Plato Channels Nigel Tufnel

Great Books Project posts in consecutive weeks? That hasn’t happened in a while! Let’s get right to it.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book II, Chapters 1-10 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 60-86)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXVI (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 571-593)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 71-74 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 367-377)
  4. Sonnets XXI-XXV by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 589-590)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XX, heading “The Summation of the Sense-spaces” to heading “Ambiguity of Retinal Impressions” (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 570-602)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 731-743)

I believe we finish the Summa’s subdivision on the creation this week, so I’ll take another look at whether to keep plugging along in that work or to take a break. It might be good to shake things up a little since we’ve been in the same six works for several weeks now.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. count-bezukhovWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 22-28: Again it seems like there’s an indeterminate passage of time. The count dies, and then we learn after a change of setting that Pierre has been declared legitimate and has inherited the estate, leaving the princesses with very little. Andrew leaves his wife with his father and sister as he heads off to war. His father loves Voltaire and hates anything smacking of the Romantic. Andrew himself appears to have some real feelings, but the narrative so far makes him out to be afflicted by a disdain for everyone around him. The sister seems to be the only one we should be rooting for right now.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXV: Somehow I had never known that Attila had been repulsed from Gaul; the Romans and Visigoths together were too much for him, but the Visigoths couldn’t be bothered to defend Italy. I love the story of Leo the Great’s intercession on behalf of the city of Rome with Italy. Even Gibbon reluctantly acknowledges Leo’s accomplishment in turning Attila’s army away from the city. Attila died soon afterward, and Gibbon ends the book with a narrative of Valentinian’s decline and death.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 68-70: These questions comprise St. Thomas’s discussion of the second, third,and fourth days of creation. Several of the articles seemed to me to be attempts to answer weird questions only philosophers could have thought of, e.g., whether it was appropriate for plants to appear on Day #3 (a day of “distinction” rather than a day of “adornment”). Over and over again, after rehearsing objections, he writes, “On the contrary, the authority of Scripture suffices.”
  4. Sonnets XVI-XX by William Shakespeare: The dominant theme of procreation fades a bit in this group of sonnets, but there’s still an emphasis on the destructive nature of Time. One of Shakespeare’s best-known poems—“shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”—is in this group. I remember having memorized that one at some point in grade school, but I can’t recall it all now on demand. 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XX, beginning to heading “The Summation of the Sense-spaces”: This chapter is shaping up to be a rough one. James begins by positing that our understanding of space grows out of our sensations of “voluminous,” whether in sight, touch, etc. He believes that one can sense space without having any grasp of spatial order, that this grasp is learned. Space-relations are “nothing but sensations of particular lines, particular angles, particular forms of transition,” etc. We thus mentally subdivide space through these space-relations, ordering objects by locality, size, and shape. James goes into great detail about this “construction of ‘real’ space.”
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VII: I do not have a very good handle on Plato’s treatment of music. He clearly thinks it to be extremely important in moral instruction and wants to prescribe specific modes of playing. However, I don’t think I get what’s in back of it all. (I couldn’t help hearing, “D minor is the saddest of all keys,” in my mind.) I noticed that near the end of the book he outlined the quadrivium as a curriculum. He got very specific on gymnastic in this section as well, but that seemed to be in tension with his declaration that nothing really good is ever learned from war, for which is gymnastic prepares one.

I’ve managed to reunite with my family, albeit in a timeshare about a 100-minute drive from Montgomery. Commuting this week is a bear, but it’s worth it. Internet accessibility is almost nonexistent here, so I consider a post of any length this week a victory.

