Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity

Course No. 3466
Professor Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
Tulane University
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Course No. 3466
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Course Overview

Why did pagan Rome, which had a history of tolerating other faiths, clash with early Christians? What was it like, under Roman law, to be a Jew or a Christian? What led to the great persecutions of Christians? Above all else, how did Christianity ultimately achieve dominance in the Roman Empire, eclipsing paganism in one of the most influential turning points in the history of Western civilization?

Answers to these and similar questions are important for the sheer fact that much of today's world is still governed by principles drawn from the Judeo-Christian heritage that gained primacy as a result of Christianity's triumph over the paganism of ancient Rome. Two thousand years after this earth-shattering change, many of these principles still determine how most of today's Western world—both Christian and non-Christian alike—thinks about ethics, sin, redemption, forgiveness, progress, and so much more.

Discover the true story behind this ethical and religious legacy with The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity, a historically focused discussion of the dramatic interaction between Judaism, Christianity, and paganism from the 1st to the 6th centuries. Presented by Professor Kenneth W. Harl of Tulane University—an award-winning teacher, classical scholar, and one of the most esteemed historians on The Great Courses faculty—these 24 lectures allow you to explore in great depth the historical reasons that Christianity was able to emerge and endure and, in turn, spark a critical transition for religion, culture, and politics.

An All-Encompassing Picture of a Critical Era

While the Judeo-Christian values that have shaped society's ideas are ones we might today take for granted, their emergence from an ancient era dominated by loyalties to a vast array of gods would once have seemed the most unlikely of narratives. Even after the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in A.D. 312, it would not be until the 6th-century reign of Justinian that medieval Christianity would emerge and this new historical pathway would finally be confirmed.

Professor Harl's magnificent course enables you to grasp the full historical sweep of this monumental transition by creating an all-encompassing picture of this critically important era. While some philosophical and theological content is included to clarify important points of transition, the focus of The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity is—above all else—on its most important and fascinating episodes, among which are these:

  • Emperor Nero's rescript in A.D. 64, which not only ordered the persecution of Christians in the city of Rome but also made the faith illegal throughout the empire. As the first religion ever banned in the Roman world, Christianity would be forced to develop new institutions and new ways of spreading its message.
  • The Battle of the Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312, where Emperor Constantine won a victory described in the only two literary accounts—both written by Christian authors—as having been deliberately fought under the Christian symbol of the Chi Ro. Professor Harl offers a probing analysis of what he believes Emperor Constantine's real motives were for fighting in this battle.
  • The reign of Theodosius I (A.D. 379 to 395), under which laws were passed banning public sacrifice throughout the Roman Empire and making Christianity the only legitimate religion. This crucial reign, according to Professor Harl, signified not only the death knell of Roman paganism but the first steps in the creation of the persecuting society of medieval Europe.

New Insights into the Sources of Western Beliefs

The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity also introduces you to a wide variety of individuals whose actions helped shape the history of this turbulent time, including these:

  • Rulers like Augustus and Justinian, whose decisions would define—and redefine—the relationship between paganism, Judaism, and Christianity and how Jews and Christians would subsequently respond through words, deeds, and rituals
  • Proselytizers for the new faith, including James and Paul, and the different viewpoints they represented in the development of early Christianity
  • Religious thinkers such as Clement and Origen, who would go on to become the first theologians of the emerging Christian faith
  • Ascetics such as Saint Anthony and Barsauma, a warlike monk said to be so terrifying that he could inspire conversions in the villages of Syria and Phoenicia through the sheer fear raised by his arrival
  • Philosophical thinkers such as Galen, who was also a noted pagan critic of the new Christian faith and thus an active participant in the exchanges with Christian apologists that served to educate and hone the arguments put forth by both sides

You'll also witness Christianity's growing influence on not only the visual arts (including architecture and the redesignation of pagan temples for Christian uses) but on the world of letters, including, ironically, the preservation of the classical writings of ancient Greece so important to understanding the pagan world.

