August 2010 course at Chavagnes

Unfortunately we have been obliged to cancel our Summer 2010 course. We are, however, planning already for 2011 and will keep you all posted.


‘Renaissance to Revolution: French Literature in an age of change

After some consultation, we are making a change to the planned theme for the 2010 Great Books Summer Program.

We’ll be focussing this year on highlights of French literature (prose, poetry and theatre) in an era of great social and cultural change. Our theme is ‘Renaissance to Revolution: French Literature in an age of change’.

The dates will be Monday 16th August (evening arrivals) to Saturday 21st August (afternoon departures).

STOP PRESS: Unfortunately, this year’s course has had to be cancelled, but we are already looking ahead to 2011, when we hope to stage a similar event.

Continuity and Conflict: the Classical tradition and the Renaissance

Following last summer’s highly successful summer course on the Great Books, hosted by Professor Anthony O’Hear, we are planning to renew this experience this year with a literary approach to the issue of the continuity of the Greek and Roman tradition in late medieval and renaissance Europe.

Details are yet to be finalised, but the dates have been reserved already. So please pencil into your diaries the week of 16th to 21st August inclusive, for another delightful literary holiday at Chavagnes International College.

Please contact us if you want to be kept informed as to arrangements.

A Classical summer: a great time with the great books …

By Kenneth Asch 


Ken Asch as Méphistophélès in Faust, Bavarian State Theatre, Munich.

It would be only a slight exaggeration to claim that there wasn’t a dry eye when the moment arrived, early August, for Anthony O’Hear – professor, author, philosopher, lecturer – to bid adieu to the Collège International de Chavagnes.

O’Hear had come from England and the University of Buckingham, at the invitation of Ferdi McDermott, the College’s Principal (and founder), to explore the characters found in The Great Books one of O’Hear’s recent published works. In it, he presents his selection of the highlights of western literature from Homer to Goethe. The ten days he spent as guest lecturer, leading a group of eager summer students – young and old – in the study of classical literature, proved so successful in so many ways that the note of sadness was palpable upon the final break-up of class. Equally remarkable was the enthusiasm expressed by both staff and participants in the hope that the enterprise continues. 

Martin Blake, retired schoolmaster living in Glastonbury reflected on O’Hear’s “wonderful job in bringing to life the great classics. And we have had a wonderful week of Vendée culture as well. Our host [Ferdi] has taken us around on all sorts of interesting expeditions and, of course, we have been extremely well fed.” Katie McGrath summed it up perfectly. “You know,” she reflected in her authentic Dublin lilt, “Anthony left us with a wonderful feeling, a real desire to revisit these authors when we get back home.”

The authors to whom she referred date back to the beginnings of European literature. They were all there – Euripides, Homer, Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare, Racine, Goethe, and others – except for those obvious examples for which ultimately there simply was insufficient time. However, such is O’Hear’s own universality and grasp of a subject generally held not only to be daunting but unfashionable as well, that he made the event as relaxed and enjoyable as it was educational. 

This may be ascribed to the comfortable tone he established at the start. “Something that we’re pleased to call culture or civilisation should be regarded as a conversation,” he commented, “a conversation between the great writers themselves and between the great writers and us.

Equally important, he was quick to emphasise, is that the conversation is one “in which we’re participating, keeping alive and allowing to continue.” Perhaps O’Hear’s real achievement, there-fore, is acceptance of the fact that 21st-century life stands much to gain by listening more closely to the best of the ancient tales, by taking O’Hear’s lead and conversing not with the ancients but also with each other. 

Meanwhile, the week comprised more than simply flawed and fallen heroes, Greek gods and Olympian struggles. Ferdi McDermott had arranged, thanks to his connections throughout the district of la Vendée, a series of extra-curricular activities which provided welcome relaxation as well as enhancing the educational and spiritual content of O’Hear’s programme. Apart from which everyone was unanimous in agreeing that a deeper appreciation was gained of the people whose land we were visiting. 

Outstanding among the activities was a late-evening drive through the countryside to the Priory of Grammont. This is an impressive medieval structure dating back to the 1200s and tracing its origins back to Richard Coeur de Lion (“the Lion Heart”). It is considered to be among the best preserved of its kind in all of France. Surrounded by open pastureland stretching to the horizon, Grammont is a worthy destination under any circumstances. But the specific attraction for the friends of the Great Books was a late night procession through the priory led by a superb quintet of male voices chanting Gregorian chant renaissance polyphonic music. The event finished up with local refreshments and the best bonfire any of us could remember ever having seen. Glittering overhead in a star-spangled sky were constellations named after several of the characters in the Greek stories we had been studying!   

