Back to Great Books Monday

It’s Great Books Monday once again! I can say that with this post, the first Great Books post I’ve made on a Monday in months, it seems. Let’s celebrate by reading both Plato and Aristotle this week.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, Chapters 37-42 (GGB Vol. 2)*
  2. The Metaphysics of Aristotle, Book II (GBWW Vol. 7, pp. 511-513)
  3. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Volume II, Part One, Chapters 8-21 (GBWW Vol. 44, pp. 240-268)
  4. The Gorgias of Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 252-294)
  5. The Almagest of Ptolemy, Book VI, 7-13 (GBWW Vol. 15, pp. 203-222)
  6. Novum Organum by Francis Bacon, Preface (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 103-106)

*Seven chapters from The Pickwick Papers are excerpted in the GGB series. I’ve elected to read the entire novel and have listed page numbers from Volume 2 of GGB when I reach excerpted chapters. Chapter 34 was the last excerpted chapter, so from now until the end of the book I won’t be listing page numbers.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Pickwick-trialThe Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, Chapters 31-36: The meeting of the temperance organization in this section was hilarious, as were the insinuations of the prosecuting attorney in Mr. Pickwick’s breach-of-promise trial. When the lawyer attempted to read some sinister meaning into Pickwick’s note to Mrs. Bardell asking her “not to trouble herself with the warming pan,” I was reminded of all the intellectual contortions by the conspiracy people in Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum.
  2. The Metaphysics of Aristotle, Book I: This is my first time through this work, and I’ve been looking forward to it. Book I rehashes some of the material from the Physics, but Aristotle promises a treatment of universals and the problem of induction here. 
  3. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Volume II, Part One, Ch. 1-7: Volume II deals with culture and mores more than it does politics. I was really interested in the discussion of the impact of democracy on intellectual life. To summarize, public opinion takes on an authoritative character, supplanting the authority of tradition and (to a lesser extent) religion. I wonder if Tocqueville foresaw the ways in which public opinion could be manipulated by the media. 
  4. “Of Liars” by Michel de Montaigne: For several paragraphs, this essay reads like an essay on forgetfulness, not lying. The segue is cute: forgetful people should never take up the habit of lying. Montaigne seems to dislike lying very much, an appropriate stance to take since it violates one of the Ten Commandments. As always, we get some good anecdotes here, this time of liars caught in the act.
  5. The Almagest of Ptolemy, Book VI, 1-6: We’re still working on phases of the moon here, along with ecliptics. There’s a lot of talk about syzygies. Ptolemy explains mathematically how often such events can occur given certain conditions. It involves a lot of tables, as usual. 
  6. The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant, “Transcendental Doctrine,” Chapters 2-4: “What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope?” Now we’re getting somewhere: the summum bonum, etc. Kant appears to be saying that there is a moral reason that can give us answers to some of these questions separately from the “pure reason” discussed through most of this book. He wants to preserve Christian morality and dogma to some degree without appealing to sense evidence .

We’ve gone from 70-degree weather to a snow forecast! Maybe we’ll have a white Christmas. I hope that all of you have a merry Christmas and an enjoyable time with friends and family. But don’t forget to read this week!

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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3 Responses to Back to Great Books Monday

  1. pdefor says:

    I’ve been enjoying reading along with you (well, mostly your summaries, as I’m in different spots). Have a very Merry Christmas!

  2. trentonleach says:

    To me, Book I of the Metaphysics is one of the most significant in the works of Aristotle. The very first sentence (“All men, by nature, desire to know”) sets the foundations for Aristotle’s epistemology and ethics. It functions as a catalyst for an entire class worth of discussion in my Epistemology classes as we look at the implications of this and the potential relationship between this and the imago dei of Genesis 1. Later, it also comes back in our readings from St. Thomas on man’s last end, for both Thomas and Aristotle understand the purpose of human life consisting in an operation of the mind. Aristotle in the active life of the soul’s two reasoning parts and Thomas in the vision of the Divine Essence. Either way, they both rely on our natural desire to know.

    • Dr. J says:

      That is a great observation. I had not explicitly made that connection with Genesis 1, but it makes perfect sense. And I need to remind my students that when they display no intellectual curiosity, they might as well be beasts!

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