On Great Masters: Brahms–His Life and Music by Professor Robert Greenberg (2005)

Book coverAs you might remember, gentle reader, the stack of Teaching Company Great Courses I bought last September includes a number of shorter biography lecture series on classical musicians and composers. I have previously listened to (but not reported on) the series on Mozart. They’re all done by Professor Robert Greenberg, who also did the series How to Listen To and Understand Great Music which I started listening to a couple years ago with my beautiful wife. He’s probably my favorite of all the lecturers, and it’s probably indicative that when the Teaching Company used to send out sample discs, How to Listen to and Understand Great Music was one of the sample lectures.

The lectures in this line, the Great Masters / His Life and Music, are more biographies than musical analyses, but they do include snippets of various works or opuses (opi? opia?) to illustrate. They do put the composers in the context of musical trends and their relationships with other composers. For example, Brahms apparently hated Liszt and often Wagner.

The lectures include:

  1. J.B., We Hardly Knew You!
  2. The Brothels of Hamburg
  3. The Schumanns
  4. The Vagabond Years
  5. Maturity
  6. Mastery
  7. The Tramp of Giants
  8. Farewells

Based on my two examples (Mozart and Brahms), I think I’ll start seeing some patterns. Both were the children of musical parents. However, instead of taking him on a European concert tour as a curiosity, Brahms’ parents made him work in brothels, where he was an object of curiosity and probably abuse which marred his relationship with women throughout his life. Later, he would become a celebrity for his music and would become a bit prickly or full of himself, and a bit of a rascal. Brahms certainly fit this mold.

I am not sure I completely grok the music as it is, though–I never did complete How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, remember–and I don’t hear the content of musical notes and structure as clearly as some in this family do. I mean, I am a words guy–I tend to think of the lyrics as the important part of a song and the music as supportive of those lyrics. However, if I steep myself in these courses, I am sure my appreciation will go up.

I have already started the course on Liszt because learning about Brahms’s enemy right after Brahms.

When I was in Kansas City last autumn, my uncle asked me what I learned from these courses (as opposed to watching documentary series on cable, which he and my aunt do). It’s generally more a sense I get than actual learning things. From this course, I will likely remember Brahms played in brothels, had unrequited relationships, sometimes on purpose, with many women, including Clara Schumann, and that he was compared early to Bach and Beethoven and that made him self-conscious, but that he eventually earned his place there. I will not likely remember the bits that Professor Greenberg flags as trivia–such as the third movement of the third symphony is the only Brahms piece using the triangle. Which is just as well. Twenty- and thirty-something people writing the questions for trivia nights don’t know that either. And quite likely might only know Brahms for his lullaby, actually called “The Cradle Song”.

On The English Novel by Timothy Spurgin (2006)

VHS coverI have often said that I don’t really care for the Teaching Company courses that are in my disciplines–English and Philosophy–but this one was an exception. It covers, well, the development of the novel in England and talks about its themes and whatnot from the 1700s to roughly World War II with the death of the Modernists.

The lectures include:

  1. Definitions and Distinctions
  2. The “Englishness” of the English Novel
  3. Historical Context of Early English Fiction
  4. The Rise of the Novel–Richardson and Fielding
  5. After 1750–Sterne, Burney, and Radcliffe
  6. Scott and the Historical Novel
  7. Austen and the Comedic Tradition
  8. Austen and the History of Consciousness
  9. Dickens–Early Works
  10. Novelists of the 1840s–Thackeray
  11. Novelists of the 1840s–The Brontës
  12. Dickens–Later Works
  13. After 1870–Review and Preview
  14. Eliot and the Multiplot Novel
  15. Eliot and the Unfolding of Character
  16. Hardy and the Natural World
  17. James and the Art of Fiction
  18. Conrad and the “Scramble for Africa”
  19. Ford and Forster–Transition to Modernism
  20. Lawrence and the “Bright Book of Life”
  21. Joyce–Dublin and Dubliners
  22. Joyce–Realism and Anti-Realism
  23. Woolf and the Poetic Novel
  24. The Impact of the Novel

I had read just enough of the books and authors mentioned (Jane Eyre, Barnaby Rudge, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Walter Scott, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, and so on) to feel clever.

And I looked back over my list of books that I’ve read this year, and I was ashamed–I thought I had not read any classic bits of literature this year (but I was mistaken–I read Barnaby Rudge in 2020). So I immediately went to ABC Books to buy a new piece of classical literature to read. Well, not exactly, but on one of my trips up there this holiday season, I did pick up a copy of Wuthering Heights which I have already started to read. Sure, I might have a copy of it somewhere else on my to-read shelves, but they organize their books so much better up there.

