Humans are Bundles of Habits

This week in the Great Books Project, in addition to breaking the 20,000-page barrier I referenced last time, we will also pass the 6,000-page mark in the Imaginative Literature category.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book XI, Chapters 1-5 (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 312-335)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 330-344)
  3. Sonnets, numbers I, VII-IX by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 63-64; Sonnets II-VI are in Italian, so we won’t read those.)
  4. Of Prayers” and “Of Age” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 192-198)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter VI (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 95-119)
  6. The Theaetetus of Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 512-550)

We’re a little heavier than usual on the philosophy this week with the long Platonic dialogue. Let’s hope it’s readable.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book X: The introduction of the Krassotkin character threw me for a bot if a loop. It seems pretty late in the game to be adding a character who will be the focus of an entire book. I found this dialogue in the mouth of a 13-year-old to be pretty unbelievable, but I liked how Dostoevsky had Alyosha responding to the boy. I suppose Ilusha’s death is going to occasion a significant turn in the plot somehow.
  2. AthanasiusThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXI: I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I had half-expected Gibbon to champion the Arians and other heretical groups against the Orthodox; that’s what the postmodern anti-Christians seem to do these days, at any rate. However, Gibbon comes down on the side of the Orthodox and is very critical of the way in which the Arians went after Athanasius and others.
  3. “The 5th Ode of Horace.Lib.I” by John Milton: I’ll be honest; I’m not quite sure what’s going on here. Usually I don’t have a problem wading through Milton’s lines, but this translation of Horace has me scratching my head. 
  4. “Of Vain Subtleties” and “Of Smells” by Michel de Montaigne: In “Of Vain Subtleties” Montaigne criticizes people who look for approval from others on the basis of their creating or performing gimmicks. I found “Of Smells” more engaging. Montaigne leads off by declaring that the “chiefest excellency” of the human body is to be “exempt from smell.” He ruminates briefly on the value of bodily odors to physicians. He also discusses the importance of perfumes and incense in preparing the mind for contemplation in a world where so much stinks. 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters IV-V: Chapter IV’s topic is habit, and James presents it in a very interesting way. He states that all living things are to a great extent “bundles of habits” and discusses the connection between habits and the nervous system. He concludes by arguing that good habits need to be formed as early as possible. Chapter V discusses the “conscious automaton” theory which some significant thinkers of his day had proposed. Given the physiological emphasis of the first four chapters, one might think James would endorse this theory, but he rejects it, emphasizing the role of choice the conscious mind plays. I had Austrian Economics bells ringing in my head.
  6. New Experiments Concerning the Vacuum by Blaise Pascal: Pascal here summarizes several experiments he performed to demonstrate that “all things detected by our senses” can be removed from any container, however large it might be. In other words, we can create a vacuum, even though it might be difficult. He then defends himself against some attacks by—surprise!—certain Jesuit thinkers.

I’m back home in Montgomery after nearly four weeks on the road. Not surprisingly, I’ve fallen a week behind on posts, so I will endeavor to make up that time over the next few weeks.

Posted in Books, Liberal Arts | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Constantine’s Conversion Was Real

This week we come within a hair of 20,000 pages in the Great Books Project. Let’s get right to it.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part IV, Book X (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 285-312)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XXI (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 305-330)
  3. The 5th Ode of Horace.Lib.I” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 61-62)
  4. Of Vain Subtleties” and “Of Smells” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 190-192)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapters IV-V (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 68-94)
  6. New Experiments Concerning the Vacuum by Blaise Pascal (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 359-381)

I can’t find find a link to the text of the Pascal work. Can anyone lend a hand?

