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Our Past Lecture Series

Subject: Iranian History

with Dr Michael Bonner

1. The origins of the Sasanian state: this is a brief exposition of Iranian history from the earliest times to the early 3rd century AD, culminating in the rise of Ardashir I, his wars, and his conquests.

2. Approaches to Sasanian history: this covers the main themes of Sasanian history, including the establishment of Zoroastrianism, relations between the state and minority populations, especially Christians, and warfare with Rome and the nomads of Central Asia. We will also cover the main sources for that history and the historiographical problems posed by them.

3. The great migration of peoples: this session covers the origin of the Huns and their appearance on the northeastern border of Iran; the evolution of Sasanian foreign policy; the toleration of Christianity; and the near-collapse of the Sasanian state in the late 5th century.

4. The Sasanian recovery: this will deal with the military and fiscal reforms of Kavad I and Khusro I, as well as competition and warfare with Justinianic Rome.

5. The plague: the so-called Justinianic plague and its effects on Iran.

6. The apogee of the Sasanian state: this covers the high-point of the Sasanian state in the late sixth century: the reign of Hurmazd IV and his wars with Rome and in Central Asia; the rebellion of Bahram Chobin and the rise of Khusro II; the last great war of Antiquity between Iran and Rome.

7. The fall of the Sasanian state: the preaching of Muhammad and the rise of Islam; the Arab conquest of Iran; the exile of the royal family in China, and their failed attempts to retake Iran.


8. The legacy of the Sasanian world: this will cover the after-life of the Sasanian empire and its influence on the Abbasid caliphate and later Islamic culture and statecraft.

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Iranian History
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Subject: Philosophy

with Prof Ljiljana Radenovic

1. Introduction to individualistic vs. collectivistic and hedonic vs. eudaimonic approaches to happiness; the way they are conceptualized in the history of philosophy and contemporary cross cultural social psychology.

2. Happiness of an individual: in this lecture we cover Plato’s and Aristotle’s views on the nature of knowledge, virtues, and good life. We discuss Plato’s Protagoras and Philebus as well as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

3. Happiness of a state: Here we discuss Plato’s ideal republic and compare it to the Augustine’s thoughts on the transient city of man, the role it needs to play in this life and the eternal city of God.

4. Emotions, psychological needs, and well-being in contemporary psychology: here we cover basic concepts of Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination theory and a number of cross cultural empirical studies that connect universal basic needs and well-being.

5. Seneca’s individualism: Here we talk about Seneca’s recipes for the life free of passions developed in De Vita Beata and De Ira.

6. More’s collectivism: In this lecture we aim to uncover More’s assumptions about happiness and human nature by reading closely his Utopia.

7. Evagrius: In this lecture we talk about eighth bad thoughts, but give special attention to acedia (a mix of melancholia, anxiety, and restlessness). We also go through the remedies that this Desert Father of the 4 th century offers for each of them.

8. Petrarch: Here we get to know Petrarch as a philosopher and his views on good life and religious education. We discuss the way he combines stoicism with Christianity.


Subject: Epistemology

with Oliver Traldi

1. Disagreement and expertise

We will begin our course with an investigation into the epistemology of disagreement and expertise, two large topics in the subfield of social epistemology. Must a rational agent change their view when someone they think is just as likely to be correct as they are disagrees with them? What about when an expert disagrees with them? We will examine one potential consequence of the thesis that we must change our views in these kinds of circumstances: that it seems to commit us to skepticism about controversial matters, including political ones.

2. Expert identification and expert deference

In some cases it seems clear that we must defer to experts and their works. We trust doctors to give us diagnoses. We trust plumbers to tell us about our plumbing. We trust maps when we navigate our cities. However, there are two kinds of problems with deferring to the experts. First, the sign of an expert is that they are almost always correct. But a non-expert does not know what is correct, and so a non-expert does not seem to be in a position to figure out who the experts are to begin with. Second, it doesn't seem rational to blindly trust experts when they express beliefs that seem completely outrageous to us. We will consider whether there are models of expertise that address these worries.

3. The replication crisis

What is the social status of expertise in the contemporary world? Events like the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crash, expert failures to predict political outcomes like the election of Donald Trump and the passage of the Brexit referendum, and early confusion and

misinformation relating to the coronavirus pandemic seem to have undermined public perception of experts. In this session, we will examine just one such event, the replication crisis in social psychology and other academic fields, and think critically about how we can take this crisis into account when assessing academic research.

