Category Archives: 1. An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education

13. Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

This week’s post is a report on my personal rereading of the great books instead of on our Thursday evening Life group meeting because two of  the group’s members were in jail (see below) and so we didn’t have a meeting.

The conversion of the West to Christianity defies easy explanations. There is something mysterious about the process by which the faith of a handful of men in one generation became the religion of millions upon millions over the centuries. In these two chapters [chapters XV and XVI] of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon acknowledges the mystery while at the same time undertaking to examine what happened with critical detachment in the light of historical evidence.

Whether or not we accept Gibbon’s views on the natural and supernatural causes at work, whether or not we share his skepticism, we are left in a state of wonder that is appropriate to the extraordinary character of the events described. (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, volume 1 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, pages 147-48)

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the thirteenth reading in the first volume of The Great Ideas Program, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959).

After introducing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Adler and Wolff survey the history of the Roman Empire treated by Gibbon in earlier chapters, consider Gibbon’s attitude toward Christianity and his style, and discuss four specific questions on the reading. Here I’ll sketch Gibbon’s life, comment on his attitude to Christianity and style, and share the questions which Adler and Wolff ask about the reading.

The Life of Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon was born May 8, 1737, in Putney, Surrey. The only one of his parents’ seven children to survive infancy, he attributed his survival to the care of his mother’s sister, Catherine Porten. It was she who encouraged him in his love of reading.

Gibbon’s father sent him to Oxford when he was 15. Later he viewed his 14 months there to be “the most idle and unprofitable [time] in my life.” While there he converted to Catholicism. When he let his father know, his father sent him to Lausanne, Switzerland, where guided by a Calvinist minister, Daniel Pavillard, he reconverted to Protestantism.

While in Lauzanne Gibbon formed a friendship with George Deyverdun (see below) and became engaged to Suzanne Curchod, a pastor’s daughter. However his request to his father to marry her was refused. He acceded, writing later, “I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son.”

Gibbon returned to England in 1758. From 1759 to 1762 he served as a captain under his father in the Hampshire Militia. Publication in 1761 of Essay on the Study of Literature (in French; it was published in English in 1764 ), which he had begun while still in Lausanne, gained him some recognition as a writer. Upon his release from the militia, he embarked on a long-projected tour of Europe, which lasted until 1765, when he returned to his father’s house.

Although Gibbon got the idea of writing on the decline and fall of the city of Rome while visiting it in 1764, it wasn’t until 1772, two years after his father’s death, that he settled in London and concentrated on the history. The first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Romans Empire was published in 1776 and was immediately acclaimed as a classic and attacked for its discussion of Christianity. The second and third volumes followed shortly afterwards.

In 1782 Gibbon lost his seat in the House of Commons, to which he had been elected in 1776, and it became impossible for him to maintain himself in London. He arranged to live in Lausanne with his long-time friend, George Deyverdun. There he completed the last three volumes of The Decline and Fall of the Romans Empire, writing the last lines on June 27, 1787.

After completing it, his lifework, Gibbon began work on his autobiography. In 1789 Deyverdun died and the French Revolution broke out, both distressful to Gibbon. In 1793 he returned to London where, after a series of operations for his physical problems, he died January 16, 1794.

My primary sources for the above are the biographical note on pages v-vi of the first volume on Gibbon in Great Books of the Western World (volume 40; Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) and “Gibbon, Edward” in The New Encyclopedia Britannica (volume 8; Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974). For more on Gibbon, see

Gibbon’s Attitude Toward Christianity and His Style

Adler and Wolff claim that these two things, Gibbon’s attitude toward Christianity and his style, are probably most characteristic of chapters XV and XVI of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. They quote the first sentence of Chapter XV as showing how he conceived his task:

A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman empire (Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, volume 40 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 179).

After giving some examples of Gibbon’s candour and rationality, Adler and Wolff note that he raised the question why sages of antiquity refused to take up the Christian religion and imply that he viewed early Christianity as not being entirely candid and rational.

Adler and Wolff identify Gibbon’s balancing word against word and phrase against phrase, such as in “candid but rational,” as a characteristic feature of his style.


1. Is Gibbon’s work invalidated because of his attitudes and opinions?
Although Adler and Wolff concede that because of Gibbon’s prejudices many of his judgments cannot be take at face value, they affirm that we cannot maintain that his work is completely invalidated.

