Phi Fic #41 Paradise Lost by John Milton


“…Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy for ever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail, Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell, Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time. 
The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
–Satan in Paradise Lost, Book 1

In this episode, we read Paradise Lost, John Milton’s 17th century epic poem that puts a philosophical spin on the Adam and Eve tale.

The opening scene of Paradise Lost is Hell, where Satan and the other rebel angels have just fallen from Heaven.  At Satan’s instigation, the rebel angels hold a parliament where they vote to start a covert war against God on Earth, and Satan volunteers to go.  Traveling to Earth, Satan persuades the guards of Hell to let him out, traverses a realm of pure chaos, and tricks an angel guarding our universe into letting him in.  Up in Heaven, God foresees the fall of man, and Christ volunteers to redeem their eventual sin.  Back on Earth, angels find Satan in the form of a toad whispering in Eve’s ear while she sleeps, at which point he flees.  God sends another angel, Raphael, to warn Adam and Eve of Satan’s coming, and Raphael also recounts the war in Heaven leading to the fall of the rebel angels.

Finally, while Eve is alone and tending to the garden of Eden, she encounters a talking serpent that convinces her to eat the forbidden fruit on the tree of knowledge.  Unbeknownst to Eve, the snake is possessed by Satan.  She then brings the fruit to Adam, who eats it as well rather than be without her.  Jesus comes down to pass judgment, and Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden.  Another angel, Michael, comes down to explain the arc of history and God’s promised redemption.

What does all this have to do with philosophy?

Milton is ultimately grappling with the proper understanding of evil in human life.  Is evil somehow necessary for good to exist?  Even if evil is not necessary, how are we to disentangle it from the good?  Are the virtues united, as Plato and Aristotle thought, or can even evil people be genuinely virtuous?   Is God responsible for the fall, or is he exonerated by Adam and Eve’s supposed “free will”?

What does all this have to do with Twitter?

Well, Professor Katie Kadue, Harper-Schmidt Fellow in the Society of Fellows and Assistant Collegiate Professor in the Humanities at the University of Chicago joins us and along with being the author of Domestic Georgic: Labors of Preservation from Rabelais to Milton–a fascinating book of criticism that explores metaphors of domestic labor in early modern writers and the ethics implied by those metaphors–she recently wrote a fascinating article, “Suspended Hell” in N+1, analyzing the “hellsite” by tying it into Milton’s portrayal of hell in Paradise Lost.

Professor Kadue is one of the most exciting young literary critics working today, and it was wonderful to have a chance to talk with her. She tweets at @kukukadoo–Twitter’s funniest literary account.

Cezary and Jean weren’t able to join us but rest assured, they will be back for our next discussion.

Check out this incredible documentary about John Milton and Paradise Lost by Armando Iannucci, creator of the show Veep and In the Thick of It:


Phi Fic #40 The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway


In this episode we discuss Ernest Hemingway’s last published work in his lifetime: The Old Man and the Sea. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and contributed to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954.

And all of us wondered as read and reread and debated—of all Hemingway’s writings, was this the one that should have achieved those awards?

The story is about a Cuban fisherman named Santiago who has not caught a fish in 84 days. He’s heading out to sea to try and break his bad luck. He travels in a skiff to find his prey and ends up catching a huge marlin. He engages in a long mental battle with the fish as the marlin, with the bait and hook securely in his mouth, pulls the old man out further and further to sea. He is alone in the vast waters—alone with the fish.

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

-Old Man and The Sea

When the marlin starts circling the skiff, the old man attacks him with a harpoon and kills him. He ties the marlin to the side of the skiff and heads back to shore. This is the largest fish he has ever caught—alone. Yet, the damage to the fish from the old man’s harpoon bleeds out into the water, attracting sharks. They end up devouring the entire flesh of the marlin—leaving only his skeleton hanging there as the old man arrives back at land. He is broken. He heads back to his hut and falls asleep.

“I wonder why he jumped, the old man thought. He jumped almost as though to show me how big he was. I know now, anyway, he thought. I wish I could show him what sort of man I am. But then he would see the cramped hand. Let him think I am more man than I am and I will be so. I wish I was the fish, he thought, with everything he has against only my will and my intelligence.”

