Substance is Essence

Advocates of scientism, beware! Jonathan Swift is about to rock your world in this week’s Great Books readings.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, Part III (GBWW Vol. 34, pp. 89-131)
  2. The Metaphysics of Aristotle, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 7, pp. 566-570)
  3. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Volume II, Part Three, Chapters 21-26 (GBWW Vol. 44, pp. 343-360)
  4. Euthydemus by Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 65-84)
  5. The Almagest of Ptolemy, Book XI, 1-4 (GBWW Vol. 15, pp. 346-364)
  6. That the Logical Art is Necessary” by Epictetus (GBWW Vol. 11, p. 115-117; Book I, Ch. 17 of the Discourses)

Aristotle, Plato, and Epictetus all in one week . . . will you be able to contain yourself?

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. gulliver-brobdingnagGulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, Part II: In the story of the visit to Brobdingnag, Swift turns the satirical guns more obviously on his own society while still managing to affect an ardent patriotism in Gulliver’s narrative voice. The section where he condescendingly refers to the king’s innocence in matters of policy is one example; what wise king wouldn’t wish to have the power to annihilate his subjects at a stroke if they stepped out of line? 
  2. The Metaphysics of Aristotle, Book VII: Now we’re really getting somewhere! Aristotle explores the concept of “substance” here, and argues that the substance of a thing is its “essence,” or its essential qualities. He denies the Platonic notion of ideal forms and deems the equation of matter with substance an absurdity. 
  3. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Volume II, Part Three, Ch. 18-20: Tocqueville writes about the differing conceptions of honor not only in America and Europe, but also across time. He attributes the lingering European idea of honor to the peculiarities of medieval feudal relations. I’m not sure everything here is accurate, but it all makes for fascinating reading.
  4. “Of Prompt or Slow Speech” by Michel de Montaigne: Montaigne’s anecdotes are worth the reading even without any of the applications he draws from them. The story of the pope’s changing the assigned sermon topic at the last minute for political reasons and throwing the orators into a tizzy was good fun. 
  5. The Almagest of Ptolemy, Book X: This book deals with the orbits of Venus and Mars. Although the eccentricities of their orbits in the geocentric system aren’t as extreme as Mercury’s, the basic proofs outlining their orbits are really complex. It took 15 pages to get through the proof of Mars’s basic orbit! 
  6. “Of Providence” by Epictetus: I found this essay really quite beautiful. The “count your blessings” perspective recommended here is wonderful: “If we had understanding, ought we to do anything else both jointly and severally than to sing hymns and bless the deity, and to tell of his benefits?” And Epictetus isn’t even a Christian!

Once again, I missed a Monday post by a whisker. I actually misplaced a couple of my volumes and didn’t locate them until this morning, so I couldn’t get all the information I needed into the post until this afternoon.

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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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