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 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”. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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

On the Transvaluation of Viking Values: Nietzsche Reads Beowulf


In his Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche traces what he calls the “slave revolt in morality”, an episode of the “transvaluation of values” in which Western notions of “right” and “wrong” were inverted. As a consequence, the “master morality” of the Greco-Roman world (embodied in its epics) was replaced by the “slave morality” of Judeo-Christian world (embodied in its scriptures) and what was formerly “good” became “evil” and what was formerly “bad” became “good”. This lecture will apply Nietzsche’s paradigm to Beowulf — arguably a “Christian Viking” work about the “pagan Viking” past — in an effort both to better understand the poetic significance of the life and death of the great hero Beowulf and to assess the strengths and weaknesses of Nietzsche’s theory. Continue reading