This week in the Great Books Project we pass the 5,000-page mark in the Philosophy/Theology category. I suppose it’s only fitting that we do so with Plato.
Here are the readings for the coming week:
- The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book IX (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 246-285)
- The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XX (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 289-305)
- “At a Vacation Exercise” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 59-61)
- “Of the Parsimony of the Ancients” and “Of a Saying of Caesar’s” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 189-190)
- Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter III (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 53-67)
- The Sophist of Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 551-579)
I have to say I’m grateful for the relative brevity of the James chapter after last week’s marathon. However, we need to brace ourselves for the silliness likely to emerge from Gibbon’s further discussion of Christianity in Book XX.
Here are some observations from last week’s readings:
- The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book VIII: Poor Dmitri/Mitya. He gets crazy ideas fixed in his head that lead him to do even crazier things. Grushenka’s “protector” was a total jerk to him, sending him off on a wild goose chase, and then Mme. Hohlakov has nothing for him other than encouragement to go to the gold mines in Siberia. So the question at the end of the book is whether he actually killed his father or just injured Grigoriy. The narrator, omniscient in so many other things, is not helpful here.
- The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XIX: This book focuses primarily on Julian in the years prior to his reign. I had not known that he campaigned against the Franks. There’s also quite a bit of information about the mid-4th-century incarnation of the Persian empire and the conflict it got into with the Romans. I liked the description of 4th-century Paris, confined to the island in the Seine where the cathedral of Notre Dame now stands.
- “On the Death of a Fair Infant” by John Milton: “O Fairest flower no sooner blown but blasted . . .” Tough reading here. The Dartmouth page calls this Milton’s first major poem in English, although we don’t know exactly when he wrote it (sometime in the late 1620s). As usual, Milton uses classical references to express Christian ideas. In the later stanzas he speculates whether the child was actually an angel with intercessory power.
- “Of Ancient Customs” and “Of the Vanity of Words” by Michel de Montaigne: In the early lines of the first essay, Montaigne excuses adherence to custom while condemning ever-changing fashion. He then offers up, almost at random, customs from various eras and compares them wit those of his contemporaries. The weirdest one was the story of the condemned prisoner who committed suicide by shoving a sponge down his throat rather than be thrown to wild beasts. In the second essay, Montaigne displays the same dislike of rhetoric shared by many classical and medieval societies. His ruminations on the orators of his own day are scathing: “To hear men talk of metonomies, metaphors, and allegories, and other grammar words, would not one think they signified some rare and exotic form of speaking? And yet they are phrases that come near to the babble of my chambermaid.”
- Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter II: This long chapter attempts to show which senses are connected to which hemispheres of the brain in different species. I was a bit taken aback by the frank discussion of things like the vivisection of animals, e.g. blinding dogs by tampering with their occipetal lobes. Another striking passage was the contrast between the sexual responses in lower animals and humans: “No one need be told how dependent all human social elevation is upon the prevalence of chastity. Hardly any factor measures more than this the difference between civilization and barbarism. Physiologically interpreted, chastity means nothing more than the fact that present solicitations of sense are overpowered by suggestions of aesthetic and moral fitness which the circumstances awaken in the cerebrum ; and that upon the inhibitory or permissive influence of these alone action directly depends.”
- Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XVIII-XIX: According to Pascal, the Jesuits have finally clarified their position by calling Jansenius a Calvinist. Pascal replies that everyone the Jesuits have been attacking reject Calvin’s understanding of grace, and that they all believe in free will enabled by grace. Much scolding. The final letter is a fragment only about a page long, so there’s not much to say about it.
I spent the better part of three days driving last weekend, and the result was a delay in getting this post finished. However, I have to say the drive was worth it; I’m writing from Breckenridge, CO, where the humidity is low and the temperatures positively March-like for Montgomery. If all goes as planned, next week’s post will come from some other mountain location. Maybe I’ll read outside!