Teaching Classic Texts in Literature, History, Philosophy, Theology, and Political Theory Contents

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Teaching Classic Texts

in Literature, History, Philosophy, Theology, and Political Theory

Part I. Greco-Roman Traditions 5

Part II. Abrahamic Traditions 12

Part III. Early Modernity 23

Part IV. The Enlightenment 33

Part V. Post-Enlightenment Thought 39

Appendices 51

1. Teaching Close, Critical Reading

2. The Secrets of Academic Writing

3. Grading Rubrics

4. Sample Self-Evaluation Forms

5. Sample Mid-Semester Evaluation

6. Literary Terms

7. Glossary of Christianity

8. Sample In-Class Writing Assignments

9. Sample Group Activities

10. Sample Paper Topics

11. Sample Mid-Term Exam

12. Sample Final Exam

13. Sample Handouts

The goal of a Columbia education, wrote one of the original Core Curriculum instructors, was not to prepare students for a career, but "to help them see life broadly." Established in the wake of World War I, Columbia’s core curriculum contained a core of knowledge that all students were to master. It also exposed students to the "best" that has been written or thought. Above all, it encouraged students to grapple with "the insistent problems of today" by exploring what major thinkers, writers, and traditions have had to say about the big questions—aesthetic, ethical, historical, philosophical, political, psychological, and theological. And it sought to cultivate those analytic, conceptual, critical, metacognitive, reasoning, and writing skills necessary to understand complex texts, explicate difficult arguments, recognize one’s own biases and presuppositions, and formulate and articulate one's own ideas and arguments in a clear, compelling, and coherent manner.

Literary Humanities and Contemporary Civilization provide all Columbia College students with a common intellectual experience that cuts across disciplinary boundaries. In an effort to overcome the superficiality and dilettantism that characterize too many "general education" curricula, these two year-long courses emphasize the close, rigorous reading of texts, intensive writing, informed and reasoned discussion, and the cultivation of one's own responses to key works in literature, philosophy, theology, history, and political philosophy and fundamental philosophical and moral issues involving certainty, evil, free will, freedom, government, human nature, identity, justice, leadership, and religious belief.

In this intensive seminar, you will learn how to lead substantive and inclusive discussions of these foundational texts; identify significant intellectual problems posed by those texts; and strengthen students’ analytical and writing skills.

The History of the Core

The debate over the value of a liberal education is not a new one. At the time that Columbia moved to its Morningside Heights campus and became a university, at the end of the nineteenth century, the institution was deeply divided over its mission. Should it emphasize undergraduate education or should it instead stress graduate and professional training and faculty research? Columbia's president, Nicholas Murray Butler, sided with those who favored an institution oriented toward professional training and research. In 1905 he proposed the Columbia Plan: Undergraduates should be able to enter professional schools after just two years of undergraduate study.

Unexpectedly, World War I led Columbia to commit its undergraduate college to a liberal education. In 1917, the year that the United States entered World War I, the U.S. Army asked Columbia to create a special course for the students participating in an army training program. The class, entitled "War Issues," sought to instill an awareness of the broad cultural values and moral issues at stake in the conflict.

Following the armistice, Columbia's faculty voted to establish a course to help students understand "issues of peace." Eventually named "Introduction to Contemporary Civilization," the course was designed to help students grapple with the pressing problems of the present, including imperialism, nationalism, internationalism, industrialism, and political control.

Lit Hum was designed in the late 1930s by Christian humanists who thought of paganism as a diversion in the moral history of the West that had to be overcome.

In 1988 the College instituted the extended core: two half year courses in major cultures or what is now called Cultures and Issues.

The Core Curriculum’s Objectives

Literary Humanities and Contemporary Civilization have four overarching goals:

1. To examine, closely and critically, how foundational works in literature, philosophy, theology, political theory and political economy have dealt with enduring questions.

These include such timeless questions as:

• What constitutes the good life?

• Does free will exist or are human lives determined by outside factors?

• Is there a Supreme Being? If so, what is this Being's nature? Does this Being intervene in human affairs? If this Being is good and all-powerful, how can evil exist?

• How do individuals know what they know? Are there limitations be to the human ability to think, perceive, and understand?

