Angels Weren’t Created Happy

We are down in the weeds in the midst of six lengthy works this week in the Great Books Project and will be for some time. Fortunately, my enthusiasm for recently resuming the project should keep me from getting bogged down.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 15-23 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 26-41)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXIV (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 545-558)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 65-67 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 339-354)
  4. Sonnets XI-XV by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 587-588)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XIX (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 502-539)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VI (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 697-713)

I decided that since we are already more than halfway through this project, but are still not halfway through GBWW’s Summa selections, we need to stick with St. Thomas for now. Thus we move on into the treatise on the work of the six days.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. warandpeace-hepburnWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 1-14: Tolstoy certainly doesn’t seem to want the reader to have a favorable view of the Russian aristocracy; almost everyone is shallow and hypocritical. You can tell there will be a million characters. I was already losing track of them in these first 25 pages. I suppose the most fun part was the argument over whether Napoleon was a great man. Can anyone comment on the quality of the 1956 film version with Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda? I haven’t seen it, but am wondering whether to give it a try.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXIII: This was a short chapter focusing mostly on the conquest of Africa by the Vandals. Gibbon records the controversy over Donatism and the siege of Hippo, during which St. Augustine died. My favorite passage was the recounting of the tale of the seven sleepers, which I had never heard of before.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 59-64: Angels have free will without fleshly appetites, according to Question #59. By nature they love God more than they love themselves. They are not eternal; citing Genesis 1:1, St. Thomas asserts that they did not preexist the corporeal world (take that, Milton!). They were not created in happiness, else none of them would have fallen; in fact, they needed grace to turn to God as the object of their happiness. However, they do merit their happiness. Angels can sin, but only the sins of pride and envy. The devil “sinned at once after the first instant of his creation” and fell immediately. This section was a lot to take in, and I’ll have to revisit it at some point to think about these conclusions further.
  4. Sonnets VI-X by William Shakespeare: This block of sonnets contains more admonitions to marriage and childbearing like we saw in the first set of five. Sonnet #9 contains this theme, and it seems to be addressed to a man: “Is it for fear to wet a widow’s eye/That thou consumest thyself in single life?” Sonnet #8 has an interesting metaphor of the strings of an instrument as members of a family (or vice versa).
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XVIII: I had to gloss over this chapter for lack of time. It looks like James continues with the theme of mental processes, in this case imagination, being underlay by neural processes. He concludes that the difference in the neural processes between sense and imagination is one of intensity, not of locality in the brain. 
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book V: “Truth is the beginning of every good thing, both to Gods and men; and he who would be blessed and happy, should be from the first a partaker of the truth, that he may live a true man as long as possible, for then he can be trusted; but he is not to be trusted who loves voluntary falsehood, and he who loves involuntary falsehood is a fool.” This book is full of statements like this one, so I was able to make it through even though the whole thing is one long speech by the Athenian and contains a call for a prohibition on private ownership of gold and silver.

It’s melting weather here in Alabama and most likely will be for at least the next 90 days. I’ll be staying inside watching my electric bill creep up and up. I hope you will be able to find an air-conditioned place to read something good this week.

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Riding to Heaven on a Dung Beetle

It feels great to be able to make another one of these Great Books Project posts after so long a hiatus. To let you all know how serious I am about getting back into this routine, this week we’re pulling out the Mt. Everest of novels. You know the one . . .

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 1-14 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 1-25)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXIII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 537-545)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 59-64 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 306-338)
  4. Sonnets VI-X by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 587)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XVIII (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 480-501)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book V (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 697)

