Huns Are Meanies

This week in the Great Books Project we finish a great novel while pretending we haven’t fallen further behind on the posting schedule. Let’s get right to it.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Epilogue (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 420-431)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXVII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 435-457)
  3. The Suppliant Maidens by Aeschylus (GBWW Vol. 4, p. 1-12)
  4. On Memory and Reminiscence by Aristotle (GBWW Vol. 7, pp. 690-695)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XII (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 299-314)
  6. Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Q. 40-43 (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 213-237)

Not only do we finish Dostoevsky this week, but we also complete St. Thomas’s treatise on the Trinity.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XII, Chapters 10-14: After being treated to the defense attorney’s eloquence, I half expected Mitya to be acquitted. The portion of the speech dealing with Smerdyakov was the most interesting to me, both the character sketch and the reconstruction of the events of the night of the murder. But now we await the sentencing. 
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXVI: Gibbon goes into some detail about the oppression of the Goths by the invading Huns. It makes it difficult to fault the Goths for trying to move into Roman territory. The climactic moment, of course, is Valens’s death at Adrianople. Gibbon seems to view that battle as perhaps the key moment in the decline and fall.
  3. Oliver_Cromwell“On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament,”  “On the Lord Gen. Fairfax at the Siege of Colchester,” and “To the Lord Generall Cromwell, May 1652” by John Milton: These sonnets all date from the Interregnum period and are quite political. The juiciest is the first, which lambasts the Presbyterian majority in Parliament that decided to keep an established church that operated on Reformed principles rather than opt for pure religious toleration. Milton ends the sonnet with the famous line, “New Presbyter is but Old Priest write Large.”
  4. “Against a Person Who Had Once Been Detected in Adultery” and “How Magnanimity Is Consistent with Care” by Epictetus: According to whoever recorded this conversation, Epictetus was prompted by the presence of a adulterer to launch into this attack. I can only imagine that the adulterer must have felt about two inches tall by the end of it. Epictetus makes an interesting analogy to refute those who allege that society’s women should be held in common: the pig at a feast is eaten in common by all who attend, but it’s very bad form to take the food off someone else’s plate once it has been apportioned.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters XI: This chapter is about attention and its limits, a topic I’ve on which actually seen some recent research. James is close to the information I’d read about how many things we can focus on. The bombshell for me in this chapter was James’s statement at the outset that the Lockes et al who predicate everything on experience seem to have forgotten that “experience” can only consist of what we are paying attention to, and so the mind controls experience to a great degree.
  6. “Of the Name of the Holy Ghost as Gift” and “The Persons in Relation to the Essence” by St. Thomas Aquinas: St. Thomas argues here that “Gift” is an appropriate name for the holy Spirit in the same way “Love” is. He also revisits the Arian controversy indirectly by arguing for the consubstantiality of the persons of the Trinity. I honestly didn’t have name time to read this one closely and ended up having to skim it.

I’m just barely keeping my head above water with these readings this month, and with another trip coming up soon (to Wheaton for research) I’m thinking I need to stock up on the audio books for the car.

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Why Diogenes Refused to Give References

This week in the Great Books Project we will hit the 5,000-page mark in the Man and Society category, although I can’t say I’m really feeling more manly or social than usual.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XII, Chapters 10-14 (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 404-420)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXVI (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 409-435)
  3. On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament,” “On the Lord Gen. Fairfax at the Siege of Colchester,” and “To the Lord Generall Cromwell May 1652” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 68-69)
  4. Against a Person Who Had Once Been Detected in Adultery” and “How Magnanimity Is Consistent with Care” by Epictetus, Discourses Book II, Chapters 4-5 (GBWW Vol. 11, p. 33)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XI (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 260-298)
  6. Of the Name of the Holy Ghost as Gift” and “Of the Persons in Relation to the Essence” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 200-213; Part I, Q. 38-39 of the Summa Theologica)

