Ancient Athenian Drama

Common themes: divine vs. human perspectives, family, human relationships, justice, state, suffering, and violent/melodramatic plots. Greek drama was performed differently than we experience it today. New plays were performed at festivals involving dance, drama, music, open-air spectacles, poetry, politics, religion, and slapstick. Festivals like the Great Dionysia and the Lernaea incorporated both comedy and tragedy. These festivals celebrated the subversive outsiders.
Comedy comes from komos, the Greek idea of a drunken procession. Tragedy, or “goat song” is a genre that originated as part of a ritual goat sacrifice or one was offered as a prize. Thespis was the name of a person from whom we get thespian who is traditionally said to have invented tragedy in the year 534 B.C. He “stepped out of the Chorus” creating a part for a single actor who could talk back to the chorus. One person stepping out from the chorus changed the entire direction of theater from then on.
Athenians loved the performance of poetry contests and the Homeric poems were an essential model for later drama. Many tragedies dealt with heroes who fought in the Trojan War. Dramatists learned from Homer how to create vivid dialogue and fast exciting narrative, as well as sympathy for a range of different characters.
Most of the works from this time are lost. The only complete works of Greek drama that have survived are a small selection of tragedies from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides with a few comedies by Aristophanes.
Words were only a small part of these plays. The costumes, gestures, music, props, and visual effects all worked together to create an overall effect. The writer of the play sometimes did everything, even act in his own play. Prizes were awarded to the director. The audience was mostly male and all the cast members were male. The theater was in the open air with the orchestra at the lowest point in the valley. Wooden benches rose up the slope on three sides. A wooden platform and building, or skene, represented interior space. The ekkuklema could roll out and was conventionally used to show interior space, bringing the indoors out. The mechane was a pulley system that allowed actors to appear and disappear by air. All actors wore masks and played multiple roles, for there were only two or three actors on the stage. Facial expressions were irrelevant, so body language, gestures, and voice projection were all-important.
Two important dialogue techniques: agon (contest or struggle) in which one character makes a long speech representing one side of an argument, then the other character has a long speech representing the opposite side. The second technique is called stichomythia (line-speech) where each character says one line and they go back and forth. Greek drama was always composed of verse; mostly elements of iambic.
The choral passages were in extremely complex meters, sung and accompanied by elaborate choreography. The chorus had 12-15 masked dancers with one leader who could speak. The chorus often represent the “home crowd” of where the story is set. They can represent the voice of the common man or word on the street. They may not always make sense and are often incorrect in their assessment. The chorus may listen, then voice internal thoughts of the character. The chorus may be neutral or even hostile toward certain characters. Choruses can be characters themselves, with their own biases and preoccupations.
Mutilation and violent death, by murder or suicide, accident, fate, or gods, are frequent events in Greek tragedy, yet there is little visible horror. The messenger speech is therefore one of the most important conventions of Athenian drama.
Comic poets combined reality, fantasy, and myth to show caricatures of real people mixing with made-up characters. Comedy often made direct references to recent events, and directly attacked, parodied or satirized the behavior of real contemporary people. Plots of tragedy focus on a few traditional story patterns set in the distant past and far away. The author felt free, within limits, to shape the myth their own way. Greek gods were often written as cruel and unreliable, but Athenians of the fifth century saw no necessary connection between religion and morality. Athenian drama was an act of service to the gods (especially Dionysus) because it over-turned the everyday world and explored the power of imagination. Athenian dramatists also served the audience, creating dramas that were gripping, profound, and unpredictable.



[Prologue: The Rise of the Danish Nation]

Describes a line of family who are leaders from whom Hrothgar is a descendant. Hrothgar orders a great mead hall (Heorot) be built. This is more than just a bar; it is Hrothgar’s throne and a place to distribute the spoils of war.

[Heorot Is Attacked]

There is a great demon who cannot stand to hear the happy sounds of comradery in Heorot. Grendel has lived in misery with other banished monsters. For the killing of Abel, the Lord exacts a price; they are the evil ones that God later kills in the flood. Grendel creeps into Heorot after the men have fallen asleep. He carries 30 of them back to his lair. All the remaining men go into mourning and feel helpless. They can see the demon’s trail. Grendel strikes again. The hall stands empty. Twelve years of woe follow. No one, young or old, is safe. Grendel takes over Heorot, but he cannot sit upon the throne being God’s outcast. The Lord was unknown to the people; they would only learn of him after death.

[The Hero Comes to Heorot]

People freak out with terror after dark. We meet Beowulf who is the mightiest man on earth. He set out to find the king in need and takes a small army of 14 by boat. One of Hrothgar’s men meets them on the shore. Beowulf explains that they have come to help slay the monster; won’t this man guide them to his leader? Tatchman agrees to lead Beowulf’s army to Hrothgar.  The army makes it to the mead hall and take a rest. The party announce themselves and request a meeting with Hrothgar. Hrothgar had known Beowulf as a boy; knew his parents. Hrothgar grants them entry. Beowulf explains how news of Grendel had come across the sea. He says he resolved to come help and the Geats supported his decision because he was such an awesome warrior. Beowulf says he is ready to face Grendel and take him down in a single combat. Beowulf has heard that Grendel doesn’t use weapons, so neither will he; hand-to-hand combat will be the valiant way to go. Whoever dies will be the judgment of God. Beowulf requests that if he dies Hrothgar send his breast-webbing back to his homeland as remembrance. Hrothgar doesn’t like that everyone knows he needs help, but he accepts it, and there is a feast at Heorot.

[Feast at Heorot]

At the party, Unferth asks Beowulf if the legend of the swimming contest is true. They learn that Beowulf’s challenger won the swimming contest; now they feel Grendel may win his. “So Breca made good his boast upon you and was proved right. No matter, therefor, how you may have fared in every bout and battle until now, this time you’ll be worsted; no one has ever outlasted an entire night against Grendel.” The gauntlet is thrown. You’ve had your say, Unferth, but you must be tipsy. “Breca could never move out farther or faster from me than I could manage to move from him.” A sea monster pulled me under, but I was wearing armour. “My sword plunged and the ordeal was over.” “From now on sailors would be safe, the deep sea raids were over for good…my sword had killed nine sea-monsters.” “…but worn out as I was, I survived, came through with my life.” “I cannot recall any fight you entered, Unferth, that bears comparison.” “The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly as keen or courageous as you claim to be Grendel would never have got away with such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king, havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere.” “He knows he can trample down you Danes to his heart’s content, humiliate and murder…But he will find me different.” “So the laughter started, the din got louder and the crowd was happy.” Hrothgar’s wife comes to thank and welcome everyone. Hrothgar leaves for bed. “‘Never, since my hand could hold a shield have I entrusted or given control of the Danes’ hall to anyone but you…’.”