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Don’t Trust Anyone Under Fifty

My high hopes for summer reading were disappointed as I took on new job responsibilities and my family went through a move (and is actually still going through it—we have been between houses for more than a month). I lost access to my Great Books of the Western World volumes for several weeks as part of that process. However, I’m back on campus now and hoping to get this project back on track!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 22-28 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 41-59)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXV (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 558-571)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 68-70 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 354-367)
  4. Sonnets XVI-XX by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 589)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XX, beginning to heading “The Summation of the Sense-spaces” (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 540-570)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 713-731)

Chapter XX of Principles of Psychology is nearly 100 pages long, so I thought it would be wise to break it up into more manageable sections. It may take us a month to get through at this rate, but I prefer that to the overload sure to occur if we try to do the whole thing in one go.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 15-23: I’m not clear on the passage of time here, but apparently some has already passed. Pierre has established himself as a ne’er-do-well, Boris and Natasha are in love, and the Count’s relatives are scheming about his will as he lies on his deathbed. If Pierre is declared legitimate, and the Count’s will is valid, Pierre gets all the money.
  2. AttilatheHunThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXIV: In this chapter Gibbon treats us to a portrait of Attila the Hun, a real piece of work. For twenty years he was a thorn in the Romans’ side; he forced the eastern empire to pay what can only be described as a humiliating annual tribute and required it to follow his lead in foreign policy. Props to the city of Azimuntium, which made itself such a problem for Attila that he decided not to devote his resources to conquering it. Gibbon makes Theodosius II out to be a complete loser.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 65-67: These questions lead off St. Thomas’s treatise on the six-day creation. In other words, the focus here is on the physical/material/corporeal creation as opposed to the purely spiritual beings treated in the earlier section. St. Thomas affirms that God did create matter and that it reflects his goodness, but that he did it without using angels as a medium. He works in a rebuttal of the Platonic conception of forms here. There’s also a discussion of the empyrean heaven as a sensible place with Genesis 1:1 as the proof text. Question 67 deals with the first day specifically, and I was intrigued to see St. Thomas anticipate the objection voiced by so many today, that you can’t read Genesis 1 literally because the chapter states there was light on the first day but no sun. 
  4. Sonnets XI-XV by William Shakespeare: And yet more sonnets about beauty and the need for procreation to preserve it. I like Sonnet XV, where Shakespeare declares his intention to immortalize the youth’s fleeting beauty in verse; I guess we have to say he succeeded.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XIX: James defines perception as “the consciousness of particular material things present to sense.” It is different from sensation (which James denies ever happening in adulthood) in that it conjures in the mind remoter facts about the material thing beyond what the senses apprehend. This is why perception is “baffled” to some degree when we look at things upside-down or repeat a single word ad nauseam. James discusses several kinds of illusions, or false perceptions, when our brains make associations that aren’t really there. He summarizes perception by saying part of it comes from our senses and part from out of our own heads.
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VI: The Athenian begins this book by asserting that good laws are useless without good offices for their administration. He recommends that no one be eligible for a guardianship until at least age 50. This strikes me as a wise policy that would have spared the USA not only Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt, but JFK, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama as well. However, it also would have kept Grover Cleveland out his first time around. Plato is sensitive to abuse of the word “equality”—would that more people were today—and discusses different senses in which the term is used and how the legislator should hope to bring it about.

Pity me, my friends. Without a house in Montgomery at the moment, I have been separated from my family for almost two weeks. They are at my in-laws’ house in Texas as I get the fall semester underway in campus housing here in Alabama. I am counting the seconds until my reunion with them. I must rely on the Great Books to see me through this trying period.

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Happy Magna Carta Day!

One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This copy is one of two held at the British Library. It came from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, who died in 1631. In 1731, a fire at Ashburnam House in Westminster, where his library was then housed, destroyed or damaged many of the rare manuscripts, which is why this copy is burnt.

One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This copy is one of two held at the British Library. It came from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, who died in 1631. In 1731, a fire at Ashburnam House in Westminster, where his library was then housed, destroyed or damaged many of the rare manuscripts, which is why this copy is burnt.

Today marks the 800th anniversary of the first issuing of the Magna Carta by King John of England (1199-1216). For many centuries the English-speaking world has looked to it as the foundational document in our tradition of limited government and the rule of law.

I’m pleased to see all the commentary about the Magna Carta’s significance and thought I would put up some links to help folks learn more about the document and navigate the commemorations.

