Ever Wonder How They Figured Out Pi?

This week in the Great Books Project you have a chance to remedy that gaping hole in your education. I refer, of course, to your most likely never having read a masque before. Therefore, I give you John Milton.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 179-200)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XVIII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 255-272)
  3. Comus” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 33-57)
  4. Of the Uncertainty of Our Judgment” and “Of War Horses” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 177-184)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter I (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 1-7)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XVI-XVII (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 127-153)

This week we also return to William James, whom we haven’t read in quite some time. Principles of Psychology will be the final (and longest) work of his we tackle.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II, Book VI: This book seems like a major digression from the main plot, but I have a feeling Dostoevsky considered it of utmost importance. It consists primarily of the elder’s dying words to the monks who were closest to him, including Alyosha. The elder makes plenty of cryptic statements, like the one about everyone being responsible to everyone for everyone. The reminiscence about the man who confessed an old murder sounded very much like the plot of Crime and Punishment.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XVII: This book didn’t contain much “action.” The first section covered the design and layout of Constantinople in great detail. The rest of it went into the minutiae of how the state machinery was reorganized under Constantine. The general trend was toward administrative centralization. For example, the title and prestige of the consulship was kept in place, but its occupants did nothing significant.
  3. “Lycidas” by John Milton: This poem is a eulogy to a friend of Milton’s who was drowned in a storm during a crossing of the Irish Sea. The 17th-century editor claims that it’s also a prediction of the downfall of the Church of England’s clergy in the English Civil Wars, but I wasn’t able to detect any lines that seemed to bear directly on that event. 
  4. “Of the Battle of Dreux” and “Of Names” by Michel de Montaigne: The first essay discusses (very briefly) the first major engagement of the French Wars of Religion in 1562. The government’s (Catholic) forces narrowly prevailed over the Huguenots. Montaigne mentions one or two controversies resulting from the battle before offering some parallel anecdotes from the classical period. In “Of Names,” Montaigne discusses the psychological favor or disfavor attached to particular names in different cultures. It reminded me of those annual lists of most popular baby names that are always circulating on social media.
  5. archimed_circleMeasurement of a Circle by Archimedes: When you take geometry class in high school today, you’re taught that the radius of a circle is equivalent to pi times twice the length of the circle’s radius. But Archimedes didn’t have pi. He worked it out the hard way. We don’t have his entire solution, but his third proposition is that “the ratio of the circumference of any circle to its diameter is less than 3-1/7 but greater than 3-10/71.” That’s close enough for government work.
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XIII-XV: These letter continue Pascal’s responses to the Jesuits’ counterattacks against him. Some of the reading is tough going because we have neither the Jesuits’ pamphlets to which Pascal is replying nor the works of Jesuit theologians that both parties are citing to make their respective cases. This sort of controversy figured significantly in my doctoral dissertation, but then I made sure I had all the relevant documents in front of me so that I’d have a better idea of what was going on. It’s frustrating having only one side of the argument. In Letter XV, Pascal flatly attacks the Jesuits’ credibility and attempts to show that their own theology permits and encourages them to tell lies about their opponents.

My family is gearing up for a four-week trip, and I’m trying to decide whether to go completely electronic on the Great Books reading or to take along a couple of volumes. Decisions, decisions. Whether you’re on the road or not this summer, make sure you have a great work to read by your side.

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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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