School of Athen by Raphael

Liberal Studies 311: Ancient Times, Ancient Ways F13N01 Course Outline

Gods and Nature

Course Description

Traditional religious belief in the ancient days of Greece and Rome was centred on a rich pantheon of gods and demi-gods, all of whom were inextricably part of the natural world. Human beings were simultaneously a part of this world and alien to it; this view of human nature gave rise to much of the tension and vibrancy of the works from this period. In this section of LBST 311, we will examine several primary works—of literature, art, and metaphysical philosophy—that provide insight into how the ancient Greeks and Romans saw the world and themselves. We will look at several narratives about the gods, and their conflicts with each other and with human beings; at two dramatic works that call into question whether humans can live in harmony with such a world; and at several works of metaphysics—including some of the earliest extant writings from the Greek period—with a variety of views on spirit and nature, including human nature, that sometimes run counter to the conventional religious traditions and rituals of the times.

Our study of this material will not be only an exercise in understanding the worldviews of cultures distant to us in time, however fascinating such an undertaking is. Also open to our examination is the degree to which we can trace lines of development between ancient times and our own. But we will go further even than this; while many of the details of these ancient perspectives are unfamiliar, the works we will encounter all have the power to speak to us directly across the centuries. The Greeks and Romans found questions about the nature and purpose of human life, as well as our place in the cosmos, to be as urgent as we have found them, and their inquiries and thoughts on these perennial matters can inform and enrich our own.

I will give the occasional brief background lecture, and there will be one art workshop during the term, but the course will be conducted primarily through seminar discussion; the greatest percentage of your final grade will be a mark for your seminar participation (see more details below). You will also be required to complete, in addition to the more traditionally academic essay assignment, two projects that will give you an opportunity to respond to the course material in less conventional ways: by creating an original work of art, and by conducting an observational study of an aspect of the natural world, following the example of the early metaphysicians.


Maureen Okun

Office hours: Thursdays 1:30-3:30, or by appointment

Office: Bldg. 355, rm. 334
Phone: 250-753-3245, Ext. 2174


Hesiod, Theogony and Works and Days , trans. West (Oxford World's Classics, ISBN: 9780192839411)

Homeric Hymns , trans. Ruden (Hackett, ISBN: 9780872207257)

Ovid, Metamorphoses , trans. Lombardo (Hackett, ISBN: 9781603843058)

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things , trans. Smith (Hackett, ISBN: 9780872205871)

A Presocratic Reader , trans. McKirahan and Curd (Hackett, ISBN: 9781603843058)

Plato, Timaeus and Critias , trans. Waterfield (Oxford World's Classics, ISBN: 9780192807359)

Boardman, Greek Art , 4 th ed. (Thames & Hudson, ISBN: 9780500202920)

Sophocles, Oedipus the King , trans. Johnston (Richer Resources, ISBN: 9780979757112)

Euripides, The Bacchae , trans. Johnston (Richer Resources, ISBN: 9780979757129)

Course Grading

(See the end of this outline for descriptions of each assignment)

Seminar participation 28%
Essay 24%
Art Project 24%
Natural Philosophy Project 24%

Course Syllabus

1) Sept. 5 Introduction to the course

2) Sept. 12 Hesiod: Theogony and Works and Days

3) Sept. 19 Homeric Hymns

4) Sept. 26 Ovid: Metamorphoses —the following selections:
Book 1
Book 2, Phaëthon and Phoebus ; Callisto ; Jupiter and Europa
Book 3
Book 5, Hymn to Ceres
Book 6, The Contest of Arachne and Minerva ; Niobe and Latona ; Procne
and Philomela

Book 7, Jason and Medea
Book 8
Book 10

5) Oct. 3 Greek Art , chapters 3 and 4

6) Oct. 10 Mask making workshop
Assignment: Seminar participation self-evaluation due

7) Oct. 17 Study week (in Liberal Studies courses only): no class

8) Oct. 24 The Presocratics: pages 13-125 (chapters 2-10)
Assignment: Art project due

9) Oct. 31 Plato: Timaeus (please note that we won't be reading Critias )

10) Nov. 7 Lucretius: On the Nature of Things , Books 1, 2, and 3

11) Nov. 14 Lucretius: On the Nature of Things , Books 4, 5, and 6
Assignment: Natural Philosophy project due

12) Nov. 21 Greek Art , chapters 5 and 6

13) Nov. 28 Sophocles: Oedipus the King ; Euripides: The Bacchae
Assignment: Essay due


What follows is a brief description of each course assignment. You will receive more detailed information about each one in a series of handouts at the beginning of the term.

Seminar Participation

Seminar participation is a key component of what Liberal Studies hopes to achieve; hence, students' performance in the seminars will be weighted more in the final calculation of grades than any of the other assignments. Participation will occasionally take the form of workshop activity, but primarily participation will mean engaging in group discussion of topics and readings. Each seminar discussion is meant to be a cooperative exploration of the day's topic, with all participants (not just the instructor or more talkative students) bearing equal responsibility for the success of the collective effort. The goal of each seminar is open-ended; we may or may not draw conclusions about our topics, but we should do our utmost to examine each topic or text as closely and deeply as we can. What can be achieved by many fine minds working together is often unexpected and always satisfying.

For those who are unfamiliar with Liberal Studies seminar discussions, I will provide a handout outlining the practice in more detail. To help you gauge and develop your seminar performance, you will be required to write a self-evaluation just before the mid-point of the course.

Art Project

The art project will give you the opportunity to create an original work of art, either visual or performance art, that responds to or helps develop the "gods and nature" theme of the course. Please bear in mind that LBST 311 is not a course in artistic skill—while some of you may have experience creating works of art, I don't expect anyone have any artistic proficiency. The art project is meant to give students an alternative way of engaging with the course topics, a way that can achieve things that an academic essay cannot. It is designed to be an assignment that can be successfully completed by those who have no art training whatsoever. More details will be forthcoming in a handout at the beginning of the term.

Natural Philosophy Project

Before there was science in the western tradition, there was "natural philosophy," a branch of philosophical enquiry into the spiritual and material make-up of the natural world, and how it came to be what it is. Natural philosophers based their work primarily on reasoned analyses and partly on observations of nature. In this assignment, you will be asked to create your own work of natural philosophy by examining one easily observable aspect of the natural world (you may choose what to focus on) and, using observation and reason only, drawing conclusions about the nature and significance of what you see. There will be more details on this assignment in an upcoming handout.


For this assignment, you will write a 1,000-1,250 word essay on a topic chosen from a list that you will receive early in the term. The paper will be an interpretive analysis of one or two of the works we will encounter in the course. It should be based on a close reading of that text alone, rather than featuring secondary source material.