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Here is how seminar works, by custom and agreement, as I see it happening from week to week in Sunday Seminars: there is an opening question, a reading list, a table and chairs, a great book, no food. A group of people meets regularly about once or twice a week.

The opening question should be an honest question for whoever asks, as well as for the rest of the seminar and for the author of the text. Often, a good opening question is one which the text seems to ask of itself. For example, in Sophocles's play, Ajax asks "What joy can be in day that follows day, Bringing us close then snatching us from death?" In the seminar in which this question was asked, it developed that Odysseus moves side-to-side, while Ajax moves forward and backward. This metaphor then formed the basis of our investigation.

The opening question is by no means the only question to be addressed, and many a great seminar veers immediately away from the opening question, never to return. Yet, the seminar accepts the opening question as a valid question, and it is understood that we rely on the space which this question creates. Even a "bad" opening question still creates a space, a clearing.

list of texts discussed

A reading list is especially helpful when there is a large power disparity among the members, either institutional, intellectual, social, or what-have-you. By removing the choice of what to read next, the reading list removes one of the primary active mechanisms of control. A seminar with a lopsided power dynamic, willing members, and without a reading list may very likely turn into a guru-type situation. In a setting in which not all of the participants are willing, as in school, without a reading list some of the people may try to use the choice of what to read next as a way to exert control and escape their imprisonment. This is entirely to be expected; such a student has made a wise choice. If such a seminar is to persist, a reading list may be necessary. In the Sunday seminars we have been largely unaware of such power disparities, so we often just decide each week what to read the next. A seminar without a previously agreed reading list is sometimes called a “guerrilla seminar”. Reading lists are often arranged chronologically, so that the development of ideas can be followed through history.

The content of the texts is also very important. Ideology must be set aside. One advantage of a reading list is that balanced and frightening choices are easier to make in the abstract. A seminar blindly following its nose may find itself with its head stuck in a rabbit-hole. (2019 note: in practice, reading lists often promote the ideology of their creators, whether intentionally or unintentionally. It may be wise to allow the readings to pick themselves, or more pragmatically, for the group to pick readings on the fly, while keeping watch for any tendency to over-focus on one tradition, method, or motivation, and while welcoming any new participants.)

The participants should try to finish the reading. This is not always possible: sometimes, a seminar assigns itself something like 300 pages of Tacitus. But what is it to read, and what is it to "finish" a reading? A person who reads only "What joy can be in day that follows day, Bringing us close then snatching us from death?", or reads only "With the fundamental mood of anxiety we have arrived at that occurrence in human existence in which the nothing is revealed and from which it must be interrogated. How is it with the nothing?", or reads only "The valley spirit never dies; It is the woman, primal mother. Her gateway is the root of heaven and Earth.", and who really reads those tiny fragments, has read far more and better than one who wastes a lifetime staring at words without feeling.

The table functions as a table, but also as a material object separating the participants, hiding their bodies and connecting them by means of a flat and empty space. This is not strictly necessary but it can be a great source of comfort. The table should not have a hole in the middle of it. It should not be a ring of smaller tables. Ideally it should be a nice table, but this is not always practical. A few wooden tables pushed together does well. (2020 note: online seminars via videoconference work quite well. The convenience enables a degree of focus. The emptiness of the internet subsitutes for the emptiness of the table. There are meaningful differences - we benefit from the materiality of togetherness - but the format is mostly irrelevant. The seminar dwells in the text. Discussions limited to audio seem rarely to approach the task of seminar. Text-based discussions, overlapping with authorial texts, ambiguous in continuity, sit in a different domain.)

The chairs should be comfortable in the manner of the chairs found at tables in decent libraries. Many people habitually lean back or forth in their chairs during seminar, and this behavior should be accommodated as far as possible by the chairbler.

