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

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

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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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‘The Great Conversation’ at Chicago: The First 125 Years

LECTURES > PREVIOUS

Chicago — both the city and the university — is arguably the “Great Books Capital of the World”, having developed and disseminated a concept (“The Great Conversation”) and a technique (“The Socratic Method”) that briefly took America by storm in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and even now continues as a flourishing sub-culture. As part of the celebration of the 125th anniversary of founding of the University of Chicago in 1890, this lecture will survey Chicago’s Great Books history and place it within the larger context of the University of Chicago’s enduring adult liberal education mission.

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‘We Must Not Be Afraid To Be Free’: The Trials of George Anastaplo

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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 lecture will combine a review of Anastaplo’s case (from its obscure 1950 Chicago beginning through its famous 1961 U.S. Supreme Court culmination) with a survey of Anastaplo’s understanding of the constitutions of the United States in an attempt to illuminate both the man and the myth.
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‘It Can’t Happen Here’? A (Frightening) Look at American Dystopias

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Although a long line of American authors have written about the United States in positive and even utopian terms, others have written about a darker place, even imagining a dystopian America. For example, in 1935 Sinclair Lewis published a novel depicting a fascist dictatorial takeover of the United States along the lines of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. For many the very notion of an “American dictatorship” is a contradiction in terms and thus too absurd to merit serious consideration: America is often believed to be self-evidently “exceptional” and thus immune to ills that can befall other nations. As Lewis’s title somewhat mockingly put it: It Can’t Happen Here. This lecture surveys several 20th-century works whose authors thought that political evil can indeed “happen here” and that Americans ought to be vigilantly on their guard against “it.” Continue reading