Tutors Talk Books: Assistant Dean Michael Golluber on “Summer Reading”
June 24, 2019 | By Rebecca Waldron
We recently sat down with tutor and Assistant Dean Michael Golluber to talk about his summer reading list, replete with Plato, Dante, and more.
What’s first on your summer reading list?
I’m reading a book by Dante called La Vita Nuova. It’s a new book for me. It’s very exciting. It’s about the history of his mad love for Beatrice. He never really talked to her, but he somehow was devoted to her.
Beatrice was a real person?
Beatrice was a real person. But it’s not clear how much Dante really knew her. They merely saw one another when they were both 8 or 9 years old. She said something only once to him when he was 18 when they were passing by one another. He only knew her by hearsay. A lot of the book is about how this erotic love transforms into a love of death. And that’s interesting because I think Dante has Christianity both in the foreground and in the background of his reflections on his love for her. I think he’s trying to make sense of the development from a pagan understanding of eros to a Christian understanding of love. So, it’s a complicated book. A lot of it is biographical material, interwoven with beautiful poetry, often inspired by Beatrice.
Would you say it’s more fictional or biographical, or is it not clear?
It’s not really clear. It’s hard to classify. I think he’s trying to make sense of his experience, but I also think that he poeticizes his experience and takes a lot of liberty in doing so. Reading this is going to help me read another book I’ve been wanting to read by Dante called The Convivio, which means “the banquet.” In that book, he talks about his turn from his love of the lady Beatrice to his newfound love “Lady Philosophy.” It’s an interesting transition he makes. These two books he wrote before he wrote the Divine Comedy which, unfortunately, is the only work by Dante we read on the [St. John’s] Program. I think reading these two other works is going to give me a better opportunity to understand what’s going on in the Divine Comedy.
Have you always had an affinity for Dante, or is there some other throughline interest that’s motivating you to read him this summer?
I have friend who’s writing a book on the Divine Comedy. I’m learning a lot from him. We’re constantly having conversations about it. The book is now a completely different book from when I first read [it]. So as much as the reason for turning to La Vita Nuova is about Dante, whom I love, it’s also about friendship.
How would you say you read Dante differently now, in light of these conversations you’ve been having with your friend?
I read him as more of a friend of the ancients than of the moderns. I read him as calling for some kind of return to ancient virtue. But, speaking of friendship, I’m also reading Plato’s dialogue about friendship, which is called Lysis. It’s about the relationship of eros and philia, the Greek word for friendship ... to philosophy. It’s an attempt to understand what makes a philosopher, what motivates the philosopher, what the life of the philosopher is ultimately about.
In some sense, the questions “What is a philosopher?” and “What does it mean to live an examined life?” are themes in the Program, posed at the very beginning and thought about it all the way through—though not always necessarily [in terms] of eros and friendship.
You face a lot of these questions freshman year with the readings in seminar. Over the past few years, the last seminar reading for seniors has been either Phaedrus or books eight and nine of Aristotle’s Ethics. So, in a way, the whole program is framed around those themes of eros and friendship. We’re trying to understand ourselves as a community of learners. Learning can’t be done on one’s own. It needs dialogue. And I think for Aristotle, the highest kind of friendship is an intellectual friendship. He calls the friend a second self. And that second self is someone who is devoted to the friend’s good but also his own good. Somehow that kind of mutual relationship seems to promote human excellence in its highest form.
I’ve studied Lysis for a long time. I think it’s one of these little gems of Plato that too often goes unread. My background is [in] ancient philosophy, so I’m very attached to Plato. And I wrote my dissertation On Aristotle’s De Anima.
Have you ever thought about teaching in a traditional philosophy department?
Because I wouldn’t get to do music and science and language. I’ve devoted my life to never being out of school. I spent 12 years in graduate school. I never wanted to stop being a student, and at St. John’s I get to be a student for the rest of my life.
On that note, what else do you have on your reading list?
One of the reasons I love this job so much is that I get to read books with students. Presently, with the laboratory assistants I’m reading this book by Hans Jonas called The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology. He’s trying to develop a philosophy of life, of the organism, so it’s a mixture of biology, ethics, and metaphysics or ontology. I think he’s someone all St. John’s students should read because he’s interested in a view of liberal education that’s integrated, not broken up into disciplines. He’s really trying to understand things in a traditionally liberal sense.
It was published in 1966. He was responding, I think, to problems in the development of modern science. He traces science to its origins in a kind of animism, where everything was thought to be alive, then to a kind of dualism that we read about most explicitly in Descartes. It’s the mind-body dualism. Jonas thinks that leads to an emphasis, in the modern world, on death as the standard of the whole of things, and modern science seems to approach understanding life as if it were dead. Jonas wants to counteract that tendency, and open up new possibilities using the living organism as the standard by which we understand all of life.