Euclid Rolls Over in His Grave

Welcome to Week 161 of the Great Books Project. This week we wrap up Tom Jones, On Liberty, and Part One of Don Quixote!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XVIII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 374-405)*
  2. It Is Folly to Measure the True and False by Our Own Capacity” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 132-134)
  3. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 47-52 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 214-237)
  4. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, Parts 3-5 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 293-323)
  5. On Regimen in Acute Diseases by Hippocrates (GBWW Vol. 9, pp. 54-90)
  6. Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, Part II (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 607-628)

*The volume and page references from Tom Jones are from the 1952 GBWW edition. This novel was not included in the 1990 edition and is thus “extra” reading for this project, but I’ve never read it before and want to.

Don’t let all the section links on the Hippocrates page discourage you; they generally link to a page containing a single paragraph of the text.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XVII: Fielding anticipated my thoughts 270 years before I thought them. Last week I mentioned that I was awaiting a deus ex machina, and in the opening of this book Fielding writes, “If you’re expecting a deus ex machina, forget about it.” However, I am still supremely confident that Tom Jones will pull a rabbit out of his hat and end up living happily ever after with Sophia. We shall see.
  2. “Of the Divine Happiness” by St. Thomas Aquinas: St. Thomas describes happiness as “the perfect good of an intellectual nature.” I guess that would mean that beasts or other forms of life lacking reason are incapable of happiness, which in turn means that for St. Thomas, happiness goes beyond mere sensation. It is an “act of the intellect.”
  3. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 38-46: I tell you, Don Quixote must be staying in the most exciting inn in all of Spain. In one night it hosted three of the most beautiful women in the world, one of whom was a Moorish convert to Christianity; a dashing soldier who had escaped slavery in North Africa; a prominent nobleman; a reformed lunatic; and an eminent attorney; not to mention Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The story of the captain’s escape from captivity was well told, although it was another major digression from the main plot.
  4. JohnStuartMillOn Liberty by John Stuart Mill, Parts 1-2: It has probably been 12 or 13 years since my last reading of this work, and I’m rediscovering quite a few things along the way. Mill advocates what today would probably be called a sort of “thick libertarianism.” In other words, freedom from aggression by itself does not satisfy him; he also wants individuals to enjoy some sort of zone of personal autonomy free from social pressure of any kind. However, most of his comments so far appear to be aimed at defending the individual against oppression by a democratic government.
  5. “Space” by Henri Poincare: Poincare here lays out some of the basics of non-Euclidean geometry. The geometries of the 19th-century figures he discusses are valid in that they are internally consistent, and he asserts that we can’t one geometry to be “correct” while the others are “incorrect.” We can only say that one is “more convenient.” I confess I’m not certain how to respond to that assertion.
  6. Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, Part I: This work proceeds in the manner of a mathematical treatise, with definitions and axioms followed by propositions that are demonstrated by reference to what has already been given. I didn’t understand everything in this first section, but I got the impression that Spinoza attempts to change the definition of God by smuggling into the definition attributes and the like that neither Judaism nor Christianity would accept. It ended up sounding like pantheism in some ways.

I am quite dismayed to find myself slipping on the posting schedule again, but the last couple of weeks have been so packed there didn’t seem to be anyway to avoid it. Here’s hoping I can make up at least a day on the schedule next week. In the meantime, stay warm if you’re encountering the freezing weather (again) in the U.S.

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Archimedes Breaks Things

I failed to mention last week that we have passed the 17,000-page mark in our Great Books Project. With all the works we’ve completed or are about to complete this month, it got lost in the shuffle. Let’s celebrate with a classical liberal author.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XVII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 356)*
  2. Of the Divine Happiness” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 18, pp. 150-152; Part One, Chapter 26 of Summa Theologica)
  3. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 38-46 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 172-214)
  4. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, Parts 1-2 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 267-293)
  5. Space” by Henri Poincare (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 265-293; Part II of the linked PDF)
  6. Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, Part I (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 589-606)

*The volume and page references from Tom Jones are from the 1952 GBWW edition. This novel was not included in the 1990 edition and is thus “extra” reading for this project, but I’ve never read it before and want to.

The reading from the Summa this week is the last section of the treatise on God, so I expect we’ll take a break from that work going into February. Lots of turnover!