• What is good and what is evil? Who decides, and by what standards?

• What is the best form of government and the proper relationship between the individual and the state?

• What would a utopian society be like?

• How should the young be educated? Who should control education—parents, students, the state—and what are the goals of education?

2. To trace the origin, nature, and evolution of critical ideas and modes of thought and expression.

▪ The sources and development of such ideas as natural rights and just war.

▪ The creation of modern scientific reasoning.

▪ The legitimization of and challenges to capitalist ideas of possessive individualism, property rights, and competition in a commercial marketplace.

▪ The emergence of our contemporary moral sensibilities.

▪ Shifts in forms of literary expression, from the epic to the modernist novel.

3. To develop students' critical reading skills

One of the purposes of the core is to nurture a generation of readers: Student will interpret foundational texts critically, thoughtfully, and from multiple perspectives:

The aesthetic: asking how the author uses language, style, tone, and characterization to engage and manipulate the reader; identifying and interpreting the subtexts, deeper meanings, allusions, and symbolism within the texts; exploring what the texts tell us about the human condition (e.g., human nature, love, mortality); and analyzing how diverse schools of interpretation (e.g. feminist, psychoanalytic, Marxist, post-modernist) might interpret the text and how different readers might read and experience the text.

The dialogic: examining texts in conversation with one another.

The philosophic: analyzing how texts deal with fundamental issues of logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics.

The historical: situating and contextualizing texts.

The ideological: exploring the "political" orientation of the texts, including the ways that these texts deal with issues of gender, sexuality, race, and social class.

The ethical: assessing the moral implications of the ideas advanced in the texts.

4. To develop students' communication and rhetorical skills

Students will learn how to argue, reflect, and deliberate in clear, compelling, coherent prose and speech.

Required Reading:
David Denby, Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World
Helen Vendler, “Booby Trap”: A Review of David Denby’s Great Books
James Shapiro, “Core Mistakes”: A Letter in Response to Helen Vendler’s Review
William M. Chace, “The Decline of the English Department”
Stanley Fish, “A Classical Education: Back to the Future”

Calendar of Topics

Topic 1. Introducing Literary Humanities and Contemporary Civilization
What are the Courses’ Purposes?

Debating the Canon: The Core and the Culture Wars

Who are the Students?

Why are the Classics Classics?

Texts at War

How to Read Demanding Texts

How to Ensure that Students Come to Class Well-Prepared
Topic 2. Greco-Roman Traditions
Homer and the Heroic and Epic Traditions

Greek Philosophical Traditions: Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics

Greek and Roman Literary Traditions: Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Virgil
Topic 3. Abrahamic Traditions
The Hebrew Bible

The New Testament

The Qur’an

The Reformation

Topic 4. Early Modern Political and Philosophical Thought and Literary Expression

Hobbes and Locke

Dante, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Shakespeare
Topic 5. The Enlightenment
The French, German, English, and Scottish Enlightenments
Topic 6. Post-Enlightenment Thought and Expression
Defining, Criticizing, Analyzing, and Identifying Alternatives to Liberal, Bourgeois, and Commercial Society

The Birth of Modernism in Literature

Topic 7. Cross-Cutting Themes
Gender and Race in the Core Curriculum Readings

Is There Design, Direction and Meaning in History?

Shifting Understanding of Justice, the Good Life, and the Self

Shifting Attitudes toward Capitalism

PART I. Greco-Roman Traditions

The Iliad
The Iliad is not, as commonly assumed, the comprehensive story of the ten-year-long Trojan war. Key incidents in that war, including the story of the Trojan horse, do not appear in this epic poem. The focus, instead, is on Achilles and his rejection, for a time, of the authority of his commander, Agamemnon, and of the heroic code of honor.
In 2004, the German-born film director Wolfgang Petersen drew loosely on The Iliad as the inspiration for his film Troy. His Iliad, which one review described as “a rip-roaring action flick with lots of adrenaline,” was widely criticized for the director’s decision to expunge the gods and any hints of homoeroticism from the story.
But it was the director’s treatment of Achilles that attracted the most heated criticism. Not only is the Greek hero’s relationship with his friend Patroclus largely cut from the film, but the treatment of The Iliad’s key themes—of honor, revenge, heroism, mortality, and immortality—is undeveloped.