At any rate, what did I learn? Well, a little of the evolution of the novel from the epistolary stories in the eighteenth century to the magazine serials to the self-conscious and self-indulgent works from the late 1900s through the work of James, Joyce, Lawrence, and Woolf. As you can imagine, gentle reader, I liked the talk about the earlier books the best, and although the professor did not mean to imply that Henry James ruined the novel, he (the professor) points to James as the guy who branched the novel into Art and Genre. Of course, the professor also likes the Art and the things the Modernists did–he says everyone should try to read Ulysses, for crying out loud, and that’s just foolishness (although I did buy a copy of it recently, as in 13 years ago recently just in case I ran out of other things to read).

I mean, I understand some of the developments such as floating limited omniscient narrators and unreliable narrators–so I’m glad someone invented these things, but things you have to read a second time, after you’ve read the footnotes and a couple of critical essays to interpret the “right” way–I ain’t got time for that.

So a good course, and it’s likely triggered another one of those classical literature kicks that I go on every five or ten years, where I will read a bunch of them in order and then back to genre paperbacks.

On Francis of Assisi by Professors William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman (2000)

Book coverThis is another one of the turn-of-the-century six hour lectures that I bought this autumn. I have been tearing through the six hour ones at a pretty good pace (see also The Search for Intelligent Life In Space, The Ethics of Aristotle and The Aeneid of Virgil). It’s the first lecture series that I have heard where two professors tag-team the lectures, each speaking in turn. One is a professor of history and the other is a professor of English, and they combine to keep the series rolling.

The course talks a bit about the historical context–twelfth century Italy, which is about to undergo its Renaissance, but which is still medieval in many ways but with a rising merchant class. In many ways, the lives of the people have not changed that much in the millennium since Christ, so the Biblical metaphors of a shepherd and whatnot are still real and concrete to the people of the time. Into this world, a son of a wealthy merchant undergoes a religious experience and sheds his wealthy background to become a poor itinerant preacher and practicer of charity who triggers a bit of a revival within the Church (now known as the Catholic Church since Luther was not so fortunate and a bit hot-headed).

So Francis gets the blessing of the Pope for his ministry and ends up founding an order that would have quite an impact even unto today. The professors begin and end the series by talking about how Francis remains in the popular culture, imagination, and ministry to this day.

The lectures include:

  1. Why Francis of Assisi Is Alive Today
  2. The Larger World Francis Inherited
  3. The Local World Francis Inherited
  4. From Worldly Knight to Knight of Christ
  5. Francis and the Church
  6. Humility, Poverty, Simplicity
  7. Preaching and Ministries of Compassion
  8. Knowing and Experiencing Christ
  9. Not Francis Alone–The Order(s) Francis Founded
  10. Not Men Alone–St. Clare and St. Francis
  11. The Fransiscans After Francis
  12. A Message For Our Time

So I learned a bunch about Francis (although I have forgotten alread his birth and death years, but it was very late 1100s and early 1200s) and a bit about only slightly pre-Renaissance Italy.

These lectures continue to remind me how much I can learn–that is, how much I do not know–and how quickly I can learn when I delve into something new.

Unfortunately, I have also just started a 36 lecture course on The English Novel, which is something I already know a bit about, and The Re-Current Unpleasantness is already limiting my time driving, so it might be some time before you see another post like this, gentle reader. Rest assured, in the interim, I will be reading pulp and genre fiction instead of the many learned tomes I own and might actually be getting dummer as we go.

On The Search for Intelligent Life in Space by Seth Shostak (1999)

Book coverOkay, now this was a fun course to listen to. I was a little concerned that it might be a bit thin on topic matter, as the SETI program itself would be a rather narrow topic–merely talking about analyzing radio signals from space would make for a long six hours.

Instead, the course runs a complete gamut of cosmology, astronomy, history of astronomy, pop culture/science fiction, xenobiology, and more. Lectures include:

  1. Our Place in the Cosmos
  2. Alone in the Neighborhood–Fiction and Fact
  3. The Propsects for Life in the Solar System–Mars, Europa, Titan
  4. Other Worlds? The Search for Habitable Planets
  5. Interstellar Travel and Colonization
  6. The Fermi Paradox, or Why Aren’t The Aliens Everywhere?
  7. Why UFOs Are Bunk
  8. What Is E.T. Made Of?
  9. Alien Appearance and Motivation–Can Science Tell Us Anything?
  10. Searching for E.T.–Modern Techniques
  11. Estimating the Number of Civilizations (The Drake Equation)
  12. If We Find E.T., What Then?

It’s all fascinating material–some of it scientific scientific, but much of it speculative scientific. The lecturer theorizes that conditions in the cosmos, or at least our galaxy, are such that they would resemble us a whole bunch. Some of the existing science, at least our understanding, would lead to this conclusion, but a lot of times, I’ve found that speculation (and politically charged science) tends to assume we have reached some sort of peak and that all things we learn from now on will confirm what we know now. Which is not very scientific at all. Also, I found a clear line in this course between science and speculation, but I find that a lot when I think about or read about (or hear about) science. The result you predict is speculation; the method to prove or disprove your speculation should be science.

