Illustrations of Character: Faith, Reason, and Ethics

Fall 2019
Winter 2020
Class Size: 46
50% Reserved for Freshmen
Credits per quarter

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Taught by

Nancy Koppelman
American studies
Andrew Reece
classical art and literature

What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?   - Henry James

How do we decide what to do when faced with hard choices? Is happiness uppermost in our minds, or something else – loyalty to a friend, say, or religious commitments?  How can we live with integrity in the face of temptation or tragedy?  These are ethical questions. They demand that we think about values, duties, and principles.  They demand that we call upon our character.  Character comprises not only our distinctive qualities but also our disposition to act in certain ways.  Indeed, our word “ethical” derives from the Greek,  ethos , which, like our word, can refer to a literary figure or to a combination of individual qualities.  Character, in turn, is formed by what we think, believe, decide, and do. 

In this program, we investigate character through ethical philosophy, religion, history, and literature.  We explore the ways in which character affects, and is affected by, desire, deliberation, faith, action, and suffering.  Borrowing from Henry James above, we are especially interested in literary and historical accounts of incidents in which characters are put to the test.  Texts in philosophy and religion challenge and broaden notions of how values and commitments are formed and sustained.  They provide powerful interpretive tools and a refined vocabulary for grappling with the questions posed by our other readings.

In the fall, we begin with ancient works: Aristotle’s ethical theory and the Hebrew Bible. These texts illustrate  an early contrast between a practical philosophy positing individual flourishing and virtue as the highest good, and a faith based on a covenant with God realized by means of laws and practices. In the winter, we explore the Christian espousal of a “new covenant” by which the faithful are promised individual salvation and bound to a moral obligation to others.  We also study Jewish, Christian, and Enlightenment philosophers who develop the notion of moral law from both rationalist and faith-based points of view.  In both quarters, we read ancient and modern dramas, novels, and histories, and write essays that allow our texts to illuminate each other.  Finally, we will visit contemporary religious and secular institutions that promote the good in their communities.

Students should be highly motivated and intellectually ambitious, and be prepared not only to think critically about what we read and see, but also to investigate their own beliefs and submit them to rigorous analytical scrutiny, that is, to practice ethical thinking as well as understand it.

Greener Foundations:  This program will incorporate Greener Foundations, a holistic course designed for first-time, first-year students. Faculty and staff collaborate to bring study skills, academic planning, health and wellness education, advising, and more into the classroom. More information at Greener Foundations

This offering will prepare you for careers and advanced study in:

humanities, education, human services, and the arts.


Credits per quarter

Online learning:
  • Enhanced Online Learning - This offering requires access to web-based tools, but use of these tools does not displace any face-to-face instruction.

$100 in fall for theater tickets and an overnight field trip; $150 in winter for transportation, lodging, and fees for a two day field trip.

Class Standing: Freshman–Senior
Class Size: 46
50% Reserved for Freshmen

Scheduled for: Day

Final schedule and room assignments:

First meeting:

Tuesday, January 7, 2020 - 12:00 pm
SEM 2 A1105 - Lecture

Advertised schedule:

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

Located in: Olympia

2019-12-09Program now open to Juniors and Seniors who meet conditional requirements
2019-11-07Program now accepting new students in Winter quarter
2019-03-13Changed to FY program