2. How does the rise of Christianity relate to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire?
Adler and Wolff observe that some of the effects, especially in the early days of Christianity, were disruptive of the general peace and harmony of the empire, but they also observe that some effects must have been of benefit to the empire.

3. Is Gibbon a determinist in history?
Adler and Gibbon claim that Gibbon appears to be at least a partial determinist, giving as evidence Gibbon’s view that the growing luxury and degeneracy of Rome in the second century A.D. made her eventual fall inevitable.

4. What were the strengths and weaknesses of the Christian religion?
Adler and Wolff say that “we must find a middle course between one extreme view which finds the history of the early church riddled with foolishnesses and abuses and the opposite extreme which simply ascribes all successes of the church to divine intervention” (Adler and Wolff, page 155).

“Two of  the group’s members were in jail.” They were part of a group from our church which was visiting a local correctional center.


12. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

SWIFT, JONATHAN (1667-1745), an English author, wrote the story Gulliver’s Travels (1726), a masterpiece of literature. Swift is called a great satirist because of his ability to ridicule customs, ideas, and habits he considered silly or harmful. [Satire is a kind of literature that uses wit to condemn wickedness and folly.] His satire is often bitter, but it is also often humorous. Swift was deeply concerned about the welfare and about the behavior of his fellow men, and he used his talent to strike out against those men, institutions, and ideas that he considered foolish.…

Scholars are still trying to discover all the ways in which real persons, institutions, and events are represented in Gulliver’s Travels. But readers need not be scholars to find pleasure in the book and to find themselves set to thinking about its distinctive picture of life. (The World Book Encyclopedia, Worldbook-Childcraft International, 1978, volume 18, page 828)

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the twelfth reading in the first volume of The Great Ideas Program, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959).

After identifying Gulliver’s Travels as a satire, Adler and Wolff consider its first two parts on Gulliver’s voyages to Lilliput and to Brobdingnag together, its third and fourth parts on Gulliver’s voyages to Laputa (and other places) and to the country of the Houyhnhnms separately, and three specific questions on the reading. Here I’ll sketch Swift’s life, summarize briefly Gulliver’s Travels, and share the questions which Adler and Wolff ask about the reading.

The Life of Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, on November 30, 1667. His father (Jonathan the elder) died a few months before his birth, leaving his wife, baby daughter, and the unborn Jonathan to the care of his brothers. Jonathan’s Uncle Godwin sent him to Kilkenny Grammar School, then the best in Ireland, at the age of six and to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1682. He received a B.A. in 1686 and continued at Trinity College as a candidate for a master’s degree until 1689, when the Irish Revolution of 1688 forced him, an Englishman, to leave Ireland.

Swift became secretary and personal assistant to Sir William Temple, an essayist and retired diplomat, at Moor Park in Surrey, England, but returned to Dublin in 1690 when King William reconquered Ireland. For the next several years he moved back and forth between Ireland and England. In 1692 he received the degree of M.A. at Oxford, and in 1695 during one of his stays in Ireland he was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church. His ten years’ connection with Temple acquainted him with men and affairs and provided him the opportunity for extensive reading and writing.

Shortly after Temple’s death in 1699, Swift became minister of a small church in Larocor near Dublin. To Larocor he invited Esther Johnson, whom he had tutored when they resided with Temple at Moor Park, and her companion, Rebecca Dingley. Later, when he was living in London (1710-13), he wrote a series of daily letters to the two ladies recording his busy life and inmost thoughts, which were collected and published as Journal to Stella after his death. There is speculation that Swift and Stella were secretly married.

After the publication of A Tale of a Tub (1704), which makes fun of some of the practices and teachings of the Church, Swift began building a reputation as a wit. When Queen Anne’s Tory ministers needed someone to write political pamphlets, they asked Swift. When Queen Anne died in 1714, Swift’s Tory friends fell from power and he returned to Dublin to be dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He spent the rest of his life in Ireland except for visits to England in 1726 and 1727.

Swift was followed to Dublin by Esther Vanhomrigh, a young girl whom he had come to know in London and nicknamed Vanessa. His relations with her are ambiguous, as they are with Stella. At length (in 1723) Vanessa wrote to Stella or Swift demanding to know whether they were married. Swift returned the letter and ended contact with her. Within a few weeks Vanessa died. Stella died five years later (in 1728).