A great book is a book on which a great seminar can be had (and a great seminar is one which can address a great book). Such books are abundant, but some care is generally advisable in selecting a text. It's possible to find the greatness in anything, but in this crazy world we have to make compromises, so often it's best just to choose a great book and be done with it. A seminar never fails because the book is too good, but even a good-but-not-great book like "The Picture of Dorian Gray" can seem almost entirely absent of meaning if the seminar has a bad day. A great book can accept any question, no matter how small, large, irrelevant, or just plain stupid. This removes a lot of the pressure from the seminar participants. A great book is resilient, fecund, and immaculately coherent. In the ideal book, every element down to the etymology of each word is essential, irreplaceable, and interactive with every other element.

Seminar is a serious study. It is like being in a great library after hours. We listen to each other and speak our best, while yet recognizing that the spirit which moves us to speak is not always under our control. Our thoughts hover in the space between ourselves and the text, between our table and the boundless surrounding possibilities of potential thought. While fully present in the moment of an idea, we yet remain observers of ourselves. As actors inhabiting the hazards of human character change costume and countenance to play at gentler life, we may at curtain-call set down the twisting controversies and release the incanted unity, picking up the humdrum threads of our lives in humor and humility.

Eating at the table generally detracts from the study, as an ambiguous overlap develops with other much more common table-based social activities. (Revelations 10:9, “And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.”) A very hungry person could eat their lunch or dinner at the beginning of seminar, but they should apologize for their impropriety. Some people think it's sometimes a good idea to have seminar while drunk, but I have generally been underwhelmed by the contributions of drunk or otherwise intoxicated people. A seminar isn't a great place to have a party, but it can be loads of fun to have a party in which we have seminar, in the same way that people enjoy a party in which we play a sport.

Some groups have seminar 5 days a week, some once. Some households have seminar continuously. For a class which meets daily, writing practice and other more abstract educational pursuits can provide valuable perspective. The Sunday seminars met once a week, while at St. John's College they meet twice a week.

While the underlying behaviors were largely learned from St. John's College in Santa Fe, NM (in the undergrad, Eastern Classics, and Islamic Classics programs over a period of 20 years) the practice and the formulation of these ideas was developed in the Sunday Seminar itself with Lea Pitkanen and other collaborators.


- Brian Brock, fall 2017



Here is a more-or-less complete list of books which we read (parentheses for texts divided into multiple meetings):

2009
1/22
Rabelais - Gargantua and Pantagruel (Prologue-I5, I6-15,-28,-41,-58,II19)
2/26
Aristotle - Posterior Analytics (II19)
3/5
Kierkegaard - Fear and Trembling (Preface, Attune., Praise; Preamble; Problema I)
4/2
Nietzsche - Thus Spake Zarathustra (Prologue-6, -14, -22)
4/23 (this is when I joined the seminar)
Wittgenstein - Philosophical Investigations (Preface-20, -39, -60, -85, -120)
 
Summer 2009: ?
 
Dostoevsky - Notes from Underground
Baudelaire - "To the Reader", "The Enemy", "The Albatross"
10/4
Joyce - Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (-2,-5)
11/1
Buber - I and Thou (I, II, III&PS)
11/22
Heidegger - What Is Metaphysics?
Heidegger - On the Essence of Truth
 
2010
1/10
Husserl - The Origin of Geometry
1/24
Wittgenstein - Philosophical Investigations (I -231,-463,-693,II)
2/28
Borges - Labyrinths (The Fictions, The Essays and The Parables)
3/7
Marquez - 100 Years of Solitude (-105,-207,-297,-422)
4/18
Trivers - On the Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism
4/25
Hearne - Adam's Task (-3,-6,-11)
 
Summer of 2010: Shakespeare's Henries and Richards, Dogen, Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound, ?
 
