The Scandalous Decomposition of Elder Zossima

Everyone is talking about the Hobby Lobby case today, but I haven’t heard a single national news outlet mention that today also marks the halfway point of the Western Tradition’s Great Books Project, 2011-2017. What is wrong with the world?

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 200-246)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XIX (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 272-289)
  3. On the Death of a Fair Infant” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 57-59)
  4. Of Ancient Customs” and “Of the Vanity of Words” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 184-186; 187-189)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter II (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 8-52)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XVIII-XIX (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 153-167)

This is the last week for the Provincial Letters, but we’ll be returning to Pascal very soon, so don’t despair if you’ve been enjoying his writing as I have.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book VII: The early chapters of this book border on satire, with the secret opponents of elder Zosima’s exulting in the fact that his body actually began to decompose after his death. Alyosha almost falls from grace in his anger against the bad guys, but is rescued by the most unlikely person: Grushenka. I wonder if she really has exited the novel now, having run off to rejoin the man to disgraced her years earlier.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XVIII: In this chapter we have the death of Constantine and the subsequent civil war between two of his surviving three sons, both of whom are ultimately killed before the third brother gains control of the entire empire. There were several twists and turns along the way. 
  3. Comus“Comus” by John Milton: I had no inkling of this play’s existence before encountering it in the GBWW series. It didn’t take me long to figure out why: it glorifies virginity and feminine virtue. Don’t hold your breath waiting for this one to get assigned in college literature classes across the country. 
  4. “Of the Uncertainty of Our Judgment” and “Of War Horses” by Michel de Montaigne: These two essays are all over the place. They’re mostly a stringing together of unrelated incidents loosely connected to the themes indicated in the respective titles. This isn’t too unusual for Montaigne, but I was sleepy when I read these, so they were more frustrating than usual. I thought the discussion of the use of the horse as a class marker was interesting in the second essay.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter 1: James asserts some things here that seem obvious today, e.g. psychology has something to do with the brain. He dwells on the curious features of memory. The best part to me was when he says something approximating the Austrian economists’ action axiom: “The Pursuance of future ends and the choice of means for their attainment, are thus the mark and criterion of the presence of mentality in a phenomenon.”
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XVI-XVII: In these two letters Pascal continues to lay into the Jesuits who have been publishing counterattacks against him. #17 is addressed to an individual Jesuit who apparently had authored some of the hostile pamphlets. Pascal’s defense against the charges of heresy is interesting. According to him, the basis for the charges against him is not that he believes a doctrine deemed heretical, but that he refuses to affirm that a third party is a heretic. He deploys several examples from the Church Fathers to prove this is an illegitimate basis for a heresy charge.

I’m on the road now (writing from Branson, MO, today), having decided to go 100% electronic on the project reading for this trip. However, I did prep all the projected posts with volume and page numbers from the bound set before I left home, so hopefully there will be no hiccups for anyone following along that way.

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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