Rocinante Has Nothing on This Wooden Horse

This week, as in most weeks, I saw at least two or three situations where some sort of observation from or application of the week’s Great Books readings were a propos. I wish I had more blogging time to discuss them in detail. Do you encounter the same phenomenon?

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part II, Chapters 46-53 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 404-434)
  2. How We Cry and Laugh for the Same Thing” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 157-158)
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 106-114)
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapters 8-9 (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 79-96)
  5. Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier, Part III, Chapters 6-end (GBWW Vol. 42, pp. 111-160)
  6. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Part VIII-end (GBWW Vol. 43, pp. 521-545)

This is the last week for Lavoisier and Nietzsche. The jury is still out on who will succeed to their claims on our attention.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part II, Chapters 33-45: During this whole section, Don Quixote and Sancho are being entertained/tricked by the duke and duchess they met in Chapter 30. The elaborate pranks they’ve been subjected to are quite ridiculous. The best part to me was when they were blindfolded, put on the wooden horse, and made to believe they had flown through the air. The things Sancho swore he had seen when he got off the horse were hilarious.
  2. “Of Cato the Younger” by Michel de Montaigne: Montaigne doesn’t even get around to mentioning Cato until halfway through the essay. The nub of the piece is the juxtaposition of five quotes from various poets about Cato. I have to confess that I didn’t react as Montaigne predicted to the five lines . . . probably something lost in translation form the Latin. 
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book VI: Aristotle moves from a discussion of the mating habits of snakes and inescts in Book V into a discussion of the mating habits of birds, fish, and mammals here. He records many observations about the number of eggs various types of birds lay and how the birds care for nests. Then there’s a discussion of fish’s egg-laying and the mating of dolphins and whales (which he categorizes as fish). He also records mating habits of all sorts of different land mammals, their gestation, and the number of young they bear, etc.
  4. Alexander_SeverusThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapters 6-7: Before reading this, even though I’m a history professor, most of third-century Rome had been a bit of a blur to me. There were always just way too many assassinations and names of emperors. I appreciate Gibbon’s richness of detail, and his willingness to editorialize about his subjects makes his writing much more engaging. I had not realized (assuming Gibbon’s judgments are more or less accurate) how widely the quality of the emperors varied in this era. He especially likes Alexander (208-235).
  5. Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier, Part III, Chapters 1-5: It looks like Part III of this work consists of a detailed description of the various instruments Lavoisier used to arrive at his calculations. The value of this for anyone wishing to replicate his experiments is obvious. Illustrated plates are an essential aid here. In these chapters we get devices ranging from simple mortars and pestles to very large and (I presume) expensive tools like the “gazometer,” which Lavoisier invented and which is used to “furnish an uniform and continued stream of oxygen gas in experiments of fusion.” 
  6. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Parts VII: There’s plenty of ridicule of the Christian ethic in this chapter, although I’m tempted to cut Nietzsche a little slack because he’s reacting to the completely defanged liberal Protestantism of the 19th century: “Deep in their hearts they are glad there exists a standard according to which those overloaded with the goods and privileges of the spirit are their equals—they struggle for the ‘equality of all before God’ and it is virtually for that purpose that they need the belief in God.” The harangue against assertive women at the end of the chapter is pretty crazy.

The spring semester is winding down; classes end over the next two weeks. I have a big stack of graduate students’ research papers to sort through. When I can’t take it any more I’ll relax with some Cervantes.

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Four Emperors in Two Chapters

This week in the Great Books Project we will pass the 5,500-page mark in the Imaginative Literature category. Buckle up!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part II, Chapters 33-45 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 364-374)
  2. Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 155-156)
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book VI (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 85-106)
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapters 6-7 (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 52-79)
  5. Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier, Part III, Chapters 1-5 (GBWW Vol. 42, pp. 87-111)
  6. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Part VII (GBWW Vol. 43, pp. 511-521)

