Ever Wonder How They Figured Out Pi?

This week in the Great Books Project you have a chance to remedy that gaping hole in your education. I refer, of course, to your most likely never having read a masque before. Therefore, I give you John Milton.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 179-200)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XVIII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 255-272)
  3. Comus” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 33-57)
  4. Of the Uncertainty of Our Judgment” and “Of War Horses” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 177-184)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter I (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 1-7)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XVI-XVII (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 127-153)

This week we also return to William James, whom we haven’t read in quite some time. Principles of Psychology will be the final (and longest) work of his we tackle.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II, Book VI: This book seems like a major digression from the main plot, but I have a feeling Dostoevsky considered it of utmost importance. It consists primarily of the elder’s dying words to the monks who were closest to him, including Alyosha. The elder makes plenty of cryptic statements, like the one about everyone being responsible to everyone for everyone. The reminiscence about the man who confessed an old murder sounded very much like the plot of Crime and Punishment.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XVII: This book didn’t contain much “action.” The first section covered the design and layout of Constantinople in great detail. The rest of it went into the minutiae of how the state machinery was reorganized under Constantine. The general trend was toward administrative centralization. For example, the title and prestige of the consulship was kept in place, but its occupants did nothing significant.
  3. “Lycidas” by John Milton: This poem is a eulogy to a friend of Milton’s who was drowned in a storm during a crossing of the Irish Sea. The 17th-century editor claims that it’s also a prediction of the downfall of the Church of England’s clergy in the English Civil Wars, but I wasn’t able to detect any lines that seemed to bear directly on that event.
  4. “Of the Battle of Dreux” and “Of Names” by Michel de Montaigne: The first essay discusses (very briefly) the first major engagement of the French Wars of Religion in 1562. The government’s (Catholic) forces narrowly prevailed over the Huguenots. Montaigne mentions one or two controversies resulting from the battle before offering some parallel anecdotes from the classical period. In “Of Names,” Montaigne discusses the psychological favor or disfavor attached to particular names in different cultures. It reminded me of those annual lists of most popular baby names that are always circulating on social media.
  5. archimed_circleMeasurement of a Circle by Archimedes: When you take geometry class in high school today, you’re taught that the radius of a circle is equivalent to π times twice the length of the circle’s radius. But Archimedes didn’t have π. He worked it out the hard way. We don’t have his entire solution, but his third proposition is that “the ratio of the circumference of any circle to its diameter is less than 3-1/7 but greater than 3-10/71.” That’s close enough for government work.
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XIII-XV: These letters continue Pascal’s responses to the Jesuits’ counterattacks against him. Some of the reading is tough going because we have neither the Jesuits’ pamphlets to which Pascal is replying nor the works of Jesuit theologians that both parties are citing to make their respective cases. This sort of controversy figured significantly in my doctoral dissertation, but then I made sure I had all the relevant documents in front of me so that I’d have a better idea of what was going on. It’s frustrating having only one side of the argument. In Letter XV, Pascal flatly attacks the Jesuits’ credibility and attempts to show that their own theology permits and encourages them to tell lies about their opponents.

My family is gearing up for a four-week trip, and I’m trying to decide whether to go completely electronic on the Great Books reading or to take along a couple of volumes. Decisions, decisions. Whether you’re on the road or not this summer, make sure you have a great work to read by your side.

Posted in Books, Liberal Arts | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mao’s Great Famine

61vz2qJti3L._SL1000_45,000,000 dead in four years.

That’s Frank Dikötter’s estimate of the devastation wrought by Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” beginning in 1958. The figures can be found in his recent book Mao’s Great Famine.

In addition to the death toll, Dikötter believes about one-third of all homes in China were destroyed during the period.

Dikötter has been researching reopened archives in China and has plenty of data to back up his conclusions, but he’s not the first historian or journalist to pull the lid off this episode in Communist China’s history. Way back in the late 1990s, Jasper Becker revealed much of the horrific story in Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine.

I read Hungry Ghosts in 1998 while I was living in Wuhan, China. The book was banned on the mainland, but I found a copy of it during a trip to Hong Kong and brought it back to Wuhan. The information it contained about the completely insane policies Mao instituted in the late 1950s was shocking, as was the steadfast refusal of Mao’s lackeys to let him in on the secret that the Great Leap Forward was actually destroying the country. Every place Mao visited became a Potemkin Village for the day, with “surplus” crops lining the roads and happy-looking people who had been brought in especially for the occasion to cheer the Great Leader.