4. The epistemology of democracy

Theorists of democracy have occasionally attempted to give epistemic rationales for democracy: rationales that are based around the supposed ability of democracy to find the truth and reach good decisions. How good are these arguments? What sorts of assumptions do they require? We will consider a few different arguments in favor of what's called epistemic democracy and assess how well contemporary democracies fit with their somewhat idealized images.

5. Moral expertise

Doctors and plumbers may be experts of certain kinds with regard to a domain of some real- world knowledge. But what about the domain of morality? Philosophers have offered additional doubts about identifying and deferring to moral experts. Because it's hard to get objective evidence about moral questions, the problem of non-experts identifying experts is especially bad for moral experts. And some philosophers also think there is something odd about moral deference, because leaving our decisions up to others might mean we never understand the moral realm or might mean that we are giving up responsibility for our actions.

6. Moral progress and value-laden science

In this session we will draw out two possible consequences of problems with the notion of moral expertise. The first has to do with the notion of moral progress. Belief in moral progress is potentially best characterized as the thesis that future persons will be moral experts relative to present persons. But if moral expertise is as problematic as we've seen that it might be, it is hard to see how we could be confident in that thesis. The second has to do with the notion that science is value-laden. Even if we believe that moral experts can be identified and should be deferred to, it's unlikely that scientists are moral experts. So if science is value-laden in the sense that it has moral commitments, it is hard to see how a rational agent can defer to scientists even about science.

7. The epistemology of ideology and polarization

Many commentators think of modern political groupings as being caught up in various kinds of epistemic vices. Political sides are echo chambers, or epistemic bubbles, or extreme poles, or they're black-and-white ideologies which don't admit of nuance or

deviation. We will consider these diagnoses of contemporary politics, and the question of whether they necessarily mean that political actors are irrational as reasoners in search of truth.

8. The epistemology of conspiracy theories

We will close by thinking about conspiracy theories. Much public commentary presents conspiracy theories as necessarily irrational, but philosophers have struggled to say what unites conspiracy theories and renders them unreasonable. Dealing with conspiracy theories will help us recall many points from earlier in the course, as commentators have brought an incredibly wide variety of tools to bear, though perhaps fruitlessly, on the project of arguing for the irrationality of conspiracy theories.


Possible alternate and/or tutorial topics
· Are some beliefs ethical to hold, and others unethical?
· Is political disagreement based on facts or on values?
· What should we do about beliefs that seem a bit too convenient for us?

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Subject: Byzantium

with Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Why did the West Collapse and the East Survive?

1. Background
An examination of the the civil war dynamic that plagued attempts to repair the empire.

2. Good Fortune or Good Works
A glance at whether the two halves of the empire reacted with equal wisdom to external challenges. Tales of gauche diplomacy, profligacy and talking-heads follow.


3. Attila on the Move
Analysis focusing on how the West managed the rise and fall of Attila, a confrontation that might never have occurred had Aetius’ lieutenant Litorius not lost so many Hun mercenaries against the Visigoths near Toulouse.


4. Military Evolution
Questions over whether the Romans adapted well or were pale ghosts (compared to Gaius Marius’ recruits) have haunted historiography for centuries. Here is a stark assessment of the late Roman military’s effectiveness.

5. Balancing the Books
Taxation may hardly be the sexiest of subjects, especially since Machiavelli claimed “Good soldiers, not gold, form the sinews of war.” But the power of the solidus was almost coterminous with state, and so how each half of the empire managed their coffers mattered.

6. Turn to God
“When the gods fail, I change my religion. What do you do?” To bastardise an old quote from Keynes. While Constantine’s turn to Christ is well documented, the state’s ideological conversion was much slower and threw up many fascinating innovations.

7. The Fall of the West & Survival of the East
Both halves of the empire were dysfunctional in their own particular ways. This lecture looks at the episodes which dragged the weakness of the West out into the open, and how the East was able to survive its frailties.

8. Eastern Revival
Zeno’s removal of the Ostrogoths freed up the East to focus on more strategic goals and its tax yields meant it could afford numerous defeats. The final chapter zooms in on the relationship between military and civil powers in Constantinople, arguably badly managed in the West.

