Rome Falls

I am making good on my promise to resume the Great Books Project posts. True, I’m doing it about one year later than I had intended, but better late than never. The laptop on which I had been drafting posts and keeping track of all the readings died, and that derailed me for some time.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book II, Chapters 11-21 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 86-110)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXVII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 593-608)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 75-76 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 378-399)
  4. Sonnets XXVI-XXX by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 590-591)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XX, heading “Ambiguity of Retinal Impressions” to end (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 602-635)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book IX (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 743-757)

It’s really hard to pick up the thread of several tough works like these at once after not having read them for so long! I’m sure many of you know that feeling.

Here are some observations from the last set of readings:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book II, Chapters 1-10: These chapters follow the activities of Rostov and Prince Andrew as they accompany General Kutuzov’s army through Austria in the autumn of 1805. The fighting against the French goes badly. Rostov gets caught up in some drama over a purse stolen by a fellow officer, and Prince Andrew has his hopes for promotion frustrated. Tolstoy dwells on the less admirable features of an aristocratic officer corps: the nepotism, jockeying for position, etc. However, I suspect things aren’t all that different in the modern military.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, romulus-augustulusChapter XXXVI: It all comes crashing down in this chapter (in the West at least). Genseric and the Vandals sack Rome (after another heroic intervention from Pope Leo saved many people). The pillaging lasted a full two weeks, and nothing of value was left at the end of it. Bishop Deogratias of Carthage stepped up and sold much of the Church’s treasure to buy and free many slaves Genseric brought back to Africa. He also converted churches into hospitals to alleviate the suffering of the captives. There followed a bewildering string of ineffective emperors acting as pawns for barbarian rulers. Odoacer finally put the imperial dignity, “that useless and expensive office,” out of its misery in 476 by deposing Romulus Augustulus and ruling directly. After centuries of decline, Italy now “exhibited the sad prospect of misery and desolation.”
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 71-74: In response to many of the objections about the ordering and activity of the fifth, sixth, and seventh days of creation, St. Thomas continues the refrain, “The authority of Scripture suffices.” I liked this statement rebutting the objection that water can’t bring forth fish (Day 5) because it’s representative: “But at the first beginning of the world the active principle was the Word of God, which produced animals from material elements, either in act, as some holy writers say, or virtually, as Augustine teaches. Not as though the power possessed by water or earth of producing all animals resides in the earth and the water themselves, as Avicenna held, but in the power originally given to the elements of producing them from elemental matter by the power of seed or the influence of the stars.”
  4. Sonnets XXI-XXV by William Shakespeare: More musings on death in this group of sonnets, but there was some variety as well. I particularly liked number XXIV, which utilized an extended metaphor of painting: the poet’s eyes are a painter that paint the woman’s beauty in his heart, and his body is the painting’s frame. The woman’s eyes “Are windows to my breast, wherethrough the sun/Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee.”
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XX, heading “The Summation of the Sense-spaces” to heading “Ambiguity of Retinal Impressions”: James begins this section by asking how the various sense-spaces get combined into a continuous whole. His response is that the mind automatically “locates together” sense-perceptions that can be attended to together even though each sense-organ is really its own little universe. He then rebuts contemporaries who argue that all sensation originates in the muscles, arguing that surfaces are what really matter. He cites evidence that joint surfaces are sensitive, for example. He argues that muscular contraction is only an indirect source of spatial perception. After an interesting discussion of how blind people are able to perceive space, he works to integrate vision into the combination of senses that take part in the process. We end up with a pretty technical description of images on the retina and how the eyes work together.
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VIII: This book combines discussion of what most moderns would consider common-sense laws on theft and the moving of property lines with what most moderns would consider horrible: severe restrictions of commerce, close prescription of athletic contests, and clamping down on illicit sexual activity. Introducing the section on sexual regulation, the Athenian states, “I could not help thinking how one is to deal with a city in which youths and maidens are well nurtured, and have nothing to do, and are not undergoing the excessive and servile toils which extinguish wantonness, and whose only cares during their whole life are sacrifices and festivals and dances. How, in such a state as this, will they abstain from desires which thrust many a man and woman into perdition; and from which reason, assuming the functions of law, commands them to abstain?” How, indeed? Many readers, especially those who have encountered the Symposium, will probably be surprised to see the hard line the Athenian takes against homosexual acts here.