I discreetly shared some of this information with a few select students at my university. It blew their minds; they had been taught from the cradle to revere Mao, and the government was just starting to let some negative information about him be aired publicly. When I further shared the memoir of a Chinese Canadian woman who had emigrated to China to take part in the Cultural Revolution and who was shocked by her experiences, my students’ world crumbled.

What prompted this post was the recent attention this article about Dikötter has been receiving on social media. The crimes of Mao, the greatest mass murderer in world history, need to become more widely known in the West.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Smerdyakov Scripts His Own Epileptic Seizure

In a mere two weeks we’ll have made it to the halfway point in our seven-year journey to read through the Great Books of the Western World. If we’re lucky, we might be halfway through the Brothers K by then as well.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II , Book VI (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 153-179)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XVII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 234-255)
  3. Lycidas” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 27-33)
  4. Of the Battle of Dreux” and “Of Names” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 174-177)
  5. Measurement of a Circle by Archimedes (GBWW Vol. 10, pp. 447-451)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XIII-XV (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 99-127)

No doubt you’ve noticed the double shots of Montaigne for the last two weeks. I don’t want still to be reading his essays in 2017.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. smerdyakovThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II, Book V: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Papa Karamazov is about to be murdered by Dmitri, but that Smerdyakov is the real mastermind of the crime. There really is some creepy dialogue in this novel. Of course the high point of the section is Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor, who faults Christ for making things too hard on ordinary people. His declaration that he was willing to be damned to bamboozle the credulous multitude reminded me of Whitaker Chambers’s description of Communists: those who are willing to take upon themselves the crimes of history to bring about their vision of the just society. 
  2. “The Plurality of Persons in God” by St. Thomas Aquinas: Not surprisingly, St. Thomas argues that there is a plurality of persons in God, and that the number of persons is exactly three. His major proof text for that number is 1 John 5:7, which many scholars reject as a later addition to the epistle, but I’m sure Thomas would have found another way to get there if that verse hadn’t been present. 
  3. “Arcades” by John Milton: This poem was part of some entertainment for a noble family who amused themselves by acting out some pastoral scene in shepherds’ garb. Again the classical references are fast and furious. We lose something in the mere reading of the poem as opposed to watching the whole scene enacted. 
  4. “Of Sumptuary Laws” and “Of Sleep” by Michel de Montaigne: Montaigne dislikes sumptuary laws, but not for the reasons moderns condemn them. He explicitly states that the social classes must be clearly differentiated; he just thinks there must be a more effective way to do it. He recognizes the harmful incentives the laws produce. The essay on sleep recounts several famous anecdotes of military commanders, etc., who were able to sleep in what must have been extremely stressful circumstances, e.g. right before a major battle. 
  5. The Nature of Life by C.H. Waddington, Chapters 3-5: In these lectures Waddington first discusses the factors that affect an organism’s development toward its innate potentiality and also traces some of the major questions surrounding the theory of biological evolution (which he concedes has come to be framed most often as a tautology).He says that modern evolutionary theory is a marriage of Darwin and Mendel, and that the infighting over questions like free will and determinism are not resolved. In the last chapter he hints at themes that later came to preoccupy the environmentalist movement, such as fossil fuels and population control.
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers X-XII: Letter X is the last in the series where Pascal exposes the Jesuits’ questionable moral theology in the form of a dialogue between himself and a Jesuit monk. The other two letters are addressed to the Jesuit authorities, who had been attacking him for his earlier letters. He has some choice words for them.

No excuses this week. Read something good!

Posted in Books, Liberal Arts | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Biases of Biologists

This week in the Great Books Project we pass the 4,000-page mark in the Science and Mathematics category. Just typing that number exhausts me.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II , Book V (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 114-153)
  2. The Plurality of Persons in God” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 167-171)
  3. Arcades” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 25-27)
  4. Of Sumptuary Laws” and “Of Sleep” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 172-174)
  5. The Nature of Life by C.H. Waddington, Chapters 3-5 (GBWW Vol. 56, pp. 715-749)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers X-XII (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 71-99)

