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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Zenobia in Chains

This week we’ll pass the 4,500-page mark in the Man and Society category of this Great Books Project. It’s good to have Gibbon’s lively prose carrying us forward.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part II, Chapters 62-end (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 463-509)
  2. A Consideration upon Cicero” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 163-166)
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book IX (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 133-158)
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter 12 (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 128-142)
  5. An Introduction to Mathematics by Alfred North Whitehead, Part III, Chapters 6-10 (GBWW Vol. 56, pp. 141-160)
  6. An Epitaph on the Marchioness of Winchester” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 14-15)

Any suggestions on what should follow Aristotle after we finish The History of Animals this week?

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part II, Chapters 54-61: We’ve finally gotten Don Quixote and Sancho away from the prankster duke and duchess. I was glad to see that the duenna’s daughter found a husband. I think Cervantes may be carrying things a bit too far when he has the two run into people reading Part Two of Don Quixote, but it does give a device to bring Dulcinea back into the plot. Now Sancho has the pressure on once again to spank himself to break her supposed enchantment. 
  2. “Of Solitude” by Michel de Montaigne: I don’t know why Montaigne accuses Cicero of having an “ostentatious and talky philosophy,” but I suppose the next essay, which is devoted to Cicero, will shed more light on the statement. I like how Montaigne weighs pros and cons of solitude without recycling observations on the active life versus the contemplative life. The point about solitude not helping you much if you have to take all your flaws with you is a good one. 
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book VIII: This book is fun, being devoted to the “habits and modes of living” of various species. Aristotle points out the “psychical qualities and attitudes” of animals and makes interesting analogies to man’s “knowledge, wisdom, and sagacity.” But in the end he’s fairly reductionist: “The life of animals, then, may be divided into two acts—procreation and feeding; for on these two acts all their interests and life concentrate.” 
  4. zenobiaThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapters 10-11: These two chapters are a whirlwind of emperors. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with them all, with one getting killed every year or two and a new one taking his place. Valerian and Aurelian are more noteworthy than most of the others. Zenobia is an interesting character not heard much about these days. I had no idea she was alleged to be connected with Paul of Samosata, who, if I am remembering correctly, was an important influence on Arius. One of the best things about reading works like this one is the continual connecting of dots that goes on in your mind as you make progress. 
  5. An Introduction to Mathematics by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters 1-5: I like the tone of Whitehead’s prose more than I like Bertrand Russell’s; Russell comes off as arrogant (as I’ve noted previously). The two were collaborators and co-authors on an important multi-volume work on mathematics and symbolic logic. Here I like Whitehead’s discussion of the applications of mathematical reasoning in the case of Newton’s theory of gravity. The discussion of Archimedes leads into an interesting contrasting of the Greeks and Romans in which the Romans come off the worse: “They did not improve upon the knowledge of their forefathers, and all their advances were confined to the minor technical details of engineering.” Spoken like a true lover of abstractions.
  6. “At a Solemn Musick” by John Milton: There’s music of the spheres stuff happening here; humanity was able to answer the heavenly music “till disproportion’d sin/Jarr’d against natures chime.” Milton places, as usual, a hopeful prayer at the end: “O may we soon again renew that Song,/and keep in tune with Heav’n, till God ere long/To his celestial consort us unite,/To live with him, and sing in endles morn of light.”

After three days at home, I have another five days of travel this week before settling down for about six straight weeks at home. So it’s e-books once again! If you are on a university calendar, and your spring semester has ended, this is the perfect time to make headway on some works from our reading list.

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Sancho Panza as Solomon

We get a shot in the arm this week in the Great Books Project with some “new blood” now that we have completed Nietzsche and Lavoisier (both for good because each only had a single work in the collection). I’m particularly looking forward to the Whitehead book.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part II, Chapters 54-61 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 434-463)
  2. Of Solitude” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 158-163)
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 114-133)
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapters 10-11 (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 96-128)
  5. An Introduction to Mathematics by Alfred North Whitehead, Part III, Chapters 1-5 (GBWW Vol. 56, pp. 119-141)
  6. At a Solemn Musick” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 13)

