Augustine Censures the Pagans

On this Great Books Monday, we launch into the reading of the most influential epic (I do not say the greatest) in the history of the West. With Virgil added to the readings from the most important post-apostolic theologian in the Christian church and the most highly regarded historian of the ancient world, I’d say that your brain should swell significantly in the coming weeks.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Aeneid of Virgil, Book I  (GBWW Vol. 12, pp. 81-99)
  2. History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Book II (GBWW Vol. 5, pp. 387-416)
  3. Experience and Education by John Dewey, Preface-Ch. 1 (GBWW Vol. 55, pp. 95-101)
  4. On Some Forms of Literature” by Arthur Schopenhauer (GGB Vol. 5, pp. 137-142)
  5. What Is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger, Ch. 3-Epilogue (GBWW Vol. 56, pp. 481-504)
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book II (GBWW Vol. 16, pp. 187-207; in the linked text, it’s the material under the heading “A review of the calamities . . .” and its subheads)

I almost put Paradise Lost on the list before the Aeneid, but then decided that really wouldn’t make much sense, given the enormous influence of Roman epic on Milton. We’ll read Paradise Lost later this year.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. “I’m a Fool” by Sherwood Anderson: This is the first of Anderson’s stories I’ve ever read. The contrast between the narrator’s self-assured demeanor and the way he castigates himself for his cowardice and dishonesty is striking. His uncertainty regarding how to think about social status was interesting, too. He clearly wants to pigeonhole people as members of a certain class, but then makes all these exceptions for the concrete individuals he discusses in the story.
  2. History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Book I: I never cease to be amazed at the speeches in this work. They are realpolitik through and through, with barely a nod towards any principles of justice. The Athenians seem to be particularly deficient in their ethics towards people of other states. The brutality of the first naval battle, in which enemy survivors from the shipwrecks were slain in the water rather than taken prisoner, is unsettling.
  3. “Of Beauty” by Francis Bacon: This very short essay was actually a little difficult for me to interpret. I was a bit surprised at the assertion that beauty is fullest in the autumn of life rather than in youth. The analogy of virtue in the physical body to a precious stone in an appropriate setting was thought-provoking, too.
  4. “First Inaugural Address” by Thomas Jefferson: My wife commented on Jefferson’s humility and how out of place it would seem in today’s political climate. I liked Jefferson’s summary of the foundational principles of the government, a list which, again, would be difficult to imagine coming from the mouth of any president-elect in 2012 (except maybe Ron Paul, who is pretty Jeffersonian). No entangling alliances?
  5. What Is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger: I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began this work, but it was refreshing to read about “naive physicists” and the potential limits of human understanding. There’s no Enlightenment hubris here. The discussion of chromosomes wasn’t too difficult to follow. Remember that this was published before the discovery of DNA.
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book I: Augustine takes Christianity’s pagan critics to the woodshed here. It really is bad form to take refuge in a Christian church from barbarian hordes and then attack the institution whose influence saved your life. The argument against suicide is very important as well. Augustine is sometimes criticized as a syncretist, but his willingness to take on the sacred cow of Lucretia is very significant.

I managed to finish last week’s readings on Friday, so I am back ahead of the game. I hope I’m able to keep up this level productivity now that classes are back in full swing.

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About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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