Great Books and Questions | Trimester 02

GIBBON | THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (CH. 15-16)

Chapter XV: The Progress of the Christian Religion, and the Sentiments, Manners, Numbers, and Condition, of the primitive Christians

  1. How much did the the mythology of the Greeks cloud and/or clarify the early Christian Gentile's understanding of the spiritual world - his/her concept of angels and demons?

  2. Gibbon writes on page 475: "It is this deep impression of supernatural truths, which has been so much celebrated under the name of faith; a state of mind described as the surest pledge of the divine favor and of future felicity, and recommended as the first or perhaps the only merit of a Christian. According to the more rigid doctors, the moral virtues, which may be equally practiced by infidels, are destitute of any value or efficacy in the work of our justification. But the primitive Christian demonstrated his faith by his virtues; and it was very justly supposed that the divine persuasion which enlightened or subdued the understanding, must, at the same time, purify the heart and direct the actions of the believer." According to Gibbon, what was the relationship between faith and virtue for the primitive Christian?

  3. Gibbon writes on pages 478-479: "In our present state of existence, the body is so inseparably connected with the soul, that is seems to be our interest to taste, with innocence and moderation, the enjoyments of which that faithful companion is susceptible. Very different was the reasoning of our devout predecessors; vainly aspiring to imitate the perfection of angels, they disdained, or they affected to disdain, every earthly and corporeal delight. Some of our senses indeed are necessary for our preservation, others for our subsistence, and others again for our information, and thus far it was impossible to reject the use of them. The first sensation of pleasure was marked as the first moment of their abuse. The unfeeling candidate for Heaven was instructed, not only to resist the grosser allurements of the taste or smell, but even to shut his ears against the profane harmony of sounds, and to view with indifference the most finished productions of human art." How does our own concept of the unity or disunity of body and soul influence our appreciation or disdain of the arts?

  4. According to Gibbon, what motivated the emergence of church officers (bishops, presbyters, etc.) and eventually an "episcopal form of government" that would ultimately resemble "a great federative republic"?

Chapter XVI: The Conduct of the Roman Government towards the Christians, from the Reign of Nero to that of Constantine

  1. How compatible was the primitive Christian's doctrine of the depravity of man with the pagan philosophy of the time? Under what circumstances might your own theology and philosophy be separate and incompatible with one another?

  2. Gibbon has claimed that early ecclesiastical writings have romanticized or exaggerated the persecution experienced by the primitive Christian church. Do you agree with this claim? Gibbon has also characterized such writing to be a violation of "one of the fundamental laws of history" (page 577). What are the fundamental laws of [writing] history?

THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE | JULY 4, 1776

  1. The Declaration of Independence (DOI) states: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Why are these rights self-evident? Why are these rights unalienable?

  2. The DOI states: "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it..." What happens when one person's pursuit of happiness threatens the pursuit of another? Are these the circumstances under which it is necessary to "alter or abolish" a Form of Government?

  3. The DOI supports a critique of the King of Great Britain with the fact that: "He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers." What threat does the establishment of a judiciary branch pose to the ambitions of a distant and tyrannical king?

  4. The DOI supports a critique of the King of Great Britain with the fact that: "He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power." Why must the military be dependent upon (even accountable to) and inferior (or at least equal) to the Civil Power?

  5. The DOI supports a critique of the King of Great Britain with the fact that: "He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions." Is this hyperbole? If so, why does the DOI represent the Indians so hyperbolically?

  6. What theological assertions are made or implied in the DOI? How is the DOI undermined if this theological foundation is not agreed upon or even removed?

THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES | 1787

  1. Article I Section 8 states: "The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States." How should the word "uniform" be interpreted here?

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS | NUMBERS 1-10, 15, 31, 47, 51, 68-71 | 1789-1791

  1. NO. 1 General Introduction (A. Hamilton) / Hamilton writes: "It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force." How have the last 200 or more years of our nation's history determined an answer to Hamilton's "important question"?

