(Re)Building A Common Home: The Thought of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Led by R. J. Snell
Many observe a lack of unity in the United States. Blue states vs. Blue States, urban vs. rural, progressives vs. conservatives, and on it goes. Still, the many calls for “unity” and “civility” seem to be failing, or at least recent political events seem to suggest as much. And there are many supposed culprits for this fragmentation. In this seminar, we examine the thought of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who passed away quite recently, in part to honor his life and work, especially key themes from his book The Home We Build Together. The social contract might not be enough, he suggests, drawing on older traditions of covenant to explain how society can be rebuilt.
“Hearth-fires and Holocausts”: Cauterizing Virtues in Jane Eyre
Led by Maura Shea
In George Cukor’s award-winning 1940 romantic comedy, The Philadelphia Story, Jimmy Stewart’s character famously assures Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord, “You’re lit from within, Tracy. You’ve got fires banked down in you, hearth-fires and holocausts.”
The same could be said of Charlotte Brontë’s heroine Jane Eyre, whose calm exterior belies her intense, riveting and profound interior struggle to uncover the truth about herself and her relationships. The novel is a remarkable study of how human beings must navigate the challenges of the past, their own interior wounded-ness, vices and those of others in order to develop freedom in virtue. This women’s seminar will examine the interior work we must do to heal, to flourish, and to support others in pursuing true freedom. We will read Jane Eyre together and watch a movie version, and possibly The Philadelphia Story as well for some interesting connections about the complex relations between men and women.
Art and Virtue
Led by Felix Miller
While the pandemic has forced our nation more into our homes, many of us of have taken refuge in Netflix, novels, and other forms of art. We have an innate sense that works of art, even those of popular culture, can really matter. We trust that there’s something valuable, even morally beneficial, about the plays of Shakespeare or the poems of Homer.
But what, precisely, does art do to our moral character? Does art alone suffice to form us? Must we be virtuous before we can appreciate art? Or can art instruct us in the virtues we lack? In this seminar, we will struggle with these and other questions about the relationship between art and virtue. Our primary interlocutors will be one ancient, Aristotle, and one modern, Søren Kierkegaard, though we will also seek the wisdom of Plato, St. Basil, and Proclus. The formal academic seminar will be supplemented by group play readings.
Working Together: The Person and the Common Good
Led by Joaquim Brooks
In the last eight months the global pandemic has altered almost every aspect of our daily lives. We limit our social interactions, minimize our comings and goings, cover our faces when in public, and are constantly attentive to potentials for exposure. We make these sacrifices in order to protect the weakest in our society, and we employ strong language of obligation to justify these sacrifices. We have become a society united in common action to serve a common good.
The phrase The Common Good conjures up a flurry of conflicting, opposed, and often unrelated concepts. Some take it to mean a call to action to maximize the good for the greatest number of people. Others understand it as a justification for harming others in service of an ostensible “greater good.” Others still interpret it as a set of conditions within which personal flourishing occurs. Each of these descriptions is incomplete, but nevertheless point to something united about our political communities. This seminar is intended for those interested in what life in society looks like and who are dissatisfied with insufficiently integrated conceptions of that that life.
Deciding to Be Excellent: A Study in the Cardinal Virtues
Led by Maura Shea
The word “virtue” seems to have lost a lot of its purchase in contemporary discussions of living life well, and one hears it used more often in pithy accusations like “virtue-signaling” rather than in serious inquiries into what qualities one needs to cultivate in order to live a life of beauty and excellence.
But Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper has an uncanny and arresting ability to refresh the classical language of virtue for us, and to unfold the power and attractiveness of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance with lucidity and keen insight his book The Four Cardinal Virtues. The isolation of the past year has removed many of the structures and routines that concealed from us our own struggles with laziness, indecision, distraction, and selfishness, and now with dismay we watch these parts of ourselves rise to the surface as we struggle to focus during Zoom meetings, find ourselves sucked into the de-humanizing social media frenzy of the current political crisis, and wrestle with our disappointments around curtailed campus life.
Perhaps true self-care involves more than just a new exercise routine or meditation technique. It is high time to go back to the basics, to investigate the habits and dispositions that can cut through our confused and often erroneous notions about “being a good person”.
In this seminar, we will investigate how to live a beautiful life by growing in the cardinal virtues, and we will foster friendships in which we challenge one another in practical ways to cast off mediocrity and pursue authentic excellence. We will place a particular emphasis on prudence, which, Pieper insists, is not only the pre-eminent virtue without which we cannot hope to grow in any of the others, but also the least understood. It is, in fact, “the cause of the other virtues being virtues at all.”
Decide What to Do, and Go Do It: Learning to Act
Led by R. J. Snell
Many have experienced the tendency to freeze up when trying to make a decision. We deliberate, decide, choose, and then . . . don’t do it. In part, contemporary figures such as Jordan Peterson are responding to this inability—but we’ll look prior, examining, in this short seminar, Thomas Aquinas’ account of imperium, or self-command, when we move from a proposal to a directive. Now deliberating is accomplished, act.
