Monday, November 29, 2010

Happiness with Aquinas

"Why are you holding that pencil?" I ask a student.  "To take notes," she replies.  "Why do you take notes?"  "So I can learn better."  "Why do you want to learn these things?"  "To do well on the test."  (*sigh*)  "Why do you want to do well on the test?"  "To pass the class."  "Why do you want to pass the class?"  "To get a degree."  "Why do you want a degree?"  "To make money."  Yes, money always finds its way into this process.  In any case, I cut to the chase: "You wouldn't take up the pencil unless you wanted to take notes, and you wouldn't have taken notes unless you wanted to learn.  Every reason you've given for an action supposes a prior reason.  But that chain of reasoning can't go on forever, or you would never act from will at all.  You must have an ultimate desire.  Philosophers have long acknowledged this ultimate goal as Happiness, although they have not always agreed on what Happiness is.  But whatever it is, no one ever says, 'I want to be happy because I want to use happiness as a means to this other desire.' "

At the beginning of "Part I of the Second Part" (otherwise known as I-II) of Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas, after rehearsing this argument from infinite regression, defines and analyzes Happiness in a beautiful, pleasant, and useful way.  Happiness cannot consist of wealth, honor, fame, or power, he points out, for these are fleeting, do not always relieve care, and can be found in evil men as well as good.  Neither does Happiness for man lie in bodily good; we are more than bodies.  Happiness is held in the soul, but the object of Happiness must be outside the soul, greater than ourselves, nothing less in fact than the Universal Good.  Now we may not understand what the Universal Good is (indeed, we don't), so we miss the mark often through mere ignorance.  We can identify the Universal Good as God, but we still don't know exactly Who He is (although reading the first part of the S. T. will get you a little closer!).  We can have imperfect Happiness here by knowing Him as well as we can know Him, but perfect Happiness requires seeing his Essence and resting or delighting in that vision.

The distinction between the knowledge and the delight is important in Aquinas's view.  The first is an act of the intellect, the second an act of the will.  The first is directed outside ourselves to God; the second is an internal pleasure.  Because God Is Who He Is, Happiness as the Object of our Vision is the same for every blessed soul who sees Him.  But our Happiness, as the internal delight, can differ even in Heaven; the "extent" of our delight can differ depending on, he says, our resurrected bodies and the number of friends we have with which to share it.

Aquinas's distinction between knowing God and delighting in Him seems to solve some riddles.  Where some eastern religions teach that enlightenment or Nirvana annihilates individuality, Christianity has always valued individuality.  But how can we all reach the same goal and remain unique?  Aquinas's view provides a way for unity of Heavenly worship without uniformity of worshipers.  I should like to think that the extent of our delight will differ also depending on our knowledge of what He has saved us from, what tasks He has equipped us for, and the name He writes for each of us on a white stone.

Near the end of this treatise on Happiness, Aquinas says that, while sanctifying grace is given without previous works, works must precede final Happiness.  Man was designed to move toward Happiness; only God has no need to move toward Happiness, for with Him, Being is Happiness.  The temporal move to Happiness requires a right will, so it requires works that flow from that good will.  "God is at work in you both to will and to do his good pleasure."  Ultimately, the best reason to take those notes is that God wants you to study those things.

Why am I writing this blog?

Why are you reading it?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Half a Plan for 2011

I've finished my reading plan for 2010 (except for the Dickens Christmas stories), and I've bought all my books for next year.  So now it's time to start working on the calendar for 2011.

I always want to have two books going at once, so to make the calendar, I first divide the books on my list into two categories: (1) things that work best with a disciplined plan of a few pages a day, and (2) novels and other books that I think I can read in longer stretches whenever I find time.  Then I count the pages in the first category and start a calendar.  This morning I finished that first half of the calendar, and here's the basic outline (more detail on selections is found under the tab marked "The List": 2011 is year 5, so I'll read selection no. 5 in each category on the list):

The year starts with Greek plays: three hilarious romps by Aristophanes and Euripides' Medea.  Even Medea is a little silly, so this group should make for a fun beginning.  But then the work begins, with Plato; much of this year's selection is new to me, and I'll take time for careful notes.  Next is a selection of Buddhist scriptures from the old Harvard Five-Foot Shelf of Classics, and then a month of more note-taking with Aristotle's Topics and Politics.

