Athens in its Golden Age: The Time of Pericles

During the 5th Century BCE, citizens of the tiny city-state of Athens, despite political turmoil at home and constant threats from abroad, achieved levels of accomplishment in art, architecture, philosophy and theatre not previously recorded. They also established a working democracy. The influence of their achievements on the development of human civilization continues to this day.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Herbst Theatre,  401 Van Ness Avenue,  San Francisco

Moderator: Erich Gruen, Emeritus Professor of the Graduate School-Wood Professor, University of California Berkeley

Keynote Address  Democracy, Innovation, and Learning
Josiah Ober, Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Professor in honor of Constantine Mitsotakis and Professor of Political Science and Classics, Stanford University

Beginning with the Funeral Oration of Pericles in Thucydides, in which Pericles gives what seems at first glance to be an almost absurdly idealistic portrait of the democracy and the democratic citizen, Professor Ober will discuss how the design of democratic institutions helped to make that ideal into a lived reality – and thus to make Athens into the startlingly wealthy, powerful, and culturally forward-looking community that it was.

Lecture/Performance  Staging the Past, Confronting the Present in Athenian Theater
Presented by Mark Griffith, Professor of Classics and of Theatre Dance and Performance Studies, UC Berkeley

The tragedies performed annually in the Theater of Dionysus (just below the Acropolis) were based on myths and characters of an earlier time — the era of the Trojan War and the Seven against Thebes. Playwrights adapted these stories so that they raised fresh issues of immediate and contemporary relevance to the Athenians sitting in the Theater: conflicts between family loyalty and political duty, the fragility of civilized values in the face of war and imperial conquest, and the psychological costs of the disenfranchisement and subordination of women. Since many of these issues are still with us, these plays continue to resonate with extraordinary power and immediacy among modern audiences. Professor Griffith will explore the exciting — and still troubling — dynamics of this unrivalled period of Western theater through illustrations of the original conditions and style of performance actually practiced in Periclean Athens, as well as with selected film-clips of scenes from modern productions of three of the most famous of these tragedies: The Oresteia, Antigone, and The Trojan Women.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Herbst Theatre,  401 Van Ness Avenue,  San Francisco

Lecture  The Akropolis of Athens and its Impact
Margaret Miles, Professor of Art History, Classics, and Visual Studies, UC Irvine
In the whole sweep of western architectural history, surely the fifth century BCE stands out as the period upon which much else depends: when the buildings of the fifth century did not stand as exemplars, they were iconic of what was to be overturned or superseded. Although its roles have been shifting and various, and occasionally forgotten, the architecture of the fifth century still requires a response from current architects. Already by the time of the Roman Empire, the Parthenon and Erechtheum in Athens represented a long-past “golden age” and their styles were emulated in Rome as a hallmark of a new golden age. The refinements of architectural ornament and the sculptural decoration on the temples also inspired much later generations and set new standards in the early modern period. The Parthenon and its sculpture (even in its current location in the British Museum) continue as primary symbols of the achievements of Athens in the Periklean era.

Lecture  War Is the Father of All: The Politics of War, Empire, and Freedom in Democratic Athens
Kurt Raaflaub, David Herlihy University Professor, Professor of Classics and History and Chair of Ancient Studies, Brown University

We think of fifth-century Athens as a “Golden Age” of greatness in culture and humanism, characterized by the Parthenon, Phidias’ sculptures, Sophocles’ tragedies, Aristophanes’ comedies, Herodotus’ Histories, and the emergence of Socrates’ philosophy. If we can trust the historian Thucydides, the contemporaries defined “greatness” by stunning victories in war, unprecedented imperial power, and unmatched liberty, all achieved by citizens uniquely committed, on the basis of a powerful civic ideology, to their community’s continuing military and political domination. Yet twenty-five years after Pericles’ death, starved and exhausted, Athens lost the Peloponnesian War and was almost destroyed. Professor Raaflaub will discuss the tensions and contradictions, so meaningful to our own time, inherent in Athens’ politics of war, empire, and freedom, their connection with democracy, and the reasons of Athens’ meteoric rise and fall in the fifth century BCE.