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XVI: It’s always darkest before the dawn, and Fielding has certainly put Jones in a dark place: in prison awaiting trial for the murder of Fitzpatrick. Mrs. Western and Lady Bellaston are scheming to put Sophia into the arms of Lord Fellamar, and Blifil is no doubt planning some desperate stratagem to throw a wrench into the works. I eagerly await the deus ex machina
  2. “The Power of God” by St. Thomas Aquinas: This section contains a few expected arguments, e.g. there is power is God, and that power is infinite. St. Thomas also argues that God could not have created things better than they are, “better” being defined in the sense
  3. DonQuixote-LuscindaThe History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 27-37: We’re very deep into the subplots and stories within stories in these chapters. The aptly named “man who was too curious for his own good” provides a pathetic counterpoint to the ultimately happy endings for Cardenio/Luscinda and Dorotea/Fernando. By the end of the section it looks like pretty much the whole world is playing along with Don Quixote’s madness. 
  4. “Marcellus” and “Marcellus and Pelopidas Compared” by Plutarch: It had been some time since I had read the biography of Marcellus, and I’m not sure I’d ever read the whole thing. Archimedes steals the show, of course, with Plutarch’s account of his inventions being used in the defense of Syracuse. Marcellus himself, though, is a pretty impressive character: five-time consul, one of only three sitting consuls to slay an enemy king on the battlefield, etc. 
  5. The Method Treating of Mechanical Problems by Archimedes: The scheduling of a work by Archimedes the same week as we had Plutarch’s mini-bio of him was coincidence, I assure you. I ended up being as lost in this work as I had feared I would be. Archimedes continually cites proofs from his other works (most of which I have not yet read) and Euclid (most of which I have forgotten). Moreover, many sections of the work are missing, leaving the editor to attempt a reasonable reconstruction. I gather that the distinctive point of this work is Archimedes’s argument that we often get ideas for geometrical (abstract) proofs by seeing an approximation of it in the material (mechanical) world.
  6. Objections Against the Meditations, and Replies by Rene Descartes, “Letter to Father Dinet”: Well, it seems we’re ending with a whimper rather than a bang. In this letter to a Jesuit leader, Descartes primarily complains about the ill usage he has received at the hands of other member of that order in lecture halls and printed works. He states that his work has been misrepresented as being heretical. There’s not much in the way of substantive discussion of ideas here.

It’s snowing in the South, which of course means the whole region is shutting down. Now that most of my teaching is done online, though, I keep plugging away. If you’re snowed in this week, don’t have the TV on the whole time. Read some!

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Darwin Is Done

This past week we wrapped up the last of our readings from Charles Darwin in the Great Books Project, completing Volume 49 of the Great Books of the Western World. This week we’ll see the last of Descartes.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XVI (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 338-356)*
  2. The Power of God” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 18, pp. 143-150; Part One, Chapter 25 of Summa Theologica)
  3. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 27-37 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 104-172)
  4. Marcellus” and “Marcellus and Pelopidas Compared” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 246-262)
  5. The Method Treating of Mechanical Problems by Archimedes (GBWW Vol. 10, pp. 569-592)
  6. Objections Against the Meditations, and Replies by Rene Descartes, “Letter to Father Dinet” (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 504-519)

*The volume and page references from Tom Jones are from the 1952 GBWW edition. This novel was not included in the 1990 edition and is thus “extra” reading for this project, but I’ve never read it before and want to.

I confess feeling some trepidation at the idea of jumping back into mathematical proofs after several months of reading more or less normal scientific prose with Darwin. Maybe we’ll get lucky with the Archimedes reading and not be over our heads all at once.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Partridge interrupting Tom Jones's Protestations to Lady BellastonTom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XV: Things are coming to a head for Tom and Sophie. The appearance of Squire Western was a bit unexpected. I should have known we wouldn’t be able to get to the end of the book without a comic scene involving multiple people trying to hide in the same bedroom. That part was quite funny.
  2. “The Book of Life” by St. Thomas Aquinas: This was a very short section. St. Thomas stresses that the Book of Life is predestination, but that this fact does not prevent someone’s name from being “blotted out” of it. It’s tricky, but he’s making a distinction between those who are ordained to eternal life through “absolute predestination” and those who are ordained to eternal life through grace. The latter can fall from grace by committing mortal sin.
  3. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 23-26: Here Don Quixote happens upon a self-exiled nobleman who has gone mad for something love-related (we didn’t get to the end of his account because Don Quixote kept interrupting him and provoked a fight over a character in a chivalric tale). Don Quixote decides he should begin acting mad as well to prove his love for Dulcinea and send Sancho to her with testimony of his madness. My favorite part was when he wouldn’t let Sancho leave right away, saying, “I have yet to rend my garments, scatter my armor about, knock my head against those rocks, and other things of that sort, all of which you must witness.”
  4. “Pelopidas” by Plutarch: The last few weeks have shown us that not all of classical Greece’s great men hailed from Athens and Sparta. Here we have a Theban who helped free his city from Spartan rule in the years following the Peloponnesian War. “In all the great wars that had ever been against Greeks or barbarians, the Spartans were never before beaten by a smaller company than their own.” That’s a pretty impressive track record that makes Pelopidas’s achievement more inspiring.
  5. The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Chapter 21-end: “Many of the views which have been [here] advanced are highly speculative, and some no doubt will prove erroneous.” Lots more politically incorrect language in this conclusion: “Both [human] sexes ought to refrain from marriage if if they are any marked degree inferior in body or mind. . . . When the principles of breeding and inheritance are better understood, we shall not hear ignorant members of our legislature rejecting with scorn a plan for ascertaining whether or not consanguineous marriages are injurious to man. . . . If the prudent avoid marriage, whilst the reckless marry, the inferior members tend to supplant the better members of society.”
  6. Objections Against the Meditations, and Replies by Rene Descartes, Set 7: It’s more of the same for the most part here. Descartes again expresses frustration over his interlocutor’s equivocations: “I should be ashamed to be too diligent and spend many words in commenting on all the things which, though here expressed in words almost identical with mine, I nevertheless do not recognize as mine.” With correspondence like this popping up everywhere I look, it’s small wonder that in the late 17th century intellectuals were placing such a huge stress on the definitions of terms in the confidence that all disagreements would be cleared up once everyone was talking about the same thing.