We could have finished the Brothers K this week, but I decided to save the Epilogue for next week to try to make sense of it all. This William James book has really been making the science readings disproportionately large over the last several weeks.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XII, Chapters 6-9: All four of these chapters are taken up with the prosecutor’s closing argument against Mitya. Anyone familiar with crime fiction or police procedurals on TV will find this familiar. The prosecutor does everything possible to make the defense’s case seem implausible, particularly the case against Smerdyakov. He doesn’t actually discount Ivan’s testimony, but spins it to suggest Smerdyakov and Mitya were accomplices. 
  2. Colosso-de-barlettaThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXV: After three entire chapters devoted to Julian and his brief reign, it was a bit jarring to see so much crammed into this chapter: the short reign of Jovian, the much longer of reign of Valentinian (who gets high marks from Gibbon), the division of the eastern and western empires, the career of Valens, etc. There’s an interesting aphorism here: “The prince who refuses to be the judge, instructs his people to consider him as the accomplice of his ministers.”
  3. Sonnets XVII-XIX by John Milton: I couldn’t detect any connection among these three sonnets, other than that they were all composed about individuals. Sonnet XIX was the most moving: a vision of the narrator’s deceased wife. If you read Euripides’s Alcestis along with us, you’ll recognize a couple of the references. Typical of Milton, Hercules sits alongside the Mosaic Law here. 
  4. “To Those Who Recommend Persons to Philosophers” by Epictetus: This essay is only one paragraph long. It begins with an anecdote about Diogenes refusing to recommend someone to an acquaintance. Diogenes said if the acquaintance was a good judge of character, he wouldn’t need the recommendation, and that if he was a poor judge of character, the recommendation wouldn’t do any good anyway. Epictetus says we all need to become good judges of character so that we will not to rely on the recommendations/references of others.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters X: It’s a good thing James lays out his chapters’ organization clearly; otherwise, I couldn’t have handled this marathon. The chapter examines various aspects of the Self, which everyone says is one of the key ideas of modern thought. James defines the term broadly: “A man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his.” This definition includes things like friendships, reputation, property, etc. I’m still not sure what to think of that or whether contemporary psychologists would accept the definition.
  6. “Of the Name of the Holy Ghost—Love” by St. Thomas Aquinas: It’s curious that here quotes from St. Augustine’s On the Trinity form an objection to one article and the “on the contrary” of the other. Of course, St. Thomas asserts that St. Augustine supports his interpretation when read in the proper sense. What’s asserted in this question is that Love is the proper name of the Holy Ghost and that the Father and the Son love each other through the Holy Ghost.

The school year is back in full swing, and I’m left wondering when I’m going to do my weekly readings for this project. I need to get back into my early-morning routine, but of course that means I have to start going to bed earlier, which in turn is difficult when I sometimes don’t finish teaching class until 9:00 p.m. I’m sure I’ll figure something out.

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St. Thomas Defends the Filioque Clause

We have no significant milestones to report in the Great Books Project this week, although we are closing in on the 5,000-page mark in the Man and Society category. Gibbon, no doubt, will carry us through in the next couple of weeks.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XII, Chapters 6-9 (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 386-404)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXV (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 382-409)
  3. Sonnets, numbers XVII-XIX by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 67-68)
  4. To Those Who Recommend Persons to Philosophers” by Epictetus, Discourses Book II, Chapter 3 (GBWW Vol. 11, p. 33)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter X (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 188-259)
  6. Of the Name of the Holy Ghost—Love” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 197-200; Part I, Q. 37 of the Summa Theologica)

