St. Thomas Defends the Filioque Clause

We have no significant milestones to report in the Great Books Project this week, although we are closing in on the 5,000-page mark in the Man and Society category. Gibbon, no doubt, will carry us through in the next couple of weeks.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XII, Chapters 6-9 (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 386-404)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXV (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 382-409)
  3. Sonnets, numbers XVII-XIX by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 67-68)
  4. To Those Who Recommend Persons to Philosophers” by Epictetus, Discourses Book II, Chapter 3 (GBWW Vol. 11, p. 33)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter X (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 188-259)
  6. Of the Name of the Holy Ghost—Love” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 197-200; Part I, Q. 37 of the Summa Theologica)

This week’s readings are even more lopsided than last week’s. The chapter from James is 72 pages long, so everything else is relatively brief except for the Gibbon chapter.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XII, Chapters 1-5: Things were looking good for Mitya until Ivan testified in his behalf, sounding crazy and self-incriminating. This in turn set off Katerina, whose repressed love for Ivan finally burst out and caused her to throw Mitya over with what looks like conclusive evidence. Will he end up in Siberia after all?
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXIV: Three chapters on Julian, a guy who reigned a mere 22 months. Gibbon lauds his character and relates his death scene in loving detail. I liked the “amiable inconsistency” with which he mourned the death of his friend mere moments after he gave a philosophical discourse on the benefits of dying in one’s youth. I have to admit, though, I’m ready to move on to someone else.
  3. Sonnets XIV-XVI by John Milton: Sonnet XIV is a beautiful eulogy. I’m surprised I can’t ever remember hearing it at a funeral: “Thy Works and Alms and all thy good Endeavour/Staid not behind, nor in the grave were trod;/But as Faith pointed with her golden rod,/Follow’d thee up to joy and bliss forever.” As for Sonnet XV, I’ll just say I didn’t expect to see a massacre of civilians in the Piedmont commemorated in verse.
  4. General Introduction to the Metaphysic of Morals by Immanuel Kant: Kant makes a distinction between ethics and jurisprudence in that (if I understand him correctly) the motivation of the former is internal, whereas the motivation of the latter is external. The final section is also interesting: meeting an obligation but not going beyond it incurs neither praise nor blame; you only get those for going “above and beyond” or for falling short. 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters IX: This chapter explores and seeks to justify five propositions about the stream of thought. James refuses to argue from first principles, writing that this method has produced all sorts of pitfalls. Instead, he “plunges in medias res” with his observations. Each of the five propositions seemed to make sense to me, e.g. the mind focuses on objects independent of itself and chooses among the different parts of these objects at different times.
  6. thomas-aquinas-icon“Of the Person of the Holy Ghost” by St. Thomas Aquinas: At least half of this question is taken up with the filioque issue: does the Spirit proceed from the Son? St. Thomas says yes, but he has to deal with seven objections (the typical question has three or four). I had never considered his argument that without filioque there would be no effective way to distinguish the Son from the Spirit; there must be some definable relation between them.

My fall semester has begun, and I am off-balance as usual with the non-stop emails from students and admissions people who are trying to get into classes at the last possible minute. Still, I made up a couple of days on the posting schedule!

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The Killer Is Revealed

It’s shaping up to be a challenging week in the Great Books Project. Our psychology reading is quite long, and we have a short work by Kant as well. Hang in there, and flee to Dostoevsky if the pressure builds too much.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XII, Chapters 1-5 (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 365-386)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXIV (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 361-382)
  3. Sonnets, numbers XIV-XVI by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 66-67)
  4. General Introduction to the Metaphysic of Morals by Immanuel Kant (GBWW Vol. 39, pp. 381-394)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter IX (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 146-187)
  6. Of the Person of the Holy Ghost” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 190-197; Part I, Q. 36 of the Summa Theologica)

