Fiddling While Rome Burned?

Now that we’ve finished Dante’s epic, we can read commentary on it from one of the 20th century’s great minds. It’s a nice way to pass our 4,000th page of Imaginative Literature this week.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Dante” by T.S. Eliot (GGB Vol. 5, pp. 371-403)
  2. That We Ought Not to Be Angry with Men” by Epictetus (GBWW Vol. 11, pp. 125-127; Book I Chapter 28 of the Discourses)
  3. The Annals of Tacitus, Book XVI (GBWW Vol. 14, pp. 176-184)
  4. The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen, Chapter 12 (GBWW Vol. 57, pp. 123-139)
  5. The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, Part VI, Sections B-D (GBWW Vol. 54, pp. 262-277; pp. 100-114 of the linked PDF)
  6. Categories by Aristotle (GBWW Vol. 7, pp. 1-21)

This week we also wrap up Tacitus’s Annals, which unfortunately breaks off before the end of Nero’s reign. We’ll come back to his Histories at a later date.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Divine Comedy: Paradiso by Dante Alighieri, Cantos XVII-XXXIII: Dante gives us several moving passages in the final cantos, including the confession of faith before St. Peter and some prayers, but the greatest is probably the last canto where he keeps on referring to the ineffable nature of what he experienced in God’s presence. It’s interesting that even after he is admitted into Paradise, he continues to be purified as he ascends; at one point Beatrice warns him not to look at her smile or he’ll be burned to ash like Semele (check out this opera starring my friend and erstwhile colleague Matt Roberson), but a couple of cantos later she tells him he’s ready to look at her again.
  2. “On Sense and the Sensible” by Aristotle: (Please, no Jane Austen jokes.) Reading these ancient works of philosophy/science is challenging; the modern is always tempted to to say, “These guys are ignorant of the real stuff, so why bother reading them?” The thought occurred to me as I made my way through Aristotle’s refutation of the proposition that the eye is fire, etc. However, we shouldn’t mistake a lack of data for a lack of scientific acumen. A closer look brings a greater appreciation of the mode of arguing.
  3. nero-rome-burningThe Annals of Tacitus, Book XV: Well, lots happening here. Foreign wars, the burning of Rome, the suicide of Seneca, and more. I’d just like to remind everyone that Tacitus does not say that Nero “fiddled while Rome burned.” Here’s the quote: “A rumour had gone forth everywhere that, at the very time when the city was in flames, the emperor appeared on a private stage and sang of the destruction of Troy, comparing present misfortunes with the calamities of antiquity.”
  4. The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen, Chapter 11:  I think Veblen twists the understanding of “luck” here. He calls it an “instinctive sense of an inscrutable teleological propensity in objects or situations.” As soon as I saw that, I figured he’d try to link it to Christianity. Sure enough, near the end of the chapter we read of “more adequately developed anthropomorphic cults.” Moderns hate telos if its source isn’t Man.
  5. The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, Part VI, Introduction and Section A: This section deals with conflation in dreams. I don’t have much comment here; I found a lot of his examples interesting. Of course, his attempts to separate the constituent parts of these alleged amalgams are highly subjective, as is so much of the rest of his analysis.  
  6. “The Being of God in Things” by St. Thomas Aquinas: As we see elsewhere in the Summa, in this article we have Scripture on both sides of the argument. The impatient modern says, “See! The Bible contradicts itself!” St. Thomas shows otherwise to demonstrate that God really is in all things.

The spring semester has ended for the most part (I still have a couple of weeks left to tie up a high-school class I’m doing), but the summer term has already begun, and I’m up to my eyeballs in graduate students doing tutorials in everything from Rome to Tudor England to the Founding Fathers and Constitution. It should be a stimulating term, and the content is one of the reasons I’m glad I’ve been doing this project. I’m sure that you’ll be able to find some application of the Great Books to your own world as well.

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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