Christianity and Classical Culture: An Enduring Theme in European Thought

This is a course from a previous year. View the current courses
Sophomore and above—Year

The distinctive civilization of Europe is founded on two very different legacies: the heritage of pagan antiquity and the heritage of Christianity. The fusion of these elements in a single culture was never without its tensions; but as long as the Middle Ages lasted, the potential for open conflict between them was held in check by the authority of the Church. With the Renaissance and Reformation, however, Europeans acquired a sharpened awareness of the dissonance between the cultural presuppositions of pagan Greece and Rome and biblical revelation. The philosophers of the Enlightenment and their spiritual offspring, rejecting the authority claims and ethical teachings of medieval Christianity, turned to Classical civilization to find the basis for an alternate system of values. A rival tradition was constituted by modern thinkers who, wishing to preserve the best of both legacies, sought to establish a new and better synthesis of the values of Christianity and those of Classical civilization. In this course, students will read and discuss a number of works produced by celebrated representatives of both traditions. In the fall, we will begin our inquiries by looking at a number of the key texts of Greco-Roman ethical thinking (Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius) and of early Christianity (Gospels and Pauline letters, acts of the martyrs). We will consider how the relationship between Christianity and Classical culture presented itself to the first group of intellectuals who were compelled to define it explicitly: the Fathers of the Christian Church (Irenaeus, Augustine). We shall then jump forward to the Early Modern period and consider how issues that these writers had addressed resurfaced in the works of Erasmus, Montaigne, Pascal, Lessing, and Kant. In the spring, our attention will focus on 19th- and 20th-century writers such as Goethe, Hölderlin, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Tennyson, Arnold, Newman, Nietzsche, William James, Berdiaev, and Bonhoeffer. First-year students will be admitted at the instructor’s discretion.