A Masterful Historian, an Exceptional Teacher

Professor Harl is the ideal choice for crafting such an all-encompassing picture of this critically important era. In addition to garnering honors for his skills as a lecturer—which include two-time recognition as the recipient of Tulane University's Sheldon Hackney Award for Excellence in Teaching, voted on by both students and faculty—he regularly leads students to Turkey on educational excursions or as assistants on excavations of Hellenistic and Roman sites.

His own photographs of temples and other architectural features, cult statues, coins, and other telling artifacts bring the history and the events in this course to vivid life. Combined with a rich array of other visual aids, including maps, illustrations, and animations, these features help make The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity a vibrant trek through the past—one that will lead you to a deeper understanding of the bedrock beliefs of Western culture.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Religious Conflict in the Roman World
    The Christianization of the Roman world is one of the most important turning points in Western civilization. This lecture introduces you to the issues you will consider and the scholars whose seminal theories serve as the gateways to the course's different lines of exploration. x
  • 2
    Gods and Their Cities in the Roman Empire
    How were pagan gods worshiped in ancient Rome? Using evidence both literary and archaeological, grasp the diverse assortment of religious practices in an empire that ranged from Britain to Egypt and comprised a fifth of the world's population. x
  • 3
    The Roman Imperial Cult
    Learn how Rome's first emperor, Augustus, established an institution to venerate an emperor's spirit, or genius, which would then reside as a god on Mount Olympus. See how emperors took pains to deify their predecessors so as to position themselves next among that honored line. x
  • 4
    The Mystery Cults
    Mystery cults were believed to be the worship to a particular god and involved the choice to join and undergo an initiation rite. You examine specific cults and the controversial question of whether they did, in fact, form a bridge between paganism and Christianity, as some scholars maintain. x
  • 5
    Platonism and Stoicism
    Understand the powerful influence of philosophy—particular Platonism and Stoicism—on the morality and conduct of Rome's ruling classes. It was an influence rarely matched in the Western tradition, with even Christian theologians employing the doctrines of these two philosophical schools in defining their own faith. x
  • 6
    Jews in the Roman Empire
    What role did Judaism play in the Roman Empire? Learn how Rome's experience with this stalwart monotheistic faith—the first it had encountered—differed from the challenge of the Christian faith that would emerge from it. x
  • 7
    Christian Challenge—First Conversions
    Experience the first years of efforts to convert people to Christianity. Begin with the early leadership by James of those who were often called Jewish Christians and continue with the career of Paul, from his own conversion after a vision to his work propagating the message of Jesus. x
  • 8
    Pagan Response—First Persecutions
    Learn about early responses to Christianity, from the violent persecutions in Rome under Nero to the legalistic and easily avoided persecutions under later emperors. Grasp, too, the consequences of Roman ignorance of Christianity and the eventual momentum that ignorance would eventually give the new faith. x
  • 9
    Christian Bishops and Apostolic Churches
    Nero's outlawing of a specific religion—unprecedented in Roman history—forced Christians to discover new ways to proselytize. Discover how the ideas of apostolic succession and a recognized canon shaped the voice with which Christianity could speak to the world. x
  • 10
    Pagan Critics and Christian Apologists
    Explore how both Christianity's pagan critics and its apologists reveals not only an evolution in pagan understanding of the new faith but a corresponding increase in the sophistication of the writings set forth by those defending it. x
  • 11
    First Christian Theologians
    Examine the work of Saint Clement, who established Christianity's claim to equality with the pagans as heirs to classical intellectual culture, and of Origen, whose ability to argue in Platonic terms and contributions to defining the canon make him one of the most important thinkers in Christian history. x
  • 12
    Imperial Crisis and Spiritual Crisis
    The stability and peace of the Roman Empire was shattered with the assassination of Severus Alexander, and the ensuing political and military crisis transformed the Roman world. Many have maintained that this crisis paved the way for large-scale Christian conversion, but there are tantalizing arguments to the contrary. x
  • 13
    The Great Persecutions
    Analyze two great periods of empire-wide persecution distinct from the largely localized ones examined earlier. Learn how Christian martyrdom was perceived very differently by the pagan and Christian communities, and that its ability to bring about conversions may have been minimal. x
  • 14
    The Spirit of Late Paganism
    Explore how the spiritual life of paganism fared during the political and military crises examined in the preceding lectures. See how these had an impact on not only pagan worship but also the intellectual work of pagan philosophers like Plotinus and the emergence of an independent religion known as Manichaeism. x
  • 15
    Imperial Recovery under the Tetrarchs
    The 20-year period known as the Tetrarchy—during which the emperor Diocletian shared imperial power with three colleagues--was critical to the Roman Empire, ending civil war and invasion, restoring order and prosperity, and giving Rome something it had never had: a principle of succession. x
  • 16
    The Conversion of Constantine
    Analyze one of the most decisive turning points in Roman history and of Western civilization. Interpret the legendary story as it has come down to us in light of recent scholarship and what we now understand about Constantine's world and the forces that would have motivated him. x
  • 17
    Constantine and the Bishops
    See how the same principle that had always steered Rome's efficient use of power—absorbing institutions rather than simply crushing them—was used to create a new hierarchy within the Roman imperial system from the existing network of apostolic churches. x
  • 18
    Christianizing the Roman World
    How and why did Constantine set about making the Christian faith central to Roman life? See how his vision unfolded in multiple areas, including the reshaping of the urban landscape to claim public and religious space, economic changes, and the use of pilgrimages and Christian missionary activity. x
  • 19
    The Birth of Christian Aesthetics and Letters
    Explore how Christians managed to alter the cultural heritage of their pagan past—including architecture and the visual and literary arts—in ways that made this heritage distinctly Christian while still preserving as much of it as possible. x
  • 20
    The Emperor Julian and the Pagan Reaction
    Experience what happened when a Christianizing Roman world was told by their new emperor that decades of change would be undone and that Rome's religious and cultural history would again be reversed, this time turning back to paganism and a restoration of the old gods. x
  • 21
    Struggle over Faith and Culture
    Grasp how the death of Julian the Apostate—and the end of his short-lived program to restore paganism's dominant role—forced the empire to grapple with two all-encompassing questions: Could the Constantinian revolution in fact be reversed? What religion would take charge in the Roman world? x
  • 22
    New Christian Warriors—Ascetics and Monks
    Take in the different perceptions of asceticism by pagans and Christians and how Christian ascetics and monks, in particular, proselytized and won conversions to Christianity with a power and influence that even the Roman Empire could not have matched. x
  • 23
    Turning Point—Theodosius I
    Witness the crucial turning point in the spread of Christianity in the Roman world. Three new laws opened the floodgates for the destruction of pagan sanctuaries, a ban on public sacrifices, and the declaration of Nicene Christianity as the only legitimate faith and a requirement for citizenship. x
  • 24
    Justinian and the Demise of Paganism
    Learn how Justinian, even in a Roman world still predominantly pagan, implemented a "persecuting society" that would ensure, by the time of his death, a Western world where being civilized was defined as being Christian, as were its notions of the divine and the ethical. x

