This week in the Great Books Project we finish off the last of the John Milton volume and start Thomas Aquinas’s treatise on angels. We’ll also read about the Visigoths’ sack of Rome if my guess is right. All this as we pass the 21,000-page mark in our reading plan!
Here are the readings for the coming week:
- The Trojan Women by Euripides (GBWW Vol. 4, pp. 363-382)
- The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXI (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 495-523)
- The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 50-53 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 269-284)
- Translations of Psalms 80-88 by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, pp. 78-90)
- Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XVI (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 421-451)
- The Laws of Plato, Book III (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 663-677)
Normally I wouldn’t consider Euripides light reading, but I think he will be in the middle of this batch.
Here are some observations from last week’s readings:
- Much Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare: I can’t read this play without picturing the Kenneth Branagh film version, which was my first exposure to the text. I appreciate Joss Whedon’s take as well, but the 20th-century California setting doesn’t quite speak to me the way Tuscany does. Beatrice and Benedick have so many great one-liners here, but the Constable very nearly steals the show with all his malapropisms. My favorite is the line about being “condemned into everlasting redemption.”
- The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXX: Things are definitely going downhill. The chapter recounts two invasions, the bigger by the Visigoth king Alaric. Gibbon portrays Honorius as utterly hopeless: “The emperor Honorius was distinguished, above his subjects, by the pre-eminence of fear as well as of rank.” Stilicho had to save his bacon when he was about to be captured after a ling flight from Milan. This chapter also contains a brief account of the abolition of gladiatorial combat in Rome, with Gibbon extending grudging acknowledgment to Telemachus, the Christian monk who was martyred while attempting to separate combatants in the arena.
- The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 47-49: St. Thomas argues that the unity of God produces distinction and hierarchy in the creation, but he also states that God created only one world, by which I understand him to mean “universe.” Take that, Prof. Hawking. In the next question he argues for the privation theory of evil. Moreover, since evil is merely an absence of good, something good must in some way have originally been the cause of evil.
- Translations of Psalms 1-8 by John Milton: I’m not quite sure what to think about these renderings. On the one hand, they sound more archaic and awkward than the psalms in the King James Version, which predates these by nearly half a century. Milton was trying to put the square peg of Hebrew poetry into the round hole of an English meter and rhyme scheme, and that had to involve many contortions. On the other hand, I’m really impressed that he was able to make anything out of it at all.
- Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XV: This chapter on the passage of time has its expected share of head-scratching: “Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming. . . . Reflection leads us to the conclusion that it must exist, but that it does exist can never be a fact of our immediate experience.” Heavy. James stresses that our sense of past time is actually a present sensation. His use of the term “specious present” was unfamiliar to me; I assume he meant something like short-term memory by it.
- The Laws of Plato, Book II: Plato is quite frankly elitist: “The excellence of music is to be measured by pleasure. But the pleasure must not be that of chance persons; the fairest music is that which delights the best and best educated, and especially that which delights the one man who is pre-eminent in virtue and education.” This way of thinking, whatever its merits, can’t make it to first base in a culture, like ours, where no one can agree on standards. Later in the book the Athenian revisits the regulation of drinking, and I was struck again by how seriously everyone took it.
I set off on my last trip of the year tomorrow morning and will return after the New Year. Look for the next project update and a 2014 retrospective around Jan. 3. Merry Christmas!