In a culture increasingly forgetful of its past, our Humanities curriculum is a rare opportunity: a deep immersion in the intellectual and imaginative sweep of the Western world, from Homer’s Greece to Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia—the works, events, heroes, catastrophes, and ideas that have shaped the imagination and worldview of the European and American tradition. Why literature, history, politics, and philosophy? Because studying these disciplines together cultivates both the intellect and the heart; our reason and our emotions. The powers of imagination and memory work together with the abstract intellectual faculties to provide an integrated understanding of our world. This is what we mean by poetic knowledge.
In the freshmen year, students are introduced to the mythical reasoning of the Greeks and their superb poetic realizations of gods and heroes in epic, tragedy, and comedy. The rise of Socratic philosophy takes place against the backdrop of the great wars—Persian and Peloponnesian—that define the cities of Athens and Sparta as permanent archetypes for the West. In the sophomore year, students come to terms with the rise of Rome, her imperial rule, and her implosion: all of which constitute the Roman inheritance in the Christian Middle Ages, especially in the works of Augustine, Boethius, and Dante. Juniors examine the works that both revived the ancients and moved beyond them in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, especially the writings of Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Milton. Seniors learn the meaning of the whole tradition as it comes through America—the Federalist Papers, Moby-Dick—and plunge into the dizzying twentieth century, including Eliot, Joyce, Faulkner, and O’Connor. As Wordsworth might put it, this tradition offers “glimpses that might make us less forlorn,” fostering hope for the future.
Because lyric poetry cultivates the imagination with special forcefulness, awakening a strong receptivity to the wedding of word and idea, students learn by heart more than thirty poems over their four years, such as Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” sonnets by Shakespeare, Donne, Wordsworth, and Keats, and Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”
In the works of the ancient Greeks, the Western mind achieves its first comprehensive self-understanding centered in the paradigmatic choices of the hero. This course begins with the mythological splendor of Hesiod and Homer. Hesiod’s Theogony unfolds the highly contentious order of the Greek gods, and Homer depicts the pathos and grandeur of mortal men in the Trojan War, which has a crucial importance for the gods themselves. Achilles in the Iliad and Odysseus in the Odyssey reveal two different versions of human excellence, one characterized by fearless openness and honor, the other by effective intelligence and the uses of deception. In one way, Achilles foreshadows all those who shine with absoluteness and clarity against their enemies, but in another, he anticipates the tragic heroes of Aeschylus and Sophocles, who become victims of their own greatness. Understood cynically, Odysseus might anticipate the cunning of Machiavelli, but he also positively foreshadows Socrates and the philosophic alternative depicted in Plato’s dialogues. The Greek heroes reveal the perennial tensions between fate and freedom, family and city, heroic duty and common happiness, death and the desire for immortality, that shape the classical tradition and that echo powerfully even in the modern soul.
|Homer||Hymns, Iliad, Odyssey|
|Aeschylus||Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides|
Classic accounts of two great wars dominate the second course on the Greeks. In Herodotus’s fascinating, semi-mythological account of the rise of the Persian Empire under Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, students see how the Greek opponents of Persia, especially Sparta and Athens, successfully defend their country’s liberty (490‒480 B.C.) against a tyranny with overwhelming odds in its favor. Thucydides shows the aftermath of Greek victory, when the Athenians and Spartans turn against each other as rivals for the mastery of Greece. His account of the Peloponnesian War (431‒404 B.C.) is not simply about a conflict between one city’s interest and another’s but an anatomy of perennial tensions between the oligarchs and the democrats, the few rich and the many poor. Set during the same war, the Dionysian comedies of Aristophanes present absurd but insightful proposals for peace between Athens and Sparta. Euripides’ Bacchae explores Dionysus as the symbolic figure of renewal and harmony as well as cruel destruction, while Sophocles’ Theban Plays depict the suffering and ultimate redemption of the incestuous parricide, Oedipus, in contrast with the tragic, untimely death of his young mother/sister who defied the polis in the name of a higher unwritten law. In the Apology, Socrates answers the comic but damaging attack on philosophy mounted by Aristophanes in Clouds. At the end of the semester, students turn to the question implicit in the context of endless war: what justice is and whether it is possible to achieve it. Plutarch presents the lives of two Greek lawgivers, Lycurgus and Solon, both of whom attempt to secure justice, peace, and stability, but by radically different statecraft. Both Plato’s Apology and Crito portray the perennial tension between truth and power, philosophy and politics, in the person of Socrates and the institution of the Athenian state. The year culminates in a careful reading of Plato’s Republic, with its considerations of the soul of the tyrant, the nature of the best city, the education necessary for it, and the hope offered by philosophy.
