God and Modern Philosophy

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Course Level:
Course Length:
15 weeks

Required Texts

  1. Spinoza, Ethics (Hackett, 1999)
  2. John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, (Hackett, 2003)
  3. Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (W.W. Norton & Co., 1978)
  4. Walter Kaufmann, ed., The Portable Nietzsche (Penguin Books, 1976)


Recommended Reading

  1. Stringfellow Barr, Notes on Dialogue (on blackboard)
  2. Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov (on blackboard)
  3. Pierre Manent, “The Self-Affirmation of Modern Man” from The City of Man(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998) pp. 111-221.
  4. Michael Oakeshott, “The Voice of Conversation in the Education of Mankind” (on blackboard)
  5. See me for more, if you’re really interested


Course Overview

It has been said that the essence of modern philosophy may be summarized as secularized biblical faith. In this course we will examine a series of modern texts in an attempt to trace out the development of this argument, to give it an intellectual history. Are we, as ‘modern men’, really trying to make heaven for ourselves here on earth? Is that all we are trying to do? If we could succeed in such a project, would we be truly happy? And what of the possible costs exacted by sacrifices which must be made on the path to such a brave new world? Can we ever really make ourselves completely at home in this world, or will we always long for something beyond? Further, if the disjunction between modern and classical-medeival philosophy is chiefly characterized by its break with the Church on this point, how was this break realized, and what are some of the costs of this great divorce? What are its benefits? The course both begins and ends, not with philosophy, but with fiction, or what the ancients would have called ‘poetry.’ If you have taken my classes before, you know how excited I can get about the debate between the poets and the philosophers. How is modern philosophy different from storytelling? How is it the same? And who, in the end, are the more realistic thinkers–the poets we read, or the philosophers? Whose world would we rather inhabit, and are we revealing ourselves as ‘modern men’ in assuming that we have a choice?

Course Goals

  • As with any upper-level course of this sort, we don’t just aim for regurgitation of content, but analysis. We’re going to think this semester. The texts are touchstones, they introduce the themes of our reflection, and they will be the standards by which we gauge our own conversations. Our task in class might be understood as one of trying to give each text a voice. We want the texts themselves to become participants in our conversation. In many ways, the authors we read in this course are themselves the authors of our contemporary religious faith, or its absence. Thinking about God may be something we are unaccustomed to doing. If so, it may be some measure of the success of the arguments put forth by the authors we will be reading this semester. And if not, the arguments made by these authors may speak directly against what we know or believe to be true. In either case, we should anticipate that it will be difficult to read these texts with the care that they deserve, either because they are so plainly true, or because they are so plainly false. Our goal in class will be to take the arguments of the texts seriously as arguments, and to evaluate them.
  • The mode of most classes this semester will be spirited discussion. As such, we must remember a few basic ground rules. Only one person may speak at a time. As much as possible, we ought to try to ask the questions that the text itself raises, rather than bringing in questions unrelated to the text. Allusion to outside readings is fine in moderation, but you will be evaluated based on how well you apply the course readings to our conversation, not on how smart you seem to be for having read other books. And finally, as always, humility, patience, and gentleness in conversation are preferred to arrogance, anger and cruelty.


Course Structure

  • There are two things you can do to get the best marks in this course. If you do them both on a regular basis, you are practically guaranteed an ‘A’. Read the material for class each day, even if you hate it. Try to ask questions of the text as you read it, to engage it as if it were capable of answering you. (And don’t forget to look for the answers, once you’ve asked the questions.) Then come to class, and share with us why you hate or love the text. Of course, in doing so, you must have recourse to the text. Simply saying you hate the author because he’s dumb...let’s just say that your grade will reflect the complexity of your critique.
  • Your grade will not be saved by good papers. Your papers, on the other hand, will certainly be improved by reading for class and being forced to defend your arguments, for or against the text, in class discussion. Although your writings would seem to count for more than your preparation for and participation in class, (60% writing, 40% reading and participation) these percentages are better understood sequentially than proportionally. Thus, a student who has scored poorly on class participation and quizzes is nearly assured poor grades on written work. Concern yourself with the former, and the latter will fall into place. With that said, here is the breakdown of each form of assignment.