Full Disclosure: I’m teaching a new interdisciplinary seminar on Justice this fall, and I need to double-dip on some of my readings for that course and this project. Hence the Kant reading this week. There will be a few more of those crossovers over the next few months.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XI, Chapters 6-10: SPOILER ALERT: So Smerdyakov is the killer and thief after all. The thriller addict in me kept expecting another twist, but I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect a 19th-century novelist to conform to my genre-film-influenced expectations. I liked the dialogue between Ivan and the devil, although I don’t know that it was completely orthodox. Smerdyakov’s suicide will probably prevent the truth from becoming generally known and thus will keep Mitya in trouble.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXIII: Gibbon focuses on Julian’s religious policy in this chapter, and he is actually pretty critical. Obviously he liked the policy of toleration, but he throws up several statements and decisions that place the emperor in a pretty bad light. I was expecting him to sanitize Julian a bit more.
  3. Sonnets X-XIII by John Milton: Sonnet X is addressed to a young woman who reminds Milton of her late father. Sonnets XI-XII are ruminations on a book called the Tetrachordon. Sonnet XIII praises a composer for his airs. The last contains some extravagance: “Dante shall give Fame leave to set thee higher/Then his Casella, whom he woo’d to sing/Met in the milder shades of Purgatory.” 
  4. epictetus“That Confidence Is Not Inconsistent with Caution” and “Of Tranquility” by Epictetus: The first essay’s argument is that we should emply caution “toward things which are really bad,” i.e. bad exercise of the will, and employ confidence toward all things not in our control. Of course, Epictetus writes, most people do the opposite. Epictetus sort of attempts to claim Socrates for the Stoics in the second essay by pointing to the calm way in which he met his death stemming from his confidence that he had lived a good life.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters VII-VIII: James gets into the subject/object distinction and the problems it causes in psychology in some depth. At the end of Chapter VII he identifies the “psychologist’s fallacy” as “the confusion of his own standpoint with that of the mental fact about which he is making his report.” In Chapter VIII, “The Relations of Minds to Other Things,” James seems to veer in Sigmund Freud territory; there’s talk of unconsciousness and how hysterics frequently display ailments for which no physical cause appears to exist.
  6. “Of What Belongs to the Unity or Plurality in God,” “The Knowledge of the Divine Persons,” “Of the Person of the Father,” “Of the Person of the Son,” and “Of the Image” by St. Thomas Aquinas: What grabbed me the most as I worked my way through these questions was an article in “The Knowledge of the Divine Persons” that delineated five specific “notions” or properties of God—innascibility, paternity, sonship, common spiration, and procession—and went on to distinguish the persons of the Trinity by which notions each contains. It was pretty dense reading.

Happy anniversary to my wife of fifteen years! Every year the date falls during the week where I’m saddled with responsibilities on campus related to the Freshman Experience week.

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William James Argues for the Soul

This week in the Great Books Project we return to the wisdom of the Stoics after a lengthy hiatus. It’s time to begin Book II of Epictetus’s Discourses.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XI, Chapters 6-10 (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 335-365)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXIII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 344-361)
  3. Sonnets, numbers X-XIII by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 64-66)
  4. That Confidence Is Not Inconsistent with Caution” and “Of Tranquility” by Epictetus (GBWW Vol. 11, pp. 130-133; Chapters 1-2 of the Discourses)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter VII-VIII (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 120-145)
  6. Of What Belongs to the Unity or Plurality in God,” “The Knowledge of the Divine Persons,” “Of the Person of the Father,” “Of the Person of the Son,” and “Of the Image” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 171-190; Part I, Q. 31-35 of the Summa Theologica)