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Your professor

Kenneth W. Harl

About Your Professor

Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D.
Tulane University
Dr. Kenneth W. Harl is Professor of Classical and Byzantine History at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he teaches courses in Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader history. He earned his B.A. from Trinity College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University. Recognized as an outstanding lecturer, Professor Harl has received numerous teaching awards at Tulane, including the coveted Sheldon H. Hackney Award. He has...
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Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 81.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Impressive credentials I have a professional degree in Church History, but I was not well-grounded in the transition from the world of the New Testament to the world of the Christian West. This course if the perfect bridge, and the instructor's breadth of knowledge is most impressive.
Date published: 2019-11-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Historical picture This course has a lot of great history with a great instructor. The instructor kept the topics interesting. He was able to pull everything together in each lecture
Date published: 2019-06-20
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Christian apologist and biased “scholar” He blurs biblical MYTHS with actual history. He tells or preaches the Pauline travel like it were something real He uses the word “saint ” which makes evident his religious inclination He dismisses Pliny's claim that the early Christians practiced ABOMINATIONS He makes fun of Pliny asking for advice He makes an outrageous christian apology, trying to debunk all Pliny's claims without showing any evidence more than his own biased beliefs He calls Nero “cruel and coward,” who's he to make that judgment? Nero playing music while Rome was burning is a MYTH, and he doesn't make that aclaration
Date published: 2019-05-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof Harl makes this so interesting I learned so much from this course. This isn't my first course with this professor and he didn't disappoint. After watching this course, I developed such a better understanding of the drivers of behavior and culture during those turbulent times. Thank You Professor Harl!
Date published: 2019-04-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from ARRR! Very important course, highly-recommended! This series of 24 lectures is an important addition to The Teaching Company's stable of many courses on ancient history and Christianity. It fills a critical niche, for pagan religions were very much alive, strong, and in fact, thriving even to the time when Emperor Constantine converted. However, Christianity was growing geometrically, and by the time of Constantine it was a force that was impossible to ignore; we may easily infer that Constantine saw the writing on the wall, and decided that Rome should join the winning team! We can now see, with the help of Dr Harl, the exact ways in which the new religion relatively-remarkably-quickly "took over", and, of course, virtually every convert meant a corresponding loss to a pagan religion! The Christians must have been thinking, with each new convert: "One more for us, one less for them"! Professor Harl begins by examining ancient Greek and Roman societies, cultures, literature, philosophies and religious beliefs, laying the groundwork for the oncoming competition of, and onslaught by Christianity, which was to be outlawed in AD64, though they did not revolt, unlike the Jews. Now, if you have not encountered Professor Harl already, be ready for a fellow who likes to SHOUT and GROWL ~ and say ARRR ! I kid you not. He also produces a guttural drawn-out A-A-A-N-D frequently. Thankfully, he eases off somewhat after the first 6 lectures. These "tics" can be extremely annoying & irritating (even infuriating); I found them a real trial at first, then concentrated on "shutting them out"! I must add that when he deems it necessary, Dr. Harl goes into great detail, to help explain his points; he never becomes hampered by trivia, though. This lecturer has a sporty little habit of popping in a quick quip, but he's fast: don't miss them! This course is not, in itself, a study of Christianity ~ many other of the Great Courses' professors tackle this subject in depth; I particularly recommend Dr. Bart Ehrman who is a historian and agnostic. I own about 20 Great Courses on Judaism, Christianity and ancient history, and find this series by Dr Kenneth Harl fits into a neat slot, treating in depth areas that the other courses do not firmly address, by definition. This is a strongly-recommended course, in which the lecturer amply displays the breadth and depth of his knowledge over the six centuries in question, from Jesus to Justinian! Dr. Harl is easy to follow, plus the visual aids are strategically helpful, particularly the many explanatory maps. ARRR!
Date published: 2019-02-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Knowledgeable Presenter was obviously knowledgeable. He hadn’t just read about the places and things he talked about...he’d been there. I liked his use of vocabulary (I learned the word spolia). He explained without sounding condescending. But he didn’t dumb it down so far as to be boring.