I am nitpicking a bit here–it’s a fun run through these topics, and the lecturer has a pleasant voice and a great sense of humor. The course is over twenty years old (and on audiocassettes, which meant it cost me fifty cents total in September–definitely worth it). Some of the things he thinks we’ll know in the next decade–including maybe finding a signal from a distant world–have not come to pass, but we did just scoop some asteroid material for a return to Earth.

Which is a good reminder of how slow space-sorts of science moves. This lecture series, at twenty years old, is mostly fresh and contemporary, and our asteroid-scooping spacecraft was launched four years ago and won’t return to Earth for three years. When I was young and into astronomy a bunch, those sorts of timelines seemed really long. Now that I am older and with a different perspective on the passage of time, I think three years is no time at all.

Also, the lectures, in the one or two lectures on the actual SETI program techniques, mentions the then-contemporary SETI@home project. Basically, in the era of dial-up, you could download an application that would process SETI data while your computer was inactive–it ran as a screen saver, and then every couple of days you could dial into the server and upload the results and download data to process. I had this on my home computer at the time, which stems from the days I lived in my apartment and right after I got married. Somewhere along the line, with some computer change or another, I stopped installing it. I see it’s been shut down now for a while, but, geez, this is an old course, and I am old since I remember some of it from my youth.

On The Ethics of Aristotle by Father Joseph Koterski, S.J. (2001)

Book coverLike The Aeneid of Virgil, this is a six hour course on something I, as someone with an English and Philosophy degree, should probably already have read. I have read bits of Aristotle, to be sure, but I am not sure I have completed a complete work of his that’s not an essay. In my defense, I was a social philosophy major, but, again, that meant a social topic-based focus on philosophers/philosophies, so it was a bunch of survey courses and not a deep dive into any particular philosopher or philosophy. So the readings were mostly excerpts and essays. Well, the readings I did anyway. I think I was supposed to read The Republic and Leviathan somewhere in there, but I opted to continue trying to keep all of my classes at the bare minimum reading required to pass since I was trying to cram in 18 hours every semester whilst working full time.

At any rate, this course goes pretty much book-by-book in Ethics and discusses the topics and maybe a little of whom was influenced by this work (being Aristotle was one of the Western early philosophers, he influenced more than he was influenced by). Aquinas’s Natural Law development arises from re-reading Aristotle, and the description of both are pretty compelling. Which makes me want to find an Aquinas course somewhere along the line (I have already priced complete copies of Summa Theologica which I could no doubt jump right on after I finish the complete works of Shakespeare and The Story of Civilization, both of which I have already started).

The dozen lectures here include:

  1. The Philosopher of Common Sense
  2. What is the Purpose of Life?
  3. What is Moral Excellence?
  4. Courage and Moderation
  5. The Social Virtues
  6. Types of Justice
  7. The Intellectual Virtues
  8. Struggling to Do Right
  9. Friendship and the Right Life
  10. What Is Friendship?
  11. Pleasure and the Right Life
  12. Attaining True Happiness

Father Koterski has an S.J. after his name, so I was not surprised that he found support for a more modern understanding of social justice, particularly redistributive justice, in Aristotle. I would have to read the Ethics to find out how much the text supports that view. The assertion is defended a little thinly here, and most things get short shrift, and you kind of have to take the lecturers word for interpretation in a one-way communication like this (and perhaps in modern college classrooms, where dissent can mean failure).

The book, though, does make me want to read the source material again. So it is informative and would also be inspirational, but I don’t have time to read the primary sources between audiocourses. Unfortunately. Some day, that would be nice, to be able to sip coffee all day, reading deep thoughts. For now, I’ll have to make do with reading blogs in two minute increments between work tasks and whatnot. Which is just the opposite of reading the great works, actually. Every day, the hot takes of the current political situation which will pass soon enough and be forgotten, whereas Aristotle, Virgil, and Shakespeare will be around until the next election, anyway.

On The African Experience: From “Lucy” to Mandela by Professor Kenneth P. Vickery (2006)

Book coverTo be honest, I’ve struggled a bit with writing the summation of this course, or at least what I learned about it, because it’s Africa, which is where [Some] black people come from. I say “Some” because Australian aborigines are dark skinned to the point they might be considered black and not merely southwest Asian brown and because Americans who are black can come from Australia, Africa, the Caribbean, America, or anywhere else. What a freaking loaded topic this is.

So anything disparaging or dismissive I might say about this course, African history, or anything else will undoubtedly mark me as a Racist. Although, to be honest, the fact that I grew up a minority in the housing projects of Milwaukee or the fact that I announced to a comely young lady who would later discover that she was an Indigo child as we left a mandatory university diversity thing that I was 21 the first time I could claim my best friend was white (Mike) does not factor in my Racism. Only the 21st century definitions and sensibilities will do.

Now that we’re all comfortable with that, understand some things I will say about sub-Saharan African history might be taken as disparaging or dismissive; however, that is not a factor of Race. It’s more a factor of history. Well, written history. Which is what we mean by history, ainna?