About 1720 Swift began writing Gulliver’s Travels. It was an immediate success when it was published in 1726. Swift also wrote pamphlets supporting Irish causes.

During his last years Swift suffered acute physical torture from an ailment that had long plagued him with giddiness and nausea (now known to be Ménière’s disease). In March of 1742 guardians were appointed to care for him, and after a paralytic stroke in September of the same year he sank into complete mental apathy, which lasted until his death on October 19, 1745. He was buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and on the wall was affixed a Latin epitaph that he had himself composed and that may be translated:

The body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Sacred Theology, dean of this cathedral church, is buried here, where fierce indignation can no more lacerate his heart. Go, traveler, and imitate, if you can, one who strove with all his strength to champion liberty. (“Swift, Jonathan,” The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 17, page 859)

My primary sources for the above are the biographical note on pages ix-x of the volume on Swift (and another writer) in Great Books of the Western World (volume 36; Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) and the The New Encyclopedia Britannica article on him quoted from above. For more on him, see

Gulliver’s Four Voyages

On his first voyage Gulliver visits Lilliput, where the people are only 1/12 his size. They treat him well at first and he helps them, but after a time they turn against him. On his second voyage Gulliver visits Brobdingnag, where the people are 12 times his size and treat him as a pet. All sorts of funny situations occur in the two places, examples being Gulliver’s pulling behind him a whole fleet of warships full of sailors and soldiers in Lilliput and his being carried in the mouth of a dog in Brobdingnag. He is relieved to be accidentally delivered from each place.

On his third voyage Gulliver visits Laputa, Balnibardbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan. The conduct of the people of these countries represents the kinds of foolishness that Gulliver saw in his world, especially by impractical scientists and philosophers. For example, one of the projects that Gulliver viewed in the grand academy of Lagoda in Laputa was getting sunshine from cucumbers. Again Gulliver was relieved to be able to return to England.

On his fourth voyage Gulliver visits a country ruled by wise and gentle horses called Houyhnhnms. The country also has savage, stupid animals who look like human beings. The Houyhnhnms distrust Gulliver because he resembles the Yahoos and, although he wants to stay with them, eventually force him to leave.


1. What are the similarities and differences between satire and tragedy?
Adler and Wolff answer that they are similar in that each emphasizes the insignificance of man and that they different in that in tragedy man’s insignificance is used to stir admiration of his nobility in suffering but that in satire it is used to stir amused contempt.

2. Consider the following statements about man.
The statements are Psalms 8:4-8; statements from two books which we considered earlier in this series of articles, Sophocles’s Antigone and Aristotle’s Politics; and this statement from Gulliver’s Travels: “He looked upon [men] as a sort of animals to whose share, by what accident he could not conjecture, some small pittance of reason had fallen, whereof we made no other use than by its assistance to aggravate our natural corruptions, and to acquire new ones which nature had not given us” (Gulliver’s Travels, pages 159-60).

3. Which of the four parts of Gulliver’s Travels is most successful?
After conceding that the answer to this question would probably vary somewhat from person to person according to taste, Adler and Wolff explain that they consider “Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms” the most successful because it makes Swift’s point most forcefully.

10. Shakespeare’s Hamlet

SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM (1564-1616), was an English playwright and poet. He is generally considered the greatest dramatist the world has ever known and the finest poet who has written in the English language. Shakespeare has also been the world’s most popular author. No other writer’s plays have been produced so many times or read so widely in so many countries. (“William Shakespeare,” The World Book Encyclopedia, World Book ‒ Childcraft International, 1978, volume 17, page 268)

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is the tenth reading in the first volume of The Great Ideas Program, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959).

Adler and Wolff introduce their study of Hamlet by commenting on the popularity of the book and of the author. They go on to consider (1) the characteristics of tragedy according to Aristotle and Chaucer and the differences between Hamlet and Oedipus the King, (2) what brings about the action and deaths in Hamlet, and (3) the character of Hamlet. Here I’ll sketch Shakespeare’s life and summarize what Adler and Wolff say about (2) and (3).

