Don’t Trust Anyone Under Fifty

My high hopes for summer reading were disappointed as I took on new job responsibilities and my family went through a move (and is actually still going through it—we have been between houses for more than a month). I lost access to my Great Books of the Western World volumes for several weeks as part of that process. However, I’m back on campus now and hoping to get this project back on track!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 22-28 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 41-59)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXV (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 558-571)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 68-70 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 354-367)
  4. Sonnets XVI-XX by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 589)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XX, beginning to heading “The Summation of the Sense-spaces” (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 540-570)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 713-731)

Chapter XX of Principles of Psychology is nearly 100 pages long, so I thought it would be wise to break it up into more manageable sections. It may take us a month to get through at this rate, but I prefer that to the overload sure to occur if we try to do the whole thing in one go.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 15-23: I’m not clear on the passage of time here, but apparently some has already passed. Pierre has established himself as a ne’er-do-well, Boris and Natasha are in love, and the Count’s relatives are scheming about his will as he lies on his deathbed. If Pierre is declared legitimate, and the Count’s will is valid, Pierre gets all the money.
  2. AttilatheHunThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXIV: In this chapter Gibbon treats us to a portrait of Attila the Hun, a real piece of work. For twenty years he was a thorn in the Romans’ side; he forced the eastern empire to pay what can only be described as a humiliating annual tribute and required it to follow his lead in foreign policy. Props to the city of Azimuntium, which made itself such a problem for Attila that he decided not to devote his resources to conquering it. Gibbon makes Theodosius II out to be a complete loser.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 65-67: These questions lead off St. Thomas’s treatise on the six-day creation. In other words, the focus here is on the physical/material/corporeal creation as opposed to the purely spiritual beings treated in the earlier section. St. Thomas affirms that God did create matter and that it reflects his goodness, but that he did it without using angels as a medium. He works in a rebuttal of the Platonic conception of forms here. There’s also a discussion of the empyrean heaven as a sensible place with Genesis 1:1 as the proof text. Question 67 deals with the first day specifically, and I was intrigued to see St. Thomas anticipate the objection voiced by so many today, that you can’t read Genesis 1 literally because the chapter states there was light on the first day but no sun. 
  4. Sonnets XI-XV by William Shakespeare: And yet more sonnets about beauty and the need for procreation to preserve it. I like Sonnet XV, where Shakespeare declares his intention to immortalize the youth’s fleeting beauty in verse; I guess we have to say he succeeded.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XIX: James defines perception as “the consciousness of particular material things present to sense.” It is different from sensation (which James denies ever happening in adulthood) in that it conjures in the mind remoter facts about the material thing beyond what the senses apprehend. This is why perception is “baffled” to some degree when we look at things upside-down or repeat a single word ad nauseam. James discusses several kinds of illusions, or false perceptions, when our brains make associations that aren’t really there. He summarizes perception by saying part of it comes from our senses and part from out of our own heads.
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VI: The Athenian begins this book by asserting that good laws are useless without good offices for their administration. He recommends that no one be eligible for a guardianship until at least age 50. This strikes me as a wise policy that would have spared the USA not only Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt, but JFK, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama as well. However, it also would have kept Grover Cleveland out his first time around. Plato is sensitive to abuse of the word “equality”—would that more people were today—and discusses different senses in which the term is used and how the legislator should hope to bring it about.

Pity me, my friends. Without a house in Montgomery at the moment, I have been separated from my family for almost two weeks. They are at my in-laws’ house in Texas as I get the fall semester underway in campus housing here in Alabama. I am counting the seconds until my reunion with them. I must rely on the Great Books to see me through this trying period.

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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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