Since the late 1970s Gregory Nagy has taught a Harvard course called “Concepts of the Hero in Classical Greek Civilization,” passing his enthusiasm for the classics on to thousands upon thousands of students. This spring, though, with an adaptation of the course being offered as a HarvardX MOOC (“massive open online course”), he’s likely topped those numbers in one swoop—and it’s not too late for you to join in.
The course, now titled “The Ancient Greek Hero,” is a survey of ancient Greek literature focusing on classical concepts of the hero and how they can inform our understanding of the human condition. We at HUP are quite pleased to be publishing a companion volume, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, perfect for those who prefer their learning a bit less massive and not so plugged in.
In the video below, Nagy explains the course and book:
And, from the HarvardX folks, a bit more on the course:
What is it to be human, and how can ancient concepts of the heroic and anti-heroic inform our understanding of the human condition? That question is at the core of The Ancient Greek Hero, which introduces (or reintroduces) students to the great texts of classical Greek culture by focusing on concepts of the Hero in an engaging, highly comparative way.
The classical Greeks’ concepts of Heroes and the “heroic” were very different from the way we understand the term today. In this course, students analyze Greek heroes and anti-heroes in their own historical contexts, in order to gain an understanding of these concepts as they were originally understood while also learning how they can inform our understanding of the human condition in general.
In Greek tradition, a hero was a human, male or female, of the remote past, who was endowed with superhuman abilities by virtue of being descended from an immortal god. Rather than being paragons of virtue, as heroes are viewed in many modern cultures, ancient Greek heroes had all of the qualities and faults of their fellow humans, but on a much larger scale. Further, despite their mortality, heroes, like the gods, were objects of cult worship—a dimension which is also explored in depth in the course.
The original sources studied in this course include the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey; tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; songs of Sappho and Pindar; dialogues of Plato; historical texts of Herodotus; and more, including the intriguing but rarely studied dialogue “On Heroes” by Philostratus. All works are presented in English translation, with attention to the subtleties of the original Greek. These original sources are frequently supplemented both by ancient art and by modern comparanda, including opera and cinema (from Jacques Offenbach’s opera Tales of Hoffman to Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic Blade Runner).
The true hero of the course is the logos (“word”) of reasoned expression, as activated by Socratic dialogue. The logos of dialogue requires both careful thought and close (or “slow”) reading, which is a core skill taught in this class. The course begins by considering the heroes of Homer's epics and ends with Plato’s memories of the final days of Socrates—memories which can only be fully understood by a reader who has gained a thorough comprehension of the ancient Greek hero in all his or her various manifestations.
Registration for “The Ancient Greek Hero” is open through the end of June.