How Many Metaphysicians Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?

Only one, if he can experience it from the inside. (If you read Bergson last week, you got the joke.)

It’s still Tuesday here in the Central time zone, so I’m going to claim success this week in continuing to make progress in getting back on schedule with Great Books posts! With the holiday tomorrow, I hope to make up further ground.

Here are the readings for this week:

  1. The Study of Poetry” by Matthew Arnold (GGB Vol. 5, pp. 19-41)
  2. The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Book IV (GBWW Vol. 35, pp. 425-439)
  3. Against the Academics” by Epictetus (GBWW Vol. 11, p. 103-104; Discourses Book I Ch. 5)
  4. Demosthenes” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 691-704)
  5. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Ch. 11 (GBWW Vol. 49, pp. 167-180)
  6. The Rise of the Mechanical View” by Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld (GGB Vol. 8, pp. 490-528; Chapter I of The Evolution of Physics)

We have a double shot of science this week, which is a bit unusual in this reading plan, but necessary because of the imbalance in the page count between science and philosophy that has been accumulating as we read Darwin and Augustine. We’ll do the same thing next week to bring us back into more of a balance. Also, we’ll finish up Rousseau this time out.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov: The inability of the household to adapt to modern conditions made for depressing reading. I felt a great deal of sympathy for the brother and sister who lost their ancestral home, but at the same time recognized that their own shortcomings led them to that outcome. I don’t think you’re really supposed to identify with any of these characters, not even the former serf who has made it big. 
  2. The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Book III: Although Rousseau continues down the wrong road in this book from what I can see, he does make some astute observations along the way, e.g., that the larger the State, the less free the inhabitants necessarily are, or that it’s not the case that a single form of government is universally the best for all places and at all times.
  3. “Of Progress or Improvement” by Epictetus (Discourses Book I Chapter 4): This notion of the product of virtue being tranquility is something I would have expected to see from an Epicurean rather than from a Stoic, but Epictetus brings the idea back to something that made sense to me by using the example of Socrates telling Crito that he’ll accept the unjust judgment of Athens. One brings his own will into harmony with the will of the gods as revealed in actual events, and this could be termed “tranquility.”
  4. “Of Riches” by Francis Bacon: Bacon certainly knows how to turn a phrase. The idea of riches being the “baggage of virtue” provides a lot of scope for rumination.
  5. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Ch. 10: It was interesting to see Darwin expressing some degree of confusion as to why the fossil record didn’t seem to provide extensive corroboration of his theory. Statements like “the case at present must remain inexplicable” are revealing, although he expresses some confidence that the “gaps” in the fossil record would eventually be filled. This chapter brings home Darwin’s debt to Charles Lyell and his “present is the key to the past” way of interpreting geological evidence.
  6. An Introduction to Metaphysics by Henri Bergson: This is a difficult piece to navigate. Bergson’s emphases on “duration” and the need for an intuitive experience of a thing from “the inside” lead the reader into some murky territory pretty quickly. One obvious problem is that Bergson must use analytical language to explain an approach which can’t be understood analytically. How can one explain fully with signs (words) a branch of philosophy which, according to Bergson, attempts to do away with signs? His objections to empiricism and rationalism are very pertinent, though.

We’ve had several days of triple-digit temperatures here in Montgomery this past week, as has much of the rest of the U.S. This is the time of year when I start seriously thinking of ways to spend the summer in cooler climes. Maybe next year . . .

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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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