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reed magazine logoMarch 2010

A Farewell to the Iliad continued

It should surprise no one that the staff had grown unhappy with a syllabus that has increasingly seemed to embody outdated and ahistorical narratives about the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. Without in any way denying the world-historical importance of the cultural achievements, political institutions, and intellectual and material effects of Greco-Roman civilization, we think it historically misleading and intellectually irresponsible to imply that Greece and Rome came out of nowhere, that they owed no debt to other cultures, or that within the larger Mediterranean world there was no resistance to, negotiation with, or transformation of Greco-Roman domination. To be sure, we’ve been for many years trying to complicate the story of Humanities 110 with our lectures and with some ancillary readings. But we’ve never found a way to help our students see for themselves how texts and artifacts from other places within the same era can show the real complexity of cultural and political interaction and exchange. That’s what we hope to accomplish with this new syllabus.

Though it begins with Homer, the syllabus uses Odysseus to initiate a circumnavigation of the Mediterranean that recurrently attends to Egypt, to Israel, and to Persia, while maintaining as its central problem the unfolding development of Greece (with a necessary focus on Athens), the spread of Hellenism, and the eventual Romanization of the ancient world. We all recognize that this syllabus will not only challenge our students to make sense of a broader range of materials, but that it will also require of us a greater intellectual flexibility (to say nothing of new and difficult preparation). But most of us are convinced that the effort is more than worthwhile. To draw from an email I received just after we circulated a draft: I’m “scared,” this colleague said, but I think that this “promises to make it much easier to talk about cultural diversity and encounter, the major issues perceived by many to be insufficiently covered by the current syllabus.”

Of course this new syllabus doesn’t, and won’t, please everyone. Some think that it distracts from the essential task of setting out the fundamental texts and problems of the humanistic tradition; others think it doesn’t go far enough, that there’s something illusory and depressingly ideological about this effort to use the ancient world not just as a source for much of “our” own intellectual and political heritage, but also as a model of diversity and encounter that can be useful to students in the cross-cultural present of the early twenty-first century. Speaking just for myself, now nearing the end of my career at Reed, I think that this syllabus will let us carry forward the best parts of a wonderful tradition, that Humanities 110 in this new incarnation should remind us of some important and difficult truths: that in fact we all—at least all of us aspiring intellectuals—share a common heritage, foundational to our ways of thinking and governing ourselves;that this commonality, such as it is, came into being not naturally, but as the result of historically complex and ethically troubling processes; and that none of us can ever claim ownership of these cultural and political goods and facts, or unchallenged authority in their interpretation.

Inquiring minds may nonetheless wonder, will I miss the Iliad? Of course I will. The Iliad has a unique beauty and tragic pleasure; it directly enables certain questions about human value and the structure of the larger world that may be a little harder to raise with the companion epic (that we once also taught in the days before we realized that students just needed more time to absorb these difficult texts). But the Odyssey provokes its own important and morally complex questions, has other, equally compelling, beauties and pleasures; and seems on balance to do a better job introducing the new syllabus. But is there a chance that we’ll revisit this decision? At Reed, nothing is forever (except—so far—Humanities 110).

—By Robert Knapp

Robert Knapp is the Reginald F. Arragon Professor of English

The new Hum 110 syllabus

  • Aeschylus, Oresteia; Persians
  • Aristophanes, The Frogs
  • Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics and Politics
  • Augustus, Res Gestae
  • Callimachus, Aetia
  • Cicero, Second Philippic
  • Curd, ed., Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia
  • The Cyrus Cylindar in Kuhrt, The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources of the Achaemenid Period
  • The Book of Daniel [LXX]
  • Euripides, Bacchae;­ Medea
  • The Book of Esther
  • The Book of Exodus
  • The Book of Ezra
  • The Book of Genesis
  • Herodotus, Histories
  • Hesiod, Works and Days/Theogony
  • Homer, Odyssey
  • The Book of Job
  • Livy, Ab Urbe Condita
  • Lucretius, De Rerum Natura
  • 1 Maccabees
  • The Gospel according to Mark
  • Miller, Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses
  • The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians
  • The Epistle of Paul to the Romans
  • Petronius, Satyricon
  • Philo, Embassy to Gaius
  • Plato, Republic; Symposium
  • Plautus, Miles Gloriosus
  • Polybius, Histories
  • Rabinovich, The Contest of Horus and Set and Sinuhe
  • Sallust, The Jugurthine War/The Conspiracy of Sallust
  • The Satire of the Trades
  • Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind and Letter 47
  • Sophocles, Antigone
  • Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
  • Virgil, The Aeneid
reed magazine logoMarch 2010