What Is Temperance? Don’t Ask Socrates

After not posting for more than a week (international travel can do that to you), it’s good to be back with this week’s Great Books post. We are closing in on several milestones in our reading schedule, but today I’d like to point out that the Western Tradition recently received its 100,000th page view. I know there are blogs out there with many more readers than this one has, but that number is still pretty amazing to me! Thanks to everyone who has found my thoughts worthy of your time over the last couple of years.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Paradise Lost by John Milton, Book IX (GBWW Vol. 29, pp. 247-273)
  2. The Physics of Aristotle, Book I (GBWW Vol. 7, pp. 259-268)
  3. “An Idealist’s Arraignment of the Age” by John Ruskin (GBWW Vol. 7, pp. 126-136; Letter V of Fors Clavigera)
  4. The School for Scandal by Richard Sheridan, Act II (GGB Vol. 4, pp. 98-109)
  5. On the Sacred Disease by Hippocrates (GBWW Vol. 9, pp. 326-339) 
  6. The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant, Prefaces to First and Second Editions and Introduction (GBWW Vol. 39, pp. 1-22)

I know, I know. You’re thinking that I must be absolutely insane to attempt to read Aristotle’s Physics and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason simultaneously. My response is that 1) we’ll be taking each work in small doses, and 2) after Descartes’s Geometry, I have to think that almost any other work will seem easy by comparison.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Paradise Lost by John Milton, Book VIII: Still tracking the Genesis creation story, this book has Adam relating to the angel how he named the animals and how God provided him a companion in Eve. The glowing terms in which Milton describes Adam and Eve’s union are striking in view of Milton’s own dismally unsuccessful marriage. 
  2. “A Lasting Peace through the Federation of Europe” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: I’m not a Rousseau fan, but I can forgive him for seeking some mechanism for bringing about peace in Europe following the conflicts of the mid-18th century. The argument here is actually pragmatic and level-headed, in contrast to some of his other writings. Rousseau’s influence can be seen in how 20th-century “collective security” arrangements operate on some of the principles he lays out here. 
  3. The Geometry by Rene Descartes, Book III: Descartes expects us to thank him for not telling us everything and for leaving us the “pleasure” of figuring out things he hints at. Seriously? Like Euclid’s Elements, this is a work I’ll have to return to someday in the hopes of fuller comprehension. I now know that I need pencils and scratch paper handy whenever I read one of these mathematical works so I can “translate” the writings into the symbols more familiar to me from my own math training.
  4. School-For-ScandalThe School for Scandal by Richard Sheridan, Act I: I found myself wishing for a DVD of a staging of this play, because I have a feeling there’s so much comic potential in this dialogue to be realized through actors’ body language and the like, potential beyond my own imagination. I think I’m going to enjoy this one a lot. 
  5. “The Genesis of a Law of Nature” by Dmitri Mendeleev: This selection is very brief. Mendeleev comes across as saying “I told you so!” to his fellow chemists. It really is impressive that he was able to predict the discovery of so many elements on the basis of the idea of periodicity.
  6. The Charmides of Plato: I don’t know about you, but I felt cheated by the end of this dialogue when the disputants fail to arrive at any definition of temperance. They only succeed in demonstrating some things that it is not.

I do apologize for failing to post until Wednesday of this week. I’ve had a mountain of things to deal with since returning from Costa Rica on Sunday. (Costa Rica, by the way, is lovely.) I have high hopes of returning to the regular Monday Great Books post next week, though. In the meantime, the weather here is fantastic, and I’m looking forward to some reading outdoors.

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 What Is Temperance? Don’t Ask Socrates

  1. Even if you get the paper and pencils and translate your very best, Descartes is a jerk. He leaves out steps, he leaves you in the dust. He expects a lot from his audience…and we may not have it.

    • This is actually the case with modern math textbooks. Some authors leave out steps of their proofs, leaving the students to fill in the gaps. It depends on who you ask.

      Some think this is good, some think this is bad. For me, it depends. For example, if you’re dealing with calculus and the audience is assumed to have mastered elementary algebra, leaving some explicit algebraic steps should be ok.

      When i first learned how to write proofs, I was told to justify every step/statement of the proof. Later, as I gained experience and mathematical maturity, some of these steps felt obvious and need not be justified.

      i’m not yet reading Descarte’s Geometry so I can’t comment, but his leaving out steps is not itself the problem. A potential problem is if the step left out is crucial or he was simply lazy to provide it.

  2. Fred Jewell says:

    Adam did not have to contend with British politics and an impending civil war. Milton’s bride was from a family of the opposite political persuasion, unfortunately.

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