Classics

Classics course offerings at Sarah Lawrence College include Greek (Ancient) and Latin at the beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels, as well as literature courses in translation. Beginning language students acquire the fundamentals of Greek (Ancient) or Latin in one year and begin reading authentic texts. Intermediate and advanced students refine their language skills while analyzing specific ancient authors, genres, or periods.

Ancient Greek and Roman insights and discoveries originated Western culture and continue to shape the modern world. Ancient artists and writers still inspire today’s great artists and writers. Greek and Roman ideas about politics, drama, history, and philosophy (to name just a few) broaden 21st-century perspectives and challenge 21st-century assumptions. Classical languages and literature encourage thoughtful, substantive participation in a global, multicultural conversation and cultivate skills necessary for coping with both failure and success. Because it is multidisciplinary, classical literature adapts easily to students’ interests and rewards interdisciplinary study. Classics courses contribute directly to the College’s unique integration of the liberal arts and creative arts, as developing writers and artists fuel their own creative energies by encountering the work of ingenious and enduring predecessors. The study of the classics develops analytical reading and writing skills and imaginative abilities that are crucial to individual growth and essential for citizens in any functioning society.

Classics 2021-2022 Courses

Intermediate Chinese

Intermediate, Small seminar—Year

This course is designed for students who have finished at least one year of Mandarin Chinese and for students who already have a basic knowledge of Chinese. The goal of this course is to help students to achieve intermediate-low level on the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) proficiency scale in Modern Standard Mandarin Chinese. Students will continue developing their communicative skills upon the foundation acquired. Students will reinforce and expand their language skills by reading, listening, discussing, and writing about topics related to daily-life events. By the end of the year, students will establish the ability to communicate in Mandarin Chinese to satisfy personal needs and basic social demands.

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Beginning Greek

Open, Seminar—Year

This course provides an intensive introduction to Ancient Greek grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, with the aim of reading the language as soon as possible. By mid-semester in the fall, students will be reading authentic excerpts of Ancient Greek poetry and prose. Students will also read and discuss English translations of selected works of Plato, Aristophanes, Thucydides, and Ps.-Xenophon. During the spring semester, while continuing to refine their knowledge of Greek grammar and their reading skills, students will read extended selections of Plato’s Apology in the original Greek.

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Intermediate Latin

Intermediate, Seminar—Year

See the full description under Literature: Can This Republic Be Saved? Cautionary Evidence From Ancient Rome. Intermediate Latin students will complete the reading assignments for the literature course and attend all literature seminar meetings. In place of an independent conference project, Intermediate Latin students will read selected works in Latin and attend twice-weekly Latin group conferences.

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Readings in Intermediate Latin

Intermediate, Seminar—Year

See the full description under Literature: Can This Republic Be Saved? Cautionary Evidence From Ancient Rome. Students will be exempt from the literature seminars and some reading and writing assignments but must attend the twice-weekly Latin group conferences. 

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First-Year Studies: Romanticism to Modernism in English-Language Poetry

Open, FYS—Year

In the first semester of this course, we will explore the work of major poets writing in English between the French Revolution and the American Civil War.  One of the goals of the course is to demonstrate the ways in which modern poetry originated in this period.  In the wake of the French Revolution, Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge invented a new kind of poem that largely internalized the myths they had inherited from literary and religious traditions. To put it another way, the inner life of the poet became the inescapable subject of their poetry.  In the second semester, we will trace the impact of their work on subsequent generations of poets writing in English.  Our preeminent goal will be to appreciate each poet’s—indeed, each poem’s—unique contribution to the language. Our understanding of literary and historical trends will emerge from the close, imaginative reading of texts.  Authors will include: Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Tennyson, Robert Browning, Christina Rossetti, Hardy, Frost, Yeats, and T. S. Eliot.  During the fall semester, students will meet with the instructor weekly for individual conferences. In the spring, we will meet every other week.

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Theatre and the City

Open, Large Lecture—Year

Athens, London, Paris, Berlin, New York...the history of Western theatre has always been associated with cities, their politics, their customs, their geography, their audiences. This course will track the story of theatre as it originates in the Athens of the fifth-century BCE and evolves into its different expressions and practices in cities of later periods, all of them seen as "capitals" of civilization. Does theatre civilize, or is it merely a reflection of any given civilization whose cultural assumptions inform its values and shape its styles? Given that ancient Greek democracy gave birth to tragedy and comedy in civic praise of the god Dionysos—from a special coupling of the worldly and the sacred—what happens when these genres recrudesce in the unsavory precincts of Elizabethan London, the polished court of Louis XIV, the beer halls of Weimar Berlin, and the neon “palaces” of Broadway? Sometimes the genres themselves are challenged by experiments in new forms or by performances deliberately situated in unaccustomed places. By tinkering with what audiences have come to expect or where they have come to assemble, do playwrights like Euripides, Brecht, and Sarah Kane destabilize civilized norms? Grounding our work in Greek theatre, we will address such questions in a series of chronological investigations of the theatre produced in each city: Athens and London in the first semester; Paris, Berlin, and New York in the second.

