Tilting at Windmills

To observe Christmas this week in the Great Books Project, I’m sandwiching in something seasonally appropriate between the irreverence of Fielding and Cervantes. I think you’ll like it (unless, of course, you’re a philistine!).

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XIII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 273-296)*
  2. On the Morning of Christs Nativity” and “The Hymn” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, pp. 1-7)
  3. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 11-14 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 30-44)
  4. Timoleon” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 195-213)
  5. The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Chapter 17-18 (GBWW Vol. 49, pp. 532-561)
  6. Objections Against the Meditations, and Replies by Rene Descartes, Set 5 (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 392-446)

*The volume and page references from Tom Jones are from the 1952 GBWW edition. This novel was not included in the 1990 edition and is thus “extra” reading for this project, but I’ve never read it before and want to.

I have to admit the Descartes reading this week is a bit intimidating at more than fifty pages. I’m tempted to count the digression each author makes.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XII: The attention returns to Jones and Partridge in this book. Partridge seems to be becoming an increasingly annoying obstacle to Jones’s plans. Not only does he continually urge him to return to Mr. Allworthy’s estate in the mistaken belief that Jones is Allworthy’s son, but he also says dumb things in others’ company when drunk, things that lead to trouble for Jones. In this book he even tries to plot a kidnaping of Jones to return him to Allworthy. He’s also useless in a fight.
  2. “The Providence of God” by St. Thomas Aquinas: “Since the very act of free will is traced to God as to a cause, it necessarily follows that everything happening from the exercise of free will must be subject to divine providence.” Two articles later, though, St. Thomas insists that God’s providence does not impose necessity upon everything. There’s some pretty dense reasoning in a short space in this question.
  3. Don_Quixote_WindmillsThe History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 1-10: In these early chapters we are introduced to Don Quixote, whose “brains got so dry that he lost his wits” reading books of chivalry. We also make the acquaintance of Sancho Panza, who, like his master, is not the sharpest tool in the shed. Humorous incidents abound in this section, including the famous scene with the windmills. The chapter where the curate and company burn the books, though, reminded me of one of the weaknesses of Adler et al’s selections in the GBWW series, viz. the complete lack of the chivalric epics Cervantes parodied. I don’t think you can really “get” Don Quixote unless you’re conversant with the traditions of chivalry and courtly love. I have toyed with the idea of making a list of such works and other prominent omissions from the Great Conversation (like writings of some Church Fathers) to read after this seven-year project is completed. 
  4. “Science as a Vocation” by Max Weber: There’s a lot to digest in this essay. Weber argues for a strict separation between scientific instruction—where “science” is construed broadly to encompass all knowledge—and political or moral advocacy in the lecture hall. His justification is that a university lecturer’s students are a captive audience, and to impress one’s political positions upon them from that position of authority is responsible. It seems to me that Weber may be inconsistent when he argues that a) scientific methodology is atheistic, and b) science has no answers to the big questions of life (ethics, etc.). His call for people who have a passion for disenchanting the world in such a context is a bit odd. 
  5. The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Chapter 15-16: These are the third and fourth chapters dealing with birds, and I confess I wasn’t as attentive in my reading as I should have been. Darwin was going back over some ground he had already covered, this time attempting to fit observations about things like the differing plumage of males and females into his theory, this time focusing on the females and what happens in and out of the mating season. In Chapter 16 Darwin drafts a list of “rules” describing patterns he has observed.
  6. Objections Against the Meditations, and Replies by Rene Descartes, Sets 3-4: Apparently the author of the third set of objections to Descartes’s Meditations is none other than Thomas Hobbes. The exchange between them was most amusing as far as I was concerned. Hobbes argues from materialist assumptions and finds fault with all of Descartes’s central claims. Descartes’s reply, over and over, is, “Why can’t you understand this? I’ve made it perfectly clear. Stop interpreting according to your stupid materialist assumptions.” The fourth set comes from Antoine Arnauld, a prominent theologian and logician. He seems to like the Meditations, or at least their conclusions, but his possible objections are even more detailed than Hobbes’s. In particular, he warns Descartes that his arguments appear to rule out the Roman Catholic understanding of transubstantiation in the Eucharist. Descartes argues that this was never his intention, and that he affirms the possibility of true mysteries elsewhere.

It’s more traveling this week for my family, and I’m stuck with digital texts again. I’m pretty certain the Descartes translation is significantly differently from what’s in the GBWW, but I think most of the other things I’ve linked are comparable to what’s in the hardbound volumes. Take some time to read this week when you’re eating turkey, opening presents, watching football, or arguing with relatives!

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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