Nobility and Civility: East and West

[The following interdepartmental course was designed through Faculty Workshops for a Multi-Cultural Sequence in the Core Curriculum (Heyman Center for the Humanities, 2002-2009), directed by the late Wm. Theodore de Bary, at Columbia University. The syllabus for the first semester of this team-taught “global core” course includes epics from ancient Mesopotamia, India, Iran, Japan, West Africa, France, and Italy. Discussion questions are available (under Resources) for the following works: The Epic of Gilgamesh, Valmiki’s Ramayana, Mahabharata, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, The Song of Roland, Chrétien de Troyes’ Knight of the Cart, Tales of the Heike, Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, and the Epic of Sun-jata.]



Prof. Jo Ann Cavallo
Prof. Rachel Ehichung Chung

General Description

This interdisciplinary colloquium is designed to provide a comparative examination of core human concerns and values across cultures from the ancient to early modern period. This is a discussion-driven course that depends on a close reading of several key literary, philosophical, political, and religious texts from Asia, Africa, and Europe. The course adopts the pedagogical method of Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, encountering first-hand primary texts recognized in their own traditions as landmarks that merit continued close attention. Students who have completed Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization are encouraged to draw on their prior readings as a springboard and background in class discussion. We do not start from any particular theory of civilization or of interpretation; we privilege the text, not theory, opening the text up to examination from any angle of interpretation.

Nobility & Civility will satisfy the Global Core requirement. Upper-level undergraduates in General Studies, Barnard, and graduate students with appropriate backgrounds are welcome.

Course Objectives

Nobility & Civility: East and West (INSM W3920,) focuses on the examination and comparison of different cultural understandings of the concepts of nobility and civility as they appear throughout the ancient, medieval and early modern world. More generally, by focusing on universal perennial issues while also recognizing cultural and historical differences, this course aims to contribute to the broadening and deepening of the liberal arts education that characterizes Columbia College.

The modern and contemporary world, from approximately 1600 C.E. to the present, will be covered in INSM 3921 “Nobility & Civility II” (tentatively scheduled to be offered in the summer of 2021).


The course will be taught in English, but students able to read any of the Nobility and Civility texts in the original language are encouraged to do so. Indeed, it would be fruitful to explore shades of meaning through the nuance of translation.

Attendance, Preparation and Participation

As a colloquium, this is a discussion-driven course that depends on one’s close reading of the texts prior to each class session.  Regular attendance therefore here means thoughtful engagement in class discussion of issues pertinent to our weekly readings in addition to your physical presence, and their combination will comprise the basis of evaluation.  Students who miss a class should submit their reading notes on the assigned texts–i.e., articulate identification of issues and questions they would have raised in context of the class discussion of themes.

Method of Evaluation

Aside from your attendance and participation, there are three other factors of assessment:

  1. Written Work: Two papers of approximately 10 pages each are required: the first on Friday, October 16th, and the second on Friday, December 11th. Students may consult with the instructors on the scope and topic of their essays, and comparisons between two (or at most three) of the required readings are welcome. Secondary reading is not expected because this is not a research paper, but an analytical and interpretive essay. PLEASE SUBMIT IN WORD FORMAT (to facilitate comments).
  2. Presentations: Each student will make at least one introductory, seminar-style presentation on an assigned text.  Presentations should be organized and concise, drawing out issues and themes for class discussion rather than summarizing the reading.
  3. Final examination: The faculty will administer individual, 20-minute oral examinations at the end of semester.



 Week 1 Ancient Mesopotamia and Greece; epic and myth

The Epic of Gilgamesh (18th to 10th c. BCE)

Trans. Andrew George, Penguin Classics, pp. 1-100 and map of Ancient Near East (prior to p. 1)

Homeric Hymn to Demeter (c. 650 BCE)

Online version translated by Gregory Nagy.


Week 2 Ancient India; epic and spiritual poetry

Valmiki, Ramayana (date of composition ca. 500-100 BCE)

The Ramayaṇa of Valmiki: an Epic of Ancient India, volume 1, translated by Robert P. Goldman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 1-13, and pp. 41-49; also sargas 1-4, 13, and 17-20.

The Ramayaṇa of Valmiki: an Epic of Ancient India, volume 2, translated by Sheldon I. Pollock (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), sargas 1-28, 57-8 (pp. 79-143, 204-11).

Mahabharata (ca. 5th c. BC – 4th c. CE)

The Bhagavad Gita. Trans. Eknath Easwaran (New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics, 2000).


Week 3 Ancient China; moral/political philosophy

Confucius, Analects (551 BCE – 479 BCE)

Confucius, Analects (excerpts from the Sources of Chinese Tradition, edited by William Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom [New York: Columbia University Press, 2000], volume 1, 2nd edition hereafter abbreviated SCT I), pp. 24-29 (general introduction), and 41-63 (introduction to Confucius and selections from the Analects).

Mencius (372 – 289 BCE)

The Mencius in SCT, volume 1, 2nd edition, pp. 112-58 or EAT, volume 1, pp. 69-92.


Week 4 Ancient China; philosophy

Laozi (6th or 4th century BCE)

Laozi in SCT (volume I, 2nd edition) pp. 77-94 or EAT pp. 49-60.

Xunzi (ca. 300-230 BCE)

Xunzi in SCT (volume 1, 2nd edition), pp. 159-83 or EAT, volume 1, pp. 92-104.