I have learned to divide the Aquinas reading each year, and I know Hegel is going to be dense, so I decided to split him up as well.  Between these two heavy philosophical sessions, I'll go through more wars and Roman expansion with books 6-10 of Livy's history.  Then comes Calvin, and then Euclid, whose theorems make up the year's last of the selections I take systematic notes on.

I should take systematic notes on Kant, but I'm never sure I know what any given day's six pages mean.  In any case, his is the last difficult read of the year.  I think I'll enjoy Spengler, and I know I'll walk through Plutarch, Durant, Augustine, Boswell, and James with a spring in my step.  I always save these tried, comfortable favorites to read during my busy fall semester.

The full 2011 calendar will go up soon under a new tab.  But for now, here's the schedule for this half of the plan.  Again, detail on each selection is found under "The List" next to each (5).

(1)   Greek plays: 1/3-1/14
(2)   Plato: 1/17-2/1
(3)   Buddhist: 2/2-2/15
(4)   Aristotle: 2/16-3/17
(5)   Hegel I: 3/18-4/5
(6)   Aquinas I: 4/6-4/22
(7)   Livy: 4/25-5/20
(8)   Hegel II: 5/23-6/8
(9)   Aquinas II: 6/9-6/27
(10) Calvin: 6/28-7/11
(11) Euclid: 7/12-7/20
(12) Kant: 7/21-8/1
(13) Spengler: 8/2-9/6
(14) Plutarch: 9/7-9/30
(15) Durant: 10/3-10/31
(16) Augustine: 11/1-11/17
(17) Boswell: 11/18-12/1
(18) James: 12/2-12/14

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sitting at the Feet of Indian Masters

The journey through sacred writings of various religions takes the reader across many types of terrain.  He finds stories and parables, prayers and dialogs, visions and moral advice, instruction in piety, and teaching about the ultimate nature of existence.  He finds the miraculous and the mundane, the promising and the perplexing, the insipid and the inspiring.

Earlier in 2010, I read two Penguin collections of Hindu scripture: the first containing 108 passages of the Rig Veda, and the second passages from the earliest and most revered of the Upanishads.  I found all of it fascinating, most of it beautiful, and some of it quite inspiring indeed.

The Rig Veda, written approximately 3,000 years ago, contains hymns to the gods and songs to be sung during rituals.  Its circular metaphors (which is the meaning, and which is the message?) link the world and an egg, milk and rain, the sun and cows, and move the reader to see patterns and connections everywhere.  Its inclusion of so many gods and rituals urge the reader to treat every moment as sacred.  I was reminded of a passage from Walden in which Thoreau takes a dead branch from the woods and puts it in his fire in the cabin because, he said, it had served the god Terminus long enough and must now serve Vulcan.  Whether worshiping many gods or only One, we should all learn to wonder more regularly at the miracles of wood, fire, rain, breath, perception, memory, and life.

While the Rig Veda points to the sacred in the many, the Upanishads (written about 500 B.C.) show the many subsumed in the sacred, teaching that the panoply of the world is created and guided by one holy spirit, Brahman:

  • "God upholds the oneness of this universe: the seen and the unseen, the transient and the eternal.  The soul of man is bound by pleasure and pain; but when she sees God she is free from all fetters."
  • "Matter in time passes away, but God is for ever in Eternity, and he rules both matter and soul."
  • "When a man knows God, he is free."
  • "He rules over the sources of creation.  From him comes the universe and unto him it returns.  He is the Lord, the giver of blessings, the one God of our adoration, in whom there is perfect peace."
The Christian can sing all of these verses sincerely, so devoted are they to the one all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving Creator.  Of course, the Christian must give up singing (or give up sincerity, or his Christianity) when he gets to verses teaching him that his true self, his Atman, is God, that Brahman is in all things and is all things.