|Aristophanes||Clouds, Lysistrata (optional)|
|Plato||Apology, Crito, Republic|
|Sophocles||Oedipus the King, Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus (optional)|
Ancient Rome arose out of constant war. Early republican Rome defined itself by overthrowing its kings and establishing its military supremacy in Italy. Later, it came into its greatness as a Mediterranean power by conquering its great enemy, Carthage, in the three Punic wars. Its particular contributions to the West— discipline, pietas, reverence for the rule of law—reflect this martial spirit. Although Rome emerged as a great civilization through conquest, which St. Augustine in the City of God calls the “lust for domination,” it also received and made its own the cultural treasure of the defeated Greeks. Livy, Virgil, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, Ovid, and Plutarch all imagine Roman civilization explicitly in terms of the Greeks. Rome makes Greece its own in a way that becomes a model for Europe and America. The West would be unthinkable without Rome. Regimes as diverse as those of Charlemagne, the Russian Tsars, and the American Founding Fathers have all imagined themselves as its successors. More than that, the Roman Catholic Church still finds its center in the city whose history gave the Incarnation and the rise of Christianity its civilizational frame. This Christian appropriation of Rome becomes the foundation of the medieval West.
|Livy||History of Rome|
|Plutarch||Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans|
|Lucretius||On the Nature of Things|
|Cicero||On Friendship, On Duties, “Dream of Scipio”|
|St. Benedict||The Rule|
Early in his Confessions, St. Augustine expresses his dismay that, as a young man, he wept for Dido in the Aeneid but not for the state of his own soul. With this major work of spiritual autobiography, a new Christian vision emerges full-blown and with it a major new form that recognizes the necessity for a conversion or baptism of the order that has come before. The journey of Aeneas to found Rome becomes the journey of the soul to its new founding in God—the drama of conversion also glimpsed in the Christianization of northern barbarians by Rome. After considering the encounter with Lady Philosophy in Boethius, the course turns to the courtly tradition and the call of Beatrice in Dante’s Commedia, the fullest flowering of the medieval synthesis between the pagan past and the Christian present. In this great resurgence and reworking of the ancient epic, Dante is guided by the classical past in Virgil, and thus serves as the herald of the Renaissance. At the same time, the Commedia is the greatest literary expression of the medieval Scholastic mind, the poetic equivalent to Chartres cathedral or Aquinas’s Summa.
|Boethius||The Consolation of Philosophy|
|Dante||Commedia: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso|
Writing later in the same century as Dante, already influenced by Boccaccio and Petrarch, Chaucer stands at a pivotal point in literary history. On the one hand, he is already the shining evidence of a renaissance, a new flowering of Christian humanism. An intense interest in pagan antiquity and the poetic and Platonic traditions informs the great human comedy of his Canterbury Tales. But he also reflects, like the anonymous drama Everyman, the religious, philosophical, and social problems that plagued the close of the Middle Ages. Like Dante, Chaucer exposes and strongly criticizes abuses in the church and anticipates the religious controversies that arise over a century later. In this course, the focus turns to the period commonly known simply as the Renaissance, the last great flourishing of its kind in the Western tradition, standing Janus-like between the medieval and modern worlds, the age of faith and the age of secular reason. There is a new global sense, both a literal “new world” and a changed consciousness. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus captures the transitional state of the period. The writings of Luther and Erasmus reveal the great religious controversies that shape the age, and Machiavelli overturns classical political assumptions. With the plays of Shakespeare, the course culminates in the greatest works of the period, reflecting the nature of man in its heights and depths. Hamlet praises human nature almost without reserve: “how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!” Yet he also asks, “And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
|Erasmus||In Praise of Folly, On the Freedom of the Will|
|Luther||On the Freedom of the Christian, On the Bondage of the Will|
|Shakespeare||Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Henry V, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, The Tempest|
Although the period described as “the Enlightenment” is usually understood as the late 17th and early 18th centuries, it was already well underway in principle a century earlier. In 1610, John Donne looks around at his world and describes it in despairing terms: “’Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.” Instead of the stable, Ptolemaic, earth-centered universe known to Dante, there is a new de-centered universe, full of other suns and other planets. Aristotle has been discredited as an authority; new experimental models have challenged everything previously “known” about nature; Christendom has been torn apart; traditional orders in politics and religion are crumbling. Christian responses to this situation take complex forms. In Spain, the Catholic Cervantes imagines the inimitable Don Quixote, a man driven mad by reading too many romances and ironically venturing out as a figure of noble striving in a world stripped of its magic. The Protestant Milton, looking back to the classical epics, influenced by the New World, defeated after the Restoration of Charles II, reimagines Genesis itself in Paradise Lost, a work both modern in its own right and profoundly critical of new Enlightenment modes of thought, including the turn toward technology. Milton exposes the great sophistry of Satan’s “noble transgression”—the belief that the noble mind achieves freedom only by breaking the moral or spiritual law. After engaging potent illustrations of Enlightenment thinking or exposés of its inherent tensions in Voltaire, Pascal, and Pope, the course turns to the French Revolution and Burke’s great response. In Romanticism comes the first major reaction against the Enlightenment itself. