Reading the Great Books: Another Volume Down

Yes, you read that correctly. With the completion of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War last week, we have now finished in their entirety two—count them, two!—volumes of the Great Books of the Western World series. It might not seem like much after working on this project for more than fourteen months, but of course that rate of completion will increase as we will nibble away at dozens of volumes more or less simultaneously.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Aeneid of Virgil, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 12, pp. 216-234)
  2. An Essay on Modern Education” by Jonathan Swift (GGB Vol. 7, pp. 33-39)
  3. Experience and Education by John Dewey, Ch. 8 (GBWW Vol. 55, pp. 124-125)
  4. What is a Classic?” by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (GGB Vol. 5, pp. 65-75)
  5. Dialogues Concerning the Two New Sciences by Galileo Galilei, First Day (GBWW Vol. 26, pp. 129-177)
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book IX (GBWW Vol. 16, pp. 334-348; in the linked text, it’s the material under the heading “Of those who allege a distinction among demons . . .” and its subheads)

Galileo apparently didn’t know how to balance the different parts of his works for length, so we have a monster section from his to read this week. On the plus side, we’re finishing Dewey off, and Swift is always fun.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Aeneid of Virgil, Book VII: I imagine that if someone told Paris that choosing Venus in the beauty contest meant that Juno would try to hound his people to destruction, he might have thought twice about the whole thing. The queen of the Latins acts very modern here; she takes a sacred oracle and strives mightily to interpret it in such a way that it endorses the thing she already wants to do.
  2. History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Book VIII: It’s too bad Thucydides didn’t live to complete his history (in case you were wondering, the Athenians ultimately lost the war). The transition from democracy to oligarchy in Athens is usually portrayed as a great tragedy, but it seems pretty obvious that by the late fifth century B.C., the Athenians as a group were no longer fit for democracy. Of course, that doesn’t mean that an oligarchy was the right answer, but a people who’d been following the crazy policies the Athenians had were due for a fall. Modern parallels?
  3. Experience and Education by John Dewey, Ch. 7: Dewey throws the term “reactionary” around way too much, I’m afraid. For the record, being a reactionary is no sin if the things you’re reacting to are ridiculous and/or harmful. Dewey lost a lot of goodwill (in my book, at least) when he dissed the idea of education for transmitting the cultural heritage.
  4. “Of Parents and Children” by Francis Bacon: Oh, Mr. Bacon. People say you’re so modern, but here you actually suggest that parents should steer their children toward certain occupations unless the child has an extraordinary aptitude or interest in something. Don’t you know that any parental involvement in their children’s lives past (and maybe even during) adolescence is an intolerable affront to their identity and autonomy?
  5. “On the Artificial Production of Urea” by Friedrich Wöhler: This document was short and sweet. “I’ve produced an organic compound from inorganic materials. Chew on that.” Or words to that effect. Thus organic chemistry was born.
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book VIII: It wasn’t until the modern period that people figured out Hermes Trismegistus wasn’t as ancient as his writings purport to be, so I guess we won’t fault Augustine for taking them at face value. It helps that he’s opposed to them. I liked the way Augustine draws the distinction between the honor paid to saints and the worship due to God.

Unfortunately, we’re back to unseasonably warm weather here, and the air conditioner has been coming on. I suppose it’s back to indoor reading this week. Keep at it!

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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2 Responses to Reading the Great Books: Another Volume Down

  1. Pam says:

    I was wondering if you have a schedule of what you have read so far broken down by week. I have a group that is interested in joining but we would like to start from the beginning. Also, how do you make your selections for the week ahead? Thank you.

    • Dr. J says:

      Hi, Pam. thanks for your interest in these readings. For the moment, the only way to access a schedule is through the weekly posts (search the site for “Great Books” tags starting in January 2011). However, now that I have seen how easy it was to set up my index of posts for the economics readings, I think I can do the same for the Great Books posts. I hope to have that done in the next week or so.

      As for selection, I took Mortimer Adler’s list of works suitable for different levels (found in Volume 1 of “Gateway to the Great Books”) and, starting with the easiest works, tried to come up with a schedule of progressively more difficult works that kept the different genres in balance from week to week. I use a spreadsheet to keep a tally of how much I’ve read from each genre. So it’s fairly idiosyncratic, but it’s the best I could do in the absence of any comprehensive reading plan out there.

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