Department of English
Choate Rosemary Hall
The Classical Tradition
Rev. Dr. Ned Gallagher
Hypertext Course Syllabus
Fall 2017 term
"Honor, Love, and Justice"
- inscriptions from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi
Goals of English 405
This term of The Classical Tradition explores the two core forms of classical Greek literature: epic and tragedy. We will consider works of history, philosophy, and art along the way to augment our consideration of the human condition as understood by the Greeks.
Ten foundational questions will anchor our explorations this fall:
what does it mean to be human?
what makes life meaningful?
how does the fact of mortality shape one's life?
what does it mean to be a hero?
are there anti-heroic virtues?
how important is honor? is it more important than love?
what is the nature of justice?
how are gender roles defined in classical thought? do these conceptions have any value today?
what qualities make one a good leader?
what is the appropriate relationship between the individual and the community?
Evaluation and Assessments
Your grade for the term will be determined as follows:
A summary of course policies and grading standards can be found online by clicking here.
Scholastic integrity is expected and required. It is an essentual part of academic life at Choate and beyond. All work submitted for this class must be your own. Copying or representing the work of anyone else as your own is plagiarism and cheating. This includes the unacknowledged word-for-word use and/or paraphrasing of another person's work, and/or the inappropriate unacknowledged use of another person's ideas. This is unacceptable in this class and prohibited by the school. All cases of suspected plagiarism, in accordance with school rules, will be reported to the Deans Office.
As a matter of departmental policy, a student is not permitted to utilize information from secondary sources in English classes at Choate without the explicit permission of his or her teacher. These sources, whether in hard copy or on the Web, are off limits, as we feel that learning--and, at times, struggling--to derive the meaning of a primary text on one's own is an essential mission of our department. This policy does not prohibit students from consulting online dictionaries or from accessing information about allusions and other cultural or historical references which might appear in a text; it does prohibit accessing material which in any way summarizes or interprets the primary text or the works of the author being studied. As mentioned above, an individual teacher may have occasion to encourage or to direct students to refer to particular sources. In such instances, students are obligated to cite properly any information or quotations appearing in their own written work.
Texts and Course Materials
You will need the following texts, all of which are available in the school store:
Homer, The Iliad. Translation by Robert Fagles. Penguin, 1998. ISBN-13: 978-0140275360.
Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon; The Libation Bearers; The Eumenides. Translation by Robert Fagles. Penguin, 1984. ISBN-13: 978-0140443332.
Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus. Translation by Robert Fagles. Penguin, 1984. ISBN-13: 978-0140444254.
We will read supplementary materials in this course, as well, available in digital format.
Decorum and Civility
Mutual respect and cooperation, during the time we spend together each week and the time you work on group assignments, are the basis for successful conduct of this course. The class is a learning community that depends on respect, cooperation, and communication among all of us. This includes coming to class on time, prepared for each day’s work: reading and assignments complete, focusing on primary classroom activity, and participating. It also includes polite and respectful expression of agreement or disagreement--with support for your point of view and arguments--with other students and with the teacher. It does not include arriving late or leaving early, or behavior or talking that distracts other students.
Technology and Electronic Etiquette
Please silence or turn off all mobile phones, tablets, and other electronic devices. If you have your laptop or tablet with you in class, I prefer you use it only occasionally to look up something related to our conversation rather than constantly surfing the Web or--even worse--checking your e-mail or Facebook or chatting with friends. Thus I expect laptops will remain closed most of the time.
Program and Workload
This course will be orthodox in its presentation: in general, you'll read something before each class meeting, and in class we'll discuss what you've read--what I call "Socratic discussion." You'll be expected to write a few short papers, take a test, and participate regularly in class. Reading quizzes will be frequent.
Every effort has been made to keep the length of daily assignments manageable. Many worthwhile assignments were abbreviated or scrapped from the syllabus altogether. It's important, therefore, that you commit yourself now to keeping up with what is included among the assignments below; you'll be expected to complete the assigned homework before each class.
Schedule of Meetings and Assignments
What follows is what we'll try to cover during the term. This schedule may be adjusted from time to time for any number of reasons. The homework for the next class is always the next numbered assignment unless you are told differently. You'll find each of the entries on the schedule contains some instructive questions and ideas you should consider in preparing for class; get into the habit of reviewing the syllabus carefully each night before you begin your reading.
