Flaunting It: The Logic of “Conspicuous Consumption” in Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class

LECTURES > Upcoming

Although “wealth” has long been subjected to economic analysis (which postulates humans as rational beings) and more recently to behavioral analysis (which postulates humans as emotional beings), Thorstein Veblen’s groundbreaking Theory of the Leisure Class famously subjected “wealth” to anthropological analysis (which postulates humans as social beings). From this point of view, “wealth” is important not so much for what can be done with it or for the internal feelings that it can evoke, but rather for what it can signal to others about the social dominance of its possessor. This lecture will offer an overview of Veblen’s theory as originally presented in 1899 and consider its usefulness in making sense of the contemporary phenomenon of Donald Trump.
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The Content of Our Character: Lessons from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Volume One

LECTURES > PREVIOUS

Besides being an object of general intellectual curiosity, the decline and fall of the ancient Roman Empire has long held a special fascination for those concerned with the health and well-being of a subsequent empire. After all, if the later empire could understand the mistakes of the former one, perhaps they — and the attendant imperial decline — could be avoided. Edward Gibbon, who wrote his monumental, six-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as the British Empire was arising and the American Empire was aborning, certainly seems to have thought so. This lecture will survey Gibbon’s account of “the beginning of the end” for Rome as told in volume one of his work, with special attention to the lessons Gibbon believed he had gleaned from that pivotal period — most of which deal with a perceived decline and fall of the Roman national character.
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Could It Happen Here? Now? Dystopian Novels for Our Time

COURSES > LIFELONG | COURSES > ONLINE

In a time when many believe that contemporary events are unfolding in ways that bode ill for the future, the dystopian classics of youth are the focus of renewed interest as possible guides to “what might happen”. This course will be devoted to a careful, mature consideration of four such classics as we seek both to understand each text as a literary work originating in its own time and place and to glean possible insights into our own time and place. The texts are: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here; George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Continue reading

Does Humanity Have a Death Wish? Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents

COURSES > LIFELONG | COURSES > ONLINE

Although most famously known for his “erotic” theories that postulated a fundamental human drive for sex, reproduction and the continuation of life itself, during the period between the two world wars Sigmund Freud began to consider whether or not humanity also had a fundamental drive for self-destruction — a drive that was exacerbated by the conditions of modern, civilized life. After a brief introduction to Freud’s seminal theory of the human mind, this course will focus on a close reading and discussion of one of Freud’s last books, Civilization and Its Discontents, paying particular attention to Freud’s claim that “the fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether [they] will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.” Continue reading

The Nature of Knowledge: Plato’s Theaetetus and Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy

COURSES > LIFELONG | COURSES > ONLINE

In an age of “alternative facts”, it is perhaps worthwhile to revisit the foundational texts that have helped establish a longstanding conviction that some “facts” are more equal than others. This course will be devoted to a close consideration of two such texts: Plato’s ancient dialogue Theaetetus and Descartes’s modern monologue Meditations on First Philosophy. In the first, Socrates and his interlocutors examine three different notions of knowledge (and Socrates proclaims himself a “midwife of the soul”). In the second, Descartes claims to demonstrate the indisputable truth of (a) the existence of God and of (b) the existence of the immortal human soul — not to mention of (c) the existence of himself (because he thinks). In addition to seeking to understand each text on its own terms, we will compare and contrast them as alternative approaches to “certain knowledge”.
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Shakespeare’s “Letter to the Ephesians”: The Comedy of Errors as a “Christianized” (Not “Plagiarized”) Pagan Play

COURSES > LIFELONG | COURSES > ONLINE

Perhaps because it is one of Shakespeare’s earliest and “lightest” plays, The Comedy of Errors has long been understood primarily as little more than an Elizabethan re-telling of an ancient Roman farce, The Brothers Meneachumus by Plautus. By reading Shakespeare’s work in conjunction with Plautus’s and also Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, however, this course will explore the possibility that Shakespeare not only modernized Plautus’s play but also (and more importantly) Christianized it, thereby giving The Comedy of Errors a much deeper significance than is generally realized. Continue reading

Epic of Id, Epic of Superego: A Freudian Reading of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

LECTURES > PREVIOUS

Although the Iliad and Odyssey are often understood as two parts of a single larger story that manifests a single, coherent “heroic” worldview, an alternative perspective sees the Odyssey as essentially a repudiation of, and replacement for, the values of the Iliad. Indeed, from this point of view the Odyssey is often seen as standing in relation to the Iliad much as the New Testament is often seen as standing in relation to the Hebrew Bible.  This alternative perspective can be deepened by analyzing the two epics using Freud’s theory of the tri-partite psyche (a process that Freud himself often employed  when interpreting classic literature and other works of art). From this Freudian perspective, the Odyssey appears as the epic celebration of the hero of the superego (Odysseus) that repudiates and supersedes the Iliad, the epic celebration of the hero of the id (Achilles).
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Group Therapy with Great Books: On the Remaking of Adults through Lifelong Liberal Re-Education

LECTURES > Previous

Over the 70 years since 1946, the University of Chicago Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults has provided opportunities for intellectually curious adults to read and discuss selected “great books” under the guidance of staff instructors. Why? And why have intellectually curious adults continued to take advantage of these opportunities? In this lecture, I will attempt to answer these and related questions as part of a general reflection on the ends and means of lifelong liberal learning, drawing upon my own 20+ years of experience as a Basic Program instructor along with ideas as old and distant as Socrates’ and as recent and near as those of the late University of Chicago professor Herman Sinaiko. My starting point will be a 1958 observation by Warren Winiarski, then a Basic Program staff instructor, that in the Basic Program:
“[W]e re-open the universal problems and questions, and thus call into question the particular and specific answers which constitute the adultness of adults; we unmake adults — we make adults into children. Adult education of this kind is not a continuing of their education; it is the possibility of their being re-educated. For to be educated in this way means, in so far as the principles, answers and beliefs constitutive of adultness are questioned — to be de-educated or to unlearn what we learned before.”
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