[The Fight with Grendel]

“And before he bedded down, Beowulf, that prince of goodness, proudly asserted: ‘When it comes to fighting, I count myself as dangerous any day as Grendel.’” “…he does possess a wild strength. No weapons…unarmed he shall face me if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side He sees fit.’” As they lay down to sleep, none of them expect to ever see home again. “Through the strength of one they all prevailed; they would crush their enemy and come through in triumph and gladness. The truth is clear: Almighty God rules over mankind and always has. Then out of the night came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift.” Grendel!  “In off the moors, down through the mist-bands God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping. The bane of the race of men roamed forth, hunting for a prey in the high hall.” He sees the men sleeping, but unbeknownst to him, Grendel’s fate has changed. Grendel attacks and eats a man. “Venturing closer, his talon was raised to attack Beowulf where he lay on the bed…” Beowulf grabs Grendel in a death hold. “…it was the worst trip the terror-monger had taken to Heorot…the two contenders crashed through the building.” Beowulf and Grendel tear up the place. “Then an extraordinary wail arouse, and bewildering fear came over the Danes…the howl of the loser, the lament of the hell-serf keening his wound.” As Beowulf fights with his hands, his army uses their swords, but to no avail. “…no blade on earth, no blacksmith’s art could ever damage their demon opponent.” “The monster’s whole body was in pain; a tremendous wound appeared on his shoulder…Beowulf was granted the glory of winning; Grendel was driven under the fen-bands, fatally hurt, to his desolate lair.” “…the whole of Grendel’s shoulder and arm,” were ripped off by Beowulf’s “ awesome grasp.”

[Celebration at Heorot]

The next day everyone can see Grendel’s bloody path of retreat. “With his death upon him, he had dived deep into his marsh-den, drowned out his life and his heathen soul; hell claimed him there.” The men begin to eulogize Beowulf’s worthy fight. “The man started to recite with skill, rehearsing Beowulf’s triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines.” Later…”evil entered into Heremod.” Because of his defeating Grendel, Beowulf has now become immortal, for his story will live forever. A crowd is looking at Grendel’s left-behind body part. “Everybody said there was no honed iron hard enough to pierce him through, no time-proofed blade that could cut his brutal, blood-caked claw. Then the order was given for all hands to help to refurbish Heorot immediately.” “No group ever gathered in greater numbers or better order around their ring-giver.” “Inside Heorot there was nothing but friendship.” Beowulf is showered with gifts. “…each man on the bench who had sailed with Beowulf…received a bounty.” They shouted “…words and music for their warrior prince.”

(There is a nested tale explained in the footnotes.)

“The bright court of Heorot has been cleansed and now the word is that you want to adopt this warrior as a son…bask in your fortune…” Beowulf is given golden necklaces and rings. “She moved then to her place. Men were drinking wine at that rare feast; how could they know fate, the grim shape of things to come, the threat looming over many thanes as night approached and King Hrothgar prepared to retire to his quarter?” “It was their habit always and everywhere to be ready for action.”

[Another Attack]

“They went to sleep. And one paid dearly for his night’s ease…” “…an avenger lurked and was still alive…Grendel’s mother, monstrous hell-bride, brooded on her wrongs.” [Notice that this female character is never given a name. She is only known as Grendel’s mother. The loss of identity and naming are worthy theme in literature.] “But now his mother had sallied forth on a savage journey, grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge.” Grendel’s mother has one of Hrothgar’s most beloved men in her grip. “She had pounced and taken one of the retainers…To Hrothgar, this man was the most beloved of the friends.” Mother took Grendel’s bloody hand. “Beowulf was elsewhere. Earlier, after the award of the treasure, the Geat had been given another lodging…She had snatched their trophy, Grendel’s bloodied hand.” “…the old lord…was heartsore and weary when he heard the news: his highest-placed adviser, his dearest companion, was dead and gone.” “Where she is hiding, glutting on the corpse and glorying in her escape, I cannot tell; she has taken up the feud because of last night, when you killed Grendel.” “…this force for evil driven to avenge her kinsman’s death.” “Now help depends again on you and on you alone…I will compensate you for settling the feud.”

[Beowulf Fights Grendel’s Mother]

“…let us immediately set forth on the trail of this troll-dam. I guarantee you: she will not get away.” They are on the mother’s tracks. “…a hurt to each and every one of that noble company when they came upon Aeschere’s head at the foot of the cliff.” Beowulf suits up for battle. There is a detailed description of all the armor and weapons needed for the battle. “If this combat kills me, take care of my young company, my comrades in arms.” He leaves a verbal will. “With Hrunting I shall gain glory or die.” “…without more ado, he dived into the heaving depths of the lake.” Grendel’s mother “…sensed a human observing her outlandish lair from above. So she lunged and clutched and managed to catch him in her brutal grip; but his body, for all that, remained unscathed: the mesh of the chain-mail saved him on the outside.” “…for all his courage he could never use the weapons he carried” even though “…droves of sea-beasts… attacked with tusks and tore at his chain-mail.” Beowulf lands a mighty blow on her head, yet the sword does not phase her. “…the decorated blade came down ringing and singing on her head…his battle-torch extinguished; the shining blade refused to bite.” Beowulf throws the sword away and is ready for hand-to-hand combat. “Then, in a fury, he flung his sword away…he would have to rely on the might of his arm.” “But the mesh of chain-mail on Beowulf’s shoulder shielded his life, turned the edge and tip of the blade.” Beowulf sees a huge, ancient sword in her collection. He chops her neck. “Then he saw a blade that boded well, a sword in her armory, an ancient heirloom from the days of the giants, an ideal weapon, one that any warrior would envy, but so huge and heavy of itself only Beowulf could wield it in a battle. So the Shieldings’ hero hard-pressed and enraged, took a firm hold of the hilt and swung the blade in an arc, a resolute blow that bit deep into her neck-bone and severed it entirely, toppling the doomed house of her flesh; she fell to the floor.” Beowulf sees Grendel’s corpse and cuts off its head. People are giving up on waiting for Beowulf to return. “The Geat captain saw treasure in abundance but carried no spoils from those quarters except for the head and the inlaid hilt embossed with jewels.” He swims to the surface. “His thanes advanced in a troop to meet him, thanking God and taking great delight in seeing their prince back safe and sound.” “It was a task for four to hoist Grendel’s head on a spear…” Hrothgar speaks of how men can take the high road or the low road.  “Tomorrow morning our treasure will be shared and showered upon you.” “Happiness came back, the hall was thronged, and a banquet set forth…”

[Beowulf Returns Home]

“Warriors rose quickly, impatient to be off: their own country was beckoning…” Beowulf swears friendship with the camp of Hrothgar. Regarding Beowulf: “You are strong in body and mature in mind, impressive in speech.” Hrothgar says that he hopes Beowulf will one day become King of the Geats. Helping equals friendship. Here, there is a bit of foreshadowing: “…the good and gray-haired Dane…kissed Beowulf and embraced his neck, then broke down in sudden tears…nevermore would they meet each other face to face.” Weapons are viewed as status symbols. The story follows Beowulf home where he is given gold, a magnificent house and a wife. “A queen should weave peace, not punish the innocent with loss of life for imagined insults.” “Beowulf’s return was reported to Hygelac as soon as possible.” Beowulf tells his story to Hygelac after returning home. Beowulf then tells of how Grendel’s mother came for revenge. “…Hrothgar’s treasures…these, King Hygelac, I am happy to present to you as gifts.” “…thus Beowulf bore himself with valor; he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honor and took no advantage…” “…the best example of a gem-studded sword in the Geat treasury. This he laid on Beowulf’s lap…rewarded him with land as well…a hall and a throne.”

