Illustrations of Character: A Literary and Philosophical Inquiry

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Fall 2016 and Winter 2017 quarters

Taught by

How do we determine what to do when faced with hard choices? Is happiness uppermost in our minds, or can something else guide us, such as loyalty to a friend, religious principle, or political commitment? What if the right decision goes against our sense of self? How can we live with integrity in the face of temptation or tragedy? How do historical, political, and social contexts shape how we think and act in such situations? Can we really have free will when context limits how we understand, feel, and imagine our circumstances and how to change them?

These ethical questions demand that we think carefully about character. Character comprises not only distinctive individual qualities, but also the disposition to act in certain ways. Character can also refer to collective identifiers such as ethnicity, sex, gender, class, race, religion, region, and nation. These markers can both inspire intractable conflicts and frame claims to justice. We will study works of philosophy, history, drama, and fiction that illuminate our understanding of character. We’ll explore how character affects, and is affected by, desire, deliberation, action, and suffering. We’ll read literary and historical accounts that illustrate the character of people or a people and portray profound moral dilemmas. Works of ethics will broaden how we think about character in relation to external goods, habit, happiness, friendship, and duties. They provide powerful interpretive tools and a refined vocabulary for grappling with questions raised by our texts.

Fall quarter will focus on Aristotelian ethics. We’ll learn how the ancient Greeks understood the challenges of their experiment with democracy and consider their efforts to attune desire to responsibility, friendship to self-interest, and deliberation to action. We’ll read retellings of their myths, dramas, and epic poetry to consider how their concerns resonate in our own times. Authors will include Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Toni Morrison, and Walt Whitman. In winter we will learn how Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy provided new tools for the critical analysis of age-old social practices such as slavery, gender domination, and economic inequality. We will also consider the perpetual challenges of maintaining hope and faith in the face of persistent injustices.

This program is suitable for students who are prepared not only to think critically, but to investigate their own beliefs and submit them to rigorous scrutiny, to practice ethical thinking as well as study it. Writing will be central to that practice. Students will practice analytical, creative, and critical writing, and learn how to both give and receive constructive criticism. We look forward to a thriving community focused on studying, puzzling over, understanding, and celebrating character—an abiding challenge of the human condition.

Note: a version of this program will repeat in spring quarter.  Students who take the fall-winter program should not take the spring program.

Program Details

Fields of Study

american studies classics cultural studies history literature philosophy writing

Preparatory For

humanities, education, human services, and the arts.


Fall Open Winter Closed

Location and Schedule

Campus Location


Time Offered


Advertised Schedule

First winter class meeting: Monday, January 9th at 9:30am (Sem II E1105)

Online Learning

Enhanced Online Learning


$100 in fall for theater tickets and an overnight field trip; $250 in winter for transportation, lodging, and fees for overnight field trips to the Quileute Reservation.


2016-11-30This program will not accept new enrollment winter quarter.
2016-11-30This program will not accept new enrollment winter quarter.
2016-09-09Fall fee increased (from $75 to $100).
2016-04-26This program is offered in fall and winter. A similar program will be offered spring quarter.