This past week we wrapped up the last of our readings from Charles Darwin in the Great Books Project, completing Volume 49 of the Great Books of the Western World. This week we’ll see the last of Descartes.
Here are the readings for the coming week:
- Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XVI (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 338-356)*
- “The Power of God” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 18, pp. 143-150; Part One, Chapter 25 of Summa Theologica)
- The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 27-37 (GBWW Vol. 27, pp. 104-172)
- “Marcellus” and “Marcellus and Pelopidas Compared” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 246-262)
- The Method Treating of Mechanical Problems by Archimedes (GBWW Vol. 10, pp. 569-592)
- Objections Against the Meditations, and Replies by Rene Descartes, “Letter to Father Dinet” (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 504-519)
*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 confess feeling some trepidation at the idea of jumping back into mathematical proofs after several months of reading more or less normal scientific prose with Darwin. Maybe we’ll get lucky with the Archimedes reading and not be over our heads all at once.
Here are some observations from last week’s readings:
- Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Book XV: Things are coming to a head for Tom and Sophie. The appearance of Squire Western was a bit unexpected. I should have known we wouldn’t be able to get to the end of the book without a comic scene involving multiple people trying to hide in the same bedroom. That part was quite funny.
- “The Book of Life” by St. Thomas Aquinas: This was a very short section. St. Thomas stresses that the Book of Life is predestination, but that this fact does not prevent someone’s name from being “blotted out” of it. It’s tricky, but he’s making a distinction between those who are ordained to eternal life through “absolute predestination” and those who are ordained to eternal life through grace. The latter can fall from grace by committing mortal sin.
- The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Part I, Chapters 23-26: Here Don Quixote happens upon a self-exiled nobleman who has gone mad for something love-related (we didn’t get to the end of his account because Don Quixote kept interrupting him and provoked a fight over a character in a chivalric tale). Don Quixote decides he should begin acting mad as well to prove his love for Dulcinea and send Sancho to her with testimony of his madness. My favorite part was when he wouldn’t let Sancho leave right away, saying, “I have yet to rend my garments, scatter my armor about, knock my head against those rocks, and other things of that sort, all of which you must witness.”
- “Pelopidas” by Plutarch: The last few weeks have shown us that not all of classical Greece’s great men hailed from Athens and Sparta. Here we have a Theban who helped free his city from Spartan rule in the years following the Peloponnesian War. “In all the great wars that had ever been against Greeks or barbarians, the Spartans were never before beaten by a smaller company than their own.” That’s a pretty impressive track record that makes Pelopidas’s achievement more inspiring.
- The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Chapter 21-end: “Many of the views which have been [here] advanced are highly speculative, and some no doubt will prove erroneous.” Lots more politically incorrect language in this conclusion: “Both [human] sexes ought to refrain from marriage if if they are any marked degree inferior in body or mind. . . . When the principles of breeding and inheritance are better understood, we shall not hear ignorant members of our legislature rejecting with scorn a plan for ascertaining whether or not consanguineous marriages are injurious to man. . . . If the prudent avoid marriage, whilst the reckless marry, the inferior members tend to supplant the better members of society.”
- Objections Against the Meditations, and Replies by Rene Descartes, Set 7: It’s more of the same for the most part here. Descartes again expresses frustration over his interlocutor’s equivocations: “I should be ashamed to be too diligent and spend many words in commenting on all the things which, though here expressed in words almost identical with mine, I nevertheless do not recognize as mine.” With correspondence like this popping up everywhere I look, it’s small wonder that in the late 17th century intellectuals were placing such a huge stress on the definitions of terms in the confidence that all disagreements would be cleared up once everyone was talking about the same thing.
Hopefully we are back on track for the foreseeable future with regular Monday posts. We’re seeing quite a bit of turnover in the reading over the next few weeks as we finish several of the longer works. It will give us a fresh look at some other authors.