Is Luxury Good or Evil?

On this Great Books Monday, I hope you are in a calculating mood. Not only are we embarking on one of Aristotle’s works on logic, but we’re also reading the father of amoral political calculation this week.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Rappacini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (GGB Vol. 3, pp. 128-152)
  2. The Prince by Machiavelli (GBWW Vol. 21, pp. 1-37)
  3. Of the Use of Sophistical Arguments, and Hypothetical, and the Like” by Epictetus (GBWW Vol. 11, p. 106-107; Discourses Book I Ch. 7)
  4. Demosthenes and Cicero Compared” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 724-725)
  5. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Ch. 13 (GBWW Vol. 49, pp. 196-206)
  6. The Posterior Analytics of Aristotle, Book I (GBWW Vol. 7, pp. 95-122)

This is another good week to get involved in the readings because we are in the middle of just one work this time around (two if you count the Plutarch comparison). Everything else is a standalone piece or the beginning of a longer work.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Clouds by Aristophanes: I had forgotten how funny this play is, although there was more toilet humor than was necessary. In an age when comic writers routinely make tradition and conservative thinking the butt of their jokes, Aristophanes makes for unusual reading. For him, it’s the innovators who have to be stopped.
  2. “Of Refinement in the Arts” by David Hume: I’m sure I’ll be returning to this essay in the future; in fact, I may use it in classes. Hume’s defense of luxury and refinement doesn’t fire on every cylinder, but it contains some powerful ideas. The discussion of the particular vices common to refined and barbarous ages was especially insightful.
  3. “Of Providence” by Epictetus (Discourses Book I Chapter 6): It’s no wonder the early Christians were drawn to the Stoics (I know I’ve said this before). Epictetus calls for recognition of the benevolence of the created order as well as a grateful attitude. And he tells the complainers to man up.
  4. “Cicero” by Plutarch: Although I knew a few basic biographical facts about Cicero, most of this was new to me. Plutarch gives a great summary of his character. His integrity in numerous situations was admirable, but at the same time he was really full of himself. His many one-liners display great wit, but I can see how they would have alienated those on the receiving end. One can’t read the account of Cicero’s last days without accumulating some bad feelings toward Augustus.
  5. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Ch. 12: In this chapter Darwin constructs plausible scenarios by which species could have been introduced into regions separated by great barriers such as oceans. I found the discussion of plant seeds particularly interesting.
  6. “The Decline of the Mechanical View” by Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld: This is the clearest description of the failings of mechanism I’ve read (although, to be honest, I haven’t read many). I especially enjoyed the fictional debate between Newton and Huygens. Also, I never thought I’d see a scientist admit that advocacy of scientific theories is sometimes a matter of mere personal preference!

I’m halfway through my busiest teaching month of the year and have been holding up fairly well. I’ve made this week’s and next week’s readings a touch lighter than usual to accommodate myself, although I predict Aristotle will take some close reading. Find a cool spot to read 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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