Shakespeare’s Life

William Shakespeare was baptized in the parish church of Stratford-on-Avon in England on April 26, 1564, and thus was probably born on April 23. His father, John Shakespeare, was a glove maker and filled various municipal offices in Stratford. He and his wife had at least eight children, William being the third child and oldest son.

Shakespeare obtained his education, mainly of Latin studies, at the local free grammar school.. When he was about thirteen his father’s fortunes took a turn for the worse and William was apprenticed to a local trade. In 1582 he married Anna Hathaway, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer and eight years older than him, They had three children ‒Susanna in 1583 and twins (Hamnet and Judith) in 1585. Sometime before the birth of the twins, Shakespeare had to leave Stratford, according to tradition because of poaching. His history is unknown from then until his emerging as an actor and rising playwright in London in 1592.

The theatres were closed from 1592 to 1594 because of a plague. After their reopening in 1594 Shakespeare joined a newly formed acting company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. In addition to being both actor and playwright, he was also a shareholder in the company, which was so successful that it opened a theatre of its own, the Globe, in 1599. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were frequently asked to play at court and after James I’s accession in 1603 became known as The King’s Men.

In 1597 Shakespeare purchased one of the largest houses in Stratford, New Place. Here he established his wife and two daughters, his son having died the year before, but he himself continued to work in London until 1610, when he returned to his birthplace and lived as a retired gentleman. In March of 1616 he made his will and a month later, on April 23, died and was buried in the parish church where he had been baptized 52 years earlier

My primary sources for the above are the biographical note on pages v-vi of the first volume on Shakespeare in Great Books of the Western World (volume 26; Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) and the articles on Shakespeare in The New Book of Knowledge (Grolier, 1976) and The World Book Encyclopedia (Childcraft International, 1978).

What Brings about the Action and Deaths in Hamlet

Hamlet is a bloody and, in many respects, a sensational play. By the end of the tragedy, eight of its characters…are dead. Interspersed in the play are such phenomena as a ghost, a play within a play, real and feigned madness, a fight within a freshly-dug grave, a rapier match. What is it that brings about all these deaths and all this action? (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 114)

Adler and Wolff begin their attempt to answer this question by summarising the play as Hamlet’s determining on revenge when he learns that his royal father had been killed by the present king but hesitating to execute his purpose. They then consider several difficulties in their summary, the first three being: its omitting the important fact that the present king is the dead king’s brother and has married his brother’s widow; much more taking place in the body of the play than Hamlet’s hesitation; and the death of the present king being only one of eight deaths, four of which take place in the last scene.

Adler and Wolff’s going on to consider the character of Hamlet (see below) suggests that they view it as a major cause of the action and deaths in the play. However they also imply that much of what happens in the play was accidental when after considering the character of Hamlet they observe that in a way the death of Polonius, the king’s advisor, led to all the other deaths but that his death was accidental.

The Character of Hamlet

Adler and Wolff assert that the character of Hamlet is the puzzle of the play. They show this by showing evidence that he is:
– markedly hesitating and indecisive and decisive and resolute
– gentle and kind and gross and cruel
– trusting and open and crafty

Adler and Wolff conclude their consideration of the character of Hamlet by discussing whether Hamlet was too intellectual to act decisively. They argue that, rather than disabling a person from acting, thinking causes him or her to perceive genuine dilemmas instead of rushing in “where angels fear to tread.”

9. Montaigne’s The Essays

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached Montaigne’s The Essays. The ninth reading in the first volume of The Great Ideas ProgramA General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959) considers a small selection of the essays (6 of 107) in The Essays.

Adler and Wolff consider what the essay is and why Montaigne used it, Montaigne’s aim and method, and four specific questions on the reading. Here I’ll sketch Montaigne’s life, summarize what Adler and Wolff say about Montaigne’s use of the essay, make a brief quotation from each of the six essays in The Essays which they assign for reading, and share the questions which they ask about the reading.

Montaigne’s Life

Montaigne was born Michel Eyquem on February 28, 1533, in the Château of Montaigne near Bordeaux. His father was a prosperous merchant and lord of the seigneury of Montaigne, and his mother wsa descended from a family of Spanish Jews that had recently converted to Catholicism. He was their third son, but by the death of his older brothers became heir to the estate.