1. "Stand And Unfold Yourself."
No assignment (other than completion of summer reading, of course). We'll spend the time in this class getting to know one another. The syllabus and other course materials will be introduced.
Unit I: Homeric Epic
We will start our journey together with a close reading of The Iliad, one of the foundational works of Western literature. We won't read the entire epic, but enough of it to introduce several of the major thematic undercurrents of this course. You'll also have your first crack at a critical essay, so we'll spend some time together working on the rudiments of such writing.
2. The Heroic Tradition I.
Read The Iliad, scroll 1. Pay attention to the singer's first words: what is this song about? What is the source of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles? Why does Agamemnon reject Chryses' plea? What makes Agamemnon a questionable role model as a leader? What are the qualities of a good leader? What are Achilles' weaknesses according to Agamemnon? How true is his argument? What does Achilles want? Is he wrong to challenge his leader publicly? Why doesn't he kill Agamemnon? Why does he submit to Athena? What lesson would a Greek boy learn from this confrontation of two powerful individuals? When should we yield in life? When should we insist on our personal honor taking precedence? How is Achilles portrayed differently at the Myrmidon shelters? Why does Zeus honor Thetis' request? How is Zeus portrayed? What is his relationship with the other gods? With humanity? What are the characteristics of Greek gods? What differentiates them from humans whose characteristics they seem to mimic? How does the second half of scroll 1--the quarrel between Zeus and Hera--echo the first half--the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles?
3. The Heroic Tradition II.
Read The Iliad, scroll 6. How is Troy portrayed? What will this city represent for future generations? Why does Homer depict the Trojans so sympathetically? How is Hector portrayed? How is he similar to Achilles? How is he different? What are the challenges of being a hero? When is it worth it to die for one's country? (Do you agree with the Roman poet Horace's line: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori"?) When is it a waste to sacrifice one's life for someone else's cause? Can a person betray his/her family by sacrificing his/her life for their country? What is more important in a person's life: career or loved ones? What makes Hector and Andromache's marriage an ideal one for Greek culture? Would their marriage be considered ideal in our own country and time period? How does their relationship contrast with Paris and Helen's? With Zeus and Hera's?
4. The Heroic Tradition III.
Read The Iliad, scroll 9. Why does Agamemnon propose that they return home? Is he testing his men, or does he lack the heart to continue fighting? Why is Diomedes allowed to challenge the king so openly? How do you interpret Agamemnon's acknowledgment of his mistake? Is he sincere? What does he mean when he says that he was "mad"? Is he responsible for his behavior? To what extend did the Homeric Greeks believe that humans are free and responsible agents? What undermines his apology? How does Odysseus attempt to convince Achilles to return? Why does Achilles soundly reject his appeal? Is he rejecting the heroic ideal by questioning the costs of war, especially the loss of his own life? Can one have a private or spiritual sense of worth, or are we what others think of us? Why is Phoenix's argument unconvincing, even to us? Does Achilles' angry pride add or detract from his heroic image in your opinion?
5. The Heroic Tradition IV.
Read The Iliad, scroll 16. Why does Patroclus rebuke Achilles for his withdrawal from the fighting? What specific charges does he make? How does Achilles defend himself from Patroclus' charges against him? Why is it a mistake for Patroclus to ask for Achilles' armor before he returns to the fight? Why is it a mistake for Achilles to agree to the request? What warning does Achilles give Patroclus about fighting in his armor? Why does Achilles allow the Myrmidons to return to the fight if he has prayed for the Greeks to be defeated? Why does Zeus want to intervene to save Sarpedon's life? Why doesn't he? Why does Patroclus disobey Achilles' instructions at the cost of his life?
6. The Heroic Tradition V.
Read The Iliad, scroll 18. How is Achilles transformed by the death of his beloved Patroclus? Does he now regret his semi-divine status? Had he made a mistake in opposing Agamemnon? in sending Patroclus out in his armor? How do we deal with the loss of those individuals--spouses, children, best friends--whose lives give our own meaning, especially when they end prematurely and tragically? Does Achilles re-embrace the heroic ideal when he decides to return to battle? Is he a better or worse person now? What two mistakes does Hector make? Why does he make them? lesson to Greek audience? Is justice important to the Greek gods? How comfortable would we be living in the world as conceived by the Greeks? How does the shield of Achilles--created by Hephaestus--comment upon the poem as a whole? What is its message?
