First-Year Seminar

Quaestio mihi factus sum: Self and Society in the Liberal Arts



One of the few common denominators in the history of the arts, humanities, and sciences has been the quest—through creative, rational, scientific, and spiritual approaches—for understanding the relationship between the individual and the larger world. Fittingly, the very root of the word used to describe both the private and public self, identity, has always entailed a tension between “sameness” (in Latin, idem) and “difference” (if I am x, then I am not y). Whether through philosophical inquiry into what constitutes the person, scientific debates about when life begins, theological disquisitions on the nature of the soul, or the literary construction of the autobiographical persona, thinkers and artists throughout history have explored the moral and ethical dimensions of self-representation while gesturing toward its unsolvable mysteries and productive tensions. In the words of the theologian Saint Augustine, “mihi quaestio factus sum” (“I have become a question for myself”; Confessions 10.33.50). The search for the role and purpose of the human being can serve a powerful epistemological function. In “becoming a question for ourselves,” we establish a position of wonder and critical inquiry vis-à-vis the world.


In First-Year Seminar, we will ponder the relationship between private and public narratives and forms of representation in a range of texts and cultural traditions. While it is impossible to reduce a matter of such complexity and breadth to a set of goals and procedures, we will read core texts that, individually and collectively, engage in a vigorous dialogue over such questions as: What are the claims that political and social responsibilities make upon an individual’s quest for self-understanding? At what point should the conscientious citizen sacrifice such a quest in the name of a collective identity? How does scientific inquiry into the nonhuman natural world connect with what are felt to be deeply human issues? How does the link between a private and public understanding of the self also implicate a spiritual exploration, especially the question of the eternity of the soul or the lack thereof? Finally, how do study and close reading, the foundational activities of First-Year Seminar, shape those personal and public narratives that are the focus of our attention? Together, we will explore these and related questions during a yearlong conversation about singularly demanding texts—texts defined as much by their differences as by their common drive toward fathoming how individual narratives can move beyond the self and into the realms of citizenry, community, country, even identification with humankind writ large.



·         Genesis (Norton; trans. Alter);

·         Plato, Symposium (Oxford; trans. Waterfield);

·         Virgil, The Aeneid (Penguin; trans. Fagles);

·         St. Augustine, Confessions (Penguin; trans. Pine-Coffin);

·         Dante, Inferno (Penguin; trans. R. and J. Hollander);

·         William Shakespeare, King Lear (Norton);

·         Galileo Galilei, Discoveries and Opinions (Anchor; trans. Drake)