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Failure and Success: A Historical Perspective

About the Lecture

European history provides us with many examples of very successful people: The great church father Augustine (†430), who transformed the world of Christian thought and religion with his original theological works; the great emperor Charlemagne (†814), who became the most powerful ruler of Western Europe and who ruled for 47 years; the great Saint Francis of Assisi (†1226), who in a time of deep political crisis between the leaders of the Church and the leaders of the State developed a real zeal for spiritual poverty and peace; or the great writer Christine de Pizan (†1430), who described the conditions under which a woman can be respected in a man’s world and then acquire power and authority. Such men and women were successful influencers, changing by their deeds and words the course of history or the minds of many. Less visible is the success of millions of others – good mothers and fathers, smart scholars and soldiers, happy monks, and nuns. Whether well-known or less known, all these examples show that political or personal success only comes with failure, or through failure. In the same way that moral philosophers nowadays use certain influential men and women as models (“exemplars”) of good behavior in today’s world (“exemplary moral theory”), we will look at some influential historical figures specifically for their exemplary nonsuccesses (deficiencies, disappointments, defeats, ordeals, setbacks), and how these can inspire us to move forward in our own discussions and in our own lives.


Teamwork Assignment

In this seminar, we will study three remarkably unsuccessful successful or remarkably successful unsuccessful, figures:

1. Henry IV (†1106), Holy Roman emperor.

2. Francis of Assisi (†1226), Catholic saint.

3. Joan of Arc (†1431), French heroine.

In all three cases, a wealth of medieval stories and modern literature is available.

Students form groups of three or four and prepare an original, creative presentation of the failures of the chosen historical figure and how these failures thwarted or contributed to his or her success. Students will address the following questions: what was the common thread in their failures and successes and what is the relevance and value of failure in all these cases? In order to do so, students will focus on biographical stories and first witness accounts in the primary (medieval) sources, but also make use of secondary (academic) literature.

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