As I wrote in one of this blog’s first posts, since last September I have been enrolled in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, offered by the University of Chicago’s Graham School for Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. The Basic Program is an open enrollment, non-credit, four-year study of the Great Books of Western Civilization.
There are no exams, papers, or grades. Rather, the main activities are reading and discussion, via weekly classes smartly facilitated by Program instructors. Traditionally offered in face-to-face format at the school’s Chicago center, the Basic Program is now available online as well. (It has been delivered exclusively online during the pandemic.) The online format has made it possible for me to enroll from Boston.
Among the books assigned for our current, second-year autumn session is Aristotle’s Poetics, regarded as the first comprehensive work of literary criticism. Aristotle was an inveterate cataloguer and categorizer of knowledge and information. In this compact work (all of 35 pages, in the edition we’re reading), he identifies and discusses the core properties of literature and poetry, including tragedy, epic poetry, and comedy.
I find it fascinating to read how Aristotle sets out basic elements of storytelling that we now teach from grade school on up. At times he keeps it remarkably simple, telling us that a plot “is a whole if it has a beginning, a middle, and an end” (ch. 7). A little later, he reminds us that “if the presence or absence of a thing makes no discernible difference, that thing is not part of the whole” (ch. 8). It’s basic stuff that we now may take for granted, but Aristotle helped to give us these elementary frameworks for understanding and creating dramatic work.
The stories of our lives
I also find that Poetics helps me to view my own stories more clearly. For example, the two passages quoted above may seem like statements of the obvious, rather than meaningful insights. After all, it doesn’t take a literary scholar to know that stories and plots — including our own — have a beginning, middle, and end. It also doesn’t take much to understand how people and things that pass through our lives with little impact aren’t core parts of our life stories.
But they serve as easy frames for identifying, sorting, and understanding the stories of our lives. What are those plots? What are their beginnings, middles, and ends? Who are the core players in them? Perhaps I’m especially appreciative because I’ve reached a point in my life where events and people in my life seem to be shaping into coherent chapters. On that note, a short passage from Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation (2004), by the late Joseph Campbell, is instructive:
In a wonderful essay called “On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual,” [philosopher Arthur] Schopenhauer points out that, once you have reached an advanced age, as I have, as you look back over your life, it can seem to have had a plot, as though composed by a novelist. Events that seemed entirely accidental or incidental turn out to have been central in the composition.
Making the Great Books your own: Growing in literary literacy or cherry-picking for relevant passages?
Let me confess that I may be guilty here of cherry-picking Poetics to suit my own purposes. Unlike some of Aristotle’s other works, this is not obviously applicable as a self-help volume. And yet I’m juxtaposing two short passages in a way that serves such a purpose for me.
In the Basic Program, our first objective is to understand and appreciate these works as literature. We are expected to read assigned chapters closely before class. During class, oftentimes we read passages aloud and discuss them at length. For many students in the Program, this is a golden opportunity to obtain a classical liberal arts education during the heart of adulthood, and/or to renew a connection with books encountered (and sometimes glossed over, to put it kindly, in my case) in our earlier schooling.
However, as one of our learned Chicago instructors has remarked on several occasions, the Great Books can also work as therapy. In fact, we now have a term — bibliotherapy — that captures how reading works of literature can help people to understand and cope with the ebbs and flows of their own lives. There’s even a book that provides specific reading suggestions, Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin, The Novel Cure, From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You (2013).
Personally, I am happy to combine both programmatic and personal learning benefits in reading these classic books. Unlike some of my more intellectual friends, I am not given to reading great novels and other literary works for their own sake. I need a connection, a point of relevance, to appreciate them more fully. So when a few lines from Aristotle speak to me, I get excited about that. I hope there will be many more such moments during the path of the Basic Program.