Western Classics

The Western traditions are at the heart of many important political, economic, and social transformations that have helped create the modern world. To understand these important influences is essential to any liberal arts education. Through exposure to philosophy and literature, the student is empowered to understand the frames of reference and paradigms that shape their interpretive faculties. They are also better equipped to understand their own reactions to circumstances at play: an interplay of the personal, natural, and social worlds.

The Western philosophy curriculum provides students with interdisciplinary perspectives on the important questions that have long intrigued human beings: What is meaningful about being human? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How can we learn to construct meaning for ourselves in this modern age? Students become acquainted with the works of great authors and thinkers who have grappled with these vital questions. Integrating literature, philosophy, religion, economics, and politics, students develop analytical and expressive skills; their ability to read, write, and think clearly; and cultivate an appreciation of the original sources and their role in shaping modern societies.

The major focus of the Western Classics strand is to take the student through a personal encounter with seminal thinkers through the use of primary texts as sources of inquiry and insight. From a Western perspective, this means establishing grounds of authority for truth and knowledge. The pursuit of truth in the West is one of the most emphasized foci in this tradition. Understanding the development of knowledge over time, with philosophers and thinkers in dialogue with each other and building on the foundations that precede them, will enable the student to identify the dialectical nature and evolution of Western thought.

Central to the DRBU project is the idea that there are a multitude of approaches to the foundational questions that contribute to a liberally educated person. Western approaches to these questions generally examine ideas such as freedom, responsibility, and rationality. These have certain similarities with Eastern and Buddhist approaches yet differ from both in important respects. In offering the Western Classics strand, DRBU expects each student to have an understanding of some of the ways in which Western thinkers have effectively approached these issues so that the student will be able to not only invoke these ideas in their own lives, but also in conversation with Eastern ways of thought. Just as there is an expectation that students will have a solid grasp of the methodologies and approaches in Buddhist and Eastern texts, so the student will have a clear understanding of the dominant themes and methodologies that emerge from Western sources.

The differences between these approaches are important to identify and explore. These include differing characterizations of human nature, society, causality, freedom, responsibility, and our relationship to nature and nonhuman life. While the Buddhist, Indian, and Chinese Classics strands provide the student with invaluable approaches to understanding notions such as freedom, causality, and theories of social interconnectedness, the Western philosophical tradition lays down equally solid foundations and frameworks in which to analyze and express many facets of modern life.

The Western strand is indispensable to DRBU’s mission, which is to equip the student with all the necessary skills for understanding and coping with life in the emerging modern world. Central to this goal is an understanding of the roots and implications of Western philosophy. Such exposure is crucial to an understanding of the self in the current Western culture and context and also enables the student to translate and interpret the East through the lens of Western interpretive constructs. This background introduces the student to a diversity of approaches. This diversity provides the student with an array of creative alternatives, both personally and socially, to face what it means to be part of the modern world in all its complexity.

Freshman Year

Freshman year of the Western Classics strand is primarily devoted to a study of ancient philosophy and literature. The year begins with the Epic of Gilgamesh. The focus then turns to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which are considered among the most fundamental works of literature in the Western tradition. Students read plays by Aeschylus and Sophocles, followed by excerpts from the Hebrew Bible and the Pre-Socratics. The focus shifts to careful reading of Plato and Aristotle, whose work forms the foundation of year one. Toward the end of the year, students examine the works of the ancient Stoics.

Sophomore Year

Sophomore year focuses on significant philosophical and religious literature, including the New Testament and the works of Plotinus, Augustine, St. Anselm, Aquinas, and Maimonides. Students also read principal contributors to Western literature, including Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Rabelais, Cervantes, and Montaigne. Special attention is given to the works of Shakespeare. Political theory is examined through the works of Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Rousseau. The revolutionary period of the Renaissance is explored through a combined emphasis on literature, poetry, art, architecture, and music. Sophomore students turn to increasingly humanistic questions. Different ways to understand the individual, social, and natural dimensions of life are a major focus of inquiry and discussion. The curriculum for the sophomore year strives to provide a careful treatment of the way in which the roots of ancient philosophy and literature find new life in these works.

Junior Year

Junior year of the Western Classics strand turns to the enormous paradigm shifts initiated by the work of Descartes. Major figures of this era are read closely and in depth, with a concentration on the writings of Hume, Kant, Locke, Leibniz, Nietzsche, and Spinoza. Equal attention is given to the developments in modern ethical theory, with its foundation in utilitarianism (embodied by the works of Bentham and Mill), and Kantian ethics. The newly emerging economic theory (along with its critics) is explored through the works of Smith and Marx. Literature focuses on readings of Austen, Eliot, Kafka, Milton, Molière, Racine, Shelley, Thoreau, Twain, and Voltaire. The poetry of Baudelaire, Poe, Whitman, and Wordsworth is studied, analyzed, and interpreted. Art and music of the period introduce the aesthetic dimension as both a reflection of and lens into the larger currents of thought.

Senior Year

Senior year turns to the major figures of the modern and late-modern Western intellectual tradition. The year begins with the formative works of Freud, Jung, Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, Kierkegaard, de Beauvoir, Sartre, and Wittgenstein. The evolving economic models and their implications are highlighted with the works of Friedman and Keynes. Modern ethical theory and the alternatives it provides to utilitarianism and Kantian ethics are explored, including a virtue ethics, feminist ethics, and ethics of care. A wide variety of literature is offered, including Camus, Conrad, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Flaubert, Goethe, Mann, Melville, Tolstoy, and Woolf. Modern poetry, art, and music are also introduced and explored.

Overall, the intention of the Western Classics strand is to introduce students to the richness and diversity of the Western tradition, to discern the connections it holds for ideas and events, and to explore its contribution to understanding and illuminating the primary themes that are threaded through the DRBU learning objectives.

Selection of authors and works explored in the Western Classics strand

  • Epic of Gilgamesh
  • Homer, Iliad
  • Sophocles, Antigone
  • Plato, Timaeus
  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
  • Virgil, Aeneid
  • New Testament
  • Augustine, Confessions
  • Dante, Divine Comedy
  • Shakespeare, King Lear
  • Descartes, Meditations
  • Hume, Treatise of Human Nature
  • Spenser, Faerie Queen
  • Austen, Sense and Sensibility
  • Emerson, Self-Reliance
  • Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
  • Eliot, Middlemarch
  • The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
  • Smith, Wealth of Nations
  • Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents
  • Heidegger, Being and Time
  • Hegel, Phenomenology of the Spirit
  • Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
  • Goethe, Faust
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America