I hope you haven’t felt as though we’ve been in a rut for the last couple of weeks with the same six authors repeatedly. We’ll be seeing some turnover soon.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part II, Chapters 22-32: The chapters dealing with Don Quixote’s supposed vision in the Cave of Montesinos were completely off the wall, even for this novel. I’m not sure what purpose they served unless it was to confirm Sancho’s opinion that his master is bonkers. I suppose they let Cervantes play with the authorial voice more as well because the narrator gets to speculate on whether the account is apocryphal.
  2. “Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes” by Michel de Montaigne: As usual, Montaigne packs many anecdotes and allusions into a short space, this time on the subject of the various cultural practices dealing with clothing (or the lack thereof). I especially liked the paragraph citing Xenophon’s account of the 10,000 Greeks’ march to the sea, since we read that early on in this project.
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book V: I thought we were done reading about animals’ copulating when we finished Darwin, but apparently not. (I had no idea you could make a bowstring from a camel’s penis.) I remember hearing in high school that Aristotle believed some animals spontaneously generated, but I had never seen a smoking gun on this topic until this week. 
  4. joaquin-phoenix-commodusThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapters 3-5: Chapter 3 is still talking about the good old days of the Pax Romana. Chapters 4-5 is where things start to get juicy, and we encounter four emperors within a two-year period (192-193). When I first saw Gladiator, I remember thinking it laughable that the emperor would actually fight in the Colosseum, but it seems that was one thing they didn’t make up for that movie. Granted, Gibbon records Commodus’s forte as archery rather than swordplay, but still . . . Gibbon clearly doesn’t think much of the Praetorian Guard; their murder of Pertinax and sale of the empire to Julian comes in for some strident condemnation.
  5. Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier, Part II, Sections 14-44: This remainder of Part Two of the work is essentially the same as the section from last week. There are lots of tables listing the various substances that result when different acids are combined with a list of bases. I suppose for the chemically inclined it might be very stimulating; I found it a bit tedious.
  6. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Parts VI: I found this chapter a bit off-putting. All the talk of “manly scepticism” and the “indomitably strong and tough masculinity of the great German” thinkers would sound jingoistic coming from almost any other author. I did note with approval how Nietzsche pegs the scientists who think they can lay down laws for philosophy or actually be philosophers (I won’t name names or anything, but I can think of several public intellectuals who fit this description nowadays).

I managed not to lose any ground on the schedule this week, but there’s still lots of catching up to do. Fortunately, I have some classes that aren’t meeting next week, and that should give me some breathing room. Keep reading!

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Roman Pygmies and Herd Morality

I neglected to mention it last week, but we have now passed the 18,000-page mark in this Great Books Project. Onward!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part II, Chapters 22-32 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 321-364)
  2. Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 153-155)
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book V (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 65-85)
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapters 3-5 (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 24-51)
  5. Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier, Part II, Sections 14-44 (GBWW Vol. 42, pp. 68-86)
  6. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Part VI (GBWW Vol. 43, pp. 503-511)

I hope you’re enjoying these authors, because it looks like we’ll be staying with all six of them for at least another week or two.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. donquixote-knightofmirrorsThe History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part II, Chapters 11-21: Sampson Carrasco gets his comeuppance quite satisfactorily in these chapters after all his condescension and deceptions. Then we move on into another curious section where two young lovers are kept apart by circumstance but ultimately reunited through a clever stratagem. Basilio’s fake suicide no doubt would be considered out of order and emotional blackmail today, but in the 17th century, it’s all good. 
  2. “Of a Lack in Our Administrations” by Michel de Montaigne: Here Montaigne longs for the internet, although he doesn’t quite realize it. He just wishes for an efficient way to for strangers to find each other with relevant information or goods to satisfy the double coincidence of wants. 
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book IV: Aristotle devotes the book to “non-blooded” animals, including crustaceans and other sea creatures as well as insects. I couldn’t help but be surprised at the detail with which he describes their anatomy, particularly their sense organs. Aristotle really was a scientist. What could he have done with modern tools of measurement? 
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapters 1-2: These chapters are devoted to explaining how wonderful the Roman Empire of the second century was. Much of it was admittedly tedious recitations of borders, prominent cities, etc. I couldn’t help but be impressed at Gibbon’s description of the Roman soldier’s training regimen. The metaphor of Romans-as-pygmies at the end of Chapter Two was a bit jarring. 
  5. Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier, Part II, Sections 1-13: These sections contain lots of tables that Lavoisier admits he cribbed largely from other reference works. They list what compounds result from the combination of oxygen, sulfur, hydrogen, and “azote” (nitrogen?) with various substances. Lavoisier provides a little commentary on these tables, but nothing eye-popping. 
  6. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Parts IV-V: Part IV consists of several pages of pithy maxims, e.g. “A people is a detour of nature to get to six or seven great men.—Yes: and then to get around them.” Some of them are the sort of thing I’d expect to see from the pen of the late Christopher Hitchens, although Nietzsche’s are better. Part V, “On the Natural History of Morals,” attacks Socrates and the Hebraic tradition, the two major roots of Western morality. Nietzsche sums up his assessment with this: “Morality is in Europe today herd-animal morality.”