-The Old Man and The Sea

Join our debate as we all struggle with our feelings about this book–some good–most torn. Hemingway has been considered the greatest writer in the 20th century–he changed the way we write. He introduced a new style, broke ground with content such as in bringing sex into the story and forged a different way for authors to consider themselves.

“He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.”

-The Old Man and The Sea

Cezary couldn’t be here for this one but he’ll be back soon!

Take a look at the award-winning movies starring Spencer Tracy in 1958:

And please watch the recent documentary on Hemingway by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick—it’s remarkable. you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via

 Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

Thanks to Allan Bowley for Audio and editing help.

Phi Fic #39 Point Omega by Don DeLillo


“The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw.”

-Point Omega

In this episode, we work through and analyze Point Omega by Don Delillo, a short oblique and arresting novel wrestling with the meaning and effect of human perception, consciousness, space and time.

The story follows documentary filmmaker, Joe Finley, when he visits the proposed subject of his next project—Richard Elster, a scholar who had been brought in to intellectualize plans for the Iraq War troop deployment. Elster’s argument laid the war into a haiku format—”I wanted a war in three lines…”—the same format of the novel. Elster is brought in by the government because of an essay he wrote on the etymological history of the word “Rendition” which begins with: “Every government is a criminal enterprise.” Finley visits Elster at his get-away home in the desert. They converse about Elster’s work as Finley makes his case for the film, which Elster is hesitant to do. Halfway through, Elster’s daughter, Jessie, visits. Her stay is nondescript until she suddenly disappears causing an unexpected mystery and awakening emotional life in cerebral messiah, Elster—grief, mourning, where the meaning of all he believes in is questioned

Surrounding this central story, are two chapters—the haiku structure of the book. The first and third chapters take place in a museum room where the film “Psycho” is being played in a slowed down time-frame over 24 hours. The first chapter is shown from the POV of a mystery man. In the third chapter, Jessie appears, meeting the mystery man.

“This is something we do with every eyeblink. Human perception is a saga of created reality. But we were devising entities beyond the agreed-upon limits of recognition or interpretation. Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended.”

-Point Omega

Of note, 24 Hour Psycho was an actual art installation by Douglas Gordon created in 1993.

“What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things. This is the soul of haiku. Bare everything to plain sight. See what’s there. Things in war are transient. See what’s there and then be prepared to watch it disappear.”

-Point Omega

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

Thanks to Allan Bowley for Audio and editing help.

PhiFic #37 The Sound and the Fury


In this episode we struggle, spin and madly rub our eyes as we work through the puzzling and enigmatic beauty of William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”.

Father said clocks slay time. He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.
-The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury takes place in Jefferson Mississippi, between 1910 and 1930 and is about the Compsons, a once southern aristocratic family now in a desperate, decaying state.

The book moves back and forth in time and is broken up into four chapters: the first chapter is written from the point of view of Benjy, a 33-yr. old mentally disabled man and the Compson’s youngest son; the second chapter is written from the perspective of Quentin, the Compson’s eldest son, chronicling his life at Harvard and his subsequent suicide; the third chapter is through the voice of Jason, Quentin’s younger brother, as he struggles to be the man of the house after the deaths of his father and brother, his mother’s emotional breakdown, as well as being the charge of his sister Caddy’s teenage daughter, all amidst his anger and vileness toward everyone; the final chapter is written in the third person, following Dilsey, the mother of the black American family who care for the Compsons. The fourth child—Caddy—the only daughter—does not have a chapter of her own though she is arguably the reason for Faulkner writing this book in the first place.

Hello, Benjy.” Caddy said. She opened the gate and came in and stooped down. Caddy smelled like leaves. “Did you come to meet me.” she said. “Did you come to meet Caddy….[she] put her arms around me and her cold bright face against mine. She smelled like trees. “You’re not a poor baby. Are you. You’ve got your Caddy. Haven’t you got your Caddy.
– The Sound and the Fury

There is little plot. And the book is largely written in stream of consciousness.

