Many a True Word Hath Been Spoken in Jest

I’ve been putting off for some time, but the time has finally come to dig into Plato’s Laws. It will be a heavy week with that, Aquinas, and James, but Aristophanes will lighten things up a bit.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Birds by Aristophanes (GBWW Vol. 4, pp. 770-797)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXIX (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 468-477)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 44-46 (GBWW Vol. 16, p. 238-256)
  4. A Custom of the Island of Cea” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 206-213)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XIV (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 360-395)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book I (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 640-653)

I thought of trying to find something Halloweenish for this week’s readings, but couldn’t muster the energy that would have been necessary. Don’t hate me.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. kinglear-mckellenKing Lear by William Shakespeare: In the discussion with my doctoral seminar, I heard several students make insightful observations about the injustices committed not only by the daughters, but also by Lear himself in seeking fawning treatment from his family in Act I. We also had some good discussion about Shakespeare’s habit of having the natural world mimic the disruptions experienced by his plays’ protagonists. Can anyone tell me whether this movie version is worthwhile?
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXVIII: Gibbon claims that “the ruin of paganism . . . is perhaps the only example of the total extirpation of ancient and popular superstition.” The only problem with this statement is just about all of it. Paganism wasn’t extirpated; the strand of it that was eliminated was only the state cult, which wasn’t popular. Gibbon also rehearses the cult-of-the-saints-as-adapted-paganism thesis, an idea that was pretty much exploded by Peter Brown and others in the second half of the 20th century.
  3. “To Sir Henry Vane the Younger” and “To Mr. Cyriack upon His Blindness” by John Milton: These two sonnets are the last of Milton’s for us to read. At this point all we have left of his work are some translations of psalms. Milton praises Henry Vane, who sat in the Long Parliament if I remember correctly, as a man wise beyond his years: “On thy firme hand religion leanes/In peace, & reck’ns thee her eldest son.” 
  4. On Sleep and Sleeplessness by Aristotle: Aristotle certainly approaches the subject of sleep in a manner most 21st-century scientists would not recognize. However, it’s hard to find fault with his methods considering the state of knowledge in the 4th century B.C. He starts with the commonplace observation that wakefulness is the exercise of sense-perception, and that sleep would thus seem to be the privation of that. But then he pokes around and identifies some problems with that conclusion. By the end he says that “sleep is a sort of concentration, or natural recoil,” of the body’s “hot matter.”
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XIII: “The notice of any part whatever of our object is an act of discrimination.” James has kind words for Locke at the beginning of this chapter and laments that later generations of empiricists never followed up on some of his early insights with respect to humans’ ability to discern. Further in there’s an interesting statement that “any total impression made on the mind must be unanalyzable, whose elements are never experienced apart.” This took me aback at first, but as he developed the point it seemed more and more reasonable. 
  6. “Of Drunkenness” by Michel de Montaigne: This essay contains some real zingers. “Each man lays weight on his neighbor’s sin and lightens his own. . . . The other vices affect the understanding; this one overturns it, and stuns the body. . . . A sedate man knocks in vain on the door of poetry. . . . No excellent soul is free from an admixture of madness.” It was interesting how Montaigne, after blasting drunkenness in ancient and contemporary times, ultimately settles down and starts talking about the selection of wines and moderation in drinking.

We’ve had some nice weather over the last couple of weeks here, but today’s temperatures were in the mid-80s. That’s so wrong for late October. What’s more, it’s not going to get cool for several more days, so I’ll be reading inside again.


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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3 Responses to Many a True Word Hath Been Spoken in Jest

  1. mpalmer32 says:

    Dr J, You asked for opinion on (PBS recorded) performance of “King Lear” (with Ian McKellan in title role, directed by Trevor Nunn.). I saw the original performance in Stratford-upon-Avon a number of years ago. And, as a “King Lear” groupie, I have seen two-three performances in England per year of my favorite play for the past 20 odd years. My opinion:
    1. The McKellen-Nunn production ranks high, but not supreme in productions recorded in recent years. Positive points: Clarity of speech, coherence of interpretation (fall of great King to naked madman) and, of course Ian McKellen’s great performance.
    2. To my taste, the best ‘King Lear’ I have seen was the Almeida Theatre production of about 3 years ago, directed by Michael Attenborough, with Jonathan Pryce as Lear. This was a Lear from the distant past who was the dysfunctional Father of two daughters whom he had abused (kissing them carnally in the first scene), and a third daughter (Cordelia) whom he was trying to seduce. Given that interpretation, and the fantastic acting of Jonathan Pryce, we — the audience — spell-bound, moved, and then amazed to find ourselves weeping at Lear’s death.
    (I think this production was recorded live, and commercialized by a British Company.)
    In any case, I hope you and your followers/students have the time to enjoy the greatest tragedy written after those of the Ancient Greeks.

    Michael Palmer

  2. Gerrald says:

    Dear Dr. J,

    Happy Thanksgiving from a non-thanksgiving celebrating part of the world :). Let me say that me and my wife are extremely grateful for the great books schedule – both have started and are still going. I am still on track of the scheme, although I need to do some dedicated reading today to keep it this way. I really hope you find the energy and inspiration to keep continuing all the way to the end!

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