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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Readings Page Updated

Today I noticed with surprise and embarrassment that it has been a full year since I’ve updated the list of completed works on the “What We’ve Read” page. It took some time, but I’m glad to say that it is now current as of early June.

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Dmitri Karamazov Is an Idiot

We have lots of moderns on this week’s reading list in the Great Books Project, but don’t let that discourage you. Thomas Aquinas makes up for a lot.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II , Book IV (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 87-114)
  2. The Divine Persons” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 161-167)
  3. Il Penseroso” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 21-25)
  4. Of the Inequality That Is between Us” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 167-172)
  5. The Nature of Life by C.H. Waddington, Chapters 1-2 (GBWW Vol. 56, pp. 689-715)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers VII-IX (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 44-71)

I thought it was time to take a brief break from Gibbon, but we’ll plunge back into the Decline and Fall very soon. C.H. Waddington drew the ire of C.S. Lewis in the mid-20th century, so I thought it would be appropriate to read his work as I start preparing an article on the Inklings for publication. Unfortunately, The Nature of Life (1961) is recent enough to be under copyright, and I cannot find an online edition anywhere. If you locate one, please let me know so I can link to it. [UPDATE: Thanks to J Krol, who located a link to the text.]

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Dimitri KaramazovThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part I, Book III: I wonder how many characters we’ll ultimately end up with in this story. I’m already having a bit of trouble keeping track of them all, particularly since they all have several names, it seems. Alyosha appears to have a front-row seat for the self-imposed destruction of his family. His father and oldest brother are fighting over the same woman, who has appeared in one scene so far and appears a perfectly awful person. Dmitri in particular is bent on destroying himself. I assume he’ll live long enough to regret it afterwards.
  2. “The Procession of the Divine Persons” and “The Divine Relations” by St. Thomas Aquinas: These two questions begin the treatise on the Trinity within the Summa. Right off the bat, St. Thomas wades into deep water with explanations of various senses of the word “procession.” He concludes that there are two processions in God: the procession of the Word and that of love. Then in the next question he concludes that there are four real relations in God: paternity, filiation, spiration, and procession.
  3. “L’Allegro” by John Milton: I had to read this a couple of times to get the gist of it. It’s an example of pastoral poetry that extols the delights of the countryside. It’s also packed with classical allusions, and there’s a reference to Shakespeare, too.
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter 16: Gibbon would have us believe that Christians didn’t have it so bad before Constantine. He does admit that persecutions took place, but really downplays them. Even Diocletian is presented as a moderating influence on the wishes of Galerius to burn all the Christians immediately. So if the government comes after you to kill you only a couple of times every century, I guess it’s no big deal.
  5. “On Narcissism” by Sigmund Freud: Freud presents narcissism as a specifically psychosexual disorder. It seems like his description corresponds more to what is called autoerotism in common discourse these days, whereas now “narcissism” is applied to anyone who’s full of himself. I don’t recall ever hearing a female being described as narcissistic before, but Freud argues that women suffer from this disorder in much greater numbers than men.
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers IV-VI: Clearly Pascal does not entertain a high opinion of Jesuits. He presents them as guilty of neutering all the moral commands of scripture and Church tradition through their casuistry. It seems incredible that the sort of doctrines described in these letters could ever be taken seriously, but I suppose they were by some people at some point.

It’s crazy that I finished the week’s readings three days ago, but nearly missed getting this post up today. I had to come back into my office after the kids were in bed to finish up. I hope things settle down a bit more in the next few days.

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Socialism is the Atheistic Question

This week we will pass the 19,000-page mark in the Great Books Project. We are a mere one month shy of our halfway point since our beginning in January 2011.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II , Book III (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 48-87)
  2. The Procession of the Divine Persons” and “The Divine Relations” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 153-161)
  3. L’Allegro” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 17-21)
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter 16 (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 206-234)
  5. On Narcissism” by Sigmund Freud (GBWW Vol. 54, pp. 399-411)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers IV-VI (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 19-44)