This week will wrap up the treatise on angels in the Summa. I haven’t decided yet whether to push forward in that work or take a break.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. peacePeace by Aristophanes: It’s so odd how Aristophanes takes the subject of war and treats it preposterously. Trygaeus flies a giant dung beetle to the home of the gods, warning the audience as he flies that they must not defecate or pass gas for the next three days so as not to distract his mount. When he finds most of the gods absent, he knowingly thwarts Zeus’s will by bribing Hermes to discover Peace’s location and then digging her out of the well where she was buried. He returns triumphantly to Athens and gets a wife out of the deal as well. According to Wikipedia, this play was staged in 421 B.C. shortly before the Athenians and Spartans actually did sign a truce. 
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXII: Gibbon heaps praise on Theodosius, but has no regard for his successors. Much of this chapter revolves around the abuses of the eunuch Eutropius, who confiscated nobles’ property to enrich himself until the empress maneuvered to have him executed. Lots of sordid stuff like that here.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 54-58: These questions deal with the knowledge of angels: whether they know themselves, other immaterial things, material things, etc. St. Thomas concludes that the do know themselves as well as each other and God (in the sense that other created beings can know God). However, he insists that angels do not know future events “in themselves” in the way God does; they can only know the future “in its cause.”
  4. Sonnets I-V by William Shakespeare: I wasn’t expecting the multiple admonitions to marriage and childbearing: “But if thou live, remember’d not to be,/Die single, and thine image dies with thee.” I couldn’t figure out #5.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XVII: Here James begins a sequence of three chapters that “treat of the processes by which we cognize at all times the present world of space and the material things which it contains.” This chapter deals with sensation, which James says is different from perception. In the debate whether contrasts in sensation are psychological or physiological, James sides with the physiological side. He completely rejects the theory of “eccentric projection” of sensations according to which sensations originate in the mind and then are made to appear as being located outside it. I was pleased to find that it wasn’t too difficult to ease back into this work.
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book IV: “There neither is nor ever will be a better way of establishing a polity than by a tyranny.” Maybe so, but it’s much harder to keep it going that way, as Plato admits. I was a bit surprised to read the sections advising the mingling of persuasion with coercion, to persuade the people that the laws are in their best interest because they help them to develop virtue. The end of the book sets us up for a major speech by the Athenian.

Every year I have this fantasy that the summer will be a nice, relaxing time. Then summer actually arrives and I find myself with a project list as long as my arm. I’ve finished the Liberty Classroom course and presented successfully at a conference last week, but there’s much more to do. At the moment our house in on the market, I have a book review to write, and there’s a big pile of grading to do for both spring and summer classes. C’est la vie.

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You Are Not a Trojan Woman. Count Your Blessings.

It’s a new year, we’re passing the 4,500-page mark in the Great Books Project’s Science and Mathematics category, and I am already a week behind! Let’s get right to it.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Peace by Aristophanes (GBWW Vol. 4, pp. 748-769)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 523-545)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 54-58 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 284-306)
  4. Sonnets I-V by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, pp. 586-587)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XVII (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 452-479)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book IV (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 677-686)

After finishing Milton’s corpus last week, I couldn’t help hanging on to early modern English poetry a while longer. Indulge me.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Trojan-Women-EuripidesThe Trojan Women by Euripides: Remember what I said about Euripides being light reading? Forget that, at least in terms of emotional weight. The prospects facing the Trojan women at the end of the war are gut-wrenching, and the military execution of the infant Astyanax is just too much. I was glad to see some glimmers of conscience from the herald who kept bringing them the bad news. There’s lots of railing at the gods in this one. I thought the introduction with Athena and Poseidon was curious; it doesn’t seem to fit very well with the rest of the play unless it’s to plant the seed of understanding that the Achaeans are going to get theirs, too.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXI: “If Alaric himself had been introduced into the council of Ravenna, he would probably have advised the same measures which were actually pursued by the ministers of Honorius.” In other words, the Roman government was exceedingly incompetent at this point, and the result was the sack of Rome. The comparison of the Roman response to Alaric with its response to Hannibal more than six centuries earlier was well done, as was the comparison with the sack of Rome by Charles V’s troops in the 1520s. I was surprised to see such a long quotation from Ammianus Marcellinus here, but I have to say it was on point.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 50-53: I suppose the first article of Question 50 is St. Thomas’s answer to the question that the chronological snobs keep saying was the fixation of medieval philosophy: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? St. Thomas’s answer in effect: the question contains a false premise, that angels are at least partially corporeal. It’s interesting that one of the objections the idea that angels are incorruptible is a quote from Plato’s Timaeus. The discussion of the locations and movements of angels got pretty intricate.
  4. Translations of Psalms 80-88 by John Milton: My comments from last time on these psalms pretty much hold for this batch. I did particularly like Psalm 84, especially verse 10: “For one day in thy Courts to be/Is better, and more blest/Then in the joyes of Vanity,/A thousand daies at best.” We now bid Milton a fond farewell.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XVI: I don’t have much to say about this chapter. I still feel off balance reading this work, although I find a lot of it very interesting. I like the way James frames the issue of memory and the way he explores why we remember some things while forgetting the vast majority of what we experience. This melancholy sentence jumped out at me: “But there comes a time of life for all of us when we can do no more than hold our own in the way of acquisitions, when the old paths fade as fast as the new ones form in our brain, and when we forget in a week quite as much as we can learn in the same space of time.” May this time be yet far off for all of us!
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book III: I sometimes assign this passage to graduate students when I teach my seminar on government. No one ever seems to know what to make of the just-so story of how governments and laws arose after the deluge (the Greek memory of which is intriguing). The Athenian’s “principles of rule” are jarring to a democratic age: 1. Parents rule their offspring; 2. The noble rule the ignoble; 3. The elder rule the younger; 4. Masters rule slaves; 5. The strong rule the weak. I suppose he’s just being descriptive, but everyone seems to endorse these principles.