The Odyssey
The Odyssey provides the prototype for all subsequent odysseys in Western culture. Dante’s Inferno, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou draw on Homer’s tale to describe the tests, obstacles, and lures in a character’s path.
Homer’s epic poem is often treated as an adventure tale—with its vivid descriptions of Odysseus’s cunning and trickery and the dangers posed by Scylla and Charybdis, the temptations presented by the Sirens and Circe, and the threats presented by the Cyclops. But it is much more than this. It is literature’s first tale of post-traumatic stress disorder and a tale of homecoming and family reunification. It also explores the protean nature of identity, the dangers of hubris, and the complex relationship between fate and free will.
It is also one of the earliest works to describe in detail a character’s growth, development, and transformation. In its twin tales of Odysseus’s struggle to return home and his son Telemachus’s quest for his father, we see each character develop new qualities as they face immense trials and obstacles.


Plato has often been criticized as a dreamer and dealer in abstractions. His theory of human nature has been dismissed as fanciful, his politics as elitist and illiberal, his ideal “republic” a wellspring of theocracy, militarism, nationalism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism. His theory of knowledge strikes many as far-fetched, his notions of happiness and justice as unconvincing, his approach as dogmatic.
He is accused of extolling caste and defending military conquest. In his hostility to poetry and democracy, he seems like a grumpy aristocrat, quite unlike his mentor, Socrates, whose questioning spirit and resistance to state authority continues to appeal to readers two millennia later.
Yet it is precisely Plato's views--on justice, the sources of morality, the nature of happiness, and the well-ordered state--that make him worthy of debate.

The Republic
1. The Socratic Method: What are the elements of the Socratic method?
-- How would you evaluate it as a method to promote learning or to evaluate the validity of arguments?
2. Justice: What is justice?
-- Is it “paying one’s debts?” “Helping friends and harming enemies?” “Whatever is to the advantage of the stronger?”
-- How do people develop a sense of justice?
-- Why should people act justly?
-- Why do some people act unjustly?
-- Would people act justly if there were no repercussions?
-- Is a sense of justice universal, or is it simply a set of social convention or historically defined norms?
3. Where do we find meaning and fulfillment in life?
-- According to Plato, is it possible to enjoy a rich, fulfilling life focused on work or family or personal pleasure?
4. Politics: What is Plato’s prescription for an ideal society and the best form of government?
-- Would government be better if the wisest and most rational people ruled?
5. Democracy: On what grounds does Plato criticize democracy?
-- Is Plato a meritocrat or an incipient fascist who favors social engineering a repressive, authoritarian, and hierarchical society in which everything is regulated by the political classes who use lies for this purpose?
6. Education: What is the purpose of education?
How are Plato’s learning goals to be achieved?
7. The Arts: Is there ever any justification for censorship?
8. The Psyche: Is the psyche harmonious or an arena of conflict?
9. Epistemology: Can we trust the information we acquire through the senses?
-- Do people have innate capacities that allow them to learn?
-- Is it useful to distinguish between the visible (or sensible) world and the intelligible (that "deeper reality") which can only be known through contemplation and analysis?
Activity: The Trial of Socrates