Hopefully we are back on track for the foreseeable future with regular Monday posts. We’re seeing quite a bit of turnover in the reading over the next few weeks as we finish several of the longer works. It will give us a fresh look at some other authors.

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Reading the Great Books: Three Years Down, Four to Go

It’s that time at the beginning of the new year to take a look back and evaluate the progress on this project I keep harping on of reading the Great Books. If you’ve been following along to any extent whatsoever, you’ll be interested in a few figures I’ve compiled.

Our goal has been to read the Gateway to the Great Books (10 volumes) and Great Books of the Western World (60 volumes). Volume 1 of GGB and Volumes 1-2 of GBWW consist primarily of index material and topical essays; we read the 100-page introductory essay in Volume 1 of GGB the first week of 2011. That left us with 67 volumes of great works to devour.

Of those 67 volumes, we have had readings from 52 so far: all nine GGB volumes and 43 of the GBWW volumes. We have read 13 volumes in their entirety: GGB Volumes 2-4 (Imaginative Literature), 6-7 (Man and Society), 8 (Natural Sciences) and 10 (Philosophical Essays); and GBWW Volumes 3 (Homer), 5 (Herodotus/Thucydides), 33 (Locke/Berkeley/Hume), 36 (Adam Smith), 44 (Tocqueville), and 48 (Melville/Twain). At this point last year we had completed five volumes. As we continue the program, of course, the number of volumes we complete will increase each year as we polish off volumes of collected works we began in previous years. As of now the remaining two volumes in the GGB series and two volumes in the GBWW series are within one or two readings of completion.

In 2011-2013, we read 4,998 pages classified as Imaginative Literature. This total included five epic poems, five short poems, six complete novels (with a sixth and seventh begun), excerpts from three other novels, five novellas, 31 short stories (plus the Canterbury Tales), 32 plays, and 22 critical essays. If I had to pick a favorite from the 2013 readings in this category, I’d choose the Divine Comedy. My least favorite was probably Bunin’s “Gentleman from San Francisco.”

We have also read a total of 4,123 pages from the Man and Society category. This total included four complete histories, excerpts from four other histories, seven complete treatises, excerpts from three other treatises, excerpts from two memoirs, eight constitutional documents, nine letters, 12 speeches, and 157 essays. Favorite from 2013: Wealth of Nations. Least favorite: Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class.

Most challenging for me have been the 3,441 pages of science and mathematics. This total included 20 treatises (with another in progress), one autobiography, two biography excerpts, one complete work of popular science, excerpts from 17 others, two series of lectures, 14 other essays and lectures, and the Hippocratic Oath. I have a narrow field from which to choose here because we mostly spent the year working through a few extremely long works, but I suppose my favorite from 2013 was Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (really!). Least favorite: Ptolemy’s Almagest (an impressive work, but so taxing).

Last but certainly not least, we have read 4,331 pages of Philosophy and Theology in 2011-2013. This total included 24 complete treatises (with three others begun), excerpts from three others, a spiritual autobiography, 21 short works (such as Platonic dialogues), three letters, three lectures, and about 15 essays of varying lengths. Favorite from 2013: Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Least favorite: Hegel’s dense Philosophy of Right.

All in all, we have read 16,928 pages from the 52 volumes. What were your favorite selections from 2013? Post them in the comment section below.

The relentless pace of these readings finally caught up to me in 2013. I probably traveled more in 2013 than in the previous three years combined, and we added a sixth child to the family as well. As a result, I failed to make the weekly post five different times. I’ve added pages to the weekly schedule to catch up, and hopefully we’ll be back on the original pace in a month or two.

Onward!

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Sheep Are No Match for Don Quixote

The Great Books Project marches on in 2014! Expect a summary of our 2013 and overall progress later in the week.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XV (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 316-337)*
  2. The Book of Life” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 18, pp. 141-143; Part One, Chapter 24 of Summa Theologica)
  3. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 23-26 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 82-104)
  4. Pelopidas” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 232-246)
  5. The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Chapter 21-end (GBWW Vol. 49, pp. 590-659)
  6. Objections Against the Meditations, and Replies by Rene Descartes, Set 7 (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 460-504)

*The volume and page references from Tom Jones are from the 1952 GBWW edition. This novel was not included in the 1990 edition and is thus “extra” reading for this project, but I’ve never read it before and want to.

