As long as you live, shine!
Don’t be worried,
For life is short, and time demands fulfillment!
—Seikilos Epitaph (ca. 100 AD)
The mission of Symposium Great Books Institute is to provide the highest quality lifetime liberal learning opportunities for people of all walks of life and ages, by supporting a community of learning dedicated to this end. Symposium holds rigorous Socratic seminars (liberal or free discussion with a serious purpose) based on primary or original texts from around the world. The quality texts we curate form the common ground and unifying principle of conversations among participants of varying backgrounds.
By following this approach, our commitment is to reframe in helpful ways the most conventional beliefs about the learning activity. We want to help individuals discover pathways of serious lifelong learning, not measured by the standard of academic degree granting programs (from early education to advanced degrees) or extension courses, nor by the marketplace, but by the standard of a fulfilled human life. We seek a way of life that is energized, beautiful and free in pursuit of understanding, insight and right action. Our conviction is that there is a genuine pathway for such a life that is rigorous, yet integrated with a whole life – with work in the world and family life – outside the walls of academe.
Slow Learning: The Longer Way Around
Socrates and George Strait might agree on a least one thing: the good life is not merely surviving, but thriving; not living, but living well.
But Socrates died by his conviction that the unexamined life is not worth living. His actions, resounding through the ages, have always spoken louder than his words. We might be moved by this fact; but whether we understand what those actions mean is another thing entirely.
What it means to live well is not self-evident. The particulars of every life are vastly different. Choices must be made and options taken off the table; priorities must be held and preferences assumed. Even the will not to make a choice, it seems, is a choice, and can sometimes carry far-reaching unintended consequences for life.
In order to navigate the choices and commitments we must make, then, we must have formed some notion, no matter how shadowy, of what living well – as opposed to merely living – might mean for us. Where do these notions come from? We get these broader notions about life from we know not where: our parents or families; television, movies and music; friends; teachers and classrooms. For the most part they just come to us, willy nilly, without a moment’s reflection. We find ourselves clothed in a garb of ideas.
These notions are the hardest waters to navigate for a human being. For here we are dealing with an order of ideas so intimate, so firmly held at the core of the heart, a challenge here is all too easily taken as an attack, as a threat to life and limb. The jealous protection of such notions is so native to the human soul, so difficult to manage – and likely impossible to finally rid ourselves of it – even the most ardent intellectual can in fact live a wholly unexamined life. The examined life, while it must involve the mind and mental culture, is not lived by being ‘more intellectual.’
If we were gods, and not human beings, and never mistaken about the the most important matters of our life, then there would be no need for reflection and examination. But – especially in a turbulent world such as our own, characterized by upheaval as it is – the evident fact of our ignorance on these matters makes the need for examination among the most urgent priorities, if we are to take steps toward living a good life in this world.
The examined life is needed but is difficult, even extremely difficult. But, as Socrates taught, difficult is not impossible.
A multitude of organizations exist with the purpose of helping you achieve the ends of improving your physical well-being – from the fitness center to the yoga studio.
Where are the fitness or yoga studios for the mind, spaces for serious long-term self-culture bent on improving the quality of our own minds?
The good news is that you’ve found it.
We talk so easily about – and pursue – activities and treatments for healthy bodies, but we talk uneasily about healthy minds – as though “mental health” activities and treatments should only be reserved for abnormal minds, but not for all minds, or as though the health of the mind is merely a psychological factor.
But your whole mind and especially your intellect – and not just your brain – is like the muscles and nervous system in your body: it grows stronger with use, weak, enervated and atrophied with disuse. There are healthy intellects just as there are healthy bodies.
In just the same way that physical wellness or health is part of what it means to live a happy life, so also the good quality and condition of our intellects and our hearts is an important part of what it means not just to live but to live well.
Wisdom, understanding, insight and thoughtfulness, not to mention stability and clarity of mind, brings a renewed vitality and happiness over the whole course of our lives. Among the most primary capacities we can develop is the ability to listen to others and to our own thoughts; the capacity to concentrate and sustain attention on serious objects of thought; the ability to blend play and seriousness, to suspend judgment, and to engage in disinterested delight-taking in alternative pathways of thinking about the most serious questions.
Quality of mind is not something you are born with, but it is something you have to work at and cultivate. It is not the case, as it is popularly imagined, that some just ‘have it’ while others do not. A mind in good condition or quality is not the same as ‘being smart’ – it is not a measurement of the intelligence quotient, nor of GPA. The quality of your own mind – like the quality of a healthy life – is something you can care about and put work and love into: you can improve it in the same way you can improve the condition of your body. Your mind, like your body, needs proper nourishment and exercise. In the same way the work we do for our healthy body is pursued over a whole life, so the work we need to do for the quality of our minds also needs to be a continuous lifelong activity.
