Several days ago, I wrote an explanation for the absence of some classic books from my plan. Now and then over the last six years, someone has looked at my reading list and, mistakenly thinking of it as a complete liberal curriculum, suggested a book I should read. Almost always, my answer has been that I’ve already read the book (this is the second decade of a formal plan, after all) and don’t recognize a need or desire to reread it. Anyone looking for a Great Books list to begin working on would do much better to start with either the Britannica plan or the St. John’s curriculum.
Many of the classics absent from my current list deal in science and simply go into too much technical detail – detail either too difficult for me to completely follow or too far outside my normal realm of thought to rate a second visit. The theories of light put forward by Huygens and Newton provide good examples. I remember that Newton held light to be made of particles, while Huygens viewed light as a wave. The mathematical and geometrical arguments they employed to support their respective theories, though, were taxing enough the first time through to keep me from reviewing them, especially in light of (pun very definitely intended) the current understanding that light sometimes acts both ways, especially (I think) when you’re not looking.
I feel much the same way about Gilbert and Faraday. The creative ingenuity with which they pursued the first systematizations of the knowledge of magnetism and electromagnetic fields amazed me. But now I’m duly inspired. I have a better knowledge of the history of the scientific endeavor and greater appreciation for the scientific spirit. And I’m satisfied having that reading behind me rather than before me. Harvey’s work on the circulation of the blood is similar except that, where I could see myself trying to build an electric motor like Faraday’s, I can’t imagine using scalpels and tourniquets to recreate Harvey’s brilliant experiments. Galileo, on the other hand, inspired actual experimentation in the Stephenson kitchen. The kids and I built a ramp, for instance, and measured the increasing speed of a ball as it rolled down. Now that I’ve been to the Galileo museum in Florence and seen some of the interactive models there, I’m even tempted to try it again.
These scientific treatises, as daunting as they were, made for easy going compared to some of the philosophy and mathematics in the first ten years of my reading plan. The Conic Sections of Apollonius of Perga lay entirely beyond my comprehension. Sharing space in the land beyond my comprehension is Mortimer Adler’s thinking in placing Apollonius in his original ten-year schedule. I note with relief that the updated Britannica plan (linked to above) skips him. While I could have done without Appolonius, I’m extremely glad that I read Plotinus (although one “Ennead” would probably have been enough); his neo-Platonism plays a big part in European history, and his religious theory of emanations helps in understanding some of the history of Christian theology. But hacking through his trackless jungle of intertwined ideals exhausted my mind. I eventually found a good commentary, by a fellow named Pistorius, that not only guided me through the convoluted knot but reassured me with the statement that Plotinus was the hardest of all philosophers to read and understand.
Darwin gets his own paragraph today. But I don’t want to say too much about him. My thoughts on evolution posted elsewhere have occasionally elicited smug comments from Darwinian believers trying to show me how closed-minded or stupid I am. But here are some facts that really can’t be argued with. (1) Darwin is my least favorite of all the authors of so-called Great Books. (2) His phrase “the descent of man from some lower form” is geometrically confused. (3) His comparison of Africans and idiots to “lower animals” is extremely difficult to read. (4) It would be unseemly and unfair to enumerate the fallacies in his argument that many “periodic processes” in vertebrates such as “the gestation of mammals, the duration of fevers, &c.” last a given number of “whole weeks” and that this mathematical coincidence “betray[s] to us the primordial birthplace of these animals” in the tidal pools of the distant past.