This week’s readings are even more lopsided than last week’s. The chapter from James is 72 pages long, so everything else is relatively brief except for the Gibbon chapter.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XII, Chapters 1-5: Things were looking good for Mitya until Ivan testified in his behalf, sounding crazy and self-incriminating. This in turn set off Katerina, whose repressed love for Ivan finally burst out and caused her to throw Mitya over with what looks like conclusive evidence. Will he end up in Siberia after all?
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXIV: Three chapters on Julian, a guy who reigned a mere 22 months. Gibbon lauds his character and relates his death scene in loving detail. I liked the “amiable inconsistency” with which he mourned the death of his friend mere moments after he gave a philosophical discourse on the benefits of dying in one’s youth. I have to admit, though, I’m ready to move on to someone else.
  3. Sonnets XIV-XVI by John Milton: Sonnet XIV is a beautiful eulogy. I’m surprised I can’t ever remember hearing it at a funeral: “Thy Works and Alms and all thy good Endeavour/Staid not behind, nor in the grave were trod;/But as Faith pointed with her golden rod,/Follow’d thee up to joy and bliss forever.” As for Sonnet XV, I’ll just say I didn’t expect to see a massacre of civilians in the Piedmont commemorated in verse.
  4. General Introduction to the Metaphysic of Morals by Immanuel Kant: Kant makes a distinction between ethics and jurisprudence in that (if I understand him correctly) the motivation of the former is internal, whereas the motivation of the latter is external. The final section is also interesting: meeting an obligation but not going beyond it incurs neither praise nor blame; you only get those for going “above and beyond” or for falling short. 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters IX: This chapter explores and seeks to justify five propositions about the stream of thought. James refuses to argue from first principles, writing that this method has produced all sorts of pitfalls. Instead, he “plunges in medias res” with his observations. Each of the five propositions seemed to make sense to me, e.g. the mind focuses on objects independent of itself and chooses among the different parts of these objects at different times.
  6. thomas-aquinas-icon“Of the Person of the Holy Ghost” by St. Thomas Aquinas: At least half of this question is taken up with the filioque issue: does the Spirit proceed from the Son? St. Thomas says yes, but he has to deal with seven objections (the typical question has three or four). I had never considered his argument that without filioque there would be no effective way to distinguish the Son from the Spirit; there must be some definable relation between them.

My fall semester has begun, and I am off-balance as usual with the non-stop emails from students and admissions people who are trying to get into classes at the last possible minute. Still, I made up a couple of days on the posting schedule!

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The Killer Is Revealed

It’s shaping up to be a challenging week in the Great Books Project. Our psychology reading is quite long, and we have a short work by Kant as well. Hang in there, and flee to Dostoevsky if the pressure builds too much.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XII, Chapters 1-5 (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 365-386)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXIV (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 361-382)
  3. Sonnets, numbers XIV-XVI by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 66-67)
  4. General Introduction to the Metaphysic of Morals by Immanuel Kant (GBWW Vol. 39, pp. 381-394)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter IX (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 146-187)
  6. Of the Person of the Holy Ghost” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 190-197; Part I, Q. 36 of the Summa Theologica)

Full Disclosure: I’m teaching a new interdisciplinary seminar on Justice this fall, and I need to double-dip on some of my readings for that course and this project. Hence the Kant reading this week. There will be a few more of those crossovers over the next few months.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XI, Chapters 6-10: SPOILER ALERT: So Smerdyakov is the killer and thief after all. The thriller addict in me kept expecting another twist, but I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect a 19th-century novelist to conform to my genre-film-influenced expectations. I liked the dialogue between Ivan and the devil, although I don’t know that it was completely orthodox. Smerdyakov’s suicide will probably prevent the truth from becoming generally known and thus will keep Mitya in trouble.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXIII: Gibbon focuses on Julian’s religious policy in this chapter, and he is actually pretty critical. Obviously he liked the policy of toleration, but he throws up several statements and decisions that place the emperor in a pretty bad light. I was expecting him to sanitize Julian a bit more.
  3. Sonnets X-XIII by John Milton: Sonnet X is addressed to a young woman who reminds Milton of her late father. Sonnets XI-XII are ruminations on a book called the Tetrachordon. Sonnet XIII praises a composer for his airs. The last contains some extravagance: “Dante shall give Fame leave to set thee higher/Then his Casella, whom he woo’d to sing/Met in the milder shades of Purgatory.” 
  4. epictetus“That Confidence Is Not Inconsistent with Caution” and “Of Tranquility” by Epictetus: The first essay’s argument is that we should emply caution “toward things which are really bad,” i.e. bad exercise of the will, and employ confidence toward all things not in our control. Of course, Epictetus writes, most people do the opposite. Epictetus sort of attempts to claim Socrates for the Stoics in the second essay by pointing to the calm way in which he met his death stemming from his confidence that he had lived a good life.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters VII-VIII: James gets into the subject/object distinction and the problems it causes in psychology in some depth. At the end of Chapter VII he identifies the “psychologist’s fallacy” as “the confusion of his own standpoint with that of the mental fact about which he is making his report.” In Chapter VIII, “The Relations of Minds to Other Things,” James seems to veer in Sigmund Freud territory; there’s talk of unconsciousness and how hysterics frequently display ailments for which no physical cause appears to exist.
  6. “Of What Belongs to the Unity or Plurality in God,” “The Knowledge of the Divine Persons,” “Of the Person of the Father,” “Of the Person of the Son,” and “Of the Image” by St. Thomas Aquinas: What grabbed me the most as I worked my way through these questions was an article in “The Knowledge of the Divine Persons” that delineated five specific “notions” or properties of God—innascibility, paternity, sonship, common spiration, and procession—and went on to distinguish the persons of the Trinity by which notions each contains. It was pretty dense reading.