After all the traveling in 2014, it’s a bit of a relief to return home with no trips planned until the last week of March, which is my spring break. I have a heavy teaching schedule this semester as usual, but I’m hoping to make up some ground on these readings after falling behind in the second half of 2014. All encouragement in the comments is welcome!

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“I Would My Horse Had the Speed of Your Tongue.”

This week in the Great Books Project we finish off the last of the John Milton volume and start Thomas Aquinas’s treatise on angels. We’ll also read about the Visigoths’ sack of Rome if my guess is right. All this as we pass the 21,000-page mark in our reading plan!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Trojan Women by Euripides (GBWW Vol. 4, pp. 363-382)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXI (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 495-523)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 50-53 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 269-284)
  4. Translations of Psalms 80-88 by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, pp. 78-90)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XVI (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 421-451)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book III (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 663-677)

Normally I wouldn’t consider Euripides light reading, but I think he will be in the middle of this batch.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. much-ado-about-nothing-castMuch Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare: I can’t read this play without picturing the Kenneth Branagh film version, which was my first exposure to the text. I appreciate Joss Whedon’s take as well, but the 20th-century California setting doesn’t quite speak to me the way Tuscany does. Beatrice and Benedick have so many great one-liners here, but the Constable very nearly steals the show with all his malapropisms. My favorite is the line about being “condemned into everlasting redemption.”
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXX: Things are definitely going downhill. The chapter recounts two invasions, the bigger by the Visigoth king Alaric. Gibbon portrays Honorius as utterly hopeless: “The emperor Honorius was distinguished, above his subjects, by the pre-eminence of fear as well as of rank.” Stilicho had to save his bacon when he was about to be captured after a ling flight from Milan. This chapter also contains a brief account of the abolition of gladiatorial combat in Rome, with Gibbon extending grudging acknowledgment to Telemachus, the Christian monk who was martyred while attempting to separate combatants in the arena. 
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 47-49: St. Thomas argues that the unity of God produces distinction and hierarchy in the creation, but he also states that God created only one world, by which I understand him to mean “universe.” Take that, Prof. Hawking. In the next question he argues for the privation theory of evil. Moreover, since evil is merely an absence of good, something good must in some way have originally been the cause of evil.
  4. Translations of Psalms 1-8 by John Milton: I’m not quite sure what to think about these renderings. On the one hand, they sound more archaic and awkward than the psalms in the King James Version, which predates these by nearly half a century. Milton was trying to put the square peg of Hebrew poetry into the round hole of an English meter and rhyme scheme, and that had to involve many contortions. On the other hand, I’m really impressed that he was able to make anything out of it at all.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XV: This chapter on the passage of time has its expected share of head-scratching: “Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming. . . . Reflection leads us to the conclusion that it must exist, but that it does exist can never be a fact of our immediate experience.” Heavy. James stresses that our sense of past time is actually a present sensation. His use of the term “specious present” was unfamiliar to me; I assume he meant something like short-term memory by it.
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book II: Plato is quite frankly elitist: “The excellence of music is to be measured by pleasure. But the pleasure must not be that of chance persons; the fairest music is that which delights the best and best educated, and especially that which delights the one man who is pre-eminent in virtue and education.” This way of thinking, whatever its merits, can’t make it to first base in a culture, like ours, where no one can agree on standards. Later in the book the Athenian revisits the regulation of drinking, and I was struck again by how seriously everyone took it.

