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History of Ethics



This course encompasses a short introduction into the History of Ethics. Mostly primary sources - Great Books - will be used or read. The course aims to provide an overview of some of the most important principles of ethics brought forward in history, leading up to some of the prevailing modern positions that could well be characterized as being ‘tragic’.

Ethics seems to be diametrically opposed to tragedy which is why they are said to be in constant war with one-another. Indeed, where tragedy confronts the erratic fault lines and the wild and murky waters of thought and action, ethics seems to move in quite the opposite direction, towards clear and steady principles of order, restoration and preservation.

We might however want to consider the idea that both must be viewed in conjunction with one-another: tragedy in fact seems to represent a very important ethical category.

It has been said that we (post)modern people are, in important respects, not unlike people at the time of the Greek tragedians (6th BC). Unspoiled by later the philosophical persuasion to make reality fully comprehensible, they still went through and experienced the troublesome finiteness and tragedy of life and existence. In view of the history of ethics it could well be argued that since then this tragic awareness has been numbed and suppressed, until in our times this tragic consciousness has come to life again, demanding our renewed philosophical attention.

The starting point for our brief exploration is Plato’s introduction of the classical opposition of tragedy and ethics. In contrast to this strong and traditional position, we will explore the tragic philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche: his thoughts considering the presocratic birth and decline of tragedy and his hope for a future revival of tragic thought.

Both in accordance with Nietzsche and contrary to him, spiritual sources for the anticipated renaissance are then sought after within the sphere of modern religious thought: in the work of Søren Kierkegaard. Their work seems to inspire to the development of a tragic form of ethics, open to the dynamics of life and human existence: to an invention of justice as a creation of form that could well be called art.

Course objectives

By the end of this course, students:

  • Have been acquianted with some of the most important classical and modern philosphical-ethical positions;

  • Have learned to think both independently and together about the mutual relationship between thinkers;

  • Have learned to determine their own place in relation to the literature;

  • Have practiced explaining the texts read well, but have also practiced breaking away from the text in order to exchange ideas about their actual and practical significance in respect to ethics.


Check MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction


  • Number of (2 hour) lectures / seminars: 5

  • Names of lecturers: Dr. Timo Slootweg

  • Required preparation by students: reading list on Brightspace

Assessment method

Examination form(s)

  • Written assignment (100%).
    In the week following the end of the course, students will make a written assignment consisting of essay-questions. A non-passing grade ensures qualification for a re-sit.

Submission procedures
The written assignment has to be uploaded in Brightspace (Turnitin)

Areas to be tested within the exam
The examination syllabus consists of the required reading (literature) for the course, the course information guide and the subjects taught in the lectures, the seminars and all other instructions which are part of the course.

Reading list

Obligatory course materials

  • to be announced via Brightspace

Course information guide:

  • not applicable


  • not applicable

Recommended course materials

  • not applicable


Registration for courses and exams takes place via MyStudymap. If you do not have access to MyStudymap (guest students), look here (under the Law-tab) for more information on the registration procedure in your situation.

Contact information

  • Coordinator: Dr. Timo Slootweg

  • Work address: Faculty of Law, KOG, Steenschuur 25, Leiden

  • Contact information: Room A3.37

  • Telephone number: 00 31 (0)71 527 8934

  • Email:


  • Institute: Interdisciplinary Study of the Law

  • Department: Legal Philosophy

  • Room number secretary: A3.19

  • Opening hours: Mon – Fri 8.30 – 16.30

  • Telephone number secretary: 00 31 (0) 71 527 7548

  • Email: