Eva Brann’s Dialogue

Elizabeth C'de Baca Eastman

Plato’s Republic begins with a young boy pulling Socrates’ cloak to get his attention. He was returning to town after attending a festival but Polemarchus and others, refusing to listen to persuasions to the contrary, insist that Socrates stay with them. This exchange begins one of the longest Platonic dialogues, which examines wide-ranging subjects such as justice, education, and philosophy. No one compelled Eva Brann to join a conversation. She willingly took a seat at a seminar table more than sixty years ago at St. John’s College to study and to engage students and colleagues in inquiries into important questions. She has written more than a dozen books, published numerous articles, translated works from Greek and German, and delivered lectures to many audiences on all things related to liberal education. She is also a recipient of the National Humanities Medal. While many devote their lives to similar activities, Brann’s work stands out because it draws on the foundation that informs the whole of Western civilization.


Brann describes St. John’s College, where she is the longest serving faculty member, as a school explicitly devoted to free and radical inquiry that aims to have students frame real, incisive, and deep questions. The original idea of the college at the time of its founding in 1937 by Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr was to resist the prevalent university practice of explaining everything in terms of the social setting and the history that goes into them—historicism. Buchanan and Barr wanted a college that would strive to understand all things in terms of their nature.

St. John’s has tutors, described as “guardians of learning,” not professors. There are no departments and tutors teach all parts of the undergraduate curriculum. This includes four years of seminar readings, math and science classes, language tutorials (two years each of Greek and French), and a music tutorial and Chorus. All books and study materials are drawn from the Great Books of the Western tradition. Socrates’ longing for knowledge and his love of wisdom, the translation of the Greek word philosophia, model the pursuit in which students and tutors alike engage. It informs Brann’s work in the classroom and extends beyond the confines of the college through her public speaking and published writing.


A list of titles by publication date of Brann’s writing does little to capture the rich offerings; a content-based grouping in three categories is a better introduction. The image of an inverted pyramid may serve as a visual representation of her writings. The point depicts brief thoughts and essays and her lengthier and more comprehensive undertakings ascend to the inverted base. First, Brann’s shortest writings include collections of aphorisms and brief reflections: Open Secrets / Inward Prospects, Doublethink / Doubletalk, and Iron Filings or Scribblings, and essays published in The Past-Present and Homage to Americans. Second are her books on poets and philosophers (Homer, Heraclitus, Plato, and Kant) who think deeply about the world and the human activities that shape it: Homeric Moments, The Logos of Heraclitus, The Music of the Republic, and How to Constitute a World. Third are her books that focus on themes such as education (Paradoxes of Education in a Republic, one of her earliest books), subsequent writings on feelings and the will, Feeling our Feelings and Un-Willing, and her trilogy The World of the Imagination, What, Then, Is Time?, and The Ways of Naysaying.

Brann’s three collections of brief thoughts (also referred to as observations and sightings) offer a seemingly modest beginning to reflect on her work. The books contain light-hearted quips and insightful musings on a hundred subjects, leading readers to chuckle and ponder. By contrast, her essays on a wide range of topics from prose and poetry to current issues offer penetrating explorations and explanations. Her essays on America are good examples.

The best known of these essays are on Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. There is much to be recommended in these essays to students of America. In her essay “Concerning the Declaration of Independence,” she offers an example from poetry as part of her explanation of the depth of the document: “Much in the manner of a work of poetry—which indeed [the Declaration] literally is, since the great paragraph of ‘abstract truths’ can be read in near-perfect lines of iambic pentameter—it offers the greatest definition of view with the least restriction of thought.” In keeping with the tradition at St. John’s of closely reading the original text, Brann’s decades of studying and teaching inform her insights into the writings of these influential Americans.

Brann’s books devoted to poets and philosophers comprise the second category of her published works. Opening any of them to the first page is accepting her invitation to learn from and reflect on the writings of these authors, regardless of whether one has read the original work. Her prefatory remarks to Homeric Moments include the comment “I wrote this book because after half a century of reading Homer, both by myself and with students, I was full of small discoveries and large conjectures.” The forty-eight chapter titles allow the reader to select a topic relevant to what one may be reading in Homer’s two volumes. The book can serve as a companion when reading the Odyssey and the Iliad for the first time or lead one to hearken the call to read the great poet time and again.