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book IX: Dmitri’s inner conflict here is fascinating. Assuming he is telling the truth, he has become his own worst enemy in the murder investigation, destroying all the evidence in his favor in an attempt to retain some sort of balm for his conscience. I know he fingered Smerdyakov for the murder, but my money is on Ivan.
  2. Constantine-haloThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XX: I’ve heard some good counterarguments to Gibbon’s contention that Constantine’s conversion was a calculated one of political convenience and very gradual. I don’t think Gibbon’s view is the consensus today except in the feverish conspiracy circles a la Dan Brown. If Gibbon is right that the Christian teaching of submission to rulers makes it the perfect religion for a ruler to adopt, it’s extremely odd that no previous emperor figured that out.
  3. “At a Vacation Exercise” by John Milton: Dartmouth’s website states that Milton composed this poem as part of a formal oration defending the proposition that “Sportive Exercises on Occasion are not inconsistent with philosophical Studies.” One wonders what he would think of the NCAA. It seems like half of this poem is simply saying, “I know English isn’t as good a language as Latin, but just bear with me,” followed by copious classical allusions. 
  4. “Of the Parsimony of the Ancients” and “Of a Saying of Caesar’s” by Michel de Montaigne: The first anecdote of the first essay is mind boggling: the victorious Roman general asks to be recalled so he can resume management of his seven-acre farm after someone stole all his tools. Can you imagine such a petition in the Western world in the 21st century? A request for an extra $100,000 annual retirement stipend to make good on some stock portfolio losses would be more likely. The saying of Caesat referenced in the second essay is this: “Tis the common vice of nature, that we at once repose most confidence, and receive the greatest apprehensions, from things unseen, concealed, and unknown.” Better the devil you know . . . 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter III: This chapter is titled “On Some General Conditions of Brain Activity.” James begins by arguing that stimuli to the nervous system are cumulative, i.e. multiple stimuli may cause a reaction where one alone is insufficient. He then discusses the phenomenon of reaction time and walks through the steps that occur between the introduction of a stimulus and a person’s response to it. Finally he talks about the importance of blood supply to the brain. So far this is reading more like a biology textbook . . .
  6. The Sophist of Plato: Although Socrates is a character is this dialogue, he is mostly passive. The characters called the Stranger drives the discussion and the attempt to define what a sophist is. As usual with Plato, much of the argument is by analogy. The sophist is originally defined a hunter “after young men of wealth and rank,” but then they decide the definition breaks down. The next step is to label the sophist an imitator, like the artist; he provides a picture of wisdom but not wisdom itself. After that things get weird as the Stranger launches into a lengthy discussion of being and non-being. I didn’t understand the Parmenides, but it’s clear here that the Stranger (and presumably Plato) is in disagreement with Parmenides.

I had hoped to have this post up four days ago, but I wrote about something different that day and have been on the road for about 10-12 hours per day since then. I’m writing this from a hotel room before getting in the car again. The good news is I only have 300 miles to go today. Piece of cake!

Posted in Books, Liberal Arts | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Christian Faith and Social Justice on the Tom Woods Show

CFSJ-CoverThis week I had the opportunity to appear on the Tom Woods Show to discuss my contributions to Christian Faith and Social Justice: Five Views.

I walk through the case for libertarianism I presented in my foundational essay and then talk about my interactions (both positive and negative) with the other four contributors to the volume.

One of the side effects of doing this interview during my family vacation is that I had to fight through a head cold and sore throat brought on by all the changes in elevation and humidity levels I’ve been experiencing out here in the western states. I hope they’re not too evident in the interview.

You can listen to the interview here (got to the July 16 tab). I think I’ll set up a page on this site specifically for the book to summarize the arguments and keep track of any other mentions of it on the interwebs. Look for that in the next few days.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Dmitri Karamazov Puts His Foot in It

This week in the Great Books Project we pass the 5,000-page mark in the Philosophy/Theology category. I suppose it’s only fitting that we do so with Plato.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book IX (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 246-285)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XX (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 289-305)
  3. At a Vacation Exercise” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 59-61)
  4. Of the Parsimony of the Ancients” and “Of a Saying of Caesar’s” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 189-190)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter III (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 53-67)
  6. The Sophist of Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 551-579)

