Core 2: Civilization and Its Second Thoughts

Steve Smith
Office: Christian Center 11, 601-974-1334
– Office hours posted –
Home: 1611 Edgewood St, 601-354 2290

IDST 1200 (04), Core 2: Topics in the Ancient World
Focuses: Philosophy, Religion
Fall 2009 [model for Fall 2012]

Ways of thinking that are “classic” for people today were revolutionary and counter-cultural in their origins. The middle of the first millennium BCE, dubbed by Karl Jaspers the Axial Age, saw a new generation of religious and intellectual leaders in all the civilization centers of the Old World offering radical criticisms of society and a more individualized approach to life. Since we are still trying to be ideal individuals, the “classic” Hebrew prophets and Chinese and Greek philosophers continue to speak to us today.

Drawing on the perspectives of philosophy, religious studies, and other humanities disciplines, and using a selection of primary source texts, we will visit three different ancient cultures: Israelite (with some Mesopotamian background), Chinese, and Greek. Our study of the cultures will be guided by questions about civilized life: What are its main features? What are its main requirements? What are its main benefits? What are its main problems, and what can an individual do about them? We will test the extent to which we still see the problems and solutions today in the same way that the Axial Age thinkers did.

There is plenty of information to be gathered in this course, yet there is more to it than that. The course is an exercise machine to strengthen your thinking, speaking, and writing powers so that you can enter more fully into the life and fellowship of the mind. Like other Millsaps core courses, this one promotes certain broadly relevant liberal arts abilities:

Reasoning. This is your ability to keep track of differences and similarities, of evidence and lack of evidence, and of your own acts of acceptance and rejection, so that you can draw conclusions about what is true or false, likely or unlikely, consistent or inconsistent. Most of the assignments I give and many of the things I say in class will challenge you to reason in a sustained way. Also, we will read some classic philosophical texts that were deliberately created to (and, in fact, did) advance the art of reasoning for everyone.
The ultimate concern of this course is not with what certain people believed about reality and authentic human existence but with what is reality and what is authentic life. So each of us is faced with live, open philosophical and religious questions, and our work consists of experiments in answering these. You will be asked to articulate your own understanding of life and to refine it critically in reasonable conversation with past thinkers and your fellow learners.

Communication. Learning doesn’t take place only in a private laboratory in your head. It depends on conversation. This course will ask you to weave your thoughts together with other people’s thoughts, in speech and in writing. The art of genuine response is difficult and important.

Historical consciousness. Besides gathering information about how important elements of human culture came into existence and spawned consequences, we will strive to understand more substantially how our lives belong to a historical-cultural continuum and how our perceptions, desires, and choices relate to the raveling and unraveling of this larger fabric.

Social and cultural awareness. It has long been recognized that our so-called “Western” culture has been mixed out of culturally very diverse sources, including Hebrew and Greek. Now, a global culture is being formed from a still wider diversity in which Chinese elements, among others, will certainly be important. We can surely better understand the paths taken by Western and Chinese cultures if we compare them, noting how they converge and how they represent alternatives to each other.

Course readings will be drawn from these required books (plus handouts):

The Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. N. K. Sandars
The New Oxford Annotated Bible
William Theodore de Bary, ed., Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. l
Reginald E. Allen, Greek Philosophy. Thales to Aristotle, 3rd ed.

Grading will be based on writing assignments (45%), class participation, including daily homework (20%), two short sectional exams (15%), and a final exam (20%). Homework paragraphs and shorter writing assignments (1 page) will be graded “check” (possibly “plus” or “minus,” if they excel or fall short in significant ways). Longer papers will be letter-graded. We’ll be talking all along about how to approach writing assignments and exams.


The READ assignments are placed on the day on which they are due. At the beginning of each class meeting you will turn in a PARAGRAPH responding to a question about the reading assignment announced in the preceding class (if you miss this, be sure to get it from me). A paragraph is not due when a WRITE assignment is listed. For each WRITE assignment I ask for a certain length, measuring by typed pages. A typed page is about 250-300 words. Typing is not required, however.

Although this schedule doesn’t list class meetings during our fourth hour, Thursdays at 9:00, we may use this time on occasion for a make-up class, a writing workshop, or a study help session.

Week 1: Introduction to course issues.

W 8-26 Civilization: boon or hindrance?
F 8-28 Ingredients of civilization: the agricultural and urban revolutions
READ: Handout

Week 2: Civilization in the ancient Near East.

M 8-31 The first states
READ: Handout
W 9-2 The Epic of Gilgamesh
READ: Gilgamesh, pp. 61-96

F 9-4 Gilgamesh, cont.
READ: Gilgamesh, pp. 97-119
WRITE: What is Gilgamesh’s solution? (1 p.)