[The Dragon Wakes]

Hygelac dies and Beowulf rules for fifty years without incident “…until one began to dominate the dark, a dragon on the prowl from the steep vaults of a stone-roofed barrow where he guarded a hoard…” “The intruder who broached the dragon’s treasure and moved him to wrath had never meant to. It was desperation on the part of a slave fleeing the heavy hand of some master…” “…somebody now forgotten had buried the riches of a highborn race in this ancient cache.”  The dragon found this underground lair and stayed there for three centuries. “When the dragon awoke, trouble flared again.” The dragon begins to terrorize the land. “The first to suffer were the people on the land, but before long it was their treasure-giver who would come to grief.” “…the Geat nation bore the brunt of his brutal assaults and virulent hate.” The dragon burns many homes to the ground, including Beowulf’s, “…so the war-king planned and plotted his revenge.” He has an awesome shield made and reminisces about a past victory. It is explained how Beowulf ascended to the throne. “Heardred lay slaughtered and Onela returned to the land of Sweden, leaving Beowulf to ascend the throne.” Beowulf and his men find the one who stole the dragon’s cup and make him work for them. They want him to lead them to the dragon’s lair. Beowulf “was sad at heart, unsettled yet ready, sensing his death.” He reflects on past rivalries and battles.


[Beowulf Attacks the Dragon]

“Now I am old, but as king of the people I shall pursue this fight…” “But I shall be meeting molten venom in the fire he breathes, so I go forth in mail-shirt and shield.” He doesn’t want his army to help. Beowulf shouts at the dragon. “The hoard-guard recognized a human voice, the time was over for peace and parleying.” Both man and beast were scared “[y]et his shield defended the renowned leader’s life and limb for a shorter time than he meant it to: that final day was the first time when Beowulf fought and fate denied him glory in battle.” Although he “struck hard at the enameled scales,” he “scarcely cut through.” “Beowulf was foiled of a glorious victory.” “…he who had once ruled was furled in fire and had to face the worst…that hand-picked troop broke ranks and ran for their lives to the safety of the wood.” Oh! Thanks, guys! But in his darkest hour, one dude had Beowulf’s back. “His name was Wiglaf…a well-regarded Shylfing warrior.” “He could not hold back: one hand brandished the yellow-timbered shield, the other drew his sword…” Seeing Wiglaf’s bravery, Beowulf “bequeathed to Wiglaf innumerable weapons. And now the youth was to enter the line of battle with his lord, his first time to be tested as a fighter. His spirit did not break and the ancestral blade would keep its edge, as the dragon discovered as soon as they came together in combat. Wiglaf gives a rousing battle speech. He promises to stand by Beowulf, but Wiglaf’s shield is destroyed. Beowulf shares his. “…the war-king threw his whole strength behind a sword stroke and connected with the skull. And Naegling snapped. Beowulf’s ancient iron-gray sword let him down in the fight.” Beowulf had never had much luck with swords; he always fought better with his bare hands. “When the chance came, he caught the hero in a rush of flame and clamped sharp fangs into his neck. Beowulf’s body ran wet with his life-blood.” Wiglaf “saw the king in danger at his side and displayed his inborn bravery and strength.” Wiglaf’s “decorated sword sank into its belly and the flames grew weaker.” Beowulf also stabbed a knife in the dragon’s flank, dealing the deadly blow. “…partners in nobility, had destroyed the foe. So every man should act, be at hand when needed…this would be the last of his many labors and triumphs in the world.” “Beowulf discovered deadly poison suppurating inside him” causing nausea. They washed his wounds although “…his allotted time was drawing to a close, death was very near.” Because he knows he has lived an honorable life, he feels he will go to heaven. Right before Beowulf’s death scene there is this: “I give thanks that I behold this treasure…I have been allowed to leave my people so well endowed on the day I die. Now that I have bartered my last breath to own this fortune, it is up to you to look after their needs…construct a barrow on a headland on the coast, after my pyre has cooled.” Call it “Beowulf’s Barrow.” He dies.

[Beowulf’s Funeral]

Regarding the cowards who abandoned the fight: “Before long the battle-dodgers abandoned the wood, the ones who had let down their lord earlier, the tail-turners, ten of them together. When he needed them most, they had made off.” “Then a stern rebuke was bound to come from the young warrior to the ones who had been cowards.” “…when the worst happened too few rallied around the prince. ‘So it is good-bye now to all you know and love on your home ground, the open-handedness, the giving of war-swords. Every one of you with freeholds of land, our whole nation, will be dispossessed, once princes from beyond get tiding of how you turned and fled and disgraced yourselves. A warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame.” We have to always assume that our enemies are ready to attack. There is a description of how the Geats became at odds with the Swedes. “…they will cross our borders and attack in force when they find out that Beowulf is dead.” “That huge cache, gold inherited from an ancient race, was under a spell–which meant no one was ever permitted to enter the ring-hall unless God Himself, mankind’s Keeper, True King of Triumphs, allowed some person pleasing to Him–and in His eyes worthy–to open the hoard.” “The highborn chiefs who had buried the treasure declared it until doomsday so accursed that whoever robbed it would be guilty of wrong and grimly punished for their transgression, hasped in hell-bonds in heathen shrines. Yet Beowulf’s gaze at the gold treasure when he first saw it had not been selfish…’Often when one man follows his own will many are hurt…’.” The village gathers wood for the funeral pyre. Some begin to think about the dragon’s treasure that is now unguarded: “hurry to work and haul out the priceless store…and backwash take the treasure-minder. Then coiled gold was loaded on a cart in great abundance, and the gray-haired leader, the prince on his bier, borne to Hronesness.” Many people were so sad that they began to moan and wail. One woman freaks out about their uncertain future. “…high and imposing, a marker that sailors could see from far away…their hero’s memorial…” “they let the ground keep that ancestral treasure…” The last lines read like this: “They said that of all the kings upon earth he was the man most gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.”