The grouping of Brann’s writing on philosophers in the second category is also unified by her invoking Heraclitus and Socrates as a prelude to understanding Kant’s enterprise. There is a passing reference to Socrates in the preface to her work on Kant when she reminds readers that she has authored a book on Plato’s Socrates, The Music in the Republic. (The republic refers to Plato’s work by the same name and what Brann refers to as the founding work of Western liberal education.) The title of the first chapter of How to Constitute a World is “Pre-Socratics or First Philosophers?” Appreciating how this chapter serves as an introduction to Kant begins by understanding a central tenet of the St. John’s program. Brann explains in an essay on the beliefs and teachings of the college that there is no place at St. John’s to study the past—what is called history—but one studies there instead the tradition, which makes “the past as present.” Education becomes an initiation into the tradition of free inquiry that involves the reading of works across several disciplines. It is thus fitting that given Kant’s project, the first chapter of her book on him looks to the origin of the tradition of philosophy.

Among Brann’s longest works are those that have themes in the title—the third category—which include the teachings of philosophers, ancient to modern. From Homer to Sartre in Unwilling and from Plato to Heidegger in Feeling Our Feelings, which also includes a last chapter entitled “Our Times,” she explores in depth the explanations and insights that can be gleaned from these thinkers. It must be noted that the subtitle of the book on feelings is What Philosophers Think and People Know. Readers can impute their own meaning to the subtitle and speculate on Brann’s intention. With respect to the content of these works, her breadth of knowledge is on full display. The reader is transported to the seminar table where Brann and her students and fellow tutors have discussed many of the questions that are asked and answered in these works.

Brann describes the other books in the third category as a trilogy. She offers insight into the project in two comments about it, both in Naysaying.

Imagination, Time, and Naysaying are three closely entwined capabilities of our inwardness, and I have come to think of The World of the Imagination (1991), What, Then, Is Time? (1999), and now The Ways of Naysaying as a trilogy of the human center. All models of the inner human being are, as far as I know, spatial metaphors. So I have had before me all along a figure of the soul—a working hypothesis, nothing like a theory—as having a front, a middle, and a background. (Naysaying, preface, xi)

The traditional meaning of the soul, according to Brann, is “a complex notion that collects under one term that which animates, that which feels, and that which thinks” (Feeling our Feelings, 194). These two quotations allow us to realize the enormity of Brann’s undertaking in the trilogy while simultaneously pointing us in the direction of how, through her writing, we can begin to think about the human center and the soul through her writing. A brief summary of the contents of the trilogy must suffice, but Brann offers guidance in understanding their themes in her second observation at the end of Naysaying where she refers to her books as dealing with three central human capacities. “[Imagination] is about our ability to make the absent present, [Time] is about our ability to live with what is no longer or not yet . . . [Naysaying] deals with our ability to focus on something to which we deny existence, reality, or being” (Naysaying, 249).

The World of the Imagination is the first and longest of the trilogy. The 800-page work is organized by topic: philosophy, psychology, logic, literature, depiction, and worldly imagination. Philosophers and their theories initiate discussions of the imagination, but the bibliographies that Brann provides after each chapter convey the comprehensive nature of her study. The title of the second book of the trilogy, What, Then, Is Time?, comes from St. Augustine’s Confessions (Book 11). A walk through the annals of philosophy informs Part One; Part Two, entitled “Reflections,” begins with an essay on time and imagination; the first two works of the trilogy are thus connected. The third volume, Naysaying, has six chapters that Brann organizes according to her identification of words that rule the ways of naysaying: no, not, non-, nothing, negativity, and nihil. This volume is similar to the other thematic books. The topics are common ideas or actions—things that we possess or do, or of which we are mindful—that become objects of inquiry. The trilogy encompasses human experiences in a comprehensive manner; these experiences are both internal (the soul) and external (the human activity associated with each of the three). The human capacities that Brann explores in each of the three books are different manifestations of how we interact with the external world and that lay a foundation of inquiry about human things.