Montaigne was brought up gently and until he was six was taught to speak only Latin. At that age he was sent to the Collège de Guyenne in Bordeaux. After seven disappointing years there, he studied law at Toulouse. In 1554 his father obtained a position for him in a new tax court in Bordeaux. In 1557 the court was abolished and its members were absorbed into one of the regional bodies that composed the Parlement of France, the king’s highest court of justice.

In 1565 Montaigne married Françoise de La Chassaigne, whose father was also a member of the the Parlement of Bordeaux. Although fond of women, he accepted marriage unenthusiastically as a social duty. However he lived on excellent terms with his wife and bestowed some pains on the education of their daughter, Léonore, the only one of six children to survive infancy.

In 1568 Montaigne’s father died, leaving him the lord of Montaigne. Two years later he sold his Parlement position, abandoned the name of Eyquem, and retired to his estate, intending to collect his ideas and write. While there (1571-1580) he wrote the first two books of the Essays, which were published in 1580 at Bordeaux.

The year after publishing the Essays Montaigne left the estate for extensive travel determined to find relief from internal disorders that had been troubling him. In 1581 while he was at La Villa in Italy, he learned that he had been elected mayor of Bordeaux. Returning there he served as mayor efficiently and was re-elected to a second term, which ended in 1585. He again retired to Montaigne but shortly after was driven from his estate by the plague.

Montaigne had begun revising the Essays almost immediately after their publication, perfecting their form and added new ones. While in Paris in 1588, he supervised the publication of the fifth edition of the Essays, the first to contain Book III. However he continued working on the Essaysafter returning to his estate, not writing any new books or chapters but adding numerous passages.

Sometime after returning to his estate in 1588, Montaigne was stricken with quinsy, which brought about a paralysis of the tongue. On the evening of September 13, 1592, he had his wife call together some of his neighbours so that he might bid them farewell. He requested mass to be said in his room and died while it was being said. He was 59.

My primary sources for the above are the biographical note on pages v-vi of the volume on Montaigne in Great Books of the Western World (volume 25; Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) and “Montaigne, Michel de” in The New Encyclopedia Britannica (volume 12; Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974).

Montaigne’s Use of the Essay

An essay is “a literary composition of moderate length, dealing in an easy, cursory way with a single subject, usually representing the writer’s personal experience and outlook” (page 963 of volume III of The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974). Although earlier authors wrote essays, the term essai was first applied to the form by Montaigne, to emphasize that his compositions were just attempts to express his personal thoughts and experiences.

Adler and Wolff say that the most outstanding property of Montaigne’s essays is their intensely personal nature. They note that he often observes that his essays are products of leisurely speculation rather than products of experimentation and that he establishes his position by use of quotations and examples rather than by argument. Thus “both in method and intent … Montaigne is not a philosopher” (page 103, Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff , A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959).

However they continue by asserting that “in aim and outlook, though not in method, Montaigne is akin to the modern social scientist. His concerns and subject matter fall into the field of history, anthropology, psychology, and sociology; all of these are the branches of social or behavioral science. And so, though the matter of his book is on one way himself, in another it is all of human behavior.” (same source as the previous quotation).


XXII. Of custom, and that we should not easily change a law received
There is nothing, in my opinion, that [custom] does not, or may not do; and, therefore, with very good reason it is, that Pindar calls her the queen, and empress of the world. (The Essays, page 46; volume 25 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952)
XXIV. Of pedantry
These pendants of ours … are, of all men they who most pretend to be useful to mankind, and who alone, of all men, do not better and improve that which is committed to them, as a carpenter or mason would, but make them much worse, and make us pay them for making them worse, to boot. (The Essays, page 58)
XXV. Of the education of children
Since philosophy is that which instructs us to live, and that infancy has there its lessons as well as other ages, why is it not communicated to children betimes? (The Essays, page 72)
XXVI. That it is folly to measure truth and error by our capacity
‘Tis not, perhaps, without reason, that we attribute facility of belief and easiness of persuasion, to simplicity and ignorance.… But then, on the other hand, ‘tis foolish presumption to slight and condemn all things for false that do not appear to us probable. (The Essays, page 80)
XXX. Of cannibals
I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine … than to roast and eat him after he is dead. (The Essays, page 95)
XL. That the relish of good and evil depends in a great measure upon the opinion we have of them
If the original being of those things we fear had power to lodge itself in us by its own authority, it would then lodge itself alike, and in like manner, in all; … but the diversity of opinions we have of those things clearly evidences that they only enter us by composition; one person, peradventure, admits them in their true being, but a thousand others give them a new and contrary being in them. (The Essays, page 115)


