Could It Happen Here? Now? Dystopian Novels for Our Time


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


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


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


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


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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Jesus for Jews (and Others)


Although the figure of Jesus has permeated Western culture for nearly 2,000 years, many Jews and other non-Christians find the figure of Jesus a problematic one, difficult to study and comprehend. As a result, many of the great Western works that presuppose a sympathetic understanding of Jesus remain opaque. This course provides a sympathetic introduction to the figure of Jesus as well as an exploration of some of the challenges that Jews in particular often face in dealing with Christianity’s appropriation of one of Israel’s greatest sons. Readings from the Bible will be supplemented by Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Continue reading

Pirsig’s Progress: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a Modern Spiritual Journey


Since its publication in 1974, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (ZAMM) has been widely hailed as a modern classic as well as a work that defies conventional characterization. Part novel, part diary, part manifesto, ZAMM relates the thoughts and experiences of a philosophically-oriented unnamed middle-aged narrator as he progresses along a number of simultaneous personal journeys, all of which facilitate an overarching spiritual journey toward wholeness and wellness. Overall, though, ZAMM appears to be a special kind of “Chautauqua” designed to induce analogous journeys in readers. This course will undertake the ZAMM journey through close reading and discussion of this modern masterpiece along with related Platonic dialogues that lurk in the background. Continue reading

Hubris and Empire: Livy on the Early History of Rome


The Roman Empire is frequently evoked as a cautionary tale for modern America. Rising from humble beginnings, Rome dominated the western world for over 600 years before falling to barbarian hordes and its own dysfunction. As a Republic, Rome developed institutions based on law and justice that were used by the Founding Fathers of the United States as models for their own government, but which may also have contained the seeds of their own destruction. In this course we will read and discuss the first five books of Livy’s history, Ab Urbe Condita (From the Founding of the City), often known in English as The History of Rome. These books begin with the semi-mythical founding of Rome by Romulus and chronicle the early development Republic. Through his discussion of early Rome, Livy also gives us a commentary on the contemporary upheavals that he witnessed during his own lifetime as Rome moved from Republic to Empire under Julius and Augustus Caesar. Continue reading

Homer’s Odyssey


Athough often regarded as the sequel to the Iliad, Homer’s Odyssey is perhaps better understood as an independent work with its own beginning, middle and end, and its own concerns, motifs and messages. This course provides participants an opportunity to personally engage with Homer’s “other”, “domestic” epic through close reading and discussion of the text in a way that pays due attention to both the “big picture” and the “little details” that combine to give the Odyssey a force that still resonates today. The process of gaining familiarity with, and insight into, the text and the culture(s) of which it was originally a part it will also shed light on some of the major differences — as well as some of the major commonalities — between “then” and “now”. No background or prior experience is required. Continue reading