How Should We Live? Answers from the Ancient World
The middle centuries of the first millennium BCE were a time of radical upheaval in civilizations across Eurasia. Philosophers and sages from Greece to China challenged traditional modes of thought and worked to imagine radically new ways that individuals and society might flourish. We, too, find ourselves in a time of upheaval—politically, environmentally, and now coping with the shock of a global pandemic. In this course, we will read some of those ancient texts with modern eyes and ask whether the answers those thinkers found might fruitfully apply to some of the questions we face today. We will consider texts and authors from ancient Greece (Plato, Aristotle, Sextus Empiricus, Diogenes of Sinope), India (the Upaniṣads and the Buddha), and China (Confucius and Zhuangzi) that ask probing questions about what it means to be human and how we can find peace and happiness in a turbulent world.
“Know Thyself”: Knowledge and Self-Knowledge in Literature and Philosophy
Since its beginnings, philosophy has understood itself in comparison with literature—and more often than not in competition with it. In Book X of Plato’s Republic, the philosopher Socrates alludes to an “ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy and argues for the banishment of poets from his ideal philosophical republic. This ten-week course takes Plato’s argument as a focal point: we will work to understand why he wanted to banish poetry, whether he was right to do so, and what lessons we can draw from this argument today. In the process, we will ponder the sometimes competing claims of philosophy and literature as sources of wisdom. In addition to writings by Plato, we will read Sophocles’ great tragedy Oedipus the King and consider more recent responses to the question of what, if anything, we can learn from literature.