7. The Heroic Tradition VI.
Read The Iliad, scroll 19. How heartfelt is the reconciliation between Achilles and Agamemnon? What motivates each in this scene? Whom does Agamemnon blame for his mistake? Why does he tell the story of Heracles? Why is a public reconciliation so crucial to Odysseus and the other Greeks? What is Achilles' mood as he heads into battle? Why is he willing to resume a war which he is increasingly finding questionable?
8. Period Test.
9. The Heroic Tradition VII.
Read The Iliad, scroll 21. Can we in any way justify Achilles' barbaric slaughter of Trojans in this book, especially the twelve young Trojans? Why does the River Xanthus become angry with him? Why does Achilles end up fighting the river? Which god steps in to save him? Why is Zeus delighted to see the gods engaged in all-out war against one another? How do the conflicts of the gods echo the human ones? Which Trojan prevents Achilles from taking Troy? How is he able to do so?
10. The Heroic Tradition VIII.
Read The Iliad, scroll 22. Why is it a costly misjudgment on Hector's part to fight Achilles outside the walls of Troy? Why does he reject the appeals of his family to come inside? Why does he feel that he must face Achilles, even if he must die in the process? How do we account for his flight: can he flee and still be heroic? Why does Hector fall prey to Athena's act of trickery? What is he forced to realize about himself in this climactic scene? Is he still a hero in the end despite his ignominious defeat? Is Achilles "right" to reject Hector's proposal? Why do the Trojans respond so emotionally to the loss of Hector? Who is the greater hero, Achilles or Hector?
11. The Heroic Tradition IX.
Read The Iliad, scroll 24. Why do the gods--especially Hera and Athena--hate the Trojans? What is Apollo's argument why Achilles' treatment of Hector is so objectionable? Why is Achilles' behavior a direct challenge to the gods? What is Hera's defense of him? How does Zeus reconcile this conflict? Why does Achilles accept Priam's appeal for Hector's body? Why does a Greek epic end with the death of a Trojan hero? Why does a poem about war end with a moment of peace and reconciliation? Does The Iliad glorify war? Condemn it? What values does this "Bible" of Greek culture communicate? Be prepared to identify at least five in class and why they are important.
12. Paper Preparation.
13. Paper #1 Due.
Unit II: Athens and the Tradition of Tragic Drama
We shift our focus to the so-called Golden Age of Athens and to a handful of the masterpieces of staged tragedy this society produced. Plays were performed as part of religious festivals dedicated to Dionysus. The great Athenian dramatists included Aeschylus and Sophocles (as well as Aristophanes and Euripedes, whose works we won't have time to explore). We will spend a bit of time considering the historical and philosophical contexts in which these works were created as well.
14. The Hero and Tragedy I.
Read Agamemnon, lines 1-358. What evidence is there in the watchman's speech that "something is rotten" in Argos? Why did Artemis call for Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, for favorable winds? Did Agamemnon make the right decision? What do you think he should have done? Read closely lines 177-184: What does this passage suggest about Aeschylus' view of the world? of man's relationship to the gods? of human suffering? What is the symbolism of the beacons announcing the end of the war? How is Clytaemnestra portrayed?
15. The Hero and Tragedy II.
Read Agamemnon, lines 359-765. Why does Aeschylus suggest that the Trojan War--although sanctioned by the gods--was evil? What challenge does the herald face in announcing the Greek victory? How does the herald "justify" the war despite its obvious costs? How does he unconsciously indict Agamemnon? Why does Clytaemnestra so openly mock her audience? How has she changed over the ten-year period of the war? Why did the gods punish the Greeks on their return from Troy? What is the source of evil for Aeschylus?
16. The Hero and Tragedy III.
Read Agamemnon, lines 766-1030. What is the response of the chorus to the return of their king? What are Agamemnon's "sins" or acts of folly? What is the purpose of Clytaemnestra's welcoming speech? Why does she insist that Agamemnon tread on the crimson tapestries? Why does he do so, especially if he is so apprehensive? With what historical figure would an Athenian audience be connecting him? How does the removing of his shoes symbolically reflect his situation? Why is the chorus so anxious; why do they sense an imminent disaster? How do their passages apply to Agamemnon?
