Podcast: Highest Learning

Eva Brann on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 12 – Highest Learning

Your humble(ish) host just made his annual Piraeus pilgrimage to St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, this time to participate in a four-day seminar about Moby Dick . . . and score a great interview! I managed to get legendary tutor Eva Brann (above) to take a break from her crazy schedule and sit down for a 45-minute conversation about the college’s Great Books program and how she’s seen it change (and stay the same) in her FIFTY-SEVEN YEARS at the school. We also talk about the value of a liberal arts education, the one novel she’d add to the St. John’s curriculum, the need professors have to profess (and why St. John’s has tutors instead of professors), her swoon for Odysseus, her desert island book, her one criterion for a great novel, where she sees the school going in the next fifty-seven years, the Dostoevsky-or-Tolstoy debate, and more, including a boatload of questions I solicited from alumni! It’s a fascinating conversation with one of the most learned people in the world.

Ian Kelley (and Rufus T. Firefly) on The Virtual Memories Show

And then Ian Kelley, a St. John’s student from 1993, talks about his experience at the college, what brought him there, what he learned about himself and the Great Books, and how his Annapolis experience influenced his decision to join the U.S. Navy. Ian’s a longtime pal and is the first guest to appear in the non-famous Virtual Memories Library (pictured, with dog, who occasionally sighs and grunts during the podcast).

Enjoy the conversations! Then check out the archives for more great talk!

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About our Guests

Eva Brann has been a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD since 1957 and served as dean there from 1990 to 1997. Ms. Brann is the author of Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad, The Music of the Republic: Essays on Socrates’ Conversations and Plato’s Writings, Open Secrets / Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul, Feeling Our Feelings: What Philosophers Think and People Know, Homage to Americans: Mile-High Meditations, Close Readings, and Time-Spanning Speculations, and The Logos of Heraclitus, all of which are available from Paul Dry Books.

Ian Kelley is a proud 1997 graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, and an avid motorcyclist, traveler and reader. He trusts Gil Roth to keep him smart and honest. Ian and his wife, Jessica, live in Fallon, NV.

We previously interviewed St. John’s College tutors David Townsend and Tom May, so you should check those out! For more information about St. John’s College and the Great Books program, visit its site.

Credits: This episode’s music is Wonderful World by Sam Cooke. The conversation was recorded at the home of Eva Brann on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The conversation with Ian Kelley was recorded at my home on a pair AT2020 mics feeding into the Zoom H4n. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue enCORE 200 into the Zoom H4n. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo of Eva Brann by me, photo of Ian Kelley and me by Amy Roth

Monday Morning Montaigne: Of physiognomy

It takes Montaigne 22 pages to bring physiognomy into Of physiognomy (pp. 964-992), but Socrates’ ugly mug looms over the entire essay.

M. uses the essay to stress his desire for natural virtue, for living within one’s nature, for allowing death in its time. Law and religion should “perfect and authorize” this virtue, but we should focus on that which “sustains itself without help.” To that end, he praises both Socrates’ plain-spoken style — “His mouth is full of nothing but carters, joiners, cobblers and masons” — and the lives of the peasants.

Peasants, M. tells us, don’t spend their days worrying about their end. They work, and they get old, and they die. It’s not so easy for us. Learning is a vice, bringing us anticipation and anxiety toward death. M. contrasts

I never saw one of my peasant neighbors cogitating over the countenance and assurance with which he would pass this last hour. Nature teaches him not to think about death except when he is dying. And then he has better grace about it than Aristotle, whom death oppresses doubly, both by itself and by such a long foreknowledge.


What if knowledge, trying to arm us with new defenses against natural mishaps, has imprinted in our fancy their magnitude and weight, more than the reasons and subtleties to protect us from them?

It’s a messed-up way of looking at things, to my modern eyes, because it portrays the peasants as animals, not people. But then, some of us do the same thing when we characterize poor people and goof on “Wal-Mart America,” so hey. He proposes a school of stupidity, so that we can learn how to stop worrying about death.

(Last week, when I was walking to my car at lunchtime, I passed a Hispanic guy who was working on the landscaping crew outside our office. We made way for each other on the sidewalk, but otherwise didn’t acknowledge each other as people. In my car, I thought about M.’s sentimental/animal take on peasants and the lead character’s remark in Synecdoche, New York: “There are billions of people in the world, and none of those people is an extra.” I wondered what his life was like, what he does with it, and what he saw and thought when we walked past each other.)

Death, M. writes, so close to the end of his book and his life, “is indeed the end, but not therefore the goal, of life; it is its finish, its extremity, but not therefore its object. Life should be an end unto itself, a purpose unto itself; its rightful study is to regulate, conduct and suffer itself. Among the many other duties comprised in this general and principal chapter on knowing how to live is this article on knowing how to die.”

In the middle of the essay, M. digresses from the subject of learning and readiness-to-death to discuss the civil war and plague that has racked his region. It seemed out of place to me, but shortly after, M. quotes a page-long passage from Plato’s Apology, in which Socrates addresses his judges in Athens. His unwillingness to argue with the judges, tacitly accepting their death sentence, contrasts with the civil war of M.’s time: the philosopher of the ages will let his city put him to death because his defense argument would overthrow the authority of the city itself. Better to trust the gods to put things straight.

It was difficult to keep the pieces of this essay in front of me. It fragments wildly. As I mentioned, M. doesn’t get to the subject of physiognomy until page 22 of this 28-page essay. When he does, I’m not sure what point he’s trying to make. On the one hand, he tells us, “There is nothing more likely than the conformity and relation of the body to the spirit.” On the other, the two most beautiful spirits he cites — Socrates and La Boetie — were ugly men. “The face,” he writes, “is a weak guarantee.”

However, he concludes Of physiognomy with a pair of anecdotes in which his life was threatened, but his kindly demeanor and honest words saved him. “If my face did not answer for me, if people did not read in my eyes and my voice the innocence of my intentions, I would not have lasted so long without quarrel and without harm.”

(Good news! You only have on more of these insane, rambling posts to go!)