There were several downers in last week’s readings for the Great Books Project–broken engagements, creation of governments, etc.–but we soldier on, undeterred.
Here are the readings for the coming week:
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book IX (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 342-388)
- Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Part II, Chapters 24-26 (GBWW Vol. 21, pp. 124-138)
- The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 97-102 (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 513-527)
- Sonnets LXVI-LXX by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 596-597)
- Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXV, heading “The Subtler Emotions” to end (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 755-766)
- Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters VIII-X (GBWW Vol. 55, pp. 196-217)
We are just a couple of weeks away from completing the Whitehead book, but it will still be a long slog for the others we’re currently reading. Hang in there.
Here are some observations from the last set of readings:
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book VIII: Well, this is all very depressing. Natasha’s loss of innocence, Hélène’s scheming, Andrew’s hardheartedness, Mary’s petulance, etc. Are we still supposed to like these characters? At least Pierre seems to have a breakthrough after being so despondent at the outset of the book.
- Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Part II, Chapters 17-23: Hobbes leads off Part II with the declaration that the reason men form commonwealths is to have “the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby.” This is a big part of why the Straussians consider Hobbes and other early modern political theorists inferior to those of the pre-modern period; comfortable self-preservation isn’t as inspiring as the acquisition of virtue or the other lofty goals they advocated. Covenants “without the sword . . . are but words,” so he thinks coercion must be employed. We need a “LEVIATHAN, ” a “mortal god.” There’s no covenant between the people and the sovereign, so it’s impossible for the sovereign to break the covenant. Convenient. As far as liberty goes, Hobbes restricts that of the subject to the refusal to kill, injure, or incriminate himself. Hobbes tries to match his idea to the three classical forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.
- The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 94-96: These questions all deal with the first man’s state or condition, specifically his soul and scope of authority. St. Thomas does not think that Adam could see God or the angels in their essence, but he does think that he had “knowledge of all those things for which man has a natural aptitude” and could not be deceived with respect to them. He was “created in grace” and possessed all the passions and virtues. He exercised mastery over all the animals before he sinned. Q. 96 ends with an argument that even if Adam had not sinned, human society would have displayed many inequalities in its development.
- Sonnets LXI-LXV by William Shakespeare: Many more reflections on time’s ravages here and the hope that verse will withstand it (“That in black ink my love may still shine bright”). The oddest sonnet in the group is #62, which is about self-love. To read it in the midst of all the other poems extolling the lover was a bit jarring, to be honest.
- Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXV, beginning to the heading “The Subtler Emotions”: Instinctive and emotional reactions “shade imperceptibly into each other. Every object that excites an instinct excites an emotion as well.” James quotes several authors (including Darwin) in their descriptions of particular emotions, such as fear. He divides emotions into categories of “coarser” and “subtler.” He theorizes that the coarser emotions follow, not precede, bodily reactions such as weeping (in the case of sadness) or fleeing (in the case of fear). He acknowledges that this theory is difficult to test, but he does attempt to anticipate and answer a couple of objections.
- Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters VI-VII: This section begins with a discussion of the 19th century. Whitehead identifies three sources of the century’s “faith”: Romanticism, scientific advances, and technology. He also identifies four “great novel ideas” of theoretical science introduced in the period: continuity, “atomicity,” conservation of energy, and evolution. The interplay of these ideas led to an “orgy of scientific triumph,” but the momentum faltered near century’s end. Science is moving towards a “study of organisms” that is neither purely physical not purely biological. This includes “organisms of organisms” and “enduring organisms.” We must recognize that organisms shape their environments as well as adapt to them. The chapter of relativity notes that “scientific theory is outrunning common sense” in the 20th century. Recent advances in scientific instruments open up new possibilities for experiments remote from everyday experience. These experiments have forced us to abandon a fundamental assumption of classical scientific materialism, “a definite present instant at which all matter is simultaneously real.” We have to speak of space-time now instead of keeping the two separate. Tellingly, Whitehead anticipates and rejects the notion of philosophical relativism in this discussion.
If you are in the continental U.S., I hope you have some good eclipse views today. (Don’t look directly at it!) We are supposed to get 90% coverage here around 1:30 p.m. If you haven’t been reading any Great Books lately, view it is as a metaphor for coming out of the darkness into which you have descended and get back to it!