17. The Hero and Tragedy IV.
Read Agamemnon, lines 1030-1712. Why is Cassandra fated to die along with Agamemnon at the hands of Clytaemnestra? Why should Troy's last ember be included in the ruin of the House of Atreus? Why does Cassandra despise her bondage to Apollo, yet submit to Agamemnon? Why did she recoil at the climax of her union with Apollo? symbolism? Why does she both fear death and find it liberating? What effect(s) does the murder of Agamemnon have on Clytaemnestra? How does she defend her actions? Was she justified in killing her husband? How is Aegisthus portrayed? How are his goals for Argos different from Clytaemnestra's? Is the chorus unjust in threatening to banish Clytaemnestra when they had allowed Agamemnon and his crime to pollute the city? Does the passivity of the people of Argos contribute to the ruin of the House of Atreus, or are they entirely at the mercy of their masters' fates? Is the human race "welded to its ruin"? Are we doomed to pay for the sins of our fathers? if so, why? What is the metaphor of the net that runs throughout this play? How can humanity escape this seemingly all-embracing net? How do the "chains of revenge" become "the bonds of justice"? What is Aeschylus view of man's relationship with the gods; is it the same as Homer's? Can we only learn through suffering? Is Aeschylus making a "god" of pain? Is the "violent love" of Aeschylus' gods similar or different to the love of the God of Abraham?
18. The Nature of Justice I.
Read The Eumenides, lines 1-571. In class we will review the plot points of The Libation Bearers, the middle play of the Oresteia trology, which we are skipping. Pay attention to the physical description of the Furies. What is Apollo's role as protector of Orestes? What is the nature of the conflict between Apollo and the Furies? Is there a generational conflict here?
19. The Nature of Justice II.
Read The Eumenides, lines 572-1057. Why is Athens the venue where Orestes' fate will be determined? What do you think of Athena's role in the proceedings? Is there a gender dynamic at play here? What is the role of the polis (Athens in this case) in the play? How do you feel about the final resolution of the trial? Of the fate of the Furies?
20. The Nature of Justice III.
No reading assignment. In class we will wrap up our discussion of The Eumenides.
21. The Golden Age of Athens I.
Read Pericles' "Funeral Oration" (excerpt from Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War). What was the purpose of Pericles' speech? How does the Funeral Oration perfectly represent the "humanistic optimism" of Athens during the Golden Age? What made Athenian society so ideal to Pericles? What was his concept of the relationship between the individual and the state?
22. The Golden Age of Athens II.
Watch Episode 3: "Empire of the Mind" from the Crucible of Civilization documentary series. What was the effect of the plague upon Athenian culture? How does it contrast with the culture depicted in the Funeral Oration? Why did the Athenians turn on Pericles? Was he a bad leader? Had he given bad advice on the war? How does he defend himself in his final speech? What is his new view of empire that he wants the Athenians to embrace? What were the consequences of Pericles' death for Athens? Why did Athens lose the war with Sparta?
23. Paper Preparation.
No class meeting. NG in Washington, DC with PS550 classes.
24. Paper #2 Due.
The assignment prompt for this 2-3 page paper is as follows: "Classical literature contains important insights for how we live our lives today." Respond with a narrowly focused thesis drawing on the works we have studied together this term (and any others you deem appropriate).
25. The Greek Anti-Hero.
Read Plato, "The Apology of Socrates." How does Socrates' defense of his conduct present an alternative to the archetypes of Achilles and Hector we discussed earlier in the course? What does Socrates value most? What does he think about his polis, Athens?
26. The Allegory of the Cave.
Read Plato, "The Allegory of the Cave." This allegory is foundational in the history of Western philosophy. This excerpt is brief, but it deserves a close reading. We will unpack it together in class.
