification with the nation state in an attempt to gain a kind of immortality in war:  Think of Kamikaze pilots or “suicide bombers.”   For that reason students in this class should read the four dialogues collected in the book “The Death of Socrates” and be prepared to discuss it before the first day. After that we will read Plato’s “Republic” as a foundational document on the relation between the individual and the state.  From there we will trace that question through careful readings of texts in Philosophy, Economics, Sociology, as well as through watching films from “The Seventh Seal” to “Apocalypse Now Redux.”   We will likely spend some days at Baca or in the College owned cabin.  We will also form the most powerful kick-ball team in the history of the College.

A two-block course with one instructor; one grade will be given for the course as a whole.


  • The class will involve occasional afternoon or evening film screenings.
  • Students in this class should read the four dialogues collected in the book “The Death of Socrates” and be prepared to discuss it before the first day.
  • The course involves field trips, including some days at Baca or in the College-owned cabin.