Some weeks I find my slate of scheduled Great Books readings moderately interesting. Other weeks I’m blown away by the profound ideas I encounter in multiple authors. I’m happy to say that this past week fell into the second category.
Here are the readings for the coming week:
- The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, Chapters 19-24 (GGB Vol. 2, 399-405)*
- “That the Deity Oversees All Things” by Epictetus (GBWW Vol. 11, pp. 114; Book I Chapter 14 of the Discourses)
- Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Volume I, Part Two, Chapters 8-9 (GBWW Vol. 44, pp. 136-165)
- “On Style” by Arthur Schopenhauer (GBWW Vol. 5, pp. 124-136)
- The Almagest of Ptolemy, Book V, 1-11 (GBWW Vol. 15, pp. 142-166)
- The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant, “Transcendental Logic,” Book II, Chapter 3 (GBWW Vol. 39, pp. 173-209; begins on p. 333 of the linked PDF)
*Seven chapters from The Pickwick Papers are excerpted in the GGB series. I’ve elected to read the entire novel and will list page numbers from Volume 2 of GGB when I reach excerpted chapters.
Here are some observations from last week’s readings:
- The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, Chapters 13-18: Why Mrs. Leo Hunter’s “Ode on an Expiring Frog” isn’t part of the Western canon is beyond me. That has to be one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. I also got a good chuckle out of the episode of the stone with the “ancient” markings. Chapter 18 ends with the notice to Pickwick of the landlady’s lawsuit against him. I can’t wait to see how that turns out.
- “How Everything May Be Done Acceptably to the Gods” by Epictetus: Apparently anything you do is pleasing to the gods as long as you do it with self-control. This is probably the shortest of all the discourses we’ve read to this point.
- Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Volume I, Part Two, Ch. 6-7: These two chapters contain so many keen observations that I don’t even know where to start. Tocqueville is remarkably frank with his interpretations of both the benefits and drawbacks of democratic government. According to him, democracy brings a focus on material improvement and prosperity. However, pursuit of higher things (honor, virtue, etc.), traditionally the purview of the aristocracy, languishes. Americans are very attached to their system, so much so that a sort of soft censorship results; criticism of it is not tolerated in public. Is any of this sounding familiar?
- Medea by Euripides: This was easily the most disturbing thing I’ve read in the course of the program to this point. Euripides gives us a glimpse into the human soul’s dark side with the story of a woman who hates her estranged husband so much that she kills their two children as a means of getting revenge—and that’s after murdering his prospective bride and father-in-law. What’s up with Medea’s line about women not being effective do-gooders, but excelling in plotting evil?
- The Almagest of Ptolemy, Book IV, 6-11: I probably didn’t get all the math here, but I can’t help but be impressed with what Ptolemy is doing here, taking records of lunar eclipses both ancient (to him) and contemporary, and working out the system of the circular orbit and necessary epicycles.
- The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant, “Transcendental Logic,” Book II, Chapter 2: This chapter deals with the “antinomy of reason.” Kant says that logically valid arguments can be constructed that reach contradictory conclusions (for example, the time and space have a beginning and that they are infinite). Kant argues that both positions are false because they have faulty foundations. (In this case, neither argument is based on experience, which Kant says you need because the world is an object of experience.)
As usual, the fall semester has flown by. We had some nice, cool weather here last week, but it’s back into the 70s this week. Typical Alabama December! I might even read outside some in the next few days in between grading final exams.