I set off on my last trip of the year tomorrow morning and will return after the New Year. Look for the next project update and a 2014 retrospective around Jan. 3. Merry Christmas!

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Back to Cloud Cuckoo Land

Another month has been lost as a result of my extensive travels, but I continue pressing forward with the Great Books Project. The next round of readings includes a Shakespeare favorite, so there is no excuse to stop now!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Much Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 24, pp. 503-531)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXX (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 477-495)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 47-49 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 256-269)
  4. Translations of Psalms 1-8 by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, pp. 71-77)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XV (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 396-420)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book II (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 653-663)

I believe Milton’s translations of the Psalms are the last of his works we’ll read, so we are very close to finishing another GBWW volume.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. aristophanes-birdsThe Birds by Aristophanes: In case you haven’t noticed by this point, disrespecting the gods is always a bad idea in Greek literature, so I’m surprised Aristophanes lets the birds get away with their “usurpation” of the realm between the gods and men. I had a hard time visualizing a staging of the play; I suspect that’s why I didn’t find it as funny some of the other comedies we’ve read.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXIX: After my hiatus, I couldn’t help but be struck with the elegance of Gibbon’s prose all over again. “The genius of Rome expired with Theodosius, the last of the successors of Augustus and Constantine who appeared in the field at the head of their armies, and whose authority was universally acknowledged throughout the whole extent of the empire.” Rufinus, by contrast, is “an odious favorite” for whom we shed no tears when he receives his just deserts. This chapter includes the final division of the empire into eastern and western halves. I couldn’t help but cringe a little at the description of Honorius near the end; his subjects discovered that he was “without passions, and consequently without talents.”
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 44-46: Now that St. Thomas has completed his treatment of the Trinity, he moves into a treatise on the Creation. The positions he advances are not too surprising: God is the Creator of all things; God is the telos of all things; all the persons of the Trinity participate in the act of creation. My head started to spin the same way it did with St. Augustine when St. Thomas started talking about the beginning of time.
  4. “A Custom of the Island of Cea” by Montaigne: The title of this essay is a bit misleading because Montaigne doesn’t get around to Cea until the last couple of paragraphs. The whole thing, though, is about peoples who have some sort of custom of suicide when they determine their time has come. Montaigne relates anecdotes of people who drink poison at a ripe old age and of towns that commit mass suicide when surrounded by a superior military force. It’s all very gruesome.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XIV: This chapter was a bit dense, but it’s clear that James views the mental function of association as extremely important. He writes that is the result of “neural habit,” and argues that “when two elementary brain-processes have been active together or in immediate succession, one of them, on reoccurring, tends to propagate its excitement into the other.” Pavlov’s dogs immediately come to mind. Apparently not everyone in James’s day accepted that the mind works in such a way, and he devotes several pages to rebutting their arguments.
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book I: An Athenian, a Spartan, and a Cretan walk into a bar . . . you can tell even this early in the work that Plato sounds less utopian here than in the Republic. I thought the discussion hardship vs. luxury was a bit surprising, and the part about drunkenness was really interesting.

I have another few weeks of traveling coming up, so I’m not entirely confident the posts will be regular through the end of 2014. I will do my best, however. The spring semester looks very calm compared to what I have been through the last few months, so I anticipate a lot of catching up then.

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Many a True Word Hath Been Spoken in Jest

I’ve been putting off for some time, but the time has finally come to dig into Plato’s Laws. It will be a heavy week with that, Aquinas, and James, but Aristophanes will lighten things up a bit.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Birds by Aristophanes (GBWW Vol. 4, pp. 770-797)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXIX (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 468-477)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 44-46 (GBWW Vol. 16, p. 238-256)
  4. A Custom of the Island of Cea” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 206-213)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XIV (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 360-395)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book I (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 640-653)

