Saturday, April 28, 2012

Timeline Chart

I've attempted to get a feel for what periods of time supported the most Great Books writers.  If I had slick graphic skills, this would look very nice, but alas, I don't.  Anyway, here is a link to the chart that I made for myself.  Starting in 525 BC, with Aeschylus, the chart shows 25 year increments.  It simply has an X for each Great writer that was alive in that period.  The whole thing is much blockier than I'd like, but the overall picture is still worthwhile.  (This chart ignores Homer, who was alive in the 800s BC.  Space limitations!)
There are four (or five) periods here:
  • The Ancient Greeks - Starting with Aeschylus and involving the two heavies in philosophy, Plato and Aristotle.  You could argue that the second half of this, post-Aristotle, deserves it's own period.  The later writers were scientists and mathematicians. 
  • The Roman Period - This one starts with Plutarch in the first century and runs into the third century, ending with Plotinus.  Augustine was later by about 70 years but could be considered as part of this group.  Probably should be.
  • The Renaissance - Our first writer here is Machiavelli (May's reading!), born in 1469.  This one runs into the 1600's and I'm not sure how to define the end of it, or if any such definition is really meaningful. 
  • The Enlightenment - Picks up where the Renaissance left off, somewhere late in the 17th century.  The high water mark of the project is here.  There were more Great writers alive between 1750 and 1775 than any other period. 
There are about a hundred quibbles you could make with this timeline, but the general outline is about right.  I think it's worth asking why certain time periods (and regions!) were so fertile while others really weren't.  A few preliminary thoughts:
  • Great writers need durable and plentiful materials in order for their writings to survive and spread.  Oral tradition can work, but it's obviously not as good.  Also, even the most brilliant writer is effectively erased if all of their works are destroyed.
  • I want to say that a culture has to have a sufficient excess to support non-productive work, like writing and thinking.  But I'm not so sure how true that is.  During the glory years of Athens, there was often war and brutality.  Plenty of other writers on this list wrote during fairly violent times.  In other words, I like the theory but I'm not sure that reality agrees with it.
  • I don't know how to categorize the 19th century writers, or even if there is a need to do so.  Is Melville part of the Enlightenment?  How about Freud?  And while we're talking about the 1800's, how confident are we that these are the right authors?  We are so close to that era.  Do we really know who will still be read in 1000 years?  In contrast, I'm very confident that we don't know who the most important writers of the 20th century are yet.
These are some things that I want to keep in mind while I read through the project.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Dark Ages (Or at Least a Large Gap)

The Great Books are arranged mostly chronological.  The set I have (the first edition) starts with Homer who lived sometime around 850 BC and continues along the timeline up until Freud at the beginning of the 20th century.  There are a few occasions where authors are paired together by subject, rather than time.  For instance, Ptolemy who lived in the second century is in the same book as Copernicus and Kepler, even though they both lived some 1300 years later.  It works though, since all three studied astronomy.
If you lay out a timeline of all the authors though, you find a giant gap.  Our current subject, St Augustine, died in 430 AD.  The next author, Thomas Aquinas, wasn't born until 1225.  For nearly 800 years, there were no authors deemed worthy enough to be included in the Great Books of the Western World series.  When I was younger, this period was known as the Dark Ages, though that term has fallen out of fashion.  In comparison to such busy times as 450 - 370 BC, it is pretty obviously a down time.
Along with the Great Books, I've been dipping in and out of a book called 'A History of Knowledge' by Charles Van Doren.  (A very interesting book, btw, and from the same Ivy league tradition as Mortimer Adler.)  I found his description of Augustine's impact to be very interesting, (all excerpts from Chap 4):
He [Augustine] died believing that he had been right. Christianity, in order to survive, had to renounce earthly glory and be willing to live on in small isolated, lonely places where the glory of the Heavenly City would shine forth and be more easily seen. Christians, St. Augustine believed, were seeking another kind of triumph from the Roman triumph. The Defeat of Rome, of New Carthage, or even of Hippo, did not really seem important no matter how much misery they might produce. The goal of Christians was in another life, and their city was not of this world.
Van Doren talks about how people then began to think:
St Benedict, for example, went to Rome around 500 AD to study at one of the few remaining Roman schools. He was shocked by the wealth and luxury...and retired to live for the rest of his days in the somber monastery that he founded at Monte Cassino at the beginning of the sixth century. In doing so he laid down a pattern and a rule of life that was imitated everywhere in the West.
For centuries the Benedictines were devoted to poverty, prayer and good works, following the rule of the founder and spiritual father.
From our modern point of view those centuries that we still call dark were the nadir of Western civilization. Our ancestors did not feel that way about their time.
They did become frightened and nervous as the year 1000 AD approached, as we are nervous about the coming of the second millenium [written in 1992]. They were like children, afraid of the unkown. They feared the world might come to and end at the close of the year 999. When nothing terrible happened, they drew a collective sigh of relief and set about rebuilding their new version of the Roman empire. We live in it today.
A few caveats are in order here, the first and most prominent being that while I find this interesting, I don't want to put this down as my belief.  We'll cover more of this ground when we get to Gibbon in October and I'm sure other places as well.  Maybe I'll have a firm opinion in ten years when the list is done. 
The second caveat, is that there were some great minds in those 800 years.  In the next chapter, Van Doren lists a good half dozen men who were notable, and I think they'll deserve a post of their own. 
The third caveat is that I find it wildly unlikely that there wouldn't be significant rebellion from the ideal of poverty, especially from the merchant class.  Or, if not rebellion, at least they wouldn't hew so closely to the ideal as to completely close up shop.  Something else must have been going, probably many, many things.
Still, 800 years.  Just think of that.  Eight full centuries without a writer that could crack the lineup of the Great Books.  That seems preposterous.  Or calamitous.  But would Augustine have thought it a great display of piety?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Render Unto Caesar

