Great Books and Big Lies (“Theirs” and “Ours”)


In contrast to Plato’s ideal polity ruled by a “philosopher-king”, an ideal democracy must be ruled by “philosopher-citizens”, each of whom pursues wisdom through independent, critical thinking. One of the central ongoing tasks of such free thinking is the recognition, analysis, and rebuttal of the assorted “big lies” (i.e., propaganda) perpetually perpetrated by foe and friend alike. Lifelong liberal education grounded in the great books can help us do this. As the preface to an old University of Chicago reader once put it: “If citizens are to be free, they must be their own judges. If they are to judge well, they must be wise. Citizens may be born free; they are not born wise. Therefore, the business of liberal education in a democracy is to make free men wise.” Continue reading

Home Front, War Front: “Mrs. Miniver” and “Scarlett O’Hara” as the Interpretive Keys to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun


Since it was first produced on Broadway in 1959 and by Hollywood in 1961, Lorraine’s Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun has been widely ranked as a modern classic — though perhaps not a completely understood one. For a full appreciation of this self-consciously-literary work requires not only, in general, a deep appreciation of a large number of subtle allusions in the text, but also, in particular, a deep appreciation of a few seemingly-trivial allusions to two of the most important American movies to come out of the World War II era: Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Gone With the Wind (1939). Once these contextual and intertextual allusions are fully understood, individually and collectively, the full significance of A Raisin in the Sun as a “war film” about the “home front” of America’s “race war” — indeed, as an “African American war film” about the “home front” of America’s “race war” — comes easily into view. Hansberry’s work thus exemplifies the dictum of T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: that no artist “has his complete meaning alone” but rather can only be fully appreciated when set “for contrast and comparison, among the dead”. Continue reading

“Impeachment” in the Constitutional Sense


Despite its hallowed status, the United States Constitution of 1787 is an imperfect text which sometimes obscures more than it reveals. Such is the case with the long-and-widely misunderstood Constitutional provision for “impeachment”. This lecture will attempt: first, to explicate the true meaning and operation of “impeachment” in the Constitutional sense through a close reading of the 1787 text within the 1787 context; and, second, to survey and explain the history of post-1787 (mis)understandings of this aspect of the Constitution. The possible contemporary political significance of a better understanding of the impeachment provision of the Constitution will be studiously avoided. Continue reading

Getting Comfortable with Death; Or, Better Dying Through Better Thinking


If better thinking can lead to better living and if dying is an inevitable part of living, then it follows that better thinking ought to lead to better dying. And yet the history of Western civilization demonstrates that clear thinking about death is exceedingly difficult. This seems particularly true nowadays due to the rise of a modern form of medicine that has both largely removed death from everyday life and promoted the conceit that death can be — and ought to be — perpetually forestalled (if not conquered outright). This lecture will review some of the key historical Western approaches to human mortality in an effort to consider what lessons those who lived and died in the past may have to offer us who live and will die in the present. Continue reading

The True Value of Money: Retail Investing as a Gateway to Wisdom


In a capitalist society, retail investing can play the role that sexual love plays in Plato’s Symposium: the blunt, material force that can lure us onto a path towards subtle, ethereal wisdom. For, analogously to the ”ladder of love”, investors’ initial ”wealth focus” often evolves into a ”wellness focus” (as we re-discover the ancient truth that money is a means and not an end in itself) and then into a ”wisdom focus” (as we re-discover the ancient truth that wisdom is needed in order to live a good life). From this perspective, therefore, lust – be it for sex or for money – turns out to be something of a ”noble lie” that delivers something much better than it promises – and something we probably would not have sought at all if lust had not started us on our journey in the first place.
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The White Man’s Peril: Heart of Darkness as Conrad’s Reply to Kipling


Today often considered both anti-imperialist and profoundly racist, Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness can be understood as simultaneously affirming and rejecting the “imperial logic” epitomized in Rudyard Kipling’s contemporaneous poem “The White Man’s Burden”. This lecture will attempt to offer a holistic interpretation of Conrad’s novella that makes sense of its apparent internal contradictions by examining Kipling’s “imperial logic” and Conrad’s critique of it — a critique grounded in the profoundly multivalent contention at Heart of Darkness’s unspoken, “horrific” core: that “Whiteness is only skin-deep”. Continue reading

The Use and Abuse of Gustavus Vassa; Or, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano on Its Own Terms


Published in London in 1789 as part of the effort to abolish the African slave trade, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African; Written by Himself is usually understood as the autobiography of an African who was kidnapped and transported across the infamous Middle Passage into a life of slavery from which he emancipated himself — and thus as one of the works that established the “slave narrative” genre. This talk, however, will argue that the book is something else and more: an evangelical text that employs the author’s life-story as a means of bringing readers to a true understanding of Christianity and, thereby, of the godliness of abolition. As such, the work has little in common with the genre it is supposed to have helped found. Continue reading

Flaunting It: The Logic of “Conspicuous Consumption” in Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class


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. Continue reading

The Content of Our Character: Lessons from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Volume One


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. Continue reading

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


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). Continue reading