No one teaches Aristotle’s biology, chemistry, or physics today. Indeed, despite his stress on empiricism and observation, Aristotle fostered many misconceptions that held back the development of science for centuries. At the same time, many of his ethical views strike us as repellant, especially his view of women and his belief that some people are “natural slaves.” The British philosopher Bertrand Russell claimed that “almost every serious intellectual advance has had to begin with an attack on some Aristotelian doctrine.”
And yet, Aristotle remains well worth reading, especially his conception of causality, his view of human beings as political animals, and his discussion of what it means to lead a good life. It can be argued that every subsequent work on ethics and political philosophy can be read as a dialogue with Aristotle.
The Ethics
1. Comparing Plato and Aristotle: Both Plato and Aristotle had enormous impact on subsequent thinkers and it is important to understand what ideas would be drawn from their work.
-- Is it fair to say that while Plato is otherworldly, impractical, and mystical, Aristotle is pragmatic, systematic, and practical? That one is an idealist, the other a realist? That while Plato speculates, Aristotle observes and catalogues? That while Plato tries to develop an all-encompassing system, Aristotle refuses to lay out unifying universal principles?
2. Human purpose: What, according to Aristotle, is the ultimate purpose of human existence?
-- Is it pleasure? Honor? happiness? And, if so, what does he mean by happiness? Is it the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, fulfillment of bodily desires, a subjective feeling, a state of mind, an emotion, or something else?
-- Does it make sense to distinguish between instrumental goods (like prosperity or self-sufficiency, which are means toward an end) and intrinsic goods (like eudemonia—flourishing or living well--which is an end in itself)?
3. Virtue: According to Aristotle, "men are bad in countless ways, but good in only one" (II. 6).
-- In ancient Greek, the word virtue doesn’t have religious connotations, but rather, means excellence. For Aristotle, people aren’t born virtuous. Virtue must be learned and practiced.
--Virtue, according to Aristotle, helps humans to flourish and attain their ultimate purpose. How would you respond to his argument that the highest virtue is intellectual contemplation:

...if happiness consists in activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be activity in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be the virtue of the best part of us....it is the activity of this part of us in accordance with the virtue proper to it that will constitute perfect happiness, and it has been stated already that the activity is the activity of contemplation, because the intellect is the highest faculty in us...

Whenever we advise someone to avoid extremes, take the middle ground, or take all things in moderation, we tap into Aristotle's ideas. What do you make of Aristotle’s claim that moral virtue consists of habits of action performed according to the golden mean?
4. Friendship: Few contemporary philosophers write about friendship. Why does Aristotle include a discussion friendship in his treatise on ethics?
How do your friendships at college differ from those in high school?
Are romantic relationships friendships in Aristotelian terms?
In Aristotelian terms, has the Internet and social networking affecting friendships among your generation?
Can unequals be friends?
The Politics
1. Politics: What does Aristotle mean when he calls human beings political animals?
-- What, according to Aristotle, is the purpose of politics? Is it the struggle of individuals and classes for power, a mechanism for maintaining order, security, and liberty, or is it something else altogether?
-- Is it desirable, as Aristotle believes, for all citizens to be actively engaged in politics?
-- Do either Plato or Aristotle recognize “civil society,” a sphere that exists apart from the state which include civic and social organizations?
2. Government: How is the polity best organized?
-- What is Aristotle’s ideal system of government? To what extent might he agree with James Madison’s ideas? What might Aristotle think of the U.S. system of government?
-- Is it a legitimate concern of government to shape character and promote virtue?
-- How might people best avoid the dangers of tyranny, oligarcy, and despotism? The danger of revolution?
3. Equality and Inequality
-- Given that people differ in their strength, aptitude, interests, education, and other characteristics, is the notion of equality meaningful or is simply an empty signifier?
-- Is social hierarchy rooted in “natural” differences?
-- Is it necessary for some people to perform menial tasks so that other scan engage in higher forms of culture?
-- How should society assign people to various occupations?
4. Acquiring Goods: Aristotle distinguishes between natural and unnatural methods of acquiring goods. What is the difference?

Stoicism and Epicureanism
A recent best-seller, entitled Affluenza, by a British psychologist named Oliver James, argued that advertising induced obsession with money, possessions, appearance, and fame has resulted in a sharp increase in depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and disappointment. The question of happiness – what it is and how it can be best achieved and maintained – is an old one, and one addressed in especially thoughtful and provocative ways by two classical thinkers, Epictetus and Epicurus.
While suffering seven-and-a-half years of imprisonment and torture in a North Vietnamese prison, the American prisoner of war James Stockdale succeeded in maintaining his sanity by embracing the ideas of the Greek philosopher Epictetus, who counseled self-control, radical resignation to the will of the universe and indifference to the physical world. These ideas were also portrayed in the blockbuster sword-and-sandals epic Gladiator. In the 2000 sword and sandal epic Gladiator. in the year 180 a.d., the film casts Russell Crowe as a general who is reduced to slavery by the emperor's evil son but stoically fights his way back to honor, winning the love of the emperor's daughter and freeing Rome from tyranny in the process.
Today, the word “stoicism” is often taken as a synonym for “unemotional” and “detached.” To be "stoical" is have a stiff upper-lip. Stoic-like adages pervade contemporary culture:
Don’t worry. Be happy.
Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’
Stoicism counseled self-control, radical resignation to the will of the universe and detachment from the physical world. According to the Stoics, wealth or good fortune or good health were fleeting. Only virtue could provide true happiness. Christianity absorbed a great deal of Stoic thought.
Stoicism regarded evil as a mental error. It involves an emphasis on reason and a rejection of misplaced desires and passions. It counseled self-control, radical resignation to the will of the universe and indifference to the physical world.
Stoicism can be seen in part as a counter to individualism, since, in its view, the well-being of an individual and of others is one and the same, and the good of the whole is superior to the pleasures of an individual. It is a philosophy that emphasizes the tyranny of the body and of desires.