  • Most classes will begin with an opening question. I will ask some question about the reading for that day which I think will guide our conversation along a fruitful path. After that, the floor is yours to make of the question and the reading what you will. However, for our class conversations to prove most fruitful, everyone must carry with him or herself the burden of the conversation. We can’t afford to have any silent observers. If some of you bashful types think you’re getting by unnoticed, rest assured that the day is soon coming when I will solicit your opinion on the reading. One way or another, everyone must participate in class discussion, and you will be evaluated primarily on grounds of how well your participation reflects a knowledge of the readings, and how much thought you seem to have put into analyzing and evaluating these readings. If any of you have questions about your participation grade, feel free to stop by my office during my office hours, or schedule an appointment via e-mail. One final word of caution for those of you who try to participate too much: you must learn to moderate yourselves, or your grades will reflect your failure to do so.
  • Nothing assures reading like fear of a quiz. Always assume that I will have a quiz over the day’s readings unless I tell you otherwise. And the chances are very slim that I will ever tell you otherwise. Quizzes may be multiple choice, fill-in-the blank, matching, or short answer. Usually they will be multiple choice. From time to time I will also give you review quizzes, asking you to think over more than just that day’s readings. These quizzes will usually take the form of short answer. In such cases, I will warn you in advance. If you probe, I may even let you know what sorts of questions I’m likely to ask.


Film Reviews
  • 3-5 pages, double-spaced, 12 pt font, 1" margins
  • I love movies. I’m sorry if you don’t. I try to work movies or literature into every course I teach, and you guys get both. We will watch the Woody Allen film “Crimes and Misdemeanors” together after finishing Spinoza. An example of the sort of film review I’m looking for is posted on Blackboard under course documents. Think of this assignment as an invitation to wonder. Indeed, all cinema, as all philosophy, ought to begin with wonder, with the phenomena of beholding something familiar and yet foreign. However, you must move beyond wonder and attempt to articulate your experience of this peculiar phenomena, this neurotic New Yorker. Evaluate the film, and connect it in some way to our readings and class conversations. It’s not enough to record the otherness of the film, but you must then try to relate it to what is familiar. Is the film an accurate reflection of what people are like? Who is Allen more likely to endorse, the modern philosopher or his classical or medieval forbear? The review need not be formal. You can say “I” as much as you want, and are free to use examples from daily life to develop your argument.
  • You will be responsible for viewing and reviewing a second film on your own. You may either select a film from the list on blackboard, or, should you have another film in mind, you may try to clear the idea with me. I’m open to most films. Whatever film you choose, your task will be to relate it to at least one of our readings this semester, and then to evaluate the film in the manner suggested above. Remember that one need not limit oneself to questions of plot and character. Also consider direction, scoring, cinematography, setting, editing, casting, lighting, screenwriting, and other such things, if you wish.
  • One last word of advice: Don’t wait until the last minute to watch your second movie. Although I see connections between each of the movies I have listed on blackboard and our readings, this in no way implies that you will see these same connections, or any connections whatsoever. And good papers must make connections. I’m looking for your insights into the films and the readings. It may take two or three tries before you find a movie that you can connect to our readings. There is, admittedly, a hidden agenda at work here–I’m exposing you to great film! But not all great film sits agreeably with all viewers. For those of you who are squeamish, or just not as jaded as me when it comes to sex, violence and swearing in film, you might want to use www.imdb.com to check the ratings and basic plot of a film before renting it.
Mid-term Essay
  • 5-8 pages, double-spaced, 12 pt font, 1" margins
  • All I want in this first paper is evidence that you are carefully reading and thinking about the implications of Spinoza’s thought. I will put a list of potential paper topics on blackboard, but feel free to stop by the office or e-mail me about other paper topics. Smaller questions are better than larger ones. A good paper is likely to examine the implications of even a single proposition.
Final Essay
  • 8-12 pages, double-spaced, 12 pt font, 1"margins
  • This paper will be synthetic in nature, asking you to evaluate the ideas of two or more authors, or to relate the work of one of our philosophers to one or more of our storytellers. Papers will still be evaluated on their success in interpreting discrete passages of text, but should also link up with one or more of the general themes we have touched on in the course. I will still hear arguments for paper topics outside of those listed, but you will find me harder to persuade this time around.


Grade Scale

  • Grades for the course are based on scores for participation, quizzes, film reviews, and midterm and final papers.
  1. Participation 20%
  2. Quizzes 20%
  3. Film Reviews 15%
  4. Midterm Paper 20%
  5. Final Paper 25%


100-90% = A
89-87% = B+
86-80% = B
79-77% = C+
76-70% = C
69-60% = D
59- 0% = F

Attendance Policy

As noted above, my evaluation of your performance in this course will be based primarily on how well prepared you are for class, and how effectively you participate in class discussion. The most important thing you can do is to read carefully at home, and participate frequently and constructively in class conversation. In accordance with Baylor’s policy on attendance, any student who misses more than seven scheduled class meetings will automatically fail the course, regardless of performance. Students who accumulate more than three absences should expect to see their grade for the course substantially effected. There is no distinction in my mind between excused and unexcused absences, so don’t bother with explanations or doctor’s notes. Frequent tardiness will also effect your grade negatively.


