It’s a big week in the Great Books Project. Not only will we finish Newton’s Optics, but we will also nearly reach the 15,000-page mark of reading since beginning this journey in January 2011.
Here are the readings for the coming week:
- The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, “Physician’s Tale” through “The Summoner’s Tale” (GBWW Vol. 19, pp. 368-418)
- The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Book X (GBWW Vol. 11, p. 280-285)
- “Various Outcomes of the Same Plan” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 105-110)
- An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, Book I, Chapter 10 (GBWW Vol. 36, pp. 48-71)
- Optics by Isaac Newton, Book Three, Part I, Queries (GBWW Vol. 32, pp. 516-544)
- An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke, Book II, Chapters 14-20 (GBWW Vol. 33, pp. 155-178)
There’s a very big chunk of Chaucer this week as we continue our attempts to catch up from the June hiatus. We’re “in the black” again on science and philosophy already, but still have ground to make up in literature and the social sciences.
Here are some observations from last week’s readings:
- Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, “Shipman’s Tale” through “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”: There were several tales in this week’s reading, some of which I had not read in many years. The prioress’s tale in particular seems quite politically incorrect today. My favorite is the nun’s priest’s tale of Chanticleer, which is—if memory serves—a reworking of one of Aesop’s fables. Aside from the action in the story, the very notion of chickens discoursing on Cato and quoting Latin maxims to each other always cracks me up.
- The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Book IX: Some passages here sound very Socratic. For example: “He who does wrong does wrong against himself. He who acts unjustly acts unjustly to himself, because he makes himself bad.” And then there’s the semi-Buddhist “Wipe out imagination: check desire: extinguish appetite.”
- “Of Custom, and not Easily Changing an Established Law” by Michel de Montaigne: This is one of Montaigne’s lengthier essays, containing many ruminations on odd customs that prevail in different parts of the world. It almost reads as though Montaigne is attacking the notion of natural law, but of course that’s not quite consistent with so many of his other essays. Even so, his argument that it’s almost never a good idea to pressure for changes to even the craziest laws because of the disruption to people’s expectations and practices is a little unsettling.
- An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, Introduction and Book I, Chapters 1-9: From the perspective of a reader on this side of the Marginalist Revolution, these opening chapters contain both brilliant insights and major errors. The discussion of the importance of the division of labor is fundamental to any understanding of wealth. Smith’s account of the recorded history of money is really good, too. On the other hand, his failure to solve the “diamonds/water” paradox looks like a major blunder today, although I guess we can’t judge Smith too harshly since no one before him had really figured it out, either.
- Optics by Isaac Newton, Book Three, Parts I, Introduction: This relatively short section concerns inflections of light rays and the colors they produce. Newton describes experiments he performed involving the letting of light into a darkened room through a tiny hole in the wall, arranging knives so that the incoming light would strike them in particular ways, etc. He measured precisely where the shadows fell on the knives to determine the inflection of the light rays. He writes that he was unable to finish his experiments.
- An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke, Book II, Chapters 1-13: In this section, Locke begins to unpack the empiricist thesis: all ideas either come from the senses or from reflection. I found his comments on ideas that occur during sleep to be rather odd. I think Locke may be equivocating when he insists that there are no innate ideas even though he concedes that infants can acquire ideas in the womb. Even if he’s not equivocating, he surrenders his standard for arguing against innate ideas in a way because his argument in large part rests on the observation of children after birth. By the way, I don’t actually remember coming across the phrase “blank slate” anywhere.
I fell behind another day this week despite my best efforts. Being out of town for four days since the last post hasn’t helped. I’m also having to spend a whole lot of time working out the kinks in my online classes in these early weeks of the semester. Hopefully within a week or two all that will be more under control.