ON THE PROBLEM OF PAIN
Led by: R. J. Snell, Director of Academic Programs at Witherspoon
Ryan Reed, Teaching Fellow at Christian Union Nova
A follow-up to the fall seminar on loneliness, this five-week seminar works through C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. Topics include the classic problem of evil, namely, if God is all good and all powerful there should not be evil and suffering, so either God does not exist, or God is not good, or God is not all powerful. Other topics include human freedom and evil, the meaning and redemption of suffering (human and animal), and the question of eternal suffering, or hell.
WOMEN'S SEMINAR: THE MORAL VISION OF JANE AUSTEN
Led by Maura Shea
Virginia Woolf, a famous author of the Modernist movement in the early 20th century, deeply admired Jane Austen but once quipped “that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”
This spring we will attempt to do just that. We are launching a seminar for women, open to undergraduates, graduate students, and young professionals in the community on the work of Jane Austen. We will start with an in-depth look at Pride and Prejudice, her most popular novel, as a way of examining male-female relationships, female friendships, courage & other virtues, and the complex task of “reading ourselves” and “reading others” with justice, charity, and truth.
ON INTEGRALISM AND LIBERALISM
Led by R. J. Snell
This intersession seminar, for Princeton undergraduate and graduate students, explores current debates on integralism and liberalism.
We will try to understand the nature of the common good, political freedom, and why liberalism seems defunct to some. What is the proper relationship between church and state? Is a secular stance neutral regarding the goods of human life, or necessarily atheistic? This controversy is a live one among many, especially younger thinkers, and has implications for conceptions of freedom, morality, religion, family, authority, and more.
FINDING LIFE'S MEANING: ON WORK AND VOCATION
Led by R. J. Snell
What is the point of work? An income? Prestige? Meaning? To better the world? Would we be better off if we didn’t need to work, or is labor a constituent aspect of the good life?
Many consider their work as closely related to their identity and purpose, as linked to a sense of self-worth. If that’s true—and not everything thinks it is—then finding “good” work is related to a good life. Moreover, if our work and our identity relate, some work might not be “right” for you, even if it might be right for someone else. Or, perhaps this is all overblown and it doesn’t much matter what one does, it’s just a job, after all.
This Fall seminar launches a theme for the year—Finding Life’s Meaning—in which we consider the nature and meaning of work, with a follow-up spring seminar on the meaning of vocation—and how to discover one’s vocation.
FACING LIFE'S CHALLENGES: LONELINESS AND SOLITUDE
Led by R. J. Snell
Loneliness has been described by some as an “epidemic,” with severe consequences for health, flourishing, and political society. Further, despite the flurry of literature and studies on the subject, the evidence indicates that loneliness is growing, including for college students—and not just for freshmen who haven’t yet found friends on campus.
Loneliness is strange. As Olivia Laing puts it in The Lonely City, which must have hit a cultural nerve since it was named a best book of the year by NPR, Newsweek, Slate, Pop Sugar, Marie Claire, Elle, Publishers Weekly, and others, “loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as desired.” Yet, as she continues, even though so many are lonely, many pretend not to be, for “loneliness is difficult to confess,” especially since it’s sometimes (wrongly) “considered a disease.”
But loneliness doesn’t seem to be a pathology, not even a transient experience; rather, it seems part of the human condition, part of what it means to be human. Ben Lazare Mijuskovic claims not only that loneliness is an aspect of having consciousness and personal identity, but that the attempt to overcome loneliness is the primary motivation for everything we do. Classical philosophers claimed that we sought happiness in every action, but Mijuskovic thinks we’re trying to escape our solitary confinement.
This Fall seminar launches one theme for the year—Facing Life’s Challenges—in which we consider loneliness and solitude in the fall, a lack of social and political trust and capital during Intersession, and a spring seminar on suffering and loss. Human flourishing isn’t an abstraction but a concrete reality, and thus it will be found right in the middle our lives, lives which are sometimes hard, lonely, and difficult—and, yet, flourishing is still possible.
Like all Witherspoon seminars, we’ll read important texts—classic and contemporary—not out of curiosity or simply to learn, but in the attempt to find wisdom, to know how best to live and think and act so as to live well and flourish. And we try to seek for wisdom collegially, with friends of the mind, with any point of view considered.
THE DEFEAT OF WORDS: ON LYRIC POETRY
Led by Maura Shea
“I don’t know how to explain it.”
“I just couldn’t put it into words.”
“I have no words.”
Most of us have felt our poverty in relationship to language sometime in our lives, perhaps rather frequently. Maybe it’s while writing a paper for a class. Maybe it’s in trying to express how we feel about someone dear to us. Maybe we’ve resorted to emojis when our fingers fail to find just the right phrase to text.
What does poetry have to do with this experience?
