Theology for Beginners (Sort Of)

It’s Great Books Monday, and we are entering the dog days of August. It’s too hot to do much outdoors in most of the country. How about picking up a Great Book to pass the time? 

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Youth” by Joseph Conrad (GGB Vol. 2, pp. 210-236)
  2. Demetrius” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 726-748)
  3. How from the Fact that We Are Akin to God a Man May Proceed to the Consequences” by Epictetus (GBWW Vol. 11, p. 108-109; Discourses Book I Ch. 9)
  4. Of Sadness” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 52-53)
  5. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Ch. 15 (GBWW Vol. 49, pp. 230-243)
  6. The Advancement of Learning by Francis Bacon, Book I (GBWW Vol. 35, pp. 1-28)

We wrap up Darwin this week. You can read the glossary for extra credit if you wish.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. “Customs and Opinions of the Erewhonians” by Samuel Butler: On its face, the treating of criminal behavior as a disease and the treating of physical illness as a crime is laughable (especially the discussion of pregnancy). Then you think about the 20th century’s focus on psychological treatment of criminals, and you wonder whether Butler was actually being prophetic in a way. 
  2. “Machiavelli” by Thomas Babington Macaulay: This is an impressive work of reinterpretation. I’m not sure it succeeds, but the insistence that The Prince must be read in the context of an Italy desperate to rid itself of foreign invaders is important. Did 16th-century Italians have the feelings of Italian patriotism imagined by Macaulay, who was writing in an age of nationalism? I really liked the passage contrasting the likely reactions to Othello from northern Europeans and Italians.
  3. “That the Faculties Are Not Safe to the Uninstructed” by Epictetus (Discourses Book I Chapter 8): “Every faculty acquired by the uninstructed and weak brings with it the dangers of these persons being elated and inflated by it.” I guess another way of saying that is, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Epictetus recommends that we become virtuous first, and then play around with fancy arguments.
  4. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Prologue: So the Summa is for BEGINNERS in the study of theology. Everyone got that? That means we should no trouble at all understanding what St. Thomas has to tell us in the weeks ahead. Right??
  5. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Ch. 14: It has been several years since I did some heavy reading in secondary sources on evolutionary theory, but my recollection is that the ideas about morphology and such Darwin floats in this chapter have been discarded for the most part. I did enjoy the references to Jean-Henri Fabre; he’s one of the few naturalists I recognized from Darwin’s frequent citing of scientists of the period. 
  6. The Posterior Analytics of Aristotle, Book II: This work will require another visit in the future. There’s much to consider here, even leaving aside the density of the prose. All arguments being a search for a middle, for example. Or the concluding statement that all scientific knowledge originates in intuition. Once again, a prior knowledge of some logical terminology is extremely helpful here.

My family took a quick trip to Arkansas last weekend for a family reunion on my wife’s side, but we’re back safe and sound in Alabama now and ready to embark on a new round of readings. Try to stay cool this week, and don’t fry your brain on the Olympics. Use some of your time to read a book!

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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3 Responses to Theology for Beginners (Sort Of)

  1. John Ward says:

    Dr. J:

    I have attempted numerous times to read the Summa from Aquinas. I can only surmise that you are jesting about it being a begginers guide. Aquinas was, in my opinion, a genious with political ties that provided food and safety. I have always wanted to read a good history of the Catholic Church. Again, in my opinion, the most successful organization in the history of the world. Do you have any recommended reading(s) on the history of the Catholic Church?

  2. Dr. J says:

    St. Thomas claims the Summa is a beginner’s guide, but I think his understanding of what a beginner’s guide does differs dramatically from that of most people today.

    On Catholic history, about the only accessible popular history out there that I know of is Harry Crocker’s “Triumph,” which is very pro-Catholic:

    Crocker is a good writer and keeps things interesting.

  3. I have read the Summa. I think the Prologue to it is the funniest moment in the great books.

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