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.

2020-2021 Courses

Art and Myth in Ancient Greece

Open , Seminar—Year

The spring semester (Intermediate) is open to students continuing from the fall semester or by permission of the instructor.

This course will examine the use of mythic imagery in the visual arts of the Greeks and peoples of ancient Italy from the eighth century BCE to the beginning of the Roman Empire. We will consider all visual artistic media—both public and private. We will focus largely on problems of content or interpretation, with special attention to the role of patronage in the choice and mode of presentation of the mythic themes. In order to appreciate the underlying cultural or religious significance of the myths and their visual expression, we will also examine the relation of the artworks to contemporary literature, especially poetry, and the impact of significant historical events or trends. Fall: Homeric and Archaic Greece. In the fall semester, we will examine the earlier Greek development from the Geometric to the Classical periods, focusing on the paradigmatic function of mythic narratives—especially the central conception of the hero and the role of women in Greek religion and society. Discussion will also concentrate key historical or political developments, such as the emergence of tyranny and democracy. Spring: From Classical Greece to Augustan Rome. The spring semester will examine the use of myth during the Classical period, focusing on the impact of the prolonged conflict with the Persian Empire and the great monuments of Periklean Athens. We will then consider Greek myth in the later Classical and Hellenistic periods and the absorption of Greek myth in the art of the Etruscans and early Romans. The course will conclude with the adaptation of Greek myth within the emerging Roman Empire.

Faculty

Intermediate Greek: The Perils of Passion: Ancient Greek Wisdom for Today’s Troubled Times

Intermediate , Lecture—Year

See course description under Literature.

Faculty

Readings in Intermediate Greek: Herodotus and Thucydides

Intermediate , Seminar—Year

This course will review grammar concepts, as necessary, while reading—in Greek—selected passages of Herodotus and Thucydides.

Faculty

Beginning Latin

Open , Seminar—Year

This course provides an intensive introduction to Latin grammar, syntax, and vocabulary with a view toward reading the language as soon as possible. Close reading of Vergil’s Aeneid in English will accompany intensive language study in the fall. By mid-semester, students will be translating authentic excerpts of Latin poetry and prose. During the spring semester, while continuing to develop and refine their knowledge of Latin grammar and vocabulary, students will read selections from the Aeneid in Latin.

Faculty

First-Year Studies: Mythology in Literature

Open , FYS—Year

In this course, we will define myths, broadly, as recurring narrative energy fields of great intensity and durability that supply cultures and persons with universal patterns by which to reflect on their origins and destinies. We will consider ways in which writers, primarily in Western literary traditions, have used certain mythic patterns—odysseys in the first term and metamorphoses in the second term—to explore their questions and concerns about the operations of the cosmos and the psyche, history, and morality. Those patterns provide both archetypal structures for the articulation of plot, and tropes for the implication of meaning, in literary texts. We will proceed chronologically through texts from ancient, through medieval and Renaissance, to Romantic and contemporary periods. Tracking the same narrative pattern through this sequence of literary periods will provide us with insights into the way literature represents changing understandings of the way the world is structured and the way that human mind and human culture engage with it. During the fall semester, students will meet with the instructor weekly for individual conferences. In the spring, we will meet weekly or every other week, depending on students’ needs and the progress of their conference projects.

Faculty

Shakespeare and the Semiotics of Performance

Open , Lecture—Year

The performance of a play is a complex cultural event that involves far more than the literary text upon which it is grounded. First, there is the theatre itself, a building of a certain shape and utility within a certain neighborhood of a certain city. On stage, we have actors and their training, gesture, staging, music, dance, costumes, possibly scenery and lighting. Offstage, we have the audience, its makeup, and its reactions; the people who run the theatre and the reasons why they do it; and finally the social milieu in which the theatre exists. In this course, we study all of these elements as a system of signs that convey meaning (semiotics)—a world of meaning whose lifespan is a few hours but whose significances are ageless. The plays of Shakespeare are our texts. Reconstructing the performances of those plays in the England of Elizabeth I and James I is our starting place. Seeing how those plays have been approached and re-envisioned over the centuries is our journey. Tracing their elusive meanings—from within Shakespeare’s Wooden O to their adaptation in contemporary film—is our work.