Reading these two books of Hindu scripture has added depth to my view of the Hebrew Psalms.  It is so easy to get used to the Psalms and fly the eyes or lips over their words thinking something like, "Bible language, Bible language, good things, happiness, Bible language, war, tears, Bible language, God, Bible language."  The last few months, the Psalms have appeared to me not only as the Word of God given to people, but as the words of people seeing God in the storm, in the battle, in the sea, in the stars, and in the feeling of guilt after a sin, and trying to convey the mystery.

Reading these books has also given me new appreciation for the miracle of creation as taught in the Bible.  God gave to his thoughts existence -- existence depending on but separate from his own existence.  How marvelous to contemplate thankfully the knowledge that all things were made by Him, that all things are sustained by Him, that all things exist for his pleasure, that all things point to Him, and that all these things are not Him.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Saluting Captain Cuttle

I place one of the brightest highlights of each year's list in the early, winter months: a Dickens novel.  Although I know it might be wise to delay gratification and save Dickens for dessert, as a reward for getting through tough philosophy and bleak twentieth-century works, I use him as a palate cleanser instead.  The searching, numbing cold of his fogs and the restorative, glowing warmth of his hearths, the deep, rich colors of his prose, and the full, romantic symphony orchestra of his casts of characters bring me comfort and joy like no other novels do.

Like LOST's Desmond Hume, I love every word the Great Man ever wrote.  Unlike Desmond, I didn't save one novel to be the last book I ever read.  I started rereading all the Dickens novels a few years ago, starting with Pickwick, and in 2010, I made it to Dombey and Son, an unjustly forgotten classic.  I could write a year's worth of posts on the glories of this book, but for now, let me just sing in praise of one of the Great Man's greatest comic inventions: Captain Edward Cuttle.

First of all, how perfect is the name "Cuttle" for a good-hearted, bulbous-nosed mariner who has left the sea but not its ways and its cant?  "Stand by!" he says, and "Fetch up with a wet sail!"  The not-quite-omniscient narrator does not know what Cuttle was captain of: we're told that he "had been a pilot, or a skipper, or a privateersman, or all three perhaps."  On his head, he sports a "glazed" hat -- glazed, the reader is left to suppose, with the sweat, dirt, grease, tar, and salt water of decades.  In the place of his right hand is a hook, and with this hook Ned Cuttle unselfconsciously salutes his social superiors, combs his hair, touches his lips to signal silence, and lifts ladies' hands to kiss (it is uncertain whether the shock that generally ensues comes more from the hook or from the impertinence).

Besides the hat and the hook, Captain Cuttle's possessions consist of a watch, two teaspoons, and a set of sugar-tongs.  All sailors depend on reliable timepieces; "Put it back half an hour every morning," the Captain says, "and about another quarter towards the arternoon, and it's a watch that'll do you credit."  The teaspoons and sugar-tongs he is ready to pawn in order to save his friend Sol Gills from ruin; surely his precious treasures will bring in enough to keep Gills's shop in business!

But what Captain Cuttle does not realize is that his courageous, generous heart is his most precious asset.  He is afraid of no man (although the appearance -- or even potential appearance -- of Mrs MacStinger, his former landlady at Number nine Brig Place, sends him cowering in the shadows).  And he will do anything to help and protect young Florence Dombey, whom he calls "my beauty" and "Heart's Delight"; he even cheerfully assists the much younger men whose hearts also take delight in Florence.

Captain Cuttle's most endearing habit involves prodigious demonstrations of his mastery of civilization's foundational literature.  "Wal'r," he says to Sol Gills's nephew, "Look at him!  Love!  Honour!  And Obey!  Overhaul your catechism till you find that passage, and when found turn the leaf down."  Captain Cuttle himself has not read (or heard) the catechism (or the wedding service from the Prayer Book) in many a turn of the glass, but he quotes from memory as a model and counsels his young friends to laborious lives of moral scholarship.  "In the Proverbs of Solomon," he promises, "you will find the following words, 'May we never want a friend in need, nor a bottle to give him!'  When found, make a note of."  Captain Cuttle urges his friends to overhaul Doctor Watts, Rule Britannia, and Stanfell's Budget: any work which shines light on the path of youth.  And speaking of teaching the young, the good Captain quotes, "Train up a fig tree in the way it should go, and when you are old sit under the shade on it.  Overhaul the -- Well, I ain't quite certain where that's to be found, but when found, make a note of."