  2. NO. 4: The Same Subject [Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence] Continued (J. Jay) / Jay writes: "But admit that they [a disunited set of states or confederacies] might be willing to help the invaded State or confederacy. How, and when, and in what proportion shall aids of men and money be afforded? Who shall command the allied armies, and from which of them shall he receive his orders? Who shall settle the terms of peace, and in case of disputes that umpire shall decide between them and compel acquiescence? Various difficulties and inconveniences would be inseparable from such a situation; whereas one government watching over the general and common interests and combining and directing the powers and resources of the whole, would be free from all these embarrassments and conduce far more to the safety of the people." If John Jay's argument is valid, why should there be any limit to the size of this "one government"? Why is the one government of a state inferior to the one government of a confederacy? Why is the one government of a confederacy inferior to the one government of a national union? Why might the one government of a national union be inferior to the one government of a continent? What actually determines the scope and scale of the one government? Is it geography alone? Is it a common set of values and interests?

  3. NO. 6: Concerning Dangers from Dissensions Between the States (A. Hamilton) / Hamilton writes: "A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations who can seriously doubt that if these States should either be wholly disunited, or only united in partial confederacies, the subdivisions into which they might be thrown would have frequent and violent contests with each other. To presume a want of motives for such contests as an argument against their existence would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent, unconnected sovereignties situated in the same neighborhood would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages." Hamilton's arguments clearly depend upon convictions made about the nature of man. Herein he argues that history has proven man to naturally be ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious against his neighbor. Later in this same essay Hamilton describes man as driven by "the love of power or the desire of pre-eminence and dominion" as well as other "private passions." Hamilton argues that the genius of a united commercial republic is its ability to pacify and "soften the manners of men" and to "extinguish those inflammable humors which have so often kindled into wars." So, how does a commercial republic temper the private passions of man?

  4. NO. 8: The Consequence of Hostilities Between the States (A. Hamilton) / Hamilton writes: "If we are wise enough to preserve the Union we may for ages enjoy an advantage similar to that of an insulated situation. Europe is at a great distance from us. Here colonies in our vicinity will be likely to continue too much disproportioned in strength to be able to give us any dangerous annoyance. Extensive military establishment cannot, in this position, be necessary to our security. But if we should be disunited, and the integral parts should either remain separated, or, which is most probable, should be thrown together into two or three confederacies, we should be, in a short course of time, in the predicament of the continental powers of Europe - our liberties would be a prey to the means of defending ourselves against the ambition and jealousy of each other." For Hamilton, an "insulated situation" is a condition of being geographically isolated or distant from neighboring threats. Hamilton argues that in a united and insulated situation the necessary size of a military is reduced to a size that can (and should be) be kept in check by greater civil powers. He prefers such conditions. Do we currently enjoy the benefits of an "insulated situation" with a properly sized military kept in check by civil powers?

  5. NO. 15: The Insufficiency of the Present Confederation to Preserve the Union (A. Hamilton) / Hamilton writes: "Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint." Why will the passions of men not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint?

  6. NO. 31: The Same Subject [Concerning the General Power of Taxation] Continued (A. Hamilton) / Hamilton lists the following "primary truths" or "first principles" of ethics and politics: "...that there cannot be an effect without a cause; that the means ought to be proportioned to the end; that every power ought to be commensurate with its object; that there ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose which is itself incapable of limitation." Upon these axioms, Hamilton makes an argument that the general power of taxation in the national government (to secure revenue for general operation for superintending national defense) should not be limited by law but rather will naturally be limited by the "prudence and firmness of the people" who will "always take care to preserve the constitutional equilibrium between the general and the State governments." Upon the same axioms, is it possible to construct an argument that would place limits on the national government's power of taxation?

  7. NO. 47: The Particular Structure of the New Government and the Distribution of Power Among It's Different Parts (J. Madison) / Madison writes: "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." Madison goes on to argue that the Constitution admits only a partial agency of each branch in the work of the other two but by no means, allows for the whole power of two (or all three) separate branches to rest in the hands of the very same people. Is tyranny the inevitable end of the accumulation of legislative, executive, and judiciary powers all in the same hands of one person or a small body of the same people?

  8. NO 51: The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments (J. Madison) / Madison writes: "What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." Men are not angels. Why does the non-angelic nature of man require external and internal controls both in private and public affairs, and certainly in the greater work of a national government?

  9. NO. 71: The Duration in Office of the Executive (A. Hamilton) / Hamilton argues that it is the propensity of the legislative branch to absorb the authority of the executive and judicial branches. He explains, "The representatives of the people, in a popular assembly, seem sometimes to fancy that they are the people themselves, and betray strong symptoms of impatience and disgust at the least sign of opposition from any other quarter; as if the exercise of its rights, by either the executive or judiciary, were a breach of their privilege and an outrage to their dignity. They often appear disposed to exert an imperious control over the other departments; and as they commonly have the people on their side, they always act with such momentum as to make it very difficult for the other members of the government to maintain the balance of the Constitution." Hamilton argues that term limits better position the President to maintain the independence of the executive branch and hold the legislative branch in check against these propensities? How is this the case?