“The Sound and the Fury” is famous for being extraordinarily difficult to get through as Faulkner mercilessly plays with time, not defining which character is speaking at a given moment, and erratically uses grammar throughout. This is particularly evident in the first chapter written in the voice of Benjy, the mentally disabled son.

Our shadows were on the grass. They got to the trees before we did. Mine got there first. Then we got there, and then the shadows were gone.
-The Sound and the Fury

Join us as we try and make sense of that which defies and revolts against sense. Laura loved the struggle of the read and Cezary had an equitable position. (Nathan was absent). Yet, both Jennifer and Daniel disliked the book finding it an very uncomfortable read. However the overall consensus was that it is a remarkable effort. In 1949, Faulkner won the Nobel Prize to which this work made a significant contribution. “The Sound and the Fury” is considered a masterpiece albeit a “quintessentially difficult work”.

We could hear the dark.
-The Sound and the Fury

In a 1983 memoir, Ben Wasson, an editor who was working with Faulkner, recalled that one day “Bill came to my room as usual. . . .[and]  tossed a large obviously filled envelope on the bed. ‘Read this one, Bud,’ he said. ‘It’s a real son of a bitch.’ . . . ‘This one’s the greatest I’ll ever write. Just read it,’…and abruptly left.”
-The New Yorker
By Hiltin Als, 2008

Check out James Franco’s attempt to film “The Sound and the Fury”:

Unfortunately, Nathan wasn’t able to join us this time but fear not–he will be back! If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via phificpodcast@gmail.comClick to hear more Phi Fic. Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.Thanks to Allan Bowley for Audio editing help.

Phi Fic #36 The Canterbury Tales — Part Two

It happened in that season that one day

In Southwark, at The Tabard, as I lay

Ready to go on pilgrimage and start

For Canterbury, most devout at heart,

At night there came into that hostelry

Some nine and twenty in a company

Of sundry folk happening then to fall

In fellowship, and they were pilgrims all

That toward Canterbury meant to ride.

Canterbury Tales, General Prologue (translated by Nevill Coghill)

In this episode we are reading selections from the Canterbury Tales by the 14th century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer.  In this Part One of our readings, we discuss the General Prologue, the Miller’s Tale, and the Wife of Bath’s Tale.

In Part Two we will be reviewing the Pardoner’s Tale.

Why read Chaucer?  He wrote in a time that felt like it was falling apart and perhaps becoming something completely different.  His world was hardly a static medieval idyll: it was marked by the Black Plague, a crisis of religious authority, and the breakdown of England’s political order.  The Canterbury Tales is essentially an effort to come to terms with that complex reality.

Written in the late 14th century, the Canterbury Tales is a short story sequence presented as a series of “tales” told by a random assortment of pilgrims.  They pilgrims are strangers, having fallen together into a traveling group by chance and circumstance, but they turn out to be a cross section of the then-emerging bourgeois class.  They tell the tales as a game to pass the time while traveling from London to Canterbury Cathedral, with the teller of the best tales getting a free dinner as a prize.

In addition to the tales, Chaucer lets the tellers speak in prologues where pilgrims explain their lives and perspectives.  The text itself is presented as a recollection of a narrator who refers to himself as “Chaucer,” giving the book a metafictional dimension.

Oddly, this narrator appears to be a bit more naïve than the real life Chaucer, who had a long career as a diplomat and executive for the King of England.  With a “dumb” narrator, the reader is left to puzzle out the book’s underlying ideas without the author’s guidance.  It’s a book that forces you to figure it out for yourself, an approach that seems thoroughly modern, but which reflects a long tradition of philosophical works from the Platonic dialogues onward.

The participants in the discussion include the usual crew, Nathan, Cezary, Laura, Jennifer, and Daniel.

The book was written in Middle English (a creole combination of the French, German, and Scandinavian languages of the time), but most of us read a modern translation.  Have no fear, you do not need to know a lick of Middle English to understand us.  But for a taste of how Chaucer sounds in the original, see the following video showing a dramatic performance of his poem, “Complaint to His Purse”:

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via
Thanks to Allan Bowley for help with the audio.
Thanks to Christopher Nolen for the music