I have to say I’m grateful for the relative brevity of the James chapter after last week’s marathon. However, we need to brace ourselves for the silliness likely to emerge from Gibbon’s further discussion of Christianity in Book XX.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. dmitri-grushenkaThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book VIII: Poor Dmitri/Mitya. He gets crazy ideas fixed in his head that lead him to do even crazier things. Grushenka’s “protector” was a total jerk to him, sending him off on a wild goose chase, and then Mme. Hohlakov has nothing for him other than encouragement to go to the gold mines in Siberia. So the question at the end of the book is whether he actually killed his father or just injured Grigoriy. The narrator, omniscient in so many other things, is not helpful here.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XIX: This book focuses primarily on Julian in the years prior to his reign. I had not known that he campaigned against the Franks. There’s also quite a bit of information about the mid-4th-century incarnation of the Persian empire and the conflict it got into with the Romans. I liked the description of 4th-century Paris, confined to the island in the Seine where the cathedral of Notre Dame now stands. 
  3. “On the Death of a Fair Infant” by John Milton: “O Fairest flower no sooner blown but blasted . . .” Tough reading here. The Dartmouth page calls this Milton’s first major poem in English, although we don’t know exactly when he wrote it (sometime in the late 1620s). As usual, Milton uses classical references to express Christian ideas. In the later stanzas he speculates whether the child was actually an angel with intercessory power. 
  4. “Of Ancient Customs” and “Of the Vanity of Words” by Michel de Montaigne: In the early lines of the first essay, Montaigne excuses adherence to custom while condemning ever-changing fashion. He then offers up, almost at random, customs from various eras and compares them wit those of his contemporaries. The weirdest one was the story of the condemned prisoner who committed suicide by shoving a sponge down his throat rather than be thrown to wild beasts. In the second essay, Montaigne displays the same dislike of rhetoric shared by many classical and medieval societies. His ruminations on the orators of his own day are scathing: “To hear men talk of metonomies, metaphors, and allegories, and other grammar words, would not one think they signified some rare and exotic form of speaking? And yet they are phrases that come near to the babble of my chambermaid.” 
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter II: This long chapter attempts to show which senses are connected to which hemispheres of the brain in different species. I was a bit taken aback by the frank discussion of things like the vivisection of animals, e.g. blinding dogs by tampering with their occipetal lobes. Another striking passage was the contrast between the sexual responses in lower animals and humans: “No one need be told how dependent all human social elevation is upon the prevalence of chastity. Hardly any factor measures more than this the difference between civilization and barbarism. Physiologically interpreted, chastity means nothing more than the fact that present solicitations of sense are overpowered by suggestions of aesthetic and moral fitness which the circumstances awaken in the cerebrum ; and that upon the inhibitory or permissive influence of these alone action directly depends.”
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XVIII-XIX: According to Pascal, the Jesuits have finally clarified their position by calling Jansenius a Calvinist. Pascal replies that everyone the Jesuits have been attacking reject Calvin’s understanding of grace, and that they all believe in free will enabled by grace. Much scolding. The final letter is a fragment only about a page long, so there’s not much to say about it.

I spent the better part of three days driving last weekend, and the result was a delay in getting this post finished. However, I have to say the drive was worth it; I’m writing from Breckenridge, CO, where the humidity is low and the temperatures positively March-like for Montgomery. If all goes as planned, next week’s post will come from some other mountain location. Maybe I’ll read outside!

Posted in Books, Liberal Arts | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

One More Post about the Hobby Lobby Case (and Spinal Tap)

hobbylobbyI tried. I really did. I resolved not to make a post about the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case. But in the end I couldn’t resist.

Don’t judge. You’ve read umpteen posts about the decision, yet you still clicked on this post to read it. It’s OK, though. I forgive you.

I have seen some crazy stuff on the web about this case in the last 24 hours. On the other hand, I’ve seen some calm and well-reasoned commentary as well, and one reason I’m posting this is to encourage others to visit those sources.

Several folks have argued that this whole situation is one of the long-term results of World-War-II-era wage and price controls, and I think they are correct. The reason employers first started offering heath insurance was to get around wartime controls on wages, and that “fringe benefit” became accepted as normal and eventually (under Obamacare) mandatory. But there’s no sound reason why we should acquire insurance from our employers any more than we should acquire groceries, transportation, or housing. In fact, the frequency of people’s changes in employment these days is a great reason why we shouldn’t look to employers for insurance. Now every time you change jobs you have to go through the underwriting process again, along with waiting periods and the threat of a “preexisting condition” being discovered. Wouldn’t it be much simpler to get underwritten one time when you reach adulthood for a policy you could maintain through job changes and the development of medical conditions?

