From Plato to Post-modernism: Understanding the Essence of Literature and the Role of the Author

Course No. 295
Professor Louis Markos, Ph.D.
Houston Baptist University
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Course No. 295
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Course Overview

Any lover of Shakespeare, or of the Romantic poets, can concede that poetry is pleasurable. But is it good for us, and can it teach us anything?

These questions may seem odd, but they have beguiled and engaged eminent critics for millennia. What we call literary criticism is really a debate over a few key questions:

  • What is poetry's wellspring? God? Nature? The human self?
  • Is poetry superfluous to human progress?
  • Are the literary arts a vehicle to higher truths or a pack of lies?
  • Is the author a divinely inspired rhapsode or a mere artisan, "manufacturing" meaning?

To answer these questions, this course engages an enormous range of material. You'll follow the strands of this "conversation" between philosophy and the literary arts down the millennia, profiting from in-depth analyses of works by Plato, Aristotle, Horace, Sir Philip Sidney, Dryden, Pope, Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, Northrop Frye, Foucault, Derrida, and more.

You'll concentrate on critical reflections about poetry—the oldest of the literary arts, and also come away with lessons on how to understand literature, and all of the arts, more generally. More importantly, you'll be prepared to join in these critical conversations yourself.

What and Wherefore Is Poetry?

Plato believed that poems were lies, and there was no place for poets in Plato's Republic. To him, poets were unreliable, substituting dreamlike visions for the true essences of the world that a responsible philosopher should seek. If the only authentic beauty is the truth found in nature, he asked, then what use is man-made beauty, fabrications loaded down with fantasies and lies?

Ever since Plato laid down this challenge, the critical theorists in this course have striven to prove that poetry is more than pretty phrases, that it has the power to instruct and improve its reader:

  • Aristotle argued that the sufferings of the tragic hero in Greek drama arouse in us a cathartic surge of terror and pity, even as his fate teaches us moral lessons.
  • Longinus introduced the idea of the poetic sublime. Unlike rhetoric, which merely persuades, the sublime overwhelms its audience, literally carrying the audience away to a higher realm of experience.

What Makes a Poet?

Most of the thinkers in this course elevate the poet to a privileged place among his fellows. The poet, they argue, feels more deeply, more empathetically, and holds the verbal keys to a kingdom of higher consciousness. In these lectures, you'll meet the poet in many guises:

The Divine Poet: In his "Defense of Poetry," Sir Philip Sidney likens the poet to a supernatural creator. While the carpenter must fashion his works from the materials at hand, and the historian must work with mere facts, the poet has the power to transcend the laws of nature. He transforms beasts into cyclopes, men into heroes, bronze into gold.

The Poet as Alchemist: The German Friedrich Von Schiller described the poet as the inspired individual who could fuse humanity's divided nature into one, an alchemist who could combine our wild, lustful, Dionysiac drives and harmonize them with our Apollonian urge towards order.

The Voice of the Common Man: William Wordsworth carved for the poet a more modest role, rooted in the world. Rather than handing out wisdom from on high, his poet was "a man speaking to men," rejoicing in life, in touch with elementary feelings and durable truths.

The Poet at Play: John Keats also championed the poet as a unique being, not for possessing truth, but for his ability to "play" with it. Keats praised the poet's sensitivity of feeling, his capacity to empathize with multiple, contradictory "truths" simultaneously, to "be content with half-knowledge... capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

The Poet as Product: Beginning with Freud and Marx, a less flattering view of the poet emerged—the view of the poet as a product of, and a prisoner to, his own subconscious suppositions. The poet's "truths" in this view are bound up with an ideological substructure, or a polarizing male-centered worldview, or indeed any outlook built upon a particular, personal, and biased understanding of history and society. This condition of radical subjectivity is the foundation upon which the postmodern platform will later be built.