Performance  Pythagoras Discovers Philosophy
George Hammond, San Francisco attorney and author

The intellectual influence of Pythagoras on Periclean Athens, and on modern culture, is hard to exaggerate. Known to Humanities West audiences for his presentations on Mark Twain and Plato, this time George dramatizes Pythagoras’s return home to Greece in 550 B.C. after years of educational travel in Babylon and Egypt.

Lecture  Greece and Persia: A Clash of Cultures?

Erich Gruen, Emeritus Professor of the Graduate School – Wood Professor, UC Berkeley
The war between Greece and Persia in the early fifth century BCE has generally been interpreted as representing a mighty watershed in Hellenic history, a pivotal turning point in the self-perception of the Greeks by contrast with the great enemy. The outcome of the war (a Greek victory) provoked the “Orientalizing” of the Persian in Greek eyes, so it is said, a means to distinguish those who lived in freedom and democracy from the despised Iranians who lived contentedly under despotism, scorned liberty and preferred servility to rationality and self-determination. The lecture will explore the validity of this interpretation through two major 5th century texts, Aeschylus’ powerful play, “The Persians,” and Herodotus’ great history of the war itself.

Panel Discussion
Moderated by Erich Gruen


Mark Griffith, Theatre, UC Berkeley

Eric Gruen, History, UC Berkeley

George Hammond, Philosophy, Humanities West

Margaret Miles, Classics, Archeology, UC Irvine

Josiah Ober, Classics, Stanford

Kurt Raaflaub, Classics and History, Brown University


Empire on Horseback: Genghis Khan and the Mongols

Herbst Theatre,  401 Van Ness Avenue,  San Francisco

In the 13th century, Genghis (Chingis) Khan (Universal Ruler) led a nomadic East Asiatic people in the creation of the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world. In the wake of his military victories, the essence of Asian culture spread throughout the conquered lands, the Silk Road that linked China via Central Asia to Europe was reopened, papermaking and printing technologies were introduced to the West, and a comprehensive communications network was established (one of whose imitators, centuries later, was America’s Pony Express). Although his reputation as a brutal warrior is infamous, in recent years the contributions of his Empire in art, science, religious tolerance, commerce and politics, as well as military strategy, have gained more recognition. An able administrator himself, Genghis Khan, his sons and grandsons ruled the region from China to Europe for 150 years.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Mechanics’ Institute, 57 Post Street, San Francisco
Special Event

Open to the public. $10 general admission.
Free to cooperating institutions and supporters of Humanities West.

5:30 pm  reception
6:00 pm  lecture

Portraits of Chingis Khan and Art of Mongol Empire.
Pre-performance Lecture on the Art of Mongolia by Orna Uranchimeg-Tsultem (ABD, Art History, UC Berkeley).
The lecture will discuss portraits of Chingis (Genghis) Khan and some selected works of Mongolian art during the imperial period. Were the Mongols “barbarians” or patrons and creators of fine art? Did the Mongol rulers build cities or always ruined and destroyed? Also some contemporary images of Chingis Khan will be discussed and analyzed.

The Mechanics’ Institute is a Humanities West Cooperating Institution.

Friday, February 22, 2007

Herbst Theatre,  401 Van Ness Avenue,  San Francisco

Moderator, Fred Astren  Director, Jewish Studies Program, San Francisco State University

Keynote Address  The ‘owl of misfortune’ or the ‘phoenix of prosperity”?  Reassessing Chingis Khan and the Mongol Empire
Daniel Waugh, Emeritus Professor, University of Washington

To some of their contemporaries, the conquest of Eurasia by Chingis (Genghis) Khan and his successors in the thirteenth century was the worst disaster which had ever befallen mankind. How did much of Eurasia come to be ruled from Mongolia? Were the Mongols uniquely destructive? This presentation will attempt to separate myth from reality and provide a balanced picture of the Mongols’ impact on their contemporary world.

