Back to Cloud Cuckoo Land

Another month has been lost as a result of my extensive travels, but I continue pressing forward with the Great Books Project. The next round of readings includes a Shakespeare favorite, so there is no excuse to stop now!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Much Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 24, pp. 503-531)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXX (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 477-495)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 47-49 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 256-269)
  4. Translations of Psalms 1-8 by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, pp. 71-77)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XV (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 396-420)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book II (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 653-663)

I believe Milton’s translations of the Psalms are the last of his works we’ll read, so we are very close to finishing another GBWW volume.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. aristophanes-birdsThe Birds by Aristophanes: In case you haven’t noticed by this point, disrespecting the gods is always a bad idea in Greek literature, so I’m surprised Aristophanes lets the birds get away with their “usurpation” of the realm between the gods and men. I had a hard time visualizing a staging of the play; I suspect that’s why I didn’t find it as funny some of the other comedies we’ve read. 
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXIX: After my hiatus, I couldn’t help but be struck with the elegance of Gibbon’s prose all over again. “The genius of Rome expired with Theodosius, the last of the successors of Augustus and Constantine who appeared in the field at the head of their armies, and whose authority was universally acknowledged throughout the whole extent of the empire.” Rufinus, by contrast, is “an odious favorite” for whom we shed no tears when he receives his just deserts. This chapter includes the final division of the empire into eastern and western halves. I couldn’t help but cringe a little at the description of Honorius near the end; his subjects discovered that he was “without passions, and consequently without talents.”
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 44-46: Now that St. Thomas has completed his treatment of the Trinity, he moves into a treatise on the Creation. The positions he advances are not too surprising: God is the Creator of all things; God is the telos of all things; all the persons of the Trinity participate in the act of creation. My head started to spin the same way it did with St. Augustine when St. Thomas started talking about the beginning of time.
  4. “A Custom of the Island of Cea” by Montaigne: The title of this essay is a bit misleading because Montaigne doesn’t get around to Cea until the last couple of paragraphs. The whole thing, though, is about peoples who have some sort of custom of suicide when they determine their time has come. Montaigne relates anecdotes of people who drink poison at a ripe old age and of towns that commit mass suicide when surrounded by a superior military force. It’s all very gruesome. 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XIV: This chapter was a bit dense, but it’s clear that James views the mental function of association as extremely important. He writes that is the result of “neural habit,” and argues that “when two elementary brain-processes have been active together or in immediate succession, one of them, on reoccurring, tends to propagate its excitement into the other.” Pavlov’s dogs immediately come to mind. Apparently not everyone in James’s day accepted that the mind works in such a way, and he devotes several pages to rebutting their arguments. 
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book I: An Athenian, a Spartan, and a Cretan walk into a bar . . . you can tell even this early in the work that Plato sounds less utopian here than in the Republic. I thought the discussion hardship vs. luxury was a bit surprising, and the part about drunkenness was really interesting.

I have another few weeks of traveling coming up, so I’m not entirely confident the posts will be regular through the end of 2014. I will do my best, however. The spring semester looks very calm compared to what I have been through the last few months, so I anticipate a lot of catching up then.

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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.

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The Great Books Project Returns

I note with horror that it has been more than a month since my last post on this blog. A big part of the reason for that was my difficulty in getting internet access during a 3.5-week research and conference trip from which I returned a week ago. I spent many hours driving, flying, sitting in archives, sitting in conference sessions, etc., all while trying to manage my classes remotely when I could get online at all. Now that I am back home until the Thanksgiving break, it’s time to move forward again on these readings!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. King Lear by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, pp. 244-283)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXVIII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 457-467)
  3. To Sir Henry Vane the Younger” and “To Mr. Cyriack upon His Blindness” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 69-70)
  4. On Sleep and Sleeplessness by Aristotle (GBWW Vol. 7, pp. 696-706)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XIII (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 315-359)
  6. Of Drunkenness” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 202-206)

When I originally charted this group of readings, I expected I would be reading Lear along with my doctoral seminar. The best laid plans . . .

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Epilogue: This ending certainly doesn’t satisfy the modern reader who wants all the loose ends tied up. Will Dmitri escape? Will he have a future with Grushenka after the scene with his formerly betrothed? Will Ivan live? Will Alyosha marry? I suppose this is the reason why Dostoevsky ended with Ilusha’s funeral and Alyosha’s pact with the boys. Life is full of uncertainties, and the best human beings can do is to commit to live in an honest and loving way, looking forward to the resurrection.
  2. Saint_AmbroseThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXVII: Some of Gibbon’s condescension towards Christianity is on display in this chapter, which covers Theodosius, St. Ambrose, and St. Martin of Tours. He makes much of Theodosius’s decrees against Arians and other heretics and pretends that they were all motivated out of a simple hatred of different opinions, whereas other historians have pointed to the very real civil unrest occasioned by the doctrinal conflicts of the age. He praises St. Ambrose’s and St. Martin’s “humane inconsistency” in protesting Theodosius’s executions of some who deviated from Nicene orthodoxy. I confess there was much rolling of eyes here.
  3. The Suppliant Maidens by Aeschylus: When discussing this with my doctoral students, I asked them to consider whether the maidens’ grounding their appeal to Argos on their distant blood relation changed the requirements of justice on the part of the Argives. The question produced some interesting exchanges.
  4. On Memory and Reminiscence by Aristotle: Serendipitously, Aristotle deals tangentially with conception (see below) in this work, primarily to insist that memory is not conception. Nor is it perception. Rather, he defines it as “a state of affection of one of these, conditioned by lapse of time.” It is essentially a function of sense-perception, not intelligence; thus not only humans but other animals possess it. He distinguishes remembering from recollection in an interesting way.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XII: This chapter’s topic is conception, which James defines as “the function by which we thus identify a numerically distinct and permanent subject of discourse.” According to him, conceptions are unchangeable; they “form an essentially discontinuous system.” He goes to offer some strong words for the modern nominalist tradition which denies the existence of abstraction and universals. I know James has his flaws, but when I read this stuff I can’t help but like him.
  6. Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I Q. 40-43: St. Thomas views the essential attributes of each person of the Trinity primarily as the relationship it bears to the other two persons. I was a bit unclear on the term “notional act,” which played a significant role in one of the questions.

Thanks to those of you who written in to check on me during this unintended hiatus. It’s good to know that many are following along with this project. I have several significant projects ongoing at the moment, but I plan to resume regular posts for the foreseeable future.

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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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