Announcing the 25th Annual PLS/GP Summer Symposium
June 4-9, 2023
"Will the World be Saved by Beauty? Aesthetics and the Common Good"
Once again, the Program of Liberal Studies will offer a week of seminars for alumni/ae of the Program, their relatives and friends, and anyone else eager to read and discuss important texts and ideas as part of a welcoming and lively intellectual community. This year's seminars will feature a multi-faceted reflection on the role of beauty and aesthetic judgment and production in both reflecting and changing the world and as contributions to human flourishing.
Seminar 1 | Beauty and Death in Venice: Philosophical Prehistories and Cultural Afterlives
Professor Chris Chowrimootoo
In this five-session course, we will examine Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, along with its philosophical prehistories and cultural afterlives, as a window into the ambiguous place of beauty within modernity.
In the first session, we will discuss Plato’s Phaedrus, as well as select excerpts from Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and Freud’s Civilizations and its Discontents, as a prelude to considering Mann’s relationship with the Great Books tradition. We will devote the second class to representations of beauty in Mann’s novella itself. In subsequent sessions, we will discuss how Luchino Visconti and Benjamin Britten reinterpreted Death in Venice, in their 1971 movie and 1973 opera respectively.
Through analyzing later adaptations of Mann’s 1912 meditation on beauty for the movie screen and opera house, we will not only gain insight into changing conceptions of beauty throughout the twentieth century, but we will also get an opportunity to reflect on the similarities and differences between artistic media—between philosophy and theater, literature and film, opera and ballet.
Session Schedule: 1) Plato, Phaedrus (370 BCE); 2) Mann, Death in Venice (1912); 3) Visconti, Death in Venice (1971); 4) Britten, Death in Venice (1973); 5) Britten, Death in Venice (1973)
Seminar 2 | "Beauty Will Save the World": Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Idiot
Professor Eric Bugyis
The Catholic social reformer and candidate for sainthood Dorothy Day was fond of quoting Prince Myschkin's claim that "the world will be saved by beauty" from Fyodor Dostoevsky's classic novel The Idiot. It even became the title of a loving portrait of Day and her daughter, Tamar, published by her granddaughter, Kate Hennessy. One notable and perhaps prescient instance of this quote comes from a 1971 travelog written by Day about her trip to Russia. As a lifelong reader of Russian literature, this was a kind of pilgrimage for Day, and her account is populated with the names of her favorites: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Solzhenitzyn, and, of course, Dostoevsky. Myschkin comes to mind when she is visiting Lenin's tomb, which she describes as “a great square block—a most severe contrast to the ebullience, the exuberance, the joy one might say, of the intricately designed, colored and gilded St. Basil’s cathedral, which is outside the Kremlin but which dominates both Red Square and the Kremlin.”
After lamenting that St. Basil’s had been used as a horse stable by Napoleon and neglected for much of the Communist period, she notes that the current Russian government has been in the process of “restoring the beauty of all these shines” and wonders what effect this might have on the Russian school children who visit them. Perhaps, this beauty will save them and, indeed, the world. It is not only or primarily in beautiful buildings, though, that Day and Dostoevsky locate such world transforming aesthetic power. Myschkin is but one of many attempts that Dostoevsky made to write into his fiction a believable Christ figure, who would seem neither transcendently imperious nor naively sentimental. Both Day and Dostoevsky thought that the fate of humanity depended on the presence of such beautiful souls, but worried that the modern world—indeed, the modern church—would be unable to recognize them, let alone follow them. We will ponder this and many other questions as we make our way through one of Dostoevsky’s great novels.
Session Schedule: 1) Part One; 2) Part Two; 3) Part Three; 4) Part Four
Seminar 3 | Cosmic Beauty
Professor Phil Sloan
**Additional readings to be provided to registrants by email.
The question of beauty as an aesthetic, moral, and artistic concept can be approached from several directions. This 3-session series of discussions will explore the issue of Beauty and Elegance as encountered in the natural world in dialogue with select classic and recent voices, looking first at the cosmos and then at the world of organic life.
The Classical origins of a long tradition of reflection on this question we owe particularly to the Platonic tradition. In the creation story of the Timaeus, one which would reverberate through the discussions within the Latin West (this is the main dialogue of Plato known throughout the Middle Ages), we see in our reading selection an account, presented as a “likely story,” of the world being created by a “demiurge,” with harmony and according to number and rational proportion. To be sure, Plato knew from the work of earlier astronomers that this was complicated: the seasons do not exactly match; the musical harmonics assumed to govern the cosmos are “out of tune” to some degree. All these were to be problems to be addressed in classical Greek astronomy that Ptolemy’s great work of the Hellenistic era was intended to resolve. The Crowe book details some of this history for those interested.
As the Crowe commentary details, the Hellenistic mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy dealt with these nagging details with an elaborations on concepts of circular motions and the placement of planets on subordinate circles moving at differential speeds. The result was a cumbersome system, but one that was generally able to “save the phenomena” as it was exactly observed, and kept it within the limits of aesthetic beauty of the cosmos, defined by uniform circular motions.