Happy anniversary to my wife of fifteen years! Every year the date falls during the week where I’m saddled with responsibilities on campus related to the Freshman Experience week.

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William James Argues for the Soul

This week in the Great Books Project we return to the wisdom of the Stoics after a lengthy hiatus. It’s time to begin Book II of Epictetus’s Discourses.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XI, Chapters 6-10 (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 335-365)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXIII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 344-361)
  3. Sonnets, numbers X-XIII by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 64-66)
  4. That Confidence Is Not Inconsistent with Caution” and “Of Tranquility” by Epictetus (GBWW Vol. 11, pp. 130-133; Chapters 1-2 of the Discourses)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter VII-VIII (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 120-145)
  6. Of What Belongs to the Unity or Plurality in God,” “The Knowledge of the Divine Persons,” “Of the Person of the Father,” “Of the Person of the Son,” and “Of the Image” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 171-190; Part I, Q. 31-35 of the Summa Theologica)

This week we’re a bit heavy on St. Thomas, but we do have a long way to go still in the Summa, so I thought it would be good to cover some ground there this week.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XI, Chapters 1-5: If Alyosha is correct, my Ivan-killed-Fyodor theory is all washed up. Ivan and Lise are turning out to be disappointing; I’ve been holding out for some sort of redemption for Ivan, and it now looks like not only will that fail to happen, but that he’ll also drag Lise down with him. I’m interested to see how the conversations with Smerdyakov go. 
  2. julian-apostateThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXII: This chapter on Julian was briefer than I expected. Gibbon seems most interested in whether Julian actually wanted to be emperor. He’s certainly interested in holding him up as a virtuous guy in contrast to Constantius and the bishop/eunuch coalition represented by Eusebius. I couldn’t help thinking from the tone that Gibbon’s anti-Christianity was coming through again.
  3. Sonnets I, VII-IX by John Milton: Sonnets I and VII are both “woe is me, I can’t find love” poems. I found Sonnet IX to be the most interesting. The imagery and references are almost purely Biblical. It’s also the first time I can recall seeing someone described as having “ruth,” a word the OED defines as “the quality of being compassionate.” So now you know what it means when the villain of a piece is described as being “ruthless.”
  4. “Of Prayers” and “Of Age” by Michel de Montaigne: “Of Prayers” is pretty long for Montaigne. It communicates his sense of the sacred effectively. He’s leery of loose or casual religious conversation, a fact that may explain why there’s comparatively little of a spiritual or devotional nature in his essays. He thinks the Lord’s Prayer is the one prayer that be continually on the lips of Christians. In “On Age,” Montaigne argues that death of old age is the most unnatural death of all since so few reach it. He wants more responsibility to be shifted onto people at younger ages, especially in their twenties. The body is in peak condition then, and Montaigne thinks the soul is fully matured as well. These two pieces complete the first volume of Montaigne’s essays.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters VI: Props to James for putting the soul out there as the only reasonable explanation for the mind. He played the card close to the vest until late in the chapter when he had exhausted all other possible theories.
  6. The Theaetetus of Plato: This dialogue focuses on epistemology. Socrates and Theaetetus discuss different several concepts of knowledge before concluding that none of them are satisfactory. The very first one they find wanting is the god of modernity: sense perception.

