The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas

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First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country

April 8th, 2021


Thomas E. Ricks | Military history columnist, New York Times Book Review

On Thursday, April 8, the Clements Center for National Security will host Tom Ricks, military history columnist for the New York Times Book Review, for a virtual book talk on his recent release First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country. Join us on Zoom at 12:15 p.m. CT. Virtual doors open at noon.


Thomas E. Ricks is an adviser on national security at the New America Foundation, where he participates in its Future of War project. He was previously a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and is a contributing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, for which he writes the prize-winning blog The Best Defense. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. Until the end of 1999 he had the same beat at the Wall Street Journal, where he was a reporter for 17 years. A member of two Pulitzer Prize–winning teams, he covered U.S. military activities in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq. He is the author of several books, including The Generals, The Gamble and the No. 1 New York Times best-seller Fiasco, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

For more information, contact Elizabeth Doughtie:

Clements Center for National Security


Click here for Conversations with Bill Kristol

 with Leon Kass on the Book of Exodus


"Sustaining Democracy" Reading Group

“Sustaining Democracy” is a new book club that provides UT students a space in which to read and discuss key thinkers and texts, both canonical and contemporary, that lay the foundations for democratic and ethical governance. Readings will highlight the specific ways that ethical and democratic governance is undermined by authoritarianism, tribalism, and political corruption. Interested students should email for any questions or to join.

For the Spring 2021 semester, we will complete How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, from the previous semester. Readings after that are TBD and will be updated here.

Participants are responsible for acquiring their own copies of the book. Meetings will usually be held on Thursdays at 5 pm; all meetings will be held via Zoom. 
The “Sustaining Democracy” book club is open to all UT students.  To join, register at:
For questions, please email Dr. Hina Azam at 

Thu 1/21: Kick-Off Meeting: No readings -- just a chance to meet and greet, as well as share thoughts about the presidential inauguration, the insurrection, and effort to overturn the election.

Thu 2/4: 
- Ch.8, Trump Against the Guardrails

Thu 2/18:
- Ch.9, Saving Democracy

Thu 3/4: Readings TBD

Tue 3/25: Readings TBD

Thu 4/8: Readings TBD

Thu 4/22: Readings TBD

Thu 5/6: Readings TBD
Please self-enroll in the “Sustaining Democracy” Canvas group for up-to-date information on readings, meetings, etc:

Leon Kass on the Book of Exodus

Dear Friends, 

What makes a people a people? What forms its communal identity?

The second book of the Bible, Exodus, tells of the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt, their journey through the wilderness, the giving of the law at Mount Sinai, the building of the tabernacle, and much else. Exodus and its abiding mysteries have been studied for millennia as a source for wisdom and understanding about theological questions as well as human affairs.

Joining us to discuss Exodus is Dr. Leon Kass, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago and emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Kass has just published Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus, a monumental work in which he considers Exodus in a philosophical spirit, and shares striking insights on its theology, anthropology, and especially its politics. In this Conversation, he reflects on what he has learned through his study of Exodus—and argues that, regardless of our religious affiliation or beliefs, Exodus has much to teach those who read it with an open mind.

This Conversation has also been added to the website devoted to the work of Leon Kass on Contemporary Thinkers.

To view the other Conversations that have been previously posted, click here.

This Conversation and all previous releases are also available as audio podcasts on iTunesStitcherGoogle Play, and Spotify.



Below are excerpts from the Conversation:

On the relevance of Exodus for understanding the nature of peoples and nations

KASS: I went to Exodus partly because I wanted to see what happened next. In Genesis, we see how after treating all humankind united, God sets out to find a toehold for his preferred way of life for human beings with Abraham. And it barely survives through the three patriarchal generations. And at the end of Genesis, the children of Israel are down in Egypt. And it’s going to be in Egypt where they go from family to nation and where the foundations of the nation are laid. So I started reading Exodus in the hope of trying to see: what is this national founding? And because I read the texts philosophically and not just historically, I’m reading it for its possible wisdom on the question of what makes a people a people? What forms its communal identity? What holds it together? What guides its life? What do the people look up to? What should they aspire to?

On how Biblical Israel has a particular task but a universal purpose

KASS: Israel is a particular nation, but with a universal teaching. And it's deliberately that way. When God takes up with Abraham to begin with, he says to Abraham, “All the nations of the world will be blessed in you.” Up until that point, God had worked with all humankind united. There was simple innocence in the garden. There’s anarchy and the regeneration of Cain and Abel. After the world descends into violence, you have a covenant with Noah. Restricted law, but that sort of falls apart. And then you have the great universal human city of Babel, which turns out to be not the right way. And it’s after that, that God gives up working with all humankind united and starts just with Abraham. But he hasn’t abandoned his universalist intention, even though he’s going about this, at this point, one man at a time.

Late in the Bible, Moses will say to the children of Israel about speaking about their law, “This is your wisdom in the eye of the nations. And any people who hears about this law will say that this is a wise and understanding nation.” I mean the view is that this is, it is for Israel, but somehow Israel is to be a model. They are said to be, they’re called to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. It’s not clear that they’re to be proselytizers, but in some way that there is something emblematic and something exemplary here that’s to go forward.