Grouping Brann’s published writings into three categories reflects the foundation of education at St. John’s College in Western civilization and gives examples of how to approach great questions and issues. The inquiry into a text or theme begins with an opening question that elicits a response and initiates a conversation. The ensuing dialogue between those sitting at the table or with an author whose works have been read and reread affords the opportunity for in-depth study. Brann explains in an essay on the beliefs and teachings of St. John’s College that no methods of inquiry are taught at the college. “Rather, we try to learn to read; we engage in an hermetic enterprise and always with a double aim: both to understand what the author is saying and to determine whether he speaks the truth.” After years of study, one has a store of knowledge from reading great thinkers in all disciplines, spanning centuries, from which to think deeply about themes and ideas. Brann has done just that in her extensive writing.

The Imaginative Conservative

Finally, Brann’s Late Geometric and Proattic Pottery, Mid 8thto Late 7thCentury B.C. and Then and Now differ from the works previously discussed, but the two share the concept of an image that appears on the page and in the mind. The former dates to Brann’s work in the excavation of the Athenian Agora before 1960, prior to her arrival at St. John’s College. She did not continue as an archaeologist, but she explained to a student that archaeological training teaches one to see. Though a valuable practice, seeing was not an end in itself for Brann but a first step to begin an inquiry. Asking questions about the pottery and the images printed in the pages of the book, not merely cataloguing and looking at it, appeals to the philosophical nature.

Then and Now: The World’s Center and the Soul’s Demesne evokes images in the mind. The title of the first essay, “Comprehended by Herodotus: How the Greek Center is Defined by the Barbarian Periphery,” invites the reader to consider Brann’s claim that Herodotus’s inquiry follows a spatial or geographical schema. She lays out the geographical descriptions of the books in the History and explains that Herodotus understands the Greeks by studying the non-Greeks. The Barbarians encircled the Greeks—both notionally and literally—and Herodotus draws inward within the circuit toward Athens, which he describes as the pivot of the human world. He casts his gaze away from what he endeavors to describe (Athens) and thus brings clarity, Brann explains. This exercise can be applied to solving vexing problems. The different perspective that comes from shifting one’s gaze, as Herodotus does, opens the door to insights and knowledge not previously grasped.

The second essay entitled “The Imaginative Conservative” argues for a different sort of illumination. She gives an example in the essay: “I think of Madison as the most imaginative conservative statesman I know of, imaginative in envisioning very specifically how things actually work on earth, conservative in devising an edgily innervating stability.” Brann is no stranger to the study of great thinkers and philosophers from the perspective of ideal rational constructions, as shown by the topics of her books. Her call to look at politics from a real-world construction can invigorate conservatism. Brann encourages us as beings with imaginations to think. In “The Imaginative Conservative” essay she alludes to the immediate concern of politics:

Why is the imagination a specifically conservative concern so that it is rightly attached adjectivally to the noun “conservative”?

The imagination should be anybody’s interest, a common interest, for just as articulateness damps rage, so imaginativeness relieves alienation. Thus, as the preservation of expressive (non-twittering) language should be a social concern, the saving of the imagination should be everyone’s care.

Education is a means to cultivate the imagination and, no matter one’s age, the imagination expands our world. Politics often-times requires that we deal with the here and now, with practical, factual matters. The imagination, Brann explains, gives political ideas their concreteness in the sense of perceiving the consequences of these ideas, but it also takes us back to the truths that give rise to the ideas. Conservatives are concerned with preserving or keeping things safe, but Brann warns that they can attach themselves to things that are unworthy of preservation or that they can be dug in and become oblivious. The imagination keeps the conservative from these perils and the imaginative conservative can keep us within the bounds of good political practices.