I thought of trying to find something Halloweenish for this week’s readings, but couldn’t muster the energy that would have been necessary. Don’t hate me.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. kinglear-mckellenKing Lear by William Shakespeare: In the discussion with my doctoral seminar, I heard several students make insightful observations about the injustices committed not only by the daughters, but also by Lear himself in seeking fawning treatment from his family in Act I. We also had some good discussion about Shakespeare’s habit of having the natural world mimic the disruptions experienced by his plays’ protagonists. Can anyone tell me whether this movie version is worthwhile?
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXVIII: Gibbon claims that “the ruin of paganism . . . is perhaps the only example of the total extirpation of ancient and popular superstition.” The only problem with this statement is just about all of it. Paganism wasn’t extirpated; the strand of it that was eliminated was only the state cult, which wasn’t popular. Gibbon also rehearses the cult-of-the-saints-as-adapted-paganism thesis, an idea that was pretty much exploded by Peter Brown and others in the second half of the 20th century.
  3. “To Sir Henry Vane the Younger” and “To Mr. Cyriack upon His Blindness” by John Milton: These two sonnets are the last of Milton’s for us to read. At this point all we have left of his work are some translations of psalms. Milton praises Henry Vane, who sat in the Long Parliament if I remember correctly, as a man wise beyond his years: “On thy firme hand religion leanes/In peace, & reck’ns thee her eldest son.” 
  4. On Sleep and Sleeplessness by Aristotle: Aristotle certainly approaches the subject of sleep in a manner most 21st-century scientists would not recognize. However, it’s hard to find fault with his methods considering the state of knowledge in the 4th century B.C. He starts with the commonplace observation that wakefulness is the exercise of sense-perception, and that sleep would thus seem to be the privation of that. But then he pokes around and identifies some problems with that conclusion. By the end he says that “sleep is a sort of concentration, or natural recoil,” of the body’s “hot matter.”
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XIII: “The notice of any part whatever of our object is an act of discrimination.” James has kind words for Locke at the beginning of this chapter and laments that later generations of empiricists never followed up on some of his early insights with respect to humans’ ability to discern. Further in there’s an interesting statement that “any total impression made on the mind must be unanalyzable, whose elements are never experienced apart.” This took me aback at first, but as he developed the point it seemed more and more reasonable. 
  6. “Of Drunkenness” by Michel de Montaigne: This essay contains some real zingers. “Each man lays weight on his neighbor’s sin and lightens his own. . . . The other vices affect the understanding; this one overturns it, and stuns the body. . . . A sedate man knocks in vain on the door of poetry. . . . No excellent soul is free from an admixture of madness.” It was interesting how Montaigne, after blasting drunkenness in ancient and contemporary times, ultimately settles down and starts talking about the selection of wines and moderation in drinking.

We’ve had some nice weather over the last couple of weeks here, but today’s temperatures were in the mid-80s. That’s so wrong for late October. What’s more, it’s not going to get cool for several more days, so I’ll be reading inside again.

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The Great Books Project Returns

I note with horror that it has been more than a month since my last post on this blog. A big part of the reason for that was my difficulty in getting internet access during a 3.5-week research and conference trip from which I returned a week ago. I spent many hours driving, flying, sitting in archives, sitting in conference sessions, etc., all while trying to manage my classes remotely when I could get online at all. Now that I am back home until the Thanksgiving break, it’s time to move forward again on these readings!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. King Lear by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, pp. 244-283)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXVIII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 457-467)
  3. To Sir Henry Vane the Younger” and “To Mr. Cyriack upon His Blindness” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 69-70)
  4. On Sleep and Sleeplessness by Aristotle (GBWW Vol. 7, pp. 696-706)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XIII (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 315-359)
  6. Of Drunkenness” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 202-206)

When I originally charted this group of readings, I expected I would be reading Lear along with my doctoral seminar. The best laid plans . . .