This is not work you can outsource to someone or something else. You can’t just ‘get it’ by getting another degree or credential. You won’t ‘get it’ by listening to a lecture. You won’t even ‘get it’ by reading a book once, no matter how great it is.
No one or nothing – not even the greatest book, the most brilliant lecture or even the most advanced artificial intelligence – can accomplish this lifelong activity of intellectual self-improvement for you, but you yourself, in your own time, proportional to your own efforts and abilities. In the last analysis, the whole purpose of education is to help you become your own best teacher, to learn to walk upright on your own, and live the examined life. No one can live that exemplary life for you.
The mind needs constant exercise and a good diet or nourishing intellectual food in order to cultivate the wisdom we need to live well -and in order to live the examined life. We can make time for this continuing effort.
You will need to do most of the work on your own. But we believe we can help you help yourself – recommending foods that nourish and offering opportunities for discursive activity and for friendship, for the sake of your own practice.
What is a practice?
Something you do and undergo, and not just talk about
Periodic activity – daily or weekly
An activity you can work at and improve with serious intent.
An activity that involves a pleasure and a fulfillment for the sake of itself
An activity that involves standards of excellence that are communal and have a history.
A practice of reading and conversing is not the same as merely reading and talking about books. In order to practice reading, thinking, speaking, listening and learning in the way we want, we need to step outside of our well-worn habits of thinking about education and try to conceive of an activity of learning liberated from the following standard academic practices in degree-granting institutions: Teaching and lecturing, classes, grading, testing, degrees.
Degree-granting schools and colleges are very good at delivering specific aims (for example, acquiring degrees and credentials) but are not in fact the best place nor the best model for a flourishing and ongoing practice in a life of learning.
The origin of the English word “school” (like the German cognate Schule, the Norwegian skole, French école, Latin scholae) is the Greek skhole, which means leisure. Genuine learning is slow learning. Slow learning, which involves attention to and reflection upon experience, needs time. Schools and colleges are simply not – and perhaps never were – spaces in which one can take the time one needs for reflection on experience, or to take the time the work needs, in order to build genuine understanding and insight.
Almost all learning opportunities outside schools – including many great books ventures – operate within the shadows of academia. This means that almost nowhere can we go to commit ourselves to a practice, to exercise our minds in a pure activity of learning, for the sake of itself and its healthful benefits, striving for excellence in the way we need. Almost nowhere can we find a place to develop and participate in a practice of reading, thinking, listening and learning in a way that nourishes us and puts our minds to work together with others.
Our aim is to change this situation – to liberate learning, exactly in the way outlined above, for the sake of a lifelong practice that could help us live better, more active and fulfilling lives.
Why should great books from around the world be the content of our practice? The argument is as follows: A great book, in our understanding, is a product of the liberal arts – the arts of the intellect whose end is the liberation of the mind from the “cave” of prejudice. The authors are liberal artists, masters of the liberal arts. The great books – whether the Bhagavdgita, The Tale of the Heike, Confucius’ Analects, Homer’s Iliad, Plato’s Republic, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and authors like Cervantes, Rousseau, Hegel – can help us in our practice because their quality not only makes us work hard, but they can induce formal habits of learning in the reader and discussant, under conditions valid for good speaking. They are also objects of great beauty, insight and elegance.
While we can never claim to represent every single author who has ever lived all over the world, the books we do place at the center of the practice are what you might call “high stakes” books, that we might all have in common simply in virtue of being human, and being part of a global civilization. They are the ones that have been so deeply influential in human civilizations down the ages, ones that continue to shape our minds and hearts, knowing or unknowingly, today. They are the books that strike us as most desirable to read and experience, but also – and perhaps for that reason – the most intimidating.
If there is one message we want to communicate – it is: don’t be intimidated! We’re here to help people get underway in a space governed by friendship and not “one-upmanship.”
A working hypothesis for us is that every book we go to work on might have truth – might have a definitive answer to a fundamental question. We find that this in practice opens our minds most effectively, and with greater receptivity, to what the author might actually have to say, than if we were to assume, instead, from the outset, that there is no definitive truth to be discovered.
If we learn to use the books well, i.e. as levers of learning, they can help us improve our minds; they can stretch and open our minds, and help us learn to inquire in ways that matter to us. The aim of the liberal arts is insight, understanding, imagination and knowledge - intellectual freedom and enlightenment - and finally the transformation of the seeker into his own teacher and the teacher of others. The result of the liberal arts is pursuit of lifelong learning. The private fruit of the tree of liberal arts is a life well-lived – is happiness. The social fruit of the tree of liberal arts is civic well-being – a genuine intellectual culture imbued with a spirit of ‘self-education’, with individuals who know how to be responsible for their own learning and who know how to talk to each other about issues of the greatest importance, flowing from an appreciation for disinterested reasoned discourse.
