Our readers have come to know and to admire Eva Brann, Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and tutor at St. John’s College, who always challenges us with her insightful writings on liberal learning, the hidden treasures in Homer’s poems, the artful devices of the dialogues of Socrates, and the wonders found in “the conservatory of the imagination.” I invite you to delight in these ten books by Miss Brann (her essays on The Imaginative Conservative may be found here), they will spark your creativity and ignite your passion for learning. Read on to find essential books that every Imaginative Conservative should own, read and enjoy. Truly, reading Eva Brann is a gift to be treasured, her books offer a unique combination of wit and wisdom. Please don’t miss this opportunity.
Fifty years of reading Homer—both alone and with students—prepared Dr. Brann to bring the Odyssey and the Iliad back to life for today’s readers. In Homeric Moments, she brilliantly conveys the unique delights of Homer’s epics as she focuses on the crucial scenes, or moments, that mark the high points of the narratives: Penelope and Odysseus, faithful wife and returning husband, sit face to face at their own hearth for the first time in twenty years; young Telemachus, with his father Odysseus at his side, boldly confronts the angry suitors; Achilles gives way to boundless grief at the death of his friend Patroclus.
Miss Brann demonstrates a way of reading Homer’s poems that yields their hidden treasures. With an alert eye for Homer’s extraordinary visual effects and a keen ear for the musicality of his language, she helps the reader see the flickering campfires of the Greeks and hear the roar of the surf and the singing of nymphs. In Homeric Moments, Dr. Brann takes readers beneath the captivating surface of the poems to explore the inner connections and layers of meaning that have made the epics “the marvel of the ages.”
“Who has spent a lifetime reading Plato’s writings and does not regard the Republic as his central work? It reaches higher and wider and displays a more lucid design and more artful devices than any other dialogue. It is, moreover, Socrates’ longest conversation. It is inexhaustible.”
In fourteen essays, Eva Brann talks with readers about the conversations Socrates engages in with his fellow Athenians. She considers the Phaedo, the Apology, and the Charmides prior to diving into the Republic. After wrestling with the role of justice, music, and poetry within the Republic, Dr. Brann turns towards the Timaeus and the Sophist as she explores the essence of time, being, and nonbeing. In doing so, Dr. Brann shows how Plato’s dialogues and the timeless matters they address remain important to us today.
By means of first three, beautiful essays, Eva Brann explores the roots and essence of our American ways.
In “Mile-High Meditations,” the late departure of Dr. Brann’s flight’s from the Denver airport prompts a consideration of her manner of waiting (i.e., “being”). As she looks around, she notes (and compares to her own) the ways her fellow travelers pass their time. These observations lead her to wonder how each of us lives with ourselves and how we live together.
With these questions in mind, the next two essays carefully examine two famous political documents that have shaped American self-understanding: James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance,” which is the essential argument for separation of church and state; and Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” which enlarged and refashioned our understanding of the American political character, first given formal expression in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
In “Paradox of Obedience,” a lecture originally delivered at the Air Force Academy, Miss Brann considers the puzzling character of obedience in a country dedicated to liberty.
The concluding essay, “The Empire of the Sun and the West,” takes us to Aztec Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. What allowed Cortes and his handful of men to overcome a great empire? In pursuit of an answer, Dr. Brann describes a human type whose fulfillment she sees in the American character.
Two long essays make up a short book, one full of depth and knowledge, in which Eva Brann gets at the roots of our thinking.
In the first, “Then,” Dr. Brann parses out the schema and meaning of Herodotus’s The History (The Persian Wars). She writes that Herodotus worked by indirection. Giving a full account of the Persians and the peoples who constituted their empire—and whose empire encircled the Greeks (thus the “Greek center”)—Herodotus delineates the essential difference between the Barbarians and the Greeks. This difference Miss Brann calls Athens’ “elusive essence,” its freedom contrasting with the slavery upon which the Persian empire depended.
In the second essay, “Now,” the author delves into what it means for a person to unite a disposition toward conservatism with a capacity to reiterate and rehearse events, scenes, and dramas in “the conservatory of the imagination.” To uncover the meanings and consequences of this union—this imaginative conservatism—and the type of soul to which it applies, Dr. Brann offers twelve perspectives, starting with “Temperamental Disposition,” and ending with “Eccentric Centrality,” (without ever explicitly focusing on politics). Join her and you’ll find both delight and education.
Since ancient times, philosophers have written about “the will.” But the will is more than a philosophic and scholarly topic. In our everyday speech, what do we mean when we speak of the “will”? Will-words turn up everywhere in the English language. We make wills. We exert our willpower. We are willful at times but merely willing at others. Above all, will is present a hundred times a day, when we use the auxiliary verb “will” to express our intentions or expectations for the future, or simply to indicate the future tense.
Yet it takes only a moment’s reflection to see that there’s a tremendous range of meaning here, which is something to think about. Moreover, all of us have wondered whether we are really free, and whether being free means being able to do what we want or being free from wants and desires or something else entirely. That is, all of us have wrestled with the issue of free will in our informal, non-scholarly ways. Finally, we’ve probably all asked ourselves whether people who talk about will and willpower are all talking about the same thing or even talking sense.