Lecture/Demonstration  From Steppe to Stage: An Exploration of 800 Years of Mongolian Music
Presented by Peter K. Marsh, Assistant Professor of Music, CSU East Bay

Mongolian music, song, and dance are closely tied to the traditional pastoral nomadic ways of life of the Mongol peoples. Even the music performed in the refined and cosmopolitan courts of Kubilai Khan was rooted back in the lives of the Mongol nomads. In this lecture, we’ll explore the history of Mongolian music from Imperial times to the present paying particular attention to how traditional music, including the two-stringed fiddle and khöömii or ‘throat singing’ traditions, intersects the human, natural, and spiritual worlds. We’ll end by looking at how Mongolian music has fared in the era of globalization. With a demonstration by Orgilsaikhan Chimeddorj playing on the morin khuur or ‘horse-head fiddle,’ and Ulziisaikhan Lkhagvadorj playing on the ever büree or ‘Mongolian horn’ and singing khöömii or a ‘throat-singing’ style.

Saturday, February 23, 2007

Herbst Theatre,  401 Van Ness Avenue,  San Francisco

Lecture  Culture and Commerce
Morris Rossabi, Professor of History, Columbia University

The image of Chingis (Genghis) Khan and the Mongols as barbarians intent on plunder and destruction is still widely held. The brutality of their military campaigns should not be ignored, but this slide-illustrated lecture reveals that they promoted commerce and fostered some of the arts in the vast empire they subjugated.

Lecture  The Women in Genghis’s Life
James Ryan, Emeritus Professor, CCNY

“The Women in Chingis Khan’s Life.” In Chingis (Genghis) Khan’s era, Mongol women enjoyed higher position and greater recognition than those in China, the Arab world, or Europe, as commentators from those societies frequently noted. This was especially true of Mongol Katuns, the consorts of the khans, who played major political roles in the Mongol Empire and the various khanates that succeeded it. Surviving records reveal much about them and the society in which they wielded power. This presentation will focus on several of these remarkable women, including Chingis’ mother, his chief wife and mother of the four sons who figured in succession to his empire, and several of his daughters-in-law.

Performance  Mongolian Music

A presentation of Mongolian Music, coordinated by Peter Marsh and Orna Uranchimeg-Tsultem, withOrgilsaikhan Chimeddorj on the morin khuur or ‘horse-head fiddle,’ and Ulziisaikhan Lkhagvadorj on the ever büree or ‘Mongolian horn’ and singing khöömii or a ‘throat-singing’ style.

Lecture  The Mongol Influence on Islamic, especially Persian, Art (an illustrated account)
Stefano Carboni, Curator, Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

During the century-long period of the unified Mongol confederacy, people, objects, and ideas moved with unprecedented freedom over the entire vast Asian territory, including the Islamic areas of Western Asia. The confluence of previously distant cultures yielded a bold new visual aesthetic that would resonate in Islamic art for centuries to come. The lecture will explore the impact of China’s Yüan dynasty on the art and culture of Iran’s Ilkhanid dynasty, a period of great cultural achievement and profound changes as local artists and artisans were introduced to previously unknown artistic traditions from East Asia and attempted to respond to the tastes of their new royal patrons, the Mongol rulers.

Panel Discussion
Moderated by Fred Astren


Stephano Carboni, Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Peter Marsh, Musicology, California State East Bay

Morris Rossabi, History, Columbia

James Ryan, History, City College New York

Uranchimeg Tsultem, Musicians

David Waugh, History, U Washington

Humanities West Voltaire release 10_5_07
Humanities West Voltaire release 10_5_07

Voltaire and the French Enlightenment

Prolific author, philosopher, social reformer, and successful businessman, Voltaire was a leading figure of the French Enlightenment as well as a friend and advisor to some of the most important monarchs of Europe, including Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia. A fierce critic of the Church, religion, and aristocratic privilege, he offended many powerful interests, but also helped lay the foundations of a modern society based on the rule of law and reason.

On Friday night Keith Baker, the J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor in Humanities and the Jean-Paul Gimon Director of the France-Stanford Center of Stanford University, will discuss “Voltaire’s Wager,” in which Voltaire represents the epitome of the new spirit of secular engagement with the world we know as the Enlightenment. Baker will suggest the terms of Voltaire’s wager on humanity, the challenges it faced, and its long-term implications.

