Funeral Games and Giant Aliens

Another Monday means another report on the Great Books. We’re still plugging along and on pace to finish in 2017. This week we will cross the 6,500-page mark in the program.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Aeneid of Virgil, Book VI (GBWW Vol. 12, pp. 174-196)
  2. History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 5, pp. 538-563)
  3. Experience and Education by John Dewey, Ch. 6 (GBWW Vol. 55, pp. 116-118)
  4. Sweetness and Light” by Matthew Arnold (GGB Vol. 5, pp. 42-61; Chapter I of Culture and Anarchy)
  5. Chance” by Henri Poincaré (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 305-320; Chapters III and IV of Science and Method)
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 16, pp. 289-311; in the linked text, it’s the material under the heading “Of the ‘select gods’ of the civil theology . . .” and its subheads)

I’m looking forward to reading Matthew Arnold, whose name I know from my musical studies; I’ve never read any of his literary criticism. We are nearing the end of Thucydides whom we should finish next week.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Aeneid of Virgil, Book V:  It seems fairly clear that Virgil’s funeral games are inspired  by Homer’s athletic contests. I’m not sure why, but I found it surprising that one runner who already fallen got in another’s way so his friend could win. And why does Neptune tell Venus one of the sailors has to die to bring the others safely to Italy? There’s a whole page or two devoted to that prophecy and its fulfillment, but I don’t see why it needs to be there.
  2. Athenian_Siege_of_SyracuseHistory of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Book VI: Alcibiades, like Themistocles before him, is a striking contrast to Socrates in the Crito. Whereas Socrates works to better Athens and is willing to suffer even death if Athens wills it, Alcibiades declares that “true patriotism” is to war against one’s city if it goes astray. Of course, to Alcibiades Athens’ going astray and its prosecution of him are one and the same thing. It seems like Nicias had him pegged pretty well.
  3. Experience and Education by John Dewey, Ch. 5:The language about providing internal checks to impulses as opposed to external checks is all very well. Any parent would love to see the same thing in his children. I get the feeling, though, that Dewey is assuming a great deal of homogeneity among students if he expects a teacher to lead all the students in his class to develop these internal checks. Can this approach be successful in today’s classrooms, where the students come from such disparate backgrounds?
  4. “Micromégas” by Voltaire:Adler calls this the “original science fiction story.” I’d never read this before, but I felt like I had, and not because it’s science fiction. This is another of the many 18th-century attempts to criticize one’s own society by bringing in a fictional outside observer who can supposedly see all our faults objectively. Swift does this much better than Voltaire, in my opinion, but at least Voltaire has the good taste (in this instance) to make his observer non-human. Authors like Montesquieu who bring in a Persian or Chinaman to lecture Westerners are irritating.
  5. On Airs, Waters, and Places by Hippocrates:  I can see why Hippocrates is such a big deal in the history of science. Even though practically none of his explanations for illnesses would be accepted today, he looks for natural causes rather than attributing them to the gods. Epilepsy—the “sacred disease”—is the big exception. The most striking thing to me about his theories is that there’s practically no hereditary component to to them; just about everything is environmental (direction of the winds, quality of water, etc.).
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book VI: We shift gears in this book towards arguing against those urge worship of the pagan gods for eternal benefits rather than temporal ones. I wish I were more familiar with Varro’s writing, since Augustine patterns the discussion after his. I liked his condemnation of the civil theology on the basis of man’s immortal soul; only a god who gives eternal life can provide the real happiness that the civil gods supposedly grant.

I have some catching up to do in life this week after losing a full day to a conference last Friday. Thanks goodness for audio books that allow me to use my commute to the fullest!

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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5 Responses to Funeral Games and Giant Aliens

  1. Alice Jewell says:

    The first Bacon quote you cited was always on my Renaissance lit test, and the second one is posted in the stairwell of the American Studies Building at Harding.

  2. On the Dewey question: A teacher might appeal to nature, an experiment, or the groups collective experience as authorities. Can the teacher steer it as a facilitator, a moderator. Obviously, as Dewey says, either/ors are oversimplifications. A teacher is an authority and serves as a sort of guide based on his maturer pool of experience, but are their ways to teach that are less authoritarian than others, that focus on “bringing ideas to the birth,” as Socrates puts it in “Theatetus.”

  3. Stan Szczesny says:

    Your post has been mixed up with last Monday’s in some weird way, because my Feb. 20th comment was posted on your other post. When I clicked on my e-mail link, it took me to the other post, not this one, and it had no comment.

    Hippocrates actually argues against the idea that epilepsy is sacred, so it doesn’t constitute an exception. I’m intrigued by your Aeneid question. I would need to review it to form any sort of opinion.

  4. Alice Jewell says:

    I presume it is Palinurus who must die as a sort of sacrifice. He falls overboard. It is one of the situations in the Aeneid that was never finished. There are two versions in the Aeneid of how and why he died. Virgil’s early death left several conflicting accounts of this sort. Perhaps Virgil draws attention to this death because it is directly parallel to the death of Elpenor in the Odyssey. Since he was being so careful to provide parallel situations, he certainly would not want his readers to fail to notice the death.

  5. Jane says:

    (Written in January 2020) Voltaire, Micromegas: Re-reading Candide this year helped me get perspective on the insanely destructive politics of our time by reminding me that human nature has not changed and that perhaps the problem lies in our expectations for improvement. This story uses gigantic extraterrestrials to analyze and comment on human behavior, and to point out how outsized our egos are in comparison to how tiny a space we take up in the universe. I love how they completely crack up over the “minute animalcule in a clerical hat” saying that “their persons, worlds, suns, and stars were created solely for man.” Is this not our most essential, and ultimately deadly, error? The story reminds me of the 1950s sci-fi/horror classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still. An extraterrestrial comes to Earth with a giant robot and tells men they will be destroyed for the sake of preserving the universe unless they can change their ways and cooperate. Of course they can’t avoid renewed belligerence for more than 5 minutes after the being makes his destructive power plain….

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