We will then read from the De Revolutionibus of Copernicus (1543) with some discussion of the work of Johann Kepler, in which a new sense of law-governed order and beauty was proposed to replace that of the Ptolemaic-Aristotelian cosmos. Has this new cosmos, as pictured in Donne’s famous poem, shattered all sense of order? Or can it give us a new conception of natural order that reveals a new beauty in the cosmic system? We will conclude this discussion with a selective look at how Newton pulled this new cosmos together in a grand synthesis with a reading of the opening Propositions to Book III of his great Principia (1687). The reading from theoretical physicist Stephen Barr will give us an update on this issue with discussion of the issue of symmetry in contemporary physics.
As we move in our third session to the world of biology, we will open with the reading of Aristotle’s “great discourse on Biology,” as it has been termed, which concludes the first book of the Parts of Animals. This reveals how he regards the natural world of living things, in some contrast to the view of his teacher Plato. Our discussion will then jump to recent texts. In the selection from the pre-Darwinian German poet and Romantic natural philosopher, Johann Goethe, we can see his use of insight and analogy to conceptualize organic relations in terms of ideal structures that reveal beauty in nature. For Goethe, these draw our attention to the importance of “form” rather than simply material as a primary experience of living things. We will then discuss Darwin’s concluding argument in his Origin of Species and assess his new conception of order. Is there beauty even here? How do we assess this question when looking at the most fundamental properties of the cell, as presented in the landmark Watson and Crick papers of 1953?
1) Day One (6/5): Beauty in the Classical World Picture of Nature
- Preparatory Readings: Subrahmanyan Chandrasekar, “Beauty and the Quest for Beauty in Science” (e- source); Crowe, Theories, chp. 4
- Readings for in-class Discussion: Plato, Timaeus, 27a-34a (e-source. Any edition ok); Ptolemy, Almagest, Book I (Crowe Theories, pp. 50-64); Galen, Selection on the Hand from On the Usefulness of the Parts (e-source)
- Planetarium Session Scheduled for this evening: 7:30-9 pm
2) Day Two (6/6): Finding a New Beauty in the Cosmos
- Preparatory Readings: Crowe, Theories, Chps. 6, 8 ; Sloan, “Commentary on Newton” (e-source)
- Optional as time permits: Barr, “Symmetry and Beauty in the Laws of Nature” (e-source)
- Readings for in-class Discussion: Copernicus “New Idea of the Universe” (Crowe, Theories, 109-132); Newton Selection from Book III of the Principia, Propositions 1-7 (e- source)
3) Day Three (6/8): Is there Beauty in the Biological World?
- Preparatory Readings: MacArthur, “Truth and Beauty in Physics and Biology” (e-source)
- Readings for in-class Discussion: Aristotle, Parts of Animals I: chp. 5 (e-source or any edition: 644b23-646a5); Goethe, “On the Ideal Organic Type” (e-source); Darwin, Origin of Species, ” Chapter 14, “Conclusion” (e-source); Watson and Crick, “The Structure of DNA” (April 1953) and “Genetical Implications of the Structure of DNA” (May 1953) (e-source)
Seminar 4 | "I Died for Beauty": Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson
Professor Steve Fallon
Download the poems here.
We will read together a selection of poems by one of the greatest American poets, and a writer who, as I tell my undergraduates, is one of the most brilliant, quicksilver minds I have “met” in my reading. Emily Dickinson is, like her contemporary Herman Melville, a writer with a deep religious sensibility who is unable to believe. In the poems I’ve selected, I think you will find signs of both that sensibility and that skepticism. She is also one of the great observers of nature, and like other poets of the nineteenth century, including one of her favorites, John Keats, she sometimes finds in nature a substitute for a personal God and for a church. Several of the poems address loss; Dickinson may be our greatest poet of grief.
Seminar 5 | Poetry Against Beauty
Professor Joseph Rosenberg
Readings to be provided to registrants by email.
Considering the vast range of ways we experience works of art — wonder, but also disgust; fascination, but also boredom — why do we limit our discussions of aesthetic value to the beautiful? Why should beauty be our chief standard when evaluating art? In this seminar, we will be reading a number of short poems that stage an aesthetic encounter not predicated on beauty. In addition to questions of aesthetic value and response, we will also consider poetry’s at times vexed relationship to other aesthetic modes, such as painting and sculpture. In addition to reading poems by W.H. Auden, Frank O’Hara, and Veronica Forrest-Thomson, we may also consider brief critical works by Peter de Bolla and Walter Benjamin.
- John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
- W.H. Auden, “Musee des Beaux Arts,” “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”
- Peter de Bolla, from Art Matters (this is meant as background reading — our discussion will focus on Keats and Auden)
- Frank O’Hara, “Autobiographia Literaria,” “On Looking at La Grand Jatte, the Czar Wept Anew,” “Why I Am Not a Painter,” “The Day Lady Died,” “Having a Coke With You”
- W.S. Graham, “The Thermal Stair,” “Hilton Abstract,” “The Found Picture”
Please note that a few more short poems will be provided during our sessions. These readings will not be precirculated.