I have high hopes of making another Great Books Project post within a week. I’ll be spending quite a bit of time alone in airports and on airplanes this weekend, and with the Great Books of the Western World entirely on my iPad now thanks to Noet, I should be able to get a lot of reading done. I also hope to begin posting on other topics a bit more regularly going forward.

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What Does It Mean to Be “Well-Educated”?

I hope to have a Great Books Project post up in the next day or so. In the meantime, I direct your attention to a recent post over at the Imaginative Conservative website by Joseph Pearce on the topic of being “well-educated.”

The title? “The Arrogant Ignorance of the ‘Well-Educated'”

Pearce reacts in this post to a bumper sticker that reads, “What you call the Liberal Elite, we call being well-educated.” He argues that what the 21st-century school system considers “well educated” is severely deficient. For example:

If she was educated in our secular system, she would have learned nothing whatsoever about theology, presuming that, if there is a God, he, or probably she, agrees with us. If he or she does not agree with us, he or she can go to hell. And, of course, we can tell God to go to hell because he or she is made in our image (we are not made in his/hers) and we can do what we like with him or her. In short, we can treat God with the same arrogance and superciliousness with which we treat our neighbor: “What God calls sin, we call being well-educated.”

Pearce goes on about our educational systems’ shortcoming in other fields of knowledge as well. He pulls no punches. (If you are familiar at all with Pearce’s writing, this will not surprise you.) The conclusion is blistering:

To be “well-educated” is to be ignorant of theology, philosophy, history and the great books of civilization. It is to believe that we have nothing to learn from the Great Conversation that has animated human discourse for three millennia. It is to treat our neighbor in the car next to us with supercilious and scornful contempt, presuming that he is stupid because he is not as “well-educated” as we. It is to treat the greatest minds and the most brilliant writers in history with contempt because they are not as “well-educated” as we. In short, to be “well-educated” is not merely ignorance, it is the arrogance of ignorance.

Read the whole thing. Then go back to reading the Great Books!

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I Discuss Donald Trump at the Christian Century

donald_trump_by_gage_skidmoreOne of my old college friends, who now helps edit the historians’ “Then and Now” blog at the Christian Century site, has talked me into writing a piece on Donald Trump and Super Tuesday.

It went up this morning. The original draft was too long for them, but the editors did a fair job of trimming it down without losing much of my meaning, although one or two typos crept into the edits.

The posts will resume here. I promise!

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Liberty Classroom Steal Ends Tonight!

I’ve decided to end my lengthy hiatus from blogging by noting that Tom Woods has been offering an amazing deal over at Liberty Classroom for the past month. Prices are set to rise in the New Year, but you can still take advantage of the lower prices through today. Not only can you get lifetime access to Liberty Classroom content, but you can also get Tom’s lectures for the Ron Paul Homeschool Curriculum as part of the deal.

One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to return to this blog with a vengeance in 2016, so expect to see much more from me here very soon. In the meantime, please visit Liberty Classroom and check out the special offer that is about to end.

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Our Troubles May Be Over

Yes, yes, I know it has been forever since my last post here, but I’m happy to say my troubles with GBWW portability that have prevented me keeping up with the Great Books Project over the last year or two may be over in the near future.

Take a look at this product.

I have been waiting for an affordable electronic version of the GBWW series for a long time. This tool promises not only the 60 volumes of text, but also cross-links to all the Syntopicon references for the Great Ideas. Watch the video at the site to learn more.

All of you should pre-order this immediately for two reasons:

  1. The price will double in a couple of days.
  2. The sooner they reach the needed pre-order threshold, the sooner they’ll develop the software.

I get no commission or consideration of any kind for recommending this, but do me a favor and help get this thing on the market so I can make Great Books Project posts from the road!