These are among the issues that Eva Brann puts at the center of Un-Willing. She takes the whole range of questions about the will that are implicit in our everyday lives and everyday thinking, articulates them, shows us how they have been dealt with within the philosophic tradition and contemporary scientific thought, and then wrestles with them herself, as you can see in this sneak peek.
Eva Brann introduces Heraclitus, in her view, the West’s first philosopher, as “an engaged solitary, an inward-turned observer of the world, inventor of the first of philosophical genres, the thought-compacted aphorism…teasingly obscure in reputation, but hard-hittingly clear in fact…now tersely mordant, now generously humane.”
The collected work of Heraclitus comprises 131 passages. Through them, Dr. Brann sets out to understand Heraclitus as he is found and particularly in his keyword, Logos: the order that is the cosmos.
“Whoever is captivated by the revelatory riddlings and brilliant obscurities of what remains of Heraclitus has to begin anew—accepting help, to be sure, from previous readings—in a spirit of receptivity and reserve. But essentially everyone must pester the supposed obscurantist until he opens up. Heraclitus is no less and no more pregnantly dark than an oracle…The upshot is that no interpretation has prevailed; every question is wide open.”
“The phrase ‘Feeling Our Feelings’ comes from the words a little boy called Zeke said to me some thirty years ago when he was four. I was swinging him in a park in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I wasn’t doing it right. ‘Swing me higher,’ he said. ‘I want to feel my feelings.’ The phrase stuck with me; you might say it festered in my mind; it agitated questions. Why do we all want to feel our feelings so generally that people ‘not in touch’ with them are thought to need therapy? What feeling did swinging high induce? Was it an exultation of the body or an exhilaration of the soul? When Zeke wanted to feel his feelings, was there a difference between the general feeling, the mere consciousness of being affected, and his particular feelings, the distinguishable affects?—as, when you sing a song, there is a difference between the singing done and the song sung. Or is there?”
In Feeling Our Feelings, Dr. Brann poses these questions in light of what the great philosophers have thought and written about the passions and feelings. She examines the relevant work of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Adam Smith, Hume, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger, and also includes a chapter on contemporary studies on the brain—in her quest to discover “what philosophers think and people know.” What are we, that being affected is the great voucher for being actively alive? Feeling Our Feelings provides a comprehensive look at this pervasive and elusive topic.
8) Open Secrets/Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul
“I wrote these thoughts down on about two thousand sheets, two to three thoughts per paper, and I kept them in some used manila envelopes, the earliest of which bore a postmark of 1972.” Dr. Brann gives readers a window into her mind and soul through her collection of observations and aphorisms, Open Secrets/Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul. This work divides in a rough but ready way into two sorts: observations about our external world well known to all but not always openly told. In it, Miss Brann considers nature, the arts, friendship, education, traveling, politics, time, modernity, customs, and country as she looks at herself as a sample soul. A pair of examples:
“Citizen’s Imperative: Always act as if you were then and there founding a community, be it of two or two hundred—in conducting conversations, in enacting routines, in mounting critiques. Plato’s Republic is the model: While Socrates is constructing a mere pattern “to be laid up in heaven,” he is founding a dialogic community of three: himself and his two eager young partners.”
“Typical communities: Those you are born into or join for life and die out of (your country), those where you spend your working life and invest your public affections (my college), those you absorb unwittingly or even re-calcitrantly (your culture), those you belong to by intentional choice (the Republic of Letters), those you cherish within (the worlds of the imagination), and first and finally, the natural private attachments (family and friends).”
9) Double Think/Double Talk
In Double Think/Double Talk (August 2016) Dr. Brann describes the concept of “double think/double talk” as “a flanking approach toward comprehending a pervasively duplex world, a world that sometimes flashes fleeting signs of covert wholeness.” In this, her second collection of aphorisms and observations, Miss Brann shines a light on our world—on “the way things are”—and she does it with characteristic wit and insight.
On Action: Life’s full of incident, especially if you stay home and read and scribble.
On Books: How to read different difficult texts: 1. Pester them until they open up. 2. Leave well enough alone and think along a parallel path. Both in turn.
On College: Preamble to an early salary report of my college: “The work of teaching is invaluable”—a word that can, in a certain mood, be heard ambiguously. I’m still laughing at how true it turned out to be, money-wise.
On Death: It’s a little late to be afraid of death, now that, whenever it comes, it can’t be said to be untimely.
On Love: Some people grow more lovable the longer they’re dead.
To celebrate Dr. Brann’s fiftieth year on the faculty of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, twenty-three of her colleagues, friends, and former students contributed essays, poems, and art to The Envisioned Life. In it, they celebrate Miss Brann’s “passion for learning and her deep love of books, her breadth of knowledge and interests, her boundless energy, her mastery of the spoken and of the written word, her virtues of leadership, and her bright and generous spirit.”