Emily Dickinson advises us, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” There is something about lyric poems—often short, personal, oblique, intense—and the way they seek to tell the “truth” about experience in a “slanted,” sometimes disorienting manner—that refreshes our experience of language, of others, of being itself. Lyric poetry invites a unique kind of response from us that other modes of language do not, and puts into words the kinds of human experiences that other modes of language cannot.
People sometimes struggle to read poetry or to find pleasure in it because of past experiences of being forced to “analyze” it convincingly or come up with some kind of intelligent interpretation of it. Some are frustrated with poetry’s lack of practicality—what is it for, we wonder? Some are put off by its resistance to clear explanation—it is unnecessarily confusing, we complain. “I, too, dislike it,” Marianne Moore memorably begins her poem aptly titled “Poetry.”
This seminar proposes a friendly, exploratory engagement with lyric poetry in hopes that, by contending with its unique demands together, we might cultivate habits of attention that help us read ourselves and the world around us better. We may even discover language that does some justice to our experiences of loneliness, gratitude, wonder—as one poet has noted: “It is by words and the defeat of words” that we learn to read the world anew.
SMALL VIRTUES, BIG LIVES: ON MEANING-FULLNESS
Led by R. J. Snell
In our time many are hesitant about seriousness. We value spontaneity and irony more than seriousness. Aren’t serious people likely to be dogmatists or fundamentalists, people serious about things that many people can no longer take very seriously? Aren’t many people agnostic about the “big stories” of meaning that seriousness assumes? Are agnostics or others suspicious of seriousness unable to live full lives, and in what ways can those who remain committed to the “old” seriousness share virtue with existential agnostics? Many, not all, such agnostics have turned to notions such as “the practices of everyday life,” “the school of life,” or “the art of living” in order to imbue their daily lives with a sense of purpose or beauty that they no longer find in traditional ideas of transcendence, religion, living according to nature, citizenship, or humanism.
In other words, should serious people also be serious about the everyday practices, not only because they are part of living well, but also as a place of contact and accompaniment with existential agnostics? Perhaps, even, as a way to show how the small virtues point beyond themselves to something bigger, something the tradition took with utter seriousness?
GOD, LOVE, AND LAW: A CONVERSATION
Led by Luis Tellez
Luis Tellez, founder and president of the Witherspoon Institute, will lead this seminar using his recently published book, Integrating God+Love+Law Into Your Life, a brief but profound guide to living an examined and fulfilling life. Drawing from thirty years of experience helping Princeton students navigate life in the Orange Bubble and beyond, Tellez returns to lead the academic year seminars, which he began in the Fall of 2013. Eschewing the third person, Tellez’s book demands that you frame the great questions in life with immediacy, asking not ‘How should one live one’s life?’ but rather ‘How should I live my life?’ Over the course of this seminar, Tellez will argue that the key to a well-lived life is attaining an understanding of ‘love’ and ‘law.’
HEROES AND SAINTS: MYTHS AND LEGENDS
Led by José Pérez-Benzo
‘I want a hero: an uncommon want.’ Though ours is an age suspicious of the very notion of heroism, this seminar will argue that human nature contains within itself an ineradicable desire for heroes. We will examine heroism not primarily as a concept in the abstract, but rather we will witness how people both historical and fictional have embodied the concept of heroism in history. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, Augustine and Abelard, Cesare Borgia and Thomas More—these figures and many others we will study both exemplified and shaped their respective communities and cultures, simultaneously illustrating both how heroism changed from the Ancient to the Medieval to the Modern periods and how the need for heroes endured despite such changes. Through readings taken from Homer and Plato, Plutarch and Cicero, Machiavelli and More, we will survey the present day in search of heroes who reflect and shape our contemporary world. Everyone has heroes. It behooves us to know who our heroes are, because we become that which we admire.
THE ART OF FRIENDSHIP
Led by José Pérez-Benzo
True to its name, this seminar aims to treat friendship not as a theory but as an art, identifying the particular set of practices and actions associated with the classical ideal of friendship and seeking to embody them in our own lives. While we will devote some initial discussion to the philosophy of friendship, as beautifully laid out in Michael Pakaluk’s elegant anthology Other Selves: Philosophers on Friendship, the bulk of the discussion will turn on such questions as: How do I make friends? How do I tell a flatter from a friend? How do I befriend people who do not share my values? Is it ever appropriate to dissolve a friendship, and if so how? How do I maintain friendships across distances? This seminar will seek to address these vexing questions about the art of friendship by viewing art in a twofold sense as both craft and culture. Viewing the art of friendship through the lens of culture by appreciating depictions of friendship in poetry and prose, in painting and in sculpture, will bring into sharper focus the craft of friendship in our own lives. It is the goal of this seminar to form and foster friendships, with Virgil and Dante, Roland and Oliver, Rosalind and Celia, Francis and Clare, Tolkein and Lewis, and dozens more as guides.
ADDITIONAL PAST TOPICS
• Rhetoric: Living Well and Speaking Well
• Incommensurability and the Final End
• Ambition: Intellectual, Moral, Political
• Christianity, Open-Mindedness, and the Intellectual Virtues