Another fundamental problem not addressed by the Supreme Court’s decision in this case is the corruption of the English language, specifically the torturing of the term “insurance.” The concept of insurance is and has always been the management of risk. The purchaser of insurance (whether life insurance, property insurance, health insurance, or whatever) transfers the risk of a loss to a third party for a fee. If the loss occurs, the policyholder is protected; the insurer pays out. Here again Obamacare worsened an already bad situation by requiring all “insurance” plans to pay for all sorts of health-care services that are not insurable risks. These services are primarily preventative, such as annual physical exams and, yes, contraception. Their function is like the fire extinguisher you may have in your house; they reduce the risk of the loss’s occurring. In a properly functioning insurance market, these services would be paid for by the policyholder and would probably result in lower premiums on the policy because the insurer wants to incentivize them. Instead we have a system that is as much prepaid health-care services (whether you want the services or not) as it is insurance.

Anyway, I am almost to 500 words and have only talked about how stupid our system is without actually discussing the Hobby Lobby case. So here are some observations about this very narrow ruling that will have an extremely small impact on the implementation of Obamacare:

  1. Within the context and assumptions of our stupid system, people who see contraception as a basic medical cost have a gripe with the decision that needs to be considered seriously. After all, they may now be forced (if they don’t want to pay the IRS penalty) to purchase an “insurance” policy (at Obamacare rates, no less) that doesn’t cover what they see as a basic necessity. However, this is not a knock against Hobby Lobby and other employers with religious convictions, who also have a legitimate interest in not being forced to pay for something directly that violates their conscience. It’s a knock against the law that has politicized what to most people are very personal matters. Dan McCarthy explains further.
  2. Speaking of the corruption of the English language, the reaction from many people on the cultural Left (what Rod Dreher has called “thermonuclear pants-cr***ing mode“) threatens to destroy any chance for the two sides to communicate with each other. I can’t do better here than to refer you to my friend Matt Jordan, who recently wrote: “Stop pretending like words mean things they don’t. Seriously: STOP IT. Are you worried about the *precedent* set by yesterday’s ruling? That’s fine. I get that. . . . But look. If employer X refuses to buy A for employee Y, X is not, not, NOT thereby “preventing” Y from having A. If X has religious beliefs on the basis of which X refuses to buy A for Y, X is not–contrary to the very words used by the host of the NPR show I was listening to–“forcing employees to live in accordance with their employers’ religious beliefs.” It’s a matter of basic English and rudimentary logic. This kind of thing has got to stop. Please. Anyone who says that Hobby Lobby is denying women access to birth control (and people really do say this! like, people who went to college! people who are serious presidential candidates!) is guilty of either extraordinary ignorance or willful dishonesty.
  3. The freakout over this decision is all out of proportion to its actual significance. Why? I’m afraid it’s because many people are deeply upset that they are losing the “Smell the Glove” feature of Obamacare. For those of you who don’t get that reference to This Is Spinal Tap, I’ll let Ilya Shapiro explain: “The outrage does make sense, of course, if what one fundamentally cares about—or at least, additionally cares about—is the symbolic speech act embedded in the compulsion itself. In other words, if the purpose of the mandate is not merely to achieve a certain practical result, but to declare the qualms of believers with religious objections so utterly undeserving of respect that they may be forced to act against their convictions regardless of whether this makes any real difference to the outcome.  And something like that does indeed seem to be lurking just beneath—if not at—the surface of many reactions. The ruling seems to provoke anger, not because it will result in women having to pay more for birth control (as it won’t), but at least in part because it fails to send the appropriate cultural signal. Or, at any rate, because it allows religious employers to continue sending the wrong cultural signal—disapproval of certain forms of contraception—when sending that signal does not impede the achievement of the government’s ends in any way.