Beowulf 9th century Introductory Material

This text survived as a tattered document written in Old English. It describes an heroic age of heroes, dragons and monsters; family, enemies, song and celebration. It celebrates the culture of the past that by the year 1000 had all but disappeared. The book can be dated to 1000 a.d. and is called Anglo-Saxon literature. There are other tales in the book that was found. They varied by genres, but all contained monsters and heroes. There are three monsters in Beowulf: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. This shows medieval English culture and its ability to integrate pagan Germanic history within frameworks of the Christian Middle Ages. The poem must be older than the book, for the copying of the story contains copying errors. These tales are known among the Scandinavians with the poem’s setting taking place sometime in the 6th century. Oral tradition of the tale would have existed first. It is an English poem, but not about English people. The character, Beowulf, is Swedish and serves in a Danish court. In the setting, England is only beginning to be settled by Germans. The Christian audience would have heard of a pre-Christian world where fate (wyrd) governs life events. Yet in the poem, Christianity is left ambiguous; Grendel is one of “Cain’s clan.” Beowulf first fights Grendel, then Grendel’s mother, returning home a celebrated hero. Decades later he confronts a dragon and Wiglaf comes to help Beowulf. The monsters are complex. Grendel is combination monster and man; a forlorn outcast. Grendel shows human emotions. Grendel’s mother is motivated by the desire to avenge her son’s death—viewed as an appropriate response. When Beowulf fights the dragon, our hero is the one who is invading the dragon’s territory. Every clash is couched in terms of equality and balance.

Another level of the story explores kinship, tribe, warrior and lord. Beowulf goes from one of an army of Geats to moving up into the ranks of Hrothgar. Later he returns to rule the Geats. The most valuable gift here is that of community. Heorot, the meeting place, is seen as the heart of community. Swords and weapons also link warriors over time and space. Rings, or golden collars, carry both material and social value and they mark loyalty between individuals and groups. Material possessions can be passed on to others to represent connections. Weapons are instruments of warfare and a symbol of continuity. Heroic songs are also a communal ritual connecting the past to the present and building bonds of friendship. In its original form, the poem had a strong rhythmic quality with an alliterative and songlike quality.

Confessions by Augustine

From Book I  [Childhood]

Discusses attempts at communication before he was able to speak. As he grows he observes how others use words to express themselves. He finds school lessons torturous, yet if he doesn’t learn he is beaten. It seems like no one thinks whipping children is horrible except him. Parents and teachers seem to think punishing him is no big deal. He loves to play which is punished, but he notes that grown men do the same things and are rewarded. He dislikes learning, especially when forced, but that is exactly what happens. No one does well when they are forced to do something—even if it is for their own good. God was right for punishing me because I eventually did learn, and that is the only way my education would have happened. “…every disorder of the soul is its own punishment.” He feels he is supposed to be more enmeshed in the stories he is learning in school than he is within his own life. As a boy I was wrong to love the empty and hate the useful. When I was able to interpret a piece of work better than others in the class I would win great applause. Was all that not just smoke and mirrors?


From Book II  [The Pear Tree]

As a teenager I was bent on sinning. I had a strong appetite for flesh and was a horny youth. My parents cared less about my morals and more about me being able to give fine speeches. I ran with a gang and we would steal stuff just for the thrill of it. I loved the evil within me; I loved being bad for its own sake. It wasn’t that I needed pears because I had better pears of my own. Once I stole them I threw them away. Perhaps it was the thrill of acting against God’s law. I found pleasure in the forbidden only because it was forbidden.


From Book III  [Student at Carthage]

I loved the thought of love. I wanted sex with no commitment. I hated the very thought of God. I was polluting my relationships but trying to cover my debased feelings and desires. I fell in love but made myself unhappy with jealousy. I wonder why the most popular plays are the ones that make us cry? We want to be joyful. Do we get some sort of thrill from being able to pity others? Everyone in my day wanted to be a lawyer. I thought the less honest I was the more famous I would be. As I studied I found much of my classmates’ behaviors disgusting. I would study Cicero to learn rhetoric, but what I really sought was immortal wisdom. While studying the book of Cicero I began to have thoughts beyond the book; it made me shift interests. When I read the bible at this time it seemed dumb and simplistic compared to Cicero and other authors I’d read.


From Book V  [Augustine Leaves Carthage for Rome]

I was invited to Rome for more prestige and money, but the real reason was because I heard the students behaved better. I made the place I was living seem worse and the place I was going sound better than it really was. My mother cried when I left. In the bigger picture, my going away was to bring her more happiness than she could predict.


From Book VI  [Earthly Love]

Mother had come to be with me. She was upset I wasn’t yet a Christian. At least I’d stopped being Manichean. I became engaged. Mom picked out the girl, but I had to wait because she wasn’t yet old enough to be married. About ten friends and I would debate how to make a better world. We became very excited about living in a communal house. Then we remembered our wives and knew they wouldn’t go for such a thing, so we dropped it. My girlfriend left and left the baby with me. My heart was ripped out. Then I realized that I didn’t want marriage, I just wanted sex. I took another woman, but my heartache did not go away.


From Book VIII  [Conversion]

Continuing to sin was more comfortable than the way of the Lord I had not tried. My mind was telling me that I couldn’t break out of my old habits. I knew that I should go in a new direction, but I was so scared. I saw so many men, women and children turning toward Christianity. Why not me? The message was that I must turn away from my sin—stop my ears to my sinful desires. My buddy, Alypius, saw me struggling and crying. Will I forever have to apologize to God? Why not end all of my uncleanliness right now? I heard a voice on the wind that seems to say “Take and read” and I felt this message was about the bible. Whatever I read first will be a sign: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.” From that moment on I was totally changed. Mother was overjoyed.


From Book IX  [Death of His Mother]

On our way back to Africa mother died. My mother was the one that brought me to God. Over time, Mom became a big fan of wine. When she once got into an argument with another woman, Mom was called a drunkard. It hit her so hard that she never drank another drop. Mother treated her husband as her god and accepted all his actions with patience. Mother would not stand for servants speaking against her or disrupting the harmony of her family; they would be punished. She was a peacemaker. She did not tell people anything negative she had heard about them. Not only should we never use words to harm, we should speak kindly to engender peace. She converted her husband toward the end of her life. She treated everyone like she was their mother. We were discussing the presence of Truth—just us two alone. She said that she had attained all her goals and that there was really nothing on earth to keep her here. She asked her sons to remember her at every altar they may visit. She didn’t mind where she was buried because she would always be the same distance from God. My son (about 16) began to cry. We didn’t want to be sad because she had not died miserably, nor did she wholly die. My heart grieved because the situation was so new. When I was taking care of her she called me a good, dutiful son. We had always lived together. In front of others I would hold my emotions, but God knew my heart was crushing. I had a good cry session alone with God. I know my Mom is in heaven. I remind you of her good deeds and pray for her sins. Please keep her in your protection.

