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Study information

Tales of Freedom, Necessity and Providence

Module titleTales of Freedom, Necessity and Providence
Module codeHUM2005
Academic year2023/4
Module staff

Professor Luciano Parisi (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

Freedom and necessity, used by philosophers as complementary or opposite concepts, have recently been studied as everyday experiences. Genevieve Lloyd did this by focussing on literary texts or by highlighting the more literary aspects of philosophical texts. You will follow her example by reading selected passages of key texts of European, North African and East Asian cultures such as Euripides’ Alcestis, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Wu-Ch’êng-ên’s Monkey, Manzoni’s The Betrothed, and Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Some of these authors discuss the belief in Providence, which might reconcile human agency and necessity.  Students will be assessed by writing either an essay or a short story, as they prefer.

If you are a student of languages, this module can count towards a language for the purposes of your degree title, providing you engage with material in the relevant language in the assessment. Please contact the module convenor if you require more details.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module enables you to read relatively simple literary texts about ideas discussed in more challenging ways by philosophers and theologians. Most people today see life as a series of choices: what subject to study, what university to go to, what career to embark on, and so on. The situation was different in previous historical periods when the nature of the self was weaker (and the sense of community stronger) and a large number of events were perceived as caused by God or fortune (and seen as inevitable). If one focuses on natural or political disasters, individual suffering, aging, diseases or death, it becomes clear that necessity still plays a decisive role in our lives. You will analyse how various cultures have expressed the tension between individual will and necessity, the ways in which they have reacted to unavoidable misery, and will discuss whether freedom and necessity can overlap, as Stoics and Christians claimed when they spoke of Providence. The focus will be on (mainly) literary and (occasionally) cinematic representations, because stories are shared by large groups of people, leading to a common understanding of issues and making possible collective practices, whereas theory is often exclusive. We will explore what Charles Taylor calls the social imaginary of cultures looking for particularly significant narratives: no attempt will be made to understand these topics systematically; you will be encouraged to find links between texts, develop organic thoughts, and show if and how different insights fit together.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Demonstrate an informed appreciation of specific authors and texts dealing with human agency, necessity and/or providence
  • 2. Demonstrate an informed critical understanding of the relation between the texts studied and important social and political intellectual developments

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 3. Analyse or write literary texts and relate their concerns to their cultural context
  • 4. Relate texts to issues in the wider context of cultural and intellectual history
  • 5. Analyse relevant theoretical ideas or develop relevant narrative themes, and demonstrate an understanding of the connection between narratives and ideas

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 6. Either: Through essay-writing, demonstrate appropriate research and bibliographic skills, a capacity to construct a coherent, substantiated argument and a capacity to write clear and correct prose Or: Write an effective story with a consistent style, using a range of creative techniques, showing awareness of the structure and form of a short story (or chapter) and developing a distinctive writer’s voice
  • 7. Through research, seminar discussion, and essay- or story-writing demonstrate a capacity to develop theoretical ideas or literary themes, to question assumptions, and to critically reflect on your own learning process

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • Introduction to contents, teaching method and assessment: 
  • Greek tragedies
  • Stoicism in Greece and Rome
  • Augustin’s vision of divine action
  • Giovanni Boccacio and secularized Europe
  • Descartes’ new theory of the Self
  • Chinese culture of the 16th century
  • Manzoni, Dostoyevsky and Christianity in the 19th century
  • A surrealist iconoclast: Luis Bunuel
  • Simone de Beauvoir and Elena Ferrante
  • Bassani’s stories on the Holocaust

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching10Lectures (10 x 1 hour)
Scheduled Learning and Teaching5Seminars (10 x 0.5 hour)
Scheduled Learning and Teaching1Revision (1 x 1 hour)
Guided Independent Study134Private study

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Short essay, or short story with commentary750 words1-7Written feedback

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Either: Essay Or: Short story with commentary100Either: 3000 words essay Or: 2250 words (story) and 750 words (commentary)1-7Feedback sheet

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Either: Essay (3000 words) Or: Short story with commentary (2250 words story + 750 words commentary)Either: Essay (3000 words) Or: Short story with commentary (2250 words story + 750 words commentary)1-7Referral/deferral period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Basic reading (mainly on ELE) and viewing:

  • Euripides’ Alcestis
  • Seneca’s Letter to Lucilius on Providence (chapters I; II, 1-6; IV, 1 and 16; V; VI)
  • Augustine of Hippo, Confessions (selected passages)
  • Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (selected passages)
  • René Descartes, The Passions of the Soul (paragraphs 48, 144-46 and 153-55)
  • Wu-Ch’êng-ên’s, Monkey (selected passages)
  • Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (selected chapters)
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Karamazov Brothers (selected chapters)
  • Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel
  • Simone de Beauvoir, The Woman Destroyed (selected chapters)
  • Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment (selected chapters)
  • Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (selected chapters)


  • Richard Bauchman, ‘Theodicy from Ivan Karamazov to Moltmann’, Modern Theology vol. 4 (1987), no. 1, pp. 83-97
  • SB Chandler, Manzoni. The Story of a Spiritual Quest (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1974)
  • Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993)
  • Brad Inwood (ed), The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • Genevieve Lloyd, Providence Lost (London: Harvard University Press, 2008)
  • Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
  • James J, O’Donnell, Augustine Sinner and Saint. A New Biography (London: Profile, 2005)
  • John McCormick, Reading Machiavelli (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018)
  • Antonino Poppi, ‘Fate, Fortune, Providence and Human Freedom,’ in Charles B. Schmitt and Quentin Skinner (eds), The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 641-67
  • Geneviève Rodin-Lewis, Descartes: His Life and Thought (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998)
  • Risa Sodi, Narrative and Imperative: The First Fifty Years of Italian Holocaust Writing (Oxford: Lang, 2007)
  • Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (London: Harvard University Press, 2007)
  • John R. Wilson (ed), Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Euripides’s Alcestis (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968)

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

Freedom, Necessity, Providence, European, North African and Asian Literatures

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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