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The Forms and Logic of Comedy

Open, Small Lecture—Year

Comedy is a startlingly various form, and it operates with a variety of logics; it can be politically conservative or starkly radical, savage or gentle, optimistic or despairing. In this course, we’ll explore some comic modes—from philosophical comedy to modern film—and examine a few theories of comedy. A tentative reading list for the first semester includes a Platonic dialogue (the Protagoras) and moves on to Aristophanes’ Old Comedy (The Clouds), Plautus’ New Comedy, Roman satire, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, Molière, some Restoration and later stage comedy, and Fielding. In the second semester, we will read Byron, Stendhal, Dickens, Wilde, P. G. Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, and Tom Stoppard and also look at some cartoons and some film comedy. Both semesters’ reading lists are subject to revision.

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Studies in Ecocriticism: The Idea of Nature in the Western Tradition

Open, Small Lecture—Fall

As the capitalistic and predatory model aggressively promoted by the United States continues to reveal itself as a major threat to biodiversity and the environment in general, it is vital to understand the cultural and literary history of the concept of “nature” that is at the core of the Western and Judeo-Christian tradition while also putting that concept in the context of gender, race, and ethnicity in America today. For example, comparing stories of world creation from indigenous nations, with narratives taken from the Bible and from Greek and Roman classical texts, will allow us to better grasp how language in the European tradition functions as a deep divider between humans and other living creatures. We will also follow the development of the genre of the pastoral as an idealized construction of nature that deeply influenced Europe from third-century BC to 19th-century English and American Romanticism. We will try to better understand how the conception of wilderness in America is in close relation to the presence of enslaved black bodies on its land. Going in a different direction, we will analyze how contemporary feminism and gender studies provide crucially important models to invent new ways for the West to relate to nature. Animals will also be a focus of our discussions, from classical representations of animals as machines to the use of models like the burrow or territoriality imported from the animal realm by Deleuze and Guattari, to the possibility of shifting from a humanist understanding of nature inherited from European Renaissance, to new forms of ecocentric expression. These are some of the themes that we will cover in this lecture, with the goal of reading texts of the past in order to better understand the complexities of today’s discussions and debates about how to invent new forms of relating to the living environment around us.

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Milton, Blake, and the Bible

Open, Small Lecture—Fall

John Milton in the 17th century and William Blake in the late-18th and early-19th centuries forged fiercely independent poetics of visionary resistance to the trends toward intellectual materialism, religious conformity, economic mercantilism, and political authoritarianism that dominated the England and Europe of their periods. Both represented themselves as visionary teachers and prophets in a line of prophetic succession that began with Moses and included Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, and John, the writer of the Apocalypse. They founded their prophetic imaginations on what Blake called, “the sublime of the Bible,” the great epic of human liberation and imaginative inspiration. This course will provide readings of central biblical narratives and poetry and examine how Milton and Blake read, understood, and rewrote scripture in their major poetic texts in their prophetic expectation of changing the world and how we see it.

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Can This Republic Be Saved? Cautionary Evidence From Ancient Rome

Open, Seminar—Year

The democratic republic in the United States was modeled on the Roman Republic, for good and ill, and has lasted just 234 years. Our democratic republic is now under siege, both figuratively and literally, by forces threatening to replace it with a dictatorship or some form of authoritarian populism. The ancient Roman Republic lasted 450 years before imploding into a military dictatorship. The Roman experience shows that the introduction or reintroduction of violence into the political process—even if the aim is social justice—absolutely precludes any possibility of equity or justice. Since the collapse of the Roman Republic, history has shown repeatedly that political violence, if condoned and unchecked, inevitably produces not social justice but the atrocities and devastations of fascism or totalitarianism. This course will examine this and other lessons from ancient Roman literature and history that are vital for us today if we hope to survive and thrive as individuals, as members of various communities, and as a species. We will read (in English translation) and discuss selected works by Catullus, Cicero, Sallust, Appian, Plutarch, Horace, Livy, Ovid, and Cassius Dio.