For some reason this week’s reading list seems pretty undemanding. I guess it’s because with the exception of St. Thomas, all these authors have a conversational style. Well. I guess Milton’s poetry isn’t very conversational, but the nonstop classical references don’t really faze me.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II, Book IV: How convenient for Alyosha that he already has his wife picked out before he even leaves the monastery. I guess it’s only fair for something to be easy for him considering the tangled mess his family has created. It’s too bad the officer humiliated by Dmitri was too proud to accept the money from Katerina. He could have healed nearly all the broken relationships in his family with its help. 
  2. “The Divine Persons” by St. Thomas Aquinas: St. Thomas follows Boethius’s definition of “person” as “an individual substance of a rational nature,” and that it is different from hypostasis or essence. He goes on to argue that the term is rightly applied to God, and that it signifies relation within God. Arguing by analogy, he concludes that the term “person” means one thing in general, but something more specific when applied to God.
  3. “Il Penseroso” by John Milton: The opening of this poem is very similar to that of “L’Allegro,” with the attempted banishing certain thoughts. The difference is that latter poem tries to banish melancholy, whereas the former tries to banish “vain deluding joyes.” “Il Penseroso” actually welcomes melancholy, which is said to bring the virtues of contemplation and even “something like Prophetic strain.”
  4. “Of the Inequality That Is between Us” by Michel de Montaigne: “Each man’s character shapes his fortune.” Montaigne ends the essay approvingly with this line, but he offers some counterexamples in the body. The gist appears to be that some men are definitely better and more deserving than others, but that those who judge such things don’t always recognize that reality. As usual, Montaigne gives us many anecdotes and aphorisms from the classical world.
  5. CHWaddingtonThe Nature of Life by C.H. Waddington, Chapters 1-2:  The first chapter of this work is surprisingly philosophical. Waddington outlines different approaches biologists have attempted to advance their science, and he is pretty frank in acknowledging certain biases. In the second chapter he gives a brief overview of the history of genetics and how Mendel apparently demonstrated the superiority of the “atomistic” outlook with his experiments. Waddington’s attempt to write God out of the biological question in Chapter 2 is pretty lame, though.
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers VII-IX: These letters continue the criticisms of the Jesuits, whose doctors had managed to define out of existence the overwhelming majority of instances of sin in the world through their equivocations. It really is amazing that the Church authorities would have stood for even a tiny percentage of the nonsense that Pascal quotes.

It is hot, hot, hot here in Alabama. I’m dashing between air-conditioned spaces as quickly as I can. I think I’ll stay in side to read this week.

Posted in Books, Liberal Arts | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Christian Faith and Social Justice

Today I offer definitive proof (in case you were in doubt) that there is absolutely no consensus of any kind on social or political issues among people professing Christianity.

CFSJ-CoverThis month Bloomsbury Academic releases Christian Faith and Social Justice: Five Views, edited by Vic McCracken of Abilene Christian University.

The primary reason I mention the book here is that one of those five views is mine! I wrote the sections dealing with libertarianism. I critiqued and in turn was critiqued by a Rawlsian liberal, a feminist, a liberation theologian, and a virtue ethicist. In total, I contributed about 14,000 words to the volume.

My presentation of libertarianism focuses on the Non-Aggression Principle and its compatibility with scripture and natural law. In my responses to the other contributors, I offer suggestions as to how their social goals could be pursued via non-aggressive means. I did the best I could to display goodwill and have a collegial exchange, which is what the volume editor had requested.

Apparently, not everyone got that memo, and I was a bit disappointed with some of the other contributors’ replies to me. I was accused, among other things, of trying to create and preserve privileges for society’s oppressors, etc.

If you follow the link to the book’s Amazon.com page, you can see previews of several of the chapters and responses. If you have any interest in these kinds of issues, I encourage you to check it out. I learned a lot about the strong and weak points of the other perspectives in the process of contributing to the volume; their methods of arguing in particular were quite revealing.

There’s talk of creating a website for the book with supplemental materials for instructors who assign it as a classroom text. If that works out, I’ll create a permanent link on this page to it.

Posted in Academia, Books | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Great Books Project Page Updated

Today I noticed with surprise and embarrassment that it has been a full year since I’ve updated the list of completed works on the Great Books Project page. It took some time, but I’m glad to say that it is now current as of early June.

Posted in Books, Liberal Arts | Tagged | Leave a comment

Dmitri Karamazov Is an Idiot

We have lots of moderns on this week’s reading list in the Great Books Project, but don’t let that discourage you. Thomas Aquinas makes up for a lot.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II , Book IV (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 87-114)
  2. The Divine Persons” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 161-167)
  3. Il Penseroso” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 21-25)
  4. Of the Inequality That Is between Us” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 167-172)
  5. The Nature of Life by C.H. Waddington, Chapters 1-2 (GBWW Vol. 56, pp. 689-715)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers VII-IX (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 44-71)

I thought it was time to take a brief break from Gibbon, but we’ll plunge back into the Decline and Fall very soon. C.H. Waddington drew the ire of C.S. Lewis in the mid-20th century, so I thought it would be appropriate to read his work as I start preparing an article on the Inklings for publication. Unfortunately, The Nature of Life (1961) is recent enough to be under copyright, and I cannot find an online edition anywhere. If you locate one, please let me know so I can link to it. [UPDATE: Thanks to J Krol, who found a link to the text.]

