What Hum 110 Is All About (continued)

The three lectures that we have chosen to publish in Reed are no longer part of the course, for the simple reason that their authors are no longer active members of the Reed faculty. The publication of these lectures is, thus, an especially meaningful development. In my mind, they are exemplary Hum 110 lectures, and they were certainly crucial in the development of my own understanding of the materials in question. David Reeve on the development of ancient thought, Ray Kierstead on the unfolding of ancient historiography, and Tom Gillcrist on the origins of ancient tragedy: for many years each of these lectures was immensely important in shaping and enriching the education of Reed students and faculty alike. Individually, they were landmarks of the course. Today, reading them together can provide a serious and stimulating, albeit selective, introduction to important aspects of ancient civilization.

Indeed, the high quality of these lectures and the range of topics they address suggest that they should be of value not just to undergraduates but to all students of the ancient world and of the Western humanistic tradition in general. They have been explicitly designed to bring serious scholarly materials to bear on very large issues of broad concern, and to do so in ways that speak to connections among a variety of cultural forms. As such, their appeal should be wide ranging indeed. 

The Principle of Density

Making sense of these lectures requires understanding that they were presented as part of a humanities course, understanding humanities here in a rather distinctive sense. Traditionally, Hum 110 has not been conceived as a Great Books course, though nearly all of the readings would by any standard qualify as great indeed. Similarly, it has not been regarded primarily as a history course or a course on Western civilization, though the syllabus obviously has a strong chronological dimension. At Reed, a humanities course is understood to be a multidisciplinary exploration of one or more social formations.2 It is an investigation of culture, viewed in its manifold representations and from a multiplicity of perspectives. The strategy is to examine at least some of the principal artifacts of the culture in question—including, though not limited to, significant and substantial works of art, literature, and philosophy—explicitly and systematically in the context of one another. Thus, for example, the Medea is read self-consciously in the light of Platonic philosophy, Platonic dialogues in the light of Thucydidean history, the Peloponnesian War in the light of Euripidean tragedy, and so on. The goal, at least in part, is to look for connections, and for differences as well, with a view toward characterizing the underlying unities and tensions, agreements and conflicts, of which a culture is composed.

Thus, for at least some faculty, and certainly for me, an essential, even defining feature of Hum 110 is what might be called the Principle of Density. The syllabus describes, in part, a dense, complex, multilayered, internally resonant structure of socioculture experience. Sometimes the resonance is explicit, often only implicit. But students in Hum 110 are encountering texts that have, arguably, very powerful, comparatively immediate, and multiple connections with one another: literary, historical, ideological, linguistic, philosophical, political, sociological. As products of a “single” social formation—single in the sense that it embodies a substantial degree of unity and continuity, even as it evolves over time—they resonate with one another in all kinds of ways. At least, that’s my hypothesis. The systematic exploration of this resonance is, in my opinion, an important feature of the course, an important part of what makes it a humanities course.

To be sure, density is not the only substantive feature of Hum 110. We want our students to learn how to read works of quality and influence; we want to expose them to some important and influential historical materials; we want them to tackle issues of perennial concern; and we won’t complain if, in the process, they acquire some erudition. To all this, the recently revised Hum syllabus—which is being taught for the first time this year— adds an important new element. For what I believe to be the first time, the core materials on ancient Greece are now being studied systematically in the context of broader developments and influences characteristic of the larger Mediterranean world. Scholars have long known that the Greeks did not live in utter isolation but were, quite to the contrary, active participants in powerful systems of economic, social, and cultural interaction involving, at various times, Phoenicia, Egypt, Persia, Rome, and many others. In an important sense, the richness of ancient Greece cannot fully be understood or appreciated without addressing the ways in which it both differed from and was also profoundly influenced by the diverse and substantial societies with which it came into contact. By introducing students to important elements of this interaction—by asking them directly to study, for example, Egyptian, Persian, and Hellenistic materials side by side with the materials of ancient Greece—the new syllabus reflects both important currents of modern scholarship and a new-found emphasis on crucial questions of cultural diversity.