Aeschylus - Agamemnon
9/19
Aeschylus - Libation Bearers?, Eumenides
Kafka - The Penal Colony
Plutarch - Alcibiades
Plato - Phaedrus
10/31
Kierkegaard - Fear & Trembling (same divisions as in 2008)
12/5
Rig Veda - selections
 
2011
1/16
Upanishads - Brihad-Aranyaka and Katha, 4th Brahmana 1-17, and Valli 1-6 (one class)
Hemingway - The Old Man and the Sea
Kafka - A Hunger Artist
2/6
O'Connor - The Lame Shall Enter First
Chaucer - Nun's Priest's Tale
2/20
Dante - Inferno (4 seminars)
4/3
Euripides - Alcestis (SJC alumni seminar with Philip Lecuyer)
Fukuoka - One Straw Revolution part 1&5
Trivers - On the Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism
5/1
Wordsworth - Tintern Abbey
Plato - Ion
5/15
Kafka - Before the Law
 
Summer of 2011: Tolstoy - War and Peace
 
8/7
O'Connor - Wise Blood (-6, -end)
8/21
Montaigne - On Repenting
Chesterton - Ethics of Elfland
9/11
Nagarjuna - Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way
Heidegger - What is Metaphysics?
9/25
Shakespeare - Othello (I&II, III-V)
Plato - Lysis
10/30
Sophocles - Philoctetes
Matthew 1-7
11/20
Euripides - Bacchae
12/4
Hesiod - Works and Days
Ecclesiastes
 
2012
Straus - Persecution and the Art of Writing
Klein - The Problem and the Art of Writing
1/29
Klein - History and the Liberal Arts
Melville - Benito Cereno (2 seminars half and half)
Tolstoy - Kreutzer Sonata
3/4
Kepler - excerpt (2 seminars)
Newton - (Definitions, Axioms, Corollary II, Book I & Lemma I&II)
4/22
Trivers - On the Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism
Hemingway - A Clean Well-Lighted Place, Fifty Grand
Baudelaire - The Abyss, A Carrion, The Mask
5/13
Pascal - Pensees (self-selections)
 
Summer 2012: Cervantes - Don Quixote
 
8/12
Euclid - Elements (I thru P24, -P48, II thru P6, II)
Kierkegaard - Philosophical Fragments I&II
9/16
Euclid - Elements (III -P20, III -end, IV)
Kierkegaard - Philosophical Fragments (all)
10/28
Euclid - Elements (V, VI -P16, VI -end)
Shakespeare - Midsummer Night's Dream
Dostoevsky - Bobok
12/2
Euclid - Elements VII
3 Poems - Millay's "Euclid Alone", Keats's "Ode", Hopkins's "Pied Beauty"
 
2013
Tolstoy - Hadji Murat (didn't happen)
2/3
Hopkins - 7 Poems (Lantern, Pied Beauty, Shocks of Wheat, Windhover, etc)
3/24
Nietzsche - Beyond Good & Evil (Preface and 1; 2; 3, 4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9)
 
Summer 2013: Tolstoy - Anna Karenina
 
8/18
The Secret Book of John
Plato - Gorgias (-486e, -end)
9/8
Plutarch - Caesar
Plutarch - Brutus
Sophocles - Ajax
9/29
Hearne - How to Say Fetch
10/20
Faulkner - Go Down Moses, "The Bear"
Plato - Cratylus
Plato - Timaeus
11/10
Wilde - Picture of Dorian Grey (1st half, 2nd half)
Faulkner - "Pantaloon in Black"
 
2014
1/12
O'Connor - The Life you Save could be Your Own
O'Connor - Good Country People
Heidegger - Building Dwelling Thinking
2/2
Plato - Theaetetus (2 seminars)
Plato - Protagoras
Plato - Parmenides
3/9
Tolstoy - Father Sergius
Beckett - Waiting for Godot
Pascal - Generation of Conic Sections
4/6
Borges - The Quixote of Pierre Menard
Nietzsche - The Birth of Tragedy
5/4
Erwin Straus - The Upright Posture
Goethe - On the Metamorphosis of Plants
 
