Letter from the Director

Dear Colleague,

TheaterDionysusThank you for your interest in our NEH Summer Institute on Mortality: Facing Death in Ancient Greece. The NEH Institute is sponsored by the Institute for Humanities Research at the University of California at Santa Cruz in collaboration with the Athens Centre in Athens, Greece. In this letter I will summarize the NEH Institute’s intellectual and pedagogical aims and give you a brief overview of the schedule. Detailed information about NEH Institute faculty and staff, reading lists, fieldtrips, library access, museum visits, housing, participant stipends, and application procedures and deadlines can be found in the pages linked to this website.

In Aeschylus’ tragedy Prometheus Bound, the Titan Prometheus states that he prevented mortals from knowing the day of their death and compensated them with “blind hopes.” The topic of the NEH Institute is framed by this Promethean conundrum, i.e., by the fact that humans know they will die but must nevertheless go on living. The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman refers to this condition as “living with death.” As responses to this condition, fearing, facing, and evading death are the focus of a broad range of ancient Greek textual and visual sources, including works of literature, philosophy, religion, art history, the history of medicine, and material culture. What emerges from this material is the recognition that mortality is the source of life’s singular human quality. Yet this fact, so often relegated to euphemism, has resisted anything like a comprehensive and sustained examination in the Humanities. Our NEH Institute will take up this challenge in an investigation of the link between the quality of one’s life and the contemplation of one’s death in ancient Greece, with an eye to its relevance for comparative study across cultures, disciplines, and historical periods.

The practical and pedagogical aims of the NEH Institute are to encourage research projects and teaching methodologies capacious enough to encompass topics as diverse as mortality in the context of myth and ritual, philosophical debates over the immortality of the soul, medical approaches to death and dying, and the social and emotional effects of funerary monuments and inscriptions. As a guiding principle of the NEH Institute, these ancient Greek responses to the ephemerality of human life are not taken as expressions of universal or trans-historical truths. Rather, they are historically discrete instances of what the architectural historian Kurt W. Forster has called “the mortality of culture.” Within this framework, participants will be encouraged to develop multi-disciplinary approaches to mortality as the basis for innovative teaching and scholarship in the Humanities and in dialogue with disciplines outside the Humanities.

The NEH Institute is designed around the contributions of six outstanding scholars whose research and teaching have had a significant impact in their fields. Each visiting scholar will deliver a formal lecture in his or her area of specialization, will lead a discussion-style seminar, and will participate in that week’s formal and informal group activities. The first three weeks of the NEH Institute will each be devoted to a specific theme: Week 1) Facing Death in the Greek Literary Tradition, Week 2) Mortal Bodies and Immortal Souls in Greek Medicine and Philosophy, and Week 3) Visions of the Afterlife in Greek Mythology and Material Culture. At the end of each week we will participate in a discussion aimed at building on that week’s topic and readings. In the fourth week, participants will present the results of their own projects in a series of colloquia.  A final seminar will provide an opportunity to discuss the material presented in the previous weeks, including the participants’ own presentations, and will end with an open discussion of directions for future research and teaching.

Housing for participants in Athens, as well as seminar and meeting rooms, will be provided by the Athens Centre. The NEH Institute will meet Monday through Thursday in afternoon and evening sessions. Visits to libraries and museums will take place in the mornings. This schedule best accommodates institutional opening hours and the summer heat in Athens. Week 2 will culminate in a weekend trip to relevant archaeological sites in the Peloponnesus. Participants will have time in the mornings, on Fridays, and on weekends to work on their own projects, to meet individually with visiting faculty, and to use library and museum resources in Athens. Participants will also have a chance to meet in smaller working groups once each week. The schedule is planned to foster collaborative work in both formal and informal settings.

I hope to attract a diverse group of participants whose research and teaching will both benefit from and contribute to a topic firmly grounded in humanistic research and teaching but with the potential for erecting bridges between the Humanities and the Natural and Social Sciences. Participants who work in diverse languages, historical periods, and disciplinary specializations are encouraged to apply. Knowledge of Greek (ancient or modern) is not required and English will be the language of all Institute activities. The principal criterion is an interest in engaging with human mortality as an emerging field of inquiry within the Humanities, as the basis for scholarly dialogue, and as an opportunity for curricular development. Applicants will be judged on their serious engagement with the intellectual and pedagogical aims of the Institute, and on their firm commitment to full time participation in the program. I look forward to hearing from you.

Karen Bassi
NEH Institute Director