The problems with our health-care system and our cultural conflict go way beyond anything addressed in this court case. This decision is a blip on the map. Personally, I think it was a good blip, but the reactions I’ve seen don’t give me much confidence that the big questions are going to be addressed reasonably and respectfully in our public discourse going forward.

Posted in Culture, Current Events | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

The Scandalous Decomposition of Elder Zossima

Everyone is talking about the Hobby Lobby case today, but I haven’t heard a single national news outlet mention that today also marks the halfway point of the Western Tradition’s Great Books Project, 2011-2017. What is wrong with the world?

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 200-246)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XIX (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 272-289)
  3. On the Death of a Fair Infant” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 57-59)
  4. Of Ancient Customs” and “Of the Vanity of Words” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 184-186; 187-189)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter II (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 8-52)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XVIII-XIX (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 153-167)

This is the last week for the Provincial Letters, but we’ll be returning to Pascal very soon, so don’t despair if you’ve been enjoying his writing as I have.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book VII: The early chapters of this book border on satire, with the secret opponents of elder Zosima’s exulting in the fact that his body actually began to decompose after his death. Alyosha almost falls from grace in his anger against the bad guys, but is rescued by the most unlikely person: Grushenka. I wonder if she really has exited the novel now, having run off to rejoin the man to disgraced her years earlier.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XVIII: In this chapter we have the death of Constantine and the subsequent civil war between two of his surviving three sons, both of whom are ultimately killed before the third brother gains control of the entire empire. There were several twists and turns along the way. 
  3. Comus“Comus” by John Milton: I had no inkling of this play’s existence before encountering it in the GBWW series. It didn’t take me long to figure out why: it glorifies virginity and feminine virtue. Don’t hold your breath waiting for this one to get assigned in college literature classes across the country. 
  4. “Of the Uncertainty of Our Judgment” and “Of War Horses” by Michel de Montaigne: These two essays are all over the place. They’re mostly a stringing together of unrelated incidents loosely connected to the themes indicated in the respective titles. This isn’t too unusual for Montaigne, but I was sleepy when I read these, so they were more frustrating than usual. I thought the discussion of the use of the horse as a class marker was interesting in the second essay.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter 1: James asserts some things here that seem obvious today, e.g. psychology has something to do with the brain. He dwells on the curious features of memory. The best part to me was when he says something approximating the Austrian economists’ action axiom: “The Pursuance of future ends and the choice of means for their attainment, are thus the mark and criterion of the presence of mentality in a phenomenon.”
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XVI-XVII: In these two letters Pascal continues to lay into the Jesuits who have been publishing counterattacks against him. #17 is addressed to an individual Jesuit who apparently had authored some of the hostile pamphlets. Pascal’s defense against the charges of heresy is interesting. According to him, the basis for the charges against him is not that he believes a doctrine deemed heretical, but that he refuses to affirm that a third party is a heretic. He deploys several examples from the Church Fathers to prove this is an illegitimate basis for a heresy charge.

I’m on the road now (writing from Branson, MO, today), having decided to go 100% electronic on the project reading for this trip. However, I did prep all the projected posts with volume and page numbers from the bound set before I left home, so hopefully there will be no hiccups for anyone following along that way.

Posted in Books, Liberal Arts | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Totalitarianism and the Rule of Law

Even though working at a small university like mine means I spend most of my time handling my course load, every now and then I get to Think Big Thoughts and discuss them with colleagues.

One such occasion was on May 12, when Adam MacLeod, one of our law professors, invited several of us to listen to and give feedback on a working paper he was preparing for an upcoming conference at Princeton. The paper dealt with the state’s gradual supplanting of private law with public law as part of the implementation of a totalitarian agenda. About eight or ten of us kicked ideas around for an hour or so after listening to the talk, and I went away feeling enormously stimulated intellectually.

Adam revised his paper based on our feedback and presented it a week later as part of a conference on totalitarianism hosted by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton. Streaming video of the conference presentations has now been posted on the program’s website.

Adam’s paper is in the the first video under the “Totalitarianism and the Rule of Law” heading. He starts talking around the 30-minute mark. If you’re interested in the topic, I encourage you to take a look.

Posted in Current Events | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ever Wonder How They Figured Out Pi?

