School of Athen by Raphael

Liberal Studies 321

The Emergence of European Culture:

Humanity's Place in the Cosmos

Spring 2014 M. Okun


Course Description

Liberal Studies 321 takes a multi-disciplinary look at topics of interest concerning the European middle ages and renaissance. This particular section of LBST 321 will focus on a prevalent concern of the period: determining humanity's place in the cosmos.

This problem is at essence a question of orientation, and its answers in this time period took many forms -- from changing theories about the placement of earth, humanity's home, in the wider cosmos, to inquiries into human beings' place in the "chain of being" from the inanimate and vegetative to demons and animals, and angels and God. In this course, we will study some responses to this question of orientation in the science of astronomy, in art, and in literature.

We will spend the first few weeks of the course examining the shift from earth-centred to sun-centred models of the cosmos, looking both at the observational evidence and reasoning that made the earth-centred view so compelling for so long, and at the changes in understanding and discoveries by means of new technology that finally led to the acceptance of a sun-centred cosmos. We will read and discuss excerpts from the works of Aristotle (whose writings, though they were from classical antiquity, were enormously influential in medieval Europe), Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Galileo.

While in his rich epic, Paradise Lost, John Milton carefully side-steps the issue of whether the earth or the sun is at the centre of the created world, he is definite in situating it between Heaven and Hell, and has much to say (among many other things) about the place of humanity in the hierarchy of created things, and in God' s unfolding plan for His creation. We will take several weeks to read Paradise Lost closely.

After that, we will take two weeks to examine, from our time period, artist's interpretations of the Christian afterlife and its devils and angels, with their implicit and sometimes explicit depictions of our place among them. We will end with a discussion of The Blazing World , a strangely wonderful work by the singular seventeenth-century fiction writer, philosopher, and scientist Margaret Cavendish. Cavendish's imaginary cosmos features a twin utopian earth, the site of a social and political paradise for post-lapsarian humans.


Maureen Okun
Office: building 355, room 334
Phone: 250-753-3245, Ext. 2174
Office hours: Thursdays 1:30-3:30


Liberal Studies 321 Course Readings Package: Astronomy Module

John Milton, Paradise Lost , parallel prose edition, ed. Dennis Danielson (Broadview
ISBN: 9781554810970

Margaret Cavendish, Blazing World and Other Writings , ed. Kate Lilley (Penguin
Classics ISBN: 978-0140433722)

Rosa Giorgi, Angels and Demons in Art (Getty Publications ISBN: 9780892368303)


Seminar Participation 28%
Astronomy Project 24%
Art Project 24%
Essay 24%

Course Assignments

Seminar Participation

Seminar participation is a key component of what Liberal Studies hopes to achieve. In this course, participation will sometimes take the form of workshop activity and at other times a group discussion of topics and readings. Seminar discussions are a cooperative group exploration of whatever happens to be on the table, with all participants (not just the instructor) bearing equal responsibility for the success of the collective effort. Those who are unfamiliar with Liberal Studies seminar discussions can find more information here: .

Astronomy Project

The astronomy project will require you to engage in repeated (though brief) observations of the sun or the moon over the course of the term (such a lengthy period is necessary because observations at this time of the year are frequently interrupted by cloudy weather). The intent of the project will be to give students an opportunity to engage in a simple but significant scientific activity similar in many respects to those engaged in by the astronomers whose works we will be sampling. By the second week of classes, you will receive a handout with full details on the project.

Art Project

For the art project, students will be asked to create an original work of art that provides a comment on or response to an idea or theme in one of our course topics. Full details will be outlined in a forthcoming handout.


The essay will be a paper of about a thousand words that offers an interpretive analysis of one or two of the works we will be studying. You can choose a specific topic of your own, as long as I approve it, or you can choose one of the suggested topics I will provide later on in the term.

Schedule of Topics and Readings

Note that all readings followed by "crp" are in the Course Readings Package.

Jan. 9 Introduction to the course.

Jan. 16 Excerpts from Cosmic Perspectives (handout) and "A Closer Look at the
Sky" (handout).

Jan. 23 Aristotle, On the Heavens, "Aristotle's Astronomy," and "A Productive

Path Is Found" (both selections in crp).

Jan. 30 Ptolemy, Almagest, "A Different Direction Is Taken," Copernicus, On
the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres
, and "Copernicus Changes the
Game" (all selections in crp).

Feb. 6 Galileo, Dialogue on the Great World Systems , "Galileo Looks at the
Sky," "Galileo Analyzes Motion," and "Galileo Applies Theory to the
World" (all selections in crp).

Feb. 13 Milton, Paradise Lost Books I, II, III.

Feb. 20 Paradise Lost Books IV, V, VI.

Feb. 27 Study week: no class.

Mar. 6 Paradise Lost Books VII, VIII, IX.

Assignment: Art Project due.

Mar. 13 Paradise Lost Books X, XI, XII.

Mar. 20 Angels and Demons in Art, "Creation and the Geography of the Next
World," pp. 10-65.

Mar. 27 Angels and Demons in Art, "The Infernal Cohorts," "The Angelic
Cohorts," pp. 230-373.

Apr. 3 Cavendish, The Blazing World.

Apr. 10 Conference week: no class, but during our regular class time, you will
be required to attend the presentations of Liberal Studies students from
other classes.

Assignments: Astronomy Project due; Essay due.