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Toward a Theatre of Identity: Ibsen, Chekhov, and Wilson

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Year

Theatre emerges from social rituals; and as a communal exercise, theatre requires people to work together toward a common purpose in shared and demarcated physical space. Yet, the very notion of “character,” first expressed in the indelibly defining mask of the ancient Greek protagonist, points paradoxically toward the spirit, attraction, and trial of individuation. And so we have been given Medea, Hamlet, and Tartuffe, among the many dramatic characters whose unique faces we recognize and who speak to us not only of their own conflicts but also of something universal and timeless. In the 19th century, however, the Industrial Revolution, aggressive capitalism, imperialism, Darwinism, socialist revolution, feminism, the new science of psychology, and the decline of religious clarity about the nature of the human soul—all of these, among other social factors—force the question as to whether individual identity has point or meaning, even existence. Henrik Ibsen, a fiercely “objective” Norwegian self-exile, and Anton Chekhov, an agnostic Russian doctor, used theatre—that most social of arts—to challenge their time, examining assumptions about identity, its troubling reliance on social construction, and the mysteries of self-consciousness that elude resolution. The test will be to see how what we learn from them equips us—or fails to do so—in a study of August Wilson, an African-American autodidact of the 20th century, whose plays represent the impact, both outrageous and insidious, of American racism on “characters” denied identity by definition.

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Ancient Philosophy (Plato)

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring

This course will be devoted to a careful reading of one text. The goal of the course is twofold. First, it is designed to acquaint students in more than a superficial way with, perhaps, the seminal figure in the philosophical tradition. (The 20th-century philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, once remarked that the “safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.) This will force us to slow our usual pace of reading, to read almost painfully carefully, with a view to understanding Plato as he wrote and as he understood himself and not as a stage in a historical development. The second part of the goal of the course is to introduce and encourage this kind of careful reading. The text for Spring 2022 will be Plato’s Phaedo.

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Readings in Christian Mysticism: Late Antiquity

Open, Seminar—Year

This course will focus on the intersection of Jewish theology and Greco-Roman philosophy in the early Christian texts commonly seen to contain “mystical elements.” We will define these elements as texts that have to do with the desire on the part of the reader to “know,” experience, or “be with” God and with the author’s attempt to properly demarcate the boundaries within which those desires can be fulfilled. Christian mysticism is perhaps best thought of as erotic theology—theology that involves the desire for God. Recognizing this, we must also acknowledge that inherent to this theology is a profound paradox. What is desired must be conceived. It must be held in the grasp of one’s understanding in order to be attained. While this is fine for an orange, or even for wealth and power, it is much more problematic when the object of desire is God, the creator of the universe. Theologians in the early church developed a language of desire and specific sets of practices involving one’s lifestyle and prayer in order to resolve this paradox and fulfill their desire. They began to ponder this paradox with a synthesis of a biblical theology of divine revelation (i.e., the revelation of God as preserved in the biblical canon, symbolized in both the revelation of YHWH on Mt. Sinai and in the incarnation of the divine logos as Jesus of Nazareth) and Platonic expression of a desire for the ultimate good, truth, or beauty. In order to better grasp these ideas, we will be reading parts of the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels and will contemplate the anthropology of desire set forth by Plato in The Symposium and his Phaedrus. Educated in the Hellenistic world, the early church fathers took these ideas for granted and attempted to find common ground with their Christian inheritance. We will study the phenomenon of Gnostic Christianity, an early attempt at synthesis of biblical material and Greek philosophy. We will then move on to encounter the great early Christian writers like Origen and Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Psuedo-Dionysius, and Ambrose of Milan. We will conclude our study with a lengthy look at what, for Western culture, is the seminal work of Augustine of Hippo.

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To Hold the Unsayable: A Poetry Workshop

Open, Seminar—Spring

A true poem can’t be paraphrased. In bright and interesting language, a poem seems to hold the unsayable. That’s the miracle of it. How do we do that? In this course, we will immerse ourselves in the practice of the art of poetry, focusing on a specific aspect of the art each week: image, metaphor, diction, syntax, musicality, tone, etc. We will write a poem every week and read poems that will instruct and inspire us. (Poet Spencer Reece calls books of poems “Sacred Suitcases”—you can take them anywhere.) We will read each other’s poems. We will read essays written by poets. We will write observations in our journals. We will look at visual art, listen to music, watch films. If you have never taken a poetry class before, this class is for you. If you have taken poetry classes before, this workshop is for you. I ask for generosity of spirit, curiosity, respect, and commitment. We form a community of artists and, within that community, find support and strength. We will have a wonderful time.

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