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A Conversational Journey Through the Great Ideas of Western Civilization 

“But if [concerning the idea], as we were doing just now, we examine the question based on things we agree with each other about, we ourselves will be jurors and advocates at the same time” (Republic, I.348B).  

In her book Paradoxes of Education in a Republic, Eva Braun argues that an enlightened Republic is best sustained and preserved by citizens properly educated in what she calls “inquiry.”  David Hicks, Mortimer J. Adler, Benjamin Franklin, and Plato’s Socrates–to name of few–all promote this claim.  A lively engagement with the great norming ideas found in classic texts is the substance of what it means to be liberally educated and civilized.  The love of learning is not cultivated by becoming informed with what is traditionally known about books, authors, ideas, or historical periods; nor in becoming proficient in analytical or abstract modes of thinking; nor is it in being trained in skills that makes one useful. Rather, it is the very human co-creative act of reading the great works that have come into the present in order to join The Great Conversation that gives to each and all the joy and riches that Wisdom offers.  This Atrium embodies and models some of the ways in which this tradition can be extended to permeate our homes, schools, and communities. 

What We Will Do – Read what you will, discuss you must  

 CiRCE Master Teacher Jonathan Councell will model, guide, and facilitate a seminar that, through agreement and disagreement between these great works, will enable each participant to contribute to the discussion from voluntarily chosen readings.   Participants will read two books for each idea from a list of great books selected for that great idea.  By giving three sessions to each idea this Atrium demonstrates a way of creating and forming a  community that has advanced its understanding of that idea as it exists between free minds and between great books.     

How We Will Do It  

We will spend three sessions with each idea and the works associated with them.  The first session introduces the idea and establishes the limits of our existing knowledge and understanding surrounding it.  The next two sessions observe the great conversation between the selected works about this idea. We do this in a normative and syntopical mode of educational inquiry into the great ideas of human civilization. The goals of this Atrium are to: increase understanding of the great ideas and their norming influence upon our actions and lives, grow in knowledge about an inquiry focused education and pedagogical practices, and participate in syntopical reading and socratic/dialectical discussion.  

Who Should Do It  

Adults who want a liberal education. 

Educators that want practical experience in dialectical discussion. 

Individuals that are hungry for intellectual community and conversation. 

Readers that want to try their hand at syntopical reading. 

Those who wish for an educational experience more in line with the following educational programs: 

  • The CiRCE Institutes Master Teacher Apprenticeship Program 
  • The Aspen Conferences as Mortimer J. Adler described them in How to Speak and How to Listen 
  • St. John’s College tutorial structure 
  • University of Chicago’s Great Books Seminar and Program 
  • The Humane Letters Tradition   
  • Plato’s Academy 
  • Jesus and his disciples 
  • “The Teachers Seminar” as envisioned by David Hicks in Norms and Nobility 

What You Will Need – A choice of works 

For the purposes of this course you will select and read two works for each idea.  The works recommended for each idea are listed below.  After selecting these works you will submit your reading list to the Atrium leader and will then ensure that you have these works.  As you will be reading on your own, any translation or edition or format will be acceptable.     

The Idea of Courage (Only Choose Two)

  • Homer’s The Iliad 
  • Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations 
  • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Philosophy of Right 
  • David Hick’s The Lawgivers: The Parallel lives of Numa Pompilius and Lycurgus of Sparta 
  • Virgil’s The Aeneid 
  • Shakespeare’s Coriolanus  
  • Shakespeare’s  Henry V 
  • Tolstoy’s War and Peace 
  • Aristotle’s Ethics 
  • Plato’s Apology  
  • Plato’s Laches 
  • Joshua and Judges 

The Idea of Love  (Only Choose Two)

  • Bernard of Claireveux On the Love of God 
  • Milton’s Paradise Lost 
  • Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet 
  • Dante’s Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, or (preference) Paradiso 
  • Augustine Confessions 
  • Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida 
  • Virgil’s The Aeneid  
  • Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales 
  • Homer’s The Iliad  
  • Plato’s Phaedrus 
  • Song of Solomon and the Psalms 

 The Idea of Beauty (Only Choose Two)

  • St. Augustine’s Confessions 
  • Edmund Burke’s A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful 
  • Milton’s Paradise Lost 
  • Plotinus’s The Enneads 
  • Plato’s The Republic 
  • Hegel’s Philosophy of History 
  • Kant’s Judgment 
  • Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales specifically “the Physician’s Tale” 
  • Aristotle’s The Parts of Animals 
  • Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations 
  • Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet 
  • Goethe’s Faust 
  • Plato’s Greater Hippias (or Hippias Major, both names for the same dialogue) 
  • The Psalms 

The Idea of Fortune/Chance (Only Choose Two)

  • Shakespeare’s Hamlet 
  • Shakespeare’s King Lear 
  • Tolstoy’s War and Peace 
  • Beothius’ Consolation of Philosophy 
  • Machiavelli’s The Prince 
  • Aristotle’s Politics 
  • Thucydides The Peloponnesian War  
  • Lucretius The Nature of Things 
  • Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov 
  • Melville’s Moby Dick 
  • Job and Ecclesiastes  
  • Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex 

The Idea of Education (Only Choose Two)

  • Plato’s Gorgias 
  • Plato’s The Republic 
  • Shakespeare’s The Tempest 
  • Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew 
  • Lucretius’ The Nature of Things 
  • St. Augustine On Christian Doctrine 
  • Ptolemy’s Almagest 
  • Aristotle’s Rhetoric 
  • Plutarch’s Lives 
  • Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations 
  • Exodus 
  • First Corinthians  
  • Genesis 

The Idea of Justice/Temperance  (Only Choose Two)

  • Plato’s The Republic 
  • Homer’s The Odyssey 
  • Homer’s The Iliad 
  • Rousseau Inequality  
  • Marx Das Kapital 
  • Kant Pure Reason 
  • Locke Civil Government 
  • Thucydides The Peloponnesian War 
  • Aristophanes Clouds 
  • Sophocles Antigone 
  • Plato’s Charmides 
  • The Proverbs of Solomon 
  • Shakespeare’s Macbeth 
  • Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar   

Join us in the 2023-2024 Atrium year. Instead of bemoaning the decline of liberal education, we must all admit that what a culture promotes, provides, and transmits through its education is what is most in honor.  We cannot honor what we do not have.  This Atrium honors Great Conversation by reading in order to dialogue about the Great Ideas that serve as the basis of human community.  In an age of barbarians, these are the seeds of future civilization. They take a long time to grow and must be planted today.   

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