Augustine 354-430 B.C.

Born between antiquity and the medieval millennium, his autobiography, Confessions, draws on Roman orators such as Cicero, yet reaches forward to explore how the word of God had been lodged within his soul all along.

Life and Times

Augustine was born in North Africa during a time of war along with cultural and religious transitions. Mystery and cult religions were popular. Augustine was able to travel over Northern Africa and into Italy. His interest was captured by Manicheanism, a dualistic religion that resembled early Christianity: life of the mind, spiritual purity. Augustine became a teacher of grammar and established a school of rhetoric. In Italy he became the Chair of rhetoric and wrote speeches that were used at court. He then became interested in Neoplatonism: a philosophy and a quasi-religious form of mysticism, yet he slowly became increasingly drawn to Christianity. Bishop Ambrose and his mother, Monica, teamed up to bring Augustine in to the Christian faith, which he did when he was 32. Both his mother and son died. He returned to Africa alone, surrounded himself with other Christians and turned his home into a monastery. Augustine gained a reputation as a spiritual leader and later became an ordained priest.


Augustine probably began his autobiography around age 43. Writing Confessions opened up the floodgates; he went on to write tons of stuff. Augustine began the autobiographical genre. He wants Confessions to turn his reader inward and contemplate the journey toward the divine. Augustine had one girlfriend for years with whom he had a son, Adeodatus. His mother arranged a marriage to another woman, but Augustine’s relationship with God took over his life. His journey was his search for the self. By revealing his deepest self and his struggles, others began to seek out his works.

Circling the Mediterranean: Europe and the Islamic World

The Mediterranean Sea brought together Europe, North Africa and the Near and Middle East. Not only commodities, but also stories and songs continually circulated from place to place, crisscrossing the water to link nations. The opposition of “the Islamic world” and “Europe” is a modern invention: it was not the way medieval people described themselves or the world.  The cultural ferment of the Islamic world was an essential element in the emergence of the early modern West. The story of pre-modern history and literature is, therefore, above all a story of connections, interaction, and mutual influence. In other words, the Middle East helped shape what we consider European texts.

Christianity and Platonism

The influence of the Roman Empire was spreading which worried other cultures. The expansion of the Roman Empire culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and scattering (or “diaspora”} of the Jewish community. About three centuries later this heterogeneous collection of new religious orientations became codified as a single Christian doctrine. Augustine’s autobiography, the Confessions, worked as the lynchpin between Roman philosophies and new Christian ideals. These moments illustrate the imaginative pull of classical literature which persisted during the period of Christianity’s emergence. The written works and other customs began to transform as Christianity grew in popularity. The yearning for a mystical faith that would provide a sense of purpose was ubiquitous in the late Roman Empire. In the 4th century Christianity became Roman state religion. It was an empire so vast that it had two capitals. The waves of invasions of Italy by Germanic tribes came to a head in the fifth century, when Rome endured a series of weak rulers. Augustine and Boethius, writing in the 5th and 6th centuries, bear witness to the decay of Rome and to the birth of something entirely new, as a Christian culture, various and diffuse, rose out of the ashes of empire. The simultaneous emergence of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity can be described as a kind of twin birth, both of them formed in the crucible of Roman aggression in the first century. The Jewish diaspora laid the groundwork for many Christian “beginning” stories.

The Spread of Islam

The dissemination of the Qur’an by Muhammad in the 7th century and the formation of an Islamic community affected the development of Mediterranean culture. In Ibn Ishaq’s account of Muhammad’s life, we find a community struggling to meet the expectations found in the Qur’an, and to the exemplary life of its prophet, Muhammad. The revealed book and the life were the religious guidelines of an empire that grew almost overnight to dominate large swathes of the Middle East and North Africa. Islamic rule extended westward through Spain into southern France and Persia to India. The spread of Islam took place not only through cultural and religious means, but also through direct military conquest. The most important of the many religious divisions is of the Sunni from Shi’a Islam: the former centers on a strict conformity to the exemplary life of the Prophet Muhammad and a literal reading of the Holy Book; the latter, instead, prescribes a special veneration of the family of the Prophet, especially his daughter Fatima, her husband and their sons. There was a later medieval emergence of Sufi mysticism.

Internal squabbling finally gave way to utter chaos with the invasion of the Mongols in the early 13th century and their seizure of Baghdad in 1258. Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo—the various nations yoked under Islamic rule, shared one crucial element: the Arabic language. Arabic was the standard language of conversation, administration, and poetic composition, not only for Muslims, but also for Christians and Jews who lived in regions under Islamic rule, such as al-Andalus. Arabic language served to unify diverse populations, in much the same way as Greek had done in the ancient eastern Mediterranean and Latin would do in medieval Europe. Poetic traditions in Arabia before the revelation of the Qur’an had placed special value on recitation and the musical quality of verse, its rhythmic repetitions and use of end rhyme. Because the Qur’an itself conformed to many of these pre-Islamic norms, it became a standard model for poetic excellence while maintaining its preeminent theological value. Persia came under Islamic influence and offered gifts as well. The Ottomans held Persian language, art, and poetics in high esteem, and imported painters as well as writers to serve their imperial court. Finally, the marriage of religious devotion and an exquisite poetic sensibility, so finely expressed in the lyrics of Attar, Rumi, and Hafez, would come to be a crucial part of the literary legacy of Islam, widely disseminated not only among the community of Muslim readers, but also among the diverse modern audiences of world literature.

A productive feature of medieval culture was the intersection of poetics and philosophy. In these strikingly parallel cases, Platonic philosophy supplied the means to express a religious worldview that focuses particularly—whether in Christian or in Islamic terms—on how the individual soul can come to experience the divine presence. Avicenna began to interpret the literal journey metaphorically or even mystically, understanding the singular ascent of the Prophet as a model for the journey that every soul must make toward God. This text, known as the Libro della Scala (or Book of the Ladder) was widely disseminated, providing a vision of the layered heavens that would inspire European Christian writers, including Dante. The influence of Islamic literature was felt not only through the exalted union of philosophy and theology with poetics but also on a more mundane, vernacular level. The vibrant tradition of frame-tale narratives, in which an outer layer organized a series of nested narratives that are contained within the frame like the layers of an onion, had a long history in the Mediterranean region. The genre took off in Persian and Arabic literatures. Other collections and their frame-tale form served as the inspiration for many European manifestations of the genre.


The Invention of the West

The idea of the West as a synonym for Christian Europe—which seems so natural and familiar to modern readers—did not even begin to emerge until the late Middle Ages. Christian European Jews were only sporadically tolerated, and Muslims were virtually unknown. Latin was used for religion and politics. Latin’s cultural hold was stronger: medieval Christians used it exclusively to compose their philosophical and scientific works, while both Arabic and Persian functioned as languages of literature and learning for Muslims. Beginning in the 9th century, however, and with increasing frequency from the 12th century onward, vernacular languages such as English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish became more common vehicles for poetic composition.

