Online Courses

‘The Holy Trible’: Coordinated Readings from the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Qur’an


From a literary perspective, the Hebrew Bible, New Testament and Qur’an constitute an “Abrahamic scriptural trilogy” in which the later works build upon — and depend upon — the earlier works. Yet, although the paired “Old and New Testaments” are often read together (as “The Holy Bible”), the trilogy as a whole (which might be termed “The Holy Trible”) rarely is. This course will be devoted to the close reading and literary analysis of coordinated selections from all three of the major Abrahamic scriptures in an effort to better understand each of the works in its own right and in its relationships to the other two as well as the “Abrahamic scriptural trilogy” as a whole. No prior knowledge or experience of any kind is required. All readings and discussions will be in English. ◊ More →

‘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. ◊ More →

“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at its various stages as well as selections from Anastaplo’s scholarly works on the U.S. Constitution (plus relevant historical documents), and will be supplemented by an audio recording of Anastaplo’s pro se oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court and the film Judgment at Nuremburg.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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African-American Classics


Although issues of race and slavery have long been a prominent subject of American writing, the classic works of African-American authors are often unknown beyond the African-American community. This course will examine a selection of such classics in order to understand the works themselves, the canon of which they form a part and their relationship to comparable Euro-American works. Texts will include: David Walker’s Appeal, Frederick Douglass’s autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and more. ◊ More →

Apologies of Socrates and Gospels of Jesus


The lives and deaths of Socrates and Jesus had some remarkable parallels. Both were charismatic teachers claiming to be on divine missions. Both were executed by the ruling elites they challenged. And both were vindicated in the writings of their disciples. This course will explore these and other parallels by reading and discussing two Apologies (Defenses) of Socrates, one by Xenophon and one by Plato, and a number of gospels, some that made it into the New Testament and some that didn’t. In addition to examining the teachings of each figure, we will consider how each one’s calling and legacy is portrayed in the various accounts. The two Apologies of Socrates will be supplemented by selected other dialogues by Xenophon and Plato related to the death of Socrates. ◊ More →

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. ◊ More →

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. ◊ More →

Book of Job and the Invention of Faith


This course will explore how the Book of Job transforms the Hebrew Bible’s concept of God (from a large-but-finite and explicable deity to an infinite and fundamentally inexplicable one) and therefore, the proper behavior of both humans and God in the relationship they share and the possibility of a covenant between them. ◊ More →

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. ◊ More →

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.” ◊ More →

Freud on the Human Condition


Although Freud has been primarily known for his theories of individual psychology, Freud himself never saw his work in such narrow terms. Rather, Freud constantly strove to develop a comprehensive theory of the human condition by using his psychology to explain fundamental features of human evolution, history and modern social life. In this course, we will approach Freud’s worldview, which often equated children, neurotics, “primitives” and proto-humans, through some of his lesser-read works which put his psychological theories in a larger context. ◊ More →

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. ◊ More →

Homer’s Iliad


Often considered the first work of “Western literature”, Homer’s Iliad has been a major cultural force for over 2,500 years — both in its own right and in terms of the subsequent works that depend upon it. This course is an opportunity for participants to personally engage Homer’s 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 make the Iliad the foundational masterpiece it is. 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. ◊ More →

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. ◊ More →

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. ◊ More →

Introduction to the Book of Genesis as Literature


For most people, reading the Bible from a secular perspective — as “literature” — is both an intensely challenging and an intensely rewarding experience that requires the re-evaluation of a range of preconceptions in order to appreciate the texts along the lines that the authors of the Bible did. This course introduces both the process of reading the Bible as literature and the Bible itself through a close reading and discussion of the first book in the biblical anthology, the Book of Genesis. Participants will also likely be introduced to less familiar aspects of themselves. ◊ More →

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. ◊ More →

Of Marriages and Manners: Austen’s Pride and Prejudice


Though sometimes derided as an early form of superficial “chick lit”, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is in fact a sophisticated “novel of manners” suffused with penetrating sociological and psychological analyses of the British gentry of Austen’s day. This course is devoted to the close reading and discussion of Austen’s famous and well-loved novel with an eye towards understanding both Austen’s social critique in general and her assessment of the predicament of women in particular, as well as an appreciation of Austen’s literary craft. ◊ More →

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. ◊ More →

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. ◊ More →

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. ◊ More →

Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice as Christian Comedy


Although modern interpretations of The Merchant of Venice often focus on the play’s characterization and treatment of the Jewish moneylender Shylock, both the play’s title and plot suggest that Shakespeare’s focus was on the Christian merchant Antonio. Through a careful reading and discussion of Shakespeare’s play in conjunction with selections both from Christopher Marlowe’s roughly contemporaneous The Jew of Malta and from the New Testament, this course will explore Shakespeare’s exaltation of “graceful Christianity” in both the major and minor plot threads of one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays. ◊ More →

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. ◊ More →

Socrates Who Does (Not) Know: Gorgias, Charmides, Laches, Lysis


Although Socrates has become iconic for “knowing that he doesn’t know”, only some of Plato’s dialogues actually cast Socrates in this light.  Other dialogues portray a Socrates who seems to know a great deal about a great deal (including love, politics, virtue and the afterlife).  In this course we will examine important dialogues of both types.  On the one hand we will read and discuss “aporetic” or “inconclusive” dialogues about the nature of temperance (Charmides), courage (Laches) and friendship (Lysis).  On the other we will consider Plato’s great Gorgias in which Socrates practically preaches for one particular notion of the good life. ◊ More →

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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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. ◊ More →

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. ◊ More →