Week 3: Introduction to life in ancient Israel and our study sources.

M 9-7 Background to the rise of the people Israel
READ: Genesis 12-17 (the earlier adventures of Abraham and Sarah)
W 9-9 Constructing a timeline of Israelite and biblical history
READ: NOAB, 507-515 Essays (the first parts of the “Cultural Contexts” section at the back of the book, up to “The Hellenistic Period”)
F 9-11 Israelite history
WRITE: Research report on Israelite history (2 pp.)

Week 4: The Israelite prophets

M 9-14 King and prophet
READ: Psalm 2, 89; 2 Samuel 11-12:25 (in NOAB)
W 9-16 The Mosaic and Davidic covenants in the Deuteronomic history
READ: Deuteronomy 29-30; 2 Samuel 7:1-17, 1 Kings 9:1-9 (in NOAB)
F 9-18 Amos
READ: Amos (in NOAB)
WRITE: Analysis of a sample of Amos’s reasoning (1 p.)

Week 5: Israelite prophets, cont.

M 9-21 Introduction to Jeremiah
READ: Jeremiah 1-4, 7, 12
W 9-23 Jeremiah and the Babylonian crisis
READ: Jeremiah 26-29, 36
F 9-25 Jeremiah and the Babylonian Exile
READ: Jeremiah 30-31, 39-44
WRITE: Assessment of Jeremiah (3 p.)

Week 6: Israelite prophets, cont.

M 9-28 The Babylonian Exile: Ezekiel’s individualism
READ: Ezekiel 1-5, 18, 34
W 9-30 The Babylonian Exile: Second Isaiah’s universalism
READ: Isaiah 40-55
F 10-2 EXAM #1

Week 7: Ancient China

M 10-5 Earliest Chinese history
READ: Handout
W 10-7 The Zhou and the “Mandate of Heaven”
READ: Sources of Chinese Tradition, pp. 3-16
F 10-9 Introduction to Kongzi (Confucius)
READ: Sources, pp. 17-27

Week 8: Kongzi (Confucius) and the Confucian movement

M 10-12 Kongzi’s Analects
READ: Sources, pp. 27-32
W 10-14 Analects, cont.
READ: Sources, pp. 32-35
F 10-16 The movement after Kongzi
READ: Handout
WRITE: Assessment of Kongzi (3 p.)


Week 9: Rival Chinese philosophies

W 10-21 Mozi
READ: Sources, pp. 36-49
F 10-23 Laozi and Daoism
READ: Sources, pp. 50-64

Week 10: Rival Chinese philosophies, cont.

M 10-26 Daoism, cont.: Zhuangzi
READ: Sources, pp. 64-80
W 10-28 The human nature debate: Mengzi, Xunzi, and Han Feizi
READ: Handout
F 10-30 EXAM #2

Week 11: Ancient Greece

M 11-2 Earliest Greek history
READ: Handout
W 11-4 The polis and Greek tragedy
READ: Handout
F 11-6 Sophocles’ Antigone.
READ: Handout

Week 12: Socrates

M 11-9 Introduction to Socrates
READ: Euthyphro (in Allen)
W 11-11 What is true piety?
READ: Euthyphro
F 11-13 What is true piety? cont.
WRITE: Your answer to Socrates

Week 13: Socrates, cont.

M 11-16 Socrates on trial
READ: Apology (in Allen)
W 11-18 Socrates in prison
READ: Crito (in Allen)
F 11-20 Socrates on the immortality of the soul
WRITE: Assessment of Socrates (3 p.)

Week 14: Socrates and Plato

M 11-23 Plato on the ideal life
READ: Selections in Republic (in Allen)
W 11-25 Plato, cont.
READ: Selections in Republic
F 11-27 NO CLASS (Thanksgiving)

Week 15: Aristotle

M 11-30 Aristotle on the good life
READ: Selections in Nicomachean Ethics (in Allen)
W 12-2 Aristotle on the state
READ: Selections in Politics (in Allen)
F 12-4 Conclusion
WRITE: Axial Age thinker comparative study, incorporating revised portions of the earlier Assessments (7-8 p.)



1. Class attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late. Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence—that is, your work with the class that day will be counted as only half done.

2. Electronic communication devices (cell phones, laptops, etc.). Electronic devices have become harmful Interrupters and Distracters in the current state of our social evolution. Their use is banned in our class. If you have special needs, discuss with me.

3. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date. No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations. Exceptions to this policy will only be granted to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.

4. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances, e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted.

5. Plagiarism. Using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgment—that is, passing them off as your own—is a fraudulent practice called plagiarism. It also misses one of the main points of being in college, which is to develop your powers of thought and expression. Plagiarism is an offense under the Academic Honor Code (see next page).

6. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.

7. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.