This week in the Great Books Project you have a chance to remedy that gaping hole in your education. I refer, of course, to your most likely never having read a masque before. Therefore, I give you John Milton.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part III, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 179-200)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XVIII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 255-272)
  3. Comus” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 33-57)
  4. Of the Uncertainty of Our Judgment” and “Of War Horses” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 177-184)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter I (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 1-7)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XVI-XVII (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 127-153)

This week we also return to William James, whom we haven’t read in quite some time. Principles of Psychology will be the final (and longest) work of his we tackle.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II, Book VI: This book seems like a major digression from the main plot, but I have a feeling Dostoevsky considered it of utmost importance. It consists primarily of the elder’s dying words to the monks who were closest to him, including Alyosha. The elder makes plenty of cryptic statements, like the one about everyone being responsible to everyone for everyone. The reminiscence about the man who confessed an old murder sounded very much like the plot of Crime and Punishment.
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XVII: This book didn’t contain much “action.” The first section covered the design and layout of Constantinople in great detail. The rest of it went into the minutiae of how the state machinery was reorganized under Constantine. The general trend was toward administrative centralization. For example, the title and prestige of the consulship was kept in place, but its occupants did nothing significant.
  3. “Lycidas” by John Milton: This poem is a eulogy to a friend of Milton’s who was drowned in a storm during a crossing of the Irish Sea. The 17th-century editor claims that it’s also a prediction of the downfall of the Church of England’s clergy in the English Civil Wars, but I wasn’t able to detect any lines that seemed to bear directly on that event.
  4. “Of the Battle of Dreux” and “Of Names” by Michel de Montaigne: The first essay discusses (very briefly) the first major engagement of the French Wars of Religion in 1562. The government’s (Catholic) forces narrowly prevailed over the Huguenots. Montaigne mentions one or two controversies resulting from the battle before offering some parallel anecdotes from the classical period. In “Of Names,” Montaigne discusses the psychological favor or disfavor attached to particular names in different cultures. It reminded me of those annual lists of most popular baby names that are always circulating on social media.
  5. archimed_circleMeasurement of a Circle by Archimedes: When you take geometry class in high school today, you’re taught that the radius of a circle is equivalent to π times twice the length of the circle’s radius. But Archimedes didn’t have π. He worked it out the hard way. We don’t have his entire solution, but his third proposition is that “the ratio of the circumference of any circle to its diameter is less than 3-1/7 but greater than 3-10/71.” That’s close enough for government work.
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XIII-XV: These letters continue Pascal’s responses to the Jesuits’ counterattacks against him. Some of the reading is tough going because we have neither the Jesuits’ pamphlets to which Pascal is replying nor the works of Jesuit theologians that both parties are citing to make their respective cases. This sort of controversy figured significantly in my doctoral dissertation, but then I made sure I had all the relevant documents in front of me so that I’d have a better idea of what was going on. It’s frustrating having only one side of the argument. In Letter XV, Pascal flatly attacks the Jesuits’ credibility and attempts to show that their own theology permits and encourages them to tell lies about their opponents.

My family is gearing up for a four-week trip, and I’m trying to decide whether to go completely electronic on the Great Books reading or to take along a couple of volumes. Decisions, decisions. Whether you’re on the road or not this summer, make sure you have a great work to read by your side.

Posted in Books, Liberal Arts | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mao’s Great Famine

61vz2qJti3L._SL1000_45,000,000 dead in four years.

That’s Frank Dikötter’s estimate of the devastation wrought by Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” beginning in 1958. The figures can be found in his recent book Mao’s Great Famine.

In addition to the death toll, Dikötter believes about one-third of all homes in China were destroyed during the period.

Dikötter has been researching reopened archives in China and has plenty of data to back up his conclusions, but he’s not the first historian or journalist to pull the lid off this episode in Communist China’s history. Way back in the late 1990s, Jasper Becker revealed much of the horrific story in Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine.