I’ve run into more delays this week, and once again am running behind schedule. The good news is I have a few weeks here at home to regroup before our next trip, and I hope to make up lost ground over the next couple of weeks.

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O Voltaire! O Humanity! O Idiocy!

With the completion of the Histories of Tacitus, we have finished another volume in the GBWW series. This week we continue our readings in Roman history with our first foray into Gibbon.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part II, Chapters 11-21 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 280-321)
  2. Of a Lack in Our Administrations” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 152-153)
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book IV (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 48-65)
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapters 1-2 (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 1-24)
  5. Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier, Part II, Sections 1-13 (GBWW Vol. 42, pp. 53-68)
  6. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Parts IV-V (GBWW Vol. 43, pp. 490-503)

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall fills two full volumes of the GBWW series, so I expect we’ll break it up into more manageable pieces rather than try to read it straight through.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part II, Chapters 1-10: The early chapters of Part II, which was published several years after Part I, involve a bunch of “remember-when” moments. The device used is a “bachelor” who visits Don Quixote and Sancho and describes a book that has been published about their adventures. It takes until Chapter 8 for them to leave the house, and by Chapter 10 Dulcinea still has not made an appearance. 
  2. “Fortune Is Often Met in the Path of Reason” by Michel de Montaigne: Here’s another essay the title of which left me perplexed, but the anecdotes Montaigne relates are fascinating. I remembered the story about Timoleon’s would-be assassin from Plutarch. The account of the curing of Jason of Pheres by being wounded in battle was pretty bizarre. And then there were multiple instances of city walls unaccountably falling down. 
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book III: Aristotle begins this book by describing “the organs that contribute to generation.” Then he goes on to discuss blood and the veins. Having already read Harvey’s work on circulation a couple of years ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect from an author who predated that theory. Aristotle says to learn anything about the veins, you have to starve and then strangle your animal subject (ick). But he is apparently the first to identify the heart as “headquarters” for the veins. 
  4. The Histories by Tacitus, Book V: Unfortunately, this book breaks off abruptly, leaving us hanging in regards to both the siege of Jerusalem and the rebellion of Civilis in Germany. Reading Tacitus’s descriptions of the Jews and their supposed origins was intriguing; apparently the Romans recognized them as a very ancient people, but the theories surrounding their history were all over the place. I would have loved to seen his account of the final destruction of the city to compare it to one like Josephus’s. 
  5. Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier, Part I, Chapters 9-17: Lavoisier begins these chapters with measurements of how much oxygen is consumed by the burning of specific weights of different substances, e.g. charcoal or hydrogen. After some general discussion of acids, he moves on to treating chemical reactions that decompose animal and vegetable matter: burning, fermentation, putrefaction. The final section deals with the formation of salts. Once again, I’m dealing with scanned pages that often are incomplete, so it’s a bit frustrating . . .
  6. nietzscheBeyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Parts II-III: More bracing stuff in these chapters. Every “select man” wants a refuge from the herd. The dull cannot understand the bright, who live and think at a more rapid tempo. At least with respect to the French Revolution, “the text has disappeared under the interpretation.” The new philosophers are “tempters,” with positive connotations attached to that word. I found Chapter 3 (“The Religious Mood”) less stimulating, but Nietzsche’s diagnosis of all modern philosophy as anti-Christian is pretty perceptive. (Also, did you catch the Don Quixote reference Nietzsche made?)

Still on the road this week, but my next Great Books Project should come from home. Reading while traveling with kids is no less challenging this time around; I hope you’re able to find some time this week to curl up with a book, especially if it’s still snowing on you.

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Nietzsche Throws Bombs

I failed to mention last week that we finished yet another volume of the Great Books of the Western World series when we wrapped up Spinoza’s Ethics. I forget exactly how many that makes, but we’ve already knocked out several volumes in 2014.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part II, Chapters 1-10 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 239-280)
  2. Fortune Is Often Met in the Path of Reason” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 151-152)
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book III (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 32-48)
  4. The Histories by Tacitus, Book V (GBWW Vol. 14, pp. 294-302)
  5. Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier, Part I, Chapters 9-17 (GBWW Vol. 42, pp. 33-52)
  6. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Parts II-III (GBWW Vol. 43, pp. 474-489)

We’re in a stretch of reading almost all lengthy works this week. We’ll finish Tacitus, though, and start on something new next time.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. CandideCandide by Voltaire: Out of all the crazy characters in this book, I have always thought the craziest is Cunegonde’s brother. His reaction to Candide’s declared intention of marrying Cunegonde is preposterous, all the genealogy notwithstanding. The party’s disposal of him at the end is quite appropriate.
  2. “To Flee from Sensual Pleasures at the Price of Life” by Michel de Montaigne: I don’t quite understand the relationship of this essay’s title to its body. Most of it deals with the desirability of death when either material cares weigh too heavily or the spiritual reward of the afterlife shines too brightly. I had not either the Cicero or St. Hilary of Poitiers anecdotes before. 
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book II: Most of this book discusses quadrupeds, which are further subdivided into “viviparous” (live-bearing, I assume) and “oviparous” (egg-bearing). There’s more discussion of organs and their placement; Aristotle dwells at length on the stomach and intestines for some reason. One highlight was the discussion of wisdom teeth in men and women. 
  4. The Histories by Tacitus, Book IV: Vitellius is out; Vespasian is in. Vespasian and Titus were not actually on the scene in Rome, and the book opens with the opportunistic slaughter occasioned by Vitellius’s overthrow. A good part of the book is also taken up by conflict with the Batavians. An interesting anecdote comes with the oath Senators took after the change in power that they had behaved themselves during all the turmoil. “Great was the alarm, and various the devices for altering the words of the oath, among those who felt the consciousness of guilt. The Senate appreciated the scruple, but denounced the perjury.” 
  5. Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier, Part I, Chapters 4-8: I was reading this online this week, and the version I had access to had some pagination problems, so I didn’t get all the text. My only memory of Lavoisier from high school science classes was that he did important work on oxygen. I assume from these chapters that he actually coined the term “oxygenation” and discovered that other substances such as sulphur consume oxygen when they burn. I thought it was significant that Lavoisier was conservative in his terminology, retaining traditional words like “water” and “air” whenever possible, even though he noted that some others wanted to jettison all these words in favor of new “scientific” terms.
  6. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Preface and Part I: The preface to this work is one of the most remarkable I’ve ever read. Christianity is “Platonism for the ‘people.’” Traditional philosophy is likened to astrology, of all things. Nietzsche rejects democracy up front. The first chapter is hardly less challenging; there’s something for everyone to find offensive. Nietzsche lambastes not only Christianity, but also Kant, Spinoza, and just about everyone who came before him. There’s no “will to truth” but only a “will to power” which is prior even to the impulse of self-preservation. Hmmmmm.

I failed to post last week before I went on the road and am only just now getting around to it. I had just about caught up on pages from the last time I lost a week, but now I appear to be behind the 8-ball again. I must console myself with all the significant sights I am seeing in Virginia this week.

