Symposium Great Books Institute Life is short. Why read a good book when you can read a great one? Tue, 27 Jun 2017 10:20:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Commonplace Book No. 13: Play and Seriousness Wed, 04 Feb 2015 07:08:34 +0000 David Saussy The affairs of human beings are not worthy of great seriousness; yet it is necessary to be serious about them.

And this is not a fortunate thing. But since we’re here, if somehow we would carry out the business in some appropriate way it would perhaps be a well-measured thing for us to do…

I assert that what is serious should be treated seriously, and what is not serious should not, and that by nature God is worthy of a complete, blessed seriousness, but that what is human, as we said earlier, has been devised as a certain plaything of God, and that this is really the best thing about it. Every man and woman should spend life in this way, playing the noblest possible games, and thinking about them in a way that is the opposite of the way they’re now thought about.

Plato, Laws, 803b



]]> 0
Seminar Report: Picasso and Dϋrrbach at SAMA Mon, 02 Feb 2015 01:40:20 +0000 David Saussy Picasso, “Two Statements on Art”  paired with Rockefeller tapestries Kykuit (on display at the San Antonio Museum of Art, December 20, 2014 – March 8, 2015)

On January 31st, Saturday afternoon, 3-5pm  at the San Antonio Museum of Art in San Antonio TX a group of a dozen folks from various backgrounds joined together in a conversation about the art of the Rockefeller exhibit and a reading of Picasso’s statements on the art making process.   The afternoon started with a private tour and lecture about the exhibition by Moira Allen, the Museum’s knowledgable Public Programs Manager.

“Between 1955 and 1975, Nelson A. Rockefeller undertook an ambitious project: commissioning eighteen enormous tapestries modeled after some of Pablo Picasso’s most important paintings, including Girl with Mandolin, Interior with Girl Drawing, Night Fishing at Antibes, and Three Musicians. Enormous in scale, these woven works of art each took between three and six months to complete. They reflect Rockefeller’s interest in the medieval tradition of French tapestry and his love of modern art, while appealing to his egalitarian spirit.”
“The tapestries were woven entirely by hand by Madame Jacqueline de la Baume Dϋrrbach in Cavalaire, France, in consultation with Picasso. First, a “cartoon” design was made by the studio and approved by Picasso. In most cases, a good set of transparencies would be sent to Dϋrrbach’s studio or color charts were prepared along with a narrative explaining the nuances of brushstroke, texture, and transition of colors. As another part of the process, yarns were often sent by Dürrbach’s studio to be matched against paintings that were in New York. Yarns were dyed especially for the weavings by a color expert at Aubusson or Felletin. Picasso collaborated with the weaver about color choices and kept up a lively exchange of letters with Rockefeller until his own death in 1973.”  (Exhibition Notes, San Antonio Museum of Art (

After the tour and lecture, the group grabbed stools and sat in a circle in the exhibition gallery, surrounded by these amazing tapestries.

Art is difficult to talk about. Indeed, many wonder whether all ‘art talk’ is doomed to shallowness or ‘mere’ speculation.  Even if there is a lot of shallow talk about art, we believe that this need not be the case. We have found in our work with the Museum that a good, purposeful conversation in the presence of the art can actually help open the eyes.
We try to encourage participants to become aware of this. One of the best things that we can demand of our conversation is the opportunity and ability to engage more fully, more completely, more directly, with the artworks themselves, and the questions and claims raised in the text.  The sum of our efforts is not  “analysis”, or a process of  intellectualizing, but seeing clearly and well.

