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Great Books and Questions | Trimester 01


  1. "A man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time (32a)." Must our fight for justice be done privately?

  2. "The unexamined life is not worth living (38a)..." Why?

  3. "It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen; it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death (39b)." Does wickedness indeed run faster than than death? Why?


  1. "...the most important thing is not life, but the good life (48b)." What is the good life?

  2. "Nor must one, when wronged, inflict wrong in return, as the majority believe, since one must never do wrong (49b)." Why must we not avenge wrong with wrong?

  3. " must not give way or retreat or leave one's post, but both in way and in courts and everywhere else, one must obey the commands of one's city and country, or persuade it as to the nature of justice. It is impious to bring violence to bear against your mother or father; it is much more so to use it against your country (51b)." Why is it more impious to bring violence to bear against your country than against your mother or father?


  1. This play tells a story of competing desires. The men's desire for sexual satisfaction overcomes their desire for war. The women's desire for peace overcomes their desire for sexual satisfaction - their sexual boycott is successful. Both battles can be characterized as a battle between the political mind and the sensual flesh. These seem to be bizarre terms on which war comes to an end. Yet today are not these competing desires between the political mind and the sensual flesh still present in the conflicts of our own age?


  1. The new school sophists are characterized as those willing and able to equip students with the ability to win arguments wrongly rather than rightly on the side of justice (if there is such a thing). How are we careful to resist the temptation to make persuasive and eloquent rhetoric a device for unjustly ridding ourselves of guilt and responsibility?

  2. In lines 900-910 we read a version of the contemporary argument that God cannot be just because we witness the absences of his justice in the presence of real evil throughout history. How much weight does this argument carry for us and for our students today? What is our response to this position?

  3. In lines 1420-1430, Pheidippides make the argument that all laws are invented by mere men through clever argumentation thereby affording him the right to make any new law of his own. That is, if there is no Zeus, then there can be no sources of law beyond clever argumentation. This an argument worthy of our own students' consideration yet it is embedded in a play littered with filth and obscenity. Can we, in good conscience, ask out own students to read content such as this? Are there not other, better ways for our students to encounter these ideas?


  1. Note sections 376-377 on teaching the young first through storytelling (mythos). This may be as critical a component of classical pedagogy as Socratic dialogue. How do we deliberately teach through story/myth in our grammar school? Also note how important it is that the earliest stories our students encounter are those celebrating virtue.


  1. Is the human good the pursuit of happiness? What is happiness?

  2. Aristotle writes, "...while both are dear, piety requires us to honor truth about our friends (1.6.15)." How has this statement proven to be true in your own life?

  3. Compare and contrast virtue as described by Aristotle with Biblical virtues.


  1. I find Aristotle's comments on currency in section nine of book one to serve as a relevant (and perhaps prophetic) critique of the United States departure from the gold standard in favor of a fiat money system (wherein the dollar is not linked to a specific asset). He seems to suggest that such a change introduces the notion of using money to earn more money and eventually to achieve an overabundance of wealth, an abundance that enables one to indulge in the acquisition of unnecessary goods that are less than good.

  2. How much do you agree with Aristotle's characterization of the unique nature of man found in section two of book one? Excerpts addressing the matter include: "man is by nature a political animal"; "Nature... has endowed man alone among the animals with the power of speech"; "For the real difference between man and other animals is that humans alone have perception of good and evil, just and unjust, etc."; and "For as man is the best of all animals when he has reached his full development, so he is worst of all when divorced from law and justice."


  1. What is the fate (or destiny) of those who seek absolute power?


  1. Compare kingdoms as they are conceived by men (ex. Plato's Republic and Laws, Aristotle's Politics) versus the kingdom of God ruled by a humble king, who came to be a shepherd to this people and entered into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey (not a war horse) to give his life.


  1. Compare the classically idealized state of a norm-minded and stratified community to the community experienced in the early church as described in the book of Acts.


Book One

  1. Consider Augustine's poignant opening paragraph: "Can any praise be worthy of the Lord's majesty? How magnificent his strength! How inscrutable his wisdom! Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud. But still, since he is a part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you." Examine yourself and offer up reflections on how you have found peace by resting in the Lord.

  2. Augustine has written, "The path that leads us away from you and brings us back is not measured by footsteps or milestones." The distance between us and the Lord is instead determined by the degree and direction of our love for passions outside of God himself. Describing the Prodigal Son, Augustine writes, "You loved him when he set out and you loved him still more when he came home without a penny. But he set his heart on pleasure and his should was blinded, and this blindness was the measure of the distance he travelled away from you, so that he could not see your face." How have the degree and direction of your loves distanced you from God?