The medieval map, with its deeply religious imaginative geography and central focus on Jerusalem, illuminates the ways in which the repeated cycles of European warfare around the Mediterranean and into the Middle East—called “Crusades,” after the cross (Latin crux) sewn by the warriors onto their garments—functioned not just as actual military campaigns, but also as symbolic assaults designed to reclaim control of the spiritual homeland of the medieval Christian. The Crusades functioned mainly as opportunities for economic development and international cooperation among the nations of Europe, helping to unify these disparate Christian nations through their shared opposition to the Muslim enemy. Anti-Muslim violence in the form of crusades was therefore closely linked with the persecution of Jews and the early emergence of anti-Semitism. The opposition of Christian and non-Christian, so fundamental to the ideology of the crusades, permeates the epic literature of the Middle Ages. Metaphorically, the victory of Christian over pagan is presented as a template for all holy war.

The epic genre began to emerge, originally in oral form. Epic, whether in England or in Persia, creates a sense of national identity by evoking a common historical origin, but it also grafts upon the rootstock of native myth new forms of identity—especially religious forms imported from outside the borders of the nation. Epic is often opposed to romance: the former is portrayed as a masculine genre dedicated to the deeds of knights and the matters of war; the latter as a feminine genre that focuses on the relations of the lady and her lover, confined to the domestic sphere of the court. Both genres, which rose to prominence in the 12th century, share the idealized image of the knight: if he expresses his chivalry on the field of battle, the work is epic, but if his prowess is displayed in the private space of the bedchamber, the work is romance. The French origins of the romance genre are closely tied to the emergence of French as a literary language. Latin was unquestionably the primary language of scholarly learning, but vernacular or spoken languages increasingly came to be the first choice for poetic composition. In the 12th century, French was the first of the European languages to be elevated in this way; by the 14th century, other vernaculars had also begun to be widely used. Latin was still trying to hold on and expand out into literature. Petrarch is considered Renaissance—and used early 14th century Latin and Italian. Boccaccio is considered medieval—mid-14th century Italian/Latin. The example of these two contemporaries illustrates the ways in which period divisions, like geographical divisions, sometimes obscure the profound continuities that underlie literary history.

Even medieval authors longed for classical antiquity, even though we associated this idea with the Renaissance. While we can read Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Christine de Pizan in the context of the emergence of Latin humanism, they can also be seen as central participants in the late medieval European flowering of the frame-tale genre. Transmitted from India to Persia, then disseminated throughout the Islamic world and across the Mediterranean, frame-tale narratives such as the Thousand and One Nights were widely popular, both in written and in oral form. Petrus Alfonsi’s work is just one of the first in a long series of frame-tale narratives. The age of Boccaccio and Chaucer also witnessed the rise of yet one more genre centered on the crossing of cultural boundaries: the travel narrative.

Confucius 551-479 B.C.

To this day there is virtually no aspect of East Asia on which Confucius and his ideas have not had some impact. He became well known only after his death. 350 years later, Confucian values became known and revered and became the basis for official Chinese state ideology during the Han Dynasty. He is a national icon for China’s venerable past. His works were critiqued vociferously during the 20th century.


Life and Times

Confucius came from the lower ranks of hereditary nobility. He left Lu and spent many years wandering from court to court in search of a ruler who would appreciate his talents and political vision. No leader ever took him on as a guide.


The Zhou Heritage and Confucius’s Innovation

Confucius’s philosophical vision brims with admiration for the values of the early Zhou rulers. Confucius admired 1) a concern for the people and enforcing wise policies 2) The Duke of Zhou who protected his nephew from rebellions and challenges to the newly founded dynasty and was an exemplary regent, with an eye to the welfare of the dynasty, not on his personal ambitions. In the Analects Confucius often sharply criticizes the irreverent behavior of the feudal lords toward the Zhou king and showcases their corruption to explain his vision of proper government. He built a new tradition. Political chaos could be avoided by returning to the moral values of the venerable founders of the Zhou Dynasty. There was an emphasis on the importance of social roles and rituals to reinforce existing hierarchies. Everyone has inner potential to find a meaningful place in society. We can read a group of texts like the “Confucian Classics” and apply them to life’s challenges. These works enabled people to better understand and take control of their lives. The works suggested following moral models, historical precedents and words of wisdom.


Diversity and Core Values in the Analects

The Analects is best translated as “Collected Sayings.” A collection of brief quotations, conversations, and anecdotes from the life of Confucius, the Analects were not written by the master himself, but compiled by later generations of disciples. The Analects throw light on people, concrete situations, and above all, the exemplary model of Confucius himself. “Goodness” or “humanity”, “ritual” and “respect for one’s parents” were important. He might utter different, even contradictory, maxims. Since the Analects was compiled over several centuries, they include the changing opinions of the compilers.



Confucius set forth a core set of values; one was ritual which makes social life meaningful. We should strive to learn from historical figures of exemplary moral conduct.


Social Roles

A second recurrent concern in the Analects is Confucius’s attention to social roles. Humans owe each other “goodness” or “humanity”; empathy and reciprocal concern; mutual respect and obligation. There should be a balance between self and society.


Efficient Action

A third concern is efficient action which helps maintain the other ideals. It is possible to harmonize one’s natural impulses with social norms and thus become an efficient, harmonious agent in society. The notion that the moral charisma of a sage ruler can be so powerful that there is no need to resort to lowly means of war and violence became the basis of the traditional Chinese view of rulership. Efficient thinking and speech were prized.


The Importance of Canonical Texts in Confucianism

Confucius and his followers, called Ru, or “traditionalist scholars,” considered the study of the ancient texts that contained the legacy of the Zhou as paramount to self-cultivation. Today hardly anybody believes that they were written or compiled by Confucius. These books became the curriculum in the first Chinese state university, founded in 124 B.C. For more than two millennia these texts were the backbone of the training of political and cultural elites throughout East Asia.

Classic of Poetry

Classic of Poetry is the oldest poetry collection of East Asia. The poems reflect the breadth of early Chinese society. There are images of nature and distinctive, fresh simplicity. There is now centuries of commentary and interpretation and is an important element of the traditional curriculum.