So. Continue reading “On The African Experience: From “Lucy” to Mandela by Professor Kenneth P. Vickery (2006)”

On The Aeneid of Virgil by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver (1999, ?)

Book coverThis audio course, I wish to remind you, gentle reader, cost me a mere fifty cents at the recent Friends of the Springfield-Greene County book sale because it is on audiocassette. I, dear reader, have an audio cassette player in my truck, so I can still enjoy audio courses and books on tape (literally). And when they’re fifty cents, I enjoy them ever so much more.

This book covers, in twelve lectures (roughly six hours), The Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem about how Aeneas escapes the sack of Troy, sails the Mediterranean, settles in Italy, and eventually wins a war with the Latins to found Rome. It’s a poem chock full of Roman gods interference, much like The Illiad and The Odyssey–to which Virgil’s master work owes a great depth. In addition to reviewing the books in the poem for plot points and character, four of the lectures provide context to when it was written, its influences, and its position in the canon.

The lectures include:

  1. Introduction
  2. From Aeneas to Romulus
  3. Rome, Augustus, and Virgil
  4. The Opening of the Aeneid
  5. From Troy to Carthage
  6. Unhappy Dido
  7. Funeral Games and a Journey to the Dead
  8. Italy and the Future
  9. Virgil’s Illiad
  10. The Inevitable Doom of Turnus
  11. The Gods and Fate
  12. The End of the Aeneid and Beyond

The professor recommends you read along once the lectures get into the meat of the poem. I did not, though, as was driving and listened to a number of the lectures back to back. I am not sure that I even have a copy of Aeneid–certainly I must, with all the Classics Club editions and Harvard Classic books that I have lying around. Well, standing cheek-to-jowl on the to-read shelves of Nogglestead, anyway.

I did get a better, fresher sense of the structure and the incidents in the piece, though, and I hope I can retain them. That Aeneas recounts his escape from Troy whilst in Carthage, talking to Dido; their love affair, broken when the gods remind him of his duty to found a new city; his trip to Sicily, the underworld, and finally to Italy; and the war with the Latins over the hand of Livinia.

The book made me want to read it–and “re”-read The Illiad and The Odysessey–I am not sure I read them in translated poem form, but I have probably read them in adapted prose somewhere along the line. However, given how I bog down with long poems, it probably won’t be any time soon, unfortunately.

On The Life and Writings of C.S. Lewis by Professor Louis Markos (2000)

Book coverI started this series not long after finishing The World of George Orwell, but it took me a very long time to get through the last couple of lectures what with the current unpleasantness and all which reduced my time listening to CDs in my automobile to less than an hour a week.

The 12 lectures cover his writings in mostly chronological order:

  1. The Legacy of C.S. Lewis
  2. Argument by Desire: Surprised by Joy and The Pilgrim’s Regress
  3. Ethics and the Tao: Mere Christianity and The Abolition of Man
  4. Nature and Supernature: Miracles and The Problem of Pain
  5. Heaven and Hell: The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce
  6. Lewis the Scholar: Apologist for the Past
  7. Paradise Regained: The Space Trilogy I
  8. Temptation, Struggle, and Choice: The Space Trilogy II
  9. Smuggled Theology: The Chronicles of Narnia I
  10. Journeys of Faith: The Chronicles of Narnia II
  11. The Beginning and the End: The Chronicles of Narnia III
  12. Suffering unto Wisdom: Till We Have Faces and A Grief Observed

You know, I have not read much Lewis. I read The Screwtape Letters five years ago (!) and Poems last year. I read the first two book of the Chronicles of Narnia when I was a kid. But this series made me want to read more–it excellently presented a summary of the points he made in each of the works, but they made me want to read the whole thing. And maybe listen to the course again later.

And Lewis was a contemporary of Orwell, but the series doesn’t report a lot of interaction between them. Nor would there be, really, as they moved in different circles–Lewis as an eventual Christian man of the academy, and Orwell was an occasional tramp who produced mostly left-wing stuff.

But of the two, I’d rather hang out with Lewis, and I think he has ultimately proved to be the more lasting and consequential of the two. But that’s just my opinion, and I could be easily influenced by the relative quality of the productions.

I am running low on CD courses I’m eager to listen to in the car, which is all right since I’m not in the car much for the nonce. I am, however, looking forward to the library re-opening so I can pick something else up. In case I ever get to the point where I’m in the car, off and on, for an hour or two a day.

On The World of George Orwell by Michael Sheldon (2010)

Book coverThis audio course is entitled The World of George Orwell, and that describes the content of the course. It’s partly a biography, partly a history of the early part of the 20th century in which Orwell lived, and partly a discussion of his works. It’s a seven disc, 14 lecture set that culminates in discussion of Animal Farm and 1984.

It’s a Modern Scholar course, so it’s 2 lectures longer than a similar Teaching Company/Great Courses lecture series, and it’s slightly lower quality. The professor presenting has a more sonorous voice, a little less dynamic, and he repeats himself a lot–sometimes the same sentence, he says in a slightly different way twice in a row. Still, he’s a homer–he loves his subject and has enthusiasm for Orwell which serves to mitigate the delivery.