Looking at this list, I just realized there are no classical authors in it. That certainly hasn’t happened very often in this program.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part I, Books I-II: The big takeaway from the early chapters is that the Karamazov family is extremely dysfunctional. The father is a tremendous jerk who comes into Alyosha’s monastery and behaves in a ridiculous and scandalous way. I liked how Dostoevsky has the monks (for the most part) giving soft answers to the slander and buffoonery. The discussion about the relationship between Church and State is a tough one. I’ve had graduate students read on several occasions, and they always seem to come away confused. The narrator makes a striking comment in Book I, Chapter 5: “Socialism is not merely the labour question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism to-day, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to heaven from earth but to set up heaven on earth.”
  2. The Lysis of Plato: This dialogue explores the concept of friendship. Apparently it is one of Plato’s early dialogues and is not as satisfying as the discourse on friendship in Aristotle’s Ethics. Socrates, after going through “likes attract,” “opposites attract,” and “the good attracts,” ends up by saying there’s a contradiction no matter which approach we take, and therefore we don’t yet know what a friend is. Of course the whole dialogue is framed by Hippothales’s attempted seduction of Lysis, so there’s a distasteful atmosphere of sorts. 
  3. thomas-hobson“On the University Carrier” and “Another on the Same” by John Milton: The impact of these poems almost completely disappears without some background info. Here’s some of the annotation from the Dartmouth site: “[These] are Milton’s contributions to the Hobson jest poems popular on campus at Cambridge University after the death of Thomas Hobson on January 1, 1631. Hobson was eighty-six when he died and he had served the university for over sixty years by driving a regular coach between The Bull, a London inn, and the University, carrying students, guests, letters, and sometimes parents. He also hired out horses. The expression “Hobson’s choice” originated as a sarcastic reference to Hobson’s insistence that anyone hiring a horse must “choose” the one closest to the stable door.” 
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter 15: This is the first of two lengthy chapters on the history of the Christian church before the conversion of Constantine. Gibbon bends over backwards to avoid writing anything blatantly hostile, but in a hundred subtle ways he gives the impression that Christian doctrine is moonshine and that the church was not to be admired. I believe his estimate that Christians made up less than 5% of the Roman population in 313 is much lower than most modern scholars’. 
  5. Instruments of Reduction by Hippocrates: I was well into this work before figuring out what the title meant. Hippocrates is describing dislocations and fractures in various parts of the body and giving recommendations on how to reduce swelling and inflammation by, among other things, getting everything back where it’s supposed to be. As usual, there’s plenty of graphic depiction.
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers I-III and “Reply of the Provincial”: For a 17th-century specialist like me, the delving into minutiae of the age’s theological disputes was quite interesting, although I imagine many readers would simply find it bewildering. To some extent, that’s what Pascal wants. Not only do the different factions in the Sorbonne split hairs over very subtle points of doctrine, they end up obscuring those very points in the interest of partisanship, so that two of the antagonistic groups agree with each other in substance while fighting over the words used to express the doctrine, whereas two allied groups agree with each other on terminology while differing on the substance of the question.

It has gotten hot here in Montgomery: several consecutive days of 90-degree-plus temperatures and rising air conditioning costs. On the plus side, the neighborhood pool has warmed up enough to justify a dip. I think I’ll head there now before starting on this week’s readings.

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Hail Bounteous May

This week in the Great Books Project we begin one of literature’s greatest psychological works. Gird up your loins for the Brothers K.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 1-48)
  2. The Lysis of Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 14-25)
  3. On the University Carrier” and “Another on the Same” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 15)
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter 15 (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 179-206)
  5. Instruments of Reduction by Hippocrates (GBWW Vol. 9, pp. 254-272)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers I-III and “Reply of the Provincial” (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 1-19)

After thirteen consecutive weeks of Montaigne, I thought a break wouldn’t be amiss. This week’s Gibbon chapter is one of his most influential (in a bad way).

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. philoctetesPhiloctetes by Sophocles: This was my first time to read this play, and I really enjoyed it. Odysseus and Neoptolemus (Achilles’s son) must retrieve the bow of Philoctetes (who has been marooned on Lemnos by Odysseus and Agamemnon) to fulfill a prophecy concerning the fall of Troy. Odysseus sends Neoptolemus in to defraud Philoctetes. The tension between Neoptolemus and Odysseus was very effective, and it was satisfying to see Neoptolemus reveal the deception to Philoctetes. Philoctetes is a victim, but he reacts to his circumstances inappropriately. In the end, it takes a deus ex machina to convince Philoctetes to bring his bow back to Troy.
  2. “Of Not Communicating One’s Glory” by Michel de Montaigne: montaigne surveys prominent stories of individuals who gave up to others the credit they should have received for their own accomplishments. Early on he notes that this act is contrary to everyone’s inclination; most will “give up riches, rest, life, and health, which are effectual and substantive goods, to follow that vain phantom” of reputation and glory. There’s a good reference to the Peloponnesian War here, and an anecdote about the Battle of Crecy (1346) I had forgotten.
  3. “Song on May Morning” by John Milton: Ten delightful lines! Although autumn is my favorite season, I’ve always enjoyed poems and songs about spring. Milton conveys pure happiness here. “Hail bounteous May that dost inspire/Mirth and youth, and warm desire,/Woods and Groves, are of thy dressing,/Hill and Dale, doth boast thy blessing.”
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapters 13-14: After the chapters rehearsing the dizzying succession of emperors in the middle of the third century, these chapters on Diocletian and Constantine were quite refreshing. I especially like the treatment of the civil war by which Constantine became sole emperor in the early fourth century, a process with which I had only been vaguely acquainted hitherto. Maxentius, his chief rival in the west, receives very scathing treatment from Gibbon.
  5. An Introduction to Mathematics by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters 11-17: These final chapters of the work discuss trigonometry, series, and differential calculus, among other things. Having just seen recently an internet meme bemoaning the time “wasted” on math in high school, I liked how Whitehead showed the real-world applications of these abstractions. I enjoyed this work and will probably make it a part of the curriculum for a B.A. in Humanities I’m helping to develop at my university.
  6. The Parmenides of Plato: I confess it was a bad idea to attempt jumping back into Plato with this dialogue after such a long hiatus. I was pretty lost after six or seven pages. In desperation I turned to Wikipedia, which informed me that the Parmenides may be the most difficult of Plato’s writings, and no one seems to know what it means. The story is set up as a young Socrates’s conversation with Parmenides, who points out inconsistencies in Socrates’s developing notion of the Forms. Most of the dialogue is an extremely dense treatment of the problem of the One and the Many.

I am a bachelor this week; my family is visiting the in-laws while I try to get some intense work done in the office. I’m also hoping to make up the weekly post I dropped recently, so I have lots of reading to do. I hope you will find the time to do some as well this week.

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