Book Two

  1. Augustine opens this chapter: "I must now carry my thoughts back to the abominable things I did in those days, the sins of the flesh which defiled my soul. I do this, my God, not because I love those sins, but so that I may love you. For love of your love I shall retrace my wicked ways. The memory is bitter, bit it will help me to savor your sweetness, the sweetness that does not deceive but brings real joy and never fails." How does the act of confessing sin help us savor the sweetness of God?

  2. How do we love secondary or derivative beauty or goodness without letting it it draw us astray from the beauty of the divine?

Book Three

  1. While Augustine describes himself as stirred, impassioned, and changed by his reading of Cicero, he also describes himself troubled by the absence of any mention of Christ in Cicero. Augustine writes, "...the only thing that pleased me in Cicero's book was his advice not simply to admire one or other of the schools of philosophy, but to love wisdom itself, whatever it might be, and to search for it, pursue it, hold it, and embrace it firmly. These were the words which excited me and set me burning with fire, and the only check to this blaze of enthusiasm was that they made no mention of the name of Christ. For by your mercy, Lord, from the time when my mother fed me at the breast my infant heart had been suckled dutifully on his name, the name of your Son, my Savior. Deep inside my heart his name remained, and nothing could entirely captivate me, however learned, however neatly expressed, however true it might be, unless his name were in it." How ought our own blazing enthusiasm for classical literature be held in check by the presence or absence of the name of Christ in the literature itself?

  2. Augustine offers us three main categories of sin: lust for power, gratification of the eye, and gratification of our corrupt nature. Is there any sin that might fall outside of these three categories?

Book Four

  1. Augustine weaves elements and allusions to the parable of the prodigal son all throughout Confessions. Consider this description of Christ, "He did not linger on his way but ran, calling us to return to him, calling us by his words and deeds, by his life and death, by his descent into hell and his ascension into heaven." We move and live and have our being perpetually wrapped up in the embrace of our Father God who ran toward us while we were still a long way off and kissed us with mercy and grace.Trace Augustine's use of the prodigal son parable throughout Confessions and consider how this parable can be used to trace across the seasons of your own life.

  2. Augustine describes his own study of the liberal arts to initially cause him much more harm than good because he did not receive his quickness to understand the arts to be a gift from God to be stewarded unto the glory of God. Augustine laments, "...since I made no offering of them [the seven liberal arts] to you, it did me more harm than good to struggle to keep in my own power so large a part of what you had given to me and, instead of preserving my strength for you, to leave you and go to a far country to squander your gifts on loves that sold themselves for money." How do we prevent our students' from similarly squandering their understanding of the liberal arts?

Book Seven

  1. Augustine describes this wrestling with the Problem of Evil: "But although I declared and firmly believed that you, our Lord God, the true God who made not only our souls but also our bodies and not only our bodies but all things, living and inanimate, as well, although I believed that you were free from corruption or mutation or any degree of change, I still could not find a clear explanation, without complication, of the cause of evil." So how does Augustine resolve this dilemma through an understanding of free will and human responsibility? How do you explain the problem of evil?

  2. Consider Augustine's reconciliation of his readings of Plato and Paul. Compare and contrast Plato and Paul's writing regarding the means by which we learn and understand reality and truth?


Book Eight


  1. In section five, Augustine describes himself as torn apart by a battle of wills - one old will desiring perversity and one new will desiring obedience to God. He writes, "But the new will which had come to life in me and made me wish to serve you freely and enjoy you, my God, who are our only certain joy, was not yet strong enough to overcome the old, hardened as it was by the passage of time. So these two wills within me, one old, one new, one the servant of the flesh, the other of the spirit, were in conflict and between them they tore my soul apart." Has your soul ever been torn apart in this way?

  2. How might God use fear and shame to break the chains of your past that bind you?

Book Ten

  1. In sections 8-15 (especially section 8), Augustine describes memory. How does Augustine describe the formation and recollection of memories? How does his description comport with the ancient concept of a Memory Palace?

  2. In section 34, Augustine describes art produced by the skillful hands of men (clothes, shoes, pottery, pictures, etc.). He suggests that any beauty found in these arts is derivative of "that Beauty which is above their souls" and therefore all judgments of beauty must be made based on our understanding of God as the "supreme Beauty." Augustine writes: "...for the beauty which flows through men's minds into their skillful hands comes from that Beauty which is above their souls... And it is from this same supreme Beauty that men make things of beauty and love it in its outward forms derive the principle by which they judge it...". Is there any other standard by which beauty should be judged? What aesthetic principles can be derived from our understanding of the beauty of God?

