Article Image
Columbia Spectator Staff

Plato famously wrote in "The Apology": "An unexamined life is not worth living". If Plato is right, then Lit Hum encourages students and instructors alike to live a worthwhile life. Yeah, that's right, a worthwhile life. The official name of Lit Hum is Literature Humanities: Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy. Unsurprisingly, Lit Hum readings pose significant philosophical questions. What shapes a worthwhile life? How do suffering and loss play a role? What temptations lead us astray? How does the agency of human beings differ? How and why are some people (e.g., women, servants, slaves) denied agency? How do family, friends, or divine being(s) limit life's options? What role do family, friends, or even art play in a worthwhile life? In the end, what is a worthwhile life good for? The texts of Lit Hum offer radically different responses to these questions. The answers of the "Iliad" are not like those of Augustine's "Confessions" or Montaigne's "Essays," much less those of Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse." There is an intellectual challenge at the heart of Lit Hum. Why should we care about the bratty guys disagreeing with one another at the outset of the "The Iliad," and why should we engage with a culture that treats women like these brats treat Briseis? The challenge is to push through such offensive features to discover the sophisticated fictionalized world beneath. Once we acknowledge the complexity of the poem's moral universe, we are able to recognize its subtlety and beauty. In the poem's sixth book, we journey with Hektor out of the war zone into the comforts of Troy, and then join him in conversation with his wife, Andromache. Not only has Andromache lost her parents and siblings to an earlier war, but she sees clearly what will happen if Troy is defeated. In portraying her moral insight as she asks her husband to attend to the needs of his family and city rather than seek a warrior's glory, Homer offers a stark picture of what will happen if Troy falls. When Hektor admits that he cannot "shrink aside from fighting," we join Andromache in mourning the future devastation of this marvelous city and the certainty of her enslavement. As offensive as aspects of the story are to us, the losses, loyalties, and loves of this collapsing world are compellingly familiar. In the end, the poem does become a story about us. This tension between the unfamiliar and the familiar is the challenge of Lit Hum. The trick is to take seriously the remoteness of the values of our texts while recognizing ourselves within them. We have to walk a fine line. If we make our readings too much about us, we lose what they are; if we only examine them as archeological objects, their relevance for us today is diminished. But how exactly does all of this Lit Hum speak to Plato's point about the unexamined life? By asking us to explore a series of fictionalized moral universes, Lit Hum asks us to examine each carefully. We learn about different ways of being in the world, about different ways of living a human life. Not only do we compare these diverse universes, we eventually reflect on our own. The comparison between their values and ours elicits an analysis of our own lives. Before we know it, we are examining our moral universe and our place in it. If Plato is right and an unexamined life is not worth living, then Lit Hum does encourage us to live a worthwhile life. To help with our examination of Lit Hum texts, we have created a Lit Hum website. The Fall Semester's materials will be launched this Sunday, Sept. 12. The site has three main goals: to offer background materials related to the assigned readings, to include centuries of responses to Lit Hum works, and to build better connections between Lit Hum and other parts of the Core Curriculum. There are resources drawn from theater, music, dance, visual arts, and much more. Many of these are taken from the materials of Art and Music Humanities. For example, Bernini's "Rape of Persephone" is a striking marble rendition of the first lines of "Hymn to Demeter" while Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" offers an important operatic treatment of Book Four of "The Aeneid". One of the most exciting parts of the website is that it includes performances of plays (e.g., Peter Hall's production of Aeschylus' "Agamemnon"), musical responses to our texts (e.g., Luigi Cherubini's opera, "Médée"), and edgy pop-cultural renditions. Be sure you check out Hedwig (from John Cameron Mitchell's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch") singing Aristophanes' speech in the "Symposium," and Led Zeppelin's "Achilles' Last Stand." Lit Hum can impact our lives in profound ways. Our website increases the chances for self-examination by asking us to confront the unfamiliar and familiar and compare our responses to generations of readers. If we let it, Lit Hum will change our lives. If we let it, our snazzy new website will encourage us all to think differently about our texts and to examine ourselves in relation to them. Journey. Explore. Enjoy. Examine. The author is Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy and the Chair of Literature Humanities.

Lit Hum