Friday, February 27, 2015

"Summa Theologica" [Questions XC-XCVII] - Thomas Aquinas

Hello dear readers. It has been another long break since my last entry and, one again, I feel the need to assure you that I am alive and fully intend to finish the Great Books of the Western World. School and other distractions have been keeping me busy. I don't know when I will get done, though I now suspect it will take longer than the suggested 10 Year Plan, but I will get done or I will die in the attempt.

I found Thomas Aquinas far more interesting than Tacitus, but his writing is still very dense and that is art of the reason this reading took so long. Although Thomas Aquinas's Christianity provides the framework of his thought, this selection wasn't about theology per se, but about the nature of law.

Thomas Aquinas divides law into for types: 1) The eternal law i.e. the unwritten law of God, 2) The natural law i.e. a shadow of the eternal law written on our hearts, 3) Human law i.e. Civil law, and 4) Divine law i.e. the Old Law of Moses and the New Law of Christ. Natural, human, and divine law are all derivative of the eternal law. Importantly, Thomas Aquinas notes that human law shouldn't be a full reflection of eternal law and that human law permits some things that the eternal law condemns.

By the way Thomas Aquinas makes a statement that, to my mind at least, reveals the Euthyphro dilemma to be a false dilemma. The Euthyphro dilemma, named after the Plato dialogue that it appears in, is as follows: "Does God command things because they are good, or are things good because God commands them?" Either "good" is subjective (e.g. God could just as easily deem murder good) or good stands apart from God and therefore, because God answers to a higher standard, God isn't God. To me Thomas Aquinas's statement "[God's] law is not distinct from Himself" settles the whole thing. God commands good because He is good.

While reading Thomas Aquinas it was easy to see the faith in the authority of books that medieval people had. He often quoted an author as an objection to or as evidence for one of his points as if the fact that the statement was found in a book must mean that it's true! And this applied to both Christian and Pagan books. Thomas Aquinas was known for his reconciliation between Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy, one representing faith and the other reason.

Of course, I don't bring up Thomas Aquinas's sometimes blind faith in authority to belittle him. The way he organized and reconciled all of the ideas he was dealing with really was awe inspiring, and I ultimately agreed with most of his conclusions. I've also read some of Thomas Aquinas's other ideas, that weren't necessarily in the short segment that I read, that I think are brilliant. He definitely is one of the great thinkers of the West.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"The Annals" - Tacitus

Yes, I'm still alive.

I had an extremely hard time getting through this book which is the sole reason for my extended absence. There were a few reasons I found this book hard to get through, but the main reason is that I found it really dry. Where Herodotus told history in an entertaining and story-like manner, Tacitus merely reported events matter-of-fact. It might make for a more accurate record of past events, but it's far less enjoyable to read. My eyes glazed over many, many times while reading.

Another reason that may have contributed to my dislike for the book is my persistent dislike of Rome. Maybe it was because of early exposure to the New Testament and Asterix comics, but I have a hard time seeing Rome as anything, but a villain. While the Greeks weren't angels, there is enough for me to love that I have developed  a huge soft spot for them, but I have never developed such a soft spot for the Romans. Indeed, most of the "characters" in the Annals were either despicable people or their victims. The injustice was sometimes hard to read.

Still there were bright spots in the sea of monotony that was the Annals. For example the Annals is the first non-Christian source to mention Jesus, albeit in a decidedly unsympathetic light - at least regarding his followers, there is also an account of Britain's warrior queen Boudica (I was cheering on the "barbarians" in the wars mentioned), there were some interesting legal or political dilemmas, there was an endearing moment when Tacitus apologized to his readers for having to go into boring details.

So, overall, the Annals was not a favourite of mine, but I am excited to finally start moving ahead again.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Just a quick update: I think I'm going to stop recording my thoughts on the books I read each month. I might start it back up again in the future, but lately I haven't been feeling the desire to record my thoughts on every book I read. I'll continue to record my thoughts on the Great Books and thus keep this blog alive, but I'm going to throttle back on blogging.

Speaking of the Great Books, yes I am still reading them, but definitely at my own pace. I'm slowly making my way through the Annals of Tacitus right now. It isn't the most readable book in my opinion, but I'll get it done eventually.

Also, I have closed my second blog "Waiting for the King". The reason being that I am now writing for and I have transitioned the posts I have already written and will continue to write about King Arthur in the media there.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Book Read in July 2014

Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell

The second book in Cornwell's The Warlord Chronicles was told almost episodically in four parts. The first part was about a war against the Saxons. The second part was a Grail Quest of sorts, re-imagined as a quest to find a pagan cauldron, one of the Treasures of Britain. I found the first two parts underwhelming. Battles get boring to read after a while and this version of the Grail Quest, stripped of all its symbolism and mysticism, was just a prosaic retelling of a fascinating story. Luckily, the last two parts made up for it. The first was about Britain during a short, but peaceful time and the second was about Lancelot's rebellion and Guinevere's betrayal of Arthur. This is when the themes of the gods vs. kings and order vs. chaos really got a chance to shine and the results were fascinating. I love Cornwell's writing style. It's very readable, but also obviously well-researched. I did find it a bit funny that by making Lancelot such a scumbag, the conflict between him and Arthur was a lot more black-and-white than it was in the legends. All of the despicable characters were lumped together conveniently on one side. That's not to say this book in its entirety is black-and-white by any means, but I just thought it was interesting because modern re-tellings like this usually try to make things more "morally complex" than the originals.