The conversation is kicked off with a reading of a passage or two from the text, followed by an opening question.  Read the entire text here: Two_Statements_Picasso

In Picasso’s own words:

“Museums are a lot of lies, and the people who make art their business are mostly imposters…We have infected the pictures in museums with all of our stupidities, all of mistakes, all our poverty of spirit.  We have turned them into petty and ridiculous things. We’ve been tied to a fiction, instead of trying to sense what inner life there was of the men who painted them.”  (Two Statements by Picasso, 2nd statement, 1935)

Opening question: This is a great passage, and we all had a good laugh at it, the irony obvious.  In this passage – and indeed in the reading as a whole – Picasso offers advice about how not to look at his paintings, and maybe even art in general. I proposed  that the group try to come to an understanding of his way of thinking about how to look at art, and see if we can discover some things on our own by looking at some examples in front of us. One of the questions that is raised is this: the colors and size of the tapestries make quite an impression.  Many of the original paintings are much smaller in size.  Suppose the huge images were mechanical, digital reproductions of the paintings, instead of  tapestries. Would they hold less appeal?  People seemed to agree that they would be less appealing.  But what is it that tapestries by Madame Jacqueline de la Baume Dϋrrbach add to the images, if anything? Texture? But a machine might make tapestries. Would they hold the same appeal?

You can read about how seminar works in general here.

Most people understand intuitively the three basic ground rules of conversation:

1. Civility, no matter how sharp the clash of opinions may be
2. Willingness to respond to each other and not only the leader, offering answers supported by experiences or the text.
3. Keep reference to outside sources (other books read, expert opinions etc.) to an utmost minimum, since the text at hand is the common ground.

The group on Saturday afternoon did beautifully.  We had one reference to an outside source, a poem, and the source supported and advanced the conversation.   The reason for this rule of thumb, by the way, is simply to level the playing field, so we are all thinking from the same starting points – Picasso’s works and his words about his own work.  Far from confining the conversation, this common ground actually opens a space in which fresh thinking and reflection on experience  is possible.

Even though we asked an opening question, the movement of the conversation was not predetermined in advance, and developed in several directions. Our conversation moved from the initial responses to the opening question, to  trying to come to an understanding of the meaning of the word “emotion” in Picasso’s use, and how it might be seen in his images, and the tapestries in particular.   At times we discussed his words recorded in the text, focusing on a passage or two, parsing out the finer details.  But a fair amount of the conversation was spent processing the particular details of the images themselves.   One question that emerges from his work concerns the portrayal of the human body, which appears distorted and – if you will – disfigured.  What is the effect of this disfiguration? Is it dehumanizing, or re-humanizing?

It was a wonderful conversation, full of interesting thoughtful comments.  After our conversation ended at 4:30, the group  moved to the main foyer of the Museum to enjoy wine and hors d’oevres, just another way to continue the conversation in the spirit of conviviality.

I met some new people there, and hope to foster a friendship over a common interest in the “best that is thought and said,” as well as the great masterworks of the human spirit.  We hope you can  join us at the Museum in future!


]]> 0
Seminar Report: Plato Laws 2014-2015 Wed, 28 Jan 2015 16:06:28 +0000 David Saussy One of the great pleasures in life is conversing with friends in leisure – free of the often necessary pressures of professional ambitions.   But as Socrates says in the Republic, what greater pleasure could there be than conversing with friends about deep and abiding questions like justice?

iSymposium on Plato’s Laws commenced in Spring of 2014 as a sort of experiment in friendship and leisure of this order.  We wanted to take on the challenge of a long and fine book like the Laws. The occasion created by weekly meetings for discussions is of course a great impetus to read all those books we want to read, but might otherwise never read on our own.  But if you’ve ever read Plato’s writings, you know how rich and complicated the texts are, not the least because they are dialogues instead of treatises.

The traditional great books model of assigning 50 or more pages of reading per seminar is an unsatisfying way to approach writers like Plato. The argument and action of each dialogue is an unfolding process. The different stages of the dialogue require the utmost care and attention. It is also difficult for those of us who lead busy professional lives to take the preparation time needed for a 50 page reading.

We decided instead to read three or four pages per session, very closely.  Each session is only one hour and fifteen minutes. Sometimes it takes members of the group a few minutes to sign on, but we try to start and end as punctually as possible. During the first fifteen minutes, we read the evening’s section out loud together, followed by the hour long discussion.

As the final week of January closes, as February begins, the group has made it halfway through Book VII. The Laws, as you may know is a giant book, containing twelve books. It is larger even than the Republic. At this rate we might not finish until the beginning of 2016.