Captain Ned Cuttle, I do not have a hook, but I have a crooked hand, and I raise it to salute you!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why Does Aristotle Keep Moving?

Every once in a while, someone actually taught me something in high school.  Don't get me wrong: I learned a lot of math, I learned that  Volts x Amps = Watts, and of course I learned useful, interesting things every day in Mr. Ammerman's music theory class.  But these facts, formulas, and patterns I could have learned from a book.  I'm talking about thought-provoking lessons about life and connections between ideas.  Lessons of this kind came so rarely, my memories of them twinkle like stars against the sable blanket of public-school night.  My health teacher taught me, for instance, that television commercials are carefully worded so as to seem to promise more than they actually do; that lesson nurtured an analytical eye that continues to serve me today.

One of these rare lessons seized my interest by its immense scope and all-explaining power.  For centuries, one teacher told me, western culture believed Aristotle just because he was an authority.  They passed his ideas down from generation to generation, never thinking to test the ideas for themselves.  Then one day we invented the Scientific Method.  Aristotle's theories were tested and found to be crazy!  The collective shoulder of the West shrugged off the degrading burden of Authority, we spread our wings, and climbed the exalting zephyr of Reason and Experiment.

Wow!  Aristotle taught that a heavy ball fell faster than a light one.  How much happier we are now that Galileo showed that the balls drop at the same speed!  (Never mind that we learned later that the heavy ball actually does fall infinitesimally faster than the other.)

Another day, I learned that Aristotle believed that an arrow continues to fly after it leaves the string because the air pushed aside from in front of the arrow rushes back in behind it and gives it a shove.  How much better life is now that we know to credit Inertia instead!  The sky is bluer, the flowers sweeter knowing that Aristotle was wrong.  How could people have been so foolish as to believe him on Authority?  Isn't Reason grand?

These ideas truly inspired me.  History made some sense, and I felt happy and privileged to be living in the Age of Progress.  But I had learned about this comic fellow Aristotle twice, and I had it in the back of my mind that I would read some of his writings someday just for a laugh.

In 1988, I finally got around to reading Aristotle and found out that the old crackpot was actually brilliant.  He thought clearly and deeply about and wrote systematically about almost everything he came across in the world: logic, the psychology of perception and learning, effective speaking and writing, life and death, material nature, immaterial nature, the heavens, the weather, emotions, how we should live, and how different types of governments work.  Was he right about everything?  No, but then his predecessors debated whether the world was all made of fire or of water.  Aristotle's body of writings constitutes one of the premier intellectual achievements in all of history.

This year I read his Physics and found some amazing things.  For instance, in bk. IV, ch. 8, Aristotle says that in a void "a thing will either be at rest or must be moved ad infinitum, unless something more powerful get in its way."  This sounds suspiciously like inertia to me.  And in the last chapter of bk. VIII, he says that the theory of air replacement is not sufficient to explain the continued motion of a thrown object: the flying stone or arrow also has a principle of motion within itself.

Of course Aristotle's science all needed refinement and correction.  And of course I acknowledge the value of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and others.  But it occurs to me now that in giving me that simplified view of history, my teachers made an ironic mistake and inadvertently taught me yet another lesson.  For they were passing down a faulty story about Aristotle that they accepted on authority, without checking it for themselves.  It seems our culture hadn't cast off authority after all.  We, like all generations before us, learn by observation, trial, reason, and authority.  The methods and emphases change, and our collective knowledge indeed grows, but these four remain.

