Friendship is a sheltering tree – Coleridge

Plato’s Phaedrus is a unique dialogue for many reasons, but one of the more curious features of the text is its setting: it takes place under a plane tree, outside the walls of Athens. This is unusual for Socrates, as he tells his young interlocutor – for he has chosen to live his whole life within the walls of the city.

Socrates: By Hera, it is a charming resting place. For this plane tree is very spreading and lofty, and the tall and shady willow is very beautiful, and it is in full bloom, so as to make the place most fragrant; then, too, the spring is very pretty as it flows under the plane tree, and its water is very cool, to judge by my foot. And it seems to be a sacred place of some nymphs and of Achelous, judging by [230c] the figurines and statues. Then again, if you please, how lovely and perfectly charming the breeziness of the place is! and it resounds with the shrill summer music of the chorus of cicadas. But the most delightful thing of all is the grass, as it grows on the gentle slope, thick enough to be just right when you lay your head on it. So you have guided the stranger most excellently, dear Phaedrus.

Phaedrus: You are an amazing and most remarkable person. For you really do seem exactly like a stranger who is being guided about, [230d] and not like a native. You don’t go away from the city out over the border, and it seems to me you don’t go outside the walls at all. 

Socrates: Forgive me, my dear friend. You see, I am fond of learning. Now the country places and the trees won’t teach me anything, and the people in the city do. But you seem to have found the charm to bring me out. For as people lead hungry animals by shaking in front of them a branch of leaves or some fruit, just so, I think, you, by holding before me discourses in books, [230e] will lead me all over Attica and wherever else you please. So now that I have come here, I intend to lie down, and do you choose the position in which you think you can read most easily, and read. 

We think the Plane Tree is the perfect emblem for this online journal, since Symposium Great Books Institute’s mission is to support an independent growing community of learning outside the walls of industry academics. Symposium, as you may know, offers seminars in San Antonio as well as intensive series through iSymposium on great books from around the world.

Our highest ambition is to strike upon a workable and serious alternative to the walled enclosures and atmosphere of specialization and vocational preparation we find in most present-day colleges and universities, an alternative lifelong learning pathway that works for people of all walks of life.  Courses are not governed by lecturing; but rather, serious purposive open conversations led by experienced facilitators (who are also co-inquirers at the table), guided by a love of learning.  In the endeavor to support liberal learning by means of purposive conversations about the finest books, writing is a practice that offers ‘conversation by other means’ and a way to deepen our independent liberal learning practices.   

Thus, the forum before you has been born. This online space is intended to be a learning support for the community of learning, a forum by means of which seminar participants might share their adventures in learning. We often strike upon questions or ideas sparked in the midst of a discussion that we want to take further – here is the opportunity to do just that.  To this end, “Under the Plane Tree”

  • offers a welcoming space
  • supports the sense of the communal effort of liberal learning
  • gives recognition to various opinions
  • demonstrates liberal learning in action 

In this space, therefore, we look forward to publishing essays by participants, seminar reports, and other information pertinent to our community of learning. Those interested in publishing on this blog should contact: 

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