Date published: 2018-11-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Worthwhile. Thank you. I only needed to see Lectures 1 – 8. Lectures 9 – 24 were optional for me. Lecture 1: Religious Conflict in the Roman World With the pagan definition of divine, Zeus always intermingled with the human world. Connection I made: In a sense, then, the local Hebrew God of the Hebrew Bible is a pagan god as well, intermingling with Hebrew humans but not so much as we approach the first century–nope, the lack of obedience is not the problem creating the God of Moses’ lack of existence during our exiles and worse, our being ruled by empires of different religions. Lecture 2: Gods and Their Cities in the Roman Empire kosmos: the clothes you put on a statue Cult statue decked out with its kosmos, is paraded to a theater where there is an epiphany, prayers, and sacrifices. Expensive religious practices were paid for by the upper classes. All the gods needed to be Roman protectors (empire and emperor). Lecture 3: The Roman Imperial Cult Augustus started the imperial cult with the veneration of Julius Caesar. The provinces totally accepted ruler worship while the Roman Republic was against monarchy, averse to it. An eagle, bird of Jupiter, carries the deified emperor up to the gods. Lecture 4: The Mystery Cults Franz Cumont 1868 - 1947 Mystery Cults as per Cumont - a dying or creator god who acted on behalf of humanity - notions of an afterlife and redemption - seen as ecstatic/enthusiastic, irrational, and non-classical, more exciting (better music) - Initiates chose to join the cult and there were rites - Proselytize to recruit members Given the characteristics of mystery cults, the mystery cults prefigure Christianity. E. R. Dodds 1893 - 1979 - The communal and family cults were not fulfilling. Mystery cults fulfilled the need. Serapis is also Zeus, not just Osiris and Apis the Bull When the followers of Jesus try to interpret his death, they do so along the lines of the characteristics of mystery cults (with the mystery cult of Mithra arriving in Rome during the Flavian Age when the canonical gospels were being written). Lecture 5: Platonism and Stoicism Roman Stoic Doctrines - The creator-god is the logos - Identified with Jupiter of Roman religion - A logical order created by the logos (There's an overall divine plan. Accept your position. Optimistic. Not against the physical world as the Gnostics were. We have a divine spark from the Logos. A certain capacity for divination. “I was born into it, I should do it dutifully.”) So St. Paul is a stoic. Connection I made: So, the triumph of Christianity (St. Paul and the gospel of John, especially) is based on an attempt to lift Judaism out of notions of revolting messianism and up through salvation based on redemption by a dying creator god who acted on behalf of humanity (mystery cult tenet) into Roman Platonism and Roman Stoicism, or if not Judaism whole cloth, an offshoot moment to do the same. Prompted me to discover: Stoicism in Early Christianity Edited by Tuomas Rasimus et al. – Chapter 1: Setting the Scene: Stoicism and Platonism in the Transitional Period in Ancient Philosophy – Chapter 2: Stoicism as a Key to Pauline Ethics in Romans – Chapter 3: Stoic Law in Paul? – Chapter 4: Jesus the Teacher and Stoic Ethics in the Gospel of Matthew Lecture 6: Jews in the Roman Empire 63 BC - Pompey the Great dismantles the Seleucid Empire Lecture 7: Christian Challenge - First Conversions eschaton: the final kingdom; the final event in the divine plan; the end of the world. Lecture 8: Pagan Response - First Persecutions Questions: Peter and Paul died in 67 AD, really? How do we know the persecutions needed to continue beyond 64 to 67? I disagree with Professor Harl’s treatment of the Fire of Rome in 64 and prefer the following alternative shared in the Fagan Great Course, Emperors of Rome: ...but the chaff he will burn with unquencahable fire. Matthew 13: 12 So, with the full scale Jewish Revolt around the corner, we have the fire committed by Jewish-like Christians, then Apocalyptic Zealots attacking the Roman Legion at the beginning of the Jewish Revolt, then the Revolt itself. (Paul and Peter died in the fire?) I have come to ignite a fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! Jesus - Luke 12:49 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which is from God. The authorities that exist have been appointed by God. Consequently, the one who resists authority is opposing what God has set in place, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. ROMANS 13: 1-2; so, Paul knew about the attack and tried to talk down the Zealots in Rome. The Christians captured actually confessed their guilt of arson. Loeb Classical Library, Tacitus, Vol. V, Annals, Book 15, Section XLIV: The Christians were convicted "not so much on the count of arson, as for hatred of the human race." So it is not so much Nero fiddled while Rome burned but the Christians said nothing when the Apocalyptic Zealots burned down Rome. (Every time there's a tragedy, we sing Amazing Grace. Why can't Nero, a trained musician use music and word during his tragedy?) The Christians were guilty. In praise and rapture, some of the