Thomas Malthus Isn’t All Bad

It looks like I’m squeaking in under the wire for another Great Books Monday post, thanks to Galen and Descartes (mostly Descartes). We are closing in on the 10,000-page and will be there in a couple of weeks.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Paradise Lost by John Milton, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 29, pp. 232-246)
  2. A Lasting Peace through the Federation of Europe” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (GGB Vol. 7, pp. 405-436)
  3. The Geometry by Rene Descartes, Book III (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 559-581)
  4. The School for Scandal by Richard Sheridan, Act I (GGB Vol. 4, pp. 85-98)
  5. “The Genesis of a Law of Nature” by Dmitri Mendeleev (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 442-446; excerpted from The Periodic Law of the Chemical Elements)
  6. The Charmides of Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 1-13)

It has been a long time since we’ve read any Plato, so I’m looking forward to the Charmides, which I’ve not read before. I’m also looking forward to finishing Descartes this week . . .

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Paradise Lost by John Milton, Book VII: This book tracks very closely with the creation story of Genesis 1. I liked how Milton plays with the idea that the angel’s relation of the events to Adam forms the basis of the Genesis account.
  2. “Whether the Governor of a Besieged Place Should Go Out to Parley” by Michel de Montaigne: In case you didn’t read the essay, Montaigne’s answer is in the negative in most situations. He offers several examples from classical history and Renaissance Italy. Negotiations are often simply one side’s attempt to play for time; Montaigne highlights the Roman contempt for such tactics as being beneath them. 
  3. The Geometry by Rene Descartes, Book II: The difficulty ramped up significantly in this book. Compounding the problem is that Descartes assumes you’re familiar with Apollonius’ treatise on conics. I followed a lot of the discussion fairly well, but I’m sure I came away with less than 50% comprehension. Book X of Euclid felt like this.  
  4. “The Principle of Population” by Thomas Malthus: I read this essay about 15 years ago, before I had ever studied economics. Returning to it today, I found a lot more to recommend it than I expected. Malthus very accurately calls attention to problems of overpopulation in relation to available and usable resources. What he failed to foresee was the huge impact of capital accumulation and technological innovation. When the capital base and productivity increase more rapidly than the population, everyone can eat and grow wealthier, too.
  5. On the Natural Faculties by Galen, Book III: Lots of stuff on the stomach and uterus here. I found it interesting how Galen has everything in the organs revolve around the four faculties of attraction, retention, expulsion, and digestion. It was also curious how he tried to explain the functioning of the arteries and veins without the theory of circulation.
  6. “Of Contentment” by Epictetus: This short essay summarizes so much of what I understand Stoicism to be all about. Your goal is to desire that things turn out as they do. Read this one again (or for the first time, if you didn’t before).

The weather has turned here in Alabama; it has felt great to be outside for much of the last week. I actually read a big chunk of Galen on an afternoon walk through my neighborhood Saturday. I’m hopping on a plane to Costa Rica for a few days this week, but never fear; all my Great Books readings have been scanned to PDF and await my perusal on the airplane.

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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