I mentioned that I wasn't sure of the oft quoted passage from Matthew 22 about 'giving to Caesar'.  Here is the full passage:
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax[a] to Caesar or not?”
 18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
   Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
 22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. 
Prior to rereading Matthew, my understanding was that this was an urging to separate the political and religious sphere.  That reading isn't quite so clear, though.  You can interpret this in many ways.  A quick check of Wikipedia says that my confusion is shared.  It lists six different categories of interpretation.
  • Separation of Church and State
  • Justification of obeying authority, paying taxes
  • Giving God the benefit of the doubt (i.e. when in doubt of authority, give to God)
  • Devote your life to God
  • Highlighting the dangers of cooperating with the state
  • Money is not for the people's benefit
As you can see, there is a long history of interpreting this as a way to separate church and state, though not always.  The very specific passage has Jesus urging his followers to pay a tax.  Or is he saying that the Pharisees are already using the tools of Caesar ('Whose image is this?'), so they should go whole hog and pay?  I'm very mindful that as the disciples went out to spread the word in Acts, Paul worked to find a way to meet with Caesar in person.
I've tossed this around a bit and I don't know.  Other biblical scholars, is there something else in the New Testament that is clearer? 

Friday, April 20, 2012

May Reading

This is the shortest reading of the year, so if you've had trouble getting through, this is a good one to target.

Machiavelli: 'The Prince' Kindle/Nook/Google

Thursday, April 19, 2012

More on Augustine, Confessions

There really is a large amount of interesting things that Augustine says. Don't misunderstand my irritation at his thoughts on infancy to to mean that he should be ignored. For instance:

  • He must have been consumed by lust when he was a young man. He writes about the 'madness of lust'. Augustine wished that his friends had urged him to channel that lust into marriage but instead they concentrated on his speaking skills.

  • Augustine was a fan of the theater, especially tragedies. He grieved along with the actors, and praised those that made him grieve the most. This, he contrasted with the universal desire for joy and thought that the seeming contradiction had to do with the passions that are released.

  • He questioned the value of a liberal education if it wasn't accompanied by a higher faith. That includes this wonderful bit here: "For I had my back to the light, and my face to the things enlightened; whence my face, with which I discerned the things enlightened, itself was not enlightened." I don't know how true that is but it's a lovely metaphor.

  • "It was, that the Scriptures of the New Testament had been corrupted by I know not whom, who wished to engraff the law of the Jews upon the Christian faith; yet themselves produced not any uncorrupted copies." I read this as a Jewish intrepretation of the New Testament ideals had made the church to bound by rules and tradition.

  • Augustine was privy to an experiment to test astrology. Two children were born at the same time, one to a wealthy man and another to a slave. He argued that there was no possible reading of the stars that would account for how different their lives must necessarily be. Mind you, this was back in the fourth century. More than 1600 years later, this still isn't seen as proof.

