Summer Symposium

Each summer, the Program of Liberal Studies and General Program alumni/ae gather on Notre Dame's campus, eager to engage their teachers, the authors of the Great Books.

The Program of Liberal Studies coordinates the events which are centered on seminars that explore the week's theme.



JUNE 7-12, 2015


The annual PLS Alumni Summer Symposium for 2015 will be held from Sunday, June 7 to Friday, June 12. The theme this year is “The Letter.” This year’s summer symposium revolves around the theme of the letter: philosophical letters, letters in verse, letters that were never sent, all kinds of permutations of the epistolary art. Here is a provisional list of classes, to give you a sense of the great varieties of texts we’ll be reading.

As always, we look forward to seeing you in June for a wonderful week of conversation and of renewing old friendships and making new ones.

Why Handwriting Matters—Rev. Nicholas Ayo, CSC (1 class)

At the end of the Phaedrus, Plato lamented the development of handwriting technology, because it threatened memory itself and thereby the quality of human dialogue. Today we know the ever-expanding reach of computer technology. Will it replace the virtues of contemplative cursive handwriting, and does it make any difference?

Letters of the Church Fathers—Andrew Radde-Gallwitz (2 classes)

Christian literature began with the letters of St Paul, and the epistolary form remained a predominant medium of Christian writing during the early centuries of the Church. A great deal of early Christian literature arose out of relationships between masters and pupils, and the surviving letters enable us to glimpse those relationships in action. Recognized teachers performed their authority by responding in letters to various problems, including the relationship of the church to imperial power, the threat of heresy, the ineffability of God, and the ambiguity of judgment, discipline, and punishment in a Christian community. In this seminar, we will examine Christian epistles written in three different contexts: letters from a senior bishop, Basil of Caesarea, to his protégé in a time of growth and uncertainty for the church; letters from Augustine to pagan and Christian leaders on the political problems of his day; and letters from the monastic sages Barsanuphius and John in response to queries from monks in Gaza.
Basil-Letters to Amphilochius 
Basil-Canonical Letters (selection) 
Basil-Two letters to women 
Augustine-part 1 
Augustine-part 2 
Barsanuphis and John

The Confessions of Cicero: Petrarch’s Response and Ours—Walter Nicgorski (2 classes)

These sessions will initially provide an occasion to discuss a selection of Cicero's many extant personal letters.  The focus will then turn to an examination of Petrarch's two public letters to Cicero (some 1300 years later) expressing his great disappointment in the person of Cicero as revealed in his correspondence with family, friends and others.  To Atticus Petrarch Letters  Cicero Letters

From Russia with Love: Truth and Friendship in Letters of Fr. Pavel Florensky—Jennifer Martin (2 classes)

Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter Fides et Ratio perhaps surprisingly lists the relatively unknown Pavel Florensky—Orthodox priest, theologian, scientist, symbolist philosopher, mathematician, and inventor—alongside the likes of John Henry Newman, Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson, and Edith Stein as a modern religious writer who produced work of “such high speculative value as to warrant comparison with the masters of ancient philosophy.”  This two-day seminar will explore the themes of the nature of love, religious truth, ecclesial experience, and the radical possibilities for friendship in Florensky’s strange and lyrical 1914 text The Pillar and Ground of the Truth:  An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters.  Written to a mysterious personage, variously a “brother” and “friend” that can perhaps be understood as Christ himself, these near-mystical letters are by turns beautiful and provocative.

Day One:
"To the Reader" (3-9) ; "Letter One: Two Worlds" (10-13); "Letter Two: Doubt" (14-38); "Letter Four: The Light of the Truth" (53-79).

Day Two:
"Letter Eleven: Friendship" (284-330); "Letter Twelve: Jealousy" (331-343).

Briseis and Dido in Ovid’s Heroides: The Discarded Women of Epic Have Their Say—Julia Marvin (1 class)

In his Latin verse epistles, the Heroides, the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE) imagines the women of  antiquity writing to the men in their lives: we’ll view the worlds of the Iliad and the Aeneid ­through the eyes of Briseis, the slave of Achilles claimed by Agamemnon, and Dido, the queen of Carthage abandoned by Aeneas.
Briseis and Dido in Ovid 
Ovid Heroides 3 and 7 
Iliad Briseis extracts

Beauty, Truth, and Goodness: Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man and Keats’ Letters and Odes—Henry Weinfield (4 classes)

Friedrich Schiller’s treatise on the educational function of art, the Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), written partly in response to the failure of the French Revolution, has long been considered one of the most profound works of German philosophy.  John Keats’ letters, especially those written between 1817 and his death in 1821, are among the most beautiful in English literature and are a virtual treasure trove of his ideas on poetry—ideas that in different form find their way into his poems.  The first half of this four-day seminar will be devoted to Schiller’s text and the second half to Keats’ letters and three of his odes, “To a Nightingale,” “On a Grecian Urn,” and “On Melancholy.” 

Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man: In a Series of Letters. If you want the German en face, I suggest the edition edited by Elizabeth M. and L.A. Willoughby (Oxford: Clarendon Press).  It's rather expensive, however (at least $30 on Amazon), so you may prefer to purchase a different edition.  

John Keats, Selected Poems and Letters. Edited by Douglas Bush. Boston: Riverside Editions, 1959.

Please purchase these editions. The Keats text is now out of print, but it is readily available through Amazon or another online dealer.

Renaissance Humanist Letters and Controversies—Robert Goulding & Denis Robichaud (4 classes)

The humanist scholars of the Renaissance created a community of learning that spanned Europe, through the exchange of letters.  In these four sessions, we examine several controversies that played out through the writing and reading of letters.  Topics will include the place of Cicero (and even of Cicero's letters) in the formation of the scholar and writer; and (following a call to destroy Jewish religious books) the movement throughout learned Europe in support of Jewish learning, effected in part by a collection of epistolary lampoons entitled Letters of obscure men.

Reading information.pdf

The following books should be purchased:

JoAnn DellaNeva and Brian Duvick, Ciceronian controversies.  I Tatti Renaissance Library.  Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2007.  (0674025202)

Erika Rummel, The Case against Johann Reuchlin: Religious and Social Controversy in Sixteenth-Century Germany.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.  (0802084842)

“Boxfuls of Ghosts and Echoes”: Henry James’s Literary Remains—Joseph Rosenberg (1 class)

Rummaging through the papers of his recently departed brother, Henry James was confronted by William James’s ghost, who had risen from to dead that his letters be left unpublished. William had no need to worry about his brother’s sympathies. As Henry, a prodigious destroyer of his own literary remains, was later to recall, “boxfuls of old letters are, in fine, boxfuls of ghosts and echoes, a swarm of apparitions and reverberations as dense as any set free by the lifted lid of Pandora.” In this seminar we will examine Henry James’s obsession with archival destruction in both his fiction and his life. Letter-burning — an event that occurs with remarkable frequency in James’s writing — is for James a surprisingly ethical act of destruction: it not only lays troubled ghosts to rest but, at the same time, re-enchants the past by eradicating its ability to speak through matter, transforming the palpable objects of memory into impalpable objects of desire. Readings will include “The Aspern Papers.”

Henry James, The Aspern Papers and Other Stories, ed. Adrian Poole (Oxford World's Classics) (please read title story only)

Here is the link:

Letters of Seneca, letters falsely attributed to ancient philosophers—Gretchen Reydams-Schils (2 classes)

In Antiquity the genre of letter writing started to be used to convey philosophical ideas and map progress towards the good life, that of both the letter-writer and his addressee (and it did not matter if the latter was fictitious). In the two sessions devoted to this topic we will read letters of the Stoic Seneca as well as some letters, probably from the first c. AD, that present themselves as written by Socrates and the Cynics. The second group are entirely fictitious by our standards, yet the question arises why the author(s) of such types of correspondence thought this way of conveying ideas was worthwhile.

First session: Seneca, Ep. 9, 12, 104 Seneca I, Seneca III

Second session: so-called Socratic/Cynic letters The Cynic Epistles

“Crates,” letters 19, 28-33; “Diogenes,” letter 3; “Socrates,” letter 6, 21

John Herschel, William Whewell, and How the Twentieth Century Got Its Solar System—Michael Crowe (1 class)

This class will have two parts:
Part I: You will be asked to spend fifteen minutes attempting to read an actual handwritten letter from John Herschel to William Whewell written in 1854, in which Herschel responds to a book that Whewell had just published on the question of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life. Part of the point of this is to serve as a reminder that original handwritten letters can at times be very challenging to read. herschel_whewellletter.reading.pdf

Part II: You will be asked to read a short presentation that I have been formulating on how and from whom did we get the solar system of the twentieth century and what role, if any, religion played in this development. Whewell reading

We now have funding available for a number of small grants to cover expenses related to our annual Summer Symposium, thanks to the newly established Richard Spanger fund. Richard Spangler (Class of 1977) was an enthusiastic and dedicated participant in these seminars, and family and friends have established this fund to honor him.

If you are interested in receiving such a stipend, please contact the office,