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:
- The Aeneid of Virgil, Book VI (GBWW Vol. 12, pp. 174-196)
- History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 5, pp. 538-563)
- Experience and Education by John Dewey, Ch. 6 (GBWW Vol. 55, pp. 116-118)
- “Sweetness and Light” by Matthew Arnold (GGB Vol. 5, pp. 42-61; Chapter I of Culture and Anarchy)
- “Chance” by Henri Poincaré (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 305-320; Chapters III and IV of Science and Method)
- 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:
- 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.
- History 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.
- 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?
- “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.
- 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.).
- 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!