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Plato Channels Nigel Tufnel

Great Books Project posts in consecutive weeks? That hasn’t happened in a while! Let’s get right to it.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book II, Chapters 1-10 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 60-86)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXVI (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 571-593)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 71-74 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 367-377)
  4. Sonnets XXI-XXV by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 589-590)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XX, heading “The Summation of the Sense-spaces” to heading “Ambiguity of Retinal Impressions” (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 570-602)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 731-743)

I believe we finish the Summa’s subdivision on the creation this week, so I’ll take another look at whether to keep plugging along in that work or to take a break. It might be good to shake things up a little since we’ve been in the same six works for several weeks now.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. count-bezukhovWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 22-28: Again it seems like there’s an indeterminate passage of time. The count dies, and then we learn after a change of setting that Pierre has been declared legitimate and has inherited the estate, leaving the princesses with very little. Andrew leaves his wife with his father and sister as he heads off to war. His father loves Voltaire and hates anything smacking of the Romantic. Andrew himself appears to have some real feelings, but the narrative so far makes him out to be afflicted by a disdain for everyone around him. The sister seems to be the only one we should be rooting for right now.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXV: Somehow I had never known that Attila had been repulsed from Gaul; the Romans and Visigoths together were too much for him, but the Visigoths couldn’t be bothered to defend Italy. I love the story of Leo the Great’s intercession on behalf of the city of Rome with Italy. Even Gibbon reluctantly acknowledges Leo’s accomplishment in turning Attila’s army away from the city. Attila died soon afterward, and Gibbon ends the book with a narrative of Valentinian’s decline and death.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 68-70: These questions comprise St. Thomas’s discussion of the second, third,and fourth days of creation. Several of the articles seemed to me to be attempts to answer weird questions only philosophers could have thought of, e.g., whether it was appropriate for plants to appear on Day #3 (a day of “distinction” rather than a day of “adornment”). Over and over again, after rehearsing objections, he writes, “On the contrary, the authority of Scripture suffices.”
  4. Sonnets XVI-XX by William Shakespeare: The dominant theme of procreation fades a bit in this group of sonnets, but there’s still an emphasis on the destructive nature of Time. One of Shakespeare’s best-known poems—“shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”—is in this group. I remember having memorized that one at some point in grade school, but I can’t recall it all now on demand. 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XX, beginning to heading “The Summation of the Sense-spaces”: This chapter is shaping up to be a rough one. James begins by positing that our understanding of space grows out of our sensations of “voluminous,” whether in sight, touch, etc. He believes that one can sense space without having any grasp of spatial order, that this grasp is learned. Space-relations are “nothing but sensations of particular lines, particular angles, particular forms of transition,” etc. We thus mentally subdivide space through these space-relations, ordering objects by locality, size, and shape. James goes into great detail about this “construction of ‘real’ space.”
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VII: I do not have a very good handle on Plato’s treatment of music. He clearly thinks it to be extremely important in moral instruction and wants to prescribe specific modes of playing. However, I don’t think I get what’s in back of it all. (I couldn’t help hearing, “D minor is the saddest of all keys,” in my mind.) I noticed that near the end of the book he outlined the quadrivium as a curriculum. He got very specific on gymnastic in this section as well, but that seemed to be in tension with his declaration that nothing really good is ever learned from war, for which is gymnastic prepares one.

I’ve managed to reunite with my family, albeit in a timeshare about a 100-minute drive from Montgomery. Commuting this week is a bear, but it’s worth it. Internet accessibility is almost nonexistent here, so I consider a post of any length this week a victory.

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Don’t Trust Anyone Under Fifty

My high hopes for summer reading were disappointed as I took on new job responsibilities and my family went through a move (and is actually still going through it—we have been between houses for more than a month). I lost access to my Great Books of the Western World volumes for several weeks as part of that process. However, I’m back on campus now and hoping to get this project back on track!