So, biographically, a sickly young man with an education above what his upbringing might have borne decides instead of the military to join the imperial police, and he gets stationed in Burma. After a couple years, he returns home after an illness and to the disappointment of his family. He decides to be a writer and starts to write. He serves and is grievously wounded in the Spanish Civil War. And he returns to the United Kingdom and writes a number of books that don’t really go anywhere. He struggles with his publisher, gets married and loses his wife, endures World War II, and then hits big with Animal Farm and 1984. And then he dies.

Somehow the lectures diminished Orwell, or at least my concept of him. He seems a shabby little socialist who punched above his weight with a couple of good essays and a couple of books that captured the anti-communist zeitgeist of the middle part of the twentieth century.

On Augustine: Philosopher and Saint by Professor Phillip Cary (2005)

Book coverAfter finishing Luther: Gospel, Law, and Reformation, I was very pleased to find that I owned this audio course about Augustine by the same professor. This course, though, was in the original shrink wrap which means I paid full price for it or at the very least paid The Teaching Company directly for it when it was on sale. So I leapt right into it.

The series is only 12 lectures, half the size of the Luther series, and it follows the same pattern with biography, historical context, and then theology, albeit abbreviated by the brevity of the series. Which, I guess, is redundant since both those words share a root.

The lectures include:

  1. Church Father
  2. Church Platonist
  3. Confessions–The Search for Wisdom
  4. Confessions–Love and Tears
  5. Confessions–The Road Home
  6. Augustine’s Career as a Christian Writer
  7. Faith, Love, and Grace
  8. Evil, Free Will, Original Sin, and Predestination
  9. Signs and Sacraments
  10. The Inner Self
  11. The Trinity and the Soul
  12. The City of God

The course emphasizes the influence of Platonism on Augustine and, hence, a lot of Christian thinkers. It shares a lot of content with the Luther series, of course, where the thinkers overlap. More than the other series, though, this book reminded me how much of Augustine’s writings I have scattered amongst the Nogglestead library and made me want to read the translated primary sources that I have available.

For something to read between men’s adventure paperbacks, I would guess.

At any rate, another course that I’m glad I listened to. Which means I should change up topic matter to keep the theology from becoming repetitive and stale.

On Luther: Gospel, Law and Reformation by Professor Phillip Cary (2004)

Book coverNow this was a good lecture series.

I was certainly underwhelmed with On the Bible as the Root of Western Literature, and I might have thought that On Heaven or Heresy went on a bit long, so I wasn’t really that keen on a new series with religious overtones (although the aforementioned are more literature and history than theology).

But this series of lectures really is all of the above. It’s 24 lectures, longer than the others, and it includes a biography of Luther, the historical context to his writings, the differences in theology that developed between Luther and the Catholic Church (and the Reformists and the Anabaptists and the Baptists), and then it focuses a couple of survey/summary lectures on Luther’s relationship to different things.

The lectures are:

  1. Luther’s Gospel
  2. The Medieval Church–Abuses and Reform
  3. The Augustinian Paradigm of Spirtuality
  4. Young Luther Against Himself
  5. Hearing the Gospel
  6. Faith and Works
  7. The Meaning of the Sacraments
  8. The Indulgence Controversy
  9. The Reformation Goes Public
  10. The Captivity of the Sacraments
  11. Reformation in Wittenberg
  12. The Work of the Reformer
  13. Against the Spirit of Rebellion
  14. Controversy Over the Lord’s Supper
  15. Controversy Over Infant Baptism
  16. Grace and Justification
  17. Luther and the Bible
  18. Luther and Erasmus
  19. Luther and Predestination
  20. Luther and Protestantism
  21. Luther and Politics
  22. Luther and His Enemies
  23. Luther and the Jews
  24. Luther and Modernity

The presenter declares himself to be an ecumenical Protestant, which puts a religious listener at ease without remaining a bit tense waiting for a sucker punch or acerbic rejoinder to believers. He presents Luther as a person and a person of his time, with his contradictions and flaws over his career but never in an accusatory fashion.

So I learned a bunch. And I’ve set aside the course guidebook to review. And I might actually listen to this series again as my beautiful wife only heard parts of lectures as we traversed southwestern Missouri on the way to basketball games and archery meets over the last month, so she might want to listen to the whole set.

Recommended.

On Best. State. Ever. by Dave Barry

Book coverI checked this audiobook out of the library for a quick listen that took a couple of weeks as, although I played it in my primary truck, my beautiful wife was not a big fan, so I had to listen to it when she was not in the car.

Not a fan of Dave Barry? I was unaware that was a possibility in human nature.