We should finish Aristotle’s treatise next week if all goes as planned, and Cervantes won’t be far behind.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part II, Chapters 46-53: Poor Sancho. His governorship of the island must be the most elaborate prank in all literature. You can’t help but feel sorry for him after he gets beaten during the “attack” on the village. Meanwhile, Don Quixote has found a real wrong to redress, assuming it’s not part of another prank, but I’m half expecting Sampson Carrasco to show up for a rematch. 
  2. “How We Cry and Laugh for the Same Thing” by Michel de Montaigne: A better title for this essay would have been “How We Sometimes Regret the Perceived Need to Do Things.” Julius Caesar looking at Pompey’s head and weeping, etc. I liked that Montaigne referenced the episode where Timoleon had his brother killed, a scene from Plutarch that really struck me when I read it a few months ago.
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book VII: If memory serves, this is the first book of the work that deals exclusively with human beings. It’s all about childbearing, from a discussion of puberty (“Girls of this age have much need of surveillance”) and menstruation through conception, pregnancy, and birth. Then we get this: “Until the child is forty days old it neither laughs nor weeps during waking hours.” Clearly Aristotle was never around my children.
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapters 8-9: These two chapters are an interlude in the history of Rome. Chapter 8 discusses the history of Persia from the 5th century B.C. up to the 3rd century A.D. Chapter 9 covers the history of the Germans from the Romans’ first encounter with them through the same era. Turns of phrase like this one are one reason I am enjoying this work: “‘In the days of chivalry, or more properly of romance, all the men were brave, and all the women were chaste;’ and no withstanding the latter of these virtues is acquired and preserved with much more difficulty than the former, it is ascribed, almost without exception, to the wives of the ancient Germans.”
  5. Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier, Part III, Chapters 6-end: These chapters are more of the same of what was covered last week. Lots of detailed descriptions of instruments, etc. I suppose the major difference is that in these chapters the actual processes of some experiments are described to allow others to replicate things like the separation of oxygen from other substances.
  6. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Parts VIII-end: “What a torture are books written in German to a reader who has a THIRD ear!” I enjoyed all the aesthetic observations in this section, some of which were perceptive and others of which were outrageous. The opening of Part IX is striking: “EVERY elevation of the type ‘man,’ has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society and so it will always be—a society believing in a long scale of gradations of rank and differences of worth among human beings, and requiring slavery in some form or other.” Even in a work that emphasizes the idea of excellence, the part about “requiring slavery” took me aback.

I’m on the road once more and reading e-books this week. With the semester wrapping up in about seven days, I’m hoping to make up some lost ground on the posting schedule very soon. I know we’ve all heard that before, but this time I really mean it.

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Rocinante Has Nothing on This Wooden Horse

This week, as in most weeks, I saw at least two or three situations where some sort of observation from or application of the week’s Great Books readings were a propos. I wish I had more blogging time to discuss them in detail. Do you encounter the same phenomenon?

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part II, Chapters 46-53 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 404-434)
  2. How We Cry and Laugh for the Same Thing” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 157-158)
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 106-114)
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapters 8-9 (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 79-96)
  5. Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier, Part III, Chapters 6-end (GBWW Vol. 42, pp. 111-160)
  6. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Part VIII-end (GBWW Vol. 43, pp. 521-545)

This is the last week for Lavoisier and Nietzsche. The jury is still out on who will succeed to their claims on our attention.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part II, Chapters 33-45: During this whole section, Don Quixote and Sancho are being entertained/tricked by the duke and duchess they met in Chapter 30. The elaborate pranks they’ve been subjected to are quite ridiculous. The best part to me was when they were blindfolded, put on the wooden horse, and made to believe they had flown through the air. The things Sancho swore he had seen when he got off the horse were hilarious.
  2. “Of Cato the Younger” by Michel de Montaigne: Montaigne doesn’t even get around to mentioning Cato until halfway through the essay. The nub of the piece is the juxtaposition of five quotes from various poets about Cato. I have to confess that I didn’t react as Montaigne predicted to the five lines . . . probably something lost in translation form the Latin. 
  3. The History of Animals by Aristotle, Book VI: Aristotle moves from a discussion of the mating habits of snakes and inescts in Book V into a discussion of the mating habits of birds, fish, and mammals here. He records many observations about the number of eggs various types of birds lay and how the birds care for nests. Then there’s a discussion of fish’s egg-laying and the mating of dolphins and whales (which he categorizes as fish). He also records mating habits of all sorts of different land mammals, their gestation, and the number of young they bear, etc.
  4. Alexander_SeverusThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapters 6-7: Before reading this, even though I’m a history professor, most of third-century Rome had been a bit of a blur to me. There were always just way too many assassinations and names of emperors. I appreciate Gibbon’s richness of detail, and his willingness to editorialize about his subjects makes his writing much more engaging. I had not realized (assuming Gibbon’s judgments are more or less accurate) how widely the quality of the emperors varied in this era. He especially likes Alexander (208-235).
  5. Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier, Part III, Chapters 1-5: It looks like Part III of this work consists of a detailed description of the various instruments Lavoisier used to arrive at his calculations. The value of this for anyone wishing to replicate his experiments is obvious. Illustrated plates are an essential aid here. In these chapters we get devices ranging from simple mortars and pestles to very large and (I presume) expensive tools like the “gazometer,” which Lavoisier invented and which is used to “furnish an uniform and continued stream of oxygen gas in experiments of fusion.” 
  6. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Parts VII: There’s plenty of ridicule of the Christian ethic in this chapter, although I’m tempted to cut Nietzsche a little slack because he’s reacting to the completely defanged liberal Protestantism of the 19th century: “Deep in their hearts they are glad there exists a standard according to which those overloaded with the goods and privileges of the spirit are their equals—they struggle for the ‘equality of all before God’ and it is virtually for that purpose that they need the belief in God.” The harangue against assertive women at the end of the chapter is pretty crazy.

The spring semester is winding down; classes end over the next two weeks. I have a big stack of graduate students’ research papers to sort through. When I can’t take it any more I’ll relax with some Cervantes.

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