If the World Stinks, It’s Not God’s Fault

This week we pass 13,000 pages in the Great Books Project. And I don’t care who you are; you have to admit that a program where you read Dante, Freud, and Plato all in the same week is at least a little bit cool.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Divine Comedy: Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri, Cantos XVII-XXXIII (GBWW Vol. 19, pp. 66-89)
  2. What Is the Law of Life” by Epictetus (GBWW Vol. 11, pp. 123-124; Book I Chapter 26 of the Discourses)
  3. The Annals of Tacitus, Book XIII (GBWW Vol. 14, pp. 125-141)
  4. The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen, Chapter 7-8 (GBWW Vol. 57, pp. 70-89)
  5. The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, Part III-IV (GBWW Vol. 54, pp. 189-205; pp. 44-57 of the linked PDF)
  6. Cratylus by Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 85-114)

Cratylus is a new one for me, so I’m especially looking forward to that.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Divine Comedy: Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri, Cantos I-XVI: Obviously there is plenty to chew on here, but I was especially struck by the discussion in Canto XVI about free will. Fortunately for us, Dante was a student of philosophy, and he doesn’t give us anything trite or banal: “You lie subject, in your freedom, to a greater power and to a better nature, and that creates the mind in you which the heavens have not in their charge.”
  2. “How We Should Struggle with Circumstance” by Epictetus: Most of this discourse is going over what by now is familiar ground: only the internal is your own, do not be distressed by the external, etc. I found the middle section rather puzzling; Epictetus says it’s inconsistent to suppose that it’s night and also to think that it’s night. Maybe there’s a translation issue or a typo of some sort. 
  3. claudius-agrippinaThe Annals of Tacitus, Book XII: Agrippina is a rather unpleasant character. Paranoid and vindictive, she stiffs her stepson Britannicus and has her husband Claudius killed after securing the succession for her own son. Next to all of this intrigue, wars against Parthia seem positively ho-hum.
  4. The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen, Chapters 5-6: “Our standard of decency in expenditure, as in other ends of emulation, is set by the usage of those next above us in reputability.” I actually have no problem with this statement, but I do differ with Veblen on the motive; whereas he attributes it purely to envy, I think it’s much more likely that the higher class is “educating” the lower class as to what’s possible in a standard of living. The higher standard is worthwhile in itself; Veblen occasionally admits this, and why he doesn’t think that this is a sufficient reason for pursuing it is beyond me.
  5. The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, Part II: Freud treats us to a very detailed analysis of one of his dreams in this section. I don’t know that I’ve ever recalled so many details of a dream as he claims he does in this instance. His interpretations of the various details seem plausible but by no means compelling. What makes Freud’s interpretation correct and not merely speculative? 
  6. The Philosophy of Right by G.W.F. Hegel, Additions:  As I feared, these additions prove to be nearly unintelligible unless read in context with the earlier sections, something I am not about to go back and do on this reading. If anyone else wishes to do so, I commend him heartily.

I’ve only made up one day of my posting schedule this week, even though the kids were out of town visiting grandparents. The impending end of the semester has resulted in my having to scramble to meet many deadlines. I hope that your schedule is a bit more relaxed than mine at present, and that you will find some time to read this week.

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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6 Responses to If the World Stinks, It’s Not God’s Fault

  1. B_Dubb_B says:

    I have not read Epictetus. But concerning the statement “it’s inconsistent to suppose that it’s night and also to think that it’s night”, I think it is trying to show that believing something to actually be the case is inconsistent with also simply assuming it to be the case. To believe that something is true requires, at least, some form of evidence. To simply assume something is not to take it to be the case based on evidence. And if the assumption were evidenced, then it would no longer be mere assumption.

    So the point may be that something evidenced is no longer assumed; likewise, something assumed is not evidenced.

    I don’t know. This is all just my outlook on the concept.

    • Dr. J says:

      I suppose that’s possible, although it seems to be splitting hairs to an extraordinary degree. It reads very oddly in the English translation.

      • B_Dubb_B says:

        Yeah! I don’t even know the context. I have no idea what is being discussed. I just took that phrase in isolation and had a guess at its meaning. Could you give me the chapter, because I can’t seem to find that quote in the text that you have linked to?

        I’m not following along with your reading plan because I’m not going to start reading the Great Books until I have moved (probably within the next few months). My books are sadly packed away until then. But I love reading your posts and your ideas on the selected readings.

        • Dr. J says:

          You need to go to the text file linked from the page I linked to. For some reason the HTML page truncates the latter chapters of the book.

  2. B_Dubb_B says:

    Having read the portion that you mention, I now am under the impression that we are to infer the fact that it is day from the command to suppose that it is night. It would then be inconsistent to follow the command “think that it is night”. It is stated that he admitted the “hypopthesis” in accordance with the supposition. But it would be no mere hypothesis were it true. So the command is to deny the faculties and rationality. This is further evidenced by the command to “think also that you are in misery” as a consequence of reasoning from a state of being unfortunate (which is obviously untrue from the command to suppose that “unfortunate”).

    The point seems to be. We must follow the commands of God (or Zeus in this case) until it leads us to irrationality. In the next paragraph he says to follow these commands “as long as I (the subject) maintain that which is becoming and consistent”. It would be inconsistent to believe it is night when it is not or to believe yourself to be in misery when you are not.

    Tell me what you think. I have fun trying to puzzle these things out.

  3. B_Dubb_B says:

    I forgot to mention that the crucial distinction seems to be between the command to *suppose* that which is a contradiction of a true proposition and the command to *think* that which is a contradiction of a true proposition.

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