We say farewell to Darwin this week, completing the GBWW volume of his writings. We are also nearing the end of Descartes’s arguments on behalf of his Meditations.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XIV: I can see why the critics say that Dickens was inspired in large part by Fielding. All of these extended digressions do almost nothing to advance the main plot, but they do have some entertainment value. In this book the story of Mr. Nightingale is quite engaging, and of course you’re rooting for him to end up with the innkeeper’s daughter. But unless this plot line is some sort of foil to Jones’s and Sophie’s romance, I don’t see what it has to do with the main story. 
  2. “Of Predestination” by St. Thomas Aquinas: This topic follows naturally form the discussion of providence. St. Thomas argues that God does predestine men. The predestination places nothing actually within the predestined person; it is only within God’s mind. In opposition to universalists, St. Thomas argues that God does reprobate some. God’s foreknowledge is not the cause of the predestination, in part because the cause of the predestination does not come from the predestined. Nevertheless, the prayers of the saints can further the predestination of others. I’d love to see someone with more theological chops than I do a step-by-step comparison of St. Thomas’s understanding of this topic with those of Calvin and Arminius. 
  3. DonQuixote-sheepThe History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 15-22: I must confess I laughed out loud when Don Quixote and Sancho vomited on each other. Even with all the insanity that had been happening up to that point, I hadn’t seen that coming. The long conversations between knight and squire do get a bit tedious, I must say. On the plus side, they got to attack some sheep in this section.
  4. “Aemilius Paulus” and “Aemilius Paulus and Timoleon Compared” by Plutarch: Aemilius Paulus was another figure I had known nothing about before this reading. One can’t help but be impressed with a general who so successfully resisted the temptations to self-aggrandizement following great victories on the battlefield. He fits pretty well into the Cincinnatus mold, I suppose. The Stoic attitude he displayed following the deaths of his two sons was remarkable as well.
  5. The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Chapter 19-20: I wonder to what extent Darwin’s characterizations of the secondary sexual characteristics of men and women are accepted by today’s bien-pensant. He claims, for example, that man’s “attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up” is the result of natural selection in intellectual power. Ditto the claim of women’s “greater tenderness and less selfishness.” Then he gets into racial stuff, too, e.g. Hottentots can’t do music. 
  6. Objections Against the Meditations, and Replies by Rene Descartes, Set 6: I was a bit surprised to see the direction in which this exchange went. They got into things like the question of whether angels are corporeal. Descartes also goes into the nature of deception as non-being. There’s also an exchange on the nature of animal thought. It just seemed like there was more of a medieval flavor to this exchange than there was to most of the others.

Well, I’ve lost another week due to travel, so I’ll have to schedule a higher page count over the next couple of months to make up for it. I’m glad finally to be back home from about three weeks’ worth of journeys that took me as far west as New Mexico for a conference. We don’t have another trip scheduled until March, so I hope to secure the home front (and the blogging front) between now and then.

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“That he our deadly forfeit should release . . .”

This week in the Great Books Project we come within a whisker of our 5,000th page of Imaginative Literature and 3,500th page of Science and Mathematics. That seems like a pretty good way to ring in the new year!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XIV (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 296-315)*
  2. Of Predestination” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 18, pp. 132-141; Part One, Chapter 23 of Summa Theologica)
  3. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 15-22 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 44-82)
  4. Aemilius Paulus” and “Aemilius Paulus and Timoleon Compared” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 214-231)
  5. The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Chapter 19-20 (GBWW Vol. 49, pp. 562-589)
  6. Objections Against the Meditations, and Replies by Rene Descartes, Set 6 (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 447-459)

*The volume and page references from Tom Jones are from the 1952 GBWW edition. This novel was not included in the 1990 edition and is thus “extra” reading for this project, but I’ve never read it before and want to.

We are nearing the end of Darwin and Descartes and will probably finish them next week. Fielding won’t be far behind.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XIII: Fielding might as well have subtitled this book “In which Mr. Jones becomes a Gigolo.” Now Jones is moving around in the world of London gentility, and the execution of the comic element is pretty good. There are classical elements of the narrative, such as a masquerade and instances of mistaken identity. The repartee between Lady Bellaston and Sophia in the book’s final chapter is clever. 
  2. “On the Morning of Christs Nativity” and “The Hymn” by John Milton: According to notes on the linked website, this poem marked Milton’s maturation as a Christian writer. As always, I’m intrigued by Milton’s freely mixing Christian and classical pagan metaphor. He includes references to the muses, to Pan, etc. Of course the language of both poems is quite beautiful. 
  3. DonQuixote-MarcelaThe History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 11-14: I’m not into the secondary scholarship on this work, but I assume that feminist scholars get some mileage out of these chapters. By casting the crackpot Don Quixote as the defender of Marcela, is Cervantes condemning her independence, or is he endorsing certain elements of the knight-errant’s chivalric code? I’d love for anyone who knows more about the tradition of interpretation to comment below. 
  4. “Timoleon” by Plutarch: I didn’t know a single thing about Timoleon before reading this life, and I found his story fascinating, particularly the sequence of incidents where he first risked his life to save his brother on the battlefield, and then presided over the same brother’s assassination when the latter tried to set himself up as dictator of Corinth. The story provides great fodder for discussion on the relative demands on one’s loyalties from kin and country. 
  5. The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Chapter 17-18: After four chapters of birds, we finally move on to the mammals here. The big generalization is that male mammals fight a lot more than male birds do over the females. “When the males are provided with weapons which in the females are absent, there can be hardly a doubt that these serve for fighting with other males.” I found this statement intriguing as it rests on a package of assumptions that by this time in Darwin’s narrative have become nearly invisible. He interprets features such lions’ manes to be an evolved defense against other male lions. He also repeats the idea that vocalizations and odors of the males are there to attract females.
  6. Objections Against the Meditations, and Replies by Rene Descartes, Set 5: I always have trouble distinguishing what’s sincere and what’s backhanded in early modern authors. Descartes thanks his interlocutor and then says he hasn’t offered any real arguments, only rhetorical devices. “But I like that!” because it means there aren’t any real arguments left to offer (?). Similar to the exchange with Hobbes, Descartes attributes most of these criticisms to an inability to break free of “immersion in the senses.” The second and third meditations get the most discussion here.