 
Summer 2014: Joyce - Ulysses
 
8/3
Kant - What is Enlightenment?
Kipling - Kim (3 seminars)
8/26
Beowulf (2 seminars)
9/22
Dostoevsky - Notes From Underground (2 seminars)
10/19
Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye
10/26
Mann - Little Herr Friedemann
11/2
Achebe - Things Fall Apart (3 seminars)
11/23
Nietzsche - On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense
12/7
Plato - Symposium (2 seminars)
 
2015
1/11
Silko - Ceremony (2)
2/8
Schiller - "Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man"
2/22
Shakespeare - Julius Caesar (2)
3/1
Jonas - "To Move and to Feel"
3/22
Shakespeare - Antony and Cleopatra (2)
4/12
Plato - The Sophist (2)
4/26
Woolf - To the Lighthouse (4)
 
Summer 2015: Melville - Moby Dick
 
8/9
Aristotle - Nicomachean Ethics (book VIII) (w/ SJC alumni chapter)
8/23
Ibsen - The Lady from the Sea
8/30
Melville - Bartleby
9/13
Chaucer - Canterbury Tales (Prologue; Knight's Tale 1&2; K's Tale 3&4)
10/4
Melville - Bartleby (w/ SJC alumni chapter)
10/25
Chaucer - Canterbury Tales (Miller's, Reeve's, and Cook's Tales)
11/1
Canterbury Tales (Man of Law's Tale)
11/8
Canterbury Tales (Shipman's, Prioress's, and Chaucer's of Sir Topaz Tales)
11/15
Canterbury Tales (Chaucer's Tale of Melibee; Monk's Tale)
11/23
Plutarch - The Life of Dion (w/ SJC alumni chapter)
 
2016
1/10
Chaucer - Canterbury Tales (Nun's Priest's Tale; Physician's & Pardoner's Tales)
1/24
Canterbury Tales (Wife of Bath's Tale; Friar's and Summoner's Tales; Merchant's Tale)
2/21
Canterbury Tales (Squire's and Franklin's Tales; 2nd Nun's and Canon's Yeoman's Tales)
3/6
Canterbury Tales (Manciple's and Parson's tales and Chaucer's Retraction)
3/27
Nietzsche - The Genealogy of Morals (Preface and Essay 1; Essay 2; Essay 3 (2))
4/24
Heidegger - "The Origin of the Work of Art" (3)
5/15
Woolf - "The Mark on the Wall"

(Summer 2016, Islamic Classics program at St. John's College: Ibn Tufayl, Hayy ibn Yaqzan ; Alfarabi, The Political Writings: “Selected Aphorisms” and Other Texts, and The Political Writings, Volume II: “Political Regime” and “Summary of Plato’s Laws” ; Avicenna, The Metaphysics of The Healing ; Al-Ghazali, The Deliverance from Error ; Averroes, Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence) ; Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah ; Faridu’d-Din ‘Attar, The Speech of the Birds ; Poetry by Rumi & Ibn al-‘Arabi ; Ibn al-‘Arabi, The Ringstones of Wisdom ; The Quran ; Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad)

2019
Aristophanes - The Birds
Kafka - Metamorphosis
Chaucer - The Knight's Tale
Chaucer- The Squire's and Franklin's Tales
Goethe - The Metamorphosis of Plants
Ted Chiang - from Stories of Your Life and Others
Toni Morrison - Jazz (2)
Mary Shelley - Frankenstein
Aeschylus - Prometheus Bound
Don DeLillo - The Body Artist
Apuleius - The Golden Ass (Metamorphoses) (2)
James Baldwin - The Fire Next Time

2020
Xenophon - Symposium
Samuel Taylor Coleridge - Conversation Poems
John Berger - "Why Look at Animals?" and "Field"
Willa Cather - My Ántonia (2)
Euripides - Helen
Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould - "Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism"
George Eliot - Middlemarch (7)

