It’s another Great Books Monday, and an acid test of my commitment to this project because I’ve had to lug several books on my family vacation. So far, so good!
Here are the readings for the upcoming week:
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Ch. 26-36 (GBWW Vol. 48, pp. 342-377)
- The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Book I (GBWW Vol. 35, pp. 387-394)
- The Discourses of Epictetus, Book I Chapter 2 (GBWW Vol. 11, pp. 100-102)
- “Of Usury” by Francis Bacon (GGB Vol. 7, pp. 22-24)
- The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Ch. 8 (GBWW Vol. 49, pp. 119-135)
- The City of God by St. Augustine, Book XXII (GBWW Vol. 16, pp. 661-696; in the linked text, it’s the material under the second of the headings “Of the eternal happiness of the saints . . .” and its subheads)
After five months, we are finally wrapping up Augustine’s magnum opus this week. Who’s going to follow that act?
Here are some observations from last week’s readings:
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Ch. 17-25: Maybe I’m a killjoy, but narratives of con men ripping off credulous people don’t strike me as very funny, nor do stories of feuds. What I did find funny were Huck’s mangled attempt at explaining the career of Henry VIII to Jim and the “duke’s” attempt to recall Hamlet’s soliloquy from memory.
- “By Diverse Means We Arrive at the Same End” by Michel de Montaigne: This essay is a meditation on mercy and the different ways in which people are moved to it. Most of the examples are from the classical world. Montaigne notes that identical pleas succeed in some cases and fail in others and wonders why. Typically, he concludes that “man is a marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating object.”
- The Discourses of Epictetus, Book I Chapter 1: Your will, your rational faculty, is in your control; nothing else is. Epictetus counsels us not to waste our efforts on things we can’t control and instead focus on what we can. Don’t struggle to change what you cannot or lament over it.
- “Civilization” by Francois Guizot: I found this lecture extremely interesting, although I don’t necessarily agree with all of it. The emphasis on progress isn’t tenable, I don’t think, although we can and do talk about degrees of civilization. A deeper problem is the lack of agreement on what constitutes progress; different people have different ends, some of which are mutually exclusive. I liked the quote dealing with the mortality of civilization and the immortality of the individual soul.
- The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Ch. 7: It’s ironic that Darwin is so insistent on gradual changes to change one species into another, when the momentum now seems to be behind Stephen Jay Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium.” It still looks like Darwin is arguing to some extent for a passing on of acquired characteristics in, for example, the fish’s moving eye.
- The City of God by St. Augustine, Book XXI: You can sense Augustine’s frustration with people who demand some sort of mechanistic explanation of how a person can suffer eternal punishment. Why some people can’t get it through their heads that an omnipotent being can bring about pretty much anything to pass is a mystery.
I’m coming to you today from the banks of the Missouri River. Saturday I cruised the Mississippi on a faux steamboat and went to the top of the St. Louis Arch. As you might guess, I’m in a Huck-Finn frame of mind, but unlike Huck, I’m going to read a lot this week. I hope you will, too!