First of all, here’s the text of the 1215 original, with notes to indicate which clauses were altered or omitted on the later reissuances.

Here’s the BBC’s story on today’s commemoration at Runnymede, at which the queen was present and at which the prime minister spoke on the document’s importance.

Ralph Turner, with whom I took two classes at FSU, is an expert on King John and the Magna Carta. Here is one of his books on the subject and a piece he wrote for History Today in 2003.

Russ Roberts recently interviewed Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia about the Magna Carta on the Econtalk podcast. It’s well worth the listen.

The Cato Institute recently hosted an event titled “The Magna Carta and the Rule of Law around the World.” I haven’t watched it, but may later. Proceed at your own risk. Cato’s Roger Pilon also posted something today in honor of the anniversary.

Of course, James Bovard can be counted on to remind us that pieces of paper do not enforce themselves in his commentary on the Magna Carta.

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Angels Weren’t Created Happy

We are down in the weeds in the midst of six lengthy works this week in the Great Books Project and will be for some time. Fortunately, my enthusiasm for recently resuming the project should keep me from getting bogged down.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 15-23 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 26-41)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXIV (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 545-558)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 65-67 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 339-354)
  4. Sonnets XI-XV by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 587-588)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XIX (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 502-539)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VI (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 697-713)

I decided that since we are already more than halfway through this project, but are still not halfway through GBWW’s Summa selections, we need to stick with St. Thomas for now. Thus we move on into the treatise on the work of the six days.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. warandpeace-hepburnWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 1-14: Tolstoy certainly doesn’t seem to want the reader to have a favorable view of the Russian aristocracy; almost everyone is shallow and hypocritical. You can tell there will be a million characters. I was already losing track of them in these first 25 pages. I suppose the most fun part was the argument over whether Napoleon was a great man. Can anyone comment on the quality of the 1956 film version with Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda? I haven’t seen it, but am wondering whether to give it a try.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXIII: This was a short chapter focusing mostly on the conquest of Africa by the Vandals. Gibbon records the controversy over Donatism and the siege of Hippo, during which St. Augustine died. My favorite passage was the recounting of the tale of the seven sleepers, which I had never heard of before.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 59-64: Angels have free will without fleshly appetites, according to Question #59. By nature they love God more than they love themselves. They are not eternal; citing Genesis 1:1, St. Thomas asserts that they did not preexist the corporeal world (take that, Milton!). They were not created in happiness, else none of them would have fallen; in fact, they needed grace to turn to God as the object of their happiness. However, they do merit their happiness. Angels can sin, but only the sins of pride and envy. The devil “sinned at once after the first instant of his creation” and fell immediately. This section was a lot to take in, and I’ll have to revisit it at some point to think about these conclusions further.
  4. Sonnets VI-X by William Shakespeare: This block of sonnets contains more admonitions to marriage and childbearing like we saw in the first set of five. Sonnet #9 contains this theme, and it seems to be addressed to a man: “Is it for fear to wet a widow’s eye/That thou consumest thyself in single life?” Sonnet #8 has an interesting metaphor of the strings of an instrument as members of a family (or vice versa).
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XVIII: I had to gloss over this chapter for lack of time. It looks like James continues with the theme of mental processes, in this case imagination, being underlay by neural processes. He concludes that the difference in the neural processes between sense and imagination is one of intensity, not of locality in the brain. 
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book V: “Truth is the beginning of every good thing, both to Gods and men; and he who would be blessed and happy, should be from the first a partaker of the truth, that he may live a true man as long as possible, for then he can be trusted; but he is not to be trusted who loves voluntary falsehood, and he who loves involuntary falsehood is a fool.” This book is full of statements like this one, so I was able to make it through even though the whole thing is one long speech by the Athenian and contains a call for a prohibition on private ownership of gold and silver.

It’s melting weather here in Alabama and most likely will be for at least the next 90 days. I’ll be staying inside watching my electric bill creep up and up. I hope you will be able to find an air-conditioned place to read something good this week.

