With more than 4,000 pages of the Great Books completed as of this morning, I suppose we have some justification for preening. No doubt all your friends and relations are showering you with praise if you’ve read everything posted here for the last nine months. Right? Of course, we still have more than 30,000 pages to read before we’re done with this project, so congratulate yourself too much just yet.
Here are some observations on last week’s readings:
- The Iliad of Homer, Books XIII-XV: It seems that this section is as much about the gods and their relationships as it is about the war. The scene where Hera schemes against Zeus and seduces him to distract him from the battle speaks volumes about how the Greeks viewed their gods. Every time I get to the point where I really admire the warriors, one of them starts gloating over a corpse, and the feeling fades somewhat.
- “Camillus” by Petrarch: This is my first time to read this particular biography, and I’m struck by how impressive Petrarch makes Camillus out to be. I’m sure he had some failings, or he wouldn’t have been provoking revolts constantly, but some of his decisions were the model of sagacity and virtue. I love the moment when he refuses to accept the defection of the schoolmaster who had brought along the besieged city’s children as hostages (depicted in the Poussin painting to the right).
- Second Treatise on Civil Government by John Locke, Chapters I-IV: There’s a lot of great stuff in this treatise, but I do think Locke makes some erroneous assumptions in these early chapters. For example, the existence of laws of nature (which I accept) does not imply the existence of a “state of nature,” and all the emphasis on this mythical state tempts me to go running to Robert Filmer, Locke’s chief antagonist.
- Federalist #57: Hamilton and Madison make good arguments that the elected representatives will be close to their constituents and have their interests at heart, but I wonder whether the mathematics of representation in 2011 (cited last week) invalidate at least a portion of their position here.
- “Beginnings and Endings” by Sir James Jeans: I was struck by the cycles in which scientific notions run while reading this piece. Writing in the late 1920s, Jeans says that the theory of what today people call “alien astronauts,” while once widely held, is now outdated and must be discarded. Tell that Richard Dawkins, who today is willing to concede that possibility as part of his violent opposition to special creation. Jeans’s optimism for the future of humanity was probably a rarity in the disillusion-filled interwar period.
- “The Philosophy of Common Sense” by Voltaire: Voltaire on religion is insufferable, but there are flashes of brilliance elsewhere. I like the emphasis on the necessity of virtue in friendship, for “the wicked have only accomplices.”
It’s time for me to get started on the readings I posted yesterday. I’m particularly looking forward to reading Lucretius for the first time, especially after reading the Santayana essay on him a few weeks back.