Western Literary Tradition

Full Year Course
Open to 10, 11, 12
Range of Difficulty 1-3

1. Rationale

The Western Literary Tradition makes no claim to be comprehensive — in fact, the course is really an introduction to an introduction — but it is intended to be roughly a chronological study of some of the philosophical and literary themes that have contributed to the formation of what has been called “Western Civilization” or the “Western Tradition.” In future years, hopefully this course will make students realize how much they still have to read and learn. Thus, the course intends to provide some general foundation of works and ideas to give students a place to begin in their further study of literature and philosophy: to suggest some background and to raise some questions. In many ways, this is a quintessentially traditional curriculum; in others, the curriculum includes non-canonical authors and works.

There are, then, three more specific points about the curriculum. First, the readings try not to repeat or conflict with what is done in other courses students may take or have taken. What we may repeat — such as Oedipus Rex — is done because the way in which we will read the selection is fundamentally different from the way in which students have read the selection before. Second, the curriculum raises questions about the possible obsolescence of the course: that is, is Western Civilization or the Western Tradition dead, not just as an academic area but as an idea? If so, what, if anything, killed it? Is it still worth our time to study? Thirdly, an examination of the reading list will show that the traditional humanities curriculum has been dominated by aristocratic, white men; and that is an important issue in the course. We will discuss what the causes and effects of that bias may be; and, not only in connection with the writings of women but in all units, we will consider a feminist perspective as well as raise questions about the rest of the population not in possession of the dominant cultural, verbal and material resources.

2. Topics and Themes Emphasized

As suggested above, the course concentrates on some of the major themes of the culture: the nature of truth, the relationship of humans to God (or the gods), the issue of faith and reason, the nature of the idea of romantic love, the nature of the idea of political power, aesthetic issues of language and the nature of beauty, the nature of satire, questions of freedom, political and personal, issues of political economics, questions of Enlightenment, Romanticism, Realism, Modernism, and other cultural terms.

While this is not a philosophy course or course in moral theory, the question, “What is virtue?” is the central, critical question that anchors the course. The course will return to this question throughout the year. The students will re-evaluate the question, explore how the ethical concerns of writers and thinkers over the centuries stayed the same and how those concerns changed. Thus, the course, by design, is both cumulative and recursive: the students will continually circle back to what they have read before to place the current author and text in a larger context and reconsider what they have read and discussed earlier in the course.

3. Methods

The central activity of the class is discussion, with occasional brief background lectures. For the kinds of thinking (and synthesis of ideas) and questions raised, see “Rationale” and “Topics and Themes” above. In class, students are expected to do close reading of text, to think critically and logically about what they read, and to draw conclusions and make generalizations about their reading and the previous reading in the course.

See below for a sample assignment.

4. Expectations for Students

Reading: Students have nightly reading assignments from primary source material and some supplementary material. The number of pages required varies with what is being read: e.g., Pere Goriot: around 30 pages per night; Plato: around 10.

Writing: Students have regular formal and informal writing assignments: There are up to eight formal essay in the course. Usually these take the form of three-to-five page papers on each unit. In addition, there are short answer quizzes and writing prompts which are used to generate discussion. There may also be reading journal assignments. There is an examination at the end of each semester. Students are expected to have a notebook and to take notes on class discussions.

Listening and Speaking: There is careful discussion of the reading and the issues raised by the reading, as suggested above.

5. Reading List and Other Materials

In general, the following is the list of reading in the course. There may be some variation to the list:

First Semester

The Greeks (and Virgil):
“The Allegory of the Cave,” “The Apology,” and “The Crito,” Plato
Oedipus the King, Sophocles
The Nicomachean Ethics (Book II), Aristotle
The Poetics, Aristotle
The Aeneid (Book VI), Virgil

The Bible:
Genesis 1-22
Exodus 1-20
The Gospel According to Matthew
The Gospel According to Luke 15
The Revelation of St. John the Divine

from The Confessions of St. Augustine (Book II)
The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius
The Romance of Tristan and Iseult, trans. Joseph Bédier
from The Art of Courtly Love, Andreas Capellanus
from The Treasure of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pisan
The Seventh Seal (film) Ingmar Bergman
from The Inferno, Dante

sonnets, Petrarch
from The Decameron, Boccaccio
from The Lais of Marie de France
from The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione
from The Prince, Machiavelli
sonnets, Shakespeare
King Lear, Shakespeare

Second Semester

17th Century:
The Metaphysical Poets
from Pensées, Pascal

18th Century (Enlightenment):
Candide, Voltaire
“What is Enlightenment?” Kant

The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe
“The Sandman,” E.T.A. Hoffman
English Romantic poetry
Ourika, Claire de Duras

Mid-to-Late Nineteenth Century (Realism and Naturalism):
Pére Goriot, Balzac
from The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels
“Dover Beach,” Arnold
Hedda Gabler, Ibsen

20th Century:
from Civilization and Its Discontents, “Oedipus Rex” & “The Uncanny,” Freud
“The Dead,” Joyce
“In the Penal Colony,” Kafka
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot
poems, W.B. Yeats
“Saint Emmanuel The Good, Martyr,” Unamuno
The Stranger, Camus
“Albert of the Capitals,” Duras
“Existentialism is a Humanism,” Sartre
The Bicycle Thieves (film), DeSica
Waiting for Godot, Play, Not I, Beckett
“Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor
The Cave, Saramago

6. Bibliography

Even a short bibliography for this course would be difficult to compile. The following is merely a representative sample of books in each unit. See the teacher for further information; also see bibliographies for Biblical and Classical Literature, Shakespeare I and II, and Continental Literature.

The Greeks, Kitto
Plato at the Googleplex, Goldstein
The Hemlock Cup, Hughes
What Jesus Meant, Wills
What the Gospels Meant, Wills
Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman
Revelations, Pagels
Saint Augustine, Wills
Augustine’s Sin, Wills
The Closing of the Western Mind, Freeman
The Nature of Love, Singer
Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, Eco
The Medieval World View, Cook and Herzman
The Swerve, Greenblatt
The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Burkhardt
Brunelleschi’s Dome, King
Leonardo and The Last Supper, King
Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, King
The Roots of Romanticism, Berlin
The Realist Vision, Brooks
Darwin, Marx, Wagner, Barzun
Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, Glover
Four Cultures of the West, O’Malley
Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond

Sample Assignment:

Essay on The Enlightenment and Early Romanticism:
Length: 3-5 pages (900-1,250 words)

Choose one of the following:

1. Elaborate and develop your answer to the question previously asked in class: In the final analysis is the end of Candide optimistic? Pessimistic? Or, something else? Be specific.

2. With which character in Candide do you find yourself most closely allied? Pangloss? James? Martin? Candide? The Dervish? The Turkish Farmer? Someone else?

3. Write an extra episode of Candide in which Candide spends a day at L-S. Make sure it is consistent with Voltaire’s novella in terms of style and ethical concerns.

4. In your estimation, what does Candide add to our year-long discussion of virtue? That is, how does Voltaire’s novella define virtue? What does the book have to say about virtue?

5. Compare Voltaire’s vision in Candide with Kant’s vision in “What is Enlightenment?”

6. Choose one of your Werther journal entries and expand it into a fully developed, formal essay.

7. Compare the core principles of the Enlightenment with those core principles of Romanticism as they appear in several of the reading selections.

8. Compare the “brand” of Romanticism in Werther with the “brand” of Romanticism in “The Sandman.” Examine the key similarities and the key differences.

rev. 10/17

Comments are closed.