The Odyssey

Odyssey is perhaps the best word to describe Brann’s life because it captures the twofold sense of moving from place to place as well as an intellectual journey. Her departure from Nazi Germany to New York as a twelve-year-old with her family, to Yale to study classics and archaeology, to Athens to work as an archaeologist, and eventually to the home she found at St. John’s College in Annapolis mark the geographical points on a map. They are complemented by the intellectual odyssey that marks her life as tutor, author, and translator, seemingly different pursuits to some, but parts of a unified whole in Brann’s life and work.

Brann’s contributions to the larger academic community are twofold. On the one hand she gives her students, colleagues, and readers a sweeping variety of writings and offers herself as a model of one who never shies from thinking, discussing, and seeking knowledge. Whether the truths discovered are pleasant or harsh, she conveys an unspoken invitation to take a seat at a seminar table, pick up a book, or scribble (her term for writing). Her writings are not an end point, but a beginning. Joining in her effort to understand the principles of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, or the contrast between Helen at home and Helen at Troy, in Homer, brings delight and sparks a desire to learn more.

On the other hand, Brann is a tireless defender of the educational practices at St. John’s College where she has been a tutor for more than half a century. The ills of the modern university are apparent to many and remedies may be found by looking to liberal arts colleges. One of her suggestions in Paradoxes of Education in a Republic speaks to both the teacher and university administrator. “For example, the phrase to make an original contribution will lose its point, research will be replaced by search, productivity will go unrewarded—although there should be an obligation to the continual intramural, written articulation of thought, not as a contribution to the abstract world of learning, but as a benefit to the concrete present company.” Those who read Brann’s writing reap the benefit of which she speaks.

Eva Brann’s Dialogue

Works Cited

Brann, Eva. Late Geometric and Proattic Pottery, Mid 8thto Late 7thCentury B.C. Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1962.

Brann, Eva. “What are the Beliefs and Teachings of St. John’s College?” Paper presented to the Committee on the Liberal Arts, St. John’s College, Santa Fe, NM, April 1975.

Brann, Eva. “Concerning the Declaration of Independence.” The College XXVIII, no. 2 (1976): 1-17.

Brann, Eva. “A Reading of the Gettysburg Address.” In Abraham Lincoln: The Gettysburg Address and American Constitutionalism, edited by Leo Paul S. de Alvarez, 15-53. Dallas: University of Dallas Press, 1976.

Brann, Eva. Paradoxes of Education in a Republic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Brann, Eva. “Madison’s ‘Memorial and Remonstrance,’ A Model of American Eloquence.” In Rhetoric and American Statesmanship, edited by Glen Thurow and Jeffrey D. Wallin, 9-46. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1984.

Brann, Eva. The World of the Imagination: Sum and Substance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1991.

Brann, Eva. The Past-Present: Selected Writings of Eva Brann. Edited by Pamela Kraus. Annapolis, MD: St. John’s College Press, 1997.

Brann, Eva. What, Then, Is Time? Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999.

Brann, Eva. The Ways of Naysaying: No, Not, Nothing, and Nonbeing. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001.

Brann, Eva. Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002.

Brann, Eva, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem. The Music of the Republic: Essays on Socrates’ Conversations and Plato’s Writings. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2004.

Brann, Eva. Open Secrets / Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2004.

Brann, Eva. Feeling our Feelings: What Philosophers Think and People Know. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2008.

Brann, Eva. Homage to Americans: Mile-High Meditations, Close Readings, and Time-Spanning Speculations. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2010.

Brann, Eva. The Logos of Heraclitus: The First Philosopher of the West on its Most Interesting Term. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2011.

Brann, Eva. Un-Willing: An Inquiry into the Rise of Will’s Power and an Attempt to Undo It. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2014.

Brann, Eva. Then and Now: The World’s Center and the Soul’s Demesne. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2015.

Brann, Eva. Doublethink / Doubletalk: Naturalizing Second Thoughts and Twofold Speech. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2016.

Brann, Eva. How to Constitute a World: Outside In, Inside Out. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2017.

Brann, Eva. Iron Filings or Scribblings: Thinking Things Out. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2019.

Brann, Eva. Pursuits of Happiness: On Being Interested: Paul Dry Books, 2020.

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