Death, God and the Meaning of Life
Philosophical, Historical and Interdisciplinary Studies (School of)
Undergraduate: Level 4
Thursday 05 October 2023
Friday 28 June 2024
06 September 2023
Requisites for this module
BA V530 Continental Philosophy,
BA V531 Continental Philosophy (Including Foundation Year),
BA V532 Continental Philosophy (Including Placement Year),
BA V533 Continental Philosophy (Including Year Abroad),
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),
BA V5L5 Philosophy, Ethics and Sustainability,
BA V5L6 Philosophy, Ethics and Sustainability (Including Foundation Year),
BA V5L7 Philosophy, Ethics and Sustainability (Including Placement Year),
BA V5L8 Philosophy, Ethics and Sustainability (Including Year Abroad)
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 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.
The aims of this module are:
1. to introduce students to texts that are pivotal to Ancient Greek, Christian thought and Existentialism
2. to introduce students to modern responses to the problem of nihilism
By the end of this module students should to be able to:
1. display detailed knowledge of the texts covered in the module;
2. display some knowledge of the ways in which these texts have been variously interpreted and developed by different philosophers;
3. engage orally and in writing with these texts in a philosophical way, considering arguments and ideas carefully and critically;
4. display an understanding of the presuppositions of the question of the meaning of life in a "modern" context;
5. 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:
1. define the task in which they are engaged and exclude what is irrelevant;
2. seek and organise the most relevant discussions and sources of information;
3. process a large volume of diverse and sometimes conflicting arguments;
4. compare and evaluate different arguments and assess the limitations of their own position or procedure;
5. write and present verbally a succinct and precise account of positions, arguments, and their presuppositions and implications;
6. be sensitive to the positions of others and communicate their own views in ways that are accessible to them;
7. think 'laterally' and creatively - see interesting connections and possibilities and present these clearly rather than as vague hunches;
8. maintain intellectual flexibility and revise their own position if shown wrong;
In particular, we shall examine the following, from a philosophical point of view:
Out of Africa; the First Human Beings and the Beginning of Death, God and the meaning of Life
The Trial of Socrates
Eden and the Fall
The Sufferings of Job
The Myth of Sisyphus
The Tragedy of Antigone
Covid and Camus' 'The Plague
In the second part of the module 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)
Collective Emancipation of Humanity (Marx)
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.
There will also be a Reading Week in each term when no teaching will take place, exact weeks to be confirmed.
Leo Tolstoy (2008) 'My Confession', in The meaning of life: a reader. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 7–16.
Arthur Schopenhauer (2000) 'On the Sufferings of the World', in Parerga and paralipomena: short philosophical essays. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 45–55.
Mark Maslin (2017b) The Cradle of Humanity: How the Changing Landscape of Africa Made Us So Smart
. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available at: https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1435297&site=ehost-live
Coogan, M.D. et al.
(no date a) 'Genesis', in M.D. Coogan et al. (eds) The new Oxford annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version?: with the Apocrypha?: an ecumenical study Bible
. Fully rev. 4th ed. Oxford [England]: Oxford University Press, pp. 15–16. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/universityofessex-ebooks/reader.action?docID=1480933&ppg=42
Kant, I. (1960) 'Radical Evil in Human Nature', in Religion within the limits of reason alone. New York: Harper, pp. 34–39.
Coogan, M.D. et al.
(no date b) 'Job', in M.D. Coogan et al. (eds) The new Oxford annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version?: with the Apocrypha?: an ecumenical study Bible
. Fully rev. 4th ed. Oxford [England]: Oxford University Press, pp. 726–772. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/universityofessex-ebooks/reader.action?docID=1480933&ppg=753
Hume, D. and Gaskin, J.C.A. (2008) 'Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion', in Principle writings on religion, including Dialogues concerning natural religion and The natural history of religion
. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available at: https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1085903&site=eds-live&authtype=sso&custid=s9814295
Camus, A. and O'Brien, J. (2005) The myth of Sisyphus. London: Penguin Books.
Nietzsche, F.W. et al.
(2001) The gay science: with a prelude in German rhymes and an appendix of songs
. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available at: https://app.kortext.com/Shibboleth.sso/Login?entityID=https://idp0.essex.ac.uk/shibboleth&target=https://app.kortext.com/borrow/378499
Weber, M. and Livingstone, R. (2004) The vocation lectures
. Edited by D.S. Owen and T.B. Strong. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. Available at: https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=526579
Freud, S. et al.
(1953) 'Civilization and Its Discontents', in The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud
. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. Available at: https://pep-web.org/browse/document/SE.021.0000A?index=21&page=PR0004
Nietzsche, F.W. and Smith, D. (2000) The birth of tragedy
. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available at: https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=56036
Tolstoy, L. and Cook, T.C.B. (2004) The death of Ivan Ilyich and other stories
. Ware: Wordsworth Editions. Available at: https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=2245770&site=ehost-live
Sartre, J.-P. (1975) 'Existential is a Humanism', in Existentialism: from Dostoevsky to Sartre. New York, NY: New American Library.
Marx, K., Engels, F. and Marx, K. (1998) The German ideology: including Theses on Feuerbach and introduction to The critique of political economy
. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books. Available at: https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=476798
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
||OPTIONAL: Autumn Term Pre-Assessment (750 words)
||Autumn Term Essay (1500 words)
||Spring Term Essay (1500 Words)
||Main exam: Remote, Open Book, 24hr during Summer (Main Period)
||Reassessment Main exam: Remote, Open Book, 24hr during September (Reassessment Period)
Exam format definitions
- Remote, open book: Your exam will take place remotely via an online learning platform. You may refer to any physical or electronic materials during the exam.
- In-person, open book: Your exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer to any physical materials such as paper study notes or a textbook during the exam. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
- In-person, open book (restricted): The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer only to specific physical materials such as a named textbook during the exam. Permitted materials will be specified by your department. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
- In-person, closed book: The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may not refer to any physical materials or electronic devices during the exam. There may be times when a paper dictionary,
for example, may be permitted in an otherwise closed book exam. Any exceptions will be specified by your department.
Your department will provide further guidance before your exams.
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Dr Steven Gormley, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Fiona Hughes, email: email@example.com.
PHAIS General Office - 6.130; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Josiah Saunders
Available via Moodle
Of 831 hours, 36 (4.3%) hours available to students:
795 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s).
* Please note: due to differing publication schedules, items marked with an asterisk (*) base their information upon the previous academic year.
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