Rousseau Misinterprets Christianity—Anyone Surprised?

It’s (finally) Great Books Monday again, and after several weeks of playing catch-up, we are back on schedule with a Monday post. This week we’ll come within a whisker of our 1,800th page of readings in the sciences, and that’s the field where we’ve read the least! 

Here are the readings for this week (who’s ready for some comedy?):

  1. The Clouds by Aristophanes (GBWW Vol. 4, pp. 697-721)
  2. Of Refinement in the Arts” (GGB Vol. 7, pp. 52-61)
  3. Of Providence” by Epictetus (GBWW Vol. 11, p. 104-106; Discourses Book I Ch. 6)
  4. Cicero” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 704-723)
  5. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Ch. 12 (GBWW Vol. 49, pp. 181-195)
  6. The Decline of the Mechanical View” by Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld (GGB Vol. 8, pp. 528-560; Chapter II of The Evolution of Physics)

Once again we have two selections from the sciences this week. Hopefully they won’t seem too tedious, since they are from different branches of the physical sciences.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. “The Study of Poetry” by Matthew Arnold: We get a quick tour through the history of Western poetry in this essay. I think Adler must have been influenced by Arnold to a significant degree in his selections for the two Great Books series he edited. Arnold’s prediction that great literature will always be prominent because of humanity’s instinct for self-preservation seems a bit odd given the philistinism we see in many places today, but maybe it gives reason for hope. 
  2. The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Book IV: Rousseau takes the sovereign/government distinction to some odd places in this book. His discussion of the “true Christianity” appears to imbibe heavily of the pietistic view prominent in certain quarters in the 18th century and is on the whole unsatisfying.
  3. “Against the Academics” by Epictetus (Discourses Book I Chapter 5): This piece is very short, but very biting. Without reference to the title, one might think Epictetus is criticizing non-academics unwilling to think through situations, but instead he appears to be lambasting people too wedded to certain philosophical notions that contradict experience. 
  4. demosthenes“Demosthenes” by Plutarch: Demosthenes, like many of the great Greeks and Romans, is so impressive in certain ways. He became the most successful orator in Athens through sheer hard work after being robbed of his inheritance, and he displayed a consistency through most of his career that was admirable. Viewed from the Christian perspective, his pride was an obvious flaw, another thing he shares in common with so many ancients.
  5. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Ch. 11: Here Darwin continues the discussion of the geological record and argues that natural selection accounts for the observed evidence of extinction and succession of species in different geographical areas. He rightly notes near the end that people unwilling to go along with some of his assumptions are correct to reject the whole theory. 
  6. “The Rise of the Mechanical View” by Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld: Apart from the dismissal of everyone before Galileo as being involved in serious science, this discussion was interesting and enjoyable. It’s good that we read Galileo and Helmholtz before this since Einstein and Infeld interact with them in several places. I appreciated the abstention from mathematical equations.

Now that I’m back on schedule with these posts, I hope to do a mid-year analysis of where we are in the project in the next day or two. Enjoy your reading this week!

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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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