It may be difficult to think of a theme park as a pastoral site, even a spiritual one. As much as anything else this is what impressed me about the Puy du Fou. The manner in which this fourth most-popular attraction in France has been conceived – might it have been Ferdi’s reason in choosing it as an extra-curricular moment ? – left Chavagnes’ classical students with much to remember. 

Above all is the thoughtfulness with which a vast space has been planned to accommodate huge numbers of visitors, especially the preservation of lakes and streams and large tracts of natural woodland. All of which is enhanced by the good music – Handel, Rameau, Lully, Beethoven – that is piped discretely throughout the surroundings. Tranquillity results, surely a remarkable thing where so many people jostle for space and attention. 

The selection of Puy du Fou itself, an historic site laid waste during the Vendéen wars of the Revolution provides an obvious setting for some of the major attractions. Among these is a recreation of the Vikings’ actual siege of the ancient town and their conversion to Christianity. Foremost, however, for me was being within the ruins of the original fortification and observing a natural relationship between animal and human being, 250 birds – mostly birds-of-prey – acting out in unison a series of complex trained manoeuvres. At the end, I was privileged with a spiritual moment of my own, bird-lover that I am, when one of these impressive animals flew to my side and stayed for a few moments.  

For the course’s aficionados of travel by steam locomotion enjoyment was to be had in the unusual, albeit short, journey that traverses the most scenic stretch of the Vendéen landscape. Carriages of the original Orient Express have been for some years in the possession of the local railway preservation society. We enjoyed a delicious four course meal, with wine, in the 1920s restaurant car, while chugging along in the French sunshine. 

A uniquely evocative event was a visit to the forest of Grasla where life in the Vendée during the Revolution is movingly recreated. Fifteen minutes by road from the Collège, the extensive forest became a refuge for citizens of this part of France who were seen to be opposed to the new order of things. Original implements, utensils, dress and the many well-preserved humble habitations contribute to a very realistic insight. The precarious circumstances in which many people did their utmost to exist are credibly brought to life by an energetic group of volunteer actors. 

Picnicking under ancient ramparts, in this instance the medieval (13th century) town of Clisson, was preceded by a wine-tasting at one of the famous local estates. Muscadet is a cachet that represents la Vendée internationally. Another adventure was visiting a duck farm, close to the Collège’s home base, where originates France’s finest foie gras, so it is reliably claimed.  Here, in convivial rustic surroundings, we feasted on duck and local wine with some invited local guests.

As a first-of-its-kind for the Collège International de Chavagnes, the combination of Anthony O’Hear and Ferdi McDermott was truly a resounding success. Given the many potential pitfalls, there is surely a sign here that the gods – classical and current – are looking kindly on the idea of a repeat performance as soon as the opportunity arises. “A very unique experience,” was Doreen Lehr’s reaction. “We learned a lot of things not just about the Great Books but about France, the area which we are in, the Vendée and its history and the culture . . .  and it’s also been a very enjoyable experience , something that I would enjoy repeating next year with maybe a slightly different topic.” With equal enthusiasm, 17-year old Maggie Boyles attending from the USA (Pennsylvania) expressed her enthusiasm similarly for repeating the exercise. ” Oh yes, definitely [I’ll be back]. And I’ll be bringing my little sister Anna along, too.”

Plans for Summer 2010 are already in hand, and there are even plans to organise a similar event for young scholars – boys and girls – aged 13 and up.

Please keep an eye on this site for more information …

Looking forward to the Great Books

The first (annual?) Chavagnes Great Books summer course is just about to start. We are expecting Professor Anthony O’Hear on Sunday, together with a group of enthusiastic participants from the UK, France, Ireland and the United States.

We are going to spend a week in the company of Homer, Euripides, Dantes, Shakespeare and other great minds of western culture.

We are also going to have some fun and experience culture ‘in the raw’ (not just in seminars. We are looking forward to live drama, live music and visits to local cultural and historic sites, as well as ten days of good old fellowship.

But let’s look beyond this summer, and think about some of the ideas we have for 2010 and 2011.

We are planning already to repeat this year’s summer course for adults, and make it even more fun. So watch this space.

We are also hoping to develop a Great Books Camp for boys, and possibly for girls too. We would be aiming at the 13-18 age bracket, and plan to come up with a package similar to that we are hosting this year for adults.

