Below are full descriptions of the two lecture series I produced with The Teaching Company. If you would like to purchase one of these series, please contact the Teaching company directly at www.teach12.com or 1-800-TEACH12.
THE LIFE AND WRITINGS OF C. S. LEWIS
In the twelve lectures that follow, we shall explore the life and writings of C. S. Lewis and consider why Lewis’s works have continued to gain in power and popularity over the last half-century. After an introductory lecture that will consider Lewis’s remarkable range as a writer and that will survey some of the events and people that shaped his thought and his works, we shall jump head-long into a four-lecture consideration of his key apologetical works.
We begin in Lecture Two with a close analysis of both his fictional and non-fictional autobiographies (The Pilgrim’s Regress and Surprised by Joy respectively) that will explore not only the nature of Lewis’s own conversion to Christianity but the nature of his most powerful and persistent apologetic: the argument by desire. In Lecture Three we shall shift from this desire-based apologetic to one grounded in ethics and morality. Through a close look at Mere Christianity and The Abolition of Man, we shall explore Lewis’s belief that the code of ethics by which Christians live is not a man-made construct but constitutes a set of divinely-revealed standards whose truth and relevance is universal, absolute, and cross-cultural (a set of standards that Lewis dubbed the Tao). With Lectures Four and Five, we shall move away from the more general apologetics of Lectures Two and Three to study closely Lewis’s answers to such perennial spiritual questions as: why (and whether) miracles happen; why, if God is good, there is so much pain in our world; do heaven and hell exist and what role do our choices play in determining our final destination; what exactly is the nature of sin and evil and how does it separate us from God and salvation. Our texts for these two lectures will include Miracles, The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters, and The Great Divorce.
Lecture Six will function as a transitional lecture that will take up Lewis’s role as scholar and academic. Through a look at such critical classics as The Discarded Image and A Preface to Paradise Lost, we shall explore how Lewis, in his scholarly works, sought to break down modern prejudices concerning the past and replace them with a vivid, accessible view of the Medieval and Renaissance world that is true to those who lived in those oft-misunderstood ages.
With Lecture Seven we turn to Lewis the novelist. Lectures Seven and Eight will consider his Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Lectures Nine, Ten, and Eleven will focus on his best-known and loved works, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew, and The Last Battle. All five of these lectures will not only offer brief synopses of the key plot elements in each work but will explore the rich, often profound Christian allegories that lurk just below the surface of each tale.
The final lecture will take up Lewis’s last and strangest novel, Till We Have Faces, a mature and profound reworking of the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche whose heroine was patterned after Lewis’s wife, Joy Gresham. The lecture, and the series, will conclude with a poignant look at A Grief Observed, Lewis’s personal and moving account of his despair over the death of Joy, and his long, painful road back to faith.
Access a list of study questions that I wrote up to accompany the above series, and which I used myself when I led my students through a study of C. S. Lewis.
PLATO TO POSTMODERNISM: UNDERSTANDING THE ESSENCE OF LITERATURE AND THE ROLE OF THE AUTHOR
The latter-half of our century has seen a veritable explosion of critical theories, and it is imperative for any modern thinker who wishes to understand fully the issues debated in the academy (particularly those surrounding the nature and status of the Great Books of Western Civilization) to be at least conversant both with the concept of critical theory and the terminology employed by various schools of literary theory. In this series of twenty-four lectures, we will study the major critical writings since Plato so as to gain an understanding of the different theoretical structures, schools, and methodologies that have influenced our understanding and appreciation of literature. We shall seek to understand both the presuppositions upon which each theoretical system is founded and the special terminology associated with each system. If we are successful in these endeavors, we will, in the end, not only understand theory better but will become conscious of our own theoretical presuppositions, of the “baggage” (intellectual, political, ethical, etc.) that we bring with us to our readings of literature.
Rather than attempt an exhaustive survey of literary theory, this course will place three restrictions on itself: 1) it will confine itself to critical appraisals of poetry; 2) it will focus on three theoretical periods/epochs (classical and neoclassical, romantic, and twentieth century), each of which will be further sub-divided into two discrete four-lecture series (classical theory/neoclassical theory, philosophical roots of romanticism/British romanticism, objective criticism/modern and postmodern theory); 3) it will, within these epochs, confine itself to the major critical texts by the major theorists (the milestones, if you will, of the genre). In nearly all of the lectures, we shall focus on one such milestone and will offer a close reading of the work that locates its place in the history of theory while yet affording it its own integrity as a unique, often idiosyncratic work of criticism. As we explore together each work, we shall pay particular attention to 1) the writer’s vision of the nature and status of both poet and poem, 2) the unique contributions that the work has made to the history of literary theory and to how readers interpret the poems they read, and 3) the meanings (sometimes esoteric) of the key critical terms used. Below is a synopsis of the six four-lecture units that make up the series.
Lectures One through Four (Classical Theory) will take up the debate between Plato and Aristotle over the central theoretical concept of mimesis (or imitation). We shall learn that while Plato saw poetry as a mere copy of a copy (a shadowy, insubstantial thing twice removed from the reality of the Forms), Aristotle saw the mimetic process as one that could perfect and unify what in nature was haphazard and fragmented. We shall ask ourselves why Plato kicked the poets out of his ideal Republic, and then attempt to refute his reasons with a series of arguments as to why Plato should in fact be considered one of the Fathers of literary theory. In our discussion of Aristotle’s Poetics, we shall examine closely his concept of the perfect tragic plot, character, and pleasure, and shall define the catalogue of critical terminology that he bequeathed to the history of theory.
