You Can Cheat Death (if Heracles Beats Him up for You)

Here we are on another Great Books Monday, and we’re about to experience some bracing contrasts in our readings. I guess that’s what you call it when you group a Christian theologian with a medieval romance, secular humanitarianism, and a naturalist who argues that life has no purpose.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. Aucassin and Nicolette” by Anonymous (GGB Vol. 2, pp. 523-551)
  2. The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, Book V (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 376-387)
  3. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 452-456)
  4. The Darling” by Anton Chekhov (GGB Vol. 3, pp. 452-462)
  5. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin: Historical Sketch, Introduction, and Ch. 1 (GBWW Vol. 49, pp. 1-23)
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book XV (GBWW Vol. 16, pp. 456-482; in the linked text, it’s the material under the heading “The progress of the earthly and heavenly cities traced by the sacred history” and its subheads)

Apologies to anyone who thought we were done with the United Nations. This is the last one, I promise. However, Adler put some other longing-for-world-government stuff in the GGB series that we’ll eventually encounter.

Alcestis-DeathHere are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Alcestis by Euripides: I expected Admetus to take a beating from the Chorus and most of the other characters for letting his wife sacrifice herself for him; on the contrary, he’s presented as a noble and admirable character. Apart from his self-recriminations, the only character who criticizes him is his father. Heracles is willing to contend with Death himself because of their friendship.
  2. The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, Book IV: Discussion of the virtues is fast and furious in this book: liberality, magnificence, pride, good temper, friendliness, truthfulness, ready wit, and shame. Naturally, Augustine’s discussion of the pagans’ mistaken view of pride as a virtues was fresh in my mind as I read that sections. It’s curious that Aristotle wasn’t able to identify the mean between ambition and unambitiousness.
  3. The Charter of the United Nations: Not surprisingly, most of this document is rather dry, but I do see why many people view the UN as an incipient world government. Signatories agree in principle that their armed forces are at the disposal of the United Nations, and they also agree in principle to support the imposition of UN resolutions and the like.
  4. “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” by Thomas De Quincey: This argument about the audience’s identifying with the murderer, not in the sense of approving what he has done, but in the sense of contemplating the act during the suspension of time on stage, makes a lot of sense. On reflection, I was able to recall a number of times when I’ve seen a similar strategy employed by filmmakers and TV screenwriters.
  5. “The Seven Bridges of Koenigsberg” by Leonhard Euler: I had a great time with my kids trying to figure out Euler’s diagrams. After my seven-year-old and four-year-old realized there was no way to cross each of the seven bridges once and only once, they wanted to stump their older brother. Much hilarity ensued. The essay is a good example of how mathematicians can abstractly consider a concrete problem and discover rules that will apply in all similar circumstances.
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book XIV: The speculations on the nature of the pre-Fall body, sexual intercourse, and the like in this book are things that cause some moderns to dismiss Augustine entirely, but I found them very thought-provoking. Having never experienced a life without the effects of the Fall, we naturally wonder about such a thing; Jewish mystics assigned all sorts of superhuman qualities to the pre-Fall Adam. The last chapter of the book provides a nice contrast: the City of Man based on the love of self, and the City of God based on the love of God.

My university is now in its final week of spring classes, and it really feels like spring outside rather than an early summer. I plan to enjoy every minute of 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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