More travel and ebook reading are in store for me this week. In a couple of days I’ll be taking some students to a conference in Albuquerque. Apparently the location has something to do with a popular television show I’ve never watched. I might look into that, but I’ll have to do my reading first!

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5 Reasons Why a “Faithful Film Adaptation” of The Hobbit Would Stink

[This post contains spoilers. Consider yourself warned.]

the-hobbit-coverI love J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I read it for the first time when I was six years old and have returned to it many times over the years. I still have a soft spot in my heart for the cheesy cartoon version of the story that Rankin/Bass did when I was a kid. I’ve shoved the book into each of my children’s hands as soon as I thought his reading skills could handle it.

So I can understand it when writers I respect, such as Daniel Larison at the American Conservative, express a sense of horror at Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of the beloved book, particularly the second film, The Desolation of Smaug, which is now in theaters. The criticisms abound. Why did Jackson think he could turn a 200-page children’s book into three lengthy films? Why does he have Gandalf wandering around mountain tombs and an old, ruined fortress, settings that appear nowhere in the book? Why did he put Legolas in the film when the elf does not appear in the book? Why does Bard the bowman get a complicated back story that’s absent in the book? Why does Smaug chase the dwarves around the halls of Erebor when they never even confronted each other in the book? (Are you noticing a pattern here?)

hobbitblurayWhat appears to be the common desire of these critics is for Jackson to have made a simpler Hobbit with the story told in one or (at most) two films and with a script that hews closely to the text of the original book. As something of a Tolkien purist myself, I completely understand this wish. However, although I disagree with some of Jackson’s decisions (particularly the elf/dwarf romance in the Desolation of Smaug), I have to come to his defense on his overall approach to these films. In fact, I’m certain that the “faithful film adaptation” of the 1937 Hobbit these critics seem to want would in fact turn out to be awful, or at least fall far short of Tolkien’s ultimate vision. Here are five reasons why:

