From time to time, we hope to post the thoughts of some of Shimer's great faculty members on this blog. Some may even join the ranks of our regular contributors. For now, Harold Stone, who you can read all about here, has shared these notes originally composed for the Gadfly, Shimer's newsletter for Weekend College, a program which allows adults to complete their undergraduate education in the Great Books here at Shimer.
Notes from the Director
Welcome to the Fall Semester of the 2009-2010 academic year. The Weekend College is approaching its thirtieth year. At one time, the rule of thumb was not to trust anyone over 30. I don’t know if the same skepticism was or should be applied to institutions. As we approach the end of the Weekend College’s third decade, I can tell you the Program is strong, our continuing students have made remarkable achievements in one of the most challenging programs of undergraduate instruction. Congratulations to those who have completed their Area Comprehensive examinations and to those who passed the Basic Studies Examination. Welcome to our new students. I think you will agree as you get to know them that they are interesting individuals full of promise. If reaching and passing the thirty year mark is a passage perilous, I advise you to be confident because of the quality of the company engaged in this venture and the nobility of its purpose.
This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th of the publication of his best known work, On the Origin of Species. As we continue our contribution to the life of the mind and the development of our own intellectual and spiritual resources, it is right to think back on what binds us to and separates us from this past. To enter the world of 1809 requires a far greater imaginative leap than that of 1859, or so it seems to me. There is something seductive about “The Masterpiece Theatre” presentation of the novels of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell or Charles Dickens that makes each of them so approachable even palpable. This immediacy of the past can be deceptive. To understand most things we need to withdraw from our immediate context and radically slow down the pace of what we experience. This isn’t primarily because ‘back then’ life was slower, though that may be true. The primary reason to slow down is to allow us to stop, to pick up objects, and to explore them in their complexity. You should use the same standard when it comes to your class preparation and your writing. Set aside more time then you think reasonable to get your reading done and your papers written. Call it time to think, time to day dream, your understanding of your readings will only improve the longer you allow yourself to wander and wonder with them. Great authors and great books often have the unsettling effect of making you think they are speaking directly to you, and often that is true. When you think you are succumbing to the power of an argument, beware that you are loosing your critical judgment! Slow down.
On other matters, remember that after the next Weekend College meeting on Sunday we will have the first meeting of the Assembly, the governing body of the College. All staff and students are members of the Assembly. Be sure to attend, consider serving on one of the committees that govern the College. If you have any difficulties with your ID or have any other problems be sure to contact me.
Director of the Weekend Program
Fact Checking: The Perspective of the Great Books
Among the polymaths we study is the seventeenth French writer Blaise Pascal. We read Pascal’s scientific treatises on air pressure and the vacuum in Natural Sciences One; his Pensées are a required text in Humanities Three. In 1656 Pascal began a project which perhaps really began as a series of actual letters to an unnamed friend. In any event, in their published form they are presented as a series of loosely connected letters which describe the state of theological debate in Paris to someone remote from the capital city. In their published form we know them as The Provincial Letters. In this compact volume of 18 or 19 letters one reads a withering analysis of the state of the moral philosophy and of the theological speculation practiced at France’s leading center of religious thought, the Sorbonne. Not only does his work deal with fundamental questions of integrity and moral purpose; his irony is sublime, his wit is never merely corrosive or abusive, and some of his passages will make you roar with laughter.
The recent debate concerning what actually is being proposed in the healthcare legislation being considered by Congress reminded me of the initial issue that begins The Provincial Letters. What got Pascal started was what might seem an obscure and insignificant matter. A couple of decades before a theologian named Jansen had written a Latin treatise seeking to make a coherent explanation of the various remarks of St. Augustine concerning grace, and especially the saving grace God might give to individuals. This was an important matter of contention between Protestants and Catholics at this time as those of you who have already taken the class know from your reading of Max Weber in Social Sciences One. It was also an internal dispute between the different religious orders of the Catholic Church. In the rush to discredit Jansen and his followers (whom we might regard as conservatives), a group led by the Jesuits (whose position might be called liberal) asserted that Jansen’s book contained four heinous propositions. The Pope, on seeing the propositions, agreed; he condemned the propositions and the book as heretical. Pascal and his friend Arnauld had the further effrontery to point out that not only were these statements not contained in Jansen’s text, the text clearly said the opposite. To be sure, they agreed, if they had been in the text they would have been heretical. The response of some of the Jesuits was to argue that Arnauld and Pascal should be condemned for pointing out that the passages couldn’t be found!
And, as you might suspect, this argument, while it looked like it concerned theology was in fact a political quarrel involving the prestige of the French King Louis XIV and the Papacy who were allied to the flawed scholarship of the Jesuits. While these connections are interesting, what Pascal goes on to show is the moral bankruptcy behind the sloppy and unethical behavior of those who deliberately misrepresent what they read, or worse what they claimed to have read. He goes on to show that those who sponsored and affirmed these fabricated propositions were part of an institution that promoted a rotten moral code. Pascal did not hesitate to ridicule his adversaries and succeeded in making them not only look silly but he also showed they were merely petty men who were attempting to be bullies.