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Ibsen Didn’t Like Marriage Much, I Guess

Where else on the internet will you read Aristotle and Nietzsche as part of the same assignment? Nowhere that I know of; that’s my Unique Selling Proposition. Let’s get to it!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Candide by Voltaire (GBWW Vol. 34, pp. 185-249)
  2. To Flee from Sensual Pleasures at the Price of Life” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 150-151)
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book II (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 19-32)
  4. The Histories by Tacitus, Book IV (GBWW Vol. 14, pp. 266-294)
  5. Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier, Part I, Chapters 4-8 (GBWW Vol. 42, pp. 1-21)
  6. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Preface and Part I (GBWW Vol. 43, pp. 463-474)

The last time I read Candide, I was in a youth hostel in Padua, Italy. Isn’t it strange how books can make such impressions on you? I doubt it will be quite so exciting when I read it in my own house.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen: Yuck. The critics were right when this first appeared. I actually had more sympathy for the blackmailer than for anyone else; that goes to show how messed up these characters are. There’s no one with whom to identify on the stage, no one to admire at any time. Realism is overrated. 
  2. “We Should Meddle Soberly With Judging Divine Ordinances” by Michel de Montaigne: This essay cautions against interpreting temporal events as acts of divine judgment. Montaigne offers as an example a great naval victory against the Turks (I assume this is a reference to the Battle of Lepanto) which many claimed was evidence of God’s approbation of the Christian cause. He notes that there have been plenty of times where Christians were defeated in battle. There are other good examples as well in this brief work. 
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book I: Aristotle groups Man with the animals from the beginning and classifies him with the beasts who share more of his physiological traits. This book appeared to be discussing the very basics: which kinds animals have which parts (ears, brains, etc.). Of course the word “history” in the title is a reference to research rather than to an account of past events.
  4. vespasianThe Histories by Tacitus, Book III: Tacitus leaves even the casual reader in doubt as to the monstrosity of this civil war. The anecdote of the soldier who killed his own father on the battlefield, recognizing him during the customary looting of the body as he lay mortally wounded, was jarring. So was the description of the burning of the Capitol, “neither defended by friends, nor spoiled by a foe.” Tacitus labels this “the most deplorable and disgraceful event” ever to happen to Rome. By the end of this book, there’s yet another emperor: Vespasian.
  5. Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier, Preface and Part I, Chapters 1-3: I was a bit perplexed during the discussion of caloric in the first chapter until I decided to Google it, whereupon I learned that no one has believed in caloric theory for more than a century. That explained why I had never heard of it before! It sounded plausible enough. I liked the thought experiment in the second chapter about likely changes in the atmosphere if the temperature of the earth were altered drastically. 
  6. Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, Part V: To be honest, I’m ready to leave this work behind. Here Spinoza asserts that self-knowledge is equivalent to loving God, and that in fact no one can hate God. At least he concedes that the mind has an eternal quality and is not destroyed along with the body. I guess I’ll take what I get from this author.

Once again, I’ve lost ground on the posting schedule. This time it’s due to the inordinate amount of time I’m having to spend building the web shell for a new online course that began on Monday. I’ve spent at least fifteen hours on it this week and will probably need to do the same next week. However, I’m really going to try to make my next post before I leave town next Thursday.

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“I Do Bite My Thumb, Sir”

We continue to plug along in the Great Books Project, and I believe we will have caught up with our original schedule within a couple of weeks. (Recall that I lost a week due to travels and workload some time back.) I’m a bit scared of some of this week’s readings, but hanging back won’t do any good. Let’s plunge in!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 439-474)
  2. We Should Meddle Soberly With Judging Divine Ordinances” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 149-150)
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book I (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 1-19)
  4. The Histories by Tacitus, Book III (GBWW Vol. 14, pp. 241-266)
  5. Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier, Preface and Part I, Chapters 1-3 (GBWW Vol. 42, pp. 1-21)
  6. Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, Part V (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 685-697)

