Philosopher Dies by Strangulation, Not in Classroom

If you are disappointed by last week’s election results, take heart. President Trump can’t stop you from reading the Great Books!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book IV (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 165-193)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XL (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 647-671)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 80-83 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 427-440)
  4. Sonnets XLI-XLV by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 592-593)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXII, heading “The Intellectual Contrast between Brute and Man” to the end (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 679-693)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book XII (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 784-799)

We are due to complete the Laws this week. It seems like the first time in ages that we’ll be switching works.

Here are some observations from the last week’s readings:

  1. austerlitz-baron-pascalWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book III, Chapters 10-19: “The result of all the complicated human activities of 160,000 Russians and French–all their passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm–was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the so-called battle of the three Emperors–that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history.” Tolstoy continues the theme of no one’s being really in control of anything. The generals don’t know where the troops are. Prince Andrew’s strategic plans all evaporate, and he winds up simply charging at the French with a battalion’s standard. Rostov’s plans for impressing the Emperor likewise dissipate even as he has a chance to ride up and speak to him. Everyone is insignificant.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXIX: This chapter mostly covers the reign of Theodoric in Italy in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. Gibbon portrays him as an enlightened and benevolent ruler who got justly frustrated when the orthodox Christians continued to display prejudice against his Arian faith. The best part of the chapter is the discussion of Boethius; Gibbon writes that The Consolation of Philosophy was “not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or Tully.” He gives due credit to the immense influence of the work in the succeeding centuries. He describes the tradition surrounding the execution of Boethius by strangulation in disturbing detail, and also the tradition that Theodoric ultimately repented of the judicial murder.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 78-79: These two questions both deal with the intellectual powers of the soul. The first covers powers “preliminary” to the intellect. St. Thomas classifies five genera of power in the soul: vegetative, sensitive, appetitive, locomotive, and intellectual. The parts of the vegetative power are the nutritive, augmentative, and generative. As for senses, there exist five exterior (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell–“the powers are not for the organs, but the organs for the powers”) and four interior (common sense, imagination, estimative, memorative). Question 79 covers the intellect proper. St. Thomas calls the intellect a “passive” power, something I found curious, but he means “passive” in a very particular sense as a quality of something that can absorb “that to which it was in potency without being deprived of anything”; I guess I can go with that. Memory, reason, and intelligence are all part of the intellect, as is “synderesis,” which the interwebs identify as a sort of intuitive moral sense. Lots to chew on in these passages.
  4. Sonnets XXXVI-XL by William Shakespeare: The theme appears to revert to romantic love as opposed to friendship by the end of this group. Sonnet 39 bemoans the separation of the two hearts. Sonnet 40 appears to be scolding the lover for the possibility of not requiting the poet’s love: “I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest; But ye be blamed, if thou thyself deceivest By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.”
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXII, beginning to heading “The Intellectual Contrast between Brute and Man”: James (following others) distinguishes “recepts” from concepts and argues that the most simple inferences in response to external stimuli do not rise to the level of reasoning. Reasoning involves picking out essential qualities of something, abstracting them from the concrete; James uses the phrase “mode of conceiving” to refer it to it. This essential quality then “suggests a certain consequence more obviously than was suggested by the total datum as it originally came.” Someone adept at picking perceiving essence is said to have sagacity.
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book XI: “Thou shalt not, if thou canst help, touch that which is mine, or remove the least thing which belongs to me without my consent; and may I be of a sound mind, and do to others as I would that they should do to me.” This is the Plato beloved by thinkers through the history of the Christian church. I was surprised to read here that the Athenian allows the possibility that retail trade is not bad in and of itself; it’s just that he thinks the worst sort of people practice it, and therefore it’s characterized by abuses. We also get ideas here about restrictions on bequests intended to preserve wealth in the family and community.

This is my third consecutive weekly post in the Great Books Project. I hope am able to maintain this pace after being out of practice for so long. Your comments and input are always welcome, of course.

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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