Plato Channels Nigel Tufnel

Great Books Project posts in consecutive weeks? That hasn’t happened in a while! Let’s get right to it.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book II, Chapters 1-10 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 60-86)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXVI (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 571-593)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 71-74 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 367-377)
  4. Sonnets XXI-XXV by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 589-590)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XX, heading “The Summation of the Sense-spaces” to heading “Ambiguity of Retinal Impressions” (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 570-602)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 731-743)

I believe we finish the Summa’s subdivision on the creation this week, so I’ll take another look at whether to keep plugging along in that work or to take a break. It might be good to shake things up a little since we’ve been in the same six works for several weeks now.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. count-bezukhovWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 22-28: Again it seems like there’s an indeterminate passage of time. The count dies, and then we learn after a change of setting that Pierre has been declared legitimate and has inherited the estate, leaving the princesses with very little. Andrew leaves his wife with his father and sister as he heads off to war. His father loves Voltaire and hates anything smacking of the Romantic. Andrew himself appears to have some real feelings, but the narrative so far makes him out to be afflicted by a disdain for everyone around him. The sister seems to be the only one we should be rooting for right now.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXV: Somehow I had never known that Attila had been repulsed from Gaul; the Romans and Visigoths together were too much for him, but the Visigoths couldn’t be bothered to defend Italy. I love the story of Leo the Great’s intercession on behalf of the city of Rome with Italy. Even Gibbon reluctantly acknowledges Leo’s accomplishment in turning Attila’s army away from the city. Attila died soon afterward, and Gibbon ends the book with a narrative of Valentinian’s decline and death.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 68-70: These questions comprise St. Thomas’s discussion of the second, third,and fourth days of creation. Several of the articles seemed to me to be attempts to answer weird questions only philosophers could have thought of, e.g., whether it was appropriate for plants to appear on Day #3 (a day of “distinction” rather than a day of “adornment”). Over and over again, after rehearsing objections, he writes, “On the contrary, the authority of Scripture suffices.”
  4. Sonnets XVI-XX by William Shakespeare: The dominant theme of procreation fades a bit in this group of sonnets, but there’s still an emphasis on the destructive nature of Time. One of Shakespeare’s best-known poems—“shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”—is in this group. I remember having memorized that one at some point in grade school, but I can’t recall it all now on demand. 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XX, beginning to heading “The Summation of the Sense-spaces”: This chapter is shaping up to be a rough one. James begins by positing that our understanding of space grows out of our sensations of “voluminous,” whether in sight, touch, etc. He believes that one can sense space without having any grasp of spatial order, that this grasp is learned. Space-relations are “nothing but sensations of particular lines, particular angles, particular forms of transition,” etc. We thus mentally subdivide space through these space-relations, ordering objects by locality, size, and shape. James goes into great detail about this “construction of ‘real’ space.”
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VII: I do not have a very good handle on Plato’s treatment of music. He clearly thinks it to be extremely important in moral instruction and wants to prescribe specific modes of playing. However, I don’t think I get what’s in back of it all. (I couldn’t help hearing, “D minor is the saddest of all keys,” in my mind.) I noticed that near the end of the book he outlined the quadrivium as a curriculum. He got very specific on gymnastic in this section as well, but that seemed to be in tension with his declaration that nothing really good is ever learned from war, for which is gymnastic prepares one.

I’ve managed to reunite with my family, albeit in a timeshare about a 100-minute drive from Montgomery. Commuting this week is a bear, but it’s worth it. Internet accessibility is almost nonexistent here, so I consider a post of any length this week a victory.

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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8 Responses to Plato Channels Nigel Tufnel

  1. I found Gibbon’s account of Attila’s last great campaigns fascinating. I already knew about the battle at Chalons and the story of Aetius and, being Orthodox, I knew of both St. Leo of Rome and St. Genevieve of Paris since I hear their lives on their feasts at church each year, and many of the other details in this chapter.

    But somehow I had never connected all these dots in their proper order and inter-connectedness with one another as a complete narrative.

    I have a feeling that from now on every January 3 (St. Genevieve) and every November 10 (St. Leo) I will be bringing Gibbons kicking and screaming in my head to church with me and recalling his description of these events.

    The Summa was fascinating as well and I wish more Christians would approach science and the Bible in the manner he suggested in his quote of Augustine.

    The Sonnets were beautiful and I read and pondered each one several times.

    William James’ Principles of Psychology was a brutal read that I had a lot of trouble maintaining interest in but did it anyway to stick to the program. Hopefully my persistence will pay off and I will start liking it more and getting more out of it.

  2. Jane says:

    I started your sequence pretty recently and am way back in week 8 or something like that… but just wanted to say I hope you keep moving forward with this project, even if you can’t keep it up as regularly! I love the challenge and your selections and it feels good to know I have several years of planning and the company of other readers ahead of me.

  3. John says:

    Hi, I am late coming to the party but plenty of night shifts on my security rota ….catch up will not be a problem…there hasn’t been a post since August ?? How are things working out since the move?
    Regards, John.

  4. fredrikcoulter says:

    My daughter is a student of vocal performance at Oklahoma City University. Basically, she’s learning opera. Since opera isn’t something I know a lot about, I just picked up The Great Course’s How to Listen to and Understand Opera.

    The course started with a (very compressed) history lesson, starting with the Greeks and moving on to the Renaissance. One of the things mentioned was that the Greeks had a much more holistic view of music than we do. They encompassed far more in their definition of music. So when you listen to some Bach, you’re only looking at a small piece of what the Greek’s were looking at.

    I’d love to look at this in more detail, but there’s definitely not enough time to chase everything down.

    (I probably don’t need to mention that the entire notion of D minor is a post Renaissance idea. How the Greeks organized music probably had a lot more to do with Indian classical music than Western classical music, even though we tried to emulate the Greeks in the Renaissance.)

    • Dr. J says:

      Robert Greenberg’s courses are pretty good. I have listened to several of them. I am sure I would appreciate them even more if I did not already have a degree in music. If you look at medieval music theory you are closer (ironically in view of the pretensions of Renaissance Florentines) to what the Greeks probably thought; the emphasis is more on the mathematics of the pitch ratios and their presumed relationship to abstract and eternal truths/forms. None of that would have been discussed in the opera course, though, since opera wasn’t developed until later.

      • fredrikcoulter says:

        Some pre-opera history was discussed in the course, since the theoretical basis (according to Greenberg) for the development of opera was recreating the Greek idea of music.

        However, you’re correct that the discussion of the mathematics of music which so interested the Greeks was not at all discussed in the course.

        • Dr. J says:

          Now you are making we want to go back and listen to that lecture. I have listened to many of the lectures in that course, but not that one.

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