Hail Bounteous May

This week in the Great Books Project we begin one of literature’s greatest psychological works. Gird up your loins for the Brothers K.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 1-48)
  2. The Lysis of Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 14-25)
  3. On the University Carrier” and “Another on the Same” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 15)
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter 15 (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 179-206)
  5. Instruments of Reduction by Hippocrates (GBWW Vol. 9, pp. 254-272)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers I-III and “Reply of the Provincial” (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 1-19)

After thirteen consecutive weeks of Montaigne, I thought a break wouldn’t be amiss. This week’s Gibbon chapter is one of his most influential (in a bad way).

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. philoctetesPhiloctetes by Sophocles: This was my first time to read this play, and I really enjoyed it. Odysseus and Neoptolemus (Achilles’s son) must retrieve the bow of Philoctetes (who has been marooned on Lemnos by Odysseus and Agamemnon) to fulfill a prophecy concerning the fall of Troy. Odysseus sends Neoptolemus in to defraud Philoctetes. The tension between Neoptolemus and Odysseus was very effective, and it was satisfying to see Neoptolemus reveal the deception to Philoctetes. Philoctetes is a victim, but he reacts to his circumstances inappropriately. In the end, it takes a deus ex machina to convince Philoctetes to bring his bow back to Troy.
  2. “Of Not Communicating One’s Glory” by Michel de Montaigne: montaigne surveys prominent stories of individuals who gave up to others the credit they should have received for their own accomplishments. Early on he notes that this act is contrary to everyone’s inclination; most will “give up riches, rest, life, and health, which are effectual and substantive goods, to follow that vain phantom” of reputation and glory. There’s a good reference to the Peloponnesian War here, and an anecdote about the Battle of Crecy (1346) I had forgotten.
  3. “Song on May Morning” by John Milton: Ten delightful lines! Although autumn is my favorite season, I’ve always enjoyed poems and songs about spring. Milton conveys pure happiness here. “Hail bounteous May that dost inspire/Mirth and youth, and warm desire,/Woods and Groves, are of thy dressing,/Hill and Dale, doth boast thy blessing.”
  4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapters 13-14: After the chapters rehearsing the dizzying succession of emperors in the middle of the third century, these chapters on Diocletian and Constantine were quite refreshing. I especially like the treatment of the civil war by which Constantine became sole emperor in the early fourth century, a process with which I had only been vaguely acquainted hitherto. Maxentius, his chief rival in the west, receives very scathing treatment from Gibbon.
  5. An Introduction to Mathematics by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters 11-17: These final chapters of the work discuss trigonometry, series, and differential calculus, among other things. Having just seen recently an internet meme bemoaning the time “wasted” on math in high school, I liked how Whitehead showed the real-world applications of these abstractions. I enjoyed this work and will probably make it a part of the curriculum for a B.A. in Humanities I’m helping to develop at my university.
  6. The Parmenides of Plato: I confess it was a bad idea to attempt jumping back into Plato with this dialogue after such a long hiatus. I was pretty lost after six or seven pages. In desperation I turned to Wikipedia, which informed me that the Parmenides may be the most difficult of Plato’s writings, and no one seems to know what it means. The story is set up as a young Socrates’s conversation with Parmenides, who points out inconsistencies in Socrates’s developing notion of the Forms. Most of the dialogue is an extremely dense treatment of the problem of the One and the Many.

I am a bachelor this week; my family is visiting the in-laws while I try to get some intense work done in the office. I’m also hoping to make up the weekly post I dropped recently, so I have lots of reading to do. I hope you will find the time to do some as well 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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2 Responses to Hail Bounteous May

  1. Fantastic post here on the narrative of intellectual history. Thoughts on how Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment might work here? Or, Shakespeare’s Hamlet?

    • Dr. J says:

      Hamlet is part of Adler’s Great Books of the Western World series, and I think I read it in 2012 as part of this project. I would definitely consider it one of the top five treatments of internal struggle in Western literature.

      Crime and Punishment is not part of this series (to avoid over-representation of particular novelists), but it is right up there as well. I read it years ago and am interested to see how it compares to Brothers K. Whenever I describe Crime and Punishment to students, they seem mystified that the “action” occurs right at the beginning of the story, and the rest of it is about the struggle with remorse.

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