So, yes, Aristotle's ideas are only partly true, but I have learned a lot from him.  And my teachers' history lessons were only partly true, but I have learned a lot from them, as well.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Character of the Nation

Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War have fascinated me for almost as long as I remember.  Somewhere around 1966, my parents took me to Springfield, Illinois, and I remember buying at least one book on Lincoln and reading it then.  The interest has grown as I have.  I've paid all the usual dues: visited several battlefields, visited Ford's Theater, watched the Ken Burns film more than once.  And for quite a while now, I've read something about Lincoln or the Civil War each year.  The profundity of the monumental events, ideas, emotions, and consequences of this story seem to inspire good writing, and the best works take the reader through a sublime experience that puts just about everything into perspective: family, God, government, love, duty, gender, race, money, land, technology, comfort, health, organization, life, death.

In July of this year, I reread Bruce Catton's Glory Road, the second of three books in his history of the Army of the Potomac, the main Union army in the eastern theater of the war.  It was the first adult book I ever read about the war.  I remember taking it to the high school to work as a substitute teacher when I was about twenty.  A few pages during lunch or planning hour would tell me of young men killing and dying for principles or for their friends or for a few dollars, and then I would watch, with my mind in that epic place, as young people walked into the room generally not caring about much except the relief of not seeing their regular teacher.

Catton's poetic writing can break the reader's heart.  These are not the books to read if you want to know all the details of place, person, and time during major battles.  The battles are there: this volume tells about Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and the grandest of them all, Gettysburg.  But Catton uses these stories to teach lessons about the Army, the country, and the human condition.  The book begins, for instance, with the observations of a Pennsylvanian chaplain home on furlough, who noted that the town of York had grown and prospered in spite of the constant flow of men and money to the front in Virginia.  War, as a mother of necessity, is a grandmother of invention, and mass-production factories had risen up to bless her.

Later in the book, in the prelude to Gettysburg, Catton tells about the Union V Corps marching towards the town.  Less interested in directions, supplies, and strategy than in the interaction between the army and the locals, he writes this:

     "There was the long white road in the moonlight, with the small-town girls laughing and crying in the shadows, and the swaying ranks of young men waving to them and moving on past them.  To these girls who had been nowhere and who had all their lives before them this was the first of all the roads of the earth, and to many of the young men who marched off under the moon it was the last of all the roads.  For all of them, boys and girls alike, it led to unutterable mystery.  The column passed on through the town and the music stopped and the flags were put back in their casings, and the men went marching on and on."

Catton makes the road so much more than a road.  It is life and fate.  The whiteness of the road comes from the moonlight but also invokes both the purity of the wedding gown and the pallor of the dead soldier's face.

Lee and Lincoln, Pickett and Grant all make their appearances.  But the main characters of Catton's story are the Army of the Potomac itself and the Nation as a whole.  Having learned it can survive the costly stupidity of Fredericksburg and endless changes of command, the Army acquires, in time for the decisive battle in Pennsylvania, self-confidence and a grim determination. And the United States, through the centralization of government (the draft ended states' rights in the north), the rise of mechanism and the railroads, and the passage of the Homestead Act, begins to accept the idea of a modern state, even though it be bought at the price of the blood of a generation.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hardening and the Dark Night

Every year of my ten-year reading plan contains -- in addition to passages from Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Lewis -- at least two other Christian classics.  Earlier in this year (the fourth of the plan) I read Origen's On First Principles and John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul.

Neither Origen's work nor his reputation is easy to understand.  He is both a Church Father and a heretic; in other words, his teachings (from the third century) are both revered and suspect.  I think the early Church declared his belief in a potential universalism (the doctrine that all rational creatures, even demons, may eventually be reunited to God) anathema, but I'm not sure.  In any case, I found his work full of both useful and weird ideas.

The systematic nature of On First Principles surprised me: the Trinity, angels, creation, the end of the world, and salvation are all treated in order here.  In other words, Origen outlines the structure of existing things and of the plan of time.  I didn't realize such a work existed before early medieval works by Augustine and Boethius, for instance.  His teaching that temptations can come from wrong ideas, amoral bodily desires, or direct demonic suggestion corresponds with the traditional phrase "deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil" (found, for instance, in the Litany in the Book of Common Prayer) as well as with the three temptations Satan offered to Christ in the wilderness.