The Role of the Critics

We have a distorted view of critics today, and often see them as antagonists to artists, or even as frustrated artists themselves. Classically, however, critics were allies of the arts, and served as a liaison between the poet and the audience, pushing art forward and aiding its development. This course will introduce you to the great critics of the Western tradition—those who have aided poets in their efforts to create and audiences in their quest to understand. For example:

Matthew Arnold: This Victorian sage believed that great literature is the product of a creative fusion between a great poet ("the man") and what he called an epoch of expansion ("the moment"). It was the role of the critic to define the zeitgeist for the wider artistic community, to prod them past the shackles of fashion and convention that render a period stale and inactive.

W. K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks: These two critics were pioneers, yet seen as doctrinaire and elitist for dictating how we should understand poetry. The poem must not be understood, they argued, through the author's motivations ("the intentional fallacy"), nor through its effect on the reader ("the affective fallacy"). Moreover, a poem must never be understood as having a simple paraphrasable meaning, or "plot summary." Rather, every word in a poem is a vital ingredient with a meaning all its own to be uncovered through close individual study.

Out of the Ivory Tower

If these critics' theories about poetry seem somewhat convoluted and dense with jargon, this trend has only accelerated with the rise of Postmodernism. Can Structuralism, Poststructuralism, Historicism, and Deconstructionism really offer us a satisfying account of poetry's importance?

Actually, these ideas are exciting, challenging, and very much part of the conversation that began in ancient Greece so long ago. But for most readers, their fruits remain out of reach behind a wall of proprietary language, leaving the layman locked out.

This is why Dr. Louis Markos's approach to these theories is so valuable. As he tackles these intricate and labyrinthine theories of language, one of his primary goals is to define and explicate the often esoteric terminology associated with modern and postmodern theory.

When the veil is lifted, you'll find that the postmodernists are really continuing the conversation that Plato started millennia ago, and attempting to answer the same questions. If poetry, and language itself, is purposeful, then what are its ends? And if it has meaning, then by what means?

