School of Athen by Raphael

LBST 203/303: The Highest Things

General Description:

It would be wrong to say that all the ancient Greeks and Romans valued what are, in this course, identified as "the highest things": friendship, geometry, and images of divinity. But it is certain that a small group of Classical writers, thinkers, and artists articulated and celebrated the importance of these things in ways that have been much talked about throughout Western history and are still worth talking about today. In this course, we will continue that conversation. In the first module, we will discuss key ancient texts on friendship as well as some modern texts that reflect on similar themes. In the second module, we will trace the mind of Euclid by practising his geometrical proofs, and then we will look briefly at some modern ideas about post-Euclidean geometry. Finally, we will look at ancient and modern images of gods and goddesses and their houses, and then we will create art works of our own--three-dimensional "temples" in which visual language will convey ideas about the sacred.


Seminar Participation: 35%
Friendship Module Project: 30%
Geometry Test: 20%
Temple and Write-Up: 15%

Description of Modules:

Module One: Ancient Texts on Friendship

We use the word "friend" often. However, when we begin to think about friendship, it quickly becomes clear that friendship can only be defined within a larger context of value: what we think life is and, in particular, a good life is, will be the "scene" in which we identify friends. For example, if we see the pursuit of pleasure as the ultimate purpose of life, then we might be inclined to define friends as those with whom we share pleasure. In this part of the course, we will look at several ancient texts on friendship and some modern reflections on ideas raised by those texts. We will look closely at ideas about friendship in the texts, make comparisons among the texts, and try to develop ideas about friendship that reflect or are appropriate to our modern "scene". Some questions that might arise in our discussions include "is there a difference between friendship and love?", "can a bad person be a friend?", and "are friends necessary to a good life?"

Text : Module One of LBST 311 Reading Package (available in the VIU Bookstore).

Week One: Introduction to LBST 311
Week Two: Plato, Symposium
Week Three: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics , Books 8 and 9
Week Four: Cicero, "On Friendship" (selection); Buddhist Scriptures (selection)
Week Five: Lucian, Toxaris: A Dialogue of Friendship
Week Six: Simone Weil, "Friendship"; C. S. Lewis, "Friendship" (selection); Elizabeth Bowen, Letters to William Plomer and Virginia Woolf
Week Seven: Martha Nussbaum, "Love and the Individual: Romantic Rightness and Platonic Aspiration" (Final Assignment for Module One Due)

Assignment : You may write a formal paper (which may or may not be a research paper) on some aspect of our discussion in this module, or you may want to experiment with the dialogue form, presenting two or three characters engaging in thought-provoking discussion and argument about friendship. Please note that the length of the assignment for students taking the course at the second-year level is different from that for students taking the course at the third-year level: second-year students' papers will be approximately 1200 words, while third-year students' papers will be approximately 1700 words; second-year students' dialogues will be approximately 1500 words, while third-year students' dialogues will be approximately 2000 words.

Module Two: Geometry

Session One: Discussion of Euclid's Elements, Book One (available at VIU Bookstore)
Session Two: Student Demonstrations of Euclid's Propositions
Session Three: Student Demonstrations of Euclid's Propositions
Session Four: Geometry Test; Discussion of "Legendre's Lament: Strange Worlds of Non-Euclidean Geometry" (Chapter 5 of Joseph Mazur's Euclid in the Rainforest, included in Course Package for LBST 311). Please note that the geometry test will be slightly more challenging for those taking the course at the third-year level.

Module Three: Houses of the Holy

Session One: We will look at slides of images of gods and goddesses and their "dwellings" from ancient to modern times and from various cultures. Some of the questions you may want to ask yourselves as you look at the images include the following: Do the images celebrate "ordinary" elements of the human condition or rather a transcendence of that condition? Do images celebrate the aesthetic and ethical values of order, restraint, and symmetry or rather of frenzy, chaos, and excess? What is the importance of gender in the portrayals of divinity? Are the images "realistic" or stylized, and what might be the relationship between such aesthetic elements and the conception of the divine? What do the images suggest about the relationship of divinity to the natural world? What do the images suggest about the relationship of divinity and suffering? What do the sizes and materials of statues, paintings, or buildings suggest about their roles as public or private objects? Which images do you find beautiful, disturbing, puzzling? Why?

Session Two: We will discuss Philip Larkin's poem "Church Going" (included in the LBST 311 Course Package), and students can begin work on their temples.

Assignment : You have been invited to design a temple for your patron/matron god or goddess. Using materials that you have gathered for this purpose, construct a model of this temple. Include a write-up in which you identify your god or goddess and explain why your temple will be particularly pleasing to him or her, commenting on both the aesthetic and moral values embodied in your temple. (You will receive a sample Temple Write-Up.) Please note that the write-up will be approximately 500 words for those taking the course at the second-year level and 750 words for those taking the course at the third-year level.