This week we finish one long work (Spinoza) and begin two others (Aristotle and Lavoisier). I think we’ll finish Tacitus next week.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. romeo-julietRomeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare: Is it just me, or do other people feel tempted to skip over Act IV of Shakespeare’s tragedies? I suppose I have been to influenced by modern storytelling that puts the climax of the story just a few pages before the end. I need to have more patience for falling action. At any rate, I hadn’t read this play in many years, and I enjoyed rediscovering several nice passages. I also noted more than before how the lovers’ deaths brings about a restoration of peace and order in Verona; in a sense, it’s a happy ending!
  2. “Of Moderation” by Michel de Montaigne: This is a short essay, but even so it meanders a bit. It opens oddly with Montaigne asserting that “a man may both love virtue too much, and perform excessively in a just action.” He goes on to say that marital love should be “mixed with austerity,” and then decries certain forms of asceticism. By the end he’s talking about human sacrifice in America.
  3. “On Shakespeare” by John Milton: This poem is an effective testimony to the power of words. Instead of erecting a monument of stone to commemorate himself, Shakespeare created something far more impressive in his written work. “Kings for such a tomb would wish to die.”
  4. The Histories by Tacitus, Book II: We’ve already made it through another emperor by the time we get two-thirds of the way through this book. Otho is dead and Vitellius has been installed. The portrayal of Otho in this book is quite different from that of Book I. Here he acts nobly and refuses to pursue what he considers a lost cause after his troops suffer a significant defeat. Instead, he takes precautions in attempts to ensure his supporters do not suffer at Vitellius’s hands and then commits suicide. Vitellius, on the other hand, comes across as a total jerk. By the end of the book, Vespasian has already started his rebellion in the East.
  5. “The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis” by Sigmund Freud: This work is actually a transcription of a series of lectures Freud did it the U.S. He recounts some of the early cases that convinced him of the efficacy of interviewing patients to discover repressions of past events. I came away satisfied that my basic understanding of Freud’s methodology had been correct. I thought his comments on hypnosis and why he ultimately rejected it were pretty interesting. 
  6. Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, Part IV: Spinoza shows his hand clearly in the preface of this book: God and Nature are synonyms, God has no purpose and acts for no purpose, etc. He explicitly rejects several tenets of Christian ethics throughout the book; for example, he says humility is no virtue and that one who repents is “doubly wretched.” Everything is to be subjected to reason, etc. There’s lots of Enlightenment-sounding stuff here.

I’m pleased to have been able to make up two days this week on the posting schedule. A week without travels does wonders that way. I hope you’re able to find some good reading time this week. The early morning works well for me!

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Another Volume Completed

This week in the Great Books Project we put back on the shelf for the last time Volume 9 of the Gateway to the Great Books series. That leaves just Volume 5 (in which only one unread essay remains) before we complete the entire 10-volume set. I don’t know yet when we’ll get around to that essay, but it will be cause for celebration when we do.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 24, pp. 285-319)
  2. Of Moderation” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 140-143)
  3. On Shakespeare” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 16)
  4. The Histories by Tacitus, Book II (GBWW Vol. 14, pp. 214-241)
  5. The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis” by Sigmund Freud (GBWW Vol. 54, pp. 1-20)
  6. Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, Part IV (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 656-684)

I know it’s risky reading Freud and Spinoza in the same week, but we’ll just have to be brave.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. “A Preface to Shakespeare” by Samuel Johnson: Johnson both defends and criticizes Shakespeare here. To him, the outstanding feature of Shakespeare’s plays are that they are a “mirror of life,” that we instantly recognize them as showing real people behaving in real ways, regardless of our spatial or temporal separation from Elizabethan England. I thought Johnson’s defense of Shakespeare’s disregard for the classical insistence that a play should have a unified time and space was quite interesting. (I do have to admit, though, that I sometimes find the tendency to jump several years or continents between acts disconcerting.)
  2. “Of Friendship” by Michel de Montaigne: Montaigne echoes Cicero as he writes about his own friendship with an unnamed man (identified by everyone as Etienne la Boetie, who is know in libertarian circles as the author of some anti-State writings). He states that friendship of this kind can only be had with one person because one pours oneself into the relationship, leaving nothing to be devoted to any other friends. He rejects both the homosexual relations of ancient Greece and marriage as sources of true friendship. (A short dedication to an edition of Boetie’s essays follows this essay. The GBWW series gives it a separate essay number, but we’re not going to devote any specific comments to it.)
  3. “Upon the Circumcision” by John Milton: I like two things that Milton does in this short poem. First, he makes a contrast between the angels’ rejoicing at Christ’s birth and their (presumed) mourning at His circumcision: “He who with all Heav’ns heraldry whileare/Enter’d the world, now bleeds to give us ease.” Then there’s a juxtaposition of circumcision and crucifixion at the very end; Jesus “seals obedience first with wounding smart/This day, but O ere long/Huge pangs and strong/Will pierce more neer his heart.” 
  4. galbaThe Histories by Tacitus, Book I: This work describes the turbulent year 68-69 following the death of Nero. In this first book, we’ve already seen the rise and fall of Galba, the first of Nero’s successors. Tacitus brings out the fickleness of both the legions and the mob and presents a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of Galba. Otho, who replaced Galba after bringing about his murder in a rebellion, fares less well at Tacitus’s hands.
  5. “On the Nature of a Calculus” by Alfred North Whitehead: This piece was not very long, but I found it challenging. What struck me most was the way Whitehead reflects on the notion of equality, and how strictly speaking 3 + 2 does not equal 2 + 3 in some respects. The mathematician (or logician, social scientist, etc.) must keep in mind what relationship the = sign is attempting to show. 
  6. Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, Part III: This book deals with the “affects.” I found some of these propositions problematic, e.g. we do not desire things because they are good, but we call them good because we desire them. I’m not detecting any obvious errors in his demonstrations, a fact that confirms my uneasiness about the first principles and definitions back at the beginning of the work.