After some gloriously cool temperatures last week here in Montgomery, we’re back to the mid-90s with high humidity. It’s perfect weather to welcome the freshmen to campus this weekend. I hope the rest of you are able to stay somewhat cool this week.

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Humans are Bundles of Habits

This week in the Great Books Project, in addition to breaking the 20,000-page barrier I referenced last time, we will also pass the 6,000-page mark in the Imaginative Literature category.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XI, Chapters 1-5 (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 312-335)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 330-344)
  3. Sonnets, numbers I, VII-IX by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 63-64; Sonnets II-VI are in Italian, so we won’t read those.)
  4. Of Prayers” and “Of Age” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 192-198)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter VI (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 95-119)
  6. The Theaetetus of Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 512-550)

We’re a little heavier than usual on the philosophy this week with the long Platonic dialogue. Let’s hope it’s readable.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book X: The introduction of the Krassotkin character threw me for a bot if a loop. It seems pretty late in the game to be adding a character who will be the focus of an entire book. I found this dialogue in the mouth of a 13-year-old to be pretty unbelievable, but I liked how Dostoevsky had Alyosha responding to the boy. I suppose Ilusha’s death is going to occasion a significant turn in the plot somehow.
  2. AthanasiusThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXI: I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I had half-expected Gibbon to champion the Arians and other heretical groups against the Orthodox; that’s what the postmodern anti-Christians seem to do these days, at any rate. However, Gibbon comes down on the side of the Orthodox and is very critical of the way in which the Arians went after Athanasius and others.
  3. “The 5th Ode of Horace.Lib.I” by John Milton: I’ll be honest; I’m not quite sure what’s going on here. Usually I don’t have a problem wading through Milton’s lines, but this translation of Horace has me scratching my head. 
  4. “Of Vain Subtleties” and “Of Smells” by Michel de Montaigne: In “Of Vain Subtleties” Montaigne criticizes people who look for approval from others on the basis of their creating or performing gimmicks. I found “Of Smells” more engaging. Montaigne leads off by declaring that the “chiefest excellency” of the human body is to be “exempt from smell.” He ruminates briefly on the value of bodily odors to physicians. He also discusses the importance of perfumes and incense in preparing the mind for contemplation in a world where so much stinks. 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters IV-V: Chapter IV’s topic is habit, and James presents it in a very interesting way. He states that all living things are to a great extent “bundles of habits” and discusses the connection between habits and the nervous system. He concludes by arguing that good habits need to be formed as early as possible. Chapter V discusses the “conscious automaton” theory which some significant thinkers of his day had proposed. Given the physiological emphasis of the first four chapters, one might think James would endorse this theory, but he rejects it, emphasizing the role of choice the conscious mind plays. I had Austrian Economics bells ringing in my head.
  6. New Experiments Concerning the Vacuum by Blaise Pascal: Pascal here summarizes several experiments he performed to demonstrate that “all things detected by our senses” can be removed from any container, however large it might be. In other words, we can create a vacuum, even though it might be difficult. He then defends himself against some attacks by—surprise!—certain Jesuit thinkers.

I’m back home in Montgomery after nearly four weeks on the road. Not surprisingly, I’ve fallen a week behind on posts, so I will endeavor to make up that time over the next few weeks.

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Constantine’s Conversion Was Real

This week we come within a hair of 20,000 pages in the Great Books Project. Let’s get right to it.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book X (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 285-312)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXI (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 305-330)
  3. The 5th Ode of Horace.Lib.I” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 61-62)
  4. Of Vain Subtleties” and “Of Smells” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 190-192)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters IV-V (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 68-94)
  6. New Experiments Concerning the Vacuum by Blaise Pascal (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 359-381)

I can’t find find a link to the text of the Pascal work. Can anyone lend a hand?

