A Virtual Lyceum: The Pursuit of Beauty


Wednesday, March 20, 2024    
7:00 pm - 8:15 pm

About the event: 

“The perception of beauty is a moral test.” – Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 21 June 1852

Over two hundred years ago, John Keats famously declared that “Beauty is Truth, and Truth Beauty.” When contemporary scientists and mathematicians refer to a theory as beautiful, they associate beauty with concision and streamlined elegance. Yet for as long as people have regarded beauty as essential, beauty has also been characterized as indulgently ornamental and impractical. During Thoreau’s era of increasing industrialization and mercantilism, poets and artists were accused of idling away in unproductivity. Likewise, in today’s seminar rooms and art galleries, to focus on the beauty of a novel or painting is often seen as detracting from art’s political and ethical potential. How can we negotiate between these tensions, especially during this era of increasing political and environmental catastrophe? Is it possible to reconcile them? When is the pursuit of beauty crucial to moral engagement, as Thoreau argues, and when is it a distraction from it? This lyceum event brings together an interdisciplinary group of artists, scientists, and scholars to ask where they stand on the purpose and pursuit of beauty in the 21st century.


Gillian Conoley is a poet, editor, and translator. She is the author of ten critically acclaimed collections of poetry, including her most recent Notes from the Passenger (Nightboat Books, 2023), currently short-listed for the California Independent Bookseller’s Golden Poppy Award. Conoley received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, and a Fund for Poetry Award. Often comprising narrative, lyric, and fragmented forms, her work takes up an inquiry into spirit and matter, the individual and the state. Conoley has taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the University of Denver, Vermont College, Tulane, and Sonoma State University. A long-time resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, she is editor of  VOLT magazine. Her translations of three books by Henri Michaux, Thousand Times Broken, appearing in English for the first time, is with City Lights. Find our more about Gillian here.
Jeffrey S. Cramer, Curator of Collections at The Walden Woods Project, is an independent scholar whose works include Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition (Yale University Press), The Portable Thoreau (Penguin), and Solid Seasons: The Friendship of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson (Counterpoint Press). His edition of Walden won the 2004 NOBA (National Outdoor Book Award) and was a co-winner of the Boston Authors Club’s 2005 Julia Ward Howe Special Award, and his Quotable Thoreau (Princeton University Press) was the recipient of an Umhoefer Prize for Achievement in Humanities.
Catherine Richardson currently lives and works in Austin, Texas and London, England. She is an award winning artist, with a BFA in studio arts, Surrey Institute of Art and Design, UK and an MFA in studio arts from John F. Kennedy University, California. Although she was formally trained as a goldsmith and a blacksmith, painting, printmaking and drawing now define her art practice. Her artwork explores ideas of deep geological time; geomorphology and how earth’s movements, climate changes and human intervention affect the scaffolds of landscape. Her recent Icelandic residencies have profoundly shaped her work, establishing a direct link between her art and the rich resource of direct experience.


Dr. Brandon Vaidyanathan is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology and Director of the Institutional Flourishing Lab at The Catholic University of America. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Business Administration from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia and HEC Montreal respectively, and a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Vaidyanathan’s research examines the cultural dimensions of religious, commercial, and scientific institutions, and has been published in peer-reviewed journals. He is the author of Mercenaries and Missionaries: Capitalism and Catholicism in the Global South (Cornell University Press, 2019) and co-author of Secularity and Science: What Scientists Around the World Really Think About Religion (Oxford University Press, 2019). He is also the founder of Beauty at Work, a media platform which includes a podcast and YouTube channel that aims to expand our understanding of beauty: what it is, how it works, and why it matters for the work we do.

Zoë Pollak (moderator) is the Curatorial and Education Assistant at The Walden Woods Project. She received her PhD from Columbia University, where she wrote her dissertation on 19th-century American Northeastern nature poetry. She interned at the Bodleian Library’s Rare Books department while completing an MSt in English at Oxford, and wrote her undergraduate thesis on Walden and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping at UC Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in venues such as AGNIThe American Sonnet (Iowa, 2023), ELHThe Hopkins ReviewNow Comes Good Sailing: Writers Reflect on Henry David Thoreau (Princeton, 2021), and Women’s Studies.



Join us via Zoom Wednesday, March 20, 2024




We continue to offer our virtual events free of charge. If you are able to do so, your tax-deductible financial support would be profoundly appreciated and will help us continue our critical work. Donate here.