Here you all are worrying about today’s U.S. presidential election when there are Great Books to discuss. Focus on what’s important, people!
Here are the readings for the coming week:
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book III, Chapters 10-19 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 140-164)
- The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXIX (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 634-646)
- The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 78-79 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 407-427)
- Sonnets XXXVI-XL by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 591-592)
- Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXII, beginning to heading “The Intellectual Contrast between Brute and Man” (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 665-678)
- The Laws of Plato, Book XI (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 771-784)
Maybe reading Tostoy’s vivid account of the Battle of Austerlitz will persuade you that things aren’t quite so bad as all that here in 2016.
Here are some observations from the last set of readings:
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book III, Chapters 1-9: The first several chapters of this book describe the home front and the matchmaking Prince Vasíli pursues for his children. He succeeds in manipulating Pierre and Hélène into an engagement, but fails with Anatole and Marie. For Pierre, everything seems predetermined and absolutely necessary, but Marie chooses to remain single (helped by the realization that Anatole is much more interested in Mme. Bourienne than he is in her). The scene shifts in Chapter 7 to the preparations for the Battle of Austerlitz.
- 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”: Gibbon clearly doesn’t think much of the Merovingians. He scoffs at their conversion to Christianity and their numerous wars, those of Clovis in particular. He also treats the Visigoths, Alemanni, and Saxons to some degree, lingering longest on the forces of Hengist and Horsa in their attempts to conquer Britain. The “General Observations” section wraps up the discussion of the Western Empire. Gibbon attempts to draw lessons from the Fall of Rome for 18th-century Europe, concluding that never again would our civilization need to fear barbarian invasion. I wonder if the headlines of 2015-2016 would lead him to reconsider. The phrase “pride and prejudice” appeared unexpectedly in this chapter, leading to an amusing mental image of Mr. Darcy decked out as a Merovingian prince.
- The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 77: St. Thomas writes that the soul’s power cannot be its essence because, unlike God, the soul is an act of something else, and power and act divide being. (I think this is an accurate summary of his argument, although I am foggy on precisely how these terms are defined.) The soul has several powers of different ranks; each is determined by its object. The powers follow a natural order: intellectual ==> sensitive ==> nutritive. The sensitive and nutritive powers require the body to act and thus are not the “subject” of the soul. The sensitive and nutritive powers proceed from and are for the sake of the intellectual, even though they are treated as the subject “considered as receptive principles.” Only the intellectual power and the will survive the destruction of the body.
- Sonnets XXXI-XXXV by William Shakespeare: There’s an interesting shift that occurs after #32. Up until then the narrator has been writing nice things about his friend, but then in #33 the sun is clouded over, and in #34-35 there are complaints against the friend for misleading and “trespassing” against the narrator. I dug around a little online and learned that one of the theories about this sequence is that Shakespeare was going through a falling out with his patron at the time he wrote these.
- Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXI: “We never disbelieve anything except for the reason that we believe something else which contradicts the first thing.” James argues that a person’s “dominant habits of attention . . . practically elect” our reality from among the various possibilities. So “in the relative sense” the things that excite and hold our attention are what’s real. Because sensations do this so well, they, not conceptions, are our “paramount reality.” James believes the influence of emotions over our actions stems from the bodily sensations they involve. Any theoretical system, to be believed, must adequately explain the sensible objects of our experience.
- The Laws of Plato, Book X: After leading off with a general rule against the taking or damaging of others’ property, something that may seem surprising to those who know only the Republic, Plato devotes the rest of this book to the problem of offenders who refuse to honor rules put down by the gods. The Athenian posits three reasons why someone might do this: atheism, a belief that the gods are not concerned with mortals, and a belief that the gods can be easily propitiated. He rebuts each of these beliefs, spending the most time on the first one. His proof of the gods’ existence involves a rejection of materialism and advancing of the idea that the soul precedes the body.
After today, will it be time for celebration? Weeping and gnashing of teeth? Marching forward into a brave new world? Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option? Who knows? This too shall pass. I’m certain that we’ll all do well to keep reading the Great Books whatever happens. Get to it!