From 2009 through 2016, I took part in a series of great books seminars. We met on Sundays.
Here is how seminar works, mostly, in the sense that I mean it: 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 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 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 were largely unaware of such power disparities, so we often just decided 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.
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.
The chairs should be comfortable. 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. 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.
There are some schools which claim to have seminar 5 days a week, but I don't see how that is possible for a group which is taking the project seriously. 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 Brock and other collaborators.
In the fall of 2016 other participants in the seminar needed to begin meeting in a place which made me uncomfortable. I expect one day again to take part in such work.
- Brian Brock, fall 2017
Here is a more-or-less complete list of books which we read (parentheses for texts divided into multiple meetings):
Rabelais - Gargantua and Pantagruel (Prologue-I5, I6-15,-28,-41,-58,II19)
Aristotle - Posterior Analytics (II19)
Kierkegaard - Fear and Trembling (Preface, Attune., Praise; Preamble; Problema I)
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"
Joyce - Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (-2,-5)
Buber - I and Thou (I, II, III&PS)
Heidegger - What Is Metaphysics?
Heidegger - On the Essence of Truth
Husserl - The Origin of Geometry
Wittgenstein - Philosophical Investigations (I -231,-463,-693,II)
Borges - Labyrinths (The Fictions, The Essays and The Parables)
Marquez - 100 Years of Solitude (-105,-207,-297,-422)
Trivers - On the Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism
Hearne - Adam's Task (-3,-6,-11)
Summer of 2010: Shakespeare's Henries and Richards, Dogen, ?
Aeschylus - Agamemnon
Aeschylus - Libation Bearers?, Eumenides
Kafka - The Penal Colony
Plutarch - Alcibiades
Plato - Phaedrus
Kierkegaard - Fear & Trembling (same divisions as in 2008)
Rig Veda - selections
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
O'Connor - The Lame Shall Enter First
Chaucer - Nun's Priest's Tale
Dante - Inferno (4 seminars)
Euripides - Alcestis (SJC alumni seminar with Mr. Lecuyer)
Fukuoka - One Straw Revolution part 1&5
Trivers - On the Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism
Wordsworth - Tintern Abbey
Plato - Ion
Kafka - Before the Law
Summer of 2011: Tolstoy - War and Peace
O'Connor - Wise Blood (-6, -end)
Montaigne - On Repenting
Chesterton - Ethics of Elfland
Nagarjuna - Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way
Heidegger - What is Metaphysics?
Shakespeare - Othello (I&II, III-V)
Plato - Lysis
Sophocles - Philoctetes
Euripides - Bacchae
Hesiod - Works and Days
Straus - Persecution and the Art of Writing
Klein - The Problem and the Art of Writing
Klein - History and the Liberal Arts
Melville - Benito Cereno (2 seminars half and half)
Tolstoy - Kreutzer Sonata
Kepler - excerpt (2 seminars)
Newton - (Definitions, Axioms, Corollary II, Book I & Lemma I&II)
Trivers - On the Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism
Hemingway - A Clean Well-Lighted Place, Fifty Grand
Baudelaire - The Abyss, A Carrion, The Mask
Pascal - Pensees (self-selections)
Summer 2012: Cervantes - Don Quixote
Euclid - Elements (I thru P24, -P48, II thru P6, II)
Kierkegaard - Philosophical Fragments I&II
Euclid - Elements (III -P20, III -end, IV)
Kierkegaard - Philosophical Fragments (all)
Euclid - Elements (V, VI -P16, VI -end)
Shakespeare - Midsummer Night's Dream
Dostoevsky - Bobok
Euclid - Elements VII
3 Poems - Millay's "Euclid Alone", Keats's "Ode", Hopkins's "Pied Beauty"
Tolstoy - Hadji Murat (didn't happen)
Hopkins - 7 Poems (Lantern, Pied Beauty, Shocks of Wheat, Windhover, etc)
Nietzsche - Beyond Good & Evil (Preface and 1; 2; 3, 4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9)
Summer 2013: Tolstoy - Anna Karenina
The Secret Book of John
Plato - Gorgias (-486e, -end)
Plutarch - Caesar
Plutarch - Brutus
Sophocles - Ajax
Hearne - How to Say Fetch
Faulkner - Go Down Moses, "The Bear"
Plato - Cratylus
Plato - Timaeus
Wilde - Picture of Dorian Grey (1st half, 2nd half)
Faulkner - "Pantaloon in Black"
O'Connor - The Life you Save could be Your Own
O'Connor - Good Country People
Heidegger - Building Dwelling Thinking
Plato - Theaetetus (2 seminars)
Plato - Protagoras
Plato - Parmenides
Tolstoy - Father Sergius
Beckett - Waiting for Godot
Pascal - Generation of Conic Sections
Borges - The Quixote of Pierre Menard
Nietzsche - The Birth of Tragedy
Erwin Straus - The Upright Posture
Goethe - On the Metamorphosis of Plants
Summer 2014: Joyce - Ulysses
Kant - What is Enlightenment?
Kipling - Kim (3 seminars)
Beowulf (2 seminars)
Dostoevsky - Notes From Underground (2 seminars)
Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye
Mann - Little Herr Friedemann
Achebe - Things Fall Apart (3 seminars)
Nietzsche - On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense
Plato - Symposium (2 seminars)
Silko - Ceremony (2)
Schiller - "Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man"
Shakespeare - Julius Caesar (2)
Jonas - "To Move and to Feel"
Shakespeare - Antony and Cleopatra (2)
Plato - The Sophist (2)
Woolf - To the Lighthouse (4)
Summer 2015: Melville - Moby Dick
Aristotle - Nicomachean Ethics (book VIII) (w/ SJC alumni chapter)
Ibsen - The Lady from the Sea
Melville - Bartleby
Chaucer - Canterbury Tales (Prologue; Knight's Tale 1&2; K's Tale 3&4)
Melville - Bartleby (w/ SJC alumni chapter)
Chaucer - Canterbury Tales (Miller's, Reeve's, and Cook's Tales)
Canterbury Tales (Man of Law's Tale)
Canterbury Tales (Shipman's, Prioerss's, and Chaucer's of Sir Topaz Tales)
Canterbury Tales (Chaucer's Tale of Melibee; Monk's Tale)
Plutarch - The Life of Dion (w/ SJC alumni chapter)
Chaucer - Canterbury Tales (Nun's Priest's Tale; Physician's & Pardoner's Tales)
Canterbury Tales (Wife of Bath's Tale; Friar's and Summoner's Tales; Merchant's Tale)
Canterbury Tales (Squire's and Franklin's Tales; 2nd Nun's and Canon's Yeoman's Tales)
Canterbury Tales (Manciple's and Parson's tales and Chaucer's Retraction)
Nietzsche - The Genealogy of Morals (Preface and Essay 1; Essay 2; Essay 3 (2))
Heidegger - "The Origin of a Work of Art" (3)
Woolf - "The Mark on the Wall"