In addition, we are floating the idea of a House of Studies, based at the campus of Chavagnes International College, that would incorporate the unique Chavagnes approach to education in an adult education context, providing opportunities for young people to study various subjects in an atmosphere of faith and culture, at the heart of Europe. For more details, visit:

A Great Book on The Great Books

(For details of our summer course, click here.)

Our summer course is based on Professor O’Hear’s latest book:

The Great Books:  A Journey through 2,500 Years of the West’s Classic Literature, published by Icon in the UK and ISI in the USA.

The Odyssey, Paradise Lost, The Canterbury Tales: great literature can be read by anyone, with a little help. The eminent British philosopher Anthony O’Hear leads the way with this captivating journey through two-and-a-half millennia of books as powerful, thrilling, erotic, politically astute, and awe-inspiring as any modern bestseller.

O’Hear begins with Homer, whose poems of epic struggle have made him the father of Western literature. After Greek tragedy, Plato, and Virgil’s Aeneid comes Ovid, whose encyclopedic Metamorphoses is an inexhaustible source for European art and literature. Via Saint Augustine, O’Hear reaches Dante and his terrifying and sublime Divine Comedy. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Pascal, Racine, and finally Goethe complete the cast list. In each case, O’Hear patiently draws out themes, focuses on key passages, and explains why they are important.

Not simply a grand work of reference, The Great Books is also a narrative history shot through with a love of literature and the author’s deeply held belief in its power to enrich and enliven everyone’s world.

(For details of our summer course on The Great Books, from 26th July to 4th August, click here.)

The Great Books and why we need to get to know them again …

(For details of our summer course, click here.)

For two and a half millennia, from Homer’s Iliad to Goethe’s Faust, the foundation of Western literature was the epic, and built upon it, the tragic and the poetic. The whole edifice was enveloped in a world of myth, by turns classical and Christian, in which the divine and the human met, in which the gods became as men and men as gods. These forms and these myths permitted the portrayal of greatness in a way which is hardly possible today. 

Our ten days together in the Vendee will take you on a tour that begins with Homer and the first epic poems. Then we will examine Greek tragedy (Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides) and Plato’s writings on the death of Socrates. Latin literature will be represented by Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and St Augustine‘s Confessions. Dante’s Divine Comedy, a tour through Hell and Purgatory, will lead us through to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Pascal, Racine and finally Goethe. These are books as powerful, thrilling, erotic and politically astute as any modern bestseller. 

Although we have an ambitious literary task to accomplish over our ten days, this is also about a great story: the story of the West. It is also about a conversation between us and our forefathers. We do not realise that even though the Greek and Roman classics and those of the medieval world are truly remote from us, our own minds and feelings are stocked with themes and attitudes rooted in those classics, so that even those who may be completely new to these books will find that they all seem strangely familiar. 


A sense of the sacred … 

The backdrop of sacred order allows our writers a simplicity, a strength and a grandeur which is inevitably lost in the detail of descriptive naturalism and psychological realism, and also in the fascination with the mediocre and the mundane which begins to take over in the literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Compare, for example, Emma Bovary with Racine’s Phedre, Joyce’s Bloom with Homer’s Odysseus, Proust’s Marcel with Sophocles’ Oedipus or with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The themes, the dilemmas, the characters are of a different order. 

The clue to the transition from literary greatness to modernity emerges in Faust himself. As he dies, the Earth Spirit notwithstanding, he cries out that he stands before nature as a man, alone. If we are men, alone, then there is nothing to imbue our lives with meaning, other than what emerges from our own psychology – the very domain explored so brilliantly and exhaustively in the nineteenth and twentieth century novel. As the Spirits sang to Faust earlier ‘you have destroyed our beautiful world’, the world, that is of Homer, of Virgil, of Dante, of our great books generally. 

Maybe that world has been destroyed, and our condition is one of inevitable disillusion. This is one reason why the great books of the past are on many levels foreign to us and inaccessible. But that is also the reason why we should access them, on their own terms. Only then will we come to experience what we have lost. In doing this we will certainly discover something about ourselves, for bits of that lost world still resonate today. And, as in all renaissances, we might also discover that some of the lost greatness can, with patience and humility, be recovered.

The organisers of this summer course, motivated variously by Christian faith, love of culture or concern for modern society invite you to join them in working for the spiritual and cultural renaissance that our continent and our world so badly need.