  3. In The Prince, Machiavelli claims that it is better to be feared than loved. In The Confessions, Augustine claims that neither option, being feared or loved, is good. Both lead to "a life of misery and despicable vainglory" (section 36). Imagine Machiavelli and Augustine discussing their differences over a meal together. Compose a transcript of some portion of this hypothetical conversation.


Book Eleven

  1. What is time? When did time begin? How does God exist before and in time? Consider Augustine's wrestlings with these questions, a wrestling that ends in his confession that "...I still do not know what time is" (section 25). Why are theses questions so significant for Augustine's theology?

Book Twelve

  1. Concerning interpretations of Genesis, Augustine urges us to exercise charity toward one another. He suggests that it is very foolish to make any kind of bold assertion of a particular interpretation. How do show charity toward one another in our interpretations of Genesis? Just how far should this charity extend?

Book Thirteen

  1. Augustine acknowledges that rarely does any soul understand the nature of the Trinity. Nobody can offer a true description of precisely what the Trinity is. However we can understand the Trinity by comparing it to things we do understand. Augustine offers us this comparison: "There are three things, all found in man himself, which I should like men to consider. They are far different from the Trinity, but I suggest them as a subject for mental exercise by which we can test ourselves and realize how great the difference is. The three things are existence, knowledge, and will, for I can say that I am, I know, and I will... ...there is one inseparable life, one life, one mind, one essence; and therefore, although they are distinct from one another, the distinction does not separate them." Do you find Augustine's comparison helpful in developing your own understanding of the Trinity?


  1. Machiavelli offers us this description of a wise prince: "...a wise prince ought to adopt such a course that his citizens will always in every sort and kind of circumstances have need of the state and of him, and then he will always find them faithful." In other words, making others dependent upon you will also make them faithful unto you. Is this always the case?

  2. Machiavelli writes: "Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with." So now you decide, is it better for a prince to be feared or loved? [Just for kicks, also consider this quote from Michael Scott on the television show The Office: "Would I rather be feared or loved? Umm.. easy, both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me?" What do you think of Michael's spin on Machiavelli?]

  3. Machiavelli describes the good prince as keeping up the appearance of virtue while being willing to act contrary to virtue in secret for the sake of maintaining command of his people. Machiavelli explains: "...a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to fidelity, friendship, humanities, and religion. Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it. For this reason a prince ought to take care... that he appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this quality... Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are..." Under what circumstance might it be necessary for a prince to be secretly merciless, unfaithful, inhumane, dishonorable and irreligious?



If you are considering skipping a book in this trimester's reading list, you might skip Rabelais. The coarseness and crudeness of this work is barely tolerable.

  1. Consider the closing remarks of Rabelais in Pantagruel. Do you find yourself agreeing with those critics that accused Rabelais of foolishly writing "idle tales and amusing twaddle"? If so, then Rabelais accuses you of being a hypocrite in disguise who make common folk believe that you "have no employment save meditation and worship," meanwhile enjoying all "contrary good cheer." How might you respond to this accusation?

  2. Does the obscenity of this work ruin its comedic value? Is this a work worth reading today?


Book One: Chapter 7: That Our Actions Should be Judged by our Intentions

  1. Why must restitution be distressing, inconvenient, and "felt as a weight" in order to be meaningful?

  2. Montaigne has written, "I shall see to it, if I can, that my death makes no statement that my life has not made already." Do you share with him this resolve?

Book One: Chapter 8: On Idleness

  1. Why must our imaginations be curbed and restrained?

Book One: Chapter 9: On Liars

  1. One a lie is told, why does it become easier or more tempting to tell another?

  2. Do we become better liars as we age?

Book One: Chapter 19: That No Man Should be Called Happy Until After His Death

  1. How might your behavior in the face of death, reveal your disguises, eliminate all pretense, or redeem your name?

Book One: Chapter 21: On the Power of the Imagination

  1. How does our own imagination affect our body?

Book One: Chapter 22: That One Man's Profit is Another Man's Loss

  1. Are your "inward wishes" most often "born and nourished at the expense of others"?

Book One: Chapter 26: On the Education of Children

  1. Montaigne has suggested that the direction of a child's education should be determined by what is universally best and most profitable rather than by the particular behaviors, inclinations, and curiosities of the child at an early and tender age. Then he describes a kind of education for "a child of good family who seeks learning not for profit." Learning for profit is, according to Montaigne, an aim that is "unworthy of the Muses' grace and blessing, and anyhow depends on the cultivation of other men's favor." If the kind of education Montaigne describes is what is universally best and most profitable for all children then why is it characterized as an education for "a child of good family"? Are the "others" whose favor a good child learns to cultivate more fit for a different kind of education?