Faculty

The Perils of Passion: Ancient Greek Wisdom for Today’s Troubled Times

Open , Lecture—Year

With the permission of the instructor, qualified students may opt to take this course as Intermediate Greek and read selected portions of the text in Greek.

Are we unwittingly reliving the past? Authoritarianism, magical thinking, and tribalism are beginning to characterize the 21st century as they characterized archaic Greece. Over centuries, however, the ancient Greeks experienced a movement in the opposite direction: They began to prioritize reality, condemn tyranny, and experiment with broader forms of political participation. During the late sixth through fifth centuries BCE, ancient Athenians devised, simultaneously, the concepts of democracy and history. As the Athenians were experimenting with the world’s first-ever democratic political institutions, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides distinguished history from myth and offered examples of behaviors to emulate or to avoid. Today, those early historians can help us analyze facts, identify causes and consequences, and avoid the pitfalls of the past. Students will read, in English translation, Herodotus’ Histories and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, as well as selected works by Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristotle, and Ps.-Xenophon.

Faculty

Reading High Romantic Poetry (Blake to Keats)

Open , Small Lecture—Fall

This course focuses on the interpretation and appreciation of the most influential lyric poetry written in English in the tumultuous decades between the French Revolution and the Great Reform Bill of 1832. Over the course of two generations, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats invented a new kind of autobiographical poem that largely internalized the myths that they had inherited from literary and religious traditions. The poet’s inward, subjective experience became the inescapable subject of the poem—a legacy that continues to this day. We will be exploring ways in which the English Romantic poets responded to the political impasse of their historical moment and created poems out of their arguments with themselves, as well as their arguments with one another. Our preeminent goal will be to appreciate each poem’s unique contribution to the language.

Faculty

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

Open , Small Lecture—Spring

As the capitalistic and predatory model aggressively promoted by the United States continues to reveal itself as a major threat for biodiversity and the environment in general, it is vital to explore and understand the concept of “nature” at the core of the Western tradition and how it was shaped over the course of more than 2,000 years. This course will create a series of bridges between and among the history of literature, philosophy, and science, with implications for many other disciplines. Most importantly, we will discuss the Western and Judeo-Christian concept of nature in the context of race and ethnicity in America today by confronting it with works and arguments developed by Black, Indigenous, Latine, and Asian American authors. Among many themes, we will study how antiquity came to develop a concept of “physis,” so different from our modern understanding of physics, but also shaped our aesthetic eye with the creation of the pastoral genre and the idea of agreeable and tamed landscapes or set a model for a utilitarian relationship to nature with Hesiod and Virgil’s agricultural treaties. We will also analyze specific places, such as the forest in Medieval chivalric romances and American “wilderness” fictions, or chaotic landscapes admired and imagined by the Romantics, or the sea as depicted in Melville’s Moby Dick. The 17th-century scientific revolution and its mathematical and mechanistic approach to nature will lead us to discuss with Descartes the concept of animality in parallel with contemporary philosophers such as Deleuze and Guattari, who make use of models like the burrow or territoriality imported from the animal realm. Going into a completely different direction, we will question the characteristics of a Judeo-Christian conception of the world organized around a remote and immaterial god in direct opposition to a more organic understanding of nature as a “motherly” and immanent figure, with all of the reservations that such a figure implies. These are some of the questions that we will explore, and the focus of our discussions will be to bring new voices in order to deconstruct the Eurocentric concept of “nature.”

Faculty

Epic Vision and Tradition

Open , Seminar—Year

The epic is a monumental literary form that is an index to the depth and richness of a culture and the ultimate test of a tale-teller’s creative power. Encyclopedic in its inclusiveness, epic reflects a culture’s origins and projects its destiny, giving definitive form to its vital mythology and problematically asserting and questioning its formative values. This course on the emergence and development of the epic genre, from its oral origins to its modern and postmodern manifestations, will be organized around four central purposes. First, we will study the major structural, stylistic, and thematic features of each epic. Second, we will consider the cultural significance of the epic as the collective or heroic memory of a people. Third, we will examine how each bard weaves an inspired, yet troubled, image of visionary selfhood into the cultural and historical themes of the poem. Fourth, we will notice how the epic form changes shape under changing cultural and historical circumstances and measure the degree to which the influence of epic tradition becomes a resource for literary and cultural power.

