Classics Course Descriptions

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Ancient Classics I: Plato & Augustine

“All of Western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato,” British philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead famously asserted. Through a guided reading of Plato’s masterpiece, The Republic, this course introduces the fundamentals of the best of Greek philosophy, its insights into the political mechanics of the individual human soul and of the city at large. We will give careful attention to Plato’s notion of the quarrel between philosophy and poetry (science and religion) against a backdrop of selected readings by the greatest of the ancient poets, Hesiod, Homer and Vergil. We will also investigate the distinctive visions of the “two cities,” drawing comparisons between Plato’s vision of the ideal city of man and Augustine’s hope for the City of God.

Ancient Classics II: Aristotle & Aeschylus

We complete our overview of the “Great Conversation” in antiquity by engaging heavily with the second of the two principal figures of ancient Greek philosophy, Aristotle. In this course, we examine Aristotle’s alternate understanding of the workings of the human soul and of human community, but we do so in the logical sequence he would have desired. We begin with Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, his methodical analysis of the human soul and of the virtues and vices it has the potential to express. Only then do we turn to Politics, Aristotle’s treatise on the cure of the soul. Finally, we engage with Aristotle’s two works on the means of sustaining political community—through persuasion. Rhetoric teaches us the strategies of persuasion by means of logical speech whereas Poetry teaches us the skills of persuasion by means of images that powerfully move the soul. From this new perspective and from reading the comic poet, Aristophanes, and the tragic poets, Aeschyclus, Sophocles, and Euripides, as contrasts to Plato’s philosophic Apology of Socrates, the concept of the quarrel between poetry and philosophy is further developed. We conclude the course with a reading of Augustine’s Confessions, which presents the divine redemption of the soul expressed by the City of God as a Christian alternative to Aristotle’s strictly political cure of the soul by the city of man.

Medieval Classics I: Aquinas & Machiavelli

With the third class in the “Great Conversation,” we move into the Middle Ages along with its rich synthesis of the classical and Christian traditions. We begin by examining the question of divine love. We compare Plato’s Symposium to Bernard of Clairvaux’s On the Necessity of Loving God and to Boethius’ On the Consolation of Philosophy. We also trace the Aristotelian background to this concept in selections from Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. Next, we encounter the revolt against both the classical and Christian traditions in Machiavelli’s Mandragola and Prince. We learn how Machiavelli’s vision informs Hobbes’ Leviathan, but we also investigate Shakespeare’s contrasting Christian vision of the ideal political state. We examine his condemnation of tyranny and his portrait of the founding of an ideal republic in The Rape of Lucrece, and we encounter his vision of the ideal Christian king in Henry V.

Medieval Classics II: Dante & Milton

This course offers a thorough examination of poetry in both its comic and tragic forms. The goal throughout is to learn the characteristic ways that poetry and dramatic images move the soul. We begin by comparing the nature of comedy in the classical and the Christian traditions. The tripartite comic world of Aristophanes’ greatest works—Frogs, Peace and Birds—opens up to us the world of Dante, whose Divine Comedy explores the tripartite cosmos of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso from a Christian worldview. As we progress, we learn to see how comedy as a genre corresponds to the overall trajectory of the story of Christian redemption. We then turn our attention to the characteristic features of the contrasting genre of tragedy. We compare Dante’s comic vision to Milton’s tragic Paradise Lost. Finally, we round out our exploration of drama in its comic and tragic forms by reading Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy (King Lear) and comedy (The Tempest) in order to answer once and for all Plato’s question of whether a single poet is truly capable of writing in both genres.

Modern Classics I: Thucydides & Tocqueville

In this course, we track the “Great Conversation” into modernity while focusing on the nature of democracy and its strengths and weaknesses, both in war and in peace. We introduce this topic by first reading Thucydides’ ancient masterpiece, The Peloponnesian War, which shows Athenian democracy in the motion of war and cautions us about the popular passions that lead to the loss of liberty. With this background, we turn to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which celebrates the strengths of a democratic regime in peace but which also warns us of the latent weaknesses that can lead to war and of the risks that come with that fatal choice. We track the development of the theory of the two cities into modernity as well. Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter exposes the reason for the failure of the Puritan City on a Hill while Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress gives shape to the modern vision of a Celestial City. We conclude the course by examining the tension between law and grace (legalism and liberty) inherent to democratic society. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice explores the politics of law and of grace in the democratic city of man. Luther’s On the Freedom of the Christian shows the power of grace over law for those who belong to the City of God.

Modern Classics II: Nietzsche & Dostoyevski

Our final course in the “Great Conversation” brings our discussion of political regimes and of democracy to completion by examining the founding and political development of the American Republic. We read the Federalist Papers of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay and consider their “new theory of politics” as the basis of constitutional liberty. We then examine speeches by Lincoln in order to see the role of rhetoric and poetics at work in a popular democracy. We also anticipate the rise of a post-modern culture by considering modernity’s rejection of the Western tradition of virtue in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, Twilight of the Gods, and Genealogy of Morals. Our program concludes with a study of our summative reading in the “Great Conversation,” Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, which weaves together all the major themes of the Western tradition we have emphasized throughout our program: free will and determinism, liberty and social constraint, virtue and vice, faith and reason, poetry and philosophy, and finally, the possibility of a heavenly city that gives hope to the earthly city.

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