I don’t want to feel proud and I have found that listening to courses from The Teaching Company is an ideal way to more deeply aware of my intellectual commonness and, for anyone so inclined, I highly recommend most of their titles.
My example for today is “The Life and Writings of John Milton” taught by Professor Seth Lerer of Stanford University. It is a course in the Literature & English Language section.
For those who may not be familiar with The Teaching Company or The Great Courses, let me briefly explain what they are: 1) expensive; 2) on DVD, CD or downloadable to your computer from their website; 3) outlined in their catalogues, which will come on the average of about three a week; and 4) professional and endorsed.
By professional I mean that the materials are superbly done and their professors have paragraphs of qualifications and multitudes of endorsements. Just holding one of their DVD or CD disks and accompanying book outline will raise your IQ by ten points.
But, you may think, how can I feel inferior if my IQ goes up? Let me explain by using Milton as an example, with Lerer as the learned professor. Lerer has, of course, a PhD but is somewhat down in the book writing ranks with only six to his credit. However, he has published more than 40 “scholarly articles and reviews”. Of course all are arcane, such as his books “Chaucer and His Readers” or “Courtley Letters in the Age of Henry VIII”. Those alone should make you feel at least slightly mediocre.
Once we look at the contents of the course, real weakness will set in, much like the beginning of the flu season and you with no vaccination.
John Milton was an English poet who lived from 1608 to 1674. We learn a lot about him quickly because “he places that self at the center of his writings”. “That self” means “a poet of the self”, which may not mean much to readers like me—but that is the way outstanding lecturers talk and write.
The course will move from his early poems to the “majestic Paradise Lost and the final Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes”. I didn’t know what that last word meant, but being somewhat lexical deprived in literature, it is what I had hoped for. Indeed, if I had come across a sentence in which I understood every word without looking them up in a dictionary, it would have been a meager case of self-development and modesty.
Lecture One is an introduction to Milton’s life and information about his “art”. To my surprise and dismay he was unlike Shakespeare, Marlowe, Chaucer or Spenser, who were his peers “in the pantheon of English literature. I hesitate to confess, but aside from High School Shakespeare, I don’t have much to say about the other men (I believe).
I find that Milton is an autobiographical author who “establishes rhetorically a writing ‘self’” and is a poet “of the first person singular”. I think that means Milton writes mostly about himself, perhaps the Donald Trump of poetry. (I don’t mean to suggest that Donald knows anything of poetry, but he does use the first person singular a lot.)
It follows, according to our lecturer, that because Milton is a poet of the self, we can find our self in reading him. I’m not sure—mostly I have found myself in the dictionary. But, wait, the professor tells us that he is using “finding ourselves” with a double meaning and it is much like the phrase me ritroval in Dante’s Divine Comedy. And if you don’t know Italian, Dante said “I found myself”, which is at once a relief but also a question because I have no idea where Dante was at the time.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Milton was “one of the best-educated people of his time” and knew Latin, Greek, Italian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac and “other languages”. You should begin to feel somewhat academically downcast by now, although this is by no means the end of Milton’s accomplishments. He served as Secretary for Foreign Tongues to the Council of State, wrote Divorce Tracts (probably owing to his own troubled first marriage), and was considered a “radical Puritan”.
It is probably unfortunate that I presented the word “Puritan”, as it may make you feel somewhat superior, when my task is just the opposite. We can recover our humility quickly by noting that Milton was part of “our [sic] collective literary memory” that includes Dryden, Samuel Johns, Keats, Tennyson, T.S. Eliot and others.
Paradise Lost is what we [sic] probably Milton best know for, although happily Paradise was regained later. But even if we have read that book, we probably don’t remember that “it is the narrative of individuality we [sic] need to identify: Milton’s invocations, Satan’s Fall, Eve’s temptations, Adam’s fall”.
That brings me back to earth again and affects me with the proper degree of inferiority. I hope it has done the same for you.