His ideas on free will get pretty strange, though.  Taking "God is no respecter of persons" as a bottom line, Origen believes all differences between people must arise from merit.  "Jacob I loved and Esau I hated" can only be explained by acts committed in a previous (unembodied?) life by these two.  On the other hand, he says, God continues to work for the good of every soul.  Even the hardening of Pharaoh's heart was temporary and for his good; who knows how Pharaoh ultimately responded to all the miracles and the safe exodus of the Hebrews?

The sixteenth-century work by John of the Cross, also speculative, seems less bizarre than Origen's.  John wrote his treatise to encourage people he counseled who all seemed to go through the same problem: at some point in the progress of their Christian life, they lost joy in worship.  John teaches that God gives us this dark night of the soul in order to take our hearts off the things of worship -- the building, the music, the candles, the decorations, the language of the prayers -- and fix them on Himself.  Christians who go through the experience, he found, come out of it having a more mystical relationship with God, that is, a devotion to God steadier than before but less able to be put into words.  What is not in our senses, he says, Satan does not know, so he cannot hinder this progress in the inner realm.

One of the niftiest ideas in the book has to do with the transformation of our minds.  John of the Cross holds a classical view of three faculties of the mind: understanding, memory, and will.  Each of the three Christian virtues corresponds to and renews one of those faculties.  Faith, teaching us right doctrine and giving us belief in it, overcomes our human understanding.  Hope, pointing us to the future, overturns our dependence on memory.  And love, placing the desires of God's heart into our own, directs our will.

Both authors talk about painful experiences God puts people through for their greater good: a hardening in one case, and a dark night in another.  The encouraging ideas of these two books came at the right time for me.  It's been a rough year, one in which the things of worship, especially music, have been less joyful than usual.  Something similar happened about nine years ago, and I did not react well then.  This time I'm much more at rest in the knowledge that He provides for me.  Besides Himself, and other things I can't put into words, his provision includes the right reading plan devised four years ago, a counselor's advice written four-hundred years ago, and a systematic theology written seventeen-hundred years ago.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Just a couple of days ago, I finished my reading plan for 2010.  Or almost.  I have a few Dickens Christmas stories that I'm saving for December.  But as the days get shorter and cooler, I'm already working on the schedule for next year's books, and I'm starting to go back through my notes to review what I read over the course of the last ten months.

Back before the long, hot days, back at the beginning of January, I reread The Iliad.  This beautiful poem provides the centerpiece, of course, for one of the greatest epic tales ever told: tens of thousands of men sail across the sea to fight for ten years to win back the most beautiful woman in the world, only to find she wasn't worth fighting for.  I love to think of Homer, whoever he was (or whoever they were), sitting by the fire with his harp enchanting his listeners with his woeful saga.  If his Greek audience thought the story would establish their superiority over all other rivals, they were sorely disappointed.  The leading Greek hero, Achilles, spends most of the poem angry about a girl, while all the listener's sympathy is drawn to the doomed Trojan hero, Hector.  (As Chesterton points out somewhere, the superiority of the Trojan is seen in the comparative popularity of the two names over the last 2500 years.)  As foreign and distant as some of scenes seem, Hector's poignant farewell to his wife and son is as familiar as the conversation you had yesterday.

It is so grim, though, this picture of cruel, senseless life, shaped fatefully by cruel, senseless gods, leaving men no choice but to worship them and then make good in spite of the gods.  The best they can do is embrace the most grievous divine decree – war – and show courage and take honor in it.  Every torn and bruised limb, every broken skull, matted and encrusted in dark red, declares to the residents of Olympus: "I did not stay in my tent sulking over a slave girl.  I did not cower in fear.  I looked your pitiless decree in the face and crushed it in the dust with the power of my last heartbeat.  I was better than a god.  I was a man."