Faculty

Imagining War

Open , Seminar—Year

War is one of the great themes in European literature. The greatest works of Greco-Roman antiquity are meditations on war; and as an organizing metaphor, war pervades our attempts to represent politics, economics and sexuality. Efforts to comprehend war were the genesis of the disciplines of history and political science; and the disaster of the Peloponnesian War forms the critical, if concealed, background to first great works of Western philosophy. We'll begin the first semester with readings from the Iliad, Thucydides, Plato, and Augustine and go on to study the Aeneid, Machiavelli, Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy and Hobbes. In the second semester, we'll look at the origins of political economy, among other things a discipline that sought to transcend the military metaphor; at Marxism, which remilitarized the language of political economy; at Byron's mock epic, Don Juan; and at two 19th-century novelists, Stendhal and Tolstoy—one of whom described war directly, and the other used it as an organizing metaphor for erotic, economic, and political life. We'll conclude with a look at some 20th-century literary, artistic, historical, and critical attempts to represent war with an allegedly unprecedented accuracy. This is an interdisciplinary course.

Faculty

Theory for Reading

Open , Large seminar—Fall

In this introductory class, we will deepen our understanding of how the acts of writing and reading have been understood in the Western tradition since antiquity and what they mean for us today. Each week, we will pair a piece of fiction or poetry with a philosophical or theoretical commentary. We will thus read Homer in the context of Plato and Aristotle’s understanding of poetry and fiction but with also in mind Nietzsche’s criticism of Platonism in The Birth of Tragedy. In the same spirit, Walter Benjamin’s use of Marxist theory will help us read E. A. Poe’s fiction and Baudelaire’s poetry in the context of mid-19th century Paris. We will also discuss Shakespeare’s Hamlet in light of its psychoanalytical readings by Freud and Lacan and analyze Kafka’s Metamorphosis alongside Deleuze and Guattari’s theorization of marginal forms of writing. Feminist and gender theory with Beauvoir and Butler, linguistics with Barthes, works by Foucault and Baldwin will also be discussed. Students will be encouraged to apply the material of this course to other texts of their choice. There are no conferences associated with this seminar, but students will have the option of developing a small personal research project.

Faculty

The First Philosophers

Open , Lecture—Fall

What is being? What is time? What is justice? What is truth? What is the best way to live, and should we fear death? More than 2,500 years ago in Ancient Greece, a tradition of asking this sort of questions developed under the name “philosophy,” which is Greek for “love of wisdom.” Veering away from the mythological and religious traditions that were dominant at the time, the first of the writers whom we now recognize as “philosophers” broke radically new ground for self-understanding and set the stage for modern scientific, political, and theological ideas. We will read the earliest surviving texts of this tradition, written by a group of authors who are now known collectively as the “Pre-Socratics.” (These include Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and the Ancient Atomists, to name a few.) These texts are fragmentary, as the full texts are lost. The ideas that we find in them are creative, inspiring, and often funny. Studying them is an opportunity to reflect about what “philosophy” means and an invitation, for us, to philosophize. This survey course is designed both for beginners in philosophy, for whom it would serve as an introduction, and for those more experienced in philosophy, who want to enrich their knowledge of its roots. We will accompany our readings of the first philosophers, with commentaries by later thinkers, including Friedrich Nietzsche, and occasionally by reference to non-Greek or non-philosophical sources. Group conferences will meet once every other week to engage later and contemporary commentaries on the Pre-Socratics and will involve a final paper project of the student’s choice.

Faculty

Nietzsche: The Philosophical Personality

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

What is my personality? What kind of personality is it? Do I have control over my personality? Is it something I am, or is it something I do? We will reflect on these questions with philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche as our guide. In one of his aphorisms, Nietzsche argued that the most important thing one can do is “give style” to his/her character. But what is “style” in this sense, and how does one “give” or develop it? In this course, Nietzsche will be our guide not only in terms of his ideas but also in terms of his example: his own “personality.” This does not simply mean his biography but, rather, his personality as it comes across and develops through his writing and his art. The course is, therefore, titled “philosophical personality”—the personality of a thinker and author. To this end, we will begin from Nietzsche’s earliest forays as a writer: his studies of Homer and Pre-Socratic philosophy and his groundbreaking theses on Greek tragedy. We will conclude by reading one of Nietzsche’s latest texts, his intellectual autobiography, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is. Conference work should engage the guiding question of the course—What is personality, and how does it develop?—through a prism of the student’s choice: work/s of literature, art, psychology, or philosophy.