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Thinking Theoretically
    Why think about literature in a theoretical way? What makes literary theory so important? The critic and scholar M. H. Abrams thinks that all critical approaches to literature fall into one of four categories. Learn his highly useful classificatory scheme. x
  • 2
    Plato—Kicking out the Poets
    Ironically, Plato is both the first literary critic and the first hostile critic of literature. He has Socrates banish the poets from the ideal city that Plato describes in the Republic. In this lecture, we shall consider why Plato kicked out the poets, why he should not have kicked them out, and what his enduring legacy has been to all those theorists who have followed him. x
  • 3
    Aristotle's Poetics—Mimesis and Plot
    Aristotle took Plato's negative understanding of mimesis (imitation) and converted it into a powerful method for creating poetry (and particularly tragic drama) that is worthy of philosophical consideration. Aristotle's notion of plot as a unity has also been pervasively influential throughout the history of Western literature. His favorite example was Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrannos, a play we shall examine in some depth. x
  • 4
    Aristotle's Poetics—Character and Catharsis
    Along with a coherent plot, a good tragedy needs character and catharsis. Continuing to illustrate with examples from Oedipus, we shall explore the nature of the proper tragic hero. We shall then explore the nature of Aristotelian catharsis and how to understand this well-known term. x
  • 5
    Horace's Ars Poetica
    This famous epistle-in-verse by the Roman poet Horace contains his (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) rules and regulations for writing great poetry. What is the meaning of Horace's central notion of artistic "decorum"? Why does he stipulate that poetry must teach as well as please? How does he view the critic and the poet? x
  • 6
    Longinus on the Sublime
    The 1st-century writer known as Longinus not only delineated the true nature of "sublimity" but set down rules for achieving it. We analyze his approach to theory and his influential conception of the ideal audience for sublime literature. Finally, we watch with awe as Longinus mounts a direct refutation of Plato's Republic that not only converts Plato's negatives into positives, but recasts Plato himself as one of the most sublime poets ever. x
  • 7
    Sidney's "Apology for Poetry"
    We explore Sidney's great 1595 essay defending the divine origin and social utility of poetry. We discuss both Sidney's "positive" moment (his praise of poetry) and his "negative" moment (his refutation of the main arguments made against poetry). x
  • 8
    Dryden, Pope, and Decorum
    Here we consider two landmarks of British neoclassicism: John Dryden's "Essay of Dramatic Poesy" (1668) and Alexander Pope's "Essay on Criticism" (1711). Dryden advanced the still-influential notion of the three dramatic unities. Pope had strong views on the proper role and nature of the critic, and memorably insisted that nature is the final source, end, and touchstone of art. Pope is especially marvelous to read because he wrote his "Essay" in brilliant verse which itself hews to all the canons of neoclassical decorum. x
  • 9
    Burke on the Sublime and Beautiful
    Burke is most widely remembered as a statesman and political thinker. But in his early Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), he laid the intellectual groundwork for Romanticism. With Burke, aesthetics takes a subjective turn. He defined sublimity and beauty by their effects on the subjective self that experiences them. x
  • 10
    Kant's Critique of Judgment
    If Burke's Inquiry helped introduce epistemology into the world of aesthetics, then Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790) transformed that introduction into a full-blown science. What is the meaning of Kant's central assertion that aesthetic judgments constitute a subjective universality? Can it be the case that such subjective judgments are felt equally by all people at all times? x
  • 11
    Schiller on Aesthetics
    Friedrich Schiller is a Kantian with a twist. He turns the master's thought in a new, more fully Romantic direction, seeking nothing less than the reunification of the emotional (Dionysiac) and rational (Apollonian) sides of our being. Explore his remarkable notion of the "play drive" and its linkage to beauty, culture, and the place of poetry in human life. x
  • 12
    Hegel and the Journey of the Idea
    The "Introduction" that Hegel wrote for his Philosophy of Fine Art (1835) completes Schiller's Romanticization of Kant. Hegel, in effect, posits a Platonic Form (the Idea), which, rather than remain in the world of pure Being, seeks to enter our World of Becoming. With Hegel as our guide, we shall follow this Idea as it moves through three phases, the Symbolic, Classical, and Romantic, in search of a full, sensuous incarnation. x
  • 13
    Wordsworth, Coleridge, and British Romanticism
