TEXTS AND IDEAS: ANTIQUITY AND THE 19TH CENTURY
This paper requires you to develop an argument about one of the following: 1. Plato’s Gorgias; 2. Virgil’s Aeneid; 3. New Testament’s Matthew and/or I Corinthians; and 4. Wagner’s selected essays and/or The Ring of the Nibelung.
Choose one work and explore one of the topics below.
1. Tradition: One challenge to everyone within a developing and changing society is how far to maintain the traditions of the past and how far those traditions need to be rejected or transformed. All of these works in different ways describe or advocate people severing themselves from some traditions of the past. Some questions you might consider are: How far do they think tradition should be abandoned, and why? What are the problems that they think are posed by the tradition? How should such transformations be accomplished – by revolution, by peaceful reform, or something else? By what authority are these changes advocated – and why do they think that authority should be accepted?
2. Politics and art: Each of the works puts forward a political agenda, explicitly or implicitly. Some of them directly advocate a specific role for the artist in that; in other cases the work itself addresses political issues in ways which appear to be intended to have a political effect. Among significant questions to consider are: How is the artist (understood broadly) portrayed in one of the works at hand, either explicitly or by way of analogy? What is the relationship between politics and art? What is or ought to be the role of art in a society? What role does the artist have in creating and maintaining political power?
3. Love and sex: Most of the above works are interested in love and/or sex. How do either or both of these fit into the larger goals of any given text? Among significant questions to consider are: What distinctions (if any) are drawn between love and sex, or between different kinds of love and/or sex? Are they conceived as positive or destructive forces? Are the authors consistent in their views?
4. Rhetoric: Most of these works give a prominent role to persuasive speech, either through their direct inclusion of speeches in which people try to convince others of their position, or sometimes by actively discussing what the appropriate mode of persuasion should be. Among significant questions to consider are: What is the author’s attitude to persuasion through rhetoric? What sort of effect does rhetoric have on its audience – and does that depend on who the audience is? What moral problems arise from the successful use of rhetoric? What about the times when people are unsuccessful in persuasion – what are the moral implications of that?
The paper should be around 2500 words long
Here are the criteria we use when grading papers. Try “grading” and revising yours according to these criteria before turning it in.
Writing the opening paragraph is always a challenge. The worst opening paragraphs begin with huge generalizations that have nothing to do with the main point; they are content-free; they state a “thesis” which simply states the obvious; they waffle irrelevantly; they use clichés and slang in weak attempts to hold the reader’s interest.
In particular, there are two things which make people’s heart sink when grading a paper. One is the “Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig in 1813” strategy – beginning a paper with some boring and uncontroversial factual information which tells you nothing relevant to the actual topic you are supposed to be writing about. The other is the “dictionary definition” strategy: “The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘law’ as ‘A rule of conduct imposed by authority’”. There are few topics of any interest that are illuminated by dictionary definitions.
In other words, instead of waffle or irrelevancy, make your opening paragraph count.
Body of the paper
1. Does your argument make logical sense? Does it show signs of haste, by being inconsistent or jumping from Point A to Point D?
2. Do you choose appropriate passages in the texts to support your claim? Do you carry out a close reading of the passages, focusing on details that underline your argument? Note that when quoting a primary text, it is preferable to reproduce no more than a sentence or so verbatim: avoid copying longer passages if at all possible.
3. Is your presentation easy to follow? Do you say anything at all that you yourself don’t completely understand? If so, think harder! Never sacrifice clarity in order to sound sophisticated.
4. Stay away from statements beginning “I feel …” You may “feel” certain things while thinking over your topic, and often this can act as a spur to get you excited (“I feel like Virgil is prejudiced against non-Romans!”), but by the time you write your paper you should be able to say “The evidence from the treatment of the non-Roman characters in the Aeneid demonstrates Virgil’s lack of empathy with non-Roman perspectives”. Of course, you do then have to produce the evidence!
5. Cut all padding. You are not writing a literary review of Plato or Wagner, so there’s no need to tell the reader what a good (or bad) writer he is.
Do you summarise the main points of your argument? Can you say: “This paper made claim X and defended it by laying out argument A and B, supported by analysis of passages N, O, and P.” If yes, then you should be in good shape.
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