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

Sweet Homer, Chicago: A Summer Reading of the Iliad


Homer’s Iliad has inspired audiences for nearly 3,000 years. This course will provide students with a rigorous but relaxed opportunity to study this seminal epic through close reading and discussion. Students will better understand the work itself, the culture that produced it, and the Iliad’s role as the “starting point” for all that came after. Continue reading

Aeneas Gets an Epic: Virgil’s Aeneid and the Invention of the ‘Greco-Roman’ World


Both in its conception and in its execution, Virgil’s Roman epic the Aeneid is intimately dependent upon Homer’s Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Indeed Virgil goes out of his way to both imitate Homer’s poems and to connect his story with Homer’s stories.  This lecture will explore the various relationships between Virgil’s work and Homer’s works in order to better understand both the Aeneid as a work of literature and Virgil’s cultural project to portray Rome as an integral part of the classical Greek world. Continue reading

Of Hanukkah and Holy War: The Clash of Hellenism and Judaism in 1 & 2 Maccabees


Although the spread of Greek culture that followed Alexander the Great’s conquests is often considered one of the great steps forward in world civilization, not everyone has thought so.  Indeed for many traditional Jews  of the time,  Hellenism was a great pagan enemy of the God of Israel.  This lecture will explore the holy war against Hellenism depicted in the First and Second Books of the Maccabees that cured the desecration of the Jerusalem temple through the rededication of the House of God in 165 BCE — an event memorialized in the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. Continue reading

Fighting Theater with Theater: Plato’s Dialogues as Philosophical Dramas


“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
               – Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality

“There is another art which imitates by means of language alone, and that either in prose or verse … but this has hitherto been without a name.  For there is no common term we could apply to the mimes of Sophron and Xenarchus and the Socratic dialogues on the one hand; and, on the other, to poetic imitations in iambic, elegiac, or any similar meter.”
                      – Aristotle, Poetics 1447a27-1447b12

Although there is an ancient and venerable tradition of reading Plato’s Socratic Dialogues as “philosophy” to be analyzed primarily (if not only) in terms of their logical propositions, there is an even older (although today, much less venerable) tradition of reading the Plato’s Dialogues as dramas that embody a certain type of philosophical activity. In this lecture, we will consider what it means to take a “dramatic approach” to the Dialogues and explore some of the insights into Plato’s work that such an approach can yield. In particular we will consider that it means to think of Plato primarily as the revolutionary successor to Homer rather than primarily as the evolutionary successor to Socrates. Or rather, how it is best to think of Plato as the incomparable union of the two, fostering “Better Souls Through Better Shadows”. Continue reading

Divine Epics [2]: Homer and the Bible


This course is a rare opportunity to compare four foundational texts that are usually read independently or in pairs, yielding surprising insights into the texts and ourselves. Beyond extending an existing story, sequels comment upon, reinterpret, and at times even repudiate the events and values of the original. This course examines the Odyssey as a sequel to the Iliad and the New Testament as a sequel to the Hebrew Bible in an effort to understand the later works both as independent works and in terms of their vital relationship to their predecessors. Continue reading

Divine Epics [1]: Hebrew Bible, Iliad, and Qur’an


This course is a rare opportunity to compare three foundational texts that are usually read independently or in pairs, yielding surprising insights into the texts and ourselves. Reading the Hebrew Bible with the Iliad illuminates the polytheistic elements of the Bible and the ways modern readers are conditioned to misread it as a purely monotheistic work. Reading the Qur’an alongside the Hebrew Bible illuminates the Biblical foundations of the Qur’an and the reasons many readers of the Bible assume the Qur’an “got it all wrong.” Through close, coordinated readings participants will understand three divine epics in a new light. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Agent in Athens, Patient in Jerusalem: The Cosmic (Sense of) Self in Ancient Greek and Judaic Cultures


One of the great insights of the modern era is that notions of what a “person” is, as well as notions about the “cosmos” those persons inhabit, vary from culture to culture. Indeed the two are linked. In this talk, we will explore the interconnections between cultural notions of “self’ and “cosmos” by considering the cases of ancient Greek culture on the one hand and ancient Judaic culture on the other. In each case, notions of creation were correlated with notions of the cosmos that in turn were correlated with notions of the nature of man and the nature of wisdom. In Athens, the cosmic (sense of) self was that of a cosmic agent, while in Jerusalem it was that of a cosmic patient. Continue reading