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Dimitri KaramazovThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part I, Book III: I wonder how many characters we’ll ultimately end up with in this story. I’m already having a bit of trouble keeping track of them all, particularly since they all have several names, it seems. Alyosha appears to have a front-row seat for the self-imposed destruction of his family. His father and oldest brother are fighting over the same woman, who has appeared in one scene so far and appears a perfectly awful person. Dmitri in particular is bent on destroying himself. I assume he’ll live long enough to regret it afterwards.
  2. “The Procession of the Divine Persons” and “The Divine Relations” by St. Thomas Aquinas: These two questions begin the treatise on the Trinity within the Summa. Right off the bat, St. Thomas wades into deep water with explanations of various senses of the word “procession.” He concludes that there are two processions in God: the procession of the Word and that of love. Then in the next question he concludes that there are four real relations in God: paternity, filiation, spiration, and procession.
  3. “L’Allegro” by John Milton: I had to read this a couple of times to get the gist of it. It’s an example of pastoral poetry that extols the delights of the countryside. It’s also packed with classical allusions, and there’s a reference to Shakespeare, too.
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter 16: Gibbon would have us believe that Christians didn’t have it so bad before Constantine. He does admit that persecutions took place, but really downplays them. Even Diocletian is presented as a moderating influence on the wishes of Galerius to burn all the Christians immediately. So if the government comes after you to kill you only a couple of times every century, I guess it’s no big deal.
  5. “On Narcissism” by Sigmund Freud: Freud presents narcissism as a specifically psychosexual disorder. It seems like his description corresponds more to what is called autoerotism in common discourse these days, whereas now “narcissism” is applied to anyone who’s full of himself. I don’t recall ever hearing a female being described as narcissistic before, but Freud argues that women suffer from this disorder in much greater numbers than men.
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers IV-VI: Clearly Pascal does not entertain a high opinion of Jesuits. He presents them as guilty of neutering all the moral commands of scripture and Church tradition through their casuistry. It seems incredible that the sort of doctrines described in these letters could ever be taken seriously, but I suppose they were by some people at some point.

It’s crazy that I finished the week’s readings three days ago, but nearly missed getting this post up today. I had to come back into my office after the kids were in bed to finish up. I hope things settle down a bit more in the next few days.

Posted in Books, Liberal Arts | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Socialism is the Atheistic Question

This week we will pass the 19,000-page mark in the Great Books Project. We are a mere one month shy of our halfway point since our beginning in January 2011.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II , Book III (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 48-87)
  2. The Procession of the Divine Persons” and “The Divine Relations” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 153-161)
  3. L’Allegro” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 17-21)
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter 16 (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 206-234)
  5. On Narcissism” by Sigmund Freud (GBWW Vol. 54, pp. 399-411)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers IV-VI (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 19-44)