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats display qualities of reverence for the natural world but also—especially in Byron and Shelley—a telltale defiance of God. Scientific attention centers upon great immanent forces—geological, biological, economic, and psychological—that decenter man and belittle his divine dignity. Observers like Matthew Arnold contend that humanity remains confused, isolated, and abandoned on life’s “darkling plain.” Only the minority opinion now holds, as in the poet Hopkins, that there “lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”
|Pope||Essay on Man|
|Burke||Reflections on the Revolution in France|
|Tolstoy||The Death of Ivan Ilych|
To understand the American tradition is to appreciate the social, cultural, and political traditions of four key civilizations: in the ancient period, the Hebrew, Greek, and Roman, and in the early modern period, the English. Having explored in the first three years the significant aspects of the societies in which Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London emerged as iconic cities, students are prepared well for understanding the significance of the society that found Philadelphia at its center in 1776 and 1787. Embodied in the Puritans, the older covenant tradition of the people of Israel provides a powerful point of departure for the American story. The course pays particular attention to the Puritan habit of self-governance, which Alexis de Tocqueville contends is the seed of American liberty. Jefferson’s Notes reveal the anxiety and dismay over owning slaves in a nation rooted in natural liberty; Jefferson’s agrarianism also provides an alternative view to an emergent individualism and commercialism. The Federalist Papers furnishes the constitutional morality behind the American contract. Lincoln ponders the integral connection between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, a tie that the founders articulate both through their earliest legislation and their written documents. The great writers of fiction take the American story into the depths of world myth. In his great American fable Moby-Dick, Melville imagines a ship–a regime, a civilization–taken captive by a quest for metaphysical retribution. In Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the journey of Huck and Jim down the Mississippi exposes both the greatness and the flaws of the American experiment in human liberty. Students come to understand that the American Tradition is wrought with many intrinsic tensions, exacerbated by place and pluralism, and yet leavened by America’s ancestry in the old Mosaic strain.
|Mayflower Compact, Massachusetts Body of Liberties, Puritan Writings|
|Jefferson||Notes on the State of Virginia|
|Virginia Declaration of Rights|
|The Declaration of Independence|
|The Federalist Papers|
|Tocqueville||Democracy in America|
|Lincoln||Temperance Address, Lyceum Speech, Cooper Union Address, Gettysburg Address, Second Inaugural|
|Twain||Adventures of Huckleberry Finn|
In the years when the Civil War was testing the fabric of the American republic, Fyodor Dostoevsky in Russia was engaged in a profoundly prophetic examination of the fruits of Enlightenment and Romantic thought in the modern world. His character Raskolnikov, thinking both as a utilitarian and a romantic, murders an old woman to see if he can step over the lines of traditional morality and become a benefactor of mankind. Like Dostoevsky’s character, Nietzsche dismantles both traditional morality and Enlightenment reason; he proposes stepping over all boundaries on the way to the übermensch, the superman. In this final course comes the most complete flourishing of modernity as well as the beginning of the postmodern world in which we live. The works of Conrad, Yeats, Joyce, and Faulkner show the Western imagination grappling with the challenge of a world that has lost touch with its central tradition. By the course’s end, two different paths emerge: on the one hand, the continuation of Nietzsche’s project, dismantling faith, reason, and the tradition itself; on the other hand, the impassioned confession of Christian artists, Flannery O’Connor, and T. S. Eliot, who respond to the collapse of rationalism with the renewed fusion of faith and reason and with the perennial witness of Christian life that has the potential to reinvigorate our world.
|Nietzsche||“On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense”; excerpts from Twilight of the Idols and Thus Spake Zarathustra|
|Freud||Chapter III from Civilization and Its Discontents|
|Heidegger||“The Question Concerning Technology”|
|Foucault||“Panopticism” from Discipline and Punish|
|Dostoevsky||Crime and Punishment|
|Conrad||Heart of Darkness|
|Joyce||“Araby,” “Counterparts,” and “The Dead” from Dubliners|
|Eliot||The Waste Land; Four Quartets|
|Poetry packet||Rilke, Yeats, Frost, and the Fugitive-Agrarians|
|Faulkner||Go Down, Moses; The Reivers|