Illustrations of Character: A Literary and Philosophical Inquiry

Spring 2017 quarter

Taught by

Note: this program is a repeat of a fall-winter program. Students who took the fall-winter program should not take the spring program.

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 one’s 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?

These are ethical questions, and they 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 focus on modern literary works that illustrate the character of people--or a people--and portray profound moral dilemmas. Works of ethics by Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche 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. And we will 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 do analytical, creative, and critical writing, and learn how to both give and receive constructive criticism. We look forward to a thriving intellectual community focused on studying, puzzling over, understanding, and celebrating character—an abiding challenge of the human condition.

Program Details

Fields of Study

american studies cultural studies history literature philosophy writing

Preparatory For

humanities, education, human services, and the arts.


Spring Open

Location and Schedule

Campus Location


Time Offered


Advertised Schedule

First class meeting: Monday, April 3 at 9:30am (Sem II E1105)

Online Learning

Enhanced Online Learning


$175 for transportation, lodging, food, and fees for overnight field trip to the Pacific Coast.