If you’re at all like me, you view the major cultural and political developments of 2016 with a jaundiced eye. I’ve found, however, that by immersing myself in great works like the ones below, I can insulate myself from some of the nonsense we’ve been subjected to this year. In fact, that’s one of the key benefits of reading the Great Books; it helps you maintain perspective and a focus on the timeless while the world goes crazy around you.
Here are the readings for the coming week:
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book III, Chapters 1-9 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 111-140)
- The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXVIII and “General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West” (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 608-634)
- The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 77 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 399-407)
- Sonnets XXXI-XXXVI by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 591)
- Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXI (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 636-665)
- The Laws of Plato, Book X (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 757-771)
It seems like we have been mired in these six works forever, but we are actually very near the end of the Laws and of the Vol. 37 portion of Gibbon. We’ll have some fresh readings very soon!
Here are some observations from the last set of readings:
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book II, Chapters 11-21: Lots of action in these chapters. Most of the narrative follows Prince Andrew, who sees the Austrian emperor and is wined and dined at Brünn before having to flee before the approaching French army. Not having been ordered back to the army, he has the option of leaving with his noble friends, but instead he rejoins the army and requests a position with the rearguard, thinking that he will somehow save the army singlehandedly. Tolstoy present the narrative of the battle as a sequence of chance events over which the Russian commander projects the illusion of control.
- The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXVII: I confess I did not enjoy reading Gibbon’s half-chapter-long sneer at monks. I wasn’t even one paragraph into his description of monasticism before I was convinced that it was a distorted portrayal. I suppose he was confident enough in the prejudices of his Protestant audience that he thought he could afford to be a jerk. The second part of the chapter is better, but still a bit snarky. Gibbon acknowledges the persecutions endured by Germanic converts to Christianity in the wake of St. Ulfilas’s missionary activity and the problem of Arianism in the converted regions.
- The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 75-76: These questions begin St. Thomas’s “Treatise on Man.” They discuss the soul’s essence and the union of the soul and body. The soul and mind function apart from the body. The soul is subsistent and incorruptible, but it is not man on its own. The intellectual principle (mind) is the form of man in Aristotelian terms. The whole soul is in each part of the body, an idea I find fascinating because moderns would never even think to ask whether that was the case.
- Sonnets XXVI-XXX by William Shakespeare: For some reason I found this group of five sonnets particularly engaging. Shakespeare uses some stimulating metaphors: love as a feudal bond, a pilgrimage to the lover, etc. I thought #30 was especially poignant: thinking on “thee, dear friend” takes away the grief of the remembrance of “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night.”
- Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XX, heading “Ambiguity of Retinal Impressions” to end: At long last we reach the end of this “tediously minute survey” (James’s words, not mine). James argues that visual impressions on the retina are ambiguous and that the mind selects visual reality, ignoring or suppressing contrary sensations in order to do so. He concludes the chapter with a brief historical survey of other theorists’ ideas on vision. I couldn’t help but be pleased that we have already read selections from the majority of these thinkers as part of this project: Berkeley, Helmholtz, etc.
- The Laws of Plato, Book IX: “Laws are partly framed for the sake of good men, in order to instruct them how they may live on friendly terms with one another, and partly for the sake of those who refuse to be instructed, whose spirit cannot be subdued, or softened, or hindered from plunging into evil.” This book starts with a discussion of robbers of temples, but the majority of it is about murder and assault. The Athenian distinguishes between crimes of passion and premeditation. Premeditated murder can result in the death penalty. Near the end of the book there’s a provision about the duty of bystanders to intervene when a man assaults a parent or grandparent. A slave who intervenes to stop such an assault is to be freed!
I’d like to wish everyone a Happy Halloween, and I hope you have something fun planned, especially if you have young children like I do!