At any rate, this book was published in 2015, so it’s a fairly modern sensibility from his ouevre. The schtick is that he’s defending his state from the national news stories of Florida Man, or rather perhaps explaining why his state is home to Florida Man. As such, he visits a number of oddball and sometimes known locations in Florida such as Weeki Wachee (the tourist attraction and now state park with the mermaids), Lock and Load machine gun range in Miami, Key West, and a bunch of other places and rates them using a scale of out-of-order Mold-o-Matic machines.

So it’s Dave Barry, now in the 21st century with curse words, so you know what you’re in for. A lot of amusement and perhaps a laugh or two in the interim.

Probably a little better than Jean Sheppard for those of contemporary sensibilities.

Now, back to the audio courses.

On The Bible as the Root of Western Literature: Stories, Poems and Parables

Book coverSo I had expected to listen to this course, one from my personal library, on trips to St. Charles or the trip from Springfield to Poplar Bluff to St. Charles to Springfield that I’d planned to take last month, but unfortunately, I did not get that travel time, so I’ve been listening to it in fits and starts in my back-up truck.

And, to be honest, I was not making excuses to drive the truck just to listen to more of the course.

The course looks at parts of the Bible in the context of genre literature, whether it’s because the part of the Bible being examined is part of that genre or tradition or because other works in the genre might have their roots or allusions to Bible parts.

Lectures include:

  1. Authorship and Style in the Torah
  2. Cain and Abel in Story, Theology, and Literary History
  3. Icons and Iconoclasm: From Moses to Milton
  4. The Story of King David, or the Varieties of Love
  5. The Song of Solomon: The Poetry of Sacred and Profane Love
  6. Psalms: The Poetry of Praise and Supplication
  7. Proverbs: The Way to Wisdom
  8. The Book of Job: The Problem of Evil and the Aesthetics of the Sublime
  9. Ecclesiastes and the Questioning of Wisdom
  10. Isaiah and Prophecy
  11. Typology: The Life of Christ as Fulfillment of the Old Testament
  12. Parables: The Form of Jesus Preaching
  13. Paul: The Letter and the Spirit of the Law
  14. The Book of Revelation and the Symmetry of the Christian Bible

The course overlaps enough with The History of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon that it felt almost like a reprise at times. Some of the connections to modern (or at least more recent) literature seemed a bit thin, but perhaps I’ve already studied enough literature and its biblical allusions that it wasn’t fresh.

I guess I got the most out of the penultimate lecture on the spirit versus the letter of the law. So I did get something out of it, but that’s only a little out of, what, eight or ten hours of listening?

Probably I am being too hard on it; surely, repetition of things I’ve already heard or learned solidified it in my mind a bit, but it’s not as stark or startling (or pleasing) as completely new information.

So what I’ve said about the audio courses I listen true holds: The more it aligns with the fields I’ve studied / read a lot of already (English literature, philosophy), the less I actually get out of it or the more bored I am with it. The audio courses I like the most are the ones that teach me the most I don’t know. Unfortunately, in the past, I’ve tended to pick those very courses that will bore me up at library book sales and whatnot. Well, I did, until I discovered the secret. Now I look for courses in interesting disciplines that I don’t have a degree in, or I get them from the library, and I get more from them.

And the vast library of courses I already own, these I shuffle in from time to time.

So, do I recommend it? If you’re not already versed in the material, it might be worth your time. Or if you have a long commute or lots of time in the car and need something besides the desiccated playlists of modern FM radio.

On Pomp and Circumstance by Jean Sheppard

Book coverYou’re familiar with his work and his voice–he wrote the the basis for A Christmas Story and narrated it–and he had a long-running radio program back in the northeast where he would spend an hour minus commercials taking a topic and going off on a monologue with diversions about it.

In the middle 1960s, from whence these particular episodes come, contain the similar reflective humor from the curmudgeon genre. Kids these days, these modern things aren’t as good as they used to be, and so on. A little like Andy Rooney, but less cranky. A little like Dennis Miller, but less arch.

Sheppard covers different things, such as the difference in radio broadcasting technology, how Americans envy other countries their sense of stuffed shirt pomp, going to shows and the movies, regional accents, and so much more.

Each disc has a single episode on it, so the sample size is only eight shows, but it made for amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny on various car rides. My beautiful wife, however, did not like it, so perhaps the appeal is more towards the curmudgeonly amongst us.

On Heaven or Heresy: A History of the Inquisition by Thomas Madden

Book coverThis course extends the lecture on the Inquisition from Medieval Mysteries and gives a fairly detailed history of the Inquisitions starting with the fact that the although the common 20th and 21st century representations of “the Inquisition” were oversimplified, incomplete, and based on popular culture not only of the current time but also the past centuries.

Well, okay, he starts with part of that and ends with a couple of lectures about how the various Inquisition was eventually portrayed after the Enlightenment as brutal and backward.

But in between, the ten or so lectures between introduction and conclusion, provide good historical context for the differences between the inquisitions in various regions and the modern, post-Enlightenment propoganda and popular culture interpretation of the Inquistion.