    Leaving our study of Continental thinkers, we look at British Romanticism. The wellspring text here is the product of the extraordinary friendship between William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Learn how their Lyrical Ballads (1798) works a transformation in earlier views of mimesis, epistemology, and decorum. And if you've ever wondered where the idea of the willing suspension of disbelief comes from, this lecture will tell you. x
  • 14
    Mr. Wordsworth's "Preface"
    In 1800, Wordsworth added a Preface to Lyrical Ballads, radically redefining both the nature of poetry and the poet, and their function in society. We focus especially on such key Wordsworthian formulations as poetry as the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," the poet as a "man speaking to men," and the role of poetry as an antidote to society's "degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation." x
  • 15
    Coleridge—Transcendental Philosopher
    Coleridge was the most learned of the Romantic poet-theorists. His Biographia Literaria (1817) adapted German philosophy to British Romantic theory, and he founded modern Shakespeare studies. Explore Coleridge's vital distinction between the natural and the transcendental types of philosophical itinerary, and weigh his hopes for a convergence of the two. x
  • 16
    Shelley's Defense of Poetry
    Percy Bysshe Shelley's A Defense of Poetry (written 1821 but published posthumously in 1840) gives us the full and final word on Romantic theories of synthesis and inspiration. Shelley exalts the poet to new heights of glory and offers powerful arguments in defense of the moral and social usefulness of poetry. x
  • 17
    The Function of Criticism—Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot
    Objective criticism shifts the emphasis from the poet to the poem, elevates the critic's role, and creates for poetry a separate, aesthetic space. A pair of seminal essays paves the way: Matthew Arnold's "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" (1864) and T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1917). You will master Arnold's famous distinction between epochs of concentration and epochs of expansion, and ponder Eliot's anti-Romantic call for a return to tradition and a new, depersonalized view of the poet. x
  • 18
    The Status of Poetry—I.A. Richards and John Crowe Ransom
    Following the path of Arnold and Eliot, the New Critics set out to defend poetry against positivist notions that threatened to render it useless and irrelevant. In Practical Criticism (1929), I. A. Richards crafted a distinction between emotional belief. John Crowe Ransom was in favor of an ontological view of poetry that treated the poem as a concrete universal composed of both a "paraphrasable core" and "lively local detail." x
  • 19
    Heresies and Fallacies—W.K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks
    Beginning just after World War II, Wimsatt and Brooks gave New Criticism its most radical form. They rejected both the Romantic notion that a poem is the expression of a poet, and the neoclassical idea that a poem should be judged by its effect on the reader. What was their own view? Is there truth to the charge that the New Critics were elitists who reduced poetry to a rarified and purely private experience? x
  • 20
    Archetypal Theory—Saint Paul to Northrop Frye
    A way of reading as old as the Bible received a stunning rebirth in 1957 when Northrop Frye published his masterful Anatomy of Criticism. What is this "typological reading"? How did Frye go beyond the New Critics to lay out a complex and compelling system to help explain the wider patterns and forces that underlie all great poetry from the Hebrew prophets to T. S. Eliot? x
  • 21
    Origins of Modernism
    During the last century, a paradigm shift occurred that laid the basis for modern (and postmodern) theory. Why does it make sense to call the old paradigm logocentrism? What are its essentials? How did Freud, Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche challenge it and open the door for a radically new way of viewing the nature of reality, of meaning, of thought, and of art? x
  • 22
    Structuralism—Ferdinand de Saussure to Michel Foucault
    A key theoretical offshoot of modernism is structuralism. Originating in the linguistic studies of Saussure, it reached its full flowering in the historical studies of the late Michel Foucault. From this lecture, you will learn to define the often-obscure terminology and to decipher the elaborate theories of these much-discussed interpreters of literature. x
  • 23
    Jacques Derrida on Deconstruction
    Jacques Derrida, who first presented his theories to an American audience in his (in)famous lecture, "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" (1966), seeks to go the structuralists one better. Refusing to invert established binaries, Derrida seeks instead to deconstruct them. We contrast deconstruction with both Platonic and Christian thought, and outline the main terminology associated with post-modern theory. x
  • 24
    Varieties of Post-modernism
    In our final lecture, we shall trace how the post-modern theories of Derrida are played out in the writings of Paul de Man, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Stanley Fish, as well as in the modern critical schools of New Historicism and Feminism. x