On the paradox involved in founding a nation

KASS: Part of the instruction is after the Exodus about the tell your child on that day, but even before they go out, they're told that ever after, they will celebrate this holiday, this Passover holiday by eating flatbread and not eating leavened bread, and whoever doesn’t do this will declare themselves outside. There are two [interpretations of this]. Do we eat matzah and tell the story to our children because God took us out of Egypt or did God take us out of Egypt so that we would eat matzah and tell our children to keep the memory of this beneficence alive from generation to generation, as if the knowledge of this story was indispensable to people formation.

And they go out of Egypt with their children and their children’s children on their mind and with the need to keep this memory in the forefront. The word freedom, by the way, and the word liberation: it occurs in the Haggadah and the holiday is known as zman heruteinu, season of our freedom, but in the Bible, it is not spoken of. The word freedom doesn’t occur. It really is from service understood as slavery and servitude to Pharaoh to a different kind of service to God, the service to whom will turn out to be a new kind of self-governance, a new kind of liberation from the internal passions that enslave us from within. This text has been used everywhere as a kind of model of national liberation, but that is not in the book.

On Moses’s political progression through the Book of Exodus

KASS: The biggest contrast is when the Egyptians pursue the Israelites the morning after [the departure from Egypt], pursue them to the Sea of Reeds, they complain to Moses, “Were there not enough graves in Egypt you sent us out here to die in the wilderness?” And Moses says, “Stand still, God will provide.” He basically says, pray. And God says to Moses, “What are you doing? Do what you’re supposed to do. Tell the people to walk, lift your staff.”

Moses there was basically saying, “God will do this.” Then with the Amalekites, Moses [plays a] kind of intermediate [role]. He’s up on the mountain and when he raises his hand, the people are inspired. They think he’s channeling divine power. They fight harder. By the time he finishes persuading God not to destroy these people, basically he’s acquired them. You pull somebody out of the river, they’re yours. So when he comes down from Mount Sinai and he sees for himself what he’s only had hearsay off and he sees how bad it is, he takes over and he invents a speech for God. He breaks the tablets. He’s absolutely on his own [acting politically].

On the tabernacle and the meaning of ritual practice

KASS: What I didn’t appreciate [before studying Exodus] was the way in which the tabernacle answers, not just to the wilder [human] impulses, but that those impulses are themselves an expression of the human need and the human desire to be in touch with what’s highest. That a law that restrains mutual wrongdoing or regulates the calendar is ok but is not enough. If people don’t have some answer to their higher longings, they’re going to fill it with woke politics and various other kinds of stuff, which doesn’t finally satisfy. And then the thing that really just blew me away, in the midst of the boring instructions about the building of the tabernacle, God says to Moses, “The reason I took up with them in the first place was that they should know me and that I should abide in their midst.” As if the tabernacle is not just for the people and that the people need to be in touch with something higher. The completion of God’s project of the whole creation is that he should be known by his people: by the creature made in his image. And not just once in a while, at Sinai—but through ritual communication on a daily basis.

On Passover and the connection between natural creation and political creation

KASS: When God gives the 10 Commandments, the reason for celebrating the Sabbath is the creation. “Six days, you shall labor. Seventh day, Sabbath unto the Lord because in six days, God created the world around us.” When Moses repeats [this] in Deuteronomy—Moses is the first rabbi in the sense that he makes the first oral law, and he changes all kinds of things—the reason given for keeping the Sabbath is because of the deliverance from Egypt. So there’s a connection between God, as creator, and God as deliverer from Egypt. And the cosmological, metaphysical teaching is given a kind of political valence just as the month of Nissan has been changed from an agricultural birth of spring to a holiday of deliverance, pointing towards law and service and worship.

I’m just sort of in awe of this holiday [of Passover] and of the people who’ve kept it alive under conditions of poverty, oppression, persecution. And just because we live under privileged circumstances like Egyptians, we shouldn’t take it for granted. And we should remember to whom we owe in the beginning and to our ancestors who’ve told this story so that we can tell this story, God willing, forever.

About Conversations with Bill Kristol.  Conversations with Bill Kristol is an award-winning online interview program hosted by Bill Kristol and produced by The Foundation for Constitutional Government. A forum for substantive, thought-provoking dialogue on pressing issues in the news and American politics, Conversations features informal discussions between Kristol and guests on a diverse array of issues of public concern from the American presidency and America’s role in the world to the ideas that have shaped Western civilization. Recent guests include Senator Ben Sasse, former world chess champion and human rights activist Garry Kasparov, Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Obama senior adviser David Axelrod, business founder Peter Thiel, best-selling author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, former commander in Iraq and Afghanistan General David Petraeus, former U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff General Jack Keane, and Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield. New conversations are released bi-weekly.

Users can access Conversations at to watch all conversations free-of-charge, read guest biographies, download podcasts and transcripts, and view additional footage.

About the Foundation for Constitutional Government. The Foundation for Constitutional Government is a 501(c)(3) educational organization devoted to supporting the serious study of politics and political philosophy, with particular attention to the Constitutional character of American government. The Foundation’s online programming includes Conversations with Bill Kristol, Great Thinkers, a comprehensive site devoted to political philosophers such as John Locke and Alexis de Tocqueville, as well as websites devoted to important Contemporary Thinkers such as Harvey MansfieldIrving Kristol, and James Q. Wilson.

Media contact:
Andy Zwick 
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