A very interesting man.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


From Matthew, Chapter 18:

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the
greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a little child to him, and
placed the child among them. 3 And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change
and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4
Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the
kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

From Augustine, Confessions:

Hear, O God. Alas, for man's sin! So saith man, and Thou
pitiesthim; for Thou madest him, but sin in him Thou madest not.
Whoremindeth me of the sins of my infancy? for in Thy sight none ispure from
sin, not even the infant whose life is but a day upon theearth. Who
remindeth me? doth not each little infant, in whom I seewhat of myself I
remember not? What then was my sin? was it that Ihung upon the breast and
cried? for should I now so do for foodsuitable to my age, justly should I be
laughed at and reproved. What Ithen did was worthy reproof; but since I
could not understand reproof,custom and reason forbade me to be reproved.
For those habits, whengrown, we root out and cast away. Now no man, though
he prunes,wittingly casts away what is good. Or was it then good, even for
awhile, to cry for what, if given, would hurt? bitterly to resent, thatpersons
free, and its own elders, yea, the very authors of itsbirth, served it not? that
many besides, wiser than it, obeyed not thenod of its good pleasure? to do its
best to strike and hurt, becausecommands were not obeyed, which had been obeyed
to its hurt? Theweakness then of infant limbs, not its will, is its

I was raised in a protestant church and really didn't learn much about the doctrine of Original Sin. My understanding of it is that man is stamped with sin that carries forth all the way back from Adam and Eve in the Garden. That's why newborns are baptised fairly quickly, to wash away that sin. We believed (and this still makes sense to me) that sin is only possible from someone who is mature enough to have an understanding of right and wrong. The passage from Matthew seems to back that up.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Confessions - St Augustine (Books 1-8)

I started off not liking Augustine very much. Book One starts with an extended grovel, something that I've never been able to respect very much, even in a religious context. The books are in chronological order so Augustine starts his tale in infancy. This leads to a passage on Orignal Sin:

Who remindeth me of the sings of my infancy? for in Thy sight none is pure
from sin, not even the infant whose life is but a day upon the earth. Who
remindeth me? doth not each little infant, in whom I see what of myself I
remember not? What then was my sin? was it that I hung upon the breast and
cried? for should I now so do for food suitable to my age, justly should I be
laughed at and reproved. What I then did was worthy reproof; but since I could
not understand reproof, custom and reason forbade me to be reproved.

Speaking as the father of a very young newborn, I can hardly disagree more with the idea that normal infant behavior is 'sin' in any way shape or form. I know that Augustine further explores Original Sin in his other works so it might be unfair to judge the snippets that appear here. But what I've read so far, didn't convince me in any way, shape or form.
My impression of the man did improve though. Each book deals with a segment of his life and, taken alone, each books is fairly interesting. Not only that, but his writing is compelling and has an unusual poetry to it. There is this near the beginning of Book Three:

I loved not yet, yet I loved to love, and out of a deep seated want, I
hated myself for wanting not. I sought what I might in love, in love with
loving, and safety I hated, and a way without snares.

Read that out loud to yourself, with a full pause at each comma. Some very lovely stuff. And I remember well being 'in love with loving'. Augustine was very much a sinner and his frank and open manner of recounting his past sins makes it easy to understand him as a man.
Also impressive is his intellect and his way of attacking problems with his mind. His knowledge of Christianity had been colored by Manichean criticism. When he investigated the scriptures on his own, he found those criticisms to be unfounded. He realized the huge respect that he had for the Christians near him (notably his mother and separately, a friend who died while young) and he let that speak well of Christians in general.
His studies led him to Rome and then to Milan. He found himself more and more led towards Christianity. Augustine opened a Bible at random and found a verse that spoke to him:

Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in
strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision
for the flesh, in concupiscence.

Since 'concupiscence' (strong sexual desire) was one of Augustine's main temptations, he thought this was aimed straight at him and finally converted.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Birth Announcment!

Our new baby is finally here. Leonardo Xavier was born early this morning. Everybody is doing well. Posting may be a bit light for a few days.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Just like with Matthew, I'm going to assume familiarity from anyone reading this. I will simply talk about things that jumped out at me in rereading this for the first time in some twenty years.

