I know that all you Great Books readers have missed William James the past several months, and that you’re wondering why there were no 19th- or 20th-century works last week, so I am killing two birds with one stone this time out.
Here are the readings for the coming week:
- The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, “Words between the Host and the Miller” through “The Reeve’s Tale” (GBWW Vol. 19, pp. 309-323)
- The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 11, p. 264-269)
- “Of the Power of the Imagination” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 91-96)
- “Poplicola” and “Solon and Poplicola Compared” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 77-87)
- Optics by Isaac Newton, Book Two, Parts I-II (GBWW Vol. 32, pp. 457-478)
- Pragmatism by William James (GBWW Vol. 55, pp. 1-64)
Five of our six works are ongoing this week. We are deep into the long stuff at this point in the project.
Here are some observations from last week’s readings:
- Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, “Prologue” and “Knight’s Tale”: I go over the prologue every semester with students. It is a great snapshot of 14th-century English society: people from every social class and of every moral category. On the other hand, it had been many years since my last reading of the knight’s tale. The courtly love ideal on display here is stretched nearly to the point of absurdity. Kinsmen hate each other for years and fight to the death over a woman who would prefer to remain unmarried.
- The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Book VI: This section contains lots of ruminations on death and how it’s really not so bad. After all, it is a cessation “of the pulling of the strings which move the appetites . . . and of the service to the flesh.” We’re simply going where “there are so many great orators, and so many noble philosophers . . . so many heroes of former days.”
- “That to Philosophize Is to Learn to Die” by Michel de Montaigne: Two death readings in a row! Truly, this week’s material was not for the suicidal. Montaigne, as usual, surveys the writings of many ancients on death. He especially leans on Cicero. Then he gives some of the best observations I’ve read from him yet: “It is uncertain where death awaits us; let us await it everywhere. . . . The goal of our career is death. It is the necessary object of our aim. . . . Among the principal benefits of virtue is disdain for death.”
- “Solon” by Plutarch: This was my first reading of this life, although some of the episodes in it, such as the exchange with Croesus, were already familiar from other readings. Plutarch naturally compares Solon with Lycurgus because both were lawgivers. I got the impression that Plutarch likes Lycurgus better, but that he prefers Solon to Draco. The anecdotes about Solon’s faking insanity early in life and his speaking out against Pisistratus in old age are really compelling.
- Optics by Isaac Newton, Book One, Part II: This section focuses on the different colors of rays of light based on their refrangibility. Newton gives us a color wheel (yellow and blue make green!) and culminates with an explanation of rainbows.
- Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant: As is usual, I began this Kant reading with a sense of dread, but was pleasantly surprised at its lucidity. I think Kant is wrong in some of his arguments (such as that no action is moral unless it’s against one’s inclination), but its development of the idea of the categorical imperative is not that difficult to understand. Or, I should say, it’s not that difficult to understand for someone who has already suffered through the Critique of Pure Reason.
This week is crunch time. I have to complete development of two new online courses by Friday. The freshmen hit campus this weekend. Why am I blogging right now?