Ecclesiastical History

Subject: Ecclesiastical History

(Series on the Bible & Humour)

with Rev. Fergus Butler-Gallie

1. The Bible and Humour: The Old Testament

Starting at the very beginning (which as one sort of humorous Christian reminded us, is a very good place to start), this session is a reappraisal of the Old Testament God’s reputation as humourless. Looking at Creation onwards, you will explore two texts in particular: Genesis 18 (where Sarah laughs at God’s plan) and 1 Kings 18 (where Wlijah mocks the prophet of Baal).

2. The Bible and Humour: The New Testament

This lecture will analyse humour in the New Testament. What does Christ’s humour look like? You will engage in a discussion of whether, as Hobbes thought, superiority and foreknowledge result in humour. Does Christ mock? Is St Paul ever funny? Or is he even trying to be in Philippians 3?

3. The Church and Humour: Friend or Foe

This lecture assesses the post biblical official Christian relationship with humour using early church sources, polemics, etc. moving onto the uneasy relationship between the Church and satire. When did Christians start telling jokes? Building on Monty Python and Torquemada, why might the fearfulness of the Inquisition be funny?

4. God is not Mocked? The Theology of Humour

The centre point of Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’ is a debate over the role of laughter and theology. This session gathers together the previous three in light of Galatians 6:7 to ask ‘can God be mocked’ and does it matter?

5. Case study: Funny Christians —Historical

From clergy like Swift, Sterne and Rabelais to devout historic laity such as Austen and Cervantes, this lecture will look at how Christianity has shaped what we consider to be funny. Where does a Christian anthropology enter into what it is we find funny? You will look into how Christian concepts of what it is to be human have informed the shape of jokes and humorous writing.

6. Case Study: Funny Christians — Today

What does it mean to be a Christian involved in humour today? Navigating a secular world, this session will look at examples from established comedians who confess their faith (e.g. Frank Skinner’s Comedian’s Prayer Book) to subversive post secular online humour (from Unvirtuous Abbey to the Babylon Bee). Are Christians funny anymore?

7. 2 Kings 2: Christianity & Dark Humour

A look at the story of Elisha and the she bear alongside other grislier bits of the Bible. Are there things a Christian shouldn’t find funny? How do secular (but perhaps Tom Holland- Christian shaped) attitudes about what is and isn’t acceptable change or even threaten bits of the Bible today?


8. Against the World: Humour as Prophecy

Will the apocalypse be funny? Is there laughter in Heaven? This lecture will analyse apocalyptic texts, the role of the prophet and of the Holy Fool as joke tellers and truth speakers. All of them will be combined in a final assessment of whether a Christian approach to humour is possible and if so whether it might tell us something about the nature of humanity.

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Prehistory & Archaeology
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Subject: Prehistory & Archaeology

with Stone Age Herbalist

1. Origins

Lecture One will cover the origins of the homo species and the evolutionary relationships between different hominid species. The main thrust will be anatomical and cognitive developments, the beginnings of stone tool and fire use, hominid dispersals and matings.

2. The Human Planet

Lecture Two will examine the most recent evidence for sapien evolution and the complex relationships between modern humans and other hominid species, including the Neanderthals and Denisovans. 


3. Ice and Fire

Lecture Three will cover the broad sweep of the Upper Palaeolithic, with a particular focus on migrations, burials, art and economies. We’ll examine all the different methodologies for investigating Palaeolithic artefacts, from chemical analysis to art studies to neuroscience. 


4. Foraging Myths

Lecture Four will look to explode many of the myths surrounding hunter-gatherers, their capabilities and capacities and inventions. Almost everything from crop harvesting, metallurgy, ceremonial architecture and pottery was invented before the advent of agriculture, so why do we tell ourselves such strange stories?

5. Heating Up

Lecture Five highlights the crucial moment of the Holocene and catastrophic sea level rises, how it kickstarted the agricultural revolution, the different forms of domestication and created both forager-fisher and farmer zones of civilisation. We’ll also examine the evidence for sea-faring and long distance trade. 


6. Sowing & Reaping

Lecture Six focuses on the primary areas of crop domestication globally and how these zones expanded and contracted as they contacted other culture-areas. We’ll examine linguistic, genetic and other evidence to see how farmer-forager interactions occurred across the world and how Neolithic civilisations created the first true States. 


7. The Expansions

Lecture Seven tells the untold stories of three major expansions: the Steppe, the Austronesian and the Bantu. Through these lenses we will explore the origins and spread of metallurgy, of horse domestication, of long distance voyaging, of conquest, migration and assimilation. 