  1. It’s not 1937. Don’t get me wrong here; I’m usually the last person who could be reasonably accused of chronological snobbery. What I mean is that if J.R.R. Tolkien were alive today and telling the story of The Hobbit, it would probably sound a lot different from its 1937 incarnation. The Hobbit was Tolkien’s earliest effort to relate events occurring in Middle-Earth’s Third Age (his earlier stories and poems mostly dealt with a remoter period of Middle-Earth’s history), and over the following decades he fleshed out this history to a much greater extent. Some of this Hobbit revisionism appears in the main text of The Lord of the Rings, some of it appears in LotR‘s appendices, and some of it is in posthumous works of Tolkien’s like Unfinished Tales. You can’t make a Hobbit film or films today without taking these later writings into account. This leads me into the next reason . . .
  2. Most of Jackson’s additions to the story are actually Tolkien’s. Here are a few of the scenes, characters, and plot items that appear nowhere in the original Hobbit, but were added by Tolkien in later years and show up in Jackson’s films: Gandalf’s meeting Thorin in Bree and urging him to retake Erebor, Sauron’s reappearing as the Necromancer in Mirkwood, the character of Radagast the Brown, the One Ring as a malevolent force, Azog the Defiler’s beheading of Thror, the Mirkwood spiders’ designation as “spawn of Ungoliant,” the Battle of Azanulzibar (the dwarf/orc battle outside Moria), and Gandalf’s collaborating with the “White Council” (Radagast, Saruman, Galadriel, and Elrond) to confront the Necromancer, uncover his true identity, and drive him out of Mirkwood. Legolas’s character is also a great example of this phenomenon. Tolkien had not created him at the time of the writing of The Hobbit, but in The Lord of the Rings he is presented as the prince of the elven kingdom where Thorin and Company had been imprisoned. Far from needing to justify Legolas’s presence in the new films, Peter Jackson would have had to justify his absence given Tolkien’s post-Hobbit development of Middle-Earth. Of course Legolas would have been there when Thorin showed up! If you protest these inclusions, it seems to me like you’re criticizing Tolkien as much as Jackson.
  3. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films have already been made. Just as Jackson has to take into account Tolkien’s post-1937 writings that have a bearing on the events in The Hobbit, he also has to take into account the fact that he has already presented to the world about eleven hours of Lord of the Rings films. If he now serves up anything inconsistent with that earlier work, or even makes films that pretend the LotR films don’t exist, he’s asking for trouble. So we actually do need “prequel” material to show how these stories are connected. We need a hint of the future friendship between Legolas and Gimli. We need to see similarities between Frodo’s and Bilbo’s experiences of wearing the One Ring. We need to understand why Balin will end up going to Moria after Erebor is reclaimed. We need to know why Gandalf was so interested in getting rid of Smaug. And most importantly, we need to know about the Necromancer.
  4. Parts of The Hobbit would make no sense on film. You can get away with a lot of stuff in a fairy tale that will absolutely kill you on the big screen. In the book, Thorin and Company get all the way from Hobbiton to the secret door in the side of the Lonely Mountain without any strategy for dealing with the dragon. Tolkien’s narrator simply notes wryly that this was always the weak link in their plan. In a film, this “wrinkle” would completely destroy any suspension of disbelief in the audience and just about ruin everything. Jackson and his team have dealt with this problem ingeniously by setting up the expedition as a burglary job to retrieve the Arkenstone, which will then allow Thorin to raise a dwarvish army. Of course, this alteration demands some screen time to set up, but it makes sense. Similarly, the circumstances that lead to the Battle of Five Armies near the end of the book would come off as being absolutely ridiculous on film. Fortunately, Jackson et al have been careful to set up antagonisms in these first two films that will provide believable reasons for Thranduil, Bard, and either Azog or Bolg to lead armies to Erebor in the third film.
  5. Parts of The Hobbit would be really boring and/or unsatisfying on film. After hours of setup in which viewers have become emotionally invested in the antagonism between Smaug and the dwarves, Jackson cannot have Smaug simply talk to Bilbo for a few minutes and then fly off to Lake-town to die without coming face to face with the dwarves at all. That would have left the conflict unresolved, not to mention producing the flattest movie ending ever. Yes, the sequence where the dwarves try to kill Smaug is over the top, but give Jackson credit for recognizing that there had to be some kind of confrontation and, yes, at least a momentary victory for the dwarves over the dragon to provide some resolution to the dramatic tension that had been building over two films. Other scenes had to change for similar reasons. Can you imagine Jackson filming An Unexpected Journey’s troll scene as described in the book, where the dwarves come one by one into the clearing and are captured without conflict? BORING!

While An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug are far from perfect, labeling them “The Desolation of Tolkien” is too harsh. If my kids’ reaction to the Desolation of Smaug is anything to go by, they are a successful attempt to translate the excitement and grandeur of Middle-Earth to the big screen.

However, Son #2 was very upset that Bilbo didn’t yell “Attercop!” or sing his taunting song at the spiders.

[As usual, whenever I mention Tolkien on this site, I have to recommend my friend Corey Olsen's Tolkien Professor page. You can find the link in the sidebar to the right. See especially his "Riddles in the Dark" podcast where he treats issues relating to the Jackson films exhaustively.]

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Tilting at Windmills

To observe Christmas this week in the Great Books Project, I’m sandwiching in something seasonally appropriate between the irreverence of Fielding and Cervantes. I think you’ll like it (unless, of course, you’re a philistine!).

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XIII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 273-296)*
  2. On the Morning of Christs Nativity” and “The Hymn” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, pp. 1-7)
  3. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 11-14 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 30-44)
  4. Timoleon” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 195-213)
  5. The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Chapter 17-18 (GBWW Vol. 49, pp. 532-561)
  6. Objections Against the Meditations, and Replies by Rene Descartes, Set 5 (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 392-446)

*The volume and page references from Tom Jones are from the 1952 GBWW edition. This novel was not included in the 1990 edition and is thus “extra” reading for this project, but I’ve never read it before and want to.

