Honors | Ideas & Experience I (HON)
H211 | 14444 | Paul Eisenberg

MW 1:00-2:15pm

"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, selections from a wonderful novel by a Japanese
woman (Murasaki Shikibu), 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 wherein 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 "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.

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

2 essays, 3-5 pages in length
final essay (as described above), approximately 15 pages
consistent attendance and participation in class