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 22-28 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 41-59)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXV (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 558-571)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 68-70 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 354-367)
  4. Sonnets XVI-XX by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 589)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XX, beginning to heading “The Summation of the Sense-spaces” (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 540-570)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 713-731)

Chapter XX of Principles of Psychology is nearly 100 pages long, so I thought it would be wise to break it up into more manageable sections. It may take us a month to get through at this rate, but I prefer that to the overload sure to occur if we try to do the whole thing in one go.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 15-23: I’m not clear on the passage of time here, but apparently some has already passed. Pierre has established himself as a ne’er-do-well, Boris and Natasha are in love, and the Count’s relatives are scheming about his will as he lies on his deathbed. If Pierre is declared legitimate, and the Count’s will is valid, Pierre gets all the money.
  2. AttilatheHunThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXIV: In this chapter Gibbon treats us to a portrait of Attila the Hun, a real piece of work. For twenty years he was a thorn in the Romans’ side; he forced the eastern empire to pay what can only be described as a humiliating annual tribute and required it to follow his lead in foreign policy. Props to the city of Azimuntium, which made itself such a problem for Attila that he decided not to devote his resources to conquering it. Gibbon makes Theodosius II out to be a complete loser.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 65-67: These questions lead off St. Thomas’s treatise on the six-day creation. In other words, the focus here is on the physical/material/corporeal creation as opposed to the purely spiritual beings treated in the earlier section. St. Thomas affirms that God did create matter and that it reflects his goodness, but that he did it without using angels as a medium. He works in a rebuttal of the Platonic conception of forms here. There’s also a discussion of the empyrean heaven as a sensible place with Genesis 1:1 as the proof text. Question 67 deals with the first day specifically, and I was intrigued to see St. Thomas anticipate the objection voiced by so many today, that you can’t read Genesis 1 literally because the chapter states there was light on the first day but no sun. 
  4. Sonnets XI-XV by William Shakespeare: And yet more sonnets about beauty and the need for procreation to preserve it. I like Sonnet XV, where Shakespeare declares his intention to immortalize the youth’s fleeting beauty in verse; I guess we have to say he succeeded.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XIX: James defines perception as “the consciousness of particular material things present to sense.” It is different from sensation (which James denies ever happening in adulthood) in that it conjures in the mind remoter facts about the material thing beyond what the senses apprehend. This is why perception is “baffled” to some degree when we look at things upside-down or repeat a single word ad nauseam. James discusses several kinds of illusions, or false perceptions, when our brains make associations that aren’t really there. He summarizes perception by saying part of it comes from our senses and part from out of our own heads.
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VI: The Athenian begins this book by asserting that good laws are useless without good offices for their administration. He recommends that no one be eligible for a guardianship until at least age 50. This strikes me as a wise policy that would have spared the USA not only Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt, but JFK, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama as well. However, it also would have kept Grover Cleveland out his first time around. Plato is sensitive to abuse of the word “equality”—would that more people were today—and discusses different senses in which the term is used and how the legislator should hope to bring it about.

Pity me, my friends. Without a house in Montgomery at the moment, I have been separated from my family for almost two weeks. They are at my in-laws’ house in Texas as I get the fall semester underway in campus housing here in Alabama. I am counting the seconds until my reunion with them. I must rely on the Great Books to see me through this trying period.

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Happy Magna Carta Day!

One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This copy is one of two held at the British Library. It came from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, who died in 1631. In 1731, a fire at Ashburnam House in Westminster, where his library was then housed, destroyed or damaged many of the rare manuscripts, which is why this copy is burnt.

One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This copy is one of two held at the British Library. It came from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, who died in 1631. In 1731, a fire at Ashburnam House in Westminster, where his library was then housed, destroyed or damaged many of the rare manuscripts, which is why this copy is burnt.

Today marks the 800th anniversary of the first issuing of the Magna Carta by King John of England (1199-1216). For many centuries the English-speaking world has looked to it as the foundational document in our tradition of limited government and the rule of law.

I’m pleased to see all the commentary about the Magna Carta’s significance and thought I would put up some links to help folks learn more about the document and navigate the commemorations.

First of all, here’s the text of the 1215 original, with notes to indicate which clauses were altered or omitted on the later reissuances.

Here’s the BBC’s story on today’s commemoration at Runnymede, at which the queen was present and at which the prime minister spoke on the document’s importance.

Ralph Turner, with whom I took two classes at FSU, is an expert on King John and the Magna Carta. Here is one of his books on the subject and a piece he wrote for History Today in 2003.

