Robert L. InchaustiCalifornia Polytechnic State University
Lisa RuddickUniversity of Chicago
Jennifer SummitSan Francisco State University
Blakey VermeuleStanford University
David WrayUniversity of Chicago
A symposium on the recent book Action versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters (University of Chicago Press, 2018) by Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule. Free and open to the public. Persons with disabilities who may need assistance should contact us at 773-955-5887 or by email.
Cosponsored by the English Department, the Seminary Coop Bookstore, the University of Chicago Press, and Our Sunday Visitor. Copies of the book will be available for purchase at the event.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” Blaise Pascal wrote in 1654. But then there’s Walt Whitman, in 1856: “Whoever you are, come forth! Or man or woman come forth! / You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house.”
It is truly an ancient debate: Is it better to be active or contemplative? To do or to think? To make an impact, or to understand the world more deeply? Aristotle argued for contemplation as the highest state of human flourishing. But it was through action that his student Alexander the Great conquered the known world. Which should we aim at? Centuries later, this argument underlies a surprising number of the questions we face in contemporary life. Should students study the humanities, or train for a job? Should adults work for money or for meaning? And in tumultuous times, should any of us sit on the sidelines, pondering great books, or throw ourselves into protests and petition drives?
With Action versus Contemplation, Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule address the question in a refreshingly unexpected way: by refusing to take sides. Rather, they argue for a rethinking of the very opposition. The active and the contemplative can—and should—be vibrantly alive in each of us, fused rather than sundered. Writing in a personable, accessible style, Summit and Vermeule guide readers through the long history of this debate from Plato to Pixar, drawing compelling connections to the questions and problems of today. Rather than playing one against the other, they argue, we can discover how the two can nourish, invigorate, and give meaning to each other, as they have for the many writers, artists, and thinkers, past and present, whose examples give the book its rich, lively texture of interplay and reference.
This is not a self-help book. It won’t give you instructions on how to live your life. Instead, it will do something better: it will remind you of the richness of a life that embraces action and contemplation, company and solitude, living in the moment and planning for the future. Which is better? Readers of this book will discover the answer: both.
Robert Inchausti is Professor of English at California Polytechnic State University. Born in Sacramento, California, he attended Sacramento State University and got his Ph. D. in English from The University of Chicago. He is the author of five books including The Ignorant Perfection of Ordinary Peoplel, which was nominated for a National Book Award by his publisher SUNY Press, Spitwad Sutras, which is taught in teacher education programs across the country, and most recently, Hard to Be a Saint in the City: the Spiritual Vision of the Beats. He is also editor of two volumes of Thomas Merton's writings.
Lisa Ruddick is Associate Professor of English at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD from Harvard University, and has taught at the University of Chicago since 1981. Her teaching and research focus on modern British fiction, literature and psychoanalysis, and poetry and poetics; and more specifically the question of the feeling of aliveness, especialy among scholars in the humanities. She is author of numerous scholarly works, including Reading Gertrude Stein: Body, Text, Gnosis.
Jennifer Summit is Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at San Francisco State University. She holds a PhD from Johns Hopkins University and was previously Professor of English at Stanford University. She is author of numerous scholarly articles and two books: Memory's Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England and Lost Property: The Woman Writer and Enlgihs Literary History, 1380-1589. Most recently, she has co-authored with Blakey Vermeule Action versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters.
Blakey Vermeule is Professor of English at Stanford University. She holds a PhD from UC Berkeley and a BA from Yale. Her research interests are neuroaesthetics, cognitive and evolutionary approaches to art, philosophy and literature, British literature from 1660-1820, post-Colonial fiction, satire, and the history of the novel. She is the author of The Party of Humanity: Writing Moral Psychology in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2000) and Why Do We Care About Literary Characters? (2009), both from The Johns Hopkins University Press. She is writing a book about what mind science has discovered about the unconscious.
David Wray is an Associate Professor in the Department of Classics, the Department of Comparative Literature, and the College at the University of Chicago. He holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of Catullus and the Poetics of Roman Manhood (Cambridge 2001), and was a coeditor of Seneca and the Self (Cambridge 2009). He is currently writing Ovid at the Tragic Core of Modernity.