Why care about the Great Conversation?

On why the intellectual life is for everyone, a Civic Renaissance Facebook group + April's book give away!

Gracious Readers,

Here’s what we’ll cove this week:

  • Why care about the Great Conversation? To understand what it means to be human.

  • Join the Civic Renaissance Facebook Group!

  • “Unbundling people” & other highlights from our conversation on friendship

  • IG Reels: Nashville’s Parthenon by night, and on reviving an age of chivalry

  • April book giveaway: Gracy Olmstead’s book on community and place

Why care about the Great Conversation?

Ideas—and the life of the mind—are for everyone. Civic Renaissance is a project and publication dedicated to explaining why this is true, and how ideas can help us both solve seemingly intractable problems and improve each of our lives today.

The Great Conversation offers each of us an invitation to enter into dialogue with the some of the wisest people across history. We are offered an opportunity to reflect on life’s most important questions—What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of life? What is the best way to live?—in the company of thoughtful people who have reflected deeply on these questions .

There are two main challenges to The Great Conversation today. First, people often feel as if they are too busy to pause and reflect on these questions about human life and purpose. Second, the liberal arts and classical educational traditions—which have for millennia encouraged students to ask, and formulate answers to, these questions—are being seriously questioned.

Yet carving out time in our daily lives and cultivating space to reflect on personhood and the good life—and engaging with the ideas of those who have come before us—is essential to understanding who we are and to becoming fully human.

Many of us live in modern liberal democracies and enjoy the freedoms and privileges as a result. And those who created the institutions of modern liberal democracy were intimately familiar with the Great Conversation. They were in constant conversation with statesmen and thinkers who came before them. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was influenced by John Locke. And Locke in turn was responding to Thomas Hobbes, Hobbes to Augustine, Augustine to Plato (and, of course the, Bible), Plato to Socrates (and the Egyptians), Socrates to Homer….

And so it goes. The Great Conversation is iterative. It is constantly changing and responding, building off of the ideas of smart people in the past and adapting old questions and answers to our own moment.

Cutting us off from this Great Conversation means losing an appreciation of who we are. Attempts to diminish the importance of the great conversation aren’t progressive, but regressive; they unduly separate us from learning from the mistakes and successes of those who have come before us.

I love this sentiment from Joseph Addison, a founder of the UK’s Spectator, about why The Great conversation and the life of the mind is for everyone. Making this case was his mission with the Spectator, one of the oldest magazines in the world, and still in print today.

It was said of Socrates that he brought Philosophy down from heaven, to inhabit among men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses.

"Uses of The Spectator," March 12th, 1711.

This is also the aim of Civic Renaissance. Thank you for being here, and for being part of this project of democratizing ideas.

Some questions for you to consider:

  • Do you agree that the ideas of thoughtful—albeit flawed—people in the past can improve our lives today?

  • How do you think that we can revive the best of the past while recognizing and condemning the grave errors of those who have come before us?

  • How do you think we should balance studying texts and thinkers from the Western tradition with those of other cultures?

I’d love to hear from you. I’m thinking of these questions—and many others related to these themes—because I’d like to explore them in my next book.

Send me your thoughts by responding to this email, or emailing me at ah@alexandraohudson.com

Join the Civic Renaissance Facebook Group!

Thank you to Civic Renaissance subscriber Joshua Zader for having the idea, and leading the initiative, to create a Civic Renaissance Facebook Group! This opportunity is for those interested in digging deeper into ideas related to healing our public discourse, reviving civil society, and creating a civic renaissance in our nation.

I see this as a chance for us as a community to embody the ideals of civil discourse, robust debate, truth-telling, and grace that this project is committed to.

If you’d like to stay part of the conversation throughout the week, consider joining us by clicking here!

“Unbundling people” & other highlights from the conversation on friendship

Thanks to those of you that took part in our conversation on friendship this past week! We had over two hundred people join us. The dialogue was incredibly rich. It far exceeded my expectations. For those of you who couldn’t make it, you can find the recording here.

Here are a few take aways you might enjoy.