This week we’re a bit heavy on St. Thomas, but we do have a long way to go still in the Summa, so I thought it would be good to cover some ground there this week.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XI, Chapters 1-5: If Alyosha is correct, my Ivan-killed-Fyodor theory is all washed up. Ivan and Lise are turning out to be disappointing; I’ve been holding out for some sort of redemption for Ivan, and it now looks like not only will that fail to happen, but that he’ll also drag Lise down with him. I’m interested to see how the conversations with Smerdyakov go. 
  2. julian-apostateThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXII: This chapter on Julian was briefer than I expected. Gibbon seems most interested in whether Julian actually wanted to be emperor. He’s certainly interested in holding him up as a virtuous guy in contrast to Constantius and the bishop/eunuch coalition represented by Eusebius. I couldn’t help thinking from the tone that Gibbon’s anti-Christianity was coming through again.
  3. Sonnets I, VII-IX by John Milton: Sonnets I and VII are both “woe is me, I can’t find love” poems. I found Sonnet IX to be the most interesting. The imagery and references are almost purely Biblical. It’s also the first time I can recall seeing someone described as having “ruth,” a word the OED defines as “the quality of being compassionate.” So now you know what it means when the villain of a piece is described as being “ruthless.”
  4. “Of Prayers” and “Of Age” by Michel de Montaigne: “Of Prayers” is pretty long for Montaigne. It communicates his sense of the sacred effectively. He’s leery of loose or casual religious conversation, a fact that may explain why there’s comparatively little of a spiritual or devotional nature in his essays. He thinks the Lord’s Prayer is the one prayer that be continually on the lips of Christians. In “On Age,” Montaigne argues that death of old age is the most unnatural death of all since so few reach it. He wants more responsibility to be shifted onto people at younger ages, especially in their twenties. The body is in peak condition then, and Montaigne thinks the soul is fully matured as well. These two pieces complete the first volume of Montaigne’s essays.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters VI: Props to James for putting the soul out there as the only reasonable explanation for the mind. He played the card close to the vest until late in the chapter when he had exhausted all other possible theories.
  6. The Theaetetus of Plato: This dialogue focuses on epistemology. Socrates and Theaetetus discuss different several concepts of knowledge before concluding that none of them are satisfactory. The very first one they find wanting is the god of modernity: sense perception.

After some gloriously cool temperatures last week here in Montgomery, we’re back to the mid-90s with high humidity. It’s perfect weather to welcome the freshmen to campus this weekend. I hope the rest of you are able to stay somewhat cool this week.

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Humans are Bundles of Habits

This week in the Great Books Project, in addition to breaking the 20,000-page barrier I referenced last time, we will also pass the 6,000-page mark in the Imaginative Literature category.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XI, Chapters 1-5 (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 312-335)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 330-344)
  3. Sonnets, numbers I, VII-IX by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 63-64; Sonnets II-VI are in Italian, so we won’t read those.)
  4. Of Prayers” and “Of Age” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 192-198)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter VI (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 95-119)
  6. The Theaetetus of Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 512-550)

We’re a little heavier than usual on the philosophy this week with the long Platonic dialogue. Let’s hope it’s readable.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book X: The introduction of the Krassotkin character threw me for a bot if a loop. It seems pretty late in the game to be adding a character who will be the focus of an entire book. I found this dialogue in the mouth of a 13-year-old to be pretty unbelievable, but I liked how Dostoevsky had Alyosha responding to the boy. I suppose Ilusha’s death is going to occasion a significant turn in the plot somehow.
  2. AthanasiusThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXI: I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I had half-expected Gibbon to champion the Arians and other heretical groups against the Orthodox; that’s what the postmodern anti-Christians seem to do these days, at any rate. However, Gibbon comes down on the side of the Orthodox and is very critical of the way in which the Arians went after Athanasius and others.
  3. “The 5th Ode of Horace.Lib.I” by John Milton: I’ll be honest; I’m not quite sure what’s going on here. Usually I don’t have a problem wading through Milton’s lines, but this translation of Horace has me scratching my head. 
  4. “Of Vain Subtleties” and “Of Smells” by Michel de Montaigne: In “Of Vain Subtleties” Montaigne criticizes people who look for approval from others on the basis of their creating or performing gimmicks. I found “Of Smells” more engaging. Montaigne leads off by declaring that the “chiefest excellency” of the human body is to be “exempt from smell.” He ruminates briefly on the value of bodily odors to physicians. He also discusses the importance of perfumes and incense in preparing the mind for contemplation in a world where so much stinks. 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters IV-V: Chapter IV’s topic is habit, and James presents it in a very interesting way. He states that all living things are to a great extent “bundles of habits” and discusses the connection between habits and the nervous system. He concludes by arguing that good habits need to be formed as early as possible. Chapter V discusses the “conscious automaton” theory which some significant thinkers of his day had proposed. Given the physiological emphasis of the first four chapters, one might think James would endorse this theory, but he rejects it, emphasizing the role of choice the conscious mind plays. I had Austrian Economics bells ringing in my head.
  6. New Experiments Concerning the Vacuum by Blaise Pascal: Pascal here summarizes several experiments he performed to demonstrate that “all things detected by our senses” can be removed from any container, however large it might be. In other words, we can create a vacuum, even though it might be difficult. He then defends himself against some attacks by—surprise!—certain Jesuit thinkers.