SMITH | THE WEALTH OF NATIONS (INTRO - BOOK I, CH. 9) | MARCH 9, 1776

  1. Smith writes: "In almost every other race of animals each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favor, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them." Elsewhere, Smith also references man's self-love as a primitive motivator for action. What assumptions about the nature of man are built into Smith's economic theory?

  2. Smith writes: "For in every country of the world, I believe, the avarice and injustice of princes and sovereign states, abusing the confidence of their subjects, have by degrees diminished the real quantity of metal, which had been originally contained in their coins. ...By means of those operations the princes and sovereign states, which performed them were enabled, in appearance, to pay their debts and to fulfill their engagements with a smaller quantity of silver than would otherwise have been requisite. It was indeed in appearance only." Is this still true today?

  3. If the real value of a coin is measured by the weight of the precious metal it is composed of, what units are used to measure the real value of labor? Is the unit a quantity of time? If the unit is a quantity of time, how does this account for the magnitude of hardship and skill the labor requires? How is the nominal value of a coin any more or less stable than the nominal value of labor?

  4. Smith writes: "But though in disputes with their workmen, masters must generally have the advantage, there is, however, a certain rate below which it seems impossible to reduce, for any considerable time, the ordinary wages, even of the lowest species of labour. A man must always live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him. They must even upon most occasions be somewhat more; otherwise it would be impossible for him to bring up a family, and the race of such workmen could not last beyond the first generation (pg.170)." Let us call this the minimum subsistence wage. Smith later describes laws as an ineffective means for regulating this minimum wage. So if no law determines and regulates a particular minimum wage, how is such a wage determined and regulated? Smith seems to suggest that fluctuations in wages ultimately converge upon an actual wage sufficient for subsistence (in the same way that market prices converge upon natural prices). When wages are below what is necessary for subsistence "want, famine, and mortality" prevail (pg. 175). The population of laborers diminishes. Demand for labor becomes greater than supply and wages eventually rise as manufactures bid for workers. Can we imagine this being the likely course of events in the United States if minimum wage laws were revoked tomorrow?

TOCQUEVILLE | DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA (VOL I, PART II, CH. 6-8)

  1. Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 5: Tocqueville describes two kinds of centralization. "Governmental centralization" concerns the "formation of general laws and relations with foreign nations" whereas "administrative centralization" concerns the "business undertaken by the townships." Tocqueville argues that administrative centralization weakens a nation by: diminishing any sense of civic pride, by concentrating resources while also militating against the increase of these resources, and by bringing temporary victory in battle yet ultimately diminishing the nation's power. Furthermore, administrative centralization assumes "the government is better able to administer localities than they can themselves" which Tocqueville only believes to be the case when "central government is enlightened and local authorities are not, when it is energetic and they are slow, and when it is accustomed to command and they to obey" - all not characteristics of the enlightened and watchful American. Do you agree with Tocqueville's assessment of the dangers of administrative centralization? Are any of these dangers realized in the United States today?

  2. Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 8: In his description of the federal courts, Tocqueville writes: "The major objective of justice is to substitute the concept of law for that of violence and to position intermediate authorities between the government and the use of physical force." In this way the courts are a "moral force" that makes the use of "physical force" less frequent and less necessary. The nation's highest court, the Supreme Court, possesses the greatest moral force such that seven federal judges ultimately hold the "peace, prosperity and existence of the Union" in its very hands. Tocqueville claims that without the Supreme Court "the constitution would be a dead letter." Is our judicial branch a "moral force"? Do you agree with Tocqueville's assessment that the constitution would be dead without the Supreme Court?

  3. Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 5: Tocqueville writes: "When elections occur at long intervals, the state runs the risk of being overthrown each time. ...When elections follow in rapid succession, their frequency keeps society in feverish excitement and public affairs in a continuous state of change. Thus, on one side, the state risks the onset of unease or, on the other, revolution; the former system damages the quality of government, the latter threatens its existence." Does the current frequency of our elections protect us from revolution by perpetuating a healthy amount of instability? At what point could some amount of this kind of instability make us vulnerable to revolution?