The Anthology and its Significance

The anthology contains compact, evocative, lyric poetry. Because Chinese literature originated with the Classic of Poetry, short verse gained a degree of pedagogical, political, social importance in East Asia not enjoyed anywhere else in the world. The Classic of Poetry contains 305 poems and consists of three parts: the “Airs of the Domains”, the “Odes/Elegances” and the “Hymns”. The choice and arrangement of the poems were seen as an expression of Confucius’s philosophy. Moral virtue contributes to social order. Confucius’s high opinion of the Classic of Poetry led to its inclusion in the canon of “Confucian Classics.” The Confucian Classics became the curriculum of the state academy (124 B.C.). A “Great Preface,” written for the anthology, became the single most fundamental statement about the function and nature of poetry in East Asia. It claimed there were “six principles” of poetry: the three categories in which the poems were placed and the three rhetorical devices of “enumeration”, “comparison” and “evocative image”. Scholars have debated these issues ever since. They developed the idea that poetry and song can bridge the gulf between social classes, that they can serve as a tool for mutual “influence” and “criticism.” Poetry and songs give the people a voice, helping them keep bad rulers in check, and was central to the Confucian understanding of poetry and society. Poetry made room for social critique and created the institution of “remonstration”: the duty of officials in the bureaucracy to speak out against abuses of power.


The Poems

Almost all poems in the Classic of Poetry are anonymous and give voice to many different players in Zhou society. The constraints imposed by society, and the conflict between individual desire and social expectations, are important themes in the “Airs” section. The protagonists in the romantic plots that appear in the poems of the “Airs of the Domains” could be from any culture, past or present. The central stylistic device of the Classic of Poetry is repetition with variation. Enumeration is often used and is the telling of sequences of events in straightforward narrative fashion. Poems from the “Airs” section, by contrast, mostly employ “comparisons” and “evocative images.” Evocative images are much more elusive and do not easily translate into any rhetorical trope in the Western tradition. Xing, the term rendered as “evocative image,” literally means “stimulus” or “excitement.” Xing brings natural images into suggestive resonance with human situations, stimulating the imagination and pushing perception beyond a simple comparison of one thing to another. This collection was part of the education of political elites. They contain pristine simplicity and evocative power to voice fundamental human emotions and challenges.


Classic of Poetry


About how women should act and a young man tormented by desire. The pretty girl is fit for a prince and she is forever desired. Went looking for her; she is always in my thoughts. Couldn’t sleep. We play music for the pretty girl. We play music to make her happy. Does this poem encourage women to not be jealous if their men take another lover?


Peach Tree Soft and Tender

The peach tree has cycles like a woman who will become a wife and mother. The bride is like a blossom. She will plump and ripen like the peach. She will mature into a bride.


Plums Are Falling

The fruits become fewer with each repetition until the woman decides whom she wants to marry. Seven men want me; I hope I end up with the fine one. Now there are three; I want a steady man. Although many men want me, I want only to be the bride of one.


[In the Airs section we can see how individual desire interacts with societal expectations.]


Dead Roe Deer

A girl who has just been seduced and now sits beside a dead deer. Death hovers ominously over deer, woman and maidenhood. The deer is wrapped in white rushes and the maiden is also white as marble. The maiden says to not touch her or make her cry out because the dog will bark.


Boat of Cypress

A heart that refuses to bend to society’s wishes. The wine does not calm my restlessness. My brothers do not help me with my grief. Neither you nor I can tell my heart what to do, but my behaviors have remained dignified. I contemplate little injustices. These troubles of the heart are like unwashed clothes and I cannot get away.


Gentle Girl

I pretty girl waits for me, but she is in shadow and I cannot see her. She gave me a scarlet pipe. I find delight in her beauty. She also brought me a reed, but what made it beautiful was the giver.



She gave me a quince and I gave her a garnet. Even though the exchange is unequal, our love will last. She gave me a peach; I have gave her an opal. She gave me a plum and I gave her a ruby. The gifts are not equal in monetary value, but we continually give to each other which will make our love last.


Zhongzi, Please

A suitor with very strong desires! The girl fears a scandal. Zhongzi, don’t cross my village wall and break the willows. My mom and dad already know you are trying to see me…and they don’t like it! Don’t cross my fence and crush the mulberries. My brothers will see that and there’ll be trouble. Don’t come into my garden and trample the sandalwood. The neighbors will talk.


Zhen and Wei

Festival scene along two rivers: the Zhen and the Wei. Erotic flirting. The man and maiden frolicked at the river’s edge. They throw flowers in the water.


Huge Rat

A voracious rodent compared to an exploitative lord. This huge rat has been eating my grain for three years, but I get nothing in return. I should leave and go to a happier place. I feed you, but you never thank me. In a happy realm I will find what I deserve. You do not reward my toil. I need to escape to a place where no one wails or cries.


She Bore the Folk  (from the Odes section)

Enumeration lends structure here. The miraculous birth of Lord Millet: ancestor of the Zhou and inventor of agriculture. A resourceful mother who steps into a god’s footprint. She gave birth to Millet with no pain. He was protected everywhere he roamed. He wailed when he was left alone. When he became hungry he began to plant. The art of agriculture. “He passed us down these wondrous grains…he spread the whole land with black millet.” The gathering and using of the harvest. Because of him we are able to live comfortably.

Early Chinese Literature and Thought

China is the oldest surviving civilization whose literary tradition stretches over more than three thousand years. Its earliest literature set patterns and posed questions for thousands of years to come and gave its civilization a sense of continuity and unity. China went through many changes and has hosted many languages. China was an idea tied to cultural values and the power of the written word. The people could resist change through cultural values, institutions, and writing and thus become “Chinese.” There is belief in cultural and political unity.


Beginnings: Early Sage Rulers

There was contact between sections, but they developed independently. In the second millennium B.C. a lineage of sage rulers laid the foundations for Chinese civilization. One can research an entire list of early rulers and what each contributed. Encapsulated in this lineage of legendary rulers are fundamental values of Chinese civilization: the importance of writing and divination; an economy based on intensive agriculture and silk production; a political philosophy of virtue that emphasizes fixed social roles; and practices of self-cultivation and herbal medicine.


Earliest Dynasties, China During the Bronze Age and the Beginning of Writing

China’s Bronze Age began around 2000 B.C. They used bronze for molding weapons, spoke-wheel chariots and bronze vessels used in ceremonies. The second dynasty was the Shang from 1500-1045 B.C. They had a complex state system, large settlements, and, most important, a common writing system. Writing was part of ritual practices that guided political decision-making and harmonized the relation between human beings and the world of unpredictable spiritual forces in the cosmos. The Chinese venerated their dead ancestors and various gods.

The Zhou Conquest and the “Mandate of Heaven”

Around 1045 B.C. the Zhou people overthrew the Shang. The Zhou claimed a higher moral ground. After the Zhou conquest, the claim to power in China depended on the claim to virtuous rule, which in large measure meant holding to the statutes and models of the earliest sage rulers and the virtuous early Zhou kings.


