Augustine Censures the Pagans

On this Great Books Monday, we launch into the reading of the most influential epic (I do not say the greatest) in the history of the West. With Virgil added to the readings from the most important post-apostolic theologian in the Christian church and the most highly regarded historian of the ancient world, I’d say that your brain should swell significantly in the coming weeks.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Aeneid of Virgil, Book I  (GBWW Vol. 12, pp. 81-99)
  2. History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Book II (GBWW Vol. 5, pp. 387-416)
  3. Experience and Education by John Dewey, Preface-Ch. 1 (GBWW Vol. 55, pp. 95-101)
  4. On Some Forms of Literature” by Arthur Schopenhauer (GGB Vol. 5, pp. 137-142)
  5. What Is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger, Ch. 3-Epilogue (GBWW Vol. 56, pp. 481-504)
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book II (GBWW Vol. 16, pp. 187-207; in the linked text, it’s the material under the heading “A review of the calamities . . .” and its subheads)

I almost put Paradise Lost on the list before the Aeneid, but then decided that really wouldn’t make much sense, given the enormous influence of Roman epic on Milton. We’ll read Paradise Lost later this year.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. “I’m a Fool” by Sherwood Anderson: This is the first of Anderson’s stories I’ve ever read. The contrast between the narrator’s self-assured demeanor and the way he castigates himself for his cowardice and dishonesty is striking. His uncertainty regarding how to think about social status was interesting, too. He clearly wants to pigeonhole people as members of a certain class, but then makes all these exceptions for the concrete individuals he discusses in the story.
  2. History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Book I: I never cease to be amazed at the speeches in this work. They are realpolitik through and through, with barely a nod towards any principles of justice. The Athenians seem to be particularly deficient in their ethics towards people of other states. The brutality of the first naval battle, in which enemy survivors from the shipwrecks were slain in the water rather than taken prisoner, is unsettling.
  3. “Of Beauty” by Francis Bacon: This very short essay was actually a little difficult for me to interpret. I was a bit surprised at the assertion that beauty is fullest in the autumn of life rather than in youth. The analogy of virtue in the physical body to a precious stone in an appropriate setting was thought-provoking, too.
  4. “First Inaugural Address” by Thomas Jefferson: My wife commented on Jefferson’s humility and how out of place it would seem in today’s political climate. I liked Jefferson’s summary of the foundational principles of the government, a list which, again, would be difficult to imagine coming from the mouth of any president-elect in 2012 (except maybe Ron Paul, who is pretty Jeffersonian). No entangling alliances?
  5. What Is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger: I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began this work, but it was refreshing to read about “naive physicists” and the potential limits of human understanding. There’s no Enlightenment hubris here. The discussion of chromosomes wasn’t too difficult to follow. Remember that this was published before the discovery of DNA.
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book I: Augustine takes Christianity’s pagan critics to the woodshed here. It really is bad form to take refuge in a Christian church from barbarian hordes and then attack the institution whose influence saved your life. The argument against suicide is very important as well. Augustine is sometimes criticized as a syncretist, but his willingness to take on the sacred cow of Lucretia is very significant.

I managed to finish last week’s readings on Friday, so I am back ahead of the game. I hope I’m able to keep up this level productivity now that classes are back in full swing.

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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1 Response to Augustine Censures the Pagans

  1. Jane says:

    Schrodinger, What is Life?: My set of books are the first edition which did not go past Freud, but I’m glad I found this work online. Most famous for his “cat in the box” illustration of the limitations of quantum theory, here he applies mechanical physics to the human body, discussing mutations and evolution in genetic processes. As Dr J noted, Schrodinger predated the discovery of DNA, and also fostered it. What I found fascinating was how this piece corroborates Lucretius’ opinion of the purely physical nature of the mind and soul, arising from pre-existing matter and both “without a birthday nor exempt from death;” and the view of the mind or self as a “blank slate” per Locke and Hume. However, the slate comes with pre-existing, pre-determining conditions, as “chromosomes… contain in some kind of code-script the entire pattern of the individual’s future development and of its functioning in the mature state.”

    Then there is the law of entropy which dictates that everything will fall apart eventually, but that in the meantime, by literally feeding ourselves, we “maintain ourselves stationary at a fairly high level of orderliness (= fairly low level of entropy)…[by] continually sucking orderliness from [our] environment.” In my mind there are parallels here to how the elite enrich themselves off the sweat of low-wage labor and deceptive business practices, or how production and consumption of food and other goods results in environmental destruction and a constantly growing output of waste that is sure to poison us eventually.

    In his epilogue, Schrodinger wrestles with the sense of self or “I” in the context of physical determinism. We can and do control the “‘motion of the atoms’ according to the Laws of Nature.” While we can’t significantly change our baseline physical characteristics, we still have control over how we use them and should be assigned responsibility for our actions and their consequences. As such, this “power” of the individual suffices for an idea of God. However, “consciousness finds itself intimately connected with, and dependent on, the physical state of a limited region of matter, the body,” and that concepts of plurality of consciousnesses or minds “common to all official Western creeds” are erroneous: “Consciousness is never experienced in the plural, only the singular.”

    Finally, “what is this ‘I’? If you analyze it closely you will, I think, find that it is just the facts, little more than a collection of single data (experiences and memories), namely the canvas upon which they are collected. And you will, on close introspection, find that what you really mean by ‘I’ is that ground-stuff upon which they are collected. You may come to a distant country, lose sight of all your friends, may all but forget them; you acquire new friends, you share life with them as intensely as you ever did with your old ones. Less and less important will become the fact that, while living your new life, you still recollect the old one. ‘The youth that was I’, you may come to speak of him in the third person, indeed the protagonist of the novel you are reading is probably nearer to your heart, certainly more intensely alive and better known to you. Yet there has been no intermediate break, no death. And even if a skilled hypnotist succeeded in blotting out entirely all your earlier reminiscences, you would not find that he had killed you. In no case is there a loss of personal existence to deplore. Nor will there ever be.”

    As Schrodinger’s work in physics paved the way to the discovery of DNA and a quantum change in our understanding of life, so might his concepts have led to more existential philosophies and skepticism about any underlying meaning or purpose in individual or collective experience. To me it seems a short step from these observations to Camus’ purely-present, amoral protagonist in “The Stranger:”

    “Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why. So did he. Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living. What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers? Couldn’t he see, couldn’t he see that? Everybody was privileged. There were only privileged people. The others would all be condemned one day. And he would be condemned, too.” – Camus

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