  4. Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 5: Tocqueville writes: "Moreover, it is much less frightening to witness the immorality of the great than to witness that immorality which leads to greatness. In democracies, ordinary citizens see a man emerging from their ranks... ...it is inconvenient to attribute his rise to his talents or to his virtues... Therefore, they ascribe, often rightly, the principal reason for his success to some of his vices." First, you decide what is most frightening, is it the immorality of the great or the immorality that leads to greatness? Why are citizens of a democracy naturally suspicious of the moral behavior of a successful politician?

  5. Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 6: Tocqueville claims that equalizing social conditions and setting up a democratic government is the best means to: divert man's concern toward physical necessities, settle for reason instead of genius, develop peaceful habits instead of heroic virtues, prefer vice over crime, choose prosperity over brilliance, strengthen individuals rather than the nation, and avoid suffering. Do you agree? How difficult might it be for an aristocracy to achieve these ends?

  6. Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 9: "Religious zeal constantly gains vitality from the fires of patriotism," writes Tocqueville. Furthermore, he describes the "missionaries of Christian civilization" as politically minded and motivated to the same degree, if not more than, they were heavenly minded. If religious zeal and political ambitions were successfully intertwined in the project of westward expansion, why must the work of the Church eventually be separated from that of the state?

  7. Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 9: Tocqueville's commentary on faith as the permanent state of mankind is profound. Here it is: "Never will the short span of sixty years close down a man's imagination; the imperfect joys of this world will never satisfy his heart. Man alone of all created beings shows a natural disgust for existence and an immense longing to exist; he despises life and fears annihilation. These different feelings constantly drive his soul toward the contemplation of another world and religion it is which directs him there. Religion is thus one particular form of hope as natural to the human heart as hope itself. Men cannot detach themselves from religious beliefs except by some wrong-headed thinking and by a sort of moral violence inflicted upon their true nature; they are drawn back by an irresistible inclination. Unbelief is an accident; faith is the only permanent state of mankind." So is Tocqueville correct, is faith the only permanent state of mankind?

  8. Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 10: This chapter concerning the plight of the Native American Indian and Negro is worth reading in its entirety. It is difficult to read and even more difficult to know how to respond to. Tocqueville opens his chapter with this commentary: "Among these very different men, the first to attract attention, the best educated, the most powerful, the happiest, is the white man, the European, the epitome of man; in a position inferior to him appear the Negro and the Indian. These two unfortunate races have nothing in common, neither birth, nor facial features, nor language, nor customs; their fortunes alone are similar. Both occupy an equally inferior position in this country they inhabit; both experience the effects of tyranny; and, if their sufferings are different, they are able to blame the same people." There is no denying that this is a part of our past that shapes the present. How does this sad history impact you personally today? What are you going to do about it?

  9. Volume 2, Part 1, Chapter 1: Tocqueville describes America as the one country "where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and most widely applied." In America the lack of clear class divisions and celebration of equality leaves man not looking to the insight of his elders but instead constantly returning to his own rationality - "each man thus retreats into himself from where he claims to judge the world." Men begin to believe that there exists an explanation for everything and so they "willingly deny what they cannot understand." As a result, Tocqueville explains, man is left with "little faith in the extraordinary and an almost invincible distastes for the supernatural." Why might democracy naturally breed a Cartesian distaste for the supernatural?

  10. Volume 2, Part 1, Chapter 17: Tocqueville describes the equality and mediocrity of citizens of a democracy to be insufficient material for the poet wishing to depict beauty. As a result, the poets of a democracy focus their attention on the beauty of inanimate objects (descriptive poetry) and eventually upon themselves. He claims that "democracy diverts the imagination from all that is external to man and fixes it upon man himself." How does a democracy divert man's attention from the beauty that exists outside himself (including the ordinary citizens he lives amongst)?

  11. Volume 2, Part 3, Chapter 12: In a chapter titled, How the Americans View the Equality of Men and Women, Tocqueville writes: "There are Europeans who confuse the various characteristics of the sexes and would make of men and women beings not only equal but alike. To both, they attribute the same functions equally, impose on them the same duties and grant them the same rights. They would involve them both in everything - work, pleasure, business. It is easy to see that, in this ambition to make the one sex equal to the other, both are demeaned and that, from this crude mixing of nature's works, will emerge weak men and immodest women." Might Tocqueville make this very same observation of Americans today (There are Americans who confuse the...)?