Looking at this list, I just realized there are no classical authors in it. That certainly hasn’t happened very often in this program.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part I, Books I-II: The big takeaway from the early chapters is that the Karamazov family is extremely dysfunctional. The father is a tremendous jerk who comes into Alyosha’s monastery and behaves in a ridiculous and scandalous way. I liked how Dostoevsky has the monks (for the most part) giving soft answers to the slander and buffoonery. The discussion about the relationship between Church and State is a tough one. I’ve had graduate students read on several occasions, and they always seem to come away confused. The narrator makes a striking comment in Book I, Chapter 5: “Socialism is not merely the labour question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism to-day, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to heaven from earth but to set up heaven on earth.”
  2. The Lysis of Plato: This dialogue explores the concept of friendship. Apparently it is one of Plato’s early dialogues and is not as satisfying as the discourse on friendship in Aristotle’s Ethics. Socrates, after going through “likes attract,” “opposites attract,” and “the good attracts,” ends up by saying there’s a contradiction no matter which approach we take, and therefore we don’t yet know what a friend is. Of course the whole dialogue is framed by Hippothales’s attempted seduction of Lysis, so there’s a distasteful atmosphere of sorts. 
  3. thomas-hobson“On the University Carrier” and “Another on the Same” by John Milton: The impact of these poems almost completely disappears without some background info. Here’s some of the annotation from the Dartmouth site: “[These] are Milton’s contributions to the Hobson jest poems popular on campus at Cambridge University after the death of Thomas Hobson on January 1, 1631. Hobson was eighty-six when he died and he had served the university for over sixty years by driving a regular coach between The Bull, a London inn, and the University, carrying students, guests, letters, and sometimes parents. He also hired out horses. The expression “Hobson’s choice” originated as a sarcastic reference to Hobson’s insistence that anyone hiring a horse must “choose” the one closest to the stable door.” 
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter 15: This is the first of two lengthy chapters on the history of the Christian church before the conversion of Constantine. Gibbon bends over backwards to avoid writing anything blatantly hostile, but in a hundred subtle ways he gives the impression that Christian doctrine is moonshine and that the church was not to be admired. I believe his estimate that Christians made up less than 5% of the Roman population in 313 is much lower than most modern scholars’. 
  5. Instruments of Reduction by Hippocrates: I was well into this work before figuring out what the title meant. Hippocrates is describing dislocations and fractures in various parts of the body and giving recommendations on how to reduce swelling and inflammation by, among other things, getting everything back where it’s supposed to be. As usual, there’s plenty of graphic depiction.
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers I-III and “Reply of the Provincial”: For a 17th-century specialist like me, the delving into minutiae of the age’s theological disputes was quite interesting, although I imagine many readers would simply find it bewildering. To some extent, that’s what Pascal wants. Not only do the different factions in the Sorbonne split hairs over very subtle points of doctrine, they end up obscuring those very points in the interest of partisanship, so that two of the antagonistic groups agree with each other in substance while fighting over the words used to express the doctrine, whereas two allied groups agree with each other on terminology while differing on the substance of the question.

It has gotten hot here in Montgomery: several consecutive days of 90-degree-plus temperatures and rising air conditioning costs. On the plus side, the neighborhood pool has warmed up enough to justify a dip. I think I’ll head there now before starting on this week’s readings.

Posted in Books, Liberal Arts | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Hail Bounteous May

This week in the Great Books Project we begin one of literature’s greatest psychological works. Gird up your loins for the Brothers K.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 1-48)
  2. The Lysis of Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 14-25)
  3. On the University Carrier” and “Another on the Same” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 15)
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter 15 (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 179-206)
  5. Instruments of Reduction by Hippocrates (GBWW Vol. 9, pp. 254-272)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers I-III and “Reply of the Provincial” (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 1-19)

After thirteen consecutive weeks of Montaigne, I thought a break wouldn’t be amiss. This week’s Gibbon chapter is one of his most influential (in a bad way).

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. philoctetesPhiloctetes by Sophocles: This was my first time to read this play, and I really enjoyed it. Odysseus and Neoptolemus (Achilles’s son) must retrieve the bow of Philoctetes (who has been marooned on Lemnos by Odysseus and Agamemnon) to fulfill a prophecy concerning the fall of Troy. Odysseus sends Neoptolemus in to defraud Philoctetes. The tension between Neoptolemus and Odysseus was very effective, and it was satisfying to see Neoptolemus reveal the deception to Philoctetes. Philoctetes is a victim, but he reacts to his circumstances inappropriately. In the end, it takes a deus ex machina to convince Philoctetes to bring his bow back to Troy.
  2. “Of Not Communicating One’s Glory” by Michel de Montaigne: montaigne surveys prominent stories of individuals who gave up to others the credit they should have received for their own accomplishments. Early on he notes that this act is contrary to everyone’s inclination; most will “give up riches, rest, life, and health, which are effectual and substantive goods, to follow that vain phantom” of reputation and glory. There’s a good reference to the Peloponnesian War here, and an anecdote about the Battle of Crecy (1346) I had forgotten.
  3. “Song on May Morning” by John Milton: Ten delightful lines! Although autumn is my favorite season, I’ve always enjoyed poems and songs about spring. Milton conveys pure happiness here. “Hail bounteous May that dost inspire/Mirth and youth, and warm desire,/Woods and Groves, are of thy dressing,/Hill and Dale, doth boast thy blessing.”
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapters 13-14: After the chapters rehearsing the dizzying succession of emperors in the middle of the third century, these chapters on Diocletian and Constantine were quite refreshing. I especially like the treatment of the civil war by which Constantine became sole emperor in the early fourth century, a process with which I had only been vaguely acquainted hitherto. Maxentius, his chief rival in the west, receives very scathing treatment from Gibbon.
  5. An Introduction to Mathematics by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters 11-17: These final chapters of the work discuss trigonometry, series, and differential calculus, among other things. Having just seen recently an internet meme bemoaning the time “wasted” on math in high school, I liked how Whitehead showed the real-world applications of these abstractions. I enjoyed this work and will probably make it a part of the curriculum for a B.A. in Humanities I’m helping to develop at my university.
  6. The Parmenides of Plato: I confess it was a bad idea to attempt jumping back into Plato with this dialogue after such a long hiatus. I was pretty lost after six or seven pages. In desperation I turned to Wikipedia, which informed me that the Parmenides may be the most difficult of Plato’s writings, and no one seems to know what it means. The story is set up as a young Socrates’s conversation with Parmenides, who points out inconsistencies in Socrates’s developing notion of the Forms. Most of the dialogue is an extremely dense treatment of the problem of the One and the Many.