(at around this point 2 other affiliated seminars began, one on Plato dialogues on Saturdays, and one on the visual arts on Tuesdays -- Plato: Hipparchus, Minos, Alcibiades, 2nd Alcibiades, Laches, Euthydemus, Greater & Lesser Hippias, Theages, Euthyphro, Apology, Ion, Meno, Cleitophon, Menexenus -- Visual Arts: Chris Marker's La Jetée, Picasso's Las Meninas, Hitchcock's Vertigo, Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information -- more as indicated below, P - Plato, V- Visual, other additional seminars marked by +. Seminars happen everywhere always.)

Didion - "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and "On Self-Respect"
Nabokov - Pale Fire (2)
Shakespeare - Timon of Athens
Freire - Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2)
Plato - Crito (P)
Plato - Republic (2nd Plato seminar: one Book per Monday)
Bacon - after Velázquez's Pope Innocent X (V)
Plato - Lovers (P)
Wilson - The Piano Lesson
Seneca - On the Happy Life (+)
Heidegger - The Thing (+)
Herriman - Krazy Kat (1919-1920 selections) (V)
Plato - Lysis (P)
Camus - The Plague (2)
Varda - Cléo from 5 to 7 (V)
Plato - Charmides (P)
Blake - America a Prophecy (2) (V)
Nietzsche - The Gay Science (3)
Plato - Phaedrus (P) (3)
Hitchcock - Rear Window (V)
Tarantino - Death Proof
Xenophon - Apology (P)
Homer - Iliad (5)
Bamford - The Special Special Special (V)
Akerman - Jeanne Dielman (V)
Osservanza Master - Life of St. Anthony (V)
Reed - The Third Man (V)
Shakespeare - Troilus and Cressida
Bergman - Persona (V)
Kahlo - Self Portraits(V)
Hitchcock - Psycho (V)
Plutarch - Theseus
Plutarch - Romulus
Plutarch - Lycurgus
Plutarch - Numa
del Toro - The Devil's Backbone (V)
Bergman - Hour of the Wolf (V)
Kim Jee-woon - A Tale of Two Sisters (V)
Plutarch - Solon
Plutarch - Publicola
News Coverage of the Election (V)
Beauvoir - The Second Sex (2)
Bergman - The Magic Flute
Hilma af Klint - The Ten Largest (V)
Basho - Narrow Road to the Interior
Hitchcock - The Case of Mr. Pelham (V)
Silko - Storyteller (selections)
Bosch - various paintings (V)
Fellini - Amarcord (V)
Caravaggio - various paintings (V)
Chuang Tzu - Inner Chapters, etc (3)
Euripides - The Bacchae
William Blake - Songs of Innocence and Experience (2) (V)

2021
Sjöström - The Phantom Carriage (V)
Shakespeare - The Tempest
Baldwin - Giovanni's Room
Greenaway - Prospero's Books (V)
T S Eliot - Four Quartets(+)
Nietzsche - The Birth of Tragedy (2)
Rubens - Bacchus and Silenus paintings (V)
Kierkegaard - Fear and Trembling (+)
Polanski - Venus in Fur (V)
Beckett - Worstward Ho
Kierkegaard - Philosophical Fragments (+)
Hitchcock - The Shadow of a Doubt (V)
Rankine - Citizen
Flaubert - Madame Bovary (+)
Shimoyama - various paintings (V)
Butler - Performative Acts and Gender Constitution
Wiley - Le Roi A La Chasse II & Femme piquée par un serpent (V)
Selby - Last Exit to Brooklyn I, II, III
Van Sant - My Own Private Idaho
Simic - The World Doesn't End
Kurosawa - Kagemusha (V)
Camus - The Stranger
Kurosawa - Drunken Angel (V)
Ishiguro - The Remains of the Day (2)
Paintings of Napoleon (V)