Course Schedule

  • Week 1—Course Overview
    • T- Course Introduction and Syllabus Review
      • Intro to Hawthorne
    • H- The Birthmark (on blackboard)
  • Weeks 2-7—Spinoza and Human Geometry
    • T- Euclid, Bk I Definitions, Postulates, Common Notions, Propositions 1-3 (on blackboard)
      • Come to class ready to demonstrate each of the three propositions, knowing which definitions, postulates and common notions they depend on.
    • H- Intro to Spinoza, Ethics, Pt. I, definitions and axioms
    • T- Ethics, Pt. 1, props. I-XX.
    • H- Ethics, Pt. 1, props. XXI-XXXVI. and Appendix
    • T- Ethics, Pt. 2, definitions and axioms, props. I-XXXI.
    • H- Ethics, Pt. 2, props. XXXII-XLIX. and Note.
    • T- Ethics, Pt. 3, definitions and postulates, props I-L.
    • H- Ethics, Pt. 3, props LI-LIX and Definitions of the Emotions
    • T- Ethics, Pt. 4, definitions and axiom, props I-L.
      • Mid-term paper topics.
    • H- Ethics, Pt. 4, props. LI-LXXIII. and Appendix
    • T- Ethics, Pt. 5, Axioms and props. I-XLII
    • H- Closing discussion of Spinoza
  • Week 8—Leisure
    • T- Mid-term papers due by 5 P.M. in my mailbox.
      • NO CLASS. Movie night–“Crimes and Misdemeanors”
    • H- Discuss film. Discuss movie review assignment.
      • Introduction to John Locke.
  • Week 9—John Locke and the new Christian Constitution
    • T- Letter Concerning Toleration, pp. 1-20
      • Movie reviews due by beginning of class
    • H- Letter Concerning Toleration, pp. 21-42
      • Introduction to Immanual Kant.
  • Week 10—Immanuel Kant and the New World Order
    • T- “What is Enlightenment?” (on blackboard)
    • H- “On the Idea of a Universal History of Cosmopolitan Society” (on blackboard)
      • Introduction to Karl Marx.
  • Week 11–Karl Marx and Revolutionary Philosophy
    • T- “Theses on Feuerbach” and “The German Ideology” I, A. (Marx-Engels Reader, pp. 143-175
    • H- “The German Ideology” Pt. I, B-C (Marx-Engels Reader, pp. 176-200
      • Introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche.
  • Weeks 12-15—Friedrich Nietzsche and the death of God
    • T- Thus Spake Zarathustra (Portable Nietzsche, pp. 103-145)
    • H- Zarathustra, pp. 146-191
    • T- Zarathustra, pp. 191-228
      • 2nd film review due
    • H- Zarathustra, pp. 229-259
    • T- Zarathustra, pp. 260-298
    • H- Zarathustra, pp. 299-343
    • T- Zarathustra, pp. 344-395
    • H- Zarathustra, pp. 396-439
      • Intro to O’Connor
  • Week 16—Flannery O’Connor and the Final Word
    • T- “Good Country People” (on blackboard)
    • H- Closing Reflections
      • Final paper topics
  • Final Paper due at the beginning of our final exam period


Good Movies for Movie Reviews
  • 400 Blows
  • Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
  • About a Boy
  • Memento
  • Amorres Perros
  • Nashville
  • Babette’s Feast
  • Natural Born Killers
  • Bamboozled
  • Network
  • The Barbarian Invasions
  • The New World
  • Braveheart
  • On the Waterfront
  • Brazil
  • Patton
  • Breaking the Waves
  • The Passenger
  • The Bicycle Thief
  • The Remains of the Day
  • Casablanca
  • The Rules of the Game
  • Chungking Express
  • Starship Troopers
  • Citizen Kane
  • Shadowlands
  • The Conformist
  • Strange Days
  • Dangerous Liaisons
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley
  • Dark City
  • The Third Man
  • Down By Law
  • Unforgiven
  • Easy Rider
  • The Wings of the Dove
  • Elizabeth
  • Z
  • Fiddler on the Roof
  • The Last Picture Show
  • Luther
  • LA Confidential
  • Magnolia
  • The Last Days of Disco
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
  • The Godfather
  • The Godfather, Pt. II
  • Gosford Park
  • Grand Illusion
  • Hannah and Her Sisters
  • Heat
  • Home For the Holidays
  • Howard’s End
  • The Hudsucker Proxy
  • Human Nature
  • I Heart Huckabees
  • It Happened One Night