As the Laozi once said, as if in chorus with Plato’s Socrates, the thousand mile journey begins with the first step. Nothing is keeping us from walking that pathway together.
Read about our seminars here…
“Symposium is what I always felt a philosophy or literature discussion was meant to be. You commit yourself to carefully reading – sometimes with difficulty – one of the world’s great classics, on your own. And then, when you show up for a conversation, you’re joining a group of people who are approaching it with the same interest and thoughtfulness that you are. As we discussed these texts, I’d feel a combination of inspiration and profound humility. On the one hand, you witness some of history’s great minds struggling with issues that are complex, but also surprisingly relevant to how we live our lives today. On the other hand, one of the great things about a Symposium conversation is that you read critically. You’re not bound to the arguments you’re discussing – you’re joining a conversation with the author himself or herself, as well as with your fellow participants. Best of all, after finishing a Symposium seminar, I always come away with a deeper, much better understanding of the text and its ideas – together with a refreshing sense that there is far more to discover.” – Justin Dunham, New York, NY
Symposium’s approach to books and discussion is rooted in an alternative education movement which started a century ago. The movement developed as a practice of Socratic conversation based on the primary texts of Western civilization. While Symposium Great Books Institute is not affiliated with the Chicago Great Books Foundation, Symposium GBI shares the vision of liberal learning started at University of Chicago, Columbia College, St. John’s College.
Adult education has always been at the roots of the great books movement. Figures such as Scott Buchanan, Alexander Meiklejohn, Mortimer Adler, Robert Hutchins, Allan Bloom and Leo Strauss were each involved in significant efforts to create seminars for adults – from the People’s Institute in 1920s New York City, to the School for Social Studies in depression era San Francisco, and later at the University of Chicago. Seminars on the great books at these institutions brought together people from all walks of life and all professions.
Symposium Great Books Institute was originally founded in San Francisco between 2006 and 2010 by two enterprising young women, Roxana Zirakzadeh and Briana Henderson Saussy. Roxana and Briana, graduates of St. John’s College in Santa Fe and Annapolis, had a dream to take the one thing of great integrity that they had received at St. John’s College, and offer it to adults of all walks of life in a setting that would be available to people like the working mom and busy professional.
Symposium GBI San Francisco was located on Hayes St. in Hayes Valley, one block away from Symphony Hall, and operated out of a lovely boutique bookstore. Classes were offered every day of the week in the back area of the store, to a growing and beloved community of adult learners. San Francisco operations were closed, primarily for life changes, not for lack of interest and support. Symposium was then reorganized under nonprofit status in San Antonio, Texas in 2013. In addition to currently holding traditional seminar classes in San Antonio, and working collaboratively with the San Antonio Museum of Art, Symposium Great Books Institute subsequently launched an online component of its work, called “iSymposium”, joining voices across the nation and the world. Symposium in San Antonio keeps to the same root vision of lifelong learning started in Hayes Valley in 2006.
“…Now here, my dear Glaucon, is the whole risk for a human being, as it seems. And on this account each of us must, to the neglect of other studies, above all see to it that he is a seeker and student of that study (μάθημα) by which he might be able to learn and find out who will give him the capacity and the knowledge to distinguish the good and the bad life, and so everywhere and always to choose the better from among those possible.”
Socrates, Plato’s Republic 618c
…ἔνθα δή, ὡς ἔοικεν, ὦ φίλε Γλαύκων, ὁ πᾶς κίνδυνος ἀνθρώπῳ, καὶ διὰ ταῦτα μάλιστα [618ξ] ἐπιμελητέον ὅπως ἕκαστος ἡμῶν τῶν ἄλλων μαθημάτων ἀμελήσας τούτου τοῦ μαθήματος καὶ ζητητὴς καὶ μαθητὴς ἔσται, ἐάν ποθεν οἷός τ᾽ ᾖ μαθεῖν καὶ ἐξευρεῖν τίς αὐτὸν ποιήσει δυνατὸν καὶ ἐπιστήμονα, βίον καὶ χρηστὸν καὶ πονηρὸν διαγιγνώσκοντα, τὸν βελτίω ἐκ τῶν δυνατῶν ἀεὶ πανταχοῦ αἱρεῖσθαι
“The desire and pursuit of the whole is called love” –Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium
“The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.” -Cicero