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I’m on the Tom Woods Show Today

Today’s episode of the Tom Woods Show features an interview with me about my new Liberty Classroom course on the history of conservatism and libertarianism. I thought it went pretty well; I certainly enjoyed the conversation.

Click here to listen to the interview.

Click here to see the list of topics I cover in the course.

This week’s Great Books post will be up soon!

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Riding to Heaven on a Dung Beetle

It feels great to be able to make another one of these Great Books Project posts after so long a hiatus. To let you all know how serious I am about getting back into this routine, this week we’re pulling out the Mt. Everest of novels. You know the one . . .

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 1-14 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 1-25)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXIII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 537-545)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 59-64 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 306-338)
  4. Sonnets VI-X by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 587)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XVIII (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 480-501)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book V (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 697)

This week will wrap up the treatise on angels in the Summa. I haven’t decided yet whether to push forward in that work or take a break.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. peacePeace by Aristophanes: It’s so odd how Aristophanes takes the subject of war and treats it preposterously. Trygaeus flies a giant dung beetle to the home of the gods, warning the audience as he flies that they must not defecate or pass gas for the next three days so as not to distract his mount. When he finds most of the gods absent, he knowingly thwarts Zeus’s will by bribing Hermes to discover Peace’s location and then digging her out of the well where she was buried. He returns triumphantly to Athens and gets a wife out of the deal as well. According to Wikipedia, this play was staged in 421 B.C. shortly before the Athenians and Spartans actually did sign a truce.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXII: Gibbon heaps praise on Theodosius, but has no regard for his successors. Much of this chapter revolves around the abuses of the eunuch Eutropius, who confiscated nobles’ property to enrich himself until the empress maneuvered to have him executed. Lots of sordid stuff like that here.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 54-58: These questions deal with the knowledge of angels: whether they know themselves, other immaterial things, material things, etc. St. Thomas concludes that they do know themselves as well as each other and God (in the sense that other created beings can know God). However, he insists that angels do not know future events “in themselves” in the way God does; they can only know the future “in its cause.”
  4. Sonnets I-V by William Shakespeare: I wasn’t expecting the multiple admonitions to marriage and childbearing: “But if thou live, remember’d not to be,/Die single, and thine image dies with thee.” I couldn’t figure out #5.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XVII: Here James begins a sequence of three chapters that “treat of the processes by which we cognize at all times the present world of space and the material things which it contains.” This chapter deals with sensation, which James says is different from perception. In the debate whether contrasts in sensation are psychological or physiological, James sides with the physiological side. He completely rejects the theory of “eccentric projection” of sensations according to which sensations originate in the mind and then are made to appear as being located outside it. I was pleased to find that it wasn’t too difficult to ease back into this work.
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book IV: “There neither is nor ever will be a better way of establishing a polity than by a tyranny.” Maybe so, but it’s much harder to keep it going that way, as Plato admits. I was a bit surprised to read the sections advising the mingling of persuasion with coercion, to persuade the people that the laws are in their best interest because they help them to develop virtue. The end of the book sets us up for a major speech by the Athenian.

Every year I have this fantasy that the summer will be a nice, relaxing time. Then summer actually arrives and I find myself with a project list as long as my arm. I’ve finished the Liberty Classroom course and presented successfully at a conference last week, but there’s much more to do. At the moment our house in on the market, I have a book review to write, and there’s a big pile of grading to do for both spring and summer classes. C’est la vie.

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“Conservatism and Libertarianism” Is Done!

I’m pleased to report that I have just finished recording the final lecture of my new Liberty Classroom course on the history of conservatism and libertarianism. I have been working on this 30-lecture series with varying degrees of intensity since last summer. The lion’s share of the work happened in the last two months.

This means that I’m now ready to resume posting here regularly. Stay tuned!

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Getting Back into the Swing of Things

keep-calm-_-hes-backI know that everyone has been waiting with bated breath for four months now for the latest post here, and I’m happy to say that the most jam-packed semester of my life is now at an end. It’s time to resume posting!