For Homer's men are indeed more virtuous than his gods.  It's easy to dismiss the Greeks' religion with its petty, vindictive, fickle gods.  Socrates and Plato seem to have dismissed it, or at least to have held it at arm's length, and the heavens declared a much more reasonable God to Aristotle.  The temptation for the Christian is especially strong: how could the Greeks not see, one might ask, that God is One and Good, that the problems of life stem from human weakness and sin, not divine bickering?

But at least two considerations should prevent the Christian from answering this question too quickly.  On the one hand, the Greeks' religion wasn't all that impotent.  The ancient Greeks tried to address all the great dilemmas of the world: fate and free will, chaos and order, beauty and death, goodness and evil.  These conflicts keep the world from making total sense, and yet we can't help thinking that it must all mean something. The gods, they reasoned, must be crazy -- or at least flawed in familiar, human ways.

On the other hand, the Christian doesn't have clear, simple solutions to these problems, either.  The book of Job, the book of Ecclesiastes, and some of the Psalms (number 90, for instance) all tell us that we just have to trust God while we watch evil and death happen.  After teaching that time and chance happen to all and that sinners, saints, and animals all go to the same breathless death, Solomon cannot give us reasons.  He can only say that God has made the world in such a way that man cannot find out what He does.  The wise king concludes his book with simple advice to fear God, keep his commandments, and look in hope for his righteous judgment.  And herein lies a great difference between the Christian religion and the ancient Greek religion: the Christian can trust in God's righteousness, even though he doesn't understand it.  I'm grateful for both sides of that coin: if either the ruler of the universe were unrighteous or I could comprehend him, then I, like Hector or Ajax, could be greater than god.  But I would rather be humbled by Jehovah than be better than Zeus.

Friday, November 5, 2010

History's Mysteries

At Saratoga battlefield a few weeks ago, my family saw a monument erected to "the bravest officer of the Continental Army," but no name was given.  What war hero deserves a monument but cannot be named?  The tour pamphlet explained that the monument celebrated Benedict Arnold.  Everyone knows he was a traitor, but the details of Arnold's history are hard to find.  He didn't show up at all in the American history books I studied in school.  Was he again unnamable because of his perfidy, or had his story just become too insignificant to compete for space with the succeeding two centuries of events?  I tried finding his story in American history textbooks from earlier in the twentieth century, but I only found lines like "Benedict Arnold's treachery did not seriously impede the American war effort."  These earlier books were written with the assumption that every reader would already know the story.

In a similar way, I've had a hard time learning some details of the history of England.  American authors, it seems, generally don't know enough to explain the details that intrigue me, and English authors know them too well to have to explain them.  For instance, in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, somewhere around the end of the seventeenth century, Churchill starts talking about Whigs and Tories.  I knew these terms, but I didn't know what they meant, when they started, whether they represented organized parties or just general political inclinations, or what ideas either a Whig or Tory believed in.  Sir Winston simply assumed his readers understood (forgetting for just a moment that the English-speaking peoples include Americans).

Three years ago, I got Simon Schama's three-volume A History of Britain as part of a new-member package with the History Book Club.  Hoping to find a different perspective and more answers, I read the first two volumes soon after receiving them and loved the experience.  The set is full of beautiful illustrations: maps and charts, as well as photographs and reprints of locations, documents, paintings, woodcuts, and drawings.  The first two volumes tell interesting stories about monarchs, statesmen, clerics, authors, warriors, explorers, and builders, and they answered some of my questions.  Tories and Whigs, for instance, came about after the Glorious Revolution that put William II on the throne and represent the two responses to the turmoil of the seventeenth century monarchy, Whigs favoring Parliament, the commercial classes, and several Protestant denominations, and Tories favoring the Crown, the landed classes, and the established Anglican Church.

I just got to the third volume recently, though, and I'm finding it much less satisfying.  I can buy his desire to let the Napoleonic Wars serve merely as background to the story he really wants to tell: the history of liberalism.  But does he really think Mary Wollstonecraft's hunt for a menage á trois plays a role in the drama comparable to that of Catholic emancipation, increased suffrage, and the end of slavery?  Apparently, considering the number of pages he devotes to it.

