Workers of the World, Unite

Of the five central epics of Western civilization, we have now finished three with the completion of the Aeneid last week. Fortunately, Euripides isn’t too much of a step down from Virgil, so our standards are still high this week.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. Alcestis by Euripides (GBWW Vol. 4, pp. 316-333)
  2. The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, Book IV (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 366-376)
  3. The Charter of the United Nations (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 422-451)
  4. On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” by  Thomas de Quincey (GGB Vol. 5, pp. 362-366)
  5. “The Seven Bridges of Koenigsberg” by Leonard Euler (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 193-201; unfortunately I could not find an online English translation of this Latin essay; here is the Wikipedia entry summarizing the problem and its importance.)
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book XIV (GBWW Vol. 16, pp. 432-455; in the linked text, it’s the material under the heading “Of the punishment and results of man’s first sin . . .” and its subheads)

It’s illuminating to know what motivates the one-worlders, so grit your teeth and slog through the UN Charter. Having just read Macbeth a couple of weeks back, I’m especially interested in what De Quincey has to say about it.

Aeneas_and_TurnusHere are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Aeneid of Virgil, Book XII: Turnus is not nearly as sympathetic character as Hector. Far from defending his home, he’s actually perpetuating the war for his own personal ends. So the stab of pity you feel as he begs for his life at the end of the poem dies along with Aeneas’s as the trophy Turnus took from Pallas’s corpse comes into view. Aeneas shows himself the resolute dispenser of justice, a critical component of the Romans’ self-image. Still, the abruptness of the ending is pretty unsatisfying.
  2. The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, Book III: There’s a great discussion about the question of what is voluntary vs. what is involuntary. Many people claim to “have no choice” in situations where they are clearly choosing; Aristotle is not inclined to let them get away with it. We also have a solid outline of the virtues of courage and temperance in this book. Here’s a sample: “To die to escape from poverty or love or anything painful is not the mark of a brave man, but rather of a coward; for it is softness to fly from what is troublesome, and such a man endures death not because it is noble but to fly from evil.” Take that, Werther!
  3. Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: The twin notions of the material substructure and ideological superstructure of civilization are a sine qua non of Marxist thought. I’ll never forget reading in grad school Ludwig von Mises’s explosion of this idea by the simple pointing out of the fact that changes in the modes of production are themselves the result of people’s ideas. I lingered over Part III a little longer than usual this time and found the authors’ disdain for everyone who had ever come before them somewhat off-putting.
  4. “The Queen of Spades” by Alexander Pushkin: This was my first reading of anything by Pushkin. The story is fascinating, although I was a bit surprised by the shifts in point-of-view. Hermann is a totally unsympathetic character, so you inevitably feel satisfaction when he blows it at the end. It’s nice that Pushkin inserts a happy ending for the old lady’s companion in the epilogue.
  5. “Arguments for and Against Galileo” by Tomasso Campanella: Campanella outlines in just a few pages the major arguments for and against Galileo’s heliocentrism in bullet-point fashion. He very cleverly matches the points of defense with points of attack. For example, the condemnation of Galileo by learned theologians is juxtaposed with endorsements of Galileo by even more distinguished theologians of an earlier generation. There’s no question whose side Campanella is on, but he does seem to give an accurate summary of his antagonists’ positions. 
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book XIII: I have to hand it to Augustine again here, sticking to his guns against the Platonists who believed that our souls are just itching to escape from our bodies in death. It’s not the body that is bad, but rather the corruption that comes from sin. Death is not a gift (sorry, Tolkien) unless we view it as a restraint of the wickedness we’d inevitably get up to in our sinful state.

On paper, my semester is winding down, but there’s no let-up for me this week. On top of all my classes, I have a thesis defense to take part in and a conference to prepare for. Oh, and I have to mail my tax return today, too! Here’s hoping the reading will proceed apace.

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 Workers of the World, Unite

  1. Fred Jewell says:

    Among the many conundrums in Marx is how he himself was able to rise higher than the economic base his age rested upon and which presumably determined everything above it, including his critique of it. And to think that so many alleged intellectuals in the world swallowed this package of contradictions lock, stock, and barrel!

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