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book IX: Dmitri’s inner conflict here is fascinating. Assuming he is telling the truth, he has become his own worst enemy in the murder investigation, destroying all the evidence in his favor in an attempt to retain some sort of balm for his conscience. I know he fingered Smerdyakov for the murder, but my money is on Ivan.
  2. Constantine-haloThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XX: I’ve heard some good counterarguments to Gibbon’s contention that Constantine’s conversion was a calculated one of political convenience and very gradual. I don’t think Gibbon’s view is the consensus today except in the feverish conspiracy circles a la Dan Brown. If Gibbon is right that the Christian teaching of submission to rulers makes it the perfect religion for a ruler to adopt, it’s extremely odd that no previous emperor figured that out.
  3. “At a Vacation Exercise” by John Milton: Dartmouth’s website states that Milton composed this poem as part of a formal oration defending the proposition that “Sportive Exercises on Occasion are not inconsistent with philosophical Studies.” One wonders what he would think of the NCAA. It seems like half of this poem is simply saying, “I know English isn’t as good a language as Latin, but just bear with me,” followed by copious classical allusions. 
  4. “Of the Parsimony of the Ancients” and “Of a Saying of Caesar’s” by Michel de Montaigne: The first anecdote of the first essay is mind boggling: the victorious Roman general asks to be recalled so he can resume management of his seven-acre farm after someone stole all his tools. Can you imagine such a petition in the Western world in the 21st century? A request for an extra $100,000 annual retirement stipend to make good on some stock portfolio losses would be more likely. The saying of Caesat referenced in the second essay is this: “Tis the common vice of nature, that we at once repose most confidence, and receive the greatest apprehensions, from things unseen, concealed, and unknown.” Better the devil you know . . . 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter III: This chapter is titled “On Some General Conditions of Brain Activity.” James begins by arguing that stimuli to the nervous system are cumulative, i.e. multiple stimuli may cause a reaction where one alone is insufficient. He then discusses the phenomenon of reaction time and walks through the steps that occur between the introduction of a stimulus and a person’s response to it. Finally he talks about the importance of blood supply to the brain. So far this is reading more like a biology textbook . . .
  6. The Sophist of Plato: Although Socrates is a character is this dialogue, he is mostly passive. The characters called the Stranger drives the discussion and the attempt to define what a sophist is. As usual with Plato, much of the argument is by analogy. The sophist is originally defined a hunter “after young men of wealth and rank,” but then they decide the definition breaks down. The next step is to label the sophist an imitator, like the artist; he provides a picture of wisdom but not wisdom itself. After that things get weird as the Stranger launches into a lengthy discussion of being and non-being. I didn’t understand the Parmenides, but it’s clear here that the Stranger (and presumably Plato) is in disagreement with Parmenides.

I had hoped to have this post up four days ago, but I wrote about something different that day and have been on the road for about 10-12 hours per day since then. I’m writing this from a hotel room before getting in the car again. The good news is I only have 300 miles to go today. Piece of cake!

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Christian Faith and Social Justice on the Tom Woods Show

CFSJ-CoverThis week I had the opportunity to appear on the Tom Woods Show to discuss my contributions to Christian Faith and Social Justice: Five Views.

I walk through the case for libertarianism I presented in my foundational essay and then talk about my interactions (both positive and negative) with the other four contributors to the volume.

One of the side effects of doing this interview during my family vacation is that I had to fight through a head cold and sore throat brought on by all the changes in elevation and humidity levels I’ve been experiencing out here in the western states. I hope they’re not too evident in the interview.

You can listen to the interview here (got to the July 16 tab). I think I’ll set up a page on this site specifically for the book to summarize the arguments and keep track of any other mentions of it on the interwebs. Look for that in the next few days.

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Dmitri Karamazov Puts His Foot in It

This week in the Great Books Project we pass the 5,000-page mark in the Philosophy/Theology category. I suppose it’s only fitting that we do so with Plato.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book IX (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 246-285)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XX (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 289-305)
  3. At a Vacation Exercise” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 59-61)
  4. Of the Parsimony of the Ancients” and “Of a Saying of Caesar’s” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 189-190)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter III (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 53-67)
  6. The Sophist of Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 551-579)