MARX-ENGELS | MANIFESTO OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY

IBSEN | THE MASTER BUILDER

  1. Is it really that bad to serve and care for someone out of a sense fo duty first and love second? Or perhaps out of duty only and no kind of affection at all?

  2. What is the never-healing wound that Solness suffers from?

  3. Is it cowardly to surrender to the will of the internal conscience (the "troll" inside me) or outside powers (the "devils" in the world) rather than act according to one's greatest desires?

  4. What are the "castles in the air" that are so easy for Hilde and Solness to retreat to? Why are "castles in the air" especially suited for those with "dizzy consciences"?

  5. For each character in the play, what tensions exist between love and duty?

  6. Is it better to build churches (even after tragedy strikes) than homes or even  "castles in the sky"?

SCHRODINGER | WHAT IS LIFE?

HOMER | THE ILIAD

  1. In one stanza is described droves of men in battle while in the next is a detailed and very personalized death of an individual. How are the details of death scenes more than just a means of vivifying the brutality of war?

  2. Is it futile to fight against the gods?

  3. What causes are worth dying for?

  4. Are all men ponds in the hands of the gods?

  5. What do Homer's metaphors of fighting beasts (lions, leopards, bores, wolves), used to portray battle, imply about the ancient's view of the body (mortal flesh) and the nature of man (at war)? 

  6. Why are the most intense battles so often driven by pride and fury / rage?

  7. Why do the gods ultimately (appear to) live free of the greatest sorrows of mortal man?

  8. Of course, the classic question: Is Hector or Achilles the real hero of the Iliad?

AESCHYLUS | AGAMEMNON, THE LIBATION BEARERS, THE EUMENIDES

SOPHOCLES | OEDIPUS THE KING, ANTIGONE

 

1. Is there anything good about being blind to the corruption of your own life?

2. What is the relationship between foreordination and personal responsibility?

3. What is the relationship between fate and freedom?

4. Is any part of your life determined by chance?

5. Is it good for you to be uncertain of your future?

6. Can you effectively avoid or escape your destiny?

7. How can your mother both dismiss the elderly prophet and pray earnestly unto the gods?

8. With whom do you have trouble empathizing?

9. Do you still love your parents?

10. For how long will you go on hating those who have spoken unto you painful truths?

11. Would you have rather lived your life in ignorance of the truth?

12. Does the foreknowledge of the gods make your life any more or less tragic?

13. Is there anything comical about your tragic life?

14. Is there any possible way for your tragic life to be redeemed?

HERODOTUS | THE HISTORY (BOOKS I-II)

PLATO | MENO

ARISTOTLE | ON POETICS

ARISTOTLE | NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

  1. Can virtue be taught? (p.15)

  2. Can a young child be virtuous? (p.15)

  3. Why must the politician study the soul? (p.20)

  4. How do habits shape character? (p.24)

  5. How much of our action is determined by anticipated pleasures or pains? (p.27)

  6. How does our personal response to the excess and deficiency we see in others reveal our own moral disposition? (p.35)

  7. What extremes do you need to drag yourself away from? (p.36)

  8. What does your cash flow reveal about your moral virtue (liberality or magnificence)? (p.62)

  9. What might Aristotle think about Las Vegas? (p.64)

  10. Can the proud man also possess a virtuous kind of humility? (p.71)

  11. How can shame be a good thing (a "quasi-virtue")? (p.79)

  12. Who or what establishes the equality of two people? (p.85)

  13. Is money the only unit that makes all things commensurate in matters of justice? (p.90)

  14. From what or where does our intuition of first principles originate? (p.107)

  15. How or why must the virtuous man respect his elders? (p.114)

  16. Does the nature of men differ? Can a man be predisposed to incontinence? (p.135)

  17. How do "all things [have] something divine in them"? (p.139)

  18. What is the relationship between justice and friendship? (p.142)

  19. Why are friendships of pleasure and utility so easily dissolved? (p.144)

  20. How do differences in motives and expectations harm friendships? (p.163)

  21. How might friendship be a kind of self-love? (p.168)

  22. What is the relationship between pleasure and happiness? (p.183)

  23. When is it appropriate to seek amusement? (p.193)

  24. How does the contemplative life move us nearer to the divine? (p.195)

  25. Why is law necessary? (p.199)

  26. What can humans be held responsible for? Why?

  27. Do we have a "sinful" nature?

  28. How might Aristotle respond to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)?

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