I read Hungry Ghosts in 1998 while I was living in Wuhan, China. The book was banned on the mainland, but I found a copy of it during a trip to Hong Kong and brought it back to Wuhan. The information it contained about the completely insane policies Mao instituted in the late 1950s was shocking, as was the steadfast refusal of Mao’s lackeys to let him in on the secret that the Great Leap Forward was actually destroying the country. Every place Mao visited became a Potemkin Village for the day, with “surplus” crops lining the roads and happy-looking people who had been brought in especially for the occasion to cheer the Great Leader.

I discreetly shared some of this information with a few select students at my university. It blew their minds; they had been taught from the cradle to revere Mao, and the government was just starting to let some negative information about him be aired publicly. When I further shared the memoir of a Chinese Canadian woman who had emigrated to China to take part in the Cultural Revolution and who was shocked by her experiences, my students’ world crumbled.

What prompted this post was the recent attention this article about Dikötter has been receiving on social media. The crimes of Mao, the greatest mass murderer in world history, need to become more widely known in the West.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Smerdyakov Scripts His Own Epileptic Seizure

In a mere two weeks we’ll have made it to the halfway point in our seven-year journey to read through the Great Books of the Western World. If we’re lucky, we might be halfway through the Brothers K by then as well.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II , Book VI (GBWW Vol. 52, pp. 153-179)
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter XVII (GBWW Vol. 37, pp. 234-255)
  3. Lycidas” by John Milton (GBWW Vol. 29, p. 27-33)
  4. Of the Battle of Dreux” and “Of Names” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 174-177)
  5. Measurement of a Circle by Archimedes (GBWW Vol. 10, pp. 447-451)
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers XIII-XV (GBWW Vol. 30, pp. 99-127)

No doubt you’ve noticed the double shots of Montaigne for the last two weeks. I don’t want still to be reading his essays in 2017.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. smerdyakovThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Part II, Book V: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Papa Karamazov is about to be murdered by Dmitri, but that Smerdyakov is the real mastermind of the crime. There really is some creepy dialogue in this novel. Of course the high point of the section is Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor, who faults Christ for making things too hard on ordinary people. His declaration that he was willing to be damned to bamboozle the credulous multitude reminded me of Whitaker Chambers’s description of Communists: those who are willing to take upon themselves the crimes of history to bring about their vision of the just society. 
  2. “The Plurality of Persons in God” by St. Thomas Aquinas: Not surprisingly, St. Thomas argues that there is a plurality of persons in God, and that the number of persons is exactly three. His major proof text for that number is 1 John 5:7, which many scholars reject as a later addition to the epistle, but I’m sure Thomas would have found another way to get there if that verse hadn’t been present. 
  3. “Arcades” by John Milton: This poem was part of some entertainment for a noble family who amused themselves by acting out some pastoral scene in shepherds’ garb. Again the classical references are fast and furious. We lose something in the mere reading of the poem as opposed to watching the whole scene enacted. 
  4. “Of Sumptuary Laws” and “Of Sleep” by Michel de Montaigne: Montaigne dislikes sumptuary laws, but not for the reasons moderns condemn them. He explicitly states that the social classes must be clearly differentiated; he just thinks there must be a more effective way to do it. He recognizes the harmful incentives the laws produce. The essay on sleep recounts several famous anecdotes of military commanders, etc., who were able to sleep in what must have been extremely stressful circumstances, e.g. right before a major battle. 
  5. The Nature of Life by C.H. Waddington, Chapters 3-5: In these lectures Waddington first discusses the factors that affect an organism’s development toward its innate potentiality and also traces some of the major questions surrounding the theory of biological evolution (which he concedes has come to be framed most often as a tautology).He says that modern evolutionary theory is a marriage of Darwin and Mendel, and that the infighting over questions like free will and determinism are not resolved. In the last chapter he hints at themes that later came to preoccupy the environmentalist movement, such as fossil fuels and population control.
  6. Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal, Numbers X-XII: Letter X is the last in the series where Pascal exposes the Jesuits’ questionable moral theology in the form of a dialogue between himself and a Jesuit monk. The other two letters are addressed to the Jesuit authorities, who had been attacking him for his earlier letters. He has some choice words for them.

No excuses this week. Read something good!

Posted in Books, Liberal Arts | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment