This course, the first of a year-long sequence, is a reading course in ancient and classical civilization. We will be reading a number of texts that are considered essential in the study of civilization and its later development. The course will range over a broad selection of topics, perhaps beginning with the idea of civilization itself. What is civilization, what values do we place upon it and how can we study it? Since Humanities 111 deals with the ancient world per se, we will then move on to texts produced in the ancient civilizations of the Near East and the Mediterranean. We will study literary texts that ancient societies produced in order to give shape to their thoughts on the nature of human existence, ranging from the important genre of heroic epic, to drama and philosophy.
Throughout all of these different texts, a few central questions and ideas will demand our attention. Among these, we might mention: “How does the ancient individual situate himself or herself in the external contexts which make life either meaningful or meaningless?” These include his or her natural world and the forces of nature themselves, in contrast to the culture in which he or she lives. These questions will be viewed as of central importance in many of the texts we will read together. They are questions that bother Gilgamesh, Achilles, Antigone, Plato and Freud, and each text has different points to make about them.
In addition to the question of the individual and society, another interesting topic of study one may consider is the founding and reformation of a “tradition”. This is a point that is most clearly seen in studying the texts from the ancient Greco-Roman world we will be looking at. Homer’s poetry, even to the ancient Greeks themselves, was seen as the first and defining moment of their culture. This vision of a culture, we will see, is then carried forward, modified and reacted to in later works. As a culture progresses, it sees itself as going beyond the limitations of the traditional, and “new” forms of social organization and expression emerge. How such a tradition is built up over time, how and in what ways it is modified as time passes, are also issues we will be able to trace, both in the texts of this course and in Humanities 112.
The course has a few central objectives, and it may be of use to comment on these from the outset.
First: it is hoped that you will read the texts we have selected, not in short excerpts, or through the filter of some paraphrase, but rather to read them for yourselves: to learn to evaluate them and appreciate them on their own terms, and to discuss their significance intelligently with your classmates and your instructor. Thus this course demands from you the employment of certain skills: careful reading, critical thinking, and intelligent expression (both verbal and written). Your own active engagement with these texts is thus essential to your success in this course.
Second: you will be reading, perhaps for the first time, works that have for better or worse been given the label of “classics”. These texts and the ideas they contain have influenced generations of thinkers throughout the centuries. They are, in short, worth reading, and are an essential part of any university student’s program of study. It is hoped that by reading them and following the connections between them, CCI students will benefit by developing a clearer sense of how and why the modern world developed.
Third: reading of major thinkers and discussion of challenging questions goes beyond providing a merely professional training. The skills you will develop by thinking, talking and writing about the materials in this course are obviously not job specific, but are certainly crucial for a successful career
in any field and, more importantly, for a fulfilling life. Hopefully, your work in this course will help you deal critically, effectively, and creatively with the cultural, political, ethical, social and economic issues that you will confront in your own lives.