French-Speaking Philistines and Good Demons

We are knocking down major works left, right, and center in this Great Books reading project. Last week we dispensed with John Dewey, and this week we’ll take on “the Scottish play.”

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Aeneid of Virgil, Book IX (GBWW Vol. 12, pp. 234-254)
  2. The Art of Biography” by Virginia Woolf (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 186-192)
  3. Macbeth by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, pp. 284-310)
  4. Of the Inconstancy of Our Actions” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 199-202)
  5. Dialogues Concerning the Two New Sciences by Galileo Galilei, Second Day (GBWW Vol. 26, pp. 178-196)
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book X (GBWW Vol. 16, pp. 348-374; in the linked text, it’s the material under the heading “Porphyry’s Doctrine of Redemption” and its subheads)

The end is drawing nigh for Virgil, and we are more than a quarter of the way through Galileo already. There’s still a long way to go on Augustine. However, next week we’ll be able to dive back into Aristotle.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Aeneid of Virgil, Book VIIII really enjoyed the digression about Hercules. He didn’t get much airtime from Homer. Aeneas’s examination of his armaments from Vulcan is a clear parallel to the section on Achiles’s shield in the Iliad, but it still reads very differently because Virgil makes the images historical events from Rome’s past (still in Aeneas’s future). So to a modern reader it’s a weird blend of fiction and history, much like the vision in the underworld. I wonder whether the ancient Romans would have viewed the parallel passages as more directly related.
  2. “Essay on Modern Education” by Jonathan Swift: Some great quotes here. I like the implied dig against John Locke, who famously denigrated the study of Latin in his own writings on education, and the description of the pompous (and Frenchified) military officer. The closing broadside against utilitarianism in education (which did not yet have a name) is superb.
  3. Experience and Education by John Dewey, Ch. 8: This closing chapter is very short, and it’s essentially a reiteration of Dewey’s thesis: we must base education on the student’s experience in order to be modern and scientific. To do that we need a philosophy of experience.
  4. “What Is a Classic?” by Charles Agustin Sainte-Beuve: I’d never read anything by Sainte-Beuve before this essay. It provides much food for thought, although I’m not sure whether I entirely agree with the description of a classic as something that makes the human mind take “a step forward.” Maybe I’m just gunshy about the whole body of rhetoric about “progressive” stuff. His line of argument about how moderns have better figured out how to rank past works sounded a little fishy, too. Nevertheless, a great read.
  5. Dialogues Concerning the Two New Sciences by Galileo Galilei: This first section was a marathon, and without having read Euclid last year I’m not sure I could have handled it. Several of Galileo’s proofs build upon knowledge the reader is assumed to have form the study of Euclid. The dialogue is wide-ranging, meandering into numerous digressions, but by the time we’re done we’ve learned about inertia and resistance, finitude and the infinite, and a bit about the vacuum. Remember this is all pre-Newton, too.
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book IX: I wonder here whether Augustine, in his insistence that there are no “good demons,” isn’t too caught up on the Greek daemon, which I always understood simply to mean “spirit.” I suppose that the cultural context would have led people to think that if there are good demons, then paganism was potentially benign. It looks like Augustine won the day, though, because I surely haven’t seen anyone use the word “demon” to refer to what we normally call an “angel.”

This week is my spring break, but it feels like just another work week because of all the things I need to catch up on. With temperatures in the mid-80s here, I won’t need much encouragement to stay inside.

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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 French-Speaking Philistines and Good Demons

  1. Stan Szczesny says:

    And Newton, if you actually work the proofs, is a real killer. Galileo will get more difficult. You will need to brush up on certain Euclid passages, and he won’t cite them for you.

    • Dr. J says:

      Yeah, I noticed that! When he started talking about squares on the sides of the triangles as a matter of course, I thought, “Oh boy, here we go.”

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