27. Citizen and Society I.
Read Antigone, lines 1-899. What has just happened in Thebes as the play opens? Why does Creon refuse to give Polyneices a proper burial? significance? Why does Ismene refuse to disobey Creon's decree? Why does Antigone insist upon challenging it? What is the tone of the parodos? why? What are Creon's view of the state and the role of its leader? Why does he respond the way he does when challenged? What is the theme of Ode I? What view of government does the Chorus take? of the importance of laws to a society? What is the central dramatic conflict of Scene II? Whose argument do you find more compelling? Why does Ismene plead guilty? Why does Antigone reject her attempt to share in the blame? What kind of person is Antigone revealing herself to be? How does Ode II comment upon Scene II? Why doesn't the chorus sympathize more with Antigone than it appears to?
28. Citizen and Society II.
Read Antigone, lines 900-1470. What is Creon's argument for absolute obedience to the state in Scene III? his son Haemon's appeal to him? chorus' position in this father-son conflict? Why does Creon condemn Ismene but later spare her life? What is the subject of Ode III? What comment does it make upon the Creon/Haemon conflict? How has Antigone changed in this scene? why? Why does she compare herself to Niobe? Has Antigone chosen her fate, or is she cursed as the daughter of Oedipus? Why does the chorus find it difficult to sympathize with Antigone? How does Creon absolve himself of responsibility for Antigone? Antigone's response to Creon's decree? What is the common theme of all the myths referred to in Ode IV? application to Antigone? Why does Teiresias believe Creon should reverse himself? Creon's response? why? Why does Creon change his mind? is it convincing? Why is he punished so severely if he has recognized his error so quickly? Who holds more power, a reigning monarch or one individual who will not compromise with his/her conscience? Should one obey the state only when its commands are just? Which is the higher duty, to one's family or to the state? Who represents the greater threat to the well-being of the state, Creon or Antigone? Why? In light of the tragedy that follows from Antigone's actions, should impossible things not be tried at all? What has Creon learned from his mistakes? What is the relevance of any lessons learned?
29. The King's Fate I.
Read Oedipus the King, lines 1-953. How does Oedipus embody the Golden Age of Athens (mid-5th century) and in particular Pericles? Why might many Athenian citizens have thought that Oedipus was a metaphor for the excesses of Athenian culture during the "Golden Age"? How are the characteristics that made Athens/Oedipus so great the same ones that bring them down? (We will contrast Ode II of this play with the "Ode to Mankind" in Antigone.) How are Oedipus and Teiresias foils of one another? What evidence is there of Oedipus' slowly increasing consciousness of his guilt and identity? Why does Oedipus insist upon his pursuit of the truth despite many warnings not to from Tiresias, Jocasta, and, finally, the shepherd? Is he making the right decision? What does this play tell us about self-knowledge: is it blinding and debilitating, or the only path to freedom and true power?
30. The King's Fate II.
Read Oedipus the King, lines 954-1685. What does this play tell us about the role of fate in our lives--does Sophocles believe man possesses any free will? Do Oedipus' flaws explain his fate? What has he learned about himself in his unhesitating search for the truth? Does this play confirm or undermine the stereotype of a tragic flaw that accounts for the tragedy? Is there any justice in the universe, or does man suffer for no reason? Does Oedipus emerge triumphant over his fate? Is he a hero, or is he a defeated, diminished character as he is led off stage in the end, blinded and humiliated? Finally, what does this play suggest is Sophocles' attitude toward the gods? What bothers Sophocles more, the blindness or irrationality of fate, or the blindness and arrogance of man?
31. Paper #3 Due.
The prompts for a short (2-3 page) paper wrapping up our study of the tragedies by Sophocles:
1. Consider the roles played by Creon as a character in both "Antigone" and "Oedipus Rex." Is he portrayed consistently? Does he display the same attitudes and values when he becomes king? If there is change, how and why does it manifest itself?
2. Assess the extent to which gender roles contribute to the tragedy in "Antigone." Does the way Creon treats the three primary female characters in the drama reveal him to be a misogynist?
3. The gods do not have the same presence in the plays of Sophocles as they did in The Iliad. And yet their influence is arguably essential in both tragedies we studied. Discuss the importance of the gods (and/or Fate) in "Antigone" and "Oedipus Rex."
4. It might be easy to dismiss Eurydice and Jocasta as minor characters who share the same fate in "Antigone" and "Oedipus Rex." Are these two women merely victims of their husband's mistakes? Or do they display any agency of their own? How do they differ? How are they similar?
Syllabus copyright © 2017 Ned Gallagher. All rights reserved.
Last revised: November 13, 2017