I’m back home in Montgomery after nearly four weeks on the road. Not surprisingly, I’ve fallen a week behind on posts, so I will endeavor to make up that time over the next few weeks.

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Constantine’s Conversion Was Real

This week we come within a hair of 20,000 pages in the Great Books Project. Let’s get right to it.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book X (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 285-312)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXI (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 305-330)
  3. The 5th Ode of Horace.Lib.I” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 61-62)
  4. Of Vain Subtleties” and “Of Smells” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 190-192)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters IV-V (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 68-94)
  6. New Experiments Concerning the Vacuum by Blaise Pascal (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 359-381)

I can’t find find a link to the text of the Pascal work. Can anyone lend a hand?

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book IX: Dmitri’s inner conflict here is fascinating. Assuming he is telling the truth, he has become his own worst enemy in the murder investigation, destroying all the evidence in his favor in an attempt to retain some sort of balm for his conscience. I know he fingered Smerdyakov for the murder, but my money is on Ivan.
  2. Constantine-haloThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XX: I’ve heard some good counterarguments to Gibbon’s contention that Constantine’s conversion was a calculated one of political convenience and very gradual. I don’t think Gibbon’s view is the consensus today except in the feverish conspiracy circles a la Dan Brown. If Gibbon is right that the Christian teaching of submission to rulers makes it the perfect religion for a ruler to adopt, it’s extremely odd that no previous emperor figured that out.
  3. “At a Vacation Exercise” by John Milton: Dartmouth’s website states that Milton composed this poem as part of a formal oration defending the proposition that “Sportive Exercises on Occasion are not inconsistent with philosophical Studies.” One wonders what he would think of the NCAA. It seems like half of this poem is simply saying, “I know English isn’t as good a language as Latin, but just bear with me,” followed by copious classical allusions. 
  4. “Of the Parsimony of the Ancients” and “Of a Saying of Caesar’s” by Michel de Montaigne: The first anecdote of the first essay is mind boggling: the victorious Roman general asks to be recalled so he can resume management of his seven-acre farm after someone stole all his tools. Can you imagine such a petition in the Western world in the 21st century? A request for an extra $100,000 annual retirement stipend to make good on some stock portfolio losses would be more likely. The saying of Caesat referenced in the second essay is this: “Tis the common vice of nature, that we at once repose most confidence, and receive the greatest apprehensions, from things unseen, concealed, and unknown.” Better the devil you know . . . 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter III: This chapter is titled “On Some General Conditions of Brain Activity.” James begins by arguing that stimuli to the nervous system are cumulative, i.e. multiple stimuli may cause a reaction where one alone is insufficient. He then discusses the phenomenon of reaction time and walks through the steps that occur between the introduction of a stimulus and a person’s response to it. Finally he talks about the importance of blood supply to the brain. So far this is reading more like a biology textbook . . .
  6. The Sophist of Plato: Although Socrates is a character is this dialogue, he is mostly passive. The characters called the Stranger drives the discussion and the attempt to define what a sophist is. As usual with Plato, much of the argument is by analogy. The sophist is originally defined a hunter “after young men of wealth and rank,” but then they decide the definition breaks down. The next step is to label the sophist an imitator, like the artist; he provides a picture of wisdom but not wisdom itself. After that things get weird as the Stranger launches into a lengthy discussion of being and non-being. I didn’t understand the Parmenides, but it’s clear here that the Stranger (and presumably Plato) is in disagreement with Parmenides.

