This week in the Great Books Project we put back on the shelf for the last time Volume 9 of the Gateway to the Great Books series. That leaves just Volume 5 (in which only one unread essay remains) before we complete the entire 10-volume set. I don’t know yet when we’ll get around to that essay, but it will be cause for celebration when we do.
Here are the readings for the coming week:
- Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 24, pp. 285-319)
- “Of Moderation” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 140-143)
- “On Shakespeare” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 16)
- The Histories by Tacitus, Book II (GBWW Vol. 14, pp. 214-241)
- “The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis” by Sigmund Freud (GBWW Vol. 54, pp. 1-20)
- Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, Part IV (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 656-684)
I know it’s risky reading Freud and Spinoza in the same week, but we’ll just have to be brave.
Here are some observations from last week’s readings:
- “A Preface to Shakespeare” by Samuel Johnson: Johnson both defends and criticizes Shakespeare here. To him, the outstanding feature of Shakespeare’s plays are that they are a “mirror of life,” that we instantly recognize them as showing real people behaving in real ways, regardless of our spatial or temporal separation from Elizabethan England. I thought Johnson’s defense of Shakespeare’s disregard for the classical insistence that a play should have a unified time and space was quite interesting. (I do have to admit, though, that I sometimes find the tendency to jump several years or continents between acts disconcerting.)
- “Of Friendship” by Michel de Montaigne: Montaigne echoes Cicero as he writes about his own friendship with an unnamed man (identified by everyone as Etienne la Boetie, who is know in libertarian circles as the author of some anti-State writings). He states that friendship of this kind can only be had with one person because one pours oneself into the relationship, leaving nothing to be devoted to any other friends. He rejects both the homosexual relations of ancient Greece and marriage as sources of true friendship. (A short dedication to an edition of Boetie’s essays follows this essay. The GBWW series gives it a separate essay number, but we’re not going to devote any specific comments to it.)
- “Upon the Circumcision” by John Milton: I like two things that Milton does in this short poem. First, he makes a contrast between the angels’ rejoicing at Christ’s birth and their (presumed) mourning at His circumcision: “He who with all Heav’ns heraldry whileare/Enter’d the world, now bleeds to give us ease.” Then there’s a juxtaposition of circumcision and crucifixion at the very end; Jesus “seals obedience first with wounding smart/This day, but O ere long/Huge pangs and strong/Will pierce more neer his heart.”
- The Histories by Tacitus, Book I: This work describes the turbulent year 68-69 following the death of Nero. In this first book, we’ve already seen the rise and fall of Galba, the first of Nero’s successors. Tacitus brings out the fickleness of both the legions and the mob and presents a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of Galba. Otho, who replaced Galba after bringing about his murder in a rebellion, fares less well at Tacitus’s hands.
- “On the Nature of a Calculus” by Alfred North Whitehead: This piece was not very long, but I found it challenging. What struck me most was the way Whitehead reflects on the notion of equality, and how strictly speaking 3 + 2 does not equal 2 + 3 in some respects. The mathematician (or logician, social scientist, etc.) must keep in mind what relationship the = sign is attempting to show.
- Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, Part III: This book deals with the “affects.” I found some of these propositions problematic, e.g. we do not desire things because they are good, but we call them good because we desire them. I’m not detecting any obvious errors in his demonstrations, a fact that confirms my uneasiness about the first principles and definitions back at the beginning of the work.
At least I managed not to lose another day on the posting calendar this week, even if I failed in my goal of catching up. There’s always next week . . .