Midway in the Journey of Our Life I Found Myself in a Dark Wood

Have you noticed that reading the Great Books inevitably affects other areas of your life?For example, the most pressing question I’m dealing with after beginning Dante last week is whether this thing deserves my attention. (OK, actually that’s not the most pressing question I’m dealing with.)

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Divine Comedy: Inferno by Dante Alighieri, Cantos XVIII-XXXIV (GBWW Vol. 19, pp. 22-44)
  2. How We Should Struggle with Circumstance” by Epictetus (GBWW Vol. 11, pp. 121-122; Book I Chapter 24 of the Discourses)
  3. The Annals of Tacitus, Book X (GBWW Vol. 14, pp. 100-110)
  4. The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen, Chapter 4 (GBWW Vol. 57, pp. 29-43)
  5. The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, Part I, Sections D-H (GBWW Vol. 54, pp. 155-178; pp. 16-35 of the linked PDF)
  6. The Philosophy of Right by G.W.F. Hegel, Third Part, Section III (GBWW Vol. 43, pp. 83-118)

It will be a long slog through Hegel this week. I apologize for that, but I didn’t see a good way to break up the section. Linger a little longer over Dante to make up for it.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Dante-InfernoThe Divine Comedy: Inferno by Dante Alighieri, Cantos I-XVII: It has been about fourteen or fifteen years since my last complete read-through of this work. This time, I enjoyed the description of Limbo; I think I may require my students to read that canto in the future because so many figures we study appear in it. The last time I read this, I had never read anything by Epicurus, so his appearance in the circle of heresy caught my attention. 
  2. “Against Epicurus” by Epictetus: Speaking of Epicurus, I was surprised that of all the apparent differences between Epicureans and Stoics, what Epictetus criticizes him on here is specifically his admonition against childrearing. This really grabbed me because I recently had a student who interpreted something from Epictetus’s Enchiridion as saying that Epictetus himself recommended having nothing to do with children.
  3. The Annals of Tacitus, Books V-VI: It’s too bad that the majority of Book V has been lost. After Tacitus spends so much time getting you to despise Sejanus, you really want to read about his downfall, but can’t. At least we do away with Tiberius at the end of Book VI, whose increasingly tyrannical behavior and constant debaucheries—including, apparently, child molestation—turn one’s stomach. I couldn’t decide which was worse: Tiberius’s reign of terror, or the story of the innocent girl who was condemned to death because of her parentage and who was raped immediately before her execution so the precedent against capital punishment of virgins wouldn’t be broken.
  4. The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen, Chapters 2-3: Veblen’s descriptions of pecuniary emulation and conspicuous leisure seem plausible on their face to a culture familiar with the idea of “keeping up with the Joneses,” but on closer examination seems lacking. Does he really think that people try to spell correctly so that others will know that they haven’t been doing anything productive with their time? I refuse to believe the story of the French king who let himself be burned to death rather than move himself unless Veblen at least provides me with a name. There are no citations or specific references of any kind!
  5. The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, Introduction and Part I, Sections A-C: So far, I’m actually enjoying this book. Freud relates a number of fascinating anecdotes, such as the one about the scientist who dreamed a plant name he didn’t consciously know and then found a book years later in which he had written the name. Even more interesting was the one about the man who dreamed an entire sequence of events leading up to his own guillotining, and then awoke to find that the headboard on his bed had fallen and struck his cervical vertebrae.
  6. The Philosophy of Right by G.W.F. Hegel, Third Part, Sections I-II: “Our objectively appointed end and so our ethical duty is to enter the married state.” I’ve never heard it put quite that way before, but there’s a certain logic to it, I suppose. Then there’s this: “The family, as person, has its real external existence in property; and it is only when this property takes the form of capital that it becomes the embodiment of the substantial personality of the family.” Bill Bonner, call your office. 

Suddenly we have 80-degree weather here in Alabama. The season’s nice cool weather is probably gone for good. That means air conditioning and higher electric bills, but maybe also some outdoor reading when there’s a good breeze. Have you blocked off some time on your calendar for reading this week? Do it now!

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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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