Week 5 ancient India; political science and drama

Kautilya, Artha Sastra (c. 350-283 BCE)

Selections from Kautilya’s Arthasastra, translated by Gary Tubb for use in this seminar – available on Courseworks.

Visakhadatta, Rakshasa’s Ring (c. 376-415 CE)

Three Sanskrit Plays, trans. Michael Coulson, Penguin Books, pp. 165-291.


Week 6 Ancient India: Theravada Buddhism

Asvaghosa, Buddhacarita (early 2nd century CE)

Life of the Buddha in de Bary. The Buddhist Tradition, Modern Library, pp. 55-72.

Dhammapada (3rd century BCE?)

The Dhammapada, translated by John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).


Week 7 East Asia: Mahayana Buddhism; Japanese epic

Lotus Sutra (3rd century CE)

The Essential Lotus: Selections from the Lotus Sutra, translated by Burton Watson (New York: Columbia, 2002).

The Tale of the Heike (oldest extant variant 1309)

The Tale of the Heike. Translated by Royall Tyler (Penguin, 2012), pp. 3-28 (The Jetavana Temple, The Night Attack in the Palace, The Sea Bass, One Man’s Glory, Gio); 325-28 (Death of Kiyomori); 369-71 (Sanemori); 389-91 (Tadanori’s Flight from the Capital); 401-4 (The Flight from Fukuhara); 504-6 (The Death of Atsumori); 687-709 (Kenreimon-in Becomes a Nun, Kenreimon-in Moves to Ohara, The Cloistered Emperor’s Visit to Ohara, Passage Through the Six Realms, Kenreimon-in Enters Paradise).

Optional: Atsumori (Nō) in Japanese Nō Dramas, ed. and trans. Royall Tyler, Penguin Classics, pp. 37-48 (a brief Nō play imagining an encounter between Kumagai after his conversion to monkhood and the ghost of Atsumori).


Week 8 Ancient Greek biography; ancient Roman dialogue

Plutarch, Life of Alexander (46 CE-120 CE)

Plutarch, The Life of Alexander the Great, translated by John Dryden, edited by Arthur Hugh Clough (New York: Modern Library Classics, 2004).

Cicero (106 BCE – 43 BCE)

Cicero, “Laelius: On Friendship,” in On the Good Life, translated by Michael Grant (New York: Penguin Books, 1971), pp. 172-227.


Week 9 medieval Persian/Iranian, West African epic – exiled heroes

Ferdowsi, Shahnameh (completed 1010)

Abolqasem Ferdowsi, Shahnameh, translated by Dick Davis. Penguin Classics, 2016. “The legend of Seyavash,” pp. 215-280. Pages 477-604 of the Epub version.

Sunjata (13th century, transcribed form a 1968 performance)

The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition. Fa-Digi Sisòkò (text), John William Johnson, et al (analytical study & translation). Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1992.


Week 10 medieval French epic and romance (religious and secular heroes)

The Song of Roland (between 1140 and 1170)

The Song of Roland, translated by Glyn S. Burgess (New York: Penguin, 1990).

Chretien de Troyes, The Knight of the Cart (c. 1170).

The Complete Romances of Chretien de Troyes, translated by David Staines (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), lines 1-931, 1283-2010, 2999-4012, 5300-6107, and 7098-7112.


Week 11 Middle Eastern biographies (religious and secular figures)

Ibn Shaddad (1145-1234), History of Saladin

The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin, translated by D.S. Richards, Crusade Texts in Translation (Ashgate, 2002 paperback) pp. 13-38, 72-82, 96-106, 113-116, 144-165, 217-245.

Al Hariri of Basra (1054-1122), Assemblies of Al-Hariri:  Read the Preface, then the Assemblies 1-11, 13-14, 19-21, 25, 27-29, 33-34, 38, 40, 43, 45, 49-50 (that’s 28 out of 50).


Week 12 Renaissance Italy: romance epic

Boiardo, Orlando Innamorato (Boiardo, 1441-1494)

Matteo Maria Boiardo, Orlando Innamorato / Orlando in Love, translated by Charles S. Ross (West Lafayette: Parlor Press, 2004).

Princess Angelica of Cathay arrives at Charlemagne’s court in Paris and all present, including Roland (now Orlando), fall in love (1.1.1-35, pp. 3-7); Orlando fights the Tartar khan Agricane over Angelica (1.8.29-55 and 1.9.1-17, pp. 160-165); Orlando’s travels through Morgana’s underworld kingdom (2.8.1-2.9.29, pp. 312-324); Orlando and Angelica at a tournament in Cyprus (2.20.1-40, pp. 409-414).

Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (Ariosto, 1474-1533)

Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso / The Frenzy of Orlando, trans. Barbara Reynolds, 2 vols. (NY: Penguin, 1975).

Orlando sneaks out in search of Angelica while Paris is under attack (8.68-83 and 9.1-7, pp. 280-287); Orlando goes mad when he discovers Angelica loves another (23.100-136, pp. 718-727); Orlando recovers his wits (39.44-61, pp. 444-448).


Week 13 China, Neo-Confucianism; Choson Korea (1392-1910)

Excerpts by Neo-Confucian scholars of the Song dynasty (960-1279)

King Sejong’s “Promugation of Correct Sounds for the People” (1441)

Song Hyon, “Introduction” to the Model for Study of Music (1492)

Song of Ch’unhyang (prose version)