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Epilogue: This ending certainly doesn’t satisfy the modern reader who wants all the loose ends tied up. Will Dmitri escape? Will he have a future with Grushenka after the scene with his formerly betrothed? Will Ivan live? Will Alyosha marry? I suppose this is the reason why Dostoevsky ended with Ilusha’s funeral and Alyosha’s pact with the boys. Life is full of uncertainties, and the best human beings can do is to commit to live in an honest and loving way, looking forward to the resurrection.
  2. Saint_AmbroseThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXVII: Some of Gibbon’s condescension towards Christianity is on display in this chapter, which covers Theodosius, St. Ambrose, and St. Martin of Tours. He makes much of Theodosius’s decrees against Arians and other heretics and pretends that they were all motivated out of a simple hatred of different opinions, whereas other historians have pointed to the very real civil unrest occasioned by the doctrinal conflicts of the age. He praises St. Ambrose’s and St. Martin’s “humane inconsistency” in protesting Theodosius’s executions of some who deviated from Nicene orthodoxy. I confess there was much rolling of eyes here.
  3. The Suppliant Maidens by Aeschylus: When discussing this with my doctoral students, I asked them to consider whether the maidens’ grounding their appeal to Argos on their distant blood relation changed the requirements of justice on the part of the Argives. The question produced some interesting exchanges.
  4. On Memory and Reminiscence by Aristotle: Serendipitously, Aristotle deals tangentially with conception (see below) in this work, primarily to insist that memory is not conception. Nor is it perception. Rather, he defines it as “a state of affection of one of these, conditioned by lapse of time.” It is essentially a function of sense-perception, not intelligence; thus not only humans but other animals possess it. He distinguishes remembering from recollection in an interesting way.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XII: This chapter’s topic is conception, which James defines as “the function by which we thus identify a numerically distinct and permanent subject of discourse.” According to him, conceptions are unchangeable; they “form an essentially discontinuous system.” He goes to offer some strong words for the modern nominalist tradition which denies the existence of abstraction and universals. I know James has his flaws, but when I read this stuff I can’t help but like him.
  6. Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I Q. 40-43: St. Thomas views the essential attributes of each person of the Trinity primarily as the relationship it bears to the other two persons. I was a bit unclear on the term “notional act,” which played a significant role in one of the questions.

Thanks to those of you who written in to check on me during this unintended hiatus. It’s good to know that many are following along with this project. I have several significant projects ongoing at the moment, but I plan to resume regular posts for the foreseeable future.

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Huns Are Meanies

This week in the Great Books Project we finish a great novel while pretending we haven’t fallen further behind on the posting schedule. Let’s get right to it.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Epilogue (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 420-431)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXVII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 435-457)
  3. The Suppliant Maidens by Aeschylus (GBWW Vol. 4, p. 1-12)
  4. On Memory and Reminiscence by Aristotle (GBWW Vol. 7, pp. 690-695)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XII (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 299-314)
  6. Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Q. 40-43 (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 213-237)

Not only do we finish Dostoevsky this week, but we also complete St. Thomas’s treatise on the Trinity.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XII, Chapters 10-14: After being treated to the defense attorney’s eloquence, I half expected Mitya to be acquitted. The portion of the speech dealing with Smerdyakov was the most interesting to me, both the character sketch and the reconstruction of the events of the night of the murder. But now we await the sentencing. 
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXVI: Gibbon goes into some detail about the oppression of the Goths by the invading Huns. It makes it difficult to fault the Goths for trying to move into Roman territory. The climactic moment, of course, is Valens’s death at Adrianople. Gibbon seems to view that battle as perhaps the key moment in the decline and fall.
  3. Oliver_Cromwell“On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament,”  “On the Lord Gen. Fairfax at the Siege of Colchester,” and “To the Lord Generall Cromwell, May 1652” by John Milton: These sonnets all date from the Interregnum period and are quite political. The juiciest is the first, which lambasts the Presbyterian majority in Parliament that decided to keep an established church that operated on Reformed principles rather than opt for pure religious toleration. Milton ends the sonnet with the famous line, “New Presbyter is but Old Priest write Large.”
  4. “Against a Person Who Had Once Been Detected in Adultery” and “How Magnanimity Is Consistent with Care” by Epictetus: According to whoever recorded this conversation, Epictetus was prompted by the presence of a adulterer to launch into this attack. I can only imagine that the adulterer must have felt about two inches tall by the end of it. Epictetus makes an interesting analogy to refute those who allege that society’s women should be held in common: the pig at a feast is eaten in common by all who attend, but it’s very bad form to take the food off someone else’s plate once it has been apportioned.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters XI: This chapter is about attention and its limits, a topic I’ve on which actually seen some recent research. James is close to the information I’d read about how many things we can focus on. The bombshell for me in this chapter was James’s statement at the outset that the Lockes et al who predicate everything on experience seem to have forgotten that “experience” can only consist of what we are paying attention to, and so the mind controls experience to a great degree.
  6. “Of the Name of the Holy Ghost as Gift” and “The Persons in Relation to the Essence” by St. Thomas Aquinas: St. Thomas argues here that “Gift” is an appropriate name for the holy Spirit in the same way “Love” is. He also revisits the Arian controversy indirectly by arguing for the consubstantiality of the persons of the Trinity. I honestly didn’t have name time to read this one closely and ended up having to skim it.

