Riding to Heaven on a Dung Beetle

It feels great to be able to make another one of these Great Books Project posts after so long a hiatus. To let you all know how serious I am about getting back into this routine, this week we’re pulling out the Mt. Everest of novels. You know the one . . .

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 1-14 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 1-25)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXIII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 537-545)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 59-64 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 306-338)
  4. Sonnets VI-X by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 587)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XVIII (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 480-501)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book V (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 697)

This week will wrap up the treatise on angels in the Summa. I haven’t decided yet whether to push forward in that work or take a break.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. peacePeace by Aristophanes: It’s so odd how Aristophanes takes the subject of war and treats it preposterously. Trygaeus flies a giant dung beetle to the home of the gods, warning the audience as he flies that they must not defecate or pass gas for the next three days so as not to distract his mount. When he finds most of the gods absent, he knowingly thwarts Zeus’s will by bribing Hermes to discover Peace’s location and then digging her out of the well where she was buried. He returns triumphantly to Athens and gets a wife out of the deal as well. According to Wikipedia, this play was staged in 421 B.C. shortly before the Athenians and Spartans actually did sign a truce.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXII: Gibbon heaps praise on Theodosius, but has no regard for his successors. Much of this chapter revolves around the abuses of the eunuch Eutropius, who confiscated nobles’ property to enrich himself until the empress maneuvered to have him executed. Lots of sordid stuff like that here.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 54-58: These questions deal with the knowledge of angels: whether they know themselves, other immaterial things, material things, etc. St. Thomas concludes that they do know themselves as well as each other and God (in the sense that other created beings can know God). However, he insists that angels do not know future events “in themselves” in the way God does; they can only know the future “in its cause.”
  4. Sonnets I-V by William Shakespeare: I wasn’t expecting the multiple admonitions to marriage and childbearing: “But if thou live, remember’d not to be,/Die single, and thine image dies with thee.” I couldn’t figure out #5.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XVII: Here James begins a sequence of three chapters that “treat of the processes by which we cognize at all times the present world of space and the material things which it contains.” This chapter deals with sensation, which James says is different from perception. In the debate whether contrasts in sensation are psychological or physiological, James sides with the physiological side. He completely rejects the theory of “eccentric projection” of sensations according to which sensations originate in the mind and then are made to appear as being located outside it. I was pleased to find that it wasn’t too difficult to ease back into this work.
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book IV: “There neither is nor ever will be a better way of establishing a polity than by a tyranny.” Maybe so, but it’s much harder to keep it going that way, as Plato admits. I was a bit surprised to read the sections advising the mingling of persuasion with coercion, to persuade the people that the laws are in their best interest because they help them to develop virtue. The end of the book sets us up for a major speech by the Athenian.

Every year I have this fantasy that the summer will be a nice, relaxing time. Then summer actually arrives and I find myself with a project list as long as my arm. I’ve finished the Liberty Classroom course and presented successfully at a conference last week, but there’s much more to do. At the moment our house in on the market, I have a book review to write, and there’s a big pile of grading to do for both spring and summer classes. C’est la vie.

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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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One Response to Riding to Heaven on a Dung Beetle

  1. Thanks Dr. Jewell. I started War and Peace one time during my college days and left off at some unknown point. You’re descriptions of the content of the Summa give a good feel for Aquinas’ struggle to explain all things spiritual, but a break from that would be understandable. Adios. – David

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