Napoleon Blows Things Up

This past week’s readings included many explosions and attempts to immanentize the eschaton. I expect more of the same this week. Let’s begin.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book XI, Chapters 1-19 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 469-499)
  2. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Part II, Chapters 36-41 (GBWW Vol. 21, pp. 181-207)
  3. The Discourses of Epictetus, Book II, Chapters 8-9 (GBWW Vol. 11, pp. 137-140)
  4. Sonnets LXXXI-LXXXVI by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 598-599)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXVI, heading “Will Is a Relation between the Mind and Its ‘Ideas'” to the end (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 814-835)
  6. Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, Book I, Chapters 8-12 (GBWW Vol. 20, pp. 21-41)

We are rapidly approaching the 23,000-page mark in this reading program; I expect us to pass it next week.

Here are some observations from the last set of readings:

  1. 1200px-battle_of_borodino_1812War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book X.19-39: The Battle of Borodino was a bloody mess. Tolstoy gives many grim details, most dramatically when Prince Andrew is hit by an exploding grenade and in the hospital scene thereafter. The most interesting contrast is between Napoleon and Kutuzov in showing Tolstoy’s philosophy. Napoleon thinks he’s in control and experiences a crisis when things don’t unfold in accordance with his plans, so he tells himself comfortable lies. Kutuzov, on the other hand, recognizes that he is not in control of anything and is only a passive instrument of some greater impersonal force. Thus he issues commands and responds to circumstances much more effectively.
  2. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Part III, Chapters 32-35: Hobbes begins the section by arguing that scripture is the only sure guide for gleaning of the principles of Christian politics. He immediately follows that up with the declaration that only the Sovereign can declare which books are canonical; this appears to be his way of dismissing the Apocrypha. Then he argues, as in an earlier chapter, that just about every mention of “spirit” or “angel” in the Bible should be interpreted in a materialist way, e.g. when the “spirit of God” was said to be with Joseph, that just means that Joseph was wise. Appearances of angels are supernatural, but only in the sense that God supernaturally created an impression of an angel in a human being’s mind. Finally, he examines the phrase “kingdom of God” and with great creativity determines that it means a civil kingdom. Ugh.
  3. The Discourses of Epictetus, Book II, Chapters 6-7: Life is indifferent, but the use of it is not. All ways to Hades are equal, whether they be disease, disaster, or the tyrant’s sword. Don’t allow “circumstances” to dictate the quality of your life. As for divination, men employ it out of fear when instead we should approach the choices in life “without desire or aversion.”
  4. Sonnets LXXVI-LXXX by William Shakespeare: “O know, sweet love, I always write of you,/And you and love are still my argument;/So all my best is dressing old words new,/Spending again what is already spent.” After reading 80 sonnets on “you and love,” we know that Shakespeare is telling the truth here. And there’s also more in this section about the ravages of time on beauty: “Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,” etc.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXVI, heading “Ideo-motor Action” to the heading “Will Is a Relation between the Mind and Its ‘Ideas'”: James leads off this section by stating that “ideo-motor action” is when the bare idea of an action’s sensible motor effects is a sufficient mental cue for the performance of that action. For many acts, though, that idea is not a sufficient mental cue because there is a conflicting notion in the mind. (“I want to read this chapter now, but I also want to watch Netflix now.”) So the mind deliberates in a state of indecision, “that peculiar feeling of inward unrest.” James classifies decisions into five types based on the collection of evidence, the processing of reason, and sheer force of will involving a “feeling of effort.” Will can also be “explosive” when not checked by reason, scruples, etc. (This part sounds a bit like Freud’s description of the id.) The last part of this section discusses pleasure and pain as “springs of action.”
  6. Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, Book I, Chapters 1-7: Calvin says we need to know both God and ourselves, but that we can’t really know ourselves without knowing God first. So Book I is about the doctrine of God. Calvin believes that philosophical inquiries into God’s essence are less important than acknowledging what God does in providing us with all good things. The longest chapter in this section deals with the evidence of God’s existence in creation, which humans nevertheless repress due to their sinfulness. I think Roman Catholics can hang with Calvin right up until Chapter 7, where he unloads on the doctrine that scripture is scripture because the Church says it is. His argument is that the New Testament calls the utterances of the prophets and apostles the foundation of the Church, and that saying the Church decides what scripture is inverts that teaching.

We got through Hurricane Irma without too much fuss here in Montgomery. Forecasts led us to expect high winds, power outages, and some floods. But after the storm changed track Sunday evening to pass over more land before reaching us, we ended up with just some rain and a stiff breeze. Obviously many others in the Southeast suffered more severely. Nevertheless, all the storm-related activity delayed the post this week. I hope to be back on schedule next Monday.

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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