Friday, July 18, 2014

"Elements" [Book I]

I went through the first book of Euclid's Elements using a pen, ruler, protractor, compass etc. and followed his instructions in each proposal. It was fun at first, but became somewhat tedious around the middle of the book. What I found interesting about Elements is how many mathematical laws were proposed and problems solved without the use of complex calculations. I used a calculator a couple of times, but it wasn't necessary. The first book dealt mostly with triangles, angles, and parallelograms. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Books Read In June 2014

The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth

During the first couple chapters (or "books"), I was surprised at how readable this history was. However, after a while, as countless kings rose and fell, I began to get restless. Luckily things picked up once Arthur entered the scene for the last few chapters. This books is one of the earlier appearances of Arthur in literature and much of the romance of later Arthurian tales is absent. There's no Round Table, no knights in the traditional sense (although some familiar faces such as Gawain and Kay turn up), no Lady of the Lake etc. while some of it is present such as Merlin and Excalibur (here named Caliburn). This was an interesting if ultimately dry book, which I am glad to have read but am in no hurry to re-read. I learned some very interesting things about the English mythos pre-Arthur - for example I learned that the Britons were thought to be descended from Aeneas, survivor of Troy and founder of Rome - as well as the origins of Arthurian legend, though of course Arthur's roots go much further.

The Discarded Image by C. S. Lewis

The Discarded Image is a fascinating look at the beautiful and elegant - though scientifically inaccurate - worldview of the Middle Ages. Many would say that learning about a disproved theory of the universe is pointless, but I am very glad I read this book. Scientifically, there doesn't seem to be much point in having any more than a basic understanding of the medieval model of the universe, but this is a book written for those interested in medieval literature and this book provides a backdrop for said literature. However, the medieval model is a thing of such beauty and a product of a philosophy so different from our own, I would recommend this book to anyone simply as an exercise in stretching the mind. Lewis paints a vivid picture of the medieval model, discussing everything from the medieval views on the planets, to the four elements and humours, humanity, animals, and so on. Lewis is also keen on disproving misconceptions about medieval thought such as the idea that the medievals thought the universe was small and local when in fact they thought that the stars were unimaginably distant and the scandalous idea that the medievals thought the earth was flat when nearly every educated person knew that the earth was round. This was a fantastic book and is sure to get many re-reads from me.

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

This is the first book in the Warlord Chronicles, a retelling of the King Arthur set in the historical setting of the "real Arthur" - if he ever existed. Because of the Dark Age setting the knights are replaced by 6th century warriors, chivalry is replaced by a more rough warrior's honour, and motte-and-bailey fortresses rather than stone castles. Although my heart lies with the idealized version of Arthurian legend, I found this book very interesting and enjoyable. I liked the authenticity of the setting and I liked how cleverly Cornwell weaved myth into history. You can easily imagine how the Arthur story as we now have it grew out of these "real" events. The protagonist Derfel was easy to connect with and I found Cornwell's takes on Arthur, Guinevere, and Nimue fascinating. All three were very well fleshed out and felt like real people. However, I wasn't happy with Cornwell's portrayal of Lancelot. He is portrayed as a vain, arrogant, despicable coward who paints himself as a warrior. While I appreciate the cleverness of this portrayal (can't you just see how the legends of Lancelot would come about if this was how he really was) and I recognize that my dislike is subjective, it pained me because Lancelot is my favourite character and my hero. This was basically like seeing him slandered.

"Politics" [Books III-V]

This reading took longer than expected (I largely blame the World Cup), and because of this I'm anxious to move on so I'll keep my thoughts on Politics brief.

These three chapters had a lot going on. Because Aristotle's writing is so pithy, I felt like the information I was taking in was soon being pushed out by new information. I would have liked either a teacher or a reading group to help dig deeper into Aristotle's ideas. The result is I feel like I haven't learned as much from these chapters as I would have liked.

The main focus of these chapters is a comparison of the three major forms of government: monarchy (the rule of one), aristocracy (rule of few), and democracy (rule of the people).

Some things I found interesting:

  • Following the principle he laid down in Ethics that virtue is the mean between excess and deficiency, Aristotle said that it isn't good to be rich or poor, but to have moderate wealth. I very much agree with him. In my opinion, if you have too much or too little money, it will run your life.
  • Aristotle said that democracy is built on the assumption that, because citizens are equal in one area (i.e. freedom), they are equal in all areas. Oligarchy is built on the assumption that those unequal in one way (i.e. wealth) are unequal in all ways.
  • Towards the end Aristotle explained how power is preserved in a tyranny (i.e. a ruler who rules for his own self-interest rather than for the general good and not from laws). If a tyrant is to preserve his power, he must stop any one of his subjects rising above the others, he must not allow groups of his subjects to meet in secret, he must always keep his subjects in view and know what they are up to, and not allow his subjects to get to know each other well lest they form factions against him. I found this part particularly chilling because I recognize these features in dystopian societies in fiction and also totalitarian states in the real world.
  • Aristotle didn't seem to prefer one form of government over the other and even suggested that one government may work well in one situation and with one group of people but not with another.
Overall, I found this book a lot more practical than Plato's Statesman and I could easily see myself re-reading this book more in-depth in the future.