What actually was it that the Greeks were thinking of when they used the expression politeia—an expression which we often translate by 'constitution' but which might be translated also by 'citizenship', 'citizen body', or 'regime'? What do their thoughts suggest, if anything, about prospects for constitutionmaking today? This course builds on contemporary scholarship to reconstruct what we may call the constitutiomaking tradition as it develops in the main ancient texts, which are read in English translations. The ancient texts are taken from Herodotus, the Pseudo-Xenophon, Diodorus Siculus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, the author of the Aristotelian Athenian Constitution, Aristotle himself, Polybius, Cicero, Tacitus, Plutarch, and Augustine. The course traces this ancient tradition through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and the great thinkers of the Seventeenth Century, following linguistic and other clues that carry one up to the American colonial documents, the so-called state constitutions, and the debates in the Constitutional Convention; and it continues through Nineteenth-Century and Twentieth-Century constitutionmaking into recent constitutionmaking efforts in Europe, North Africa (especially Egypt), and elsewhere.
In its 2016 version, the course draws on recent work which suggests that Aristotle's Politics was written for an intended audience of people making constitutions and people making laws, either for domestic use or for colonies.
The course is conducted as a group tutorial. In individual tutorials, where instruction is one on one, the tutor typically assigns a paper to a student each week, and the student reads it the next week and takes questions from the tutor. In a group tutorial, the professor offers a prelecture to the students in each session on the text that they will read next to help them understand its historical, literary, and political context. In the next class, several students read short papers on the text, and these papers are discussed by other students and by the professor. The professor then provides a summary lecture on the text just completed, if necessary, and a prelecture on the text set for the next class. At the end of the course, the students have reconstructed the constitutionmaking tradition for themselves from the primary sources.