Reading for English 230

            We will read a sample of Greek and Latin texts usually called "Classical.".  You will learn some of the vocabulary and techniques of literary interpretation.  In only fifteen weeks we cannot hope to cover completely eight centuries of literature in  two complex cultures.  Nor can we give you more than an introduction to modern interpretation.  By the end of the course you will know how to explore and interpret the rest of the classics and later literature influenced by the classical tradition.

            Our first concern is to understand the stories, characters, and authors which constitute "Classical" literature to which later authors' works refer.  Our second concern will be to understand how these works were handed down from Greece to Rome, and from the Romans to the rest of Europe and America, in a process connecting cultures for 3000 years.  "Tradition" is derived from the Latin trado, to hand down, transmit, teach.  These works are essential background for understanding Euro-American painting, sculpture, literature, political science, history, and philosophy from the Medie­val, Renaissance, Restoration, and Eighteenth‑Century periods.   In addition to the Christian Bible, logic and rhetoric, these texts were what  British and Continental schools typically taught. Later authors casually referred to the classics because their readers also had read the same texts. Some modern conservative scholars also claim the Classical Tradition is important to us today because it transmits essential wisdom about unchanging  human characteristics.  Some radical scholars conversely suggest the classics are important to study because they contain dangerous ideas which have produced an oppressive, state-centered, patriarchal culture.  Both schools of interpretation define a "Classical Tradition" in our time, but all would admit these works have had a powerful effect upon our culture.  All scholars of classical literature hold one principle in common: you must read the texts thoroughly before you can decide what you think about them.

            If you never have studied literature formally before, you will have to learn to read by new rules.  Readers of classical texts are sensitive to, or even suspicious of the text.  Assume that no work is  "univocal"; that is, it has more than one voice and more than one thing to say.  Be very cautious about reading any one passage as what the poet believed or meant to say, especially passages which may be intended ironically or which are attributed to characters who may be slyly deceptive, stupid, immoral, or simply untruthful.  None of these works is testimony under oath, and even if some were, we know that witnesses lie, to courts and to themselves. Follow main characters, their skills, weaknesses, and family histories.  Look for themes (repeated words, images, or actions).  These themes contain important patterns of behavior revealing assumptions about moral and economic values, socio-political ideology, personality, nature, and the cosmos.  Some represent the dominant culture; others challenge it.

     Careful readers can answer these questions: 

1)   Who are the major characters, who are they related to, what  kind  of people are they, and why?

2)  What values and behaviors does this text promote and condemn;  and how do these values relate to characters‑‑especially do characters seem to "stand for" certain values?

3)  What role do the gods and religion play?  What attitude  toward  the gods does the author seem to want us to have--reverent, frightened, suspicious, cynical, defiant?

4)  Does the author strive to entertain, to instruct, to praise, to criticize, to shock, to complain, to analyze, or to preserve events in a permanent record?  If so, how and why? 

5)  Does the author refer to creative competitors, allies, or predecessors? 

6) Why and how is this part of a Classical Tradition?  Which "Classical Tradition" do you believe is important and why?