But our common feeling is: What is the hurry?

There is no hurry. We have nothing to prove and everything to gain from a slow careful reading of Plato’s Laws.  One of the greatest things we have to gain is lifelong friendship that comes out of this experience.

It may be difficult to put into words the delight and the joy of conversing in leisure with a group of sincere readers.  But Symposium is dedicated to this joy, and to helping create (to the extent it is possible) opportunities for meaningful conversation of this kind.  We hope you join us sometime, or even join another great books group in your area!

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

― F. Scott Fitzgerald

]]> 0
Commonplace Book No. 12: Of Courage Sun, 01 Sep 2013 07:00:48 +0000 David Saussy Xerxes: “Fear not all things alike, nor count up every risk. For if in each matter that comes before us thou wilt look to all possible chances, never wilt thou achieve anything. Far better is it to have a stout heart always, and suffer one’s share of evils, than to be ever fearing what may happen, and never incur a mischance. ” –Herodotus, History, VII, 50

“It is truly very commendable to abhor and shun doing any base action; but to stand in fear of every kind of censure or disrepute may argue a gentle and openhearted, but not an heroic temper.” Plutarch, Aemilius Paulus and Timolean Compared

“Flight at the proper time, just as well as fighting, is to be reckoned, therefore, as showing strength of mind in one who is free; that is to say, a free person chooses flight by the same strength or presence of mind as that by which he chooses battle.” Spinoza, Ethics, IV, Prop. 69 Corol.

“…it takes courage to be afraid” – Montaigne, Essays, III, 6, Of Coaches

The worth and value of a man is in his heart and his will; there lies his real honor. Valor is the strength no, not of legs and arms, but of heart and soul; it consists not in the worth of our horse or our weapons, but in our own…He who relaxes none of his assurance, no matter how great the danger of imminent death; who, giving up his soul, still looks firmly and scornfully at his enemy – he is beaten not by us, but by fortune; he is killed, not conquered.” – Montaigne, Essays, I, 31, Of Cannibals

Chorus: “There are times when fear is good. It must keep a watchful place at the heart’s controls. There is advantage in the wisdom won from pain. Should the city, should the man rear a heart that nowhere goes in fear, how shall such a one any more respect the right?” Aeschylus, Eumenides, 517

And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages…

–Chaucer, General Prologue, Canterbury Tales, lines 9-12

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made in perfect love.” I John 4:18

The term “fortitude” can be taken in two ways. First, as simply denoting a certain firmness of mind, and in this sense it is a general virtue, or rather a condition of every virtue, since as the Philosopher states (Ethic. ii), it is requisite for every virtue to act firmly and immovably. Secondly, fortitude may be taken to denote firmness only in bearing and withstanding those things wherein it is most difficult to be firm, namely in certain grave dangers. Therefore Tully says (Rhet. ii), that “fortitude is deliberate facing of dangers and bearing of toils.” On this sense fortitude is reckoned a special virtue, because it has a special matter.” Thomas Aquinas, Secunda Secundae Partis, Q. 123

Fear binds people together. And fear disperses them. Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example — for courage is as contagious as fear. But courage, certain kinds of courage, can also isolate the brave. The perennial destiny of principles: while everyone professes to have them, they are likely to be sacrificed when they become inconveniencing. Generally a moral principle is something that puts one at variance with accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions — who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.” Susan Sontag, “On Courage and Resistance”, Oscar Romero Award keynote address, March 30, 2003

“The only tyrant I accept in this world is the ‘still small voice’ within me. And even though I have to face the prospect of being a minority of one, I humbly believe I have the courage to be in such a hopeless minority.” –M. Gandhi

“The praise of courage is dependent upon justice.” -Thomas Aquinas

Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air. These qualities have ever been displayed in their mightiest perfection, as attendants in the retinue of strong passions.” John Quincy Adams, Oration at Plymouth (December 22nd 1802)

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…” –Theodore Roosevelt

“The soul, secured in her existence, smiles
At the drawn dagger, and defies its point.”
Joseph Addison, Cato, A Tragedy, Act V, scene 1

“An utterly fearless man is far more dangerous comrade than a coward.” -Herman Melville, Moby Dick, XXVI

Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” –William James, in “Is Life Worth Living?” The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy

“In cold blood he leapt into burning Etna.” –Horace, Ars Poetica.