I have to admit the Descartes reading this week is a bit intimidating at more than fifty pages. I’m tempted to count the digression each author makes.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XII: The attention returns to Jones and Partridge in this book. Partridge seems to be becoming an increasingly annoying obstacle to Jones’s plans. Not only does he continually urge him to return to Mr. Allworthy’s estate in the mistaken belief that Jones is Allworthy’s son, but he also says dumb things in others’ company when drunk, things that lead to trouble for Jones. In this book he even tries to plot a kidnaping of Jones to return him to Allworthy. He’s also useless in a fight.
  2. “The Providence of God” by St. Thomas Aquinas: “Since the very act of free will is traced to God as to a cause, it necessarily follows that everything happening from the exercise of free will must be subject to divine providence.” Two articles later, though, St. Thomas insists that God’s providence does not impose necessity upon everything. There’s some pretty dense reasoning in a short space in this question.
  3. Don_Quixote_WindmillsThe History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 1-10: In these early chapters we are introduced to Don Quixote, whose “brains got so dry that he lost his wits” reading books of chivalry. We also make the acquaintance of Sancho Panza, who, like his master, is not the sharpest tool in the shed. Humorous incidents abound in this section, including the famous scene with the windmills. The chapter where the curate and company burn the books, though, reminded me of one of the weaknesses of Adler et al’s selections in the GBWW series, viz. the complete lack of the chivalric epics Cervantes parodied. I don’t think you can really “get” Don Quixote unless you’re conversant with the traditions of chivalry and courtly love. I have toyed with the idea of making a list of such works and other prominent omissions from the Great Conversation (like writings of some Church Fathers) to read after this seven-year project is completed. 
  4. “Science as a Vocation” by Max Weber: There’s a lot to digest in this essay. Weber argues for a strict separation between scientific instruction—where “science” is construed broadly to encompass all knowledge—and political or moral advocacy in the lecture hall. His justification is that a university lecturer’s students are a captive audience, and to impress one’s political positions upon them from that position of authority is responsible. It seems to me that Weber may be inconsistent when he argues that a) scientific methodology is atheistic, and b) science has no answers to the big questions of life (ethics, etc.). His call for people who have a passion for disenchanting the world in such a context is a bit odd. 
  5. The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Chapter 15-16: These are the third and fourth chapters dealing with birds, and I confess I wasn’t as attentive in my reading as I should have been. Darwin was going back over some ground he had already covered, this time attempting to fit observations about things like the differing plumage of males and females into his theory, this time focusing on the females and what happens in and out of the mating season. In Chapter 16 Darwin drafts a list of “rules” describing patterns he has observed.
  6. Objections Against the Meditations, and Replies by Rene Descartes, Sets 3-4: Apparently the author of the third set of objections to Descartes’s Meditations is none other than Thomas Hobbes. The exchange between them was most amusing as far as I was concerned. Hobbes argues from materialist assumptions and finds fault with all of Descartes’s central claims. Descartes’s reply, over and over, is, “Why can’t you understand this? I’ve made it perfectly clear. Stop interpreting according to your stupid materialist assumptions.” The fourth set comes from Antoine Arnauld, a prominent theologian and logician. He seems to like the Meditations, or at least their conclusions, but his possible objections are even more detailed than Hobbes’s. In particular, he warns Descartes that his arguments appear to rule out the Roman Catholic understanding of transubstantiation in the Eucharist. Descartes argues that this was never his intention, and that he affirms the possibility of true mysteries elsewhere.

It’s more traveling this week for my family, and I’m stuck with digital texts again. I’m pretty certain the Descartes translation is significantly differently from what’s in the GBWW, but I think most of the other things I’ve linked are comparable to what’s in the hardbound volumes. Take some time to read this week when you’re eating turkey, opening presents, watching football, or arguing with relatives!

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A Muggle in the Thirty Years War

I can’t put it off any longer. Dust off that suit of armor in your closet, because it’s time to open Cervantes.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 246-273)*
  2. The Providence of God” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 18, pp. 127-132; Part One, Chapter 22 of Summa Theologica)
  3. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 1-10 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 1-30)
  4. Science as a Vocation” by Max Weber (GBWW Vol. 58, pp. 108-113)
  5. The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Chapter 15-16 (GBWW Vol. 49, pp. 500-531)
  6. Objections Against the Meditations, and Replies by Rene Descartes, Sets 3-4 (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 360-391)

*The volume and page references from Tom Jones are from the 1952 GBWW edition. This novel was not included in the 1990 edition and is thus “extra” reading for this project, but I’ve never read it before and want to.

I hope no one will get novel overload over the next few weeks by reading Fielding and Cervantes concurrently. Of course, Max Weber can bring anyone back down to earth.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XI: I came away from this book thinking tha tit was mainly filler. Who knows? Maybe Mrs. Fitzpatrick will turn out to be a significant character, but at the moment she appears to be mainly a foil to Sophia and a means to plant doubts in her mind about men in general.
  2. “The Justice and Mercy of God” by St. Thomas Aquinas: St. Thomas writes that God “gives to each what his rank deserves,” that he has distributive justice as one of his attributes. I wonder how this argument would fit into the current social-justice happening in the church. Having just sent off a book manuscript on the issue, I’m pretty interested in the idea. 
  3. Mother-CourageMother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht: For some reason I wasn’t able to get into this play. There were some good comic moments, and some powerful depictions of human suffering. However, it seemed as though Brecht didn’t really want readers/viewers to identify with any of the characters, except perhaps the mute daughter. Mother Courage herself struck me as an unsympathetic figure, particularly when played by Petunia Dursley
  4. “Alcibiades and Coriolanus Compared” by Plutarch: I was a bit surprised here to see Plutarch giving the nod to Alcibiades in some areas, mainly in that he damaged Athens less than Coriolanus damaged Rome when turning against it. The conclusion, though, was unequivocal; Alcibiades was a lesser man when it came to personal virtue. 
  5. The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Chapter 14: Darwin writes that bird courtship “is often a prolonged, delicate, and troublesome affair.” Nevertheless, certain species are nearly always seen in pairs, even if one of the partners was recently shot. I couldn’t help but be amused at the discussion of the aesthetic sensibilities of birds and the speculations concerning the females’ selection of male mates.
  6. Objections Against the Meditations, and Replies by Rene Descartes, Sets 1-2: The sets of objections to which Descartes replies are actual letters he received from (I assume) other philosophers or groups that had read his Meditations. I followed most of the objections and replies to them, but the arguments didn’t always proceed in the manner I expected. For example, in the proof of God’s existence, I expected Descartes to make a distinction between his own usage of “perfection” and the interlocutor’s invocation of Anselm’s “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” but Descartes didn’t go in that direction. So maybe I still don’t understand him fully.

