Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Modern "Meanings of Life": Aestheticism, Perfectionism, Ecstasy


If I ask you how you live, or what you live for, I have a guess what you’ll tell me. You might say, “I live to be a good person,” to do right, or make a difference to the world. Or to love, or help, your family. Or to launch a career, or make beautiful art. Or to honor your faith in God, and try to follow the right path.

I half believe your answers; but I’m also skeptical. Ethics (being a good person), family, vocation (having a career and a calling), and religion, clearly influence our big-picture reflections about how people should live. But what are we all really living for, that determines tiny decisions every day?

This course considers some values people steer by, perhaps without knowing it, in the everyday—and how these came together, in modern times, as philosophies new to human history. Is your goal to change ceaselessly, yet be authentically yourself, “becoming who you are” (perfectionism)?  Is it to make your life shapely, artful, and as pleasurable as a work of art (aestheticism)? Is it to accumulate peak experiences, unique and memorable moments (ecstasy)?

Our class will look for the formation of some of these life philosophy in selected masterpieces of literature and argument, and through students’ examination and writing of your own experiences so far, and analysis of family and friends. The course considers philosophy through literature, art, and intellectual history, inviting you to look at your own life and plans in unconventional and skeptical ways. Students will develop their skills of “cultural criticism,” combining analysis, argument, and deep reflection, with written rhetoric and persuasion.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Mark Greif

"I was born in Boston. My family was religious. New England was cold, dark, and Puritanical. There was lots of time to start thinking about the meaning of life. As an adult I went to live and teach in New York, a city I much preferred. I experienced more of a media culture, and fame culture, first hand. It reinforced my interest in how people choose to make their lives meaningful, even when they seek fun, or celebrity, or social power, rather than worrying about the state of their souls. I founded the magazine n+1 with friends, taught both literature and creative writing for a decade as a professor at the New School in Manhattan, and published many essays on novels, reality television, pop music, exercise, and politics, later collected in a book called Against Everything. In my scholarly life, I also published a large academic book about 20th century history and how big ideas entered literature. A final confession: As much as I love literature, and art, and history, the truth is I love listening to music more than anything—though this will probably never come up in class."