The George Fox Honors Program is a great opportunity many students miss out on for a variety of reasons. Maybe you couldn’t fit the credit requirements into your tight schedule. Or perhaps your workload was too dense to accommodate a six-credit class almost every semester. Or maybe you were just unaware of the program until you came to George Fox and have only heard about it from other students. Perhaps you are even hearing about it now for the first time.

The honors program lasts for six semesters, with two classes for each underclassman year and one each during junior and senior year. Before classes, everyone reads a selection from an assigned book, sometimes up to 200 pages, and takes notes on the text. Honors professors then lead a seminar-style discussion during class time, when students discuss the themes and messages of the book, evaluating its argument and arguing its validity.

The first semester of honors, generally the easiest in content and quantity, contains 22 individual texts. View the full reading list.

I am writing this piece to give you a taste of what the honors program is all about. While I cannot guide you through a seminar of discussing a text over a blog, I can give you my recommendations for the best and most approachable texts in the honors program (in my opinion).

If you want to gather up some friends and try this out, these are the books I’d suggest you start with. The majority of these are still worth the read, even if it’s just you working through them. To prevent this blog post from being 20 pages long, I will only speak on the first semester of honors that most freshman students begin with.

The Most Approachable

#1 The Epic of Gilgamesh by Unknown

The Epic of Gilgamesh is both the first honors text a student reads and one of the first known works of literature. As such, it’s the perfect place to start this list. Written around 2100 to 1200 B.C. in Akkadian, modern translations of the text are fragmented because we do not have a complete version. Modern editions are pieced together from clay tablets from Babylon and earlier civilizations recovered from archaeological digs. The Epic of Gilgamesh establishes the epic poetry style that is continued through Homer’s work ( The Iliad and the Odyssey), to the Aeneid, and even Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The story focuses on two legendary heroes, Gigamesh and Enkidu, as they deal with gods, monsters, and their own mortality. However, the true value of this work comes from the information we gain on the peoples who wrote it and how they saw the world, however problematic by today’s standards it may be. Allusion to biblical events, such as the flood (here called the “Deluge”), further draws the interest of modern readers.

#2 The Three Theban Plays by Sophocles

The Three Theban Plays consist of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. While called the “Theban Plays” by scholars, these works were not written as a trilogy, with inconsistencies between all three, but are grouped together due to their shared focus on the effects of Oedipus’s tale.

Oedipus Rex tells the story of Oedipus, a Greek hero who saves Thebes from the tyranny of the Sphinx and gains rulership of the city. However, due to his own past and the actions of his parents, prophecies are fulfilled against the will of those whom the prophecy applies and horror consumes the King of Thebes.

Oedipus at Colonus is the last play written of the three and an outlier among them. I would suggest skipping over it in your reading. I include it here because, if I only mentioned two of the three plays, you would wonder what the third play was. However, while inconsistent with the end of Oedipus Rex, it does lay the groundwork for the central conflict of Antigone, the best of the trilogy.

Antigone, like Oedipus Rex before it (although Antigone was written first), deals with the conflict of duties demanded by the gods, or more accurately cultural taboo and responsibilities. What’s more important, ensuring your family goes on to the afterlife or obeying the edicts of your ruler? What are the consequences of such a conflict? Antigone is the most compelling to a modern audience, as it portrays a woman caught within this dilemma and the sacrifices she must make while wrestling with conflicting cultural values.

Cover of Medea

#3 Medea by Euripides

Like Antigone, Medea is one of the few ancient works that have a feminine focus. However, unlike the heroic Antigone, Medea is a far darker story, about betrayal, vengeance, and the dark places we go to hurt those who hurt us. There is no moral high ground in Medea, with each character consumed by selfishness and the loss of humanity that vengeance brings.

Instead of exploring cultural values, Euripides explores the realistic consequences of the actions of mythic characters, specifically to the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. I would suggest you Google Jason before picking up Medea, so you understand the full context that is referenced throughout the play (since Jason’s tale was a common myth in Euripides’ time, he needed only to reference it to his audience and not explain it).

The Best

#1 The Odyssey by Homer

While The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first epic poem that defined the genre, The Odyssey is its most famous example. Written by Homer around the seventh century BC, it explores a man’s struggle against fate and the will of the gods to come home and see his wife and son.

The literary value of The Odyssey comes from the fiction-defining effect it has had on literature since its creation and its unorthodox protagonist. Odysseus is not a lumbering warrior like Achilles or half-divine superhuman like Heracles. He instead represents a different heroic attribute that the Greek’s revered: cunning. Odysseus is characterized as a sly trickster who uses his mind rather than his brawn to get his way out of danger.

Read The Odyssey for a discussion on the real effects of divine opinions on people’s lives, the struggles of a 10-year journey, and a dive into a post-war society after the events of The Iliad and the Trojan War.

Cover of The Republic

#2 The Republic by Plato

Up until this point, we’ve been speaking of solely fiction, plays and epic poems. However, a large part of the first year of honors is philosophy whose concepts and ideas defined how we look at the world and ourselves for thousands of years. Plato’s Republic is one such text.

Within a discussion with his friends, Socrates (Plato’s teacher) expounds and analyzes various topics. Is an unjust man happier than a just one? What is justice? How is it formed within a person? What would a just society look like? The whole work culminates in the titular Republic itself, a city-wide model of Socrates’ which shows the development of justice within the soul. Many have interpreted this as Socrates’, or Plato’s, vision of a perfect society.

The book continues with the Allegory of the Cave and a discussion on the “Form” of an object as opposed to its reality.

While monstrously sized and philosophically dense, the undeniable effect The Republic had on shaping philosophy through the ages is shown in just how famous the Allegory of the Cave has become.

#3 Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

Nicomachean Ethics, written by Socrates’ student Aristotle, has a similar aim to most early philosophy. Most philosophers in Socrates’ and Aristotle’s time were only concerned with two things: why something was the way it is, and how to achieve happiness. Nicomachean Ethics naturally deals with both in relation to ethics.

Aristotle characterized happiness as more than simply success, it’s self-actualization. Happiness, in his view, is the result of constant work to do better and practice virtue. This has a surprising amount of synergy with the much more recent idea of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (which you may already be familiar with). To be happy one must be acting virtuously and honorably in the world. But all philosophers need to quantify the terms they used, so, if happiness is acting virtuously, what is virtue and what makes virtue good?

This is where Ethics gets ethical. Aristotle identifies that too much of a virtue is no longer virtuous. Too much generosity leaves you destitute. Too much courage is reckless. Too much justice is unkind. He claims that true virtue is the average between the excess and deficiency of a virtue. Good humility is between self-deprecation and pride.

Aristotle’s work shaped our understanding of ethics and social responsibility for thousands of years after his death, and his work is the basis for the modern Western canon of great books. While a difficult read, it is one of the most personally influential works I have read over the last four years of the honors program.

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