  1. It’s time to start “unbundling” people. We live in a moment where we are encouraged to see everything in black and white, right or wrong, good and evil. We are constantly tempted to define—and “cancel”—people based on one thing they’ve done or said, even if it occurred years in the past. This view of the world and of people is reductive, essentializing, and degrading to the diversity and beauty of the human personality. “Unbundling” people—a concept I’m exploring in my book on civil discourse—is a mental framework we can each use to help us see the part in light of the whole. We are each an amalgamation of contradictory impulses and desires. Above all, we are all imperfect. Can we challenge ourselves to hold multiple traits and characteristics of others—to see the virtues in others alongside the vices—at once?

  2. Remember the infinite complexity of the human person. Many of us likely have examples of friendships that have been strained due to differences of opinion. Maybe some of us have been cut off, or have been tempted to cut others off, as a result of these differences. We must stay mindful of the infinity complex nature of humanity. Though we are tempted to oversimplify others, we each come to our beliefs for many reasons. Can we stay curious about the reasons and stories behind the beliefs of those we disagree with?

  3. Friendship is the building block of civil society. One astute questioner asked how our country’s self-sorting into politically, geographically, and culturally distinct groups could be remedied. There is an important link between friendship and civil society. Who is going to want to go bowling—or do anything together, really—with other people if everyone is a jerk? We must restore the bonds of civic friendship that have been strained and neglected for too long—bonds upon which our democracy depends. So, as you build friendships with others remember you are helping to restore the civic fabric and culture of American life.

  4. People are far more receptive to our bids for friendship than we think. We’ve all been in relative isolation this past year. It’s been hard for many, and it’s shown us our abiding need for friendship and for community. But friendship, like social skills in general, is a habit—and we might all be a little rusty. We need to remember to show grace to others when they say or do things that might seem a bit odd, and we can hope that others show us grace, in return. Above all, we can each be encouraged to make the extra effort for friendship because science is on our side: a recent study found that people are far more receptive to our bids for friendship and affection than we think. So, take the risk. Make the bid. The risk of rejection is worth the high rewards of friendship.

Do you think friendship can heal our divides? What are some of the biggest barriers to modern friendship today?

IG Reels: Nashville’s Parthenon alit at night, and on reviving an age of chivalry

As many of you know, I’m trying to keep up with the times and educate myself in one of the lingua franca of today’s youths: Instagram reels. My aim is to learn to harness the power of these platforms to promote ideas pertaining to intellectual history and cultural healing.

As a complete technophobe, learning to use these new platforms has caused me no end of heart ache. But I’ve persisted. I’d like to share with you two videos I’ve recently created.

The first is the “Other Parthenon” in Nashville—an exact replica of the one built in ancient Athens—alit at night. We picked up an order of Prince’s Hot Chicken—the best Nashville has to offer—and watched the sun set over this lovely structure. A perfect evening.

A post shared by @lexiskye09

For comparison, here is a photo of the original parthenon by night, taken in September 2016—also simply striking, but difficult to get close to, by day or by night.

Second, our son Percival turned one earlier in March, and we hosted a King Arthur / Knights of the Roundtable themed birthday party. It was wonderfully enjoyable, especially the medieval cosplay: my husband and I are old souls and frequently feel as if we were born in the wrong era. It was also fun to re-create this era known to history as one of chivalry and gallantry. Below is an IG Reel with highlights of the day.

Watch to the end to see Percival pulling the sword from the stone! (aka, his birthday cake—gorgeous work of art by Hive Bakery in Indianapolis!)

I am still learning, so please view with a lens of charity :)

A post shared by @lexiskye09

April book giveaway: Gracy Olmstead’s book on community and place

Speaking of friendship, and important aspect of our relationships that we’ve had to go without this year is presence—or being physically in the same place with loved ones and friends.

My friend Gracy Olmstead wrote a book, just released in March, on place, community, rootedness and presence. Entitled Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind, Gracy’s book is a lovely reflection about growing up on a farm in rural Idaho, and the consequences of moving to Washington D.C. and leaving her community and family behind. This book explores important trends today: brain drain, how our increasing mobility contributes to our lack of community, and the ethics of modern agriculture.

I have FOUR copies of this book to give away. If you’re interested in a copy, please send me a note with the subject line UPROOTED. I’ll select at random from those who write to me.

Thank you again for being part of the Civic Renaissance community!