Course Description

The world we live in has been decisively shaped by ideas, images, and modes of thought that developed in several parts of the world in the millennium before the beginning of the Common Era. The heritage of Moses, Homer, Confucius, Laozi, Isaiah, the Hindu sages, Gautama Buddha, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Vergil, Jesus, John, Paul, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Plotinus continue to shape our world; for they were key figures in civilizations that subsequent generations have regarded as “classical” — models on which they strove to model their own worlds. In this colloquium we will be examining these ideas and modes of thought in an effort to discern the themes which still inform our world, and so reclaim these ideas as classical for ourselves as well.

There are several key issues that run through earlier human civilizations; we hope to illuminate these discussions in our own encounter with thinkers who dealt with them. One of these is the question of how human knowledge originates, and how it is passed down; and whose responsibility it is to do so. Another longstanding human issue is that of the nature of human community: what is the community, and how is authority in the community understood? Who has authority, and on what basis? How is power understood, and how is it manifested? What is the family community? What does it mean to be male? to be female? In all of these discussions there arises in one way or another the question of what is the Ultimate; who or what are the powers that govern human and earthly affairs?

We hope that, by the end of the semester, you will have an understanding of some key texts of global cultures that are the foundations of the world we live in. These “classical” texts themselves arose out of earlier developments, and it will be helpful to understand that background as well. They represent answers, sometimes tentative and sometimes authoritative, to the questions which animated those cultures; many of these questions are still ones we grapple with, and our own understanding can be illuminated by seeing how others have dealt with them.

In dealing with these broad questions, we will also be working to develop habits of mind. We know already that you are curious; we hope to expand the horizons of your curiosity. In working with primary texts, you will be grappling directly with minds other than yours; part of the excitement of this effort is discovering how the world looks to others, and how that view of the world can directly challenge our own assumptions. In doing this discovery, you will need to pay attention, not only to what those texts say, but also to what they assume, and to what they do not think to say. This kind of critical thinking will give you a standpoint from which to analyze the validity of the writer’s argument, the strength of its evidence, the cogency of its ideas, and its connection to the social world from which it arises. In turn, you will be asked to reflect your understanding in different kinds of writing assignments which will allow you to think and communicate on paper. If you find writing still a challenge, you may want to look up the many resources our English Department offers.

Our work is a work in common; we are reading on our own, but also thinking together about what we have read. We will have to listen carefully to each other, realizing that each of us has contributions to what we are learning. We expect that the discussions we have in class are just the beginning of further conversations you have with each other outside of class as well; we need to pay attention, not only to the content of our conversations, but also to the ways in which we are engaging in them.