At least I managed not to lose another day on the posting calendar this week, even if I failed in my goal of catching up. There’s always next week . . .

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Tom Jones Gets a Happy Ending

It has been months since we’ve had a weekly reading list with so many new works on it in the Great Books Project. This week is a great opportunity to jump into the program if you’re new to the blog or have lapsed in your commitment at some point along the way.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Preface to Shakespeare” by Samuel Johnson (GGB Vol. 5, pp. 316-353)*
  2. Of Friendship” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 134-140)
  3. Upon the Circumcision” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, pp. 12-13)
  4. The Histories by Tacitus, Book I (GBWW Vol. 14, pp. 189-214)
  5. On the Nature of a Calculus” by Alfred North Whitehead (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 68-78; Chapter I of A Treatise on Universal Algebra)
  6. Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, Part III (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 629-655)

If my calculations are correct, the Whitehead piece will complete our reading of another volume in the Gateway to the Great Books series, leaving just one unfinished before we’re done with the whole set!

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. TomJonesandSophiaTom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XVIII: All’s well that ends well. Tom’s true parents are revealed (both long deceased), Blifil’s treachery is discovered, Tom becomes Allworthy’s heir, and he is reconciled and married to Sophia. Best of all, his philandering stops. Now I want to see how the film industry managed to get this sprawling tale into a single film starring Albert Finney
  2. “It Is Folly to Measure the True and False by Our Own Capacity” by Michel de Montaigne: I found this brief essay to be one of the most interesting of Montaigne’s I’ve yet encountered. At first it seems to validate the received impression of Montaigne as a “skeptic” because he writes about the limits of knowledge and not trusting entirely to one’s own experiences. But by the end of the essay he’s defending Roman Catholic orthodoxy and insisting that his fellow believers must not indulge in a “partial surrender of beliefs” to their opponents (presumably Protestants) by conceding any of their points when debating them. “We must either submit completely to the authority of our ecclesiastical government, or do without it completely.” 
  3. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 47-52: In this final section of Part I, it was interesting to see the canon, a new character, defend tales of chivalry to some extent. I wondered whether Cervantes might have inserted him into the story to represent his own view. Perhaps someone familiar with the literary criticism can fill me in. 
  4. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, Parts 3-5: Mill continues to develop his case for individualism, arguing (for instance) that there is no justification for society to impose constraints on individuals “in things where the individual alone is concerned.” I’m not sure I grasp the logic of Mill’s argument that one cannot relinquish one’s freedom, for example, by selling oneself into slavery: “The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom to be allowed to alienate his freedom.” Well, why not? 
  5. On Regimen in Acute Diseases by Hippocrates: This work has a different organization from the other Hippocratic writings we’ve seen. The main body of the piece (about half the overall length) gives general advice on the administering of certain medicines like the “ptisan” or the “cyceon.” Hippocrates even says that a bath sometimes helps when someone is ill (!). There follows a long appendix recommending treatments for specific symptoms, e.g. a rough tongue during a winter fever. 
  6. Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, Part II: I didn’t have sufficient time to soak this up as I wished, but here Spinoza discusses the human mind. He seems to hold to a pretty radical mind/body separation. There’s a lot here about the “inadequate” knowledge the mind has of the body and vice versa. The propositions on truth and falsehood of ideas got my attention as well. They seemed vaguely like what Locke wrote about in the Essay on human Understanding.