Christians did plead guilty likely because, 1) “You crucified Jesus and Jesus’ eschatology begins here;” and 2) “This is the fire of destruction God promised Noah in Genesis and in the gospel (Mt 13: 12 and Luke 12: 49.” The behavior of the Christians was so unreasonable that their inability to sympathetically see the crime, the loss of life and property on a grand scale, so much so that some of them pled guilty, was remorseless, an exhibition of depraved indifference, and a mindset of aiding and abetting criminal activity. = = = If one thought that Jesus acquired his knowledge and content only from God the Father, or if one thought the Gospel of Matthew did not put Stoic elements in the teachings of Jesus, one would be mistaken. The Stoic Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus informs the Our Father Prayer with the Matthean phrase deliver us from evil which is not in Luke. The Golden Rule: “A noble and high-minded spirit will assist others and help them out. Those who confer benefits imitate the gods; those who seek repayment imitate loan sharks.” Seneca, On Benefits (Ben) Book 3, 15.4 translated by Miriam Griffin and Brad Inwood p. 68 In the context of Jewish ethics in general and Jesus’ teachings in particular, the Golden Rule has more to do with the elaboration of the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself than with the ethic of reciprocity and inciting beneficent reciprocal relationships. Luke correctly understands that the Golden Rule is indeed moving the hearers beyond the ethos of reciprocity … toward an ethos of imitating God’s self-motivated, self-sustained beneficence. [Luke 6:30-34, not just Luke 6: 31] The understanding of giving as a means of provoking generous response was censured by Seneca (in one case, shown above) as a poor way to engage even the social practice of reciprocity. The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude ps 278-279
Date published: 2018-10-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good course, with a few caveats Though this is a subject that I have studied myself, I found Harl's course generally well done, and it was a good review of the subject for me. There are a few points about the lecture that make it difficult for me to give it five stars. First, Harl's delivery is often irritating, and though his hollering is perhaps a token of his enthusiasm for the subject, with which I sympathize, that, along with endless "ums" and "ahs" and an occasionally rattly, forced voice, makes for difficult listening. His lectures start out in a clear and balanced tone of delivery, but sometimes very quickly end up sounding like a politician on the stump. Second, Harl's pronunciation of Greek and Latin names is inconsistent. Perhaps these details are misplaced in his zeal, but "Theodosius" should not be pronounced "Theodosus," nor "Mamaea" as "Maima," (or something like that), and there are a few other examples that gave me pause, which I can't recall just at this moment. These slips seem odd for an expert on the period. Third, possibly late antique literature is not Harl's specialty, and I know plenty of Classics scholars who wouldn't read them if their lives depended on it (or, more likely, they have no time to do so), but his descriptions of Nonnus and Quintus Smyrnaeus were way off. Not so much their subject matter, but Harl went on about how Quintus's work was the longest in antiquity, at 20,000 lines. This is incorrect: it is Nonnus's "Dionysiaca" that is 20,000+ lines; Quintus' "Posthomerica" is somewhere in the neighborhood of a mere 8700 lines. Also, I think it is rude to say that the latter is "only interesting to specialists," as there are several good translations of Quintus's works, and it is indeed a readable and entertaining account of what happened between Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey," and has other remarkable features as well. Nonnus, I must admit, is a hard slog, but I, at least, found it worthwhile. Fourth, it seems that a large gap was left in the last two lectures between Theodosius and Justinian. There is a lot that happened in there that could have at least been summarized, even if Harl felt that it wasn't relevant to his theme. Also, it would have been useful to mention that pockets of paganism existed well after Justinian; his summary made it seem that the last pagan disappeared during Justinian's reign, which is not so. The general listener may not care about these things, but I find them to take something away from the polish of Harl's scholarship, which on the whole seems very well attuned to his subject, even though, as another reviewer said, there was ore emphasis than was perhaps necessary on Asia Minor. That is apparently where Harl did much of his archaeological research, however, and I found that his examples from Asia Minor were interesting in themselves, and fittingly illuminated his points quite well. More visuals, also, might have been helpful, besides coins, which, as he (I think) rightly pointed out, give valuable evidence that is sometimes overlooked. All in all, and in spite of my caveats, I learned and/or refreshed my memory about several important points in Harl's lecture, and I think his approached was generally well balanced and valuable.
Date published: 2018-10-09
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