Honors | Ideas and Experience -- Ancient
H211 | 0001 | Eisenberg

9:30A-10:45A    MW    SY 022
This section is an Intensive Writing course and requires registration in
COAS W333.

"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. Going well past the
usual beginning of great books courses as taught in the USA or Europe, I
want to start off with the GILGAMESH epic, which in its present form was
composed in the Near East sometime in the early second millennium 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 unusual 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 and a work from the Middle Ages in
which, in addition to letters from the philosopher Abelard, there are also
wonderful letters from his beloved, the nun Heloise. These different
authors 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, the
story of the flood in GILGAMESH is later echoed in the bible's account of
Noah and the flood, or when 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 where in the Roman poet Virgil serves
the author as his guide through the various divisions of Hell.
Although the latest of the works to be assigned in this course dates from
approximately 1300, at least many of those works have been creatively
appropriated -- have been "minded," if you like--but 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.
Course Texts:
Aristophanes, THE CLOUDS
Virgil, AENEID
Plutarch, PARALLEL LIVES (selections only)
------, BIBLE (selections from Old and New Testaments)
Abelard and Heloise, THE LETTERS
Dante, Interno
2 essays, 3-5 pages in length
final essay (as described above), approximately 10 pages
consistent attendance and participation in class.