I had hoped to have this post up four days ago, but I wrote about something different that day and have been on the road for about 10-12 hours per day since then. I’m writing this from a hotel room before getting in the car again. The good news is I only have 300 miles to go today. Piece of cake!

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Dmitri Karamazov Puts His Foot in It

This week in the Great Books Project we pass the 5,000-page mark in the Philosophy/Theology category. I suppose it’s only fitting that we do so with Plato.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book IX (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 246-285)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XX (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 289-305)
  3. At a Vacation Exercise” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 59-61)
  4. Of the Parsimony of the Ancients” and “Of a Saying of Caesar’s” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 189-190)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter III (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 53-67)
  6. The Sophist of Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 551-579)

I have to say I’m grateful for the relative brevity of the James chapter after last week’s marathon. However, we need to brace ourselves for the silliness likely to emerge from Gibbon’s further discussion of Christianity in Book XX.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. dmitri-grushenkaThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book VIII: Poor Dmitri/Mitya. He gets crazy ideas fixed in his head that lead him to do even crazier things. Grushenka’s “protector” was a total jerk to him, sending him off on a wild goose chase, and then Mme. Hohlakov has nothing for him other than encouragement to go to the gold mines in Siberia. So the question at the end of the book is whether he actually killed his father or just injured Grigoriy. The narrator, omniscient in so many other things, is not helpful here.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XIX: This book focuses primarily on Julian in the years prior to his reign. I had not known that he campaigned against the Franks. There’s also quite a bit of information about the mid-4th-century incarnation of the Persian empire and the conflict it got into with the Romans. I liked the description of 4th-century Paris, confined to the island in the Seine where the cathedral of Notre Dame now stands. 
  3. “On the Death of a Fair Infant” by John Milton: “O Fairest flower no sooner blown but blasted . . .” Tough reading here. The Dartmouth page calls this Milton’s first major poem in English, although we don’t know exactly when he wrote it (sometime in the late 1620s). As usual, Milton uses classical references to express Christian ideas. In the later stanzas he speculates whether the child was actually an angel with intercessory power. 
  4. “Of Ancient Customs” and “Of the Vanity of Words” by Michel de Montaigne: In the early lines of the first essay, Montaigne excuses adherence to custom while condemning ever-changing fashion. He then offers up, almost at random, customs from various eras and compares them wit those of his contemporaries. The weirdest one was the story of the condemned prisoner who committed suicide by shoving a sponge down his throat rather than be thrown to wild beasts. In the second essay, Montaigne displays the same dislike of rhetoric shared by many classical and medieval societies. His ruminations on the orators of his own day are scathing: “To hear men talk of metonomies, metaphors, and allegories, and other grammar words, would not one think they signified some rare and exotic form of speaking? And yet they are phrases that come near to the babble of my chambermaid.” 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter II: This long chapter attempts to show which senses are connected to which hemispheres of the brain in different species. I was a bit taken aback by the frank discussion of things like the vivisection of animals, e.g. blinding dogs by tampering with their occipetal lobes. Another striking passage was the contrast between the sexual responses in lower animals and humans: “No one need be told how dependent all human social elevation is upon the prevalence of chastity. Hardly any factor measures more than this the difference between civilization and barbarism. Physiologically interpreted, chastity means nothing more than the fact that present solicitations of sense are overpowered by suggestions of aesthetic and moral fitness which the circumstances awaken in the cerebrum ; and that upon the inhibitory or permissive influence of these alone action directly depends.”
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XVIII-XIX: According to Pascal, the Jesuits have finally clarified their position by calling Jansenius a Calvinist. Pascal replies that everyone the Jesuits have been attacking reject Calvin’s understanding of grace, and that they all believe in free will enabled by grace. Much scolding. The final letter is a fragment only about a page long, so there’s not much to say about it.

I spent the better part of three days driving last weekend, and the result was a delay in getting this post finished. However, I have to say the drive was worth it; I’m writing from Breckenridge, CO, where the humidity is low and the temperatures positively March-like for Montgomery. If all goes as planned, next week’s post will come from some other mountain location. Maybe I’ll read outside!