In case you have wondered what has kept me from posting since January, the short version is that I essentially did the work of two full-time faculty members this spring. I am reluctant to explain in detail what exactly I had to do in terms of teaching, writing, and administrative duties. I suspect that those of you familiar with academia would conclude that, being spread so thin, I must have done a horrible job at everything. The workload, along with the commitment to spend more time with my family, prevented me from devoting time to this blog or the Great Books Project.

However, the spring semester is over, grades are entered, and it’s time to get back in the saddle. Here’s what I’ll be focusing on in May:

  1. Completing the writing and recording of a new lecture series on the history of conservatism and libertarianism for Liberty Classroom.
  2. Working out the transition into my new responsibilities for the university (more on this soon).
  3. Resuming the Great Books Project.

Thanks for your patience while I have been on hiatus. I’m particularly gratified that the blog continued to pick up new followers over the last few months even though I hadn’t been posting. I appreciate all who spend some of their valuable time on this site.

More to come!

UPDATE: I forgot I also have a conference paper to prepare for a presentation on May 30 as well as a book review to submit this month to the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. It has been that sort of semester.

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You Are Not a Trojan Woman. Count Your Blessings.

It’s a new year, we’re passing the 4,500-page mark in the Great Books Project’s Science and Mathematics category, and I am already a week behind! Let’s get right to it.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Peace by Aristophanes (GBWW Vol. 4, pp. 748-769)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 523-545)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 54-58 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 284-306)
  4. Sonnets I-V by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, pp. 586-587)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XVII (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 452-479)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book IV (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 677-686)

After finishing Milton’s corpus last week, I couldn’t help hanging on to early modern English poetry a while longer. Indulge me.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Trojan-Women-EuripidesThe Trojan Women by Euripides: Remember what I said about Euripides being light reading? Forget that, at least in terms of emotional weight. The prospects facing the Trojan women at the end of the war are gut-wrenching, and the military execution of the infant Astyanax is just too much. I was glad to see some glimmers of conscience from the herald who kept bringing them the bad news. There’s lots of railing at the gods in this one. I thought the introduction with Athena and Poseidon was curious; it doesn’t seem to fit very well with the rest of the play unless it’s to plant the seed of understanding that the Achaeans are going to get theirs, too.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXI: “If Alaric himself had been introduced into the council of Ravenna, he would probably have advised the same measures which were actually pursued by the ministers of Honorius.” In other words, the Roman government was exceedingly incompetent at this point, and the result was the sack of Rome. The comparison of the Roman response to Alaric with its response to Hannibal more than six centuries earlier was well done, as was the comparison with the sack of Rome by Charles V’s troops in the 1520s. I was surprised to see such a long quotation from Ammianus Marcellinus here, but I have to say it was on point.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 50-53: I suppose the first article of Question 50 is St. Thomas’s answer to the question that the chronological snobs keep saying was the fixation of medieval philosophy: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? St. Thomas’s answer in effect: the question contains a false premise, that angels are at least partially corporeal. It’s interesting that one of the objections the idea that angels are incorruptible is a quote from Plato’s Timaeus. The discussion of the locations and movements of angels got pretty intricate.
  4. Translations of Psalms 80-88 by John Milton: My comments from last time on these psalms pretty much hold for this batch. I did particularly like Psalm 84, especially verse 10: “For one day in thy Courts to be/Is better, and more blest/Then in the joyes of Vanity,/A thousand daies at best.” We now bid Milton a fond farewell.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XVI: I don’t have much to say about this chapter. I still feel off balance reading this work, although I find a lot of it very interesting. I like the way James frames the issue of memory and the way he explores why we remember some things while forgetting the vast majority of what we experience. This melancholy sentence jumped out at me: “But there comes a time of life for all of us when we can do no more than hold our own in the way of acquisitions, when the old paths fade as fast as the new ones form in our brain, and when we forget in a week quite as much as we can learn in the same space of time.” May this time be yet far off for all of us!
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book III: I sometimes assign this passage to graduate students when I teach my seminar on government. No one ever seems to know what to make of the just-so story of how governments and laws arose after the deluge (the Greek memory of which is intriguing). The Athenian’s “principles of rule” are jarring to a democratic age: 1. Parents rule their offspring; 2. The noble rule the ignoble; 3. The elder rule the younger; 4. Masters rule slaves; 5. The strong rule the weak. I suppose he’s just being descriptive, but everyone seems to endorse these principles.