I have to say I’m grateful for the relative brevity of the James chapter after last week’s marathon. However, we need to brace ourselves for the silliness likely to emerge from Gibbon’s further discussion of Christianity in Book XX.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. dmitri-grushenkaThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book VIII: Poor Dmitri/Mitya. He gets crazy ideas fixed in his head that lead him to do even crazier things. Grushenka’s “protector” was a total jerk to him, sending him off on a wild goose chase, and then Mme. Hohlakov has nothing for him other than encouragement to go to the gold mines in Siberia. So the question at the end of the book is whether he actually killed his father or just injured Grigoriy. The narrator, omniscient in so many other things, is not helpful here.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XIX: This book focuses primarily on Julian in the years prior to his reign. I had not known that he campaigned against the Franks. There’s also quite a bit of information about the mid-4th-century incarnation of the Persian empire and the conflict it got into with the Romans. I liked the description of 4th-century Paris, confined to the island in the Seine where the cathedral of Notre Dame now stands. 
  3. “On the Death of a Fair Infant” by John Milton: “O Fairest flower no sooner blown but blasted . . .” Tough reading here. The Dartmouth page calls this Milton’s first major poem in English, although we don’t know exactly when he wrote it (sometime in the late 1620s). As usual, Milton uses classical references to express Christian ideas. In the later stanzas he speculates whether the child was actually an angel with intercessory power. 
  4. “Of Ancient Customs” and “Of the Vanity of Words” by Michel de Montaigne: In the early lines of the first essay, Montaigne excuses adherence to custom while condemning ever-changing fashion. He then offers up, almost at random, customs from various eras and compares them wit those of his contemporaries. The weirdest one was the story of the condemned prisoner who committed suicide by shoving a sponge down his throat rather than be thrown to wild beasts. In the second essay, Montaigne displays the same dislike of rhetoric shared by many classical and medieval societies. His ruminations on the orators of his own day are scathing: “To hear men talk of metonomies, metaphors, and allegories, and other grammar words, would not one think they signified some rare and exotic form of speaking? And yet they are phrases that come near to the babble of my chambermaid.” 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter II: This long chapter attempts to show which senses are connected to which hemispheres of the brain in different species. I was a bit taken aback by the frank discussion of things like the vivisection of animals, e.g. blinding dogs by tampering with their occipetal lobes. Another striking passage was the contrast between the sexual responses in lower animals and humans: “No one need be told how dependent all human social elevation is upon the prevalence of chastity. Hardly any factor measures more than this the difference between civilization and barbarism. Physiologically interpreted, chastity means nothing more than the fact that present solicitations of sense are overpowered by suggestions of aesthetic and moral fitness which the circumstances awaken in the cerebrum ; and that upon the inhibitory or permissive influence of these alone action directly depends.”
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XVIII-XIX: According to Pascal, the Jesuits have finally clarified their position by calling Jansenius a Calvinist. Pascal replies that everyone the Jesuits have been attacking reject Calvin’s understanding of grace, and that they all believe in free will enabled by grace. Much scolding. The final letter is a fragment only about a page long, so there’s not much to say about it.

I spent the better part of three days driving last weekend, and the result was a delay in getting this post finished. However, I have to say the drive was worth it; I’m writing from Breckenridge, CO, where the humidity is low and the temperatures positively March-like for Montgomery. If all goes as planned, next week’s post will come from some other mountain location. Maybe I’ll read outside!

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One More Post about the Hobby Lobby Case (and Spinal Tap)

hobbylobbyI tried. I really did. I resolved not to make a post about the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case. But in the end I couldn’t resist.

Don’t judge. You’ve read umpteen posts about the decision, yet you still clicked on this post to read it. It’s OK, though. I forgive you.

I have seen some crazy stuff on the web about this case in the last 24 hours. On the other hand, I’ve seen some calm and well-reasoned commentary as well, and one reason I’m posting this is to encourage others to visit those sources.

Several folks have argued that this whole situation is one of the long-term results of World-War-II-era wage and price controls, and I think they are correct. The reason employers first started offering heath insurance was to get around wartime controls on wages, and that “fringe benefit” became accepted as normal and eventually (under Obamacare) mandatory. But there’s no sound reason why we should acquire insurance from our employers any more than we should acquire groceries, transportation, or housing. In fact, the frequency of people’s changes in employment these days is a great reason why we shouldn’t look to employers for insurance. Now every time you change jobs you have to go through the underwriting process again, along with waiting periods and the threat of a “preexisting condition” being discovered. Wouldn’t it be much simpler to get underwritten one time when you reach adulthood for a policy you could maintain through job changes and the development of medical conditions?