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The Scandalous Decomposition of Elder Zossima

Everyone is talking about the Hobby Lobby case today, but I haven’t heard a single national news outlet mention that today also marks the halfway point of this blog’s Great Books Project, 2011-2017. What is wrong with the world?

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 200-246)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XIX (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 272-289)
  3. On the Death of a Fair Infant” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 57-59)
  4. Of Ancient Customs” and “Of the Vanity of Words” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 184-186; 187-189)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter II (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 8-52)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XVIII-XIX (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 153-167)

This is the last week for the Provincial Letters, but we’ll be returning to Pascal very soon, so don’t despair if you’ve been enjoying his writing as I have.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book VII: The early chapters of this book border on satire, with the secret opponents of elder Zosima’s exulting in the fact that his body actually began to decompose after his death. Alyosha almost falls from grace in his anger against the bad guys, but is rescued by the most unlikely person: Grushenka. I wonder if she really has exited the novel now, having run off to rejoin the man to disgraced her years earlier.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XVIII: In this chapter we have the death of Constantine and the subsequent civil war between two of his surviving three sons, both of whom are ultimately killed before the third brother gains control of the entire empire. There were several twists and turns along the way. 
  3. Comus“Comus” by John Milton: I had no inkling of this play’s existence before encountering it in the GBWW series. It didn’t take me long to figure out why: it glorifies virginity and feminine virtue. Don’t hold your breath waiting for this one to get assigned in college literature classes across the country. 
  4. “Of the Uncertainty of Our Judgment” and “Of War Horses” by Michel de Montaigne: These two essays are all over the place. They’re mostly a stringing together of unrelated incidents loosely connected to the themes indicated in the respective titles. This isn’t too unusual for Montaigne, but I was sleepy when I read these, so they were more frustrating than usual. I thought the discussion of the use of the horse as a class marker was interesting in the second essay.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter 1: James asserts some things here that seem obvious today, e.g. psychology has something to do with the brain. He dwells on the curious features of memory. The best part to me was when he says something approximating the Austrian economists’ action axiom: “The Pursuance of future ends and the choice of means for their attainment, are thus the mark and criterion of the presence of mentality in a phenomenon.”
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XVI-XVII: In these two letters Pascal continues to lay into the Jesuits who have been publishing counterattacks against him. #17 is addressed to an individual Jesuit who apparently had authored some of the hostile pamphlets. Pascal’s defense against the charges of heresy is interesting. According to him, the basis for the charges against him is not that he believes a doctrine deemed heretical, but that he refuses to affirm that a third party is a heretic. He deploys several examples from the Church Fathers to prove this is an illegitimate basis for a heresy charge.

I’m on the road now (writing from Branson, MO, today), having decided to go 100% electronic on the project reading for this trip. However, I did prep all the projected posts with volume and page numbers from the bound set before I left home, so hopefully there will be no hiccups for anyone following along that way.

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Ever Wonder How They Figured Out Pi?

This week in the Great Books Project you have a chance to remedy that gaping hole in your education. I refer, of course, to your most likely never having read a masque before. Therefore, I give you John Milton.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 179-200)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XVIII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 255-272)
  3. Comus” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 33-57)
  4. Of the Uncertainty of Our Judgment” and “Of War Horses” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 177-184)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter I (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 1-7)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XVI-XVII (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 127-153)

