Course: Force and Law in Premodern Literature

HC 221H

Professor: Casey Shoop

Philosopher Simone Weil famously described the Iliad as a poem about force: “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” The definition is both precise and elusive. What is the nature and meaning of this implacable force in the premodern world? How is it measured and understood by those people upon whom it falls? What does it mean to become a thing? Weil’s description has the virtue of turning interpretation away from the traditional preoccupation with heroism and free will, and toward questions about violence and representation, suffering and the power of human culture and institutions to intervene in its effects. How does the representation of force change in different literary and historical contexts? Does the institution of the law, whether human or divine, moderate and limit the power of force to turn people into things? Or is the Law itself merely another expression of force?

In this course, we will examine the nature of force and its relationship to the law in premodern literature from the Iliad to the New Testament Gospels and beyond. We will be especially interested in how literary forms (epic poetry, tragedy, scripture) imagine and respond in myriad ways to the force of subjection. Along the way we will consider how these premodern texts enable us to reflect critically upon our own contemporary moment in often surprising ways. Readings may include Homer’s Iliad, Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Vergil’s Aeneid, Sophocles’s Antigone, the Book of Job, the Gospels, Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, among many others.