CSEM Magritte

Course Information:

CSEM 23012-45

  • Professor Shields
  • Class Meetings: MW 12.30-13.45, DeBartolo Hall 113


The Introit to the Catholic Requiem Mass begins with the following entreaty: Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat eis (Give eternal rest to them, Lord; and may perpetual light shine upon them.)  The tradition from which this entreaty emerges, however, does not envisage the immortality here beseeched in a uniform manner. How should this eternal life be conceived? Is it a life of stasis or of development? Does the eternal realm admit of change at all?  Of time? Of any relation at all to the temporal?

Once the province of the religious, immortality has also found a new lease on life of late in a non-religious domain: proponents of cryonics seek a form of bodily suspended animation, awaiting an eventual awakening after medical advances render corporeal death unnecessary, and transhumanists imagine a form of virtual immortality won by technological innovation. Perhaps an individual life could be extended indefinitely not by preserving the body, but by transferring persons from flesh into some more durable medium, where life might be realized and secured in perpetuity.  

One question naturally arises for the religious and the non-religious alike: is immortality choiceworthy? It’s natural enough to desire immortality—but should we?

Theologians, philosophers, fiction writers, composers, and film-makers have all weighed in on this question.  We will engage in a range of approaches: reading Plato’s Phaedo, Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, and Williams’s ‘The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality’; we will also view the opera referenced in Williams’s title, namely Janacek’s The Makropulos Affair as well as Wagner’s Götterdämerung; we will read fiction on the topic, including Borges, ‘The Immortal’ and Shelley, ‘The Mortal Immortal’; and we will view two related films, the second a loose Hollywood adaptation of the first, namely Wim Wenders, Der Himmel über Berlin and Silberling’s City of Angels.  As a sort of spine to the course we will read Death by Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan and watch a series of accompanying videos.

Office Hours and Contact Information:

  • Office: Malloy Hall 327

  • Office hours: Tu. 8.30-10.30 and by appointment

  • e-mail: 

  • N.b. I prefer e-mail to telephone as a manner of student contact.  I make an effort to answer student e-mails promptly, but please be aware that I measure promptness in this domain in days rather than hours or minutes. 

Required Texts:

  • Kagan, Shelly, Death (Yale University Press: 2012)

  • Huxley, Aldous, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (Penguin: 1939)

  • In addition, I have linked to various public domain texts, including:
    • Plato, Phaedo
    • Aquinas, Summa Theologica 
    • Shelley, ‘The Mortal Immortal’
    • Borges, ‘The Immortal’
    • Tolstoy, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich'
  • I have also put on reserve in Hesburgh Library, two films and two full-length operas:
    • Der Himmel über Berlin (dir. Wenders)
    • City of Angels (dir. Silberling)
    • Janacek, The Makropulos Affair
    • Wagner, Götterdämmerung

Requirements and Protocol:

The Notre Dame College Seminar stresses oral communication over writing.  We will, of course, do some writing, but the lion’s share of your assessed work will involve discussion and non-written communication.  For our purposes, oral communication is understood broadly, so as to include informed discussion, active and attentive listening, performance, presentation, interviewing, and debate.  

Assignments include:

  • One written discussion starter, of approximately 300-500 words.  A discussion starter presents the key points of the day’s reading or viewing in order to frame our seminar discussion.  Often, but not always, this will include a review of the relevant video presentation by Kagan. 
  • Each discussion starter must have a discernible thesis, either exegetical or critical.  
  • Discussion starters will be distributed to all seminar participants no later than 17.00 two days before the discussion in question.  No late submissions will be accepted.
  • One class presentation of a passion outside of the public domain.  We will discuss what this involves viva voce.
  • On-going, engaged, and informed participation in seminar discussion.  
  • Fluent, informed responses to questions put in an oral final examination.

Attendance is expected at all seminar meetings. Given the discussion-intensive focus of the College Seminar programme, failure to attend will deleteriously affect your mark for this course.  

Topics and Schedule:

Please adhere to this reading and viewing schedule.  

.© Christopher Shields 2014