English 233:  Introduction to Western Humanities -- Baroque & Enlightenment

The Organizational Framework of the Course

In the course of the semester, we will be wrestling with lots of details.  You can reduce the confusion you will inevitably feel from time to time, by getting in mind at the outset the basic themes of the course, and some of the ways in which they relate to each other. 

We could say that "half" of our task is to get acquainted with some original voices from our cultural past.  This requires us to get into the nitty-gritty of interpreting what they actually said or painted or built, to immerse ourselves in the particulars of highly individual works, of quite various genres, by often idiosyncratic personalities.  The "other half" of our task is to use what we see and hear to build some intelligible overall story:  this is the job of intellectual integration of all these particulars.

In integrating the course, however, we want to avoid the temptation to forge a false unity by finding agreements where there are none, or by supposing that conflicts have been definitively resolved by the victory of one point of view over another when in fact the issues are still open, at least in principle.

Thematically, our course can be thought of as focusing on the nature and impact of several interlocking crises of authority that, together, constitute the Early Modern Period as a rupture with the medieval-Renaissance picture of the nature of man and of man's place within the overall scheme of things.  In some cases the novelties that resulted have come to be taken for granted as part of our contemporary vision of things, and often elaborated even further.  In other respects, the issues raised have become the focus of perennial dispute, and the disputes themselves have become one of the "defining" characteristics of our own age.

Certain logical and historical relations among these various crises of authority determine the organizational framework of our course.  You will want to review to this page often, to refresh your sense of orientation.

The first third of the course

will cover the conflict between the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.  We begin by getting acquainted with the shared world-view within which this conflict arose -- a perspective that extends back to the age of Saint Augustine (d. 432), near the end of the Roman Empire (or the beginning of the European "Middle Ages")..  Our window into this world-view will be what we shall call "the traditional Christian picture of history."  We see how the baroque style in art arose as an expression of the triumphalist phase of the Counter-Reformation.  Our focus will be on "Roman ecclesiastical baroque art," which emerged at the very end of the 16th Century and flourished during the first half of the 17th Century.  Throughout we will be reading one of the classics of Protestant literature:  John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678), an allegorical dream vision of the sprititual process of salvation according to Puritan understanding.  (Until early in our century, this was, excepting the Bible, the most widely reprinted book in the English language; it was an important common experience among people who grew up in quite scattered and various households, from pioneer settlements and remote farmsteads from Maine to Oregon, to working-class families in big cities from Baltimore to San Francisco.)

The Reformation produced a major cultural trauma that marks the beginning of the "Early Modern Period" in Western Europe:  it split Western Christendom into two bitterly opposed camps (and continued splitting into mutually antagonistic camps itself).  These splits resulted in tremendous social violence (persecutions, civil wars, continental wars).  In important part, these conflicts reflect a profound crisis in authority:  people agreed that the ultimate authority in all things human must be God's will, but disagreed on the details of what God's plan was for saving fallen man because they disagreed on what God had decreed as the secondary authority for humans to consult to discover these details -- the Church headed by God's Vicar on Earth (the Bishop of Rome, that is, the Pope), or Scripture alone. 

The second third of the course

will introduce you to a second cultural trauma that emerged in the Early Modern Period -- the "Copernican Revolution", which is actually a revolution in both astronomy and physics, and which stretches from Copernicus to Newton.  The Copernican Revolution may at first glance seem "slow" for a "revolution" -- it took over 150 years to complete -- but compared with the nearly 2000 years in which the model it displaced had been establishing itself, this is indeed an historical "instant," and its ramifications were indeed radical.  We'll find ourselves covering the roughly the same period (1543-1687) we covered in the first quarter (1517-1688), but we'll be looking at a parallel development. 

In the first third of the course, we will have kept within the sphere of [Western] Christianity; in the second we look at developments that ultimately called into question the very bases of authority within Christianity itself, the traditions of the Church, the judgment of the Popes, the Bible itself.  The "Copernican Revolution" presents us with the first of a series of conflicts, in modern Western culture, between "Religion and Science" or "Faith and Reason."  That is, we get acquainted with an additional dimension of the crisis in authority that marks the Early Modern Period:  a conflict emerges between the authority of Scripture, tradition, and religious faith on the one hand and that of natural human reason and empirical experience on the other.

In the first third of the course we will have been looking at changes within the traditional Christian picture of history (specifically, the way divine providence accomplishes its ends in time); now we pass to the overthrow of the traditional picture of the nature of nature (specifically, of the structure of space and of the operation of the natural world).  This revolution in the picture of man's situation in the physical cosmos will in turn have a profound impact upon the traditional Christian picture of history that we have been examining so far.  In particular, two basic premises of the traditional Christian picture of history will come under stress:  the doctrine of Original Sin, and the causal role of divine intervention ("advent") in historical process.

In the final third of the course

we turn to a series of literary and artistic masterpieces spanning the last third of the 17th Century up to the French Revolution, which broke out a year before the last decade of the 18th Century.  The works we have chosen illustrate some of the ways these crises in authority within Western Christianity and between traditional Christianity and early modern natural science affected people's thinking about power and legitimacy in social relations.  Together they will give us an introduction to the Enlightenment and a glimpse into what has come to be called the Counter-Enlightenment.  Here are some of the issues we arose in the century or so after the publication of Newton's Principia.  (Notice that, as state here, they logically overlap in various ways.)

When you exit the course, you should be on a good footing to see how these issues are alive today, not only in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia and India, but in the United States.  Whatever is the truth of the matter upon them, many are still the object of intense dispute.  And how they get decided, in this society or that, has immense consequences for what the power of the state gets used to encourage, permit, or suppress.  Indeed, it has much to do with the kind of human beings that the society in question will cultivate.

  There are also a more general statement of the Scope and Theme of the Course and a description of how these in turn relate to the Goals and Methods of the Course.

  Go to the Home Page of the course.

  Suggestions, comments and questions are welcome.  Please send them to lyman@ksu.edu .

      Contents copyright 2001 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

      This page last updated 20 August 2001.