It has been another rough week for reading. I lost an entire day to a professional conference last Friday, and I have been working on a couple of encyclopedia articles that are now overdue. Here’s hoping that I’ll have a productive weekend!

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Euclid Rolls Over in His Grave

Welcome to Week 161 of the Great Books Project. This week we wrap up Tom Jones, On Liberty, and Part One of Don Quixote!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XVIII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 374-405)*
  2. It Is Folly to Measure the True and False by Our Own Capacity” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 132-134)
  3. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 47-52 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 214-237)
  4. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, Parts 3-5 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 293-323)
  5. On Regimen in Acute Diseases by Hippocrates (GBWW Vol. 9, pp. 54-90)
  6. Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, Part II (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 607-628)

*The volume and page references from Tom Jones are from the 1952 GBWW edition. This novel was not included in the 1990 edition and is thus “extra” reading for this project, but I’ve never read it before and want to.

Don’t let all the section links on the Hippocrates page discourage you; they generally link to a page containing a single paragraph of the text.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XVII: Fielding anticipated my thoughts 270 years before I thought them. Last week I mentioned that I was awaiting a deus ex machina, and in the opening of this book Fielding writes, “If you’re expecting a deus ex machina, forget about it.” However, I am still supremely confident that Tom Jones will pull a rabbit out of his hat and end up living happily ever after with Sophia. We shall see. 
  2. “Of the Divine Happiness” by St. Thomas Aquinas: St. Thomas describes happiness as “the perfect good of an intellectual nature.” I guess that would mean that beasts or other forms of life lacking reason are incapable of happiness, which in turn means that for St. Thomas, happiness goes beyond mere sensation. It is an “act of the intellect.” 
  3. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 38-46: I tell you, Don Quixote must be staying in the most exciting inn in all of Spain. In one night it hosted three of the most beautiful women in the world, one of whom was a Moorish convert to Christianity; a dashing soldier who had escaped slavery in North Africa; a prominent nobleman; a reformed lunatic; and an eminent attorney; not to mention Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The story of the captain’s escape from captivity was well told, although it was another major digression from the main plot. 
  4. JohnStuartMillOn Liberty by John Stuart Mill, Parts 1-2: It has probably been 12 or 13 years since my last reading of this work, and I’m rediscovering quite a few things along the way. Mill advocates what today would probably be called a sort of “thick libertarianism.” In other words, freedom from aggression by itself does not satisfy him; he also wants individuals to enjoy some sort of zone of personal autonomy free some social pressure of any kind. However, most of his comments so far appear to be aimed at defending the individual against oppression by a democratic government.
  5. “Space” by Henri Poincare: Poincare here lays out some of the basics of non-Euclidean geometry. The geometries of the 19th-century figures he discusses are valid in that they are internally consistent, and he asserts that we can’t one geometry to be “correct” while the others are “incorrect.” We can only say that one is “more convenient.” I confess I’m not certain how to respond to that assertion. 
  6. Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, Part I: This work proceeds in the manner of a mathematical treatise, with definitions and axioms followed by propositions that are demonstrated by reference to what has already been given. I didn’t understand everything in this first section, but I got the impression that Spinoza attempts to change the definition of God by smuggling into the definition attributes and the like that neither Judaism nor Christianity would accept. It ended up sounding like pantheism in some ways.

I am quite dismayed to find myself slipping on the posting schedule again, but the last couple of weeks have been so packed there didn’t seem to be anyway to avoid it. Here’s hoping I can make up at least a day on the schedule next week. In the meantime, stay warm if you’re encountering the freezing weather (again) in the U.S.

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