He lays out the contemporary zeitgeist–that it was a more uniform religious time, when crop failures and whatnot were still interpreted as God’s displeasure with a people as in the Old Testament. So the people wanted someone to come root out the heretics who were displeasing to God, and how the local rulers liked to take this upon themselves to find and quickly eliminate troublemakers in the area–often not so much theological disbelievers as political malcontents. So the local church leaders could call for an inquiry, which sought to find disbelievers and to convince them to return to the faith. Use of torture was limited, and the hearings had strict rules of evidence for the most part, and have some number of records in the church archives to support this. Only after a long inquisition and failure to recant was a presumed heretic released to the secular authorities for execution.

However, it did evolve, and by the time of the Spanish Inquisition, some of these rules were loosened. The ecclesiastical inquisition was co-opted by the Spanish government, so it was a little more brutal than other inquisitions.

Inquisitions, as they were, continued into the time of the Reformation where both Protestants and Catholics used them to ferret out the heretics–which were essentially the other side of that particular schism. Eventually, though, when the religious wars burned out, the inquisitions did, too, although the Spanish Inquisition formally continued into the nineteenth century.

When the Enlightenment authors got going, though, the Inquisitors were always the bad guys, and the then they were comic relief.

So the course adds detail to the one lecture he gave in the more summary course noted above, but I’m not sure I’m going to retain much from the extra material, and I’m not driven to a medeival studies degree with an emphasis in the material. But it did pass the time in the car and gave me a better time than the limited playlists on the radio.

And I’m thinking about writing historical fantasy with an Inquisitor as a protagonist. But Howard has almost done that with his Puritan Solomon Kane better than I would.

On Thinking Like An Economist: A Guide to Rational Decision Making by Randall Bartlett

Book coverThis Great Courses series of lectures provided an interesting insight into Economics, or more to the point the mindset of economists, and not necessarily in the way the professor behind it intended.

I mean, it does present some of the basic tenets of Economic theory. Namely, that people respond to incentives to make their lives according to their standards better; that decisions have costs; that free markets are good; that nobody has complete information for any decision; that decisions and actions often have unintended consequences, and that in the aggregate, crowds are wise (until they’re not). It really emphasized the concept of marginal value, which is that eventually effort will yield smaller results (also known as the law of diminishing results).

All of which I agree with. But then, economists’ thinking takes a turn into the totalitarian, where since economists have mastered these principles, they should build or help systems to alter individuals’ incentive structures so that they, the individuals, will make the right choices according not to the individuals’ but the economists’ ideas of what the subjects “free” individuals should be. So if traffic or air pollution is too high, it just makes sense to raise taxes to make it more expensive to drive into town. And when it comes to the environment, the economists must act because of the tragedy of the commons or something.

You know, the tragedy of the commons: When individuals share a resource, they will take more than their share because they alone are not responsible for its upkeep. Which, too, is an economist’s invented problem, because it features individuals divorced from tradition, religion, or morals who only act according to the economist’s reasoning constraints and unlike people.

So it falls to philosopher-king economists, ultimately, to set the incentive structures for people who don’t natively play by the pure economist rules to reach the economist-reasoned best outcomes. They ignore or diminish the elements of uncertainty that their own principles recognize (incomplete information, unintended consequences, freedom). Instead, they become Jigsaw Keynesers: You’re free to choose whether you want to cut your comfort off or pay extra taxes for heating your home.

Maybe instead they’re Keyneser Soze, except the greatest trick economists have ever pulled is convincing themselves they’re not the devil.

Maybe I should stop with the Keynes jokes already and get to the “at any rate” summation of what I got out of the course.

At any rate, some good, practical ways of thinking about values in decisions, but only at a low, tactical level. It’s best not to build a whole philosophy on it or to let others with credentials impose it upon you.

On The History of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon

Book coverThis course offers a history of how the books of the New Testament became the canon. I guess the title indicates that. But it’s not a straight ahead timeline of the conscious development of the New Testament. Instead, it’s more of a survey of different things to consider when looking at the history. It discusses the different types of literature in the New Testament, the Gospels, the epistles, and apocalyptic literature. It touches on apocrypha that did not make the final cut (and sometimes why). It talks about the creation of the written literature as the church evolved and needed a central repository of teachings to share among the scattered churches. It also talks about copying errors and whatnot and a touch of church history.

So it’s an interesting listen. My beautiful wife would not like it because she rankles at people who are probably not Christians opining or discussing Christian or Biblical history from a non-Christian perspective. This lecturer says that he’s not going to tackle the theological content of the books under discussion, but at times he does make light of what his Christian students say, so he’s probably not exactly a homer. I, on the other hand, am very interested in church history and consideration of the imperfections of translations of the Bible.

So you good bit of listening if you don’t mind those things.

