The Honor of Lilliputians

Amazingly, we’re coming to the end of Month 25 of readings in this Great Books Project. Last week we read our 3,000th page of Philosophy and Theology. This week we’ll come within a whisker of passing the 3,500-page mark in Imaginative Literature.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, Part II (GBWW Vol. 34, pp. 43-87)
  2. The Metaphysics of Aristotle, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 7, pp. 550-566)
  3. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Volume II, Part Three, Chapters 18-20 (GBWW Vol. 44, pp. 332-343)
  4. Of Prompt or Slow Speech” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 64-65)
  5. The Almagest of Ptolemy, Book X (GBWW Vol. 15, pp. 312-345)
  6. Of Providence” by Epictetus (GBWW Vol. 11, p. 115; Book I, Ch. 16 of the Discourses)

I bought a young reader’s edition of Gulliver’s Travels so my ten-year-old son could read along with me for the next few weeks. I found one from the 1950s that is actually the original text with the racier parts expunged, so he’s getting the real thing, as opposed to the watered-down text in a lot of the more recent kid editions.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. lilliputGulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, Part I: I love the proclamation that describes the 7-inch emperor in such titanic terms (“whose head strikes against the sun . . .”). Much of Swift’s brilliance lies in his ability to portray the patently ridiculous without betraying the slightest trace of irony in the narrative tone. The scandal over the suspected (although obviously anatomically impossible) adulterous affair between the Lilliputian lady and Gulliver is one great example.
  2. The Metaphysics of Aristotle, Book VI: This brief book lingers over the concept of “being” and the distinction between what is accidental and what is essential. Aristotle announces his intention to dispense with “accidental being” and devote his attention to “being qua being.”
  3. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Volume II, Part Three, Ch. 11-17: “However credulous passion may make us, there is a hardly a way of persuading a girl that you love her when you are perfectly free to marry her but will not do so.” I’m afraid too many young Americans have forgotten this lesson or have simply chosen to ignore it. These chapters were a bit depressing to read; they serve as a reminder of how far American morals have eroded over the last 180 years. 
  4. “On Swift” by William Hazlitt: “He enlarges or diminishes the scale as he wishes to show the insignificance or the grossness of our overweening self-love.” Hazlitt notes the negative reaction of some to Gulliver’s Travels on its first appearance, but defends Swift vigorously.
  5. The Almagest of Ptolemy, Book IX, Parts 5-11: This section goes into detail on the movement of Mercury, the most difficult of planets to figure out mathematically in the geocentric system. The proof to demonstrate the “corrections” of Mercury’s periodic movement is nearly seven pages long. I guess for Ptolemy it’s mostly downhill form here. 
  6. Novum Organum by Francis Bacon, Book II, Sections 40-52: The catalogue of “prerogative instances” continues here. Some of them get quite involved. For example, the “wrestling instances” deal with the relative forces or resistances of different bodies; Bacon subdivides these into nineteen distinct types of motions. By the time we reach the end we’ve gone through no fewer than twenty-seven prerogative instances. I like how at the very end Bacon connects the necessity of learning through induction to the Fall of Man.

I really thought I’d have this post up on Monday; I had it partially written on Sunday evening already. However, I ended up having to record a lecture yesterday evening and lost a couple of hours as a result. The good news is that I’m already well underway with this week’s reading and should be back onto the regular Monday schedule next week (knock on wood).

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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2 Responses to The Honor of Lilliputians

  1. “The proof to demonstrate the “corrections” of Mercury’s periodic movement is nearly seven pages long.” It is no accident that Mercury required so much correction. It turned out to be key in rejecting his theory. You should look into the way in which Mercury’s movement is accounted for by Copernicus. Also, Einstein’s ability to account better for Mercury than Newton became a big part of accepting relativity.

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