The Decline of the Eastern Zhou and the Age of China’s Philosophical Masters

In 771 B.C. the king was killed. The Eastern Zhou Period was one of the most formative periods in Chinese history. There was interstate diplomacy, new military technology, and a new class of advisers and strategists. The Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.) was characterized by coercive drafts, raw power politics and strategic deception. The crossbow was invented. Confucius formulated visions of how to live and govern well in a corrupt world. “A hundred schools of thought bloomed.” Chinese call the texts written by masters or compiled by their disciples “Masters Literature.” Masters Literature flourished from the time of Confucius through the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 C.E.) during which there was a broad spectrum of opinions on fundamental questions. The most prominent schools were the Confucians, the Mohists (named after their master, Mozi), the Daoists, the Logicians, the Legalists, and the Yin-Yang Masters, each advocating its own programs, adopting different styles of argument, and engaging the rival camps in polemical disputes. Confucianism and Daoism became the intellectual and religious backbone of traditional China, joined later by Buddhism. There are differences between the Confucians and the Daoists. Confucius, the first and most exemplary master whose sayings are preserved in The Analects, believed that a return to the values of the virtuous early Zhou kings, a respect for social hierarchies, self-cultivation through proper ritual behavior, and the study of ancient texts, could bring order. The most radical opponents of Confucius and his followers were thinkers who advocated passivity and following of the natural “way,” or dao. The Daoists had a deep mistrust of human-made things: conscious effort, artifice, and words. Laozi, a collection of poems and the foundational text of Daoism, proposed passivity as a means of ultimately prevailing over one’s opponents and gaining spiritual and political control. By contrast, many passages in Zhuangzi, the second most important Daoist text of Masters Literature, renounce any claim to societal influence and celebrate the joy of an unharmed life devoted to reflecting on the workings of the mind and on the relativity of perception and values.


Foundations of Imperial China: The Qin and the Han

The state of Qin, which had a reputation for ruthlessness and untrustworthiness, but whose armies were well disciplined and well supplied, destroyed the Zhou royal domain in 256 B.C. and conquered the last of the independent states in 221 B.C.: one of the most important dates in Chinese history. Conscious of the historical moment’s weight, the king of Qin conferred the title “First Emperor of Qin” upon himself to mark the novelty of his achievement. Although the Quin was a short-lived dynasty, many of its measures—designed to create a new type of state with a strong centralized bureaucracy—were adopted and adapted by the rulers of the subsequent Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 C.E.). With the Qin unification, China was finally an empire. Imperial China, with its upheavals, dynastic shifts, and momentous changes, would last another 2, 100 years—until the Republican Revolution of 1911. The kings of Qin reduced the power of the old nobility and based governance on a direct connection between ruler and bureaucrats controlled by the strict rule of written law codes and policies that were adopted by the new empire. The “Qin Burning of the Books,” of 213 B.C. was one of the most traumatic events in Chinese history. Liu Bang became the first emperor of the Han Dynasty; a Dynasty that lasted more than four hundred years. The Han was the crucial phase of imperial consolidation that set patterns for future Chinese dynasties. The most influential Han ruler was Emperor Wu. He was the first emperor to privilege Confucian scholars and teach the so-called Five Classics: the Classic of Changes, Classic of Documents, Classic of Poetry, Spring and Autumn Annals and the Record of Rites. During Emperor Wu’s reign, the first comprehensive history of China was written. These first 1,500 years of Chinese history, from the Shang Dynasty to the end of the Han Dynasty, saw the emergence of enduring political institutions and ideologies, of moral standards and social manners. The literature produced during this period encapsulates these values and formative patterns and is still the canonical foundation of Chinese civilization.

The Bhagavad-Gita


Ca. fourth century B.C.E.-fourth century C.E.

The Bhagavad-gita asks the most difficult of questions. What is a just war, and when can the use of armed conflict to resolve a political stalemate be justified? Under what circumstances is it possible to engage in a violent conflict with family members, clansmen, teachers, and friends—the very people who have nurtured us since infancy—and claim a victory that is morally right? What is such a victory worth if, in the name of life, wealth, or truth, it destroys what we love? As a philosophical poem, the Bhagavad-gita does not provide simple answers, but offers explanations that are appropriately difficult because they involve dilemmas that cannot be resolved once and for all.


The work is actually an integral part of the Mahabharata, and was originally composed as the sixty-third minor book of that epic. Since it is a poem within a poem, the Bhagavad-gita is best interpreted in relation to the epic’s larger narrative, setting, and background.

The Mahabharata is attributed to a single poet, or compiler, named Krsna Dvaipayana, but it was composed collaboratively by many generations of poets in Sanskrit between about 400 B.C. and 400 C.E. Its main story concerns a protracted conflict between two branches of a royal dynasty in northern India over the inheritance of a kingdom and the succession to its throne. The embattled groups are the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The Kauravas do not want to share the kingdom with the Pandavas side of the family. The Kauravas send their brothers into a 13 year exile and give them ultimatums which, if they meet expectations, will be given their share. After the exile, lead brother Duryodhana refuses to honor his promises.

Lord Krsna (as a human avatar of Visnu) comes to guide the Pandavas. The Kauravas refuse a compromise offered by Lord Krsna. The Pandavas find the only thing left to do is war with their family. They feel just in their decision because they have a legitimate claim based on succession and inheritance. They have tried everything else before this step.  Arjuna, of the Pandavas, arrives on the battlefield with Krsna at his side to guide him. He looks out over the battlefield and only sees people he knows. He throws down his weapons and refuses to fight, yet this places him in moral jeopardy. Dharma requires he be prepared to war when it is just. The Bhagavad-gita is the poetic record of that moment of crisis in Arjuna’s mind, and of the conversation he has with God on the brink of war.


The Bhagavad-gita is divided into eighteen chapters (or cantos) composed in verse, and its total length runs to seven hundred couplets. Each canto is called a “chapter”; it contains Krsna’s instruction to Arjuna about what is involved in courage, death, duty, life, violence, war, and why it is essential to fight a just war, even if it means destroying precious lives. It is a nested tale with the author of the Mahabharata granting Sanjaya “celestial vision,” so that he can omnisciently observe everything in the past, present, and future, and everything that happens on the battlefield, in public and in private. Throughout the eighteen days of the war, Sanjaya tells the blind Dhrtarastra what happens in the war, and we, the readers, also witness the entire conflict through Sanjaya’s “visionary eye.” Chapter one: Arjuna explains why he puts down his arms. Chapter two: Krsna explains the imperishable soul. Chapter 3: Arjuna questions action as related to the self and evil and Krsna teaches the discipline of action. Chapter 6: Krsna explains what complete control of the self can accomplish. Chapter 11: Arjuna comes to a new understanding and Krsna reveals his blinding real self. In this version (Norton 3rd edition) we only get a small excerpt of the entire argument for war. Krsna emphatically does not offer a general justification for violence under all circumstances; the use of violence to settle a major dispute can be justified only when every possible option for a peaceful resolution has been explored within the full scope of the law, and all such options have failed. Moreover, in a just war, only the thoroughly trained and disciplined warrior can use violence, and even he can do so only when he is in complete control of himself, and selflessly pursues his duty as defined by dharma.