I’m writing from sunny Florida today, although it is actually chilly here in the Panhandle. It’s all digital books this week for me, and I have to confess I feel naked without my trusty hardcovers. We all have to make sacrifices, though! I hope that with Christmas coming up you’ll be asking Santa for some classic works or giving some to others. (I have a few recommended translations on the Recommended Resources page.)

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Oedipus Goes to Die

When was the last time I went exactly seven days between Great Books posts? I have no idea, to be honest. Nevertheless, we completed 16,500 pages last week and continue our journey through the Great Conversation.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XI (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 223-245)*
  2. The Justice and Mercy of God” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 18, pp. 124-127; Part One, Chapter 21 of Summa Theologica)
  3. Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht  (GBWW Vol. 60, pp. 397-446)
  4. Alcibiades and Coriolanus Compared” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 193-195)
  5. The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Chapter 14 (GBWW Vol. 49, pp. 477-499)
  6. Objections Against the Meditations, and Replies by Rene Descartes, Sets 1-2 (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 330-355)

*The volume and page references from Tom Jones are from the 1952 GBWW edition. This novel was not included in the 1990 edition and is thus “extra” reading for this project, but I’ve never read it before and want to.

I’ve never read anything of Brecht’s except that line about the government “dissolving the people and choosing a new one,” so I’m interested to see what he’s all about.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book X: It’s not quite what I predicted last week, but close enough: Sophia ends up at the inn and learns of Jones’s dallying with Mrs. Waters. Fielding gives us some clever complications with the involvement of the maid and Partridge, and I didn’t foresee Squire Western’s appearance. The leaving of the muff and the problem it caused for Jones was a nice touch. Jones really is—let’s face it—an idiot.
  2. “God’s Love” by St. Thomas Aquinas: Here again St. Thomas attempts to thread a theological needle or two. If God is Love, how does He hate, etc. Unlike some modern commentators who try to gloss over the language of hate by calling it hyperbole or something of the sort, he argues that God actually loves and hates different things; the wicked he loves “as natures,” but hates “as sinners.” For me at least, it was an unexpected way of arguing.
  3. Oedipus_At_ColonusOedipus at Colonus by Sophocles: This play is really depressing to read, even more so than your typical tragedy. The entire dialogue is taken up with laments concerning the suffering of not only Oedipus, but also his daughter Antigone who has accompanied him in exile. Then there’s the other daughter, Ismene, who gets kidnaped along with Antigone, and the two sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, who now war with each other. The whole family is a big mess and labors under a curse. Theseus is a stand-up guy in this play and relieves Oedipus’s suffering to the extent he’s able. 
  4. “Coriolanus” by Plutarch: Everyone gets his comeuppance in this story. Coriolanus is almost killed for being an arrogant jerk. Rome gets its head handed to it in a war because it mistreated Coriolanus. Then Coriolanus gets killed by his erstwhile allies for not sticking to his guns in the offensive campaign against Rome. His mother was pretty impressive in her supplication to him; the episode gives Plutarch occasion to ruminate on the nature of divine intervention. The biography is an outstanding instance of the Great Man genre, since the mere changing sides of Coriolanus completely turns the tide of the war. 
  5. The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Chapter 13: This is the first of three (I think) chapters on sexual characteristics of birds. Darwin focuses primarily here on the competition of males for females and the decorative plumage. He discusses knobs on the males’ legs, etc., that appear to be designed for fighting. Some of the brilliant plumage only appears in the mating season. Near the end of the chapter Darwin notes that sometimes the two things seem to work against each other, e.g. the decorative stuff can get in the way when birds fight.
  6. Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes: These meditations take us deeper into the process by which Descartes came to the conclusions he published in the Discourse on Method, which we read way back in the spring of 2011. The third meditation, in which Descartes elaborates on his argument for God’s existence, is the longest. (In case you don’t remember, Descartes held that the idea of perfection indubitably present in our minds could only have come from a perfect being.) In the fifth meditation, he argues that geometrical proofs themselves rely on the knowledge of God.

Here’s hoping I can maintain a Monday schedule in the near future. I have quite a bit travel ahead of me in the next month, so I’m sure it will be a challenge. I hope you’re able to squeeze in some reading time as the Christmas frenzy revs up!

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