Well, here I am making a Great Books post on Saturday after expressing high hopes last week that I’d be back onto a Monday schedule. The demands of a new semester (including breaking in a new professor in my department) and getting my children’s homeschool schedule back on track proved too much for me. The best laid plans . . .
Here are the readings for the coming week:
- The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, Chapters 43-48 (GGB Vol. 2)*
- The Metaphysics of Aristotle, Book IV (GBWW Vol. 7, pp. 522-532)
- Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Volume II, Part Two, Chapters 10-20 (GBWW Vol. 44, pp. 285-300)
- “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (GGB Vol. 3, pp. 397-431)
- The Almagest of Ptolemy, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 15, pp. 247-269)
- Novum Organum by Francis Bacon, Book Two, Parts 1-26 (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 137-157)
*Seven chapters from The Pickwick Papers are excerpted in the GGB series. I’ve elected to read the entire novel and have listed page numbers from Volume 2 of GGB when I reach excerpted chapters. Chapter 34 was the last excerpted chapter, so from now until the end of the book I won’t be listing page numbers.
Here are some observations from last week’s readings:
- The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, Chapters 43-48: I can hardly imagine a more satisfying ending to Pickwick’s stay in debtor’s prison than to see the plaintiff in the malicious suit against him being hoisted on her own petard and to see him come out of the episode smelling like roses. This was after Sam’s hilarious contrivance to get arrested for debt as well so he could be by Pickwick’s side throughout the ordeal.
- The Metaphysics of Aristotle, Book III: Aristotle begins this section by saying, in effect, “We must address fourteen questions before we can know what we’re talking about here.” Then he spends the rest of the book elaborating the questions, but not trying to answer them. On the one hand, I’m very impressed with the discipline required to be as precise in possible in asking the questions. On the other hand, I’m frustrated that there’s no attempt to figure out any answers yet!
- Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Volume II, Part Two, Ch. 1-9: This section is another in which stimulating observations and reflections occur frequently. I paid particularly close attention to the chapters on voluntary associations because I have a new doctoral student considering a dissertation topic on the subject. The assertion that liberty is the only cure for the ills of equality demands close consideration, as does the warning that democratic peoples prefer equality in slavery to inequality in freedom. Yikes!
- “A Defence of Poetry” by Percy Shelley: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” That’s a bold claim. Of course, Shelley is defining “poet” so broadly here (as practically anyone with great imagination or the spirit of discovery) that the conclusion logically follows from his premises. I liked the historical treatment of poetry and the observations on great authors of the past.
- The Almagest of Ptolemy, Book VII: We’re finally through the sections of the treatise dealing with the moon. This book begins a consideration of the stars. Ptolemy argues that the stars are fixed in relation to each other; for evidence he compares his own observations to those of Hipparchus, who wrote centuries before him. There follows a detailed table of the relative position of every star in all the major constellations. (I trust my fellow readers will forgive me if I merely skimmed that part.)
- Novum Organum by Francis Bacon, Book I: After reading this section, I’m convinced I need to add at least one excerpt from it to my freshmen’s reading list. I hadn’t read this work since graduate school, but the section on the “four idols” seems so obviously to lend itself to getting class discussions started that I’m surprised it hadn’t occurred to me before now. It’s noteworthy how Bacon criticizes not only the Aristotelians, but also other empiricists who don’t proceed in their experimentation exactly how he thinks they should.
As I write this, my three-year-old son is kicking and screaming in the hallway outside my office because he doesn’t like the video I’ve allowed his brothers (ages five and one) to watch for the next 30 minutes. I’ve already gotten up to deal with him three or four times as I’ve been writing this post. Doing this project as a father of five young sons presents certain challenges! I’m sure you face challenges of your own if you have a goal of becoming more familiar with the classics; there will always seem to be something more urgent calling for your attention. But as C.S. Lewis wrote, there’s never a perfect time to start this kind of education, so just start now if you haven’t already!