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 Nature of Knowledge: Plato’s Theaetetus and Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy

COURSES > LIFELONG | COURSES > ONLINE

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

COURSES > LIFELONG | COURSES > ONLINE

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

Jesus for Jews (and Others)

COURSES > LIFELONG

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

COURSES > LIFELONG | COURSES > ONLINE

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

COURSES > LIFELONG | COURSES > ONLINE

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

COURSES > ONLINE

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

Homer’s Iliad

COURSES > ONLINE

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. Continue reading

Introduction to the Book of Genesis as Literature

COURSES > ONLINE

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. Continue reading