A History of Ideas in the City of Lights: A Four-Part Course with Samuél Lopez-Barrantes

A History of Ideas in the City of Lights: A Four-Part Course with Samuél Lopez-Barrantes


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From the Enlightenment to the modernists, the existentialists, and beyond, this introductory course in intellectual history focuses on the books and ideas that changed the world. We may know the names--Rousseau, Hemingway, Baldwin, de Beauvoir--but participants will leave this course with a deeper understanding of just how important the City of Lights has been for the history of modern thought.

The history of Paris is the history of ideas. No city in the world can claim to have been at the epicenter of such major intellectual movements as the Enlightenment, Modernism, Existentialism, and the subsequent ideas that led to 1968. In this interdisciplinary series that combines intellectual history, literature, and the art of storytelling, author and professor Samuél Lopez-Barrantes takes you on a journey through three centuries of intellectual life in Paris.

Starting with an overview of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social theory, we will learn why the Enlightenment’s ideals were so important for the idea of “progress,” and why they have also been intellectualized to help justify centuries of oppression. With a primary focus on Rousseau’s social theory and the writings of Voltaire, we will also discuss the stories surrounding Le Procope, one of the original Parisian cafés that exist to this day.

One hundred and fifty years later, the modernists arrived. Romanticism was dead, and war had killed it. In the wake of World War I, many writers flocked to the City of Lights to try and envision a more human and honest world. By understanding the historical reasons for the ideological shift from romanticism to modernism, this course will highlight why Paris was such a ripe place for Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and new ideas in art, including women’s liberation, the avant-garde, and jazz music.

Faith in any single idea, however, was about to end: any idealistic “ism” that existed before World War II was shattered by the reality of Auschwitz. In the shadow of the Nazi Occupation of Paris, a group of social revolutionaries—Camus, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir—sat on the terrace of the Café de Flore and coined a new term: “existentialism.” With the further arrival of authors Richard Wright and James Baldwin, and a kooky character in the 1960s named Guy de Bord, the books and ideas that came out of post-war France are arguably the most important works of the 20th century, for they continue to resonate to this day.

Led by Samuél Lopez-Barrantes, an expert in intellectual history and modern Anglophone literature, this course is an intellectual history of Paris and the ideas that helped shape the modern world. Designed to inform curiosity as well as future travels, participants will come away with an increased appreciation for the ideas that continue to breathe life into the City of Lights.

Lecture 1: Man is Born Free, and Everywhere He Is In Chains

The Enlightenment’s most important thinkers all drank coffee in Paris’ Latin Quarter. With an in-depth look at Rousseau’s Social Contract, Voltaire’s fiction, and the promises and shortcomings of the revolutionaries that came to Paris to change the world, this first session examines the intellectual origins of “democracy” and “freedom,” ideas that would come to liberate—and oppress—the modern world.

Lecture 2: Romanticism is Dead, and War Has Killed It

In this lecture, we will examine the ideological shift from Romanticism to Modernism, a direct result of modernity and the brutality of the trenches. With a focus on Ernest Hemingway’s Paris life, his writing style, and the theorists that molded him, this course is designed to provide an overview of the intellectual history of modernism to better understand why so many artists flocked to Paris.

Lecture 3: We Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy

In the shadow of the Nazi Occupation of Paris, a new era of thinkers sat on the terraces of Saint Germain and tried to envision a different way to think about existence and identity. This session provides an overview of the main ideas of Existentialism, with a particular focus on the life, writing style, and philosophy of the American author James Baldwin, the most important American ex-pat to ever set foot in Paris.

Lecture 4: Postmodernism, Guy De Bord, and the Situationists

1968 was a turbulent year in human history that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the live-broadcast brutality of the Vietnam War, and historic protests in France that inspired others throughout the world. Using Marxist theorist Guy de Bord’s little-known but highly influential The Society of the Spectacle as a basis, this final lecture in the series analyzes Karl Marx’s influence on the postmodern aesthetic, bringing history full circle to Rousseau’s famous statement: “[Humanity] is born free and is everywhere in chains.

Samuél is a novelist and musician who has lived in Paris since 2010. He holds an M.A. in European Society from University College London and an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Samuél teaches literature and creative writing at Paris’ Sorbonne. He is also in an American folk-rock trio, Slim & The Beast, whose self-titled EP has already caught the attention of Rolling Stone France.

How does it work?

This is a four-part series held weekly and hosted on Zoom. Please check the schedule for the specific dates and times for each lecture.

Is there a reading list in advance?

Though the course is open to participants with no background in intellectual history, there are suggested readings for further investigation. You will receive this soon after course registration.

How long are the lectures?

Each lecture is 90 minutes long with time for Q&A.

How much is the course?

The course is $140 for four lectures.

Is a recording available?

In general, our courses are not recorded. However, if you need to miss a lecture please let us know in advance and we can arrange for a recording for that session on an individual basis.

This course is not suitable for children under age 16

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.

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