Lectures Five through Eight (Neoclassical Theory) will offer close readings of Horace’s “Art of Poetry,” Longinus’ “On the Sublime,” and Sidney’s “An Apology for Poetry.” We shall explore how each one of these major critics both defended the power and truth of poetry and laid down a practical series of rules and regulations to help guide the aspiring poet to achieve literary greatness. In these works we shall witness the age-old debate between genius and art and shall note the high premium that neoclassical critics put upon poetry’s ability to teach and to please. The unit will conclude with a look at the critical views of John Dryden and Alexander Pope, two of England’s greatest neoclassical poets. In all four of these lectures, we shall concentrate particularly on the neoclassical concept of decorum, of what is right and proper, and on the moral and ethical responsibilities of the poet.
In Lectures Nine through Twelve (Philosophical Roots of Romanticism) we will take a sudden turn into the world of German philosophy and shall take up the difficult but rewarding theories of Kant, Schiller, and Hegel. We shall consider in particular the philosophical school of epistemology (the formal study of how we know and perceive our world), and shall forge a link between a philosophy that tends to interiorize truth and a critical theory that posits that aesthetic beauty is a quality that resides not in the poetic object itself but in the subjective experience of the human mind that perceives and reflects upon that object. In Kant’s Critique of Judgment we shall look closely at his paradoxical notion of critical judgment as a subjective universal: an experience that, though wholly unique to each individual (it occurs within his own subjective mind), can yet be generalized into an aesthetic concept that has universal validity. In Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, we shall learn how a theory of art can be expanded into a theory of education and how the study of poetry can help transform us into fuller, richer people. Finally, in Hegel’s Philosophy of Fine Art, we shall follow the Idea as it journeys through what Hegel terms symbolic, classical, and romantic art in search of a perfect incarnation. Before moving into the complex theories of Kant, Schiller, and Hegel, the unit will begin with a general overview of the tenets of epistemology and with a look at a British critic, Edmund Burke, who set the tone for much of German criticism in his seminal work: An Inquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful. Here we shall explore in detail the mental faculties of taste and imagination and shall discuss the visceral impact that sublime and beautiful objects have on our psyche. For most students, this unit will be the most difficult of the series; however, I promise that patient study of this material will yield great intellectual rewards.
With Lectures Thirteen through Sixteen (British Romanticism) we shall draw our feet back to the ground as we shift our focus to the great poets of the British Romantic Age: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. We shall study closely their living and vibrant theories, all of which were informed and vitalized by their own poetic experimentation. First we will consider Wordsworth and Coleridge’s great poetic experiment, Lyrical Ballads, and how the two poets each set themselves the task of remaking poetry. We shall explore their shared belief that poetry has the ability to defamiliarize us, to rip away, that is, the veil of familiarity and empower us to view the world through the fresh eyes of youthful wonder. Our texts will be Wordsworth’s revolutionary, epoch-making “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” and Coleridge’s critical and philosophical autobiography, Biographia Literaria. In our study of these two major works, we shall consider such key romantic themes as the nature of inspiration and imagination, the sensibilities of the poet, the language of poetry, and the concept of the poem as an organic whole. We shall study as well Shelley’s great synthetic essay, “A Defense of Poetry,” and several of Keats’s letters. From Shelley we shall learn of the exalted nature and function of the poet; from Keats we shall learn the poetic quality that made Shakespeare great: negative capability. And we shall learn, above all, how, for all the romantic poets, the questions What is a poet? and What is a poem? are essentially the same.
Lectures Seventeen through Twenty (Objective Criticism) will begin with a look at a seminal essay by the great Victorian sage, Matthew Arnold: “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” Beginning with this essay, we shall chart a new direction that criticism begins to take in the first half of the twentieth century, a new focus on the nature of culture and the tradition, and a new assessment of the status of the poem. After a quick survey of T. S. Eliot’s brief but influential essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” we shall take up the unique theories and powerful legacy of the American school of new criticism, particularly its central concept of the poem as a self-contained, self-referential artifact. Through a close look at various essays by I. A. Richards, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, and W. K. Wimsatt, we shall explore the new critical belief that poetry speaks it own special language and exists within its own special microcosm, and that it should therefore be studied as a thing-in-itself apart from any considerations of authorial intent or audience response. We shall further discuss a battery of new tools and methods that the new critics taught us to use when explicating poetry. The unit will conclude with a look at the archetypal criticism of Northrop Frye, a theoretical maverick who, in his masterwork, Anatomy of Criticism, erected a vast mythic structure for understanding and interpreting the vast and complex legacy of European culture.
Finally, in Lectures Twenty One through Twenty Four (Modern and Postmodern Theory), we shall turn our attention to the most recent developments in literary theory. After a look at the four great thinkers who established the philosophical foundations for modernism (Freud, Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche), we shall survey the many variations of the modern school of structuralism: from the linguistics of Saussure to the poetic theory of Barthes to the historical analysis of Foucault. Having established in some detail the key concepts of modernism, we will then move on to contrast modernism with postmodernism. Our focus here will be the deconstructive theories of Derrida and his “pupil,” Paul De Man, as well as the postmodern leanings of the schools of new historicism, reader-response, and feminism. One of the primary goals of this unit will be to define and explicate the often esoteric terminology associated with modern and postmodern theory. As with unit three (Lectures Nine through Twelve), this unit should prove quite challenging to most reader; however, as before, patient study will yield rich rewards.