Honors | Ideas and Experience - Ancient
H211 | 0001 | Don Gray

“What is Man?"

Mark Twain facetiously defined a "classic" as a "book which people
praise and don't read." Whatever people do in fact, genuine classics
have that status because people ought to read them; and the reason for
that "ought" is that great books, no matter when they were written,
continue to speak relevantly to persons in other, later ages. In this
course we shall read works which span an enormous period of human
history.  I want to start off with THE ODYSSEY, which in its present
form was composed around 700 B.C.; and I propose to end with the first
(and, undoubtedly, the most widely read) part of Dante's great DIVINE
COMEDY -- namely, the INFERNO -- which was composed around 1300.
Between that starting point and that end we shall look at a number of
famous works from ancient Greece and Rome, at selections from the
Bible, and then from several of the greatest works of the (Christian)
Middle Ages. In order that this course would not turn out to be yet
another one devoted exclusively to the works of "dead white males"
(however great those authors may have been), I have included also a
classic of Chinese Taoist philosophy; selections from THE TALE OF
GENJI (composed around 1000 A.D. by Lady Murasaki), one of the world’s
greatest novels as well as one of the earliest novels; and a work from
the European Middle Ages in which, in addition to letters from the
philosopher Abelard, there are also wonderful letters from his
beloved, the nun Heloise. All of the assigned readings address the
perennial questions of human existence: What is it to be a human being
really? Are we free to pursue our lives as we ourselves see fit? If
so, is there a best kind of life for all human beings? Is/are there
some divine being(s); and if, so, what is or ought to be our relation
to divine being(s)?

Not only does each of the works selected speak (eloquently, I hope) to
us today, but very many of them spoke also to later writers in the
group with which we shall be concerned. Part of what makes a work a
classic is that it becomes influential on or with later writers. It is
fascinating to observe this process of creative appropriation -- when,
for example, Homer's ODYSSEY (along with the ILIAD) becomes the model
for Virgil's AENEID, or when the speculative geography of the
underworld offered by Plato at the end of his dialogue known as the
PHAEDO appears in Dante's INFERNO, a work wherein the Roman poet
Virgil serves the author as his guide through the various divisions of

Although the latest of the mediaeval works to be assigned in this
course dates from approximately 1300 A.D., at least many of these
ancient and mediaeval works have been creatively appropriated -- have
been "mined," if you like—by much more recent authors, in the
nineteenth or the twentieth century. The final individualized project
for the course will, accordingly, be for each student to find, with my
help, some such relatively recent work (an obvious example is Joyce's
ULYSSES) inspired by one of the works which all of us will read and
discuss together, and to write a paper about the way(s) in which the
more recent work deals with material which it derives from one or
another of those much older books.  As an example of such creative
appropriation on the part of a twentieth-century author, our reading
and discussion of Sophocles’ play ANTIGONE will be followed directly
by a look at Jean Anouilh’s play of the same name.

Course Texts:
Virgil, AENEID
------, BIBLE (selections from Old and New Testaments)
various authors, EARLY CHRISTIAN LIVES
Murasaki Shikibu, THE TALE OF GENJI (selections)
Abelard and Heloise, THE LETTERS

2 essays, 5 pages in length
final essay (as described above), approximately 15 pages
final exam
consistent attendance and participation in class