“There are seasons, in human affairs, of inward and outward revolution, when new depths seem to be broken up in the soul, when new wants are unfolded in multitudes, and a new and undefined good is thirsted for. There are periods when…to dare, is the highest wisdom.” –William Ellery Channing, The Union (1829).

What really matters is openness, readiness, attention, courage to face risk. You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.” Thomas Merton, in “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” –Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird, Part 1, Chapter 11

Without belittling the courage with which men have died, we should not forget those acts of courage with which men … have lived. The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy. A man does what he must—in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures—and that is the basis of all human morality….” –John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (1956)

It requires courage not to surrender oneself to the ingenious or compassionate counsels of despair that would induce a man to eliminate himself from the ranks of the living; but it does not follow from this that every huckster who is fattened and nourished in self-confidence has more courage than the man who yielded to despair.” –Soren Kierkegaard, “Irony as a Mastered Moment: The Truth of Irony,” Pt 2, The Concept of Irony

Perfect courage is to do without witnesses what one would be capable of doing with the world looking on.” –La Rochefoucauld, Moral Maxims and Reflections, no. 216

“Even as children are flurried and dread all things in the thick darkness, thus we in the daylight fear at times things not a whit more to be dreaded than what children shudder at in the dark and fancy sure to be. This terror therefore and darkness of mind must be dispelled not by the rays of the sun and glittering shafts of day, but by the aspect and law of nature.” Lucretius, Nature of Things, VI

Johnson. It is thus that mutual cowardice keeps us in peace. Were one half of mankind brave, and one half cowards, the brave would be always beating the cowards. Were all brave, they would lead a very uneasy life; all would be continually fighting: but being all cowards, we go on very well. –Boswell, Life of Johnson, (Apr. 28 1778)

]]> 0
Commonplace Book No.11: on Justice and Right Thu, 22 Aug 2013 11:45:36 +0000 David Saussy  

“…wanting good government in their own states, they first established order in their own families; wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves; desiring self-discipline, they rectified their own hearts; and wanting to rectify their own hearts, they sought precise verbal definitions of their inarticulate thoughts.” Confucius, Great Learning (Pound translation)

“To talk of intrinsic right and intrinsic wrong is absolutely nonsensical: intrinsically, an injury, an oppression, an exploitation, an annihilation can be nothing wrong, inasmuch as life is essentially (that is, in its cardinal function) something which functions by injuring, oppressing, exploiting, and annihilating, and is absolutely inconceivable without such a character.” Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, II, 11

“it will, perhaps, be objected to this, that if gathering the acorns or other fruits of the earth, etc., makes a right to them, then anyone may engross as much as he will. To which I answer, Not so. The same law of Nature that does by this means give us property, does also bound that property too. “God gives us all things richly.” Is the voice of reason confirmed by inspiration? But how far has He given us “to enjoy”? As much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much may by his labour fix a property in. Whatever is beyond this is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God to spoil or destroy.” John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, V, 30

“The people…is an assemblage associated by a common acknowledgment of right and by a community of interests….Where,…there is no true justice, there can be no right. For that which is done by right is justly done, and what is unjustly done cannot be done by right. …Where there is not true justice there can be no assemblage of men associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and therefore there can be no people.” Augustine, City of God, XIX, 21

“Reason is the life of the Law. Nay, the Common Law itselfe is nothing else but reason; which is to be understood of an artificiall perfection of reason, gotten by long study, observation, and experience, and not every man’s natural reason.” – Sir Edward Coke, Commentary Upon Littleton, 138

“That which is altogether just shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” Bible (King James Version) Deuteronomy 16:20

“Justice turns the scale, bringing to some learning through suffering.” Aeschylus, Agamemnon, ln. 250

“Whenever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither, in my opinion, is safe.” –Edmund Burke, in a letter to M. de Menonville (October 1789)