1) The book starts with the ascension of Jesus. This is the one final piece of the divinity of Jesus, that he didn't die a clumsy mortal death but was taken whole, up to heaven. My guess is that this is the least well known part.
2) 'Tongues of fire' alit on the disciples heads and they were able to speak various new languages. This is similar to the tower of Babel, except this time it was a great help, rather than a hindrance. A dozen or so regions are listed.
3) I mentioned that Augustine was one of the most famous conversions to Christianity. I'd forgotten the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus. In some ways he is the perfect representative to go forth since he had displayed a giant animosity towards Christians beforehand.
4) Peter has a dream in Chapter 10 that I didn't remember at all. In the dream he is presented with all kinds of animals and told to kill and eat from them. He responds that he hasn't eaten anything impure or unholy before. The lord, again, tells him to kill and eat from them. This seems to discard the dietary restrictions from the Old Testament.
5) After the dream, Peter goes to associate with Gentiles. The restriction is broken and the disciples most mix with everyone.
6) Another way that Paul is a perfect representative is that he is a Roman citizen. This gives him special rights and he isn't afraid to lean on these to insure fair treatment. He even insists on appealing to Caesar.
7) When Paul meets Felix, the governor, he talks with him about Christianity. He speaks of 'justice, self-control, and the judgment which was soon to come'. I find it interesting that these are the subjects that came up. I don't know how much modern missionaries stress justice or self-control.
8) On the way to Rome, Paul is bitten by a viper but survives unharmed. From this, the natives of Malta assume he is divine. Paul also heals the sick while there.
9) Paul finishes up by preaching in Rome itself.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Gospel of Matthew

I won't do a full run down on the Book of Matthew. Everyone who reads this blog is already familiar with it. I did quite a bit of Bible study in my teen years but that knowledge is a bit dusty. On another note, I didn't use the King James version since I'm after clarity of message. What follows is a list of things that stood out for me.

1) The story of the divinity of Jesus rests on a few incidents, all of which Matthew covers. 1) He was born of a virgin. 2) He healed the sick and injured. 3) He died and was resurrected. There are many other details in which Jesus satisfies Old Testament prophecy. These were important in convincing fellow Jews that he was the Messiah but for the rest of the world, those three points are paramount.
2) The largest concentrated part of Jesus' message is certainly the Sermon on the Mount, which is found in Matthew. Part of the Sermon reaffirms the Old Testament but the full piece certainly builds on older understanding. The Beatitudes create a kind of religion for the underdog. I don't know if that was unique in the world but goes beyond the strict right and wrong of other philosophical readings we've done so far. (I'm sure I'll do a more full blog post on the Sermon.)
3) After Jesus collected the Apostles, he directed them to go only to the Jews. He wanted them convinced first.
4) He not only didn't promise an easy time, he went out of his way to tell his followers that they would suffer in his name.
5) Jesus tangled with the Pharisees on a few occasions. They wanted to trip him up with legalese but he always countered with higher truths.
6) He assured his disciples that 'some of those standing here will certainly not taste death till they have seen the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom'. They seemed certain that Judgment day would come and that right soon.
7) 'Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's'. I've often heard that used as an argument for seperating out religious and political spheres but now I'm not so sure. Frankly, I didn't quite understand that portion. (This may get its own blog post too.)
8) The account of Pilate is much more sympathetic than I remember. He truly didn't seem to want to give up Jesus. He understood that the charges were trumped up. Only because he feared a riot did he give him up, famously 'washing his hands' of him.
9) Only after the resurrection did Jesus tell the disciples to go forth to 'all nations' and convert them.

The story continues with Acts, of course.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Biography of Augustine

Augustine was born in 354AD, in the north African town of Hippo Regius (which my brain wants to read as 'King Hippo'). He was quickly recoginized as brilliant and his family gave him the best education they possibly could. He became one of the most important theorists of the Catholic church but, interestingly enough, did so only after a very public conversion. Augustine is perhaps the most famous conversion to Christianity in history.
He had three famous and important works, all of which we'll read from in this project: 'Confessions', 'City of God' and 'On Christian Doctrine'. Augustine was one of the leading theorists in subjects like Original Sin and Just War Doctrine. He was one of the earliest to have the honor of being a 'doctor of the church', a title given to those whose advanced learning.
He returned to Hippo in later life and was a Bishop there. He died while the city was under siege from Vandals (actual Vandals). Apparently he asked that all of the books in the city be gathered into the library for safe keeping. When the Vandals burned the city they spared only the library and Augustine's Cathedral.
We'll return to Augustine several more times in the next ten years.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Authorship of Matthew and Acts

I asked my father, a former Bible college professor, for some info on the authorship of our two books of the Bible. I hope this may lure him into the comment section . . .

Introduction to Matthew

Nowhere does the first gospel name its author. The universal testimony of the early church beginning with Papias (c. A.D. 135) is that the apostle Matthew wrote it, and our earliest textual witnesses attribute it to him. If Papias is right, the theory of Matthew's authorship may receive gentle support from passages like 10:3, where on this theory the apostle refers to himself in a self-deprecating way not found in Mark or Luke.

