Humans are Bundles of Habits

This week in the Great Books Project, in addition to breaking the 20,000-page barrier I referenced last time, we will also pass the 6,000-page mark in the Imaginative Literature category.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XI, Chapters 1-5 (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 312-335)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 330-344)
  3. Sonnets, numbers I, VII-IX by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 63-64; Sonnets II-VI are in Italian, so we won’t read those.)
  4. Of Prayers” and “Of Age” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 192-198)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter VI (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 95-119)
  6. The Theaetetus of Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 512-550)

We’re a little heavier than usual on the philosophy this week with the long Platonic dialogue. Let’s hope it’s readable.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book X: The introduction of the Krassotkin character threw me for a bot if a loop. It seems pretty late in the game to be adding a character who will be the focus of an entire book. I found this dialogue in the mouth of a 13-year-old to be pretty unbelievable, but I liked how Dostoevsky had Alyosha responding to the boy. I suppose Ilusha’s death is going to occasion a significant turn in the plot somehow.
  2. AthanasiusThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXI: I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I had half-expected Gibbon to champion the Arians and other heretical groups against the Orthodox; that’s what the postmodern anti-Christians seem to do these days, at any rate. However, Gibbon comes down on the side of the Orthodox and is very critical of the way in which the Arians went after Athanasius and others.
  3. “The 5th Ode of Horace.Lib.I” by John Milton: I’ll be honest; I’m not quite sure what’s going on here. Usually I don’t have a problem wading through Milton’s lines, but this translation of Horace has me scratching my head. 
  4. “Of Vain Subtleties” and “Of Smells” by Michel de Montaigne: In “Of Vain Subtleties” Montaigne criticizes people who look for approval from others on the basis of their creating or performing gimmicks. I found “Of Smells” more engaging. Montaigne leads off by declaring that the “chiefest excellency” of the human body is to be “exempt from smell.” He ruminates briefly on the value of bodily odors to physicians. He also discusses the importance of perfumes and incense in preparing the mind for contemplation in a world where so much stinks. 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters IV-V: Chapter IV’s topic is habit, and James presents it in a very interesting way. He states that all living things are to a great extent “bundles of habits” and discusses the connection between habits and the nervous system. He concludes by arguing that good habits need to be formed as early as possible. Chapter V discusses the “conscious automaton” theory which some significant thinkers of his day had proposed. Given the physiological emphasis of the first four chapters, one might think James would endorse this theory, but he rejects it, emphasizing the role of choice the conscious mind plays. I had Austrian Economics bells ringing in my head.
  6. New Experiments Concerning the Vacuum by Blaise Pascal: Pascal here summarizes several experiments he performed to demonstrate that “all things detected by our senses” can be removed from any container, however large it might be. In other words, we can create a vacuum, even though it might be difficult. He then defends himself against some attacks by—surprise!—certain Jesuit thinkers.

I’m back home in Montgomery after nearly four weeks on the road. Not surprisingly, I’ve fallen a week behind on posts, so I will endeavor to make up that time over the next few weeks.

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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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