In this course of 48 lectures, we will explore the essential contours of the human experience in what has come to be called “Western civilization,” from its humble beginnings in the ancient Near East to the dawn of the modern world; we will range from about 3000 B.C. to A.D. 1600. We will begin by asking just what “Western civilization” is, or what it has been thought to be. Throughout the course, we will pause to reflect on where Western civilization and its primary locus at any given moment. That is, we’ll begin in the ancient Near East and move to Greece, then to Rome; we will explore the shape and impact of large ancient empires, including the Persian, Alexander the Great’s, and Rome’s. When we take our leave of Rome, we’ll move to Western Europe. We’ll watch Europe gradually expand physically and culturally. Finally, we’ll see the globalization of Western civilization with the Portuguese and Spanish voyages of exploration and discovery.

In this course, we’ll meet some of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages, beginning with Saint Augustine, the North African Christian bishop whose life story and philosophical writings arguably laid the foundation and limned the outlines of most of the major developments in philosophical and religious thinking for centuries to come. We’ll meet Augustine’s “heirs”— such writers as Boethius, Isidore of Seville, and Pope Gregory the Great. We will learn how the military minds of such figures as Charlemagne and Alfred the Great were influenced by the religious sphere and vice versa. The great cross-fertilization of medieval thinking will get considerable attention as we examine the careers and thinking of Islamic scholars, including Avicenna, Averroes, and Alhacen, whose work and innovations in the fields of medicine and science would profoundly affect the shape of the medieval world. Great Jewish scholars, such as Rashi and Maimonides, are engaged against the backdrop of a growing university system; in the 12th century, universities in Paris, Bologna, Oxford, and elsewhere were reengaging with works from classical antiquity and seeking answers to old questions in new places.