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April 13, 2004

Great books inspire scholars' musings

Students and faculty members alike grappled with the question of what makes a book great at this year's fundamentals colloquium, "The Power of Books: Some Personal Accounts," on Monday.

James Redfield, the Edward Olson Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Classical Languages and Literature, spoke first, beginning with anecdotes of his experiences with literature as a youth. His key factor for a truly great book? "It's silly. Not enough great books are silly," he said.

"A great book doesn't necessarily have to be a guide to life, but it makes space. It makes a larger world—kind of like the experience of going to a really good art show," Redfield said.

After briefly entertaining a mild question-and-answer session, Redfield, with stereotypical U of C eccentricity, said, "Bless you my children," and stormed from the room.

The next panelist was William Schweiker, professor in the Divinity School and the College, who spoke at the fundamentals colloquium ten years ago as well. He joked that everyone would probably expect a divinity professor to talk about the Bible, saying that it is not always the most reputable or respected works of literature that qualify for the status of "greatness."

"Not all good books are powerful and not all powerful books are good," Schweiker said. "Part of what a humanistic education requires is that we be sensitive to the power of ideas themselves."

He talked about Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist, in which, he said, the question of freedom is addressed, and he alluded to The Matrix.

"I do think engaging in questions about the scope of our freedom is important when looking at texts," Schweiker said. "Diderot deals with happiness in a deterministic world."

Stephen Meredith, associate professor of philosophy, spoke next, focusing on Augustine's literature. A scientist, he said with a chuckle that his speech would depart from the "silliness" of which Redfield spoke. "Augustine has absolutely no sense of humor whatsoever," he said. He went on to discuss issues of theodicy and the reconciliation of a benevolent God with evil in the universe, found in Augustine's works.

The final speaker, Jeffrey Dean, Chicago attorney and alumnus of the fundamentals program at the U of C (A.B. '89), spoke about philosophy and the art of argumentation.

"What I do all day is make weak arguments strong for a living," Dean said, likely alluding to Plato's famous discussions of weak and strong speech in his works about Socrates.

"It's nice to be back at the U of C talking about [subjects like] evil and privation," Dean said, adding that when he came here, he soon discovered that philosophy was not being taught in the philosophy program, but rather in the fundamentals program.

"There's a difference in the way the fundamentals program teaches," he said. "In the philosophy department, people master what each philosopher said. That's manifestly not what happens in the fundamentals program—with fundamentals, it's about asking questions more than anything."

Wendy Olmsted, the director of the fundamentals program, moderated the event.

4-13-04fundies