What I've read the last couple of days about the Great Exposition and the debates of the Victorian Era is much better.  The tensions between progress and the revival of the good old days of Merrie Olde England, between labor and capital, between helping the poor through philanthropy and helping the poor through business, and between industrial efficiency and the health of workers and their families all seem central to that story as well as being pertinent to today's America -- even to Tuesday's elections.

By the way, Benedict Arnold's story is readily available on the internet today.  But in pre-www days, I finally found out more about him in two unjustly forgotten novels by Kenneth Roberts: Arundel and Rabble at Arms.  I'll have to get back to Roberts in my next ten-year reading plan.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Where Books Come From These Days

I just finished ordering the last book I need for next year's list.  By the luck of the draw, I needed to buy an unusually high number: ten books.  Most years I have to buy only about five.  Of course, I could get almost all of them from the University library, but I like to have them in the house.  I like to look at them over the course of the weeks and months and think about reading them.  I like to have them ready when the day comes to start them.  And I like being able to mark in them if I want to without feeling bad about it.

I own most of the books on my list already.  The Greek plays, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Euclid, Kant, Shakespeare, Boswell, and James are all in the Britannica set.  I've bought all the Lewis books over the years, and I have a copy of Calvin and of Boccaccio.  Of course, I've spent a lot of time in used books stores: my favorites are the Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City and the Cranbury Bookworm in Cranbury, NJ.  I got the whole Durant set for free once for joining the Book of the Month club.  I have a whole shelf of Chesterton from Ignatius Press.  They've been working gradually on publishing his complete works, and I once subscribed to the project, but I only received one volume from that agreement.  Most of them I just ordered.  I have multiple copies of most of Dickens's novels; a couple of years ago I got a bunch of them as Oxford paperbacks in return for doing a prepublication book review for Oxford Press.  The Oxford Classics always have a scholar's introduction and lots of notes (which are usually really helpful).

But I still needed quite a few books for next year.  So where do I get them all?

1) Become a member, and other members will send you books for free.  To get credit for more books, you post books you want to get rid of and agree to pay the postage when other members request your books. A typical paperback book costs $2.17 to mail.  So you could say each free book you receive costs $2.17.

2) Once used bookstores started selling through Amazon, life got so much better!  I usually look for the cheapest price on a book in "very good" condition, and even with postage, I normally end up saving over 50% off the price of a new copy.  And sometimes you get bonuses.  I got a book once from Key West, and the seller had wrapped it in a map of the island.  I bought some used movies once from a place selling through Amazon, and they tossed in an episode of Poirot.

3) Alibris is another internet mall for used bookstores.  It seems to specialize in rare books, so while prices here are usually higher than they are on Amazon, they sometimes have books Amazon doesn't.

4) The Christian Classics Ethereal Library has all the Christian classics online for free.  I've read some of them online, but I also bought their CD, which has everything on it for not very much money.  I can read the CD on the computer or convert the files to read on the Kindle.  Which leads me to three places to download text files, html files, or Kindle-ready files of copyright-free books:


If you don't have a Kindle or Nook, you can still read books from these sites on your computer.  (I think you can read them on a smart phone, but I'm not smart enough to understand smart phones.) 

Here's a sample of what I got where for the 2011 list:
Livy: Project Gutenberg, free
Eusebius: Amazon, used and cheap
Hegel: alibris, used (about $25)
Morrison, Christ in Shakespeare: alibris, used (about $10)
Orlando Furioso: Amazon, used and very cheap
Wordsworth: Amazon, used and cheap
Spengler: Amazon, used and cheap
Blackmoor, Lorna Doone: eBooks @ Adelaide, free
Thackeray, Henry Esmond: eBooks @ Adelaide, free
Trollope, Doctor Thorne: eBooks @ Adelaide, free
Waugh, Men at Arms:, $2.17
Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall:, free

If you have a few minutes right now, stop reading my blog, go to, and start reading something else!