O For a Muse of Fire

Some weeks it seems like there’s not much big-picture news to report in this Great Books Project. This week, however, we’ll pass the 4,000-page mark in the Man and Society category of readings and finish two long works AND two volumes of readings. I can hardly contain myself.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 152-189)*
  2. The Life of God” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 18, pp. 104-108; Part One, Chapter 17 of Summa Theologica)
  3. The Spinoza of Market Street” by Isaac Singer (GGB Vol. 3, pp. 466-480)
  4. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, Book V, Chapter 3 – end (GBWW Vol. 36, pp. 449-515)
  5. The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Chapter 11 (GBWW Vol. 49, pp. 422-434)
  6. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke, Book IV, Chapter 18-21 (GBWW Vol. 33, pp. 380-395)

*The volume and page references from Tom Jones are from the 1952 GBWW edition. This novel was not included in the 1990 edition and is thus “extra” reading for this project, but I’ve never read it before and want to.

The two long works we finish this week are Smith’s Wealth of Nations (begun twelve weeks ago) and Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (begun thirteen weeks ago). We won’t be revisiting either author for the remainder of the project, so make your peace as you need to.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book VII: Because you’ve been following along with this reading plan, you can appreciate the brilliance of this passage beginning with Mrs. Western’s harangue of Sophia: “‘The antient philosophers, such as Socrates, Alcibiades, and others, did not use to argue with their scholars. You are to consider me, child, as Socrates, not asking your opinion, but only informing you of mine.’ From which last words the reader may possibly imagine, that this lady had read no more of the philosophy of Socrates, than she had of that of Alcibiades.”
  2. “Of Falsity” by St. Thomas Aquinas: I know I’ve said this multiple times, but I was struck again on reading this section of the value of reading several works concurrently. St. Thomas includes an article on the trustworthiness of the senses and another on the falsity present in things themselves. The juxtaposition to Locke’s epistemology could hardly be sharper.
  3. Henry-V-BranaghThe Life of King Henry V by William Shakespeare: Once more unto the breach, y’all. I get to revisit this play almost every semester with my undergraduate surveys. I always thought it strange that Shakespeare dispenses with Falstaff completely, but retains the tagalongs: Bardolph, Pistol, etc. The hanging of Bardolph for robbing a church reemphasizes Harry’s transformation from irresponsible youth into the bulwark of law and order. The Agincourt scenes are brilliant; you’re ready to fight the French by the end of the St. Crispin’s Day speech and to sing Non nobis after the dead are tallied. Act V is a bit of a letdown, but you can’t have everything.
  4. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, Book V, Chapter 2: Another very long chapter, this one on taxation. Smith takes us on a tour of every conceivable kind of 18th-century tax: taxes on rent, taxes on wages, taxes on consumption, etc. He argues for a tax system that doesn’t privilege one class or sector of the economy over another. Clearly he failed to see all the wonderful things that can happen when you charge exorbitant taxes on vices like cigarettes and subsidize boondoggles like “green energy.” I was amused by the reference to “the wholesome and invigorating liquors of beer and ale” in contrast to hard liquor, which tends “to ruin the health and to corrupt the morals of the common people.”
  5. The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Chapter 10: Last chapter it was crustaceans and arthropods. Now it’s insects. Darwin notes the features of the two sexes in the various orders of insect: whether males are larger or smaller than females, the different uses of appendages in the sexes, differences in the functions of sensory organs, etc. I am interested to see how he’s going to try to tie these observations in with his hypothesis on the ancestry of human beings.
  6. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke, Book IV, Chapter 17: It seems that Locke dislikes the syllogism. Not only does he say it’s not the great tool of reasoning, but he also dismisses its usefulness altogether. As someone who teaches formal logic to young people, I can offer daily counterexamples to Locke’s assertions. Of course one can reason without the syllogism, but the structure it provides can be extremely useful in the quest for clarity. As far as I can tell, Locke goes completely off the rails in section 8 (no pun intended) when he complains about the insistence on a distributed middle term in the syllogism. Straw man alert!

I have a publisher’s deadline tomorrow and spent almost twelve hours on the road yesterday, but I still managed to make up two days on the posting schedule this week. Let’s hope that the streak continues.


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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