Russ Roberts recently interviewed Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia about the Magna Carta on the Econtalk podcast. It’s well worth the listen.

The Cato Institute recently hosted an event titled “The Magna Carta and the Rule of Law around the World.” I haven’t watched it, but may later. Proceed at your own risk. Cato’s Roger Pilon also posted something today in honor of the anniversary.

Of course, James Bovard can be counted on to remind us that pieces of paper do not enforce themselves in his commentary on the Magna Carta.

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Angels Weren’t Created Happy

We are down in the weeds in the midst of six lengthy works this week in the Great Books Project and will be for some time. Fortunately, my enthusiasm for recently resuming the project should keep me from getting bogged down.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 15-23 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 26-41)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXIV (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 545-558)
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 65-67 (GBWW Vol. 17, p. 339-354)
  4. Sonnets XI-XV by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 587-588)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XIX (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 502-539)
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book VI (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 697-713)

I decided that since we are already more than halfway through this project, but are still not halfway through GBWW’s Summa selections, we need to stick with St. Thomas for now. Thus we move on into the treatise on the work of the six days.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. warandpeace-hepburnWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book I, Chapters 1-14: Tolstoy certainly doesn’t seem to want the reader to have a favorable view of the Russian aristocracy; almost everyone is shallow and hypocritical. You can tell there will be a million characters. I was already losing track of them in these first 25 pages. I suppose the most fun part was the argument over whether Napoleon was a great man. Can anyone comment on the quality of the 1956 film version with Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda? I haven’t seen it, but am wondering whether to give it a try.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXXIII: This was a short chapter focusing mostly on the conquest of Africa by the Vandals. Gibbon records the controversy over Donatism and the siege of Hippo, during which St. Augustine died. My favorite passage was the recounting of the tale of the seven sleepers, which I had never heard of before.
  3. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part I, Questions 59-64: Angels have free will without fleshly appetites, according to Question #59. By nature they love God more than they love themselves. They are not eternal; citing Genesis 1:1, St. Thomas asserts that they did not preexist the corporeal world (take that, Milton!). They were not created in happiness, else none of them would have fallen; in fact, they needed grace to turn to God as the object of their happiness. However, they do merit their happiness. Angels can sin, but only the sins of pride and envy. The devil “sinned at once after the first instant of his creation” and fell immediately. This section was a lot to take in, and I’ll have to revisit it at some point to think about these conclusions further.
  4. Sonnets VI-X by William Shakespeare: This block of sonnets contains more admonitions to marriage and childbearing like we saw in the first set of five. Sonnet #9 contains this theme, and it seems to be addressed to a man: “Is it for fear to wet a widow’s eye/That thou consumest thyself in single life?” Sonnet #8 has an interesting metaphor of the strings of an instrument as members of a family (or vice versa).
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XVIII: I had to gloss over this chapter for lack of time. It looks like James continues with the theme of mental processes, in this case imagination, being underlay by neural processes. He concludes that the difference in the neural processes between sense and imagination is one of intensity, not of locality in the brain. 
  6. The Laws of Plato, Book V: “Truth is the beginning of every good thing, both to Gods and men; and he who would be blessed and happy, should be from the first a partaker of the truth, that he may live a true man as long as possible, for then he can be trusted; but he is not to be trusted who loves voluntary falsehood, and he who loves involuntary falsehood is a fool.” This book is full of statements like this one, so I was able to make it through even though the whole thing is one long speech by the Athenian and contains a call for a prohibition on private ownership of gold and silver.

It’s melting weather here in Alabama and most likely will be for at least the next 90 days. I’ll be staying inside watching my electric bill creep up and up. I hope you will be able to find an air-conditioned place to read something good this week.

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I’m on the Tom Woods Show Today

Today’s episode of the Tom Woods Show features an interview with me about my new Liberty Classroom course on the history of conservatism and libertarianism. I thought it went pretty well; I certainly enjoyed the conversation.

Click here to listen to the interview.

Click here to see the list of topics I cover in the course.

This week’s Great Books post will be up soon!

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