Today, the word “epicurean” means a life devoted to hedonistic pleasure, luxury, and sensuous enjoyment. It is a view of life summed up in the bromide: "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die." It's a life of unbridled libidinous lifestyle.
This is a far cry from the philosophy of Epicurus. Epicureanism promoted seeking pleasure; however, the pleasure to seek was not bodily pleasure but rather pleasure for the soul; ataraxia, the absence of disturbance, is most important; Epicureans worked to free themselves from distractions of the outside world.
The ancient world's foremost materialist, Epicurus wrote and taught extensively on the nature of matter and particularly on atoms and their laws of motion, and on sensation and perception. Although he didn't deny the existence of gods, he rejected the power attributed to them by myth, and the notion that they actively interfered in human life. It is not accidental that the historical materialist Karl Marx wrote his doctoral thesis on Epicurus and Democritus.
Epicurus's materialism led him to downplay the significance of death. "Death means nothing to the wise," he wrote, "since every good and every evil lies in sensation; but death is the absence of sensation."


• How do Epictetus and Epicurus define happiness?

• Do you agree with Epictetus that people can be happy even in the most trying circumstances?
• What do Epictetus and Epicurus tell us about happiness can be best achieved. What do they consider the essential ingredients of happiness? Which of the following are most likely to contribute to happiness: health, money, fame, success, friendship, freedom (including freedom from stress and anxiety), self-sufficiency, and time for contemplation?
• Is happiness a luxury available only to those who are rich, talented, successful, or beautiful? Or is it within the grasp of all of us?
• Does consumer capitalism increase depression, depression, and disappointment?
• Was a modern philosopher correct in terming Epicureanism "largely negative, escapist, self-protective and therapeutic"?
• What do you think of the idea that pleasure is achieved not by fulfilling desires but by mastering them? Should pleasures be husbanded and should people be content with what they have?
• What is your opinion of the Stoic notion individuals are only a very small aspect of a greater whole and therefore individual disappointments and triumphs do not matter very much-the idea expressed in Casablanca that "in this crazy world, the problems of three little people do not amount to a hill of beans"?
• Is it a proper role for philosophy to be a "medicine" for the mind?
• Was Epictetus right that even if human beings can't control their circumstances, they can control how we react to those circumstances?
• Is it best for people to resist displays of intense emotion?
• Why was Epicureanism, unlike Stoicism, repudiated by Christian theologians and not assimilated into Christian thought?

The Aeneid

The national epic of the Roman empire, The Aeneid is also the story of a hero’s epic journey, from the smoking ruins of Troy to Carthage and ultimately to Italy, where his descendants would found Rome. Written following some two decades of civil war, after Octavian, Caesar’s adoptive son, succeeded in consolidating his control over the Roman empire, The Aeneid is often read as a celebration of empire and an effort to give Rome a noble pedigree.

Yet in fact the poem’s message is richer and more ambiguous. Combining elements of The Iliad and The Odyssey—including both epic battles and an individual’s journey—The Aeneid examines the price of empire. Deeply allegorical and overtly moral, the work looks closely at the conflicting claims of duty and honor, and makes clear that to fulfill his destiny, Aeneas must slough off the allure of the flesh. Among the key themes explored by Virgil are vengeance, human responsibility, and the cost one pays to achieve one’s mission in life.
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