I am a bachelor this week; my family is visiting the in-laws while I try to get some intense work done in the office. I’m also hoping to make up the weekly post I dropped recently, so I have lots of reading to do. I hope you will find the time to do some as well this week.

Posted in Books, Liberal Arts | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Another Volume Down

With the completion of Don Quixote this past week, we have finished reading ten volumes of the Great Books of the Western World series in their entirety. That leaves 48 to go, only five of which we haven’t read at least partially already.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Philoctetes by Sophocles (GBWW Vol. 4, pp. 234-254)
  2. Of Not Communicating One’s Glory” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 166-167)
  3. Song on May Morning” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 15)
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapters 13-14 (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 142-179)
  5. An Introduction to Mathematics by Alfred North Whitehead, Part III, Chapters 11-17 (GBWW Vol. 56, pp. 160-186)
  6. The Parmenides of Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 486-511)

Can you believe it has been nine months since our last reading from Plato?

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. donquixote-deathThe History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part II, Chapters 62-end: I got the same feeling reading the concluding chapters of this work as I did with Dickens’s Pickwick Papers; it seemed like Cervantes didn’t really know how to wind this plot down. The disjointed nature of the attempts to tie off subplots wasn’t very satisfying. The deathbed repudiation of everything he had done also rang hollow. Still, on the whole it was a great work with lots of humor as well as serious reflections.
  2. “A Consideration upon Cicero” by Michel de Montaigne: This is all wrong. Montaigne lambastes the greatest Latin stylist of the ancient world because he thinks Cicero should have been doing more manly things than writing pretty letters. He doesn’t seem to show any awareness that Cicero’s skill in rhetoric was a big part of what made him a successful statesman. Is Montaigne just jealous?
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book IX: This final book of the work continues discussion of the habits of various species: mammals, birds, insects, fish, etc. One new wrinkle here was Aristotle’s description of how various animals behaved in groups; for some reason this struck me as a significant departure from the previous books dealing with anatomy, mating habits, and the like. Natural interspecies rivalries also get some interesting treatment here.
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapters 12: Depending on whether you count the reigns of Carus’s sons, there are at least four emperors dealt with in this chapter. Some of these poor guys didn’t want to be emperor at all and got dragooned into the position by the legions. This chapter contains the famous description of the Colosseum, or “the Amphitheater of Titus.” Gibbon highlights how the floor could be altered to suit the setting of the contest, or even flooded via the network of subterranean pipes to be “converted into a wide lake, covered with armed vessels, and replenished with the monsters of the deep.” (I’m not sure how they handled that last one.”
  5. An Introduction to Mathematics by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters 6-10: In these chapters Whitehead introduces, among other things, imaginary numbers and coordinate geometry. We have several memorable quotations here, such as this: “Any limitation whatsoever upon the generality of theorems, or of proofs, or of interpretation is abhorrent to the mathematical instinct.” I have to say I wish some of the ancient mathematicians we’ve read had such flair. 
  6. “An Epitaph on the Marchioness of Winchester” by John Milton: I wonder what prompted Milton to write this commemoration of the 23-year-old marchioness who died in childbirth. Milton was 22 and a university student at the time. The poem laments the lady’s early passing, but then goes on to describe her new estate in heaven, “No Marchioness, but now a Queen.”

I am settling in for about six weeks of continuous residence at home (an oddity in 2014 so far), during which time I will be doing some intensive course development for my university. I foresee many reading breaks, though.

Posted in Books, Liberal Arts | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments