J Y Pillay Visiting Distinguished Professor, Steven Smith: Politics and the Problem of ‘Towering Ambition’

12 April 2017
Steven B. Smith, Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University

12 April 2017 (Wednesday), 6:30pm to 7:45pm
Tan Chin Tuan Lecture Theatre, Yale-NUS College
Steven Smith, Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University

In his talk, ‘Politics and the Problem of ‘Towering Ambition” Yale University Professor, Steven Smith, will address the topic of grand ambition in politics and how it has fallen on hard times. Current moral and political vocabulary neglects the role of phenomena like the love of glory, fame, and the struggle for recognition. Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Speech (1838) helps us reconsider the role of ambition in politics, reflecting on themes of demagoguery and political usurpation. Here Lincoln considers the “towering genius” in politics – the aspiring Caesar or Napoleon — as an instance of the general problem of ambitious tyrants seeking to undermine constitutionalism and the rule of law as a tribute to their own glory. With a rising wave of populist leaders in Europe, Latin America, and the United States, we would do well to reconsider Lincoln’s speech and the diagnosis it offers.

Steven B. Smith is the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and has taught at Yale since 1984. He has served as Director of Graduate Studies in Political Science, Director of the Special Program in the Humanities, and Acting Chair of Judaic Studies and from 1996-2011. His research has focused on the history of political philosophy with special attention to the problem of the ancients and moderns, the relation of religion and politics, and theories of representative government.

Steven Smith’s best known publications include Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism (1989), Spinoza, Liberalism, and Jewish Identity (1997), Spinoza’s Book of Life (2003), Reading Leo Strauss (2006), and The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss (2009) and Political Philosophy (2012). His new book Modernity and its Discontents was recently published by Yale University Press.

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