Plato Channels Nigel Tufnel

Great Books Project posts in consecutive weeks? That hasn’t happened in a while! Let’s get right to it.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book II, Chapters 1-10 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 60-86)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXVI (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 571-593)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 71-74 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 367-377)
  4. Sonnets XXI-XXV by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 589-590)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XX, heading “The Summation of the Sense-spaces” to heading “Ambiguity of Retinal Impressions” (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 570-602)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 731-743)

I believe we finish the Summa’s subdivision on the creation this week, so I’ll take another look at whether to keep plugging along in that work or to take a break. It might be good to shake things up a little since we’ve been in the same six works for several weeks now.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. count-bezukhovWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 22-28: Again it seems like there’s an indeterminate passage of time. The count dies, and then we learn after a change of setting that Pierre has been declared legitimate and has inherited the estate, leaving the princesses with very little. Andrew leaves his wife with his father and sister as he heads off to war. His father loves Voltaire and hates anything smacking of the Romantic. Andrew himself appears to have some real feelings, but the narrative so far makes him out to be afflicted by a disdain for everyone around him. The sister seems to be the only one we should be rooting for right now.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXV: Somehow I had never known that Attila had been repulsed from Gaul; the Romans and Visigoths together were too much for him, but the Visigoths couldn’t be bothered to defend Italy. I love the story of Leo the Great’s intercession on behalf of the city of Rome with Italy. Even Gibbon reluctantly acknowledges Leo’s accomplishment in turning Attila’s army away from the city. Attila died soon afterward, and Gibbon ends the book with a narrative of Valentinian’s decline and death.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 68-70: These questions comprise St. Thomas’s discussion of the second, third,and fourth days of creation. Several of the articles seemed to me to be attempts to answer weird questions only philosophers could have thought of, e.g., whether it was appropriate for plants to appear on Day #3 (a day of “distinction” rather than a day of “adornment”). Over and over again, after rehearsing objections, he writes, “On the contrary, the authority of Scripture suffices.”
  4. Sonnets XVI-XX by William Shakespeare: The dominant theme of procreation fades a bit in this group of sonnets, but there’s still an emphasis on the destructive nature of Time. One of Shakespeare’s best-known poems—“shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”—is in this group. I remember having memorized that one at some point in grade school, but I can’t recall it all now on demand. 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XX, beginning to heading “The Summation of the Sense-spaces”: This chapter is shaping up to be a rough one. James begins by positing that our understanding of space grows out of our sensations of “voluminous,” whether in sight, touch, etc. He believes that one can sense space without having any grasp of spatial order, that this grasp is learned. Space-relations are “nothing but sensations of particular lines, particular angles, particular forms of transition,” etc. We thus mentally subdivide space through these space-relations, ordering objects by locality, size, and shape. James goes into great detail about this “construction of ‘real’ space.”
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VII: I do not have a very good handle on Plato’s treatment of music. He clearly thinks it to be extremely important in moral instruction and wants to prescribe specific modes of playing. However, I don’t think I get what’s in back of it all. (I couldn’t help hearing, “D minor is the saddest of all keys,” in my mind.) I noticed that near the end of the book he outlined the quadrivium as a curriculum. He got very specific on gymnastic in this section as well, but that seemed to be in tension with his declaration that nothing really good is ever learned from war, for which is gymnastic prepares one.

I’ve managed to reunite with my family, albeit in a timeshare about a 100-minute drive from Montgomery. Commuting this week is a bear, but it’s worth it. Internet accessibility is almost nonexistent here, so I consider a post of any length this week a victory.

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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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