Charting a Course Through the Humanities

Ulysses (or Odysseus), mythical king of Ithaca, hero of Homer’s Odyssey, was shipwrecked on the island of Ogygia. Illustration by Joseph Noel Paton.

By LeRoy Lawson

The West in the World, Vol. 1, 3rd Edition
Dennis Sherman and Joyce Salisbury
Columbus: McGraw-Hill

Fleming’s Arts and Ideas, 10th Edition
Mary Warner Marien and William Fleming
Thomson Wadsworth, 2005

Greek Tragedies, Vol. 1, 2nd Edition
David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, editors
Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992

The Odyssey
Homer; Stanley Lombardo, translator
Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000

The Aeneid
Vergil; Sarah Ruden, translator
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008

Beowulf
Seamus Heaney, translator
New York: Norton, 2001

COURSE: Humanities 101: Ancient and Medieval Cultures
PROFESSOR: Lawson
REQUIRED READING: see above

The Milligan College freshmen who signed up for this unknown professor named Lawson had little idea what to expect. They’d been told he was very old, that he had had something to do with creating the humanities program (four-semester-hours-for-four-semesters) 40 years ago, and that he had taught some of Milligan’s professors way back then. That’s about it.

The visiting substitute adjunct professor of freshman humanities did know what to expect. A lot of reading. It would be a chance to research once more the fields covered in the course: history, literature, philosophy, theology, art and architecture, music, and the history of science up through the High Middle Ages. There would be, as I said, a lot of reading.

I devoted much of 2010 trying to get up to speed. I now had the excuse to do what I had talked about doing for several years: take a self-imposed refresher course in some of the world’s great literature. I haven’t been disappointed.

In case it’s time for you to brush up also, your initial reading list is at the top of this column.

History, Arts, and Ideas

The West in the World was the history text. On its pages we visited such places as Stonehenge, Lascaux, and the Fertile Crescent, with glances at ziggurats, Hammurabi’s Code, the Jewish diaspora, and early civilizations such as those at Sumer, Assyria, Babylon, and Phoenicia.

Ancient Egypt never fails to fascinate, especially when studied in connection with the Israelites’ flight from famine to find food there in Joseph’s time, and Jesus’ family’s flight to find safety there in Herod’s.

Then on through Greece, Rome, and Byzantium to the High Middle Ages. A great trip. (Head spinning yet? This is just the first book.)

Fleming’s Arts and Ideas, one of the course’s original texts, has gone through multiple editions and still is my favorite book on the subject of, well, arts and ideas. It was our other major text, replete with magnificent photos, charts, and text. Expensive, but beautiful.

A Whole Epic and Snippets of Philosophy

Homer’s Odyssey. When putting together the original syllabus we debated: Should it be Homer’s Iliad or Homer’s Odyssey? I’m grateful the later epic won. It’s an easier read and offers great discussion possibilities in Greek values like valor, courage, loyalty, hospitality, wit, and family. Lombardo’s translation makes the old tale come alive.

I wish we had been able to spend more time in Greek philosophy, but then there’s never enough time. We had to be satisfied with snippets of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; the classes were also introduced to various schools like Epicureanism, Stoicism, and their ilk. We didn’t master these teachings, but we did learn to say their names. You’ll want to dig more deeply than we did.

Ancient Stories, Current Dilemmas

I was eager to get to the Greek playwrights: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Way back in the fourth and fifth centuries BC, these geniuses were probing the mysteries of our psyches, pondering the roles of fate and the gods in ordinary human lives, and confronting us with fundamental questions we’d rather ignore, thank you.

When you are young, Prometheus Bound seems little more than a tedious poem about a god who suffers endless torture for befriending and rescuing humankind. When you are old, you read it less for the limited plot and more to understand why the good suffer, why the gods argue, and why fate seems to govern everything.

Sophocles asks similar questions of fate and the gods in Oedipus the King, one of the toughest of all tragedies to read or watch. And one of the most enduring. Sigmund Freud even named one of humanity’s most troublesome complexes after the protagonist. Sophocles’ Antigone takes on the theme of church and state relations before there was church. Just how much loyalty does one owe the government? The gods? The family? Why?

A dip into the histories of Thucydides and Herodotus raises the issue of historical truth: Can historians ever be objective? Can we ever really get to the truth of the matter, any historical matter? Victors write the records; can we expect them to be fair? We have no doubt that White House spin doctors and TV commentators skew their stories. It’s a little unnerving, though, to realize it has always been thus!

When in Rome you must read Rome’s story. Or at least the legend of its founding. I wasn’t eager to plod through Vergil’s The Aeneid again. I have always compared it with The Odyssey, and Homer has always trumped Vergil. This time was different, thanks to Sarah Ruden’s translation. She makes this literary epic come alive. Vergil (I learned to spell his name “Virgil,” but it’s Ms. Ruden’s book) wrote his poem as a tribute to Augustus’s Rome—and not incidentally to Augustus. That’s Caesar Augustus, who issued the order that all the world should be enrolled, so Joseph went with Mary . . . .

In Seutonius’s Twelve Caesars, we read his appraisal of Emperor Nero, a good exercise for people who believe there has never been a time as corrupt as ours.

From Ovid’s Metamorphosis we sampled morality tales like “Phoebus and Baucus” (moral: a long and loving marriage is possible and has its own reward) and Daedalus and Icharus (moral: adolescent rebellion is nothing new and has always had its own punishment).

Influential Volumes

We couldn’t ignore Augustine’s City of God, one of the most influential volumes by one of the West’s most influential writers. We didn’t have time to read the entire work, so had to be satisfied with just a selection. His Confessions had to wait for another day.

We did not read any of the Koran. We probably should have, even in a course on Western Civilization, but we were introduced to the major personalities and principles of Islam, which was born and rapidly expanded in this era. If our national leaders would try a little harder to understand this religion, their foreign policy decisions might be quite different.

The one book former humanities students are sure to remember from this semester is Beowulf. They aren’t alone. Several major motion pictures based on it have appeared in recent years. It’s a great tale in itself, but especially provocative because of its mix of Christian and pagan elements—a mix very much like our contemporary culture’s. Seamus Heaney’s translation is a work of art in itself.

Our last major personality was Francis of Assisi, the gentle friar who brought us the Franciscans. It was refreshing to renew acquaintance with this man who sought peace, not war, and whose power was spiritual, not militaristic. We had studied too many wars. Peace is better.

The semester is over and this column has come to an end. I have to go now. I have some reading to do.

LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.

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