Image Courtesy of The Virtue Blog
By Javier Mazariegos
If fairy tales can teach us things, as Chesterton explains, there is a neat lesson about balance and harmony in the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Every once in a while, someone learns to find a combination that is not too cold, not too hot, but just right. Dr. Jennifer Frey’s literature/philosophy podcast, Sacred and Profane Love, is an example of this treasure of an excellent, concordant harmony. The podcast is marvellous.
A dive into great literature and ideas is often torn by the tendency to either dumb down profound concepts, to “make the medicine go down” so to speak, or leap into a realm of pretention and self-importance that seems distant and dismissive of everyday life. You either speak to the people and frustrate the masters, or speak to the masters and dissuade the people. Professor Frey, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Institute for Human Ecology, is a ray of hope in this predicament.
According to The Virtue Blog, Sacred and Profane Love is “a podcast in which philosophers, theologians, and literary critics discuss some of their favorite works of literature, and how these works have shaped their own ideas about love, happiness, and meaning in human life.”
It is the kind of podcast one can listen to while raking leaves in the backyard. While pulling maple leaves out of a rake, one is struck at how fascinating the conversation becomes while engaging with the deepest possible questions about human existence. One does not need to have a Ph.D. Nevertheless, a listener can absolutely relate to these ideas.
The masterful thing about this podcast is its ability to engage really good books about really important ideas in a way that is really accessible to the average person; it gives that average person an intellectual workout. None of its content is “dumbed down,” yet none of it flies over one’s head.
In each episode, Dr. Frey interviews a friend or colleague about a work of literature of their choice. She always begins the episode by asking the guest to summarize and contextualize the work for listeners who have not read it before. This way, the deep dive into the work can engage someone who has never even heard of it before. The entire episode is a conversation: a conversation between friends, the most natural and philosophical mode of human inquiry.
It is astounding that the listener can listen to an episode about a book without any previous context, and still not feel lost for a single moment. The podcast is not a sparknotes of philosophical books, but yields a real heavy weight discussion. The main purpose of this podcast is that you do not have to be a super genius or a book freak to enjoy the podcast; you simply need to be human.
While accessible to everyone, it is seriously interesting material that emerges from her conversations. It is intellectual. Adventurous. Clever. Subtle. Very thought-provoking. The host has a Ph.D. in philosophy from one of the top philosophy programs in the country. She is kind of a genius. If you cannot tell by now, this balance is such a wonderful gift.
To showcase some examples, one conversation dives into Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory with the help of a former CUA philosophy professor, Dr. Angela Knobel. They talk about virtue theory, hope, despair, etc in such an ordinary way. Another episode explores Augustinian ideas with a contemporary novel called The Index of Self-Destructive Acts. They talk about what it is like to feel profound human weakness, something everyone (maybe) has experienced.
Episodes plunder the treasures of literature from Ancient Greece to Victorian England to Midtown Manhattan. Sophocles to Shakespeare. Chaucer and Dante to Conrad and Doestoevsky. The best hits.
There are two kinds of students that can approach a podcast like this. One does not care for books. For them, this podcast is the beginning of a wild adventure, so get ready to fall in love with books. Another already enjoys reading. For those readers, where have you been? There is no better way of falling in love with the joy of reading literature.
Great books matter, and I think this podcast actually vindicates the fact that they are not for some select few who win the college admission lottery and go to schools with million-dollar endowments. No. Humanities and for humans.
Dr. Frey is a rust-belt native; she talks in the most down-to-earth, Americiana way possible, accepting reality as it comes one’s way. She and her guests talk in such a matter of fact way about the deepest things. She is also a mother, which means she is an expert at explaining important things in a very simple way without a shred of contempt or pretension; mothers have a sort of expertise in humanity that is super impressive. They just get it. They have a profound insight into the mysterious thing that is the human person. All these factors make for a great recipe of approachability. This is what happens when perennial ideas meet a culture of go-get-ers: a renaissance in the humanities.
This podcast begins and ends in wonder, like philosophy. And it wonders at beautiful things. Thomas Aquinas once said, “the reason, however, why the philosopher may be likened to the poet is this: both are concerned with the marvellous”.