At the broadest level we may say that Matthew's purpose is to demonstrate that (1) Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of God, the Son of Man, Immanuel; (2) many Jews, and especially the leaders, sinfully failed to perceive this during his ministry; (3) the messianic kingdom has already dawned, inaugurated by the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus; (4) this messianic reign, characterized by obedience to Jesus and consummated by his return, is the fulfillment of OT prophetic hopes; (5) the church, the community of those, both Jew and Gentile, who bow unqualifiedly to Jesus' authority, constitutes the true locus of the people of God and the witness to the world of the "gospel of the kingdom"; (6) throughout this age Jesus' true disciples must overcome temptation, endure persecution from a hostile world, witness to the truth of the Gospel, and live in deeply rooted submission to Jesus' ethical demands.

ACTS OF THE APOSTLES — the one historical book of the New Testament, which traces the development of the early church after the ascension of Jesus. Standing between the Gospels and the Epistles, the Book of Acts is a bridge between the life of Jesus and the ministry of the apostle Paul. As such, it offers invaluable information about the development of the early church.
The title of Acts is somewhat misleading, for only a few of the apostles of Jesus are mentioned in the book. In reality, Acts relates some acts of some of the apostles, primarily Peter and Paul, and involves a time-span of about 32 years—from the ascension of Jesus (about a.d. 30) to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (about a.d. 62)
Authorship and Date. There can be little doubt that the Book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke come from the same author. Each book is the length of a scroll (about 35 feet), and each is addressed to the same individual, Theophilus. The similarities between the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts in literary style, vocabulary, and theological ideas are unmistakable. Although the author does not identify himself by name, scholars have ascribed the authorship of both books to Luke, the companion of Paul.
Luke is a reliable historian, in part because of the sources he used. He was closely associated with many events of Paul’s mission, and this results in greater vividness in the latter half of Acts. At three places in Acts (16:10–17, 20:5–21:18, and 27:1—28:16) the narrative changes to the first person plural (“we”), indicating that Luke was personally present. Luke also may have had access to written documents (for example, the decree of the Council of Jerusalem, Acts 15:23; or letters from early Christian leaders).

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday

Our readings this month were something of a happy accident. Last month we got Caesar on the Ides of March, and this time we get the book of Matthew. The only other match that I can see for the rest of the year comes in November, when we have the Constitution of the United States along with a big election.

Anyway, I hope that everyone has a very good Holy weekend!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

War Heroes for Leaders

(I'm not quite done with Plutarch yet!)

Both Alexander and Caesar gained political power through combat prowess. Espescially Caesar who used his triumphs to gain political fame and used the spoils of war to enrich his soldiers and followers. (And by the way, when I say 'triumph', I don't just mean a 'win'. A Roman triumph was a kind of victory parade that sanctified a military win.) This lead me to think about our modern way of choosing leaders.
In the 18th and 19th century, the United States chose a number of Presidents because of their war prowess. Washington, of course, and then Jackson and Grant are obvious examples, and there are many others. Once you get to the 20th century the war heroes start to thin out though. Of the men who gained fame through war and then became President, I count Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower and JFK. Many others served, but those were the ones who I think best fit the category.
JFK was elected more than 50 years ago. We still hear generals names floated about not as seriously as in the past. I don't know if the national taste for 'warriors' has diminished, though I suspect it has. I also suspect that today's soldiers are more anonymous than they were in the past. Possibly the modern political party makes it harder for someone to take high office as a second career (though Obama's short political timeline contradicts this).
It may also be a quirk in timelines. I don't have any numbers before me but there are many returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan who are now running for seats in the House of Representatives. Maybe we'll have a string of them in the Presidency some time in the future. Who knows?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Author Timeline

Aristophanes 446 - 386
Plato 424? - 348?
Aristotle 384 - 322

Plutarch 46 - 120
Gospel of Matthew, Acts of the Apostles (around the end of the first century)
St. Augistine 354 - 430
Machiavelli 1469 - 1527
Rabelais 1494 - 1553
Montaigne 1533 - 1592
Shakespeare 1564 - 1616
Locke 1632 - 1704
Rousseau 1712 - 1778
Gibbon 1737 - 1794
Declaration of Independence - 1776
The Constitution of the US - 1787
Federalist Papers 1787 -1788
Smith 1723 - 1790
Marx/Engles 1818 - 1883/1820 - 1895

Sunday, April 1, 2012

April Reading

From the New Testament: Gospel of St Matthew and Acts of the Apostles Kindle/Nook/Google, Google
St Augustine: 'Confessions' books 1-8 Kindle/Nook/Google

On a personal note, this month might be a bit bare since we're expecting child number three right around Easter.