  2. By what means does Montaigne suggest that we lead a child into "understanding" rather than simply stuff their head with "knowledge"? How are knowledge and understanding different from one another?

  3. How do we avoid reducing the teaching of history to a "purely grammatical study" rather than "the anatomy of philosophy by which the deepest parts of our nature can be explored"?

  4. Montaigne calls for children to be taught philosophy regarding the following standards of behavior: "what it is to know and not to know, what the aim of his study should be be; what courage, temperance, and justice are; what the difference is between ambition and greed, servitude and submission, license and liberty; by what signs one may recognize genuine and solid contentment; to what extent we should fear death, suffering, and shame, by what springs we move; and the reason for all the different impulses within us." A child must "know how to die well and live well." By what means are these standards of behavior learned in contemporary education (in our own classrooms)?

Book One: Chapter 27: Measuring Truth and Error

  1. Is not Montaigne's appel to his own reason an appeal to his own self as an authority? Does Montaigne undermine his appeal to his own reason when he claims that nothing can be known to be certainly true or certainly false? Is there something circular about his argument?

Book One: Chapter 28: On Friendship

  1. What does a good friendship offer that cannot be found in a spouse?

Book One: Chapter 31: On Cannibals

  1. Is all humanity stricken with the disease of wanting to display one's own valor?

Book Two: Chapter 8: Affection of Fathers for their Children

  1. Montaigne laments: "It is unjust that an old, broken-down half-dead father should, alone in his chimney-corner, enjoy wealth that would suffice for the advancement and support of several children, and that he should let them, meanwhile, waste their best years, for lack of the means to advance themselves in reputation and in the public service. They are driven in desperation to seek any way, however wicked, of providing for their needs." Expand upon Montaigne's point that a father's neglect makes a child more prone to vices (or evil).

  2. Montaigne makes the claim that women are unfit to rule or even make decisions concerning the succession to the crown. He remarks: "It is dangerous to leave the disposal of our succession to women's judgement, and let them choose between our children for their choice is always capricious and unfair. For those undisciplined appetites and perverse tastes that they display during their pregnancies are present in their hearts at all times." How might you respond to Montaigne's characterization of mothers?

Book Two: Chapter 11: On Cruelty

  1. Must being virtuous always require suffering?

Book Two: Chapter 17: On Presumption

  1. Montaigne has suggested that "...mastery breeds contempt for what we hold and control." How does mastery breed contempt?

  2. Upon self-examination, are the falsest of our own opinions always born out of self-love or too high an estimation of ourselves?

  3. Concerning the telling of the truth, Montaigne writes: "Truth is the principal and fundamental part of virtue. It must be loved for its own sake. A man who speaks truth because he is in some way compelled or for his own advantage, and who is not afraid to tell a lie when it is of no importance to anyone, is not truthful enough. My soul naturally shuns a lie, and hates even the thought of one. I feel an inward shame and a sharp remorse if an untruth happens to escape me - as sometimes it does if the occasion is unexpected, and I am taken unawares." Must a virtuous man always (without exception) tell the truth?

Book Three: Chapter 2: On Repentance

  1. Montaigne has claimed that he knows "no quality so easy to counterfeit as godliness." How easy is it to counterfeit godliness?

Book Three: Chapter 3: On Three Kinds of Relationships

  1. Montaigne describes three kinds of companions: the companionship of a learned man, the companionship of a beautiful woman, and the companionship of books. He ranks the third, books, to be the best of the three. What kind of companionship do we (and does Montaigne) find it books that cannot be found in the other two kinds?

Book Three: Chapter 8: On the Art of Conversation

  1. Montaigne has called "conversation" the "most fruitful and natural exercise for our minds." He qualifies this further by noting that conversations ending quickly in agreement are not as valuable as those riddled with argument and debate. Montaigne explains, "If I talk with a man of strong mind and a tough jouster, he presses on my flanks, he pricks me right and left, his ideas stimulate mine. Rivalry, vanity, and the struggle urge me on, and raise me above myself. And agreement is an altogether tiresome constituent of conversation." How you have you learned from those conversations (even arguments) that have ended in disagreement? Why are conversations of this kind such a valuable and perhaps necessary part of learning?

  2. How does the avoidance of others' contradicting opinions lead us into obstinacy?

Book Three: Chapter 13

  1. Montaigne suggests that a child first experiences virtue as the exercise of reason to govern his/her own pain, pleasure, love, and hatred. Is his a helpful definition of childhood virtue?

  2. Montaigne describes Socrates as a philosopher who loves the pleasures of the mind more than the pleasures of the body but also recognizes that both pleasures must and should exist together. For Socrates, temperance is an exercise of the mind that holds the pleasures of the body in check. Montaigne writes, "For him temperance is the moderator, not the enemy of pleasures." Why must these two pleasures exist together? Why not pursue one and entirely deny the other?


  1. Hamlet says to Gertrude, "I must be cruel, only to be kind. Thus bad begins and worse remains behind" (Act 3, Scene 4).  Does this necessity of cruelty before kindness make sense to you? Have you ever been the giver or recipient of such cruelty and kindness? In what ways are you both empathetic to Hamlet as well as Gertrude?

  2. There is perhaps no line of Shakespeare better known than Hamlet's words in scene one of act three, wherein he says, "To be, or not to be: that is the question." Yet few know what he says next. Here are Hamlet's words quoted in their entirety. I have no question to pose with this text because I prefer to let the text pose its own questions to the reader:

To be, or not to be: that is the question.

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or tot take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep

No more, and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir too. "Tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep -

To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil

Must give us pause. There's the respect

That makes calamity of so long life -

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,

The insolence of office and the spurns

That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? Who would carrels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovered country from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pitch and moment

With this regard their current turns awry

And lose the name of action. - Soft you now,

The fair Ophelia! - Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remembered.


Chapter Two: Of the State of Nature

  1. Locke opens this chapter as follows: "To understand political power right, and derive from its original, we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions, and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man." Why must an ideal government be grounded upon an understanding of the original nature of man? Why does the nature of man make civil government necessary?

Chapter Six: Of Paternal Power

  1. Locke describes law as a necessary means to securing freedom. He writes, "So that, however it may be mistaken, the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom: For in all the states of created beings capable of laws, where there is no law, there is no freedom." Expound upon Locke's claim.


Book One

  1. Rousseau opens the first chapter of this book with this claim: "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains." Reflect and expound upon this opening line.

  2. Rousseau writes, "Force if a physical power; I do not see how its effects could produce morality." What can morality never be forced?

  3. According to Rousseau, a war can never be ended by forcing a people into slavery for such an agreement/terms of peace "far from ending the state of war, presupposes its continuation." How does slavery presuppose the continuation of war?

Book Two

  1. Rousseau suggests that at the birth of society, religion acts in the service of politics? Why might Rousseau object to politics serving the aims of religion?

  2. According to Rousseau who ought to make the laws of a society and who ought to execute/enforce these laws? Why is it important for these functions not to be entangled and be the responsibility of one man or power?

  3. Rousseau believes there is a danger in letting the gap between the rich and the poor become too great. Laws must be in place to prevent so wide of a gap that the rich are able to oppress and exploit the poor. Why should the gap between the rich and the poor be regulated by government?

  4. Why does the success of Political, Civil, and Criminal law directly depend upon the degree to which members of a society share common morals, customs, and beliefs?

  5. How does Rousseau's concept of freedom exist wherein members of a society are completely independent of one another yet excessively dependent upon the government?

Book Three

  1. How might Rousseau critique the current dynamics in the United States amongst the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government?

  2. Why are cruelty and anarchy the inevitable ends of an imbalance of power?

  3. While Rousseau admits that the language of mathematics has no place in moral calculations, he nevertheless uses mathematics (particularly the concept of a geometric mean) to describe the relationships between the Sovereign, the Prince (or the State or government), and the People. He suggest that the Prince must be the geometric mean of the Sovereign and the People. Stated mathematically, Sovereign : Prince = Prince : People. How helpful is this mathematical analogy?

  4. Why should the will of the government to preserve itself be both distinct from and yet subservient to the will of the people?

  5. What responsibility do the people of the State have in shaping/changing law through public assembly and the (charitable) expressing of their opinions? What are the dangers of a passive people?

Book Four

  1. Rousseau writes, "...the votes of the greatest number always bind the rest; and this is a consequence of the contract itself. Yet it may be asked how a man can be at once free and forced to conform to wills which are not his own. How can the opposing minority be both free and subject to laws to which they have not consented?" While Rousseau admits that this question is "badly formulated", what is your response to his question?

  2. Rousseau characterizes the Christian as being too heavenly minded to have any concern for the common good of society. For this reason, he believes Christianity to be a religion that has has no concern for politics and is thereby insufficient as the basis for governing a society. Is this a fair characterization of Christianity? Why or why not?


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