Maria Cheremeteff, Head of the Art History Department at City College of San Francisco and Lecturer at both the De Young and Legion of Honor Museums in San Francisco, in an illustrated lecture will demonstrate how paintings by Jacques-Louis David in the Neoclassical style become a symbol of the new rational order of the French Republic. The Republic required a new set of images and allegories to propagate the enlightened notion of representational rule. These ideas found voice in David’s paintings. His apprropriation of Greek and Roman subject matter and the new classical style he developed ideally suited to promote the values of liberty, equality, civic duty, and sacrifice.

On Saturday morning David Bodanis, award-winning author and Lecturer at Oxford University, will discuss his book Passionate Minds. This is the fascinating account of Voltaire, his mistress, Émilie du Châtelet, who was a brilliant scientist in her own right, and their joint intellectual projects. Roger Hahn, Emeritus Professor at UC Berkeley, will speak on Voltaire as author, philosopher, and supreme intellectual influence of the eighteenth century: his ideas, influences, and writings. On Saturday afternoon David Morris, acclaimed cellist and violist, will perform the works of Rameau on viola de gamba, along with David Wilson on violin and Katherine Heater on the harpischord. Kip Cranna, Musical Administrator of the San Francisco Opera, will discuss the composers of the Enlightenment.

Moderator:  Roger Hahn, Professor Emeritus of History University of California Berkeley

Friday October 5, 2007

The French Enlightenment

Keynote Address   Voltaire’s Wager          
As poet, playwright, philosopher, and pamphleteer, Voltaire defined and epitomized the new spirit of secular engagement with the world we know as the Enlightenment. Keith M. Baker (Stanford University) will suggest the terms of his wager on humanity, the challenges it faced, and its long-term implications

Lecture  Jacques-Louis David and the Iconography of the Revolution
Maria Cheremeteff (City College of San Francisco) will illustrate how paintings by David in the Neoclassical style become a symbol of the new rational order of the French Republic. The Republic required a new set of images and allegories to propagate the enlightened notion of representational rule. These ideas found voice in paintings by Jacques-Louis David. Appropriation of Greek and Roman subject matter and the new classical style he developed were ideally suited to promote the values of liberty, equality, civic duty and sacrifice.

Saturday October 6, 2007

Voltaire and Other Thinkers

Lecture  Émilie du Châtelet
Émilie du Châtelet was a fencer, gambler, brilliant mathematician and passionate lover. David Bodanis (Oxford University, Author of Passionate Minds) will discuss how she and her close friend Voltaire helped create the French Enlightenment.

Lecture  Voltaire’s Views on Religion
Voltaire was a major intellectual influence of the eighteenth century. Roger Hahn (University of California, Berkeley) will discuss how one squares Voltaire’s taunts against Judaism with his campaign for tolerance.

Katherine Heater(harpsichord), David Morris(viola de gamba), and David Wilson(violin), playPièce de claveçin en concert #1 in C minor by Jean Philippe Rameau.

Lecture and Demonstration   Opera and the Enlightenment: Trusting the Happy Ending
Voltaire had a profound influence on opera in the Enlightenment era and beyond, significantly impacting the intellectual and political ideals of composers and librettists. Foremost was Voltaire’s concept of just government embodied in the “Enlightened Despot”–one who employs rational judgment to rule wisely, fostering tolerance, freedom of the press, and property rights, while promoting the arts, science, and education. Closely allied with this theory was the principle of a happy dramatic outcome in opera through the triumph of human reason over the forces of cruelty, hatred, and revenge. San Francisco Opera’s Musical Administrator  Clifford (Kip) Cranna will explore these themes using video examples to illustrate how Voltairean thought influenced opera composers like Rameau, Handel, Mozart, and Rossini, and discussing the ways in which contemporary opera directors deal with Enlightenment ideals

Panel Discussion
Moderator Roger Hahn will lead a panel discussion with questions from the audience.


Keith Baker, History, Stanford

David Bodanis, writer

Maria Cheremeteff, Art History, City College San Francisco

Kip Cranna, Musicology, SF Opera

Roger Hahn, History, UC Berkeley

David Morris, viola da gamba,