Faculty

First-Year Studies: The Emergence of Christianity

Open , FYS—Year

There is perhaps no one who has not heard of the name of a seemingly obscure carpenter's son executed by the Romans around 33 CE. Why? The religion that we call Christianity shaped the Western world for at least 1,500 years. In this course, we will study the origins of this tradition. As we study those origins, we will explore Judaism in the strange and fertile Second Temple period (515 BCE–70 CE). We will encounter the learned societies of holy men like the Pharisees and the Qumran sectarians, as well as the freedom fighter/terrorists called the Zealots. Our main source will be the New Testament of the Christian Bible, though these sources will be supplemented by other primary materials. Excerpts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic literature, as well as other Hellenistic texts from that period provide the cultural backdrop in which Christianity has its roots. We will learn about the spread of the new movement of “Christians,” as they were called by their detractors in Antioch, from its roots in the Holy Land into the greater Greco-Roman world. How did that movement, which began among the Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean, come to be wholly associated with Gentiles by the end of the second century? Who became Christian? Why were they hated so much by the greater Greco-Roman society? What did they believe? How did they behave? What are the origins of Christian anti-Semitism? What kind of social world, with its senses of hierarchy and gender relations, did these people envision for themselves?

Faculty

Ecopoetry

Open , Seminar—Year

In this poetry class—a yearlong school of poetry and the living world—we will consider the great organism Gaia, of which we are a part. We will read and write poems every week. We will ask questions: When did we begin to think of nature as apart from us? Why did we begin to speak of the animals as if we are not also animals? What are the stories and myths that have determined out attitude toward what we are and what we believe? We will read some of these stories and myths (myths of creation, Eden, the lost garden). We will read the long and rich tradition of poetry addressing itself to this subject, from the early indigenous peoples through the Zen monks and Wordsworth and right up through Gary Snyder and to utterly contemporary poets writing right now. We will read books and articles that teach us about the other animals and living entities that we call plants and trees and planets and galaxies. Each student will research an aspect of the living world and teach the rest of us what they have learned. And we will write poems that incorporate that knowledge. We will read books of poems but also watch films, take field trips, and meet with each other outside of class in weekly poetry dates. By the end of the class, my hope is that each of us will have a greater understanding of the great organism that we call Earth and will create a collection of poems that engage the questions that our class raises: What is time? What is death? What is Eden? Where is the garden now? Who are the other organisms? How have we, as a species, affected the other organisms? How have we affected the oceans, the earth, the air? How can poetry address the planetary emergency? Required for this class: intellectual curiosity, empathy, and a willingness to observe the world, to pay attention, and to write poetry that matters. This is a class for experienced writers, as well as for those who want to give writing poetry a try. All are welcome.

Faculty

Poetry Workshop: Wearing a Mask: Persona Poems

Open , Seminar—Spring

When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person.—Emily Dickinson, in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

For centuries, poets have spoken in the voices of other people. From the early Greeks to Shakespeare, to Walt Whitman, to Emily Dickinson, to Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Robert Hayden, Lucille Clifton, Louise Gluck, Patricia Smith, Nick Flynn, Jorie Graham, Tyehimba Jess, etc. What is made possible when one speaks in the voice of a character that is not oneself? What is possible speaking through a character in an ancient story or myth? What is made possible when one gives voice to a character nothing like oneself? Who dares to speak in the voice of a flower? Of a bee? Of a storm? Of a star? What if one gives voice to the fragments of voices within one’s consciousness? In this class, we will read poems where the poet has spoken in a different tongue, or worn the mask of someone else, or of something else. Each participant will be expected to deeply read assigned collections each week, to meet with another student in a weekly poetry date, and to bring in one new persona poem each week. I hope we will find that outside the limits of the personal story is a cosmos of possibilities for empathy, revision, wonder, instruction, and finding another way in: slant.

Faculty