8. A Patchwork World

The Eighth and final lecture will examine the state of the world at the dawn of writing and Statehood. Looking at different biomes and forms of civilisation from South America to Oceania, Siberia to the Near East, we get a snapshot of human life as the first States become a reality. 

Early Modern English

Subject: Early Modern English Literature

(Devotion and Faith in Elizabethan Poetry & Drama)

with Jane Cooper

Lecture 1: Robert Southwell & Campion: proto-metaphysical religious poetry

In the context of the Elizabethan suppression of Catholicism which led to the martyrdom of poets like Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell, I will look at the ways in which these Catholic poets’ devotional lyrics and hymns anticipated the striking verse of the so-called ‘Metaphysical School’ of poets in the 1590s and beyond – namely, John Donne, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, and Richard Crashaw. I will lead a close reading of Southwell’s masterpiece in narrative poetry, ‘Saint Peter’s Complaint’ and share my work on a number of 17th century manuscript miscellanies which incorporated the poem. These miscellanies reveal how Southwell was widely read by Puritans and Catholics alike in spite of the treasonous nature of his poetry’s Catholicity.


Lecture 2: The ‘Metaphysical School’: Donne and Marvell.

I will fuse a view of Donne’s satirical poetry and prose with his famous Holy Sonnets and private devotional verse, looking closely at the ‘melancholic humour’ of his authorial persona and his personal religious journey in a time of denominational tumult.


Lecture 3: Johnson’s classification of the ‘Metaphysical Poets’.

This lecture will question how Marvell ‘yoked together’ the ‘most heterogeneous of ideas’. It will involve a study of poetic paradoxes – in the early modern period, as termed by Hobbes, ‘paradox’ indicated the subversion of received wisdom.

Lecture 4: Shakespearean religion: King Lear, Othello, and the problem of demons.

In the context of the early 17th century debate surrounding the legitimacy of demonic possession, I will discuss how Shakespeare voiced his religious scepticism in Othello and King Lear. The Jacobean preoccupation with demonology plays out in myriad subtle ways in both tragedies, and reveals Shakespeare’s expressions of agnosticism surrounding demons – I argue that in the early 1600s, this was both an audacious and a politically clever move. I will focus in particular on the ambiguous supernatural power of Iago’s villainy and the notable absence of divine intervention in King Lear.

Lecture 5: Private and public devotion: Ben Jonson and George Herbert.

Ben Jonson’s famously ‘possessive authorship’ and quest for patronage provides an interesting counterpoint to the private nature of some of the period’s best devotional poetry: that of George Herbert. I will conduct a study of Jonson’s elegies – always virtuosic and, by their nature, highly public – with Herbert’s religious meditations and published elegies. This will illuminate the ways in which religious tropes and language were used by authors in commercially viable ways. It also reveals the tension between the frequent invocation of the Classical ‘Muse’ with the publically Christian telos of Jacobean poetics.

Lectures 6 and 7: Additional C17th & C18th topics:

John Dryden: Restoration religion and ‘The Hind and the Panther’
Drawing on Ronald Knox’s crucial work on enthusiasm, I will consider Dryden’s poetical preoccupation with ‘enchanted ground’, informed by a view of his apparently shifting and politically expedient relationship with Catholicism. I will look at his long poems ‘The Hind and the Panther’ and ‘Religio Laici’, examining the tension between divine mystery and ecclesiastical epistemic authority in the context of Revolutionary England. I argue that ‘The Hind and the Panther’ presents divine majesty and mystery as one and the same and consistently links glory, described in images of luminescence and fire, with truth. As such, I will consider the extent to which Dryden’s presentation of his conversion to Catholicism was rooted in his understanding of how God mediates through the Catholic Church.

8. Christopher Smart: Jubilate Agno and ‘enthusiasm’ in the 18th century.

I will examine the eccentric devotional character of Christopher Smart’s most famous poem, ‘Jubilate Agno’ (1736), usually noted for its section ‘For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry’. I will present the poem, notable in its Hebraic form, alongside Robert Lowth's De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum (1753). Smart’s overlooked Seatonian prize poems will provide further context for Smart’s remarkable poetic ambitions; the lofty themes of these poems, including ‘On the Eternity of the Supreme Being’ (1750) and ‘On the Immensity of the Supreme Being’ (1751) demands some attention.

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