On Medieval Mysteries: The History Behind The Myths of the Middle Ages by Thomas F. Madden

Book coverThis is a short course from the Modern Scholar series that focuses on myths and stories from the Middle Ages and how true they are. The four discs / eight lectures cover:

  • King Arthur
  • The Holy Grail
  • Pope Joan
  • Witches and Inquisitors
  • Chastity Belts and The Droit du Seigneur
  • Robin Hood
  • The Flat Earth
  • The Shroud of Turin

Not to spoil it, but basically, it boils down to there might have been a kernel of a real person for King Arthur and Robin Hood, but the stories have outrun the truth (print the legend!). A number of stories (Pope Joan, Inquisitors, the Droit du Seigneur, Flat Earth) were invented after the fact to reflect poorly on the past. As to the Shroud of Turin, who knows?

The author goes back to original sources and earliest mentions to try to get to the germ of each, and he does a pretty good job at a high, summary level or presenting the material. I enjoyed it, and it was only four hours which meant I could finish it on the recent drive up north.

Musings on Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations

Book coverSo the guidebook to this course presents me with a little dilemma: Should I count it as a book against my annual reading or not? I mean, I counted the guidebook for the course From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History as a book, but not the one for Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion. Of course, the former was over 100 pages, and the latter was like 25. The guidebook to Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations is 72 with the glossary, timeline, and bibliography. All right, you have convinced me to count it as a book read in 2019 even though I listened to the course probably over a year ago and only completed the guidebook now because I found it at one of my book accumulation points.

At any rate, this is a fascinating course, twelve lectures in all, that covers Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations (with a bit of a nod to early civilization in the Indus River valley, but as this last was not that well explored at the time of the course, it only gets passing recognition). The course covers the Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age, so you’ve got lectures on Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, Assyria, Israel, and the Persians as well as mention of the Hittites and Chaldeans and other tribes in those time periods who made a name for themselves.

As I mentioned in the book report on From Yao to Mao:

The fact that this succession of different groups controlling different regions could all be called “Chinese” history. You’ve got, for example, Mongols, Manchus, and various other tribes from outside the Chinese homeland taking over, succeeded by other non-Han peoples running things. But scholars continue to call it “Chinese” history. It would be like calling all of ancient Near East history Babylonian history (or Iraqi, perhaps) history–you’ve got different groups coming in and controlling the region around the ancient city of Babylon, but it’s Akkadian history or Chaldean history or whatnot. There’s not quite the enforced commonality you get in “Chinese” history. One has to wonder if that’s because in the 20th and 21st centuries, there’s a single Chinese government trying to control a large territoriy comprising different tribes’ homelands and to prevent fracturing or another tribe, so to speak, assuming power.

This sort of holds true for the Egyptians, whose civilization is controlled at various times by tribes from the Delta, tribes from up the river, and Greek peoples. The tribes that roam back and forth over Mesopotamia, though, aren’t characterized as a single civilization. I wonder why this is. The limited geography of Egypt versus the distributed loci of the other civilizations’ power? Aliens?

From the lectures and the guidebook, I come away with a vague understanding of the succession of the small empires and their chronology, and I will have something to say about the origin of the peoples in real life called Akkadians or Cimmerians when my boys are old enough to watch The Scorpion King or Conan the Barbarian.

Reviewing the guidebook makes me want to go through the lectures again, which is probably as high of praise as I can put into a brief report on the course.

Also, in retrospect, I want to count the much shorter guidebook for Elements of Jazz to my annual list.

Musings on Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion

Book coverI go through phases listening to these CD courses, and I think I’ve figured out the secret. I tend to accumulate courses in subject areas with which I’m already familiar, like philosophy or literature, and they underwhelm or bore me. That, and if they’re a summary course from the 21st century, I’ll find enough to disagree with politically to not really want to finish them. But something I’m not really familiar with, such as deep dive history courses (not summary courses) or music courses, these I listen to with some zeal, and I learn a lot more from them probably because they’re completely new knowledge to me and not merely rehashing what I already know.

I really enjoyed this course for those reasons, if they are the real reasons why I get away from listening to these in the car, and because I rather like jazz music, but I’ve not really been educated in it. Until now, a bit.

The course is eight lectures. The first seven talk about a building block in the evolution of jazz, and the last has the lecturer, a known jazz pianist, improvising with some other artists to illustrate how it works. The building blocks include cakewalks, ragtime, blues, swing/big band jazz, boogie and bop/bebop, and modern jazz including free jazz, cool jazz, and fusion.

I’ve learned a heck of a lot about music, including what syncopation means (although I’ve read the word, I’ve never tied it to the actual sound), the origins of the words in jazz (jazz, ragtime, bebop, and so on). And I’ve identified the styles of jazz I prefer (swing, cool jazz, and fusion)–although I would have probably guessed these. Also, I like free jazz like I like Matisse. Which is not at all.

So I’m glad to have spent, what, six hours on this course. I wish it were longer. I wish I could play a boogie woogie bass line on the piano. I have tried because of this course. So take that as an endorsement.

Unfortunately, I have a five foot shelf of other courses which on DVD and/or fit the bill of courses that I have mentioned aren’t the ones I get the most from. So expect other entries in this series irregularly.