This week we also return to William James, whom we haven’t read in quite some time. Principles of Psychology will be the final (and longest) work of his we tackle.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II, Book VI: This book seems like a major digression from the main plot, but I have a feeling Dostoevsky considered it of utmost importance. It consists primarily of the elder’s dying words to the monks who were closest to him, including Alyosha. The elder makes plenty of cryptic statements, like the one about everyone being responsible to everyone for everyone. The reminiscence about the man who confessed an old murder sounded very much like the plot of Crime and Punishment.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XVII: This book didn’t contain much “action.” The first section covered the design and layout of Constantinople in great detail. The rest of it went into the minutiae of how the state machinery was reorganized under Constantine. The general trend was toward administrative centralization. For example, the title and prestige of the consulship was kept in place, but its occupants did nothing significant.
  3. “Lycidas” by John Milton: This poem is a eulogy to a friend of Milton’s who was drowned in a storm during a crossing of the Irish Sea. The 17th-century editor claims that it’s also a prediction of the downfall of the Church of England’s clergy in the English Civil Wars, but I wasn’t able to detect any lines that seemed to bear directly on that event. 
  4. “Of the Battle of Dreux” and “Of Names” by Michel de Montaigne: The first essay discusses (very briefly) the first major engagement of the French Wars of Religion in 1562. The government’s (Catholic) forces narrowly prevailed over the Huguenots. Montaigne mentions one or two controversies resulting from the battle before offering some parallel anecdotes from the classical period. In “Of Names,” Montaigne discusses the psychological favor or disfavor attached to particular names in different cultures. It reminded me of those annual lists of most popular baby names that are always circulating on social media.
  5. archimed_circleMeasurement of a Circle by Archimedes: When you take geometry class in high school today, you’re taught that the radius of a circle is equivalent to pi times twice the length of the circle’s radius. But Archimedes didn’t have pi. He worked it out the hard way. We don’t have his entire solution, but his third proposition is that “the ratio of the circumference of any circle to its diameter is less than 3-1/7 but greater than 3-10/71.” That’s close enough for government work.
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XIII-XV: These letter continue Pascal’s responses to the Jesuits’ counterattacks against him. Some of the reading is tough going because we have neither the Jesuits’ pamphlets to which Pascal is replying nor the works of Jesuit theologians that both parties are citing to make their respective cases. This sort of controversy figured significantly in my doctoral dissertation, but then I made sure I had all the relevant documents in front of me so that I’d have a better idea of what was going on. It’s frustrating having only one side of the argument. In Letter XV, Pascal flatly attacks the Jesuits’ credibility and attempts to show that their own theology permits and encourages them to tell lies about their opponents.

My family is gearing up for a four-week trip, and I’m trying to decide whether to go completely electronic on the Great Books reading or to take along a couple of volumes. Decisions, decisions. Whether you’re on the road or not this summer, make sure you have a great work to read by your side.

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Smerdyakov Scripts His Own Epileptic Seizure

In a mere two weeks we’ll have made it to the halfway point in our seven-year journey to read through the Great Books of the Western World. If we’re lucky, we might be halfway through the Brothers K by then as well.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II , Book VI (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 153-179)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XVII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 234-255)
  3. Lycidas” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 27-33)
  4. Of the Battle of Dreux” and “Of Names” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 174-177)
  5. Measurement of a Circle by Archimedes (GBWW Vol. 10, pp. 447-451)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XIII-XV (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 99-127)

No doubt you’ve noticed the double shots of Montaigne for the last two weeks. I don’t want still to be reading his essays in 2017.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. smerdyakovThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II, Book V: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Papa Karamazov is about to be murdered by Dmitri, but that Smerdyakov is the real mastermind of the crime. There really is some creepy dialogue in this novel. Of course the high point of the section is Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor, who faults Christ for making things too hard on ordinary people. His declaration that he was willing to be damned to bamboozle the credulous multitude reminded me of Whitaker Chambers’s description of Communists: those who are willing to take upon themselves the crimes of history to bring about their vision of the just society. 
  2. “The Plurality of Persons in God” by St. Thomas Aquinas: Not surprisingly, St. Thomas argues that there is a plurality of persons in God, and that the number of persons is exactly three. His major proof text for that number is 1 John 5:7, which many scholars reject as a later addition to the epistle, but I’m sure Thomas would have found another way to get there if that verse hadn’t been present. 
  3. “Arcades” by John Milton: This poem was part of some entertainment for a noble family who amused themselves by acting out some pastoral scene in shepherds’ garb. Again the classical references are fast and furious. We lose something in the mere reading of the poem as opposed to watching the whole scene enacted. 
  4. “Of Sumptuary Laws” and “Of Sleep” by Michel de Montaigne: Montaigne dislikes sumptuary laws, but not for the reasons moderns condemn them. He explicitly states that the social classes must be clearly differentiated; he just thinks there must be a more effective way to do it. He recognizes the harmful incentives the laws produce. The essay on sleep recounts several famous anecdotes of military commanders, etc., who were able to sleep in what must have been extremely stressful circumstances, e.g. right before a major battle. 
  5. The Nature of Life by C.H. Waddington, Chapters 3-5: In these lectures Waddington first discusses the factors that affect an organism’s development toward its innate potentiality and also traces some of the major questions surrounding the theory of biological evolution (which he concedes has come to be framed most often as a tautology).He says that modern evolutionary theory is a marriage of Darwin and Mendel, and that the infighting over questions like free will and determinism are not resolved. In the last chapter he hints at themes that later came to preoccupy the environmentalist movement, such as fossil fuels and population control.
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers X-XII: Letter X is the last in the series where Pascal exposes the Jesuits’ questionable moral theology in the form of a dialogue between himself and a Jesuit monk. The other two letters are addressed to the Jesuit authorities, who had been attacking him for his earlier letters. He has some choice words for them.

