‘Rags to Riches,’ American Style: Classics from Horatio Alger and Andrew Carnegie


Although the “rags to riches” motif is ancient and widespread, the American version has attained a unique place in world culture. This course examines two of the most well-known — but often little-understood — American embodiments of the “rags to riches” motif: the fictional characters of Horatio Alger, Jr. on the one hand, and the decidedly non-fictional Andrew Carnegie (who rose from poverty to become one of the richest men in the world) on the other. Readings include Alger’s all-time best-selling novel Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks and Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth” essays. Continue reading

Introduction to the Qur’an as Literature


Considered the record of the revealed word of God to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel, the Qur’an is the third great scripture of the Semitic tradition and the foundation of all forms of Islam. In this course we will read the Qur’an (as well as supplementary readings) from a secular perspective (i.e. as “literature”) in order to gain an initial understanding of the book, its perspectives on important concepts such as the nature of god and man, divine judgment, prophecy and history, the ideal society, the proper relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, jihad (“holy war” or “exertion”) and more. No prior knowledge or experience of any kind is required. Continue reading

The Trial and Death of Socrates


The trial and death of Socrates is perhaps one of the most (in)famous events of philosophical martyrdom in Western history. As such it bears and repays close and repeated study in order to understand exactly who and what Socrates was, what happened to him, and what (if any) lessons the ancient event holds for our time. With such goals in mind, this course is devoted to a close reading and discussion of the four Platonic dialogues that revolve directly around the momentous events: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. Continue reading

“We Must Not Be Afraid To Be Free”: The Trials of George Anastaplo


George Anastaplo (1925-2014) has long been a legend for his decade-long Cold War fight against the State of Illinois’s refusal to admit the young World-War-II veteran to the practice of law on the basis of Anastaplo’s assertion of fundamental rights he believed enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. This course will combine a study of Anastaplo’s case (from its obscure 1950 Chicago beginning through its famous 1961 U.S. Supreme Court culmination) with a study of Anastaplo’s views on American fundamental rights.  Readings will include key documents from the case at its various stages as well as selections from Anastaplo’s scholarly works on the U.S. Constitution (plus relevant historical documents), and will be supplemented by an audio recording of Anastaplo’s pro se oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court and the film Judgment at Nuremburg. This course is open to all.
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Virtue as Moderation: An Introduction to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics


Among the many ideas for which Aristotle has been long remembered, perhaps the most famous is the idea of the “golden mean” — the idea that virtue is a moderate midpoint between two extremes of vice. In this short Socratic Method seminar, participants will carefully read and discuss passages from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in a collaborative effort to gain an initial understanding of this important idea, as well as to get a general sense of the scope and style of one of Aristotle’s most important works. No prior knowledge or experience of any kind is required. All reading and discussion will be in English. Continue reading

God’s Gadfly: A Socratic Method Seminar on Socrates


Because Socrates called his practice “philosophy” (love of wisdom) and because philosophy is nowadays widely considered to be a “secular” enterprise, Socrates is often assumed to have been a secular figure. According to Plato’s famous Socrates’ Defense (or Apology), however, nothing could be further from the truth. In this short Socratic Method seminar, participants will carefully read and discuss passages from Plato’s text in a collaborative effort to meet Socrates on, and in, his own terms: as an annoying gadfly on a divine mission to educate Athens; as a gift from God whose death would hurt the Athenians more than it would hurt him. No prior knowledge or experience of any kind is required. All reading and discussion will be in English. Continue reading

On Human Excellence [1]: Plato’s Meno as ‘Philosophical Drama’


“Can you tell me, Socrates — is virtue something that can be taught? Or does it come by practice? Or is it neither teaching nor practice that gives it to a man but natural aptitude or something else?” With this provocative four-part question begins one of the most compact meditations on human excellence ever composed: Plato’s Meno, a “dialogue” (mostly) between the great philosopher Socrates and his acquaintance Meno. This course will be devoted to a close reading and analysis of Plato’s short text in order to understand both the work’s philosophical elements and its dramatic elements — as well as the interaction between the two — as we seek to comprehend Plato’s ultimate response to Meno’s initial question. No prior knowledge or experience of any kind is required. Continue reading

On Human Excellence [2]: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as ‘Practical Wisdom’


“We are not conducting this inquiry in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, else there would be no advantage in studying it.” With this statement near the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle boldly declares his thesis that philosophy can make one a better person and improve one’s quality of life — a thesis that in the rest his book of Aristotle seeks to articulate and demonstrate. Through close reading and analysis of the text, participants in this course will seek to understand and assess one of the most famous and influential philosophical treatises ever produced. No prior knowledge or experience of any kind is required, although the preceding course in the “On Human Excellence” series is a useful precursor. All readings and discussions will be in English. Continue reading

Arts of Affluence [2]: (Passive) Investing on Wall Street


Modern financial research suggests that investing success is generally unrelated to investing skill — and therefore that the best way to “win” the investing “game” is not to “play” it at all. This course will examine the “passive investing thesis” through the close reading and discussion of contemporary investing classics alongside a consideration of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. Texts will include: Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor, Burton Malkiel’s A Random Walk Down Wall Street and William Bernstein’s The Four Pillars of Investing. Continue reading

Arts of Affluence [1]: Wealth and the American Dream


For better or worse, one version of the American Dream has long equated “success” with “material wealth”. This course will explore that equation through the close reading and discussion of important fiction and non-fiction works from America’s Gilded Age and the consideration of two films on wealth in America (Citizen Kane by Orson Welles and Born Rich by Jamie Johnson). Texts will include: Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as well as Andrew Carnegie’s “The Gospel of Wealth”, and Thorsten Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class. Continue reading