Listening to Wisdom

HC 221H

Professor: Louise Bishop

What counts as knowledge in pre-modern societies? What makes knowledge last?  What, if anything, differentiates knowledge (scientia) from wisdom (sapientia)?

Stories – narratives -- carry knowledge in its many forms in both pre-modern and modern societies.  In his book The Literary Mind (Oxford UP, 1996), Mark Turner suggests that narrative—story--is the foundation of language itself.  Yet in the western Renaissance or early modern era, story becomes devalued as "mere story"—so Francis Bacon called it in 1626. Modernity makes history into story's opposite: history gives us fact rather than fiction, story gives us imagination rather than reality. Aren't facts more important than fiction?

Reading pre-modern texts attentively and carefully can help us understand the value of narrative and our own positions within a sea of story, from movies to YouTube. We'll use many kinds of tales (a tale is also a "mere story," according to the OED) and their "translations" (meaning "to carry, to transfer") to grapple with representations of self and other, and with the value -- and devaluation -- of imagination and emotion. We'll let the root of education -- educare, to lead forth -- lead us to new intellectual and emotional understandings as we consider the ways pre-modern cultures produced and saved these tales.  We’ll also investigate how and why we’ve gotten our hands on them in 2014 Oregon.  Your literary journey starts here.

Possible choices for texts include The Epic of Gilgamesh, Prometheus Bound, The Book of Job, Consolation of Philosophy, The Mahabharata/Bhagavad-Gita, The Vita Nuova, Hamlet.
Close reading is vital; interpretive muscle grows from it. Written work for the class will include ungraded response papers, two 1500-word formal papers, class presentations, and a comprehensive final examination. Some special events related to the class, such as films or readings, will be arranged during the term.