“We have made you ruler in the land; so judge between men with justice and do not follow desire.” –The Qur’an Suad 38:26

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” –Martin Luther King, Jr., in Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963)

“Justice is conscience, not a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity. Those who clearly recognize the voice of their own conscience usually recognize also the voice of justice.” –Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in a letter to three students (October 1967)

196. If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out. [ An eye for an eye
200. If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his
teeth shall be knocked out. [ A tooth for a tooth ]
–Code of Hammurabi (approx 1772 BC)

]]> 0
Commonplace Book No.10 – Lincoln and Blackstone Sun, 14 Jul 2013 07:00:36 +0000 David Saussy “One day a man who was migrating to the West drove up in front of my store with a wagon which contained his family and household plunder. He asked me if I would buy an old barrel for which he had no room in his wagon, and which he said contained nothing of special value. I did not want it, but to oblige him I bought it, and paid him, I think, half a dollar for it. Without further examination I put it away in the store and forgot all about it. Some time after, in overhauling things, I came upon the barrel, and emptying it upon the floor to see what it contained, I found at the bottom of the rubbish a complete edition of Blackstone’s “Commentaries.” I began to read those famous works, and I had plenty of time; for during the long summer days, when the farmers were busy with their crops, my customers were few and far between. The more I read, the more intensely interested I became. Never in my whole life was my mind so thoroughly absorbed. I read until I devoured them.”    –Abraham Lincoln, from Ketchum’s Life of Lincoln


]]> 0
Commonplace Book No. 9 – Lincoln and Euclid Sat, 13 Jul 2013 21:08:09 +0000 David Saussy “Oh, yes! ’I read law,’ as the phrase is; that is, I became a lawyer’s clerk in Springfield, and copied tedious documents, and picked up what I could of law in the intervals of other work. But your question reminds me of a bit of education I had, which I am bound in honesty to mention.”

“In the course of my law reading I constantly came upon the word demonstrate. I thought, at first, that I understood its meaning, but soon became satisfied that I did not. I said to myself, What do I do when I demonstrate more than when I reason or prove? How does demonstration differ from any other proof? I consulted Webster’s Dictionary. They told of ’certain proof,’ ’proof beyond the possibility of doubt’; but I could form no idea of what sort of proof that was. I thought a great many things were proved beyond the possibility of doubt, without recourse to any such extraordinary process of reasoning as I understood demonstration to be. I consulted all the dictionaries and books of reference I could find, but with no better results. You might as well have defined blue to a blind man. At last I said,–Lincoln, you never can make a lawyer if you do not understand what demonstrate means; and I left my situation in Springfield, went home to my father’s house, and stayed there till I could give any proposition in the six books of Euclid at sight. I then found out what demonstrate means, and went back to my law studies.”     -Abraham Lincoln (from a conversation published in The Independent, September 1864)

]]> 0
Commonplace Book No. 8 Fri, 12 Jul 2013 07:00:02 +0000 David Saussy

The moral virtues, then, are engendered in us neither by – nor contrary to – nature; we are constituted by nature to receive them, but their full development in us is due to habit. The virtues we get by first exercising them. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. –Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book II


]]> 0
Commonplace Book No. 7 Tue, 09 Jul 2013 23:40:32 +0000 David Saussy

“If justice and righteousness perish, human life would no longer have any value in the world” –Immanuel Kant, Science of Right, 49



]]> 0
Commonplace Book No. 6: sapere aude, incipe… Fri, 21 Jun 2013 16:22:39 +0000 David Saussy Dimidium facti, qui coepit, habet; sapere aude,
incipe. Viuendi qui recte prorogat horam,
rusticus expectat dum defluat amnis; at ille
labitur et labetur in omne uolubilis aeuum.

He who is begun is half done: Dare to be wise! Begin!
The man who would reform, but hesitates, is kin
Unto the boor who waits until the stream is gone;
But ever flows the stream, and ever will flow on.
–Horace, ”Epistulae” 1.2.40

 Mountain Torrent Before a Storm (The Aare River, Haslital)

]]> 0