Another fundamental problem not addressed by the Supreme Court’s decision in this case is the corruption of the English language, specifically the torturing of the term “insurance.” The concept of insurance is and has always been the management of risk. The purchaser of insurance (whether life insurance, property insurance, health insurance, or whatever) transfers the risk of a loss to a third party for a fee. If the loss occurs, the policyholder is protected; the insurer pays out. Here again Obamacare worsened an already bad situation by requiring all “insurance” plans to pay for all sorts of health-care services that are not insurable risks. These services are primarily preventative, such as annual physical exams and, yes, contraception. Their function is like the fire extinguisher you may have in your house; they reduce the risk of the loss’s occurring. In a properly functioning insurance market, these services would be paid for by the policyholder and would probably result in lower premiums on the policy because the insurer wants to incentivize them. Instead we have a system that is as much prepaid health-care services (whether you want the services or not) as it is insurance.

Anyway, I am almost to 500 words and have only talked about how stupid our system is without actually discussing the Hobby Lobby case. So here are some observations about this very narrow ruling that will have an extremely small impact on the implementation of Obamacare:

  1. Within the context and assumptions of our stupid system, people who see contraception as a basic medical cost have a gripe with the decision that needs to be considered seriously. After all, they may now be forced (if they don’t want to pay the IRS penalty) to purchase an “insurance” policy (at Obamacare rates, no less) that doesn’t cover what they see as a basic necessity. However, this is not a knock against Hobby Lobby and other employers with religious convictions, who also have a legitimate interest in not being forced to pay for something directly that violates their conscience. It’s a knock against the law that has politicized what to most people are very personal matters. Dan McCarthy explains further.
  2. Speaking of the corruption of the English language, the reaction from many people on the cultural Left (what Rod Dreher has called “thermonuclear pants-cr***ing mode“) threatens to destroy any chance for the two sides to communicate with each other. I can’t do better here than to refer you to my friend Matt Jordan, who recently wrote: “Stop pretending like words mean things they don’t. Seriously: STOP IT. Are you worried about the *precedent* set by yesterday’s ruling? That’s fine. I get that. . . . But look. If employer X refuses to buy A for employee Y, X is not, not, NOT thereby “preventing” Y from having A. If X has religious beliefs on the basis of which X refuses to buy A for Y, X is not–contrary to the very words used by the host of the NPR show I was listening to–“forcing employees to live in accordance with their employers’ religious beliefs.” It’s a matter of basic English and rudimentary logic. This kind of thing has got to stop. Please. Anyone who says that Hobby Lobby is denying women access to birth control (and people really do say this! like, people who went to college! people who are serious presidential candidates!) is guilty of either extraordinary ignorance or willful dishonesty.
  3. The freakout over this decision is all out of proportion to its actual significance. Why? I’m afraid it’s because many people are deeply upset that they are losing the “Smell the Glove” feature of Obamacare. For those of you who don’t get that reference to This Is Spinal Tap, I’ll let Ilya Shapiro explain: “The outrage does make sense, of course, if what one fundamentally cares about—or at least, additionally cares about—is the symbolic speech act embedded in the compulsion itself. In other words, if the purpose of the mandate is not merely to achieve a certain practical result, but to declare the qualms of believers with religious objections so utterly undeserving of respect that they may be forced to act against their convictions regardless of whether this makes any real difference to the outcome.  And something like that does indeed seem to be lurking just beneath—if not at—the surface of many reactions. The ruling seems to provoke anger, not because it will result in women having to pay more for birth control (as it won’t), but at least in part because it fails to send the appropriate cultural signal. Or, at any rate, because it allows religious employers to continue sending the wrong cultural signal—disapproval of certain forms of contraception—when sending that signal does not impede the achievement of the government’s ends in any way.

The problems with our health-care system and our cultural conflict go way beyond anything addressed in this court case. This decision is a blip on the map. Personally, I think it was a good blip, but the reactions I’ve seen don’t give me much confidence that the big questions are going to be addressed reasonably and respectfully in our public discourse going forward.

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