After all the traveling in 2014, it’s a bit of a relief to return home with no trips planned until the last week of March, which is my spring break. I have a heavy teaching schedule this semester as usual, but I’m hoping to make up some ground on these readings after falling behind in the second half of 2014. All encouragement in the comments is welcome!

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“I Would My Horse Had the Speed of Your Tongue.”

This week in the Great Books Project we finish off the last of the John Milton volume and start Thomas Aquinas’s treatise on angels. We’ll also read about the Visigoths’ sack of Rome if my guess is right. All this as we pass the 21,000-page mark in our reading plan!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Trojan Women by Euripides (GBWW Vol. 4, pp. 363-382)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXI (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 495-523)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 50-53 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 269-284)
  4. Translations of Psalms 80-88 by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, pp. 78-90)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XVI (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 421-451)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book III (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 663-677)

Normally I wouldn’t consider Euripides light reading, but I think he will be in the middle of this batch.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. much-ado-about-nothing-castMuch Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare: I can’t read this play without picturing the Kenneth Branagh film version, which was my first exposure to the text. I appreciate Joss Whedon’s take as well, but the 20th-century California setting doesn’t quite speak to me the way Tuscany does. Beatrice and Benedick have so many great one-liners here, but the Constable very nearly steals the show with all his malapropisms. My favorite is the line about being “condemned into everlasting redemption.”
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXX: Things are definitely going downhill. The chapter recounts two invasions, the bigger by the Visigoth king Alaric. Gibbon portrays Honorius as utterly hopeless: “The emperor Honorius was distinguished, above his subjects, by the pre-eminence of fear as well as of rank.” Stilicho had to save his bacon when he was about to be captured after a ling flight from Milan. This chapter also contains a brief account of the abolition of gladiatorial combat in Rome, with Gibbon extending grudging acknowledgment to Telemachus, the Christian monk who was martyred while attempting to separate combatants in the arena. 
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 47-49: St. Thomas argues that the unity of God produces distinction and hierarchy in the creation, but he also states that God created only one world, by which I understand him to mean “universe.” Take that, Prof. Hawking. In the next question he argues for the privation theory of evil. Moreover, since evil is merely an absence of good, something good must in some way have originally been the cause of evil.
  4. Translations of Psalms 1-8 by John Milton: I’m not quite sure what to think about these renderings. On the one hand, they sound more archaic and awkward than the psalms in the King James Version, which predates these by nearly half a century. Milton was trying to put the square peg of Hebrew poetry into the round hole of an English meter and rhyme scheme, and that had to involve many contortions. On the other hand, I’m really impressed that he was able to make anything out of it at all.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XV: This chapter on the passage of time has its expected share of head-scratching: “Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming. . . . Reflection leads us to the conclusion that it must exist, but that it does exist can never be a fact of our immediate experience.” Heavy. James stresses that our sense of past time is actually a present sensation. His use of the term “specious present” was unfamiliar to me; I assume he meant something like short-term memory by it.
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book II: Plato is quite frankly elitist: “The excellence of music is to be measured by pleasure. But the pleasure must not be that of chance persons; the fairest music is that which delights the best and best educated, and especially that which delights the one man who is pre-eminent in virtue and education.” This way of thinking, whatever its merits, can’t make it to first base in a culture, like ours, where no one can agree on standards. Later in the book the Athenian revisits the regulation of drinking, and I was struck again by how seriously everyone took it.

I set off on my last trip of the year tomorrow morning and will return after the New Year. Look for the next project update and a 2014 retrospective around Jan. 3. Merry Christmas!

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