Nasty, Brutish, and Short?

Heavy things to discuss in the Great Books Project this week, things like life in a state of savagery. Let’s get to it.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 303-341)
  2. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Part II, Chapters 17-23 (GBWW Vol. 21, pp. 99-124)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 94-96 (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 501-513)
  4. Sonnets LXI-LXV by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 595-596)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXV, beginning to the heading “The Subtler Emotions” (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 738-755)
  6. Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters VI-VII (GBWW Vol. 55, pp. 180-196)

I just noticed that we’re reading only one pre-modern author right now. I’m not sure whether that has happened before, but I suppose it makes sense to be more weighted toward recent authors as we go through the second half of this project.

Here are some observations from the last set of readings:

  1. p03cc91qWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book VII: We stay entirely with the Rostov family throughout this book. Much of it details a hunt, which no doubt was laden with all sorts of symbolism I didn’t recognize (I was distracted by various things during a great deal of the reading). The Rostov family finances are in very bad shape, and the parents are horrified when Nicholas resolves to marry Sonya. Natasha still waits for Andrew to return from western Europe, growing more and more anxious. The tension is certainly building.
  2. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Introduction and Part I, Chapters 13-16: This section contains what his probably the most famous passage of the whole work: Hobbes’s assertion that in the state of nature the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He gets there by assuming the equality of all men (without much argument) and then assuming that they will all be competing for everything without restraint. In the following chapter he lays out his own interpretation of natural law, which diverges significantly from the classical natural law position because Hobbes has taken the divine out of it. I think he makes some weird moves here, starting from the idea that the natural law requires men to work for peace (fine) and then very quickly going to some more tenuous assertions, e.g., the natural law prohibits men from signaling contempt for anyone. I think it’s a great idea not to signal contempt for other people, but I have a harder time seeing how that is a matter of natural law.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 90-93: Questions 90-92 deal with “the production of man”: man’s soul, man’s body, and women. St. Thomas writes that man’s soul is something created, not one with God’s substance, and that it is created by God directly, not through angelic mediation. It does not preexist the body. Adam’s body was also made immediately by God from “the slime of the earth,” and that his body was fitting in and of itself and described fittingly in scripture. The phrase that woman was to be “a helper” to man is interpreted here as referring to sexual reproduction. God’s forming of woman out of man rather than creating her separately (as presumably happened with the other animals) is significant in several ways, showing what was to be their intimate and lifelong connection as well as providing a picture of Christ and the church. Question 93 deals with the purpose of man’s creation, treating in some detail the notion of man’s being “in the image of God.”
  4. Sonnets LVI-LX by William Shakespeare: In this group there’s a recurring idea of the lover as slave to the beloved. He “watches the clock” in her absence, but does not dare to presume to question anything she does when she is not with him. “So true a fool is love that in your will,/Though you do anything, he thinks no ill.” By #60 we’re back to the theme of mortality and the hope that the poet’s verse will thwart Time’s “cruel hand,” that long after the deaths of the lover and beloved, everyone will still know of his love for her.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXIV, heading “Special Human Instincts” to the end: James argues, contrary to some of his contemporaries, that human beings display a great many instincts into adulthood. He lists and discusses them for pages and pages, everything from oral fixations to pointing to vocalization to fear, and on and on and on. By the end of the chapter he is talking about jealousy and parental love. He concludes that human beings have more instincts than any other animal (!).
  6. Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters IV-V: These two chapters deal with the 18th century and the Romantic reaction to it. Whitehead effusively praises the philosophes for their achievements, particularly in physics, but notes that they were not really philosophers and did not recognize the limits of the abstractions they employed. The wild successes of the physical sciences in this era temporarily allowed the Enlightenment’s mode of thinking to overpower all opposition. Nevertheless, by the early 20th century it has become clear that it has run out of gas; it fails “to provide any elementary trace of the organic unity of a whole, from which the organic unities of electrons, protons, molecules, and living bodies can emerge.” Romantics protested against this scheme, advocating in their nature-poetry an organic view of nature against the mechanistic one of the 18th century. Whitehead views their protest as insufficient because it was subjectivist, and he wants to advance an objectivist view against mechanistic determinism.

Fall classes start today. This evening I will be immersed in a discussion of Happiness with students around the world via a video conference. On the table this evening will be John Locke, St. Thomas Aquinas, and John Stuart Mill. Good times.

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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