Death, God and the Meaning of Life

The details
Colchester Campus
Full Year
Undergraduate: Level 4
Thursday 08 October 2020
Friday 02 July 2021
18 May 2020


Requisites for this module



Key module for

BA VV56 Philosophy, Religion and Ethics,
BA VV57 Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (Including Placement Year),
BA VV58 Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (Including Foundation Year),
BA VV59 Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (Including Foundation Year and Year Abroad),
BA VV5P Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (Including Year Abroad)

Module description

In the first part of this module, we shall consider some of life's big questions, the problems each of us face as human beings. What, if anything, is the meaning of our lives? How can we become wise? Do we stand in need of salvation? Can we make sense of human suffering? How should we think about our own deaths? We shall approach these questions by taking a fresh look at some of the most powerful stories, myths and allegories in the history of reflection on the human condition. In particular, we shall examine the following, from a philosophical point of view:

The Trial of Socrates
Plato's Cave
Eden and the Fall
The Sufferings of Job
The Myth of Sisyphus
The Tragedy of Antigone
The Binding of Isaac

In the second part of the module we take up the problem of nihilism as experienced in modernity. We begin with Nietzsche`s account of the problem of nihilism as it emerges in the wake of the 'death of God', before turning to Weber`s account of processes of disenchantment and rationalisation, and Freud`s analysis of the repressive forces of civilization. We then examine responses to this `malaise of modernity` that emphasise the role of art, an authentic relation to one`s own death, the radical choosing of oneself, and collective political struggle. Topics we will focus on include:

The Death of God (Nietzsche)
The Iron Cage of Modernity (Weber)
Civilization and its Discontents (Freud)
Art as a Saving Sorceress (Nietzsche)
The Antinomy of Life and Art (Thomas Mann)
Confronting One's Own Death (Tolstoy)
Choosing Oneself (Sartre)

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

to introduce students to texts that are pivotal to Ancient Greek and Christian thought
to introduce students to modern responses to the problem of nihilism

Module learning outcomes

By the end of this module students should to be able to:

* display detailed knowledge of the texts covered in the module;
* display some knowledge of the ways in which these texts have been variously interpreted and developed by different philosophers;
* engage orally and in writing with these texts in a philosophical way, considering arguments and ideas carefully and critically;
* display an understanding of the presuppositions of the question of the meaning of life in a "modern" context;
* recognise the variety of forms of philosophical inquiry and expression, and be able to assess their significance for the philosophical content.

By the end of the module, students should also have acquired a set of transferable skills, and in particular be able to:

* define the task in which they are engaged and exclude what is irrelevant;
* seek and organise the most relevant discussions and sources of information;
* process a large volume of diverse and sometimes conflicting arguments;
* compare and evaluate different arguments and assess the limitations of their own position or procedure;
* write and present verbally a succinct and precise account of positions, arguments, and their presuppositions and implications;
* be sensitive to the positions of others and communicate their own views in ways that are accessible to them;
* think 'laterally' and creatively - see interesting connections and possibilities and present these clearly rather than as vague hunches;
* maintain intellectual flexibility and revise their own position if shown wrong;

Module information

No additional information available.

Learning and teaching methods

There will be a one hour lecture and one-hour class/seminar each week. All teaching events will be accessible to students on and off campus either face-to-face or remotely through online teaching. Weeks 8 and 21 are Reading Weeks.


  • Weber, Max; Livingstone, Rodney. (2004) The vocation lectures, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
  • Mann, Thomas; Wilkinson, Elizabeth M. (1962) Tonio Kröger, Oxford: B. Blackwell. vol. Blackwell's German texts
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm; Williams, Bernard; Nauckhoff, Josefine; Del Caro, Adrian. (2001) The gay science: with a prelude in German rhymes and an appendix of songs, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. vol. Cambridge texts in the history of philosophy
  • Freud, Sigmund; McLintock, David. (2002) Civilization and its discontents, London: Penguin. vol. Penguin classics
  • Cooper, John M.; Plato. (1997) Complete works, Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. (2007) Existentialism and humanism, London: Methuen.
  • (©2010) The new Oxford annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version : with the Apocrypha : an ecumenical study Bible, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm; Smith, Douglas. (2000) The birth of tragedy, Oxford: Oxford University Press. vol. Oxford world's classics
  • Taylor, Don; Varakis, Angie; Sophocles. (2006) Antigone, London: Methuen Drama.
  • Tolstoy, Leo; Cook, T. C. B. (2004) The death of Ivan Ilyich and other stories, Ware: Wordsworth Editions. vol. Wordsworth classics
  • Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich. (1998) The German ideology: including Theses on Feuerbach and introduction to The critique of political economy, Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books. vol. Great books in philosophy

The above list is indicative of the essential reading for the course. The library makes provision for all reading list items, with digital provision where possible, and these resources are shared between students. Further reading can be obtained from this module's reading list.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Weighting
Coursework   Autumn Term Essay (1500 words)    25% 
Coursework   Spring Term Essay (1500 Words)    25% 
Coursework   SUMMER 24hr take home exam    50% 

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
100% 0%


Coursework Exam
100% 0%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Dr Steven Gormley, email:
Dr Fiona Hughes, email:
Dr Steve Gormley (Spring and Summer), Dr Fiona Hughes (Autumn and Summer),



External examiner

No external examiner information available for this module.
Available via Moodle
Of 104 hours, 104 (100%) hours available to students:
0 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s).


Further information

* Please note: due to differing publication schedules, items marked with an asterisk (*) base their information upon the previous academic year.

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