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Your professor

Louis Markos

About Your Professor

Louis Markos, Ph.D.
Houston Baptist University
Dr. Louis Markos is Professor in English at Houston Baptist University, where he also holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. He earned his B.A. in English and History from Colgate University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English from the University of Michigan. Professor Markos specializes in British romantic poetry, literary theory, and the classics and teaches courses in all three of these areas, as well as in Victorian...
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From Plato to Post-modernism: Understanding the Essence of Literature and the Role of the Author is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 48.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Well worth the price. The presenter knows his subject very well and is very enthusiastic in presenting it and wanting the listener to understand and feel about it as he does.
Date published: 2019-12-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course again This is basically a literary(mostly)/art theory course. I have studied literary theory at university and I got to say that Lois markos does an admirable job conveying the important parts of literary theory history. For those who find this course difficult, they are correct. The history of literary theory is a broad and complex subject that can be studied for years after years. What Lois Markos does so well however is that he picks up on the central themes and ideas, and relates this to the context - history. If you have no previous experience in litterature studies, this is likely gonna be a difficult course, or at least time demanding - for a proper understanding you need to do some work yourself as well; that means reading some of the works by the authors. Get yourself a good litterary theory anthology and you will find all the people he speaks about there.
Date published: 2018-01-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good but could have been much better Having read many reviews prior to purchasing this course, I was wary. After completing this course I have several comments. First, the presenter is very (very, very!!) enthusiastic and seems knowledgeable about his topics. Second, I disagree with several other reviewers regarding the injection of Christian commentary into the lectures. IMO the majority of the comments arose from the factual influences Christian thought has had on much of Western literature and literary criticism Leaving this out would be to omit important aspects of the topic. Third, I found the first three (of four) course "modules" very interesting and well presented. I learned a lot and enjoyed the presentation. Fourth, In the final module (and to some extent the third module too) I fully understood why so many other reviewers complained about the presenter's style.The speaker talked so quickly (about the most complex and difficult topics of the whole course) that it was largely incomprehensible (if not plain annoying.) I have rarely heard anyone speak that quickly! I got very little out of this module due to presentation style. Finally, although the presentation style made the last module more or less incomprehensible, I found the early sections worthwhile enough to recommend this course - especially with a concurrent read of The Mirror and the Lamp (one of recommended course references. The combination of this book and course was very good.) So overall, I recommend this course as one of the better (in content if not in style) of the Great Courses in the area of literature.
Date published: 2017-11-22
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Starts well, but... The early lectures provide a good overview of early literary theory. Professor Markos presents the concepts clearly and assesses them fairly, with good examples. The focus is on poetry for reasons that aren't adequately explained, but that's no major problem. At this point, Professor Markos's personal views aren't too intrusive - not even the fundamentalist Christianity that seems to have wound a few people up. I raced through these lectures, fascinated by the different theories, questioning and assessing my own opinions in the light of these new (to me) ideas. Markos clearly knows his stuff, and at this point in the course is enthusiastic and warm in his presentation. However, once we reach the 20th Century, it is quite clear that Professor Markos has little time for the theories discussed. By now, he is racing through complex concepts with no concessions to coherence, leaving himself plenty of time to shoehorn in his Christian beliefs (which by now are becoming intrusive) and a reactionary assessment of modernist and postmodernist thinking. By the end he has dismissed evolution as impossible to prove, and become personally offended by the idea of a reader having their own interpretation of a text (and, indeed, by the use of the word "text", which is apparently part of a conspiracy to topple poetry from its rightful place as the pinnacle of human achievement). Worst of all, his reading of feminism (I'm going to be generous and assume it's a misunderstanding rather than a deliberate misrepresentation) is so inaccurate that I can't trust he's given an accurate and fair assessment of other schools of thought, particularly since he makes his low opinion of postmodernism tediously clear. This means that the last few lectures were something of a waste of time, and left a negative impression on me - a shame for something which started so promisingly.
Date published: 2017-05-09
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Terrible. Grossly misleading title and description The title of this course is listed as "From Plato to Post-modernism: Understanding the Essence of Literature and the Role of the Author”. This is grossly misleading. A more accurate title would be “Interpreting Literary Theory from a Fundamentalist Christian Point of View.” In the first two lectures the author mentions, in this order, the following as examples of poetry : “…the prophetic books of the Bible…the Wisdom books of the Bible…Job…the Book of Proverbs…Shakespeare…Keats…Sophocles…the Book of Proverbs…the Book of Revelations…John the Evangelist”. Seven references to the religious books of Christianity, and three to the rest of humanity’s production of poetry! There are additional examples of the lecturer's bias in these first two lectures (referring to Plato's Forms as being "up there in Heaven"), but the lecturer's list of examples of poetry perhaps best reveals his orientation. I listened to the first two lectures and couldn't endure any more.
Date published: 2017-04-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the Best I was really amazed at some of the low ratings these lectures received until I read the reviews and realized why. Some people just object to anything Christian. The professor has his views like every other professor or person on earth. Truthfully, I didn't notice any preaching and much less "intrusion" of Christianity into the lectures than others did. I am not a born-again Christian or Fundamentalist, not at all in fact, but I was very happy with Markos presentation. OK, he talks fast. That is a fair criticism. I suggest getting the textbook and doing all the readings. As usual, you will get much more out of these lectures by doing this and it will enable you to listen critically to Professor Markos, so agree or disagree, you will benefit greatly from taking the time to listen. Really, one of my favorites from the Great Courses.
Date published: 2017-03-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Do your research first Just a warning. Do a quick search of the instructor before purchasing. Not only does this guy have some pretty wacky socio-political and religious views, he frequently injects those views (rather awkwardly) into his lectures, which ought to have little to nothing to do with those views.
Date published: 2016-03-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my favorites I've listened to this course several times and gotten more out of it each time. There's nothing like it in the Great Courses catalog. Examples from and references to Christianity are only mildly distracting - likely to be more so to those who get hung up on religious issues.
Date published: 2015-11-27
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