No excuses this week. Read something good!

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The Biases of Biologists

This week in the Great Books Project we pass the 4,000-page mark in the Science and Mathematics category. Just typing that number exhausts me.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II , Book V (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 114-153)
  2. The Plurality of Persons in God” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 167-171)
  3. Arcades” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 25-27)
  4. Of Sumptuary Laws” and “Of Sleep” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 172-174)
  5. The Nature of Life by C.H. Waddington, Chapters 3-5 (GBWW Vol. 56, pp. 715-749)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers X-XII (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 71-99)

For some reason this week’s reading list seems pretty undemanding. I guess it’s because with the exception of St. Thomas, all these authors have a conversational style. Well. I guess Milton’s poetry isn’t very conversational, but the nonstop classical references don’t really faze me.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II, Book IV: How convenient for Alyosha that he already has his wife picked out before he even leaves the monastery. I guess it’s only fair for something to be easy for him considering the tangled mess his family has created. It’s too bad the officer humiliated by Dmitri was too proud to accept the money from Katerina. He could have healed nearly all the broken relationships in his family with its help. 
  2. “The Divine Persons” by St. Thomas Aquinas: St. Thomas follows Boethius’s definition of “person” as “an individual substance of a rational nature,” and that it is different from hypostasis or essence. He goes on to argue that the term is rightly applied to God, and that it signifies relation within God. Arguing by analogy, he concludes that the term “person” means one thing in general, but something more specific when applied to God.
  3. “Il Penseroso” by John Milton: The opening of this poem is very similar to that of “L’Allegro,” with the attempted banishing certain thoughts. The difference is that latter poem tries to banish melancholy, whereas the former tries to banish “vain deluding joyes.” “Il Penseroso” actually welcomes melancholy, which is said to bring the virtues of contemplation and even “something like Prophetic strain.”
  4. “Of the Inequality That Is between Us” by Michel de Montaigne: “Each man’s character shapes his fortune.” Montaigne ends the essay approvingly with this line, but he offers some counterexamples in the body. The gist appears to be that some men are definitely better and more deserving than others, but that those who judge such things don’t always recognize that reality. As usual, Montaigne gives us many anecdotes and aphorisms from the classical world.
  5. CHWaddingtonThe Nature of Life by C.H. Waddington, Chapters 1-2:  The first chapter of this work is surprisingly philosophical. Waddington outlines different approaches biologists have attempted to advance their science, and he is pretty frank in acknowledging certain biases. In the second chapter he gives a brief overview of the history of genetics and how Mendel apparently demonstrated the superiority of the “atomistic” outlook with his experiments. Waddington’s attempt to write God out of the biological question in Chapter 2 is pretty lame, though.
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers VII-IX: These letters continue the criticisms of the Jesuits, whose doctors had managed to define out of existence the overwhelming majority of instances of sin in the world through their equivocations. It really is amazing that the Church authorities would have stood for even a tiny percentage of the nonsense that Pascal quotes.

It is hot, hot, hot here in Alabama. I’m dashing between air-conditioned spaces as quickly as I can. I think I’ll stay in side to read this week.

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