I’m just barely keeping my head above water with these readings this month, and with another trip coming up soon (to Wheaton for research) I’m thinking I need to stock up on the audio books for the car.

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Why Diogenes Refused to Give References

This week in the Great Books Project we will hit the 5,000-page mark in the Man and Society category, although I can’t say I’m really feeling more manly or social than usual.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XII, Chapters 10-14 (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 404-420)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXVI (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 409-435)
  3. On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament,” “On the Lord Gen. Fairfax at the Siege of Colchester,” and “To the Lord Generall Cromwell May 1652” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 68-69)
  4. Against a Person Who Had Once Been Detected in Adultery” and “How Magnanimity Is Consistent with Care” by Epictetus, Discourses Book II, Chapters 4-5 (GBWW Vol. 11, p. 33)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XI (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 260-298)
  6. Of the Name of the Holy Ghost as Gift” and “Of the Persons in Relation to the Essence” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 200-213; Part I, Q. 38-39 of the Summa Theologica)

We could have finished the Brothers K this week, but I decided to save the Epilogue for next week to try to make sense of it all. This William James book has really been making the science readings disproportionately large over the last several weeks.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XII, Chapters 6-9: All four of these chapters are taken up with the prosecutor’s closing argument against Mitya. Anyone familiar with crime fiction or police procedurals on TV will find this familiar. The prosecutor does everything possible to make the defense’s case seem implausible, particularly the case against Smerdyakov. He doesn’t actually discount Ivan’s testimony, but spins it to suggest Smerdyakov and Mitya were accomplices. 
  2. Colosso-de-barlettaThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXV: After three entire chapters devoted to Julian and his brief reign, it was a bit jarring to see so much crammed into this chapter: the short reign of Jovian, the much longer of reign of Valentinian (who gets high marks from Gibbon), the division of the eastern and western empires, the career of Valens, etc. There’s an interesting aphorism here: “The prince who refuses to be the judge, instructs his people to consider him as the accomplice of his ministers.”
  3. Sonnets XVII-XIX by John Milton: I couldn’t detect any connection among these three sonnets, other than that they were all composed about individuals. Sonnet XIX was the most moving: a vision of the narrator’s deceased wife. If you read Euripides’s Alcestis along with us, you’ll recognize a couple of the references. Typical of Milton, Hercules sits alongside the Mosaic Law here. 
  4. “To Those Who Recommend Persons to Philosophers” by Epictetus: This essay is only one paragraph long. It begins with an anecdote about Diogenes refusing to recommend someone to an acquaintance. Diogenes said if the acquaintance was a good judge of character, he wouldn’t need the recommendation, and that if he was a poor judge of character, the recommendation wouldn’t do any good anyway. Epictetus says we all need to become good judges of character so that we will not to rely on the recommendations/references of others.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters X: It’s a good thing James lays out his chapters’ organization clearly; otherwise, I couldn’t have handled this marathon. The chapter examines various aspects of the Self, which everyone says is one of the key ideas of modern thought. James defines the term broadly: “A man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his.” This definition includes things like friendships, reputation, property, etc. I’m still not sure what to think of that or whether contemporary psychologists would accept the definition.
  6. “Of the Name of the Holy Ghost—Love” by St. Thomas Aquinas: It’s curious that here quotes from St. Augustine’s On the Trinity form an objection to one article and the “on the contrary” of the other. Of course, St. Thomas asserts that St. Augustine supports his interpretation when read in the proper sense. What’s asserted in this question is that Love is the proper name of the Holy Ghost and that the Father and the Son love each other through the Holy Ghost.

The school year is back in full swing, and I’m left wondering when I’m going to do my weekly readings for this project. I need to get back into my early-morning routine, but of course that means I have to start going to bed earlier, which in turn is difficult when I sometimes don’t finish teaching class until 9:00 p.m. I’m sure I’ll figure something out.

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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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