1. Are all customs equally good? (on XXII)
2. Is custom itself responsible for what we consider good or bad? (on XXII and XL)
3. Do you agree with |Montaigne’s view that philosophy should be studied by the young? (on XXV)
4. How valid is Montaigne’s argument that good and evil depend on opinion? (on XL)

8. St. Augustine’s The Confessions

St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in Roman Africa from 396 to 430, and the dominant personality of the Western Church of his time, is generally recognized as having been the greatest thinker of ancient antiquity. His mind was the crucible in which the religion of the New Testament was most completely fused with the Platonic tradition of Greek philosophy; and it was also the means by which the product of this fusion was transmitted to the Christendoms of medieval Roman Catholicism and Renaissance Protestantism. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 2, page 364)

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached St. Augustine’s The Confessions. The eighth reading in the first volume of The Great Ideas Program,  A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, considers Books I-VIII of the twelve Books in The Confessions.

Adler and Wolff consider the nature and the theme of The Confessions and Augustine’s intellectual doubts, and discuss four specific questions about Augustine and The Confessions. Here I’ll sketch Augustine’s life and summarize what Adler and Wolff say about the nature and the theme of The Confessions and about Augustine’s doubts.

Augustine’s Life

Augustine was born November 13, 354, in Tagaste, a small town near what is now the eastern border of Algeria. While still a child he was enrolled by his mother as a catechumen in the Catholic Church. At eleven or twelve he was sent to a nearby town to study grammar and literature. He did so well that his father aspired to make a lawyer of him. In 370 he was able to go to Carthage to study rhetoric. While he was there, he fell in love with philosophy as a result of reading Cicero’s Hortensius and he became associated with the Manicheans (see “Augustine’s Intellectual Doubts” below). On completing his studies in 373, he chose to follow letters rather than law as a career. After teaching grammar in Tagaste for a year, he became a free-lance teacher of rhetoric at Carthage. In 383 he went to Rome in search of more satisfactory students. There he made connections which led to his being offered the municipal chair of rhetoric at Milan.

At Milan Augustine came under the influence of St. Ambrose and began reading the Neo-Platonists. As a result he decided in 386 to become a Christian (while in Rome he’d abandoned Manicheanism) and in the spring of 387 was baptized by St. Ambrose. In 388 he returned to Tagaste, where he sold his property, gave the proceeds to the poor, and with a few followers set up a kind of monastery devoted to a life of prayer and study. However in 391 while he was attending church on a visit to Hippo, the congregation chose him to become a priest and, despite his protestations, the bishop ordained him. Even as just a priest he began his sermons on the Bible and his public disputes with African heretics.

In 395 or 396 Augustine was called to become Bishop of Hippo, a position which he filled for the next thirty-five years, defending and promoting the Catholic Church in northern Africa. As well he made his monastery into something like a theological seminary and continued to write. He began The Confessions shortly after becoming bishop and the completed work was published about 400. Other works that he wrote while Bishop of Hippo were On Christian Doctrine, On the Trinity, and The City of God (On Christian Doctrine and The City of God are included along with The Confessions in Great Books of the Western World). In 426 he arranged for his successor as Bishop of Hippo, and August 28, 430, he died.

My primary source for the above is the biographical note on pages v-vi of the volume on Augustine in Great Books of the Western World (volume 18; Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952).

The Nature and Theme of The Confessions

Augustine’s calling this book his “confessions” suggests that it emphasizes misconduct by him, but it doesn’t. “Augustine does discuss his misconduct; but he is much less worried about his apparently quite considerable record as a libertine than he is about events which may seem much more innocent to us, such as his childhood theft of some worthless pears” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, page 89).

Augustine omits many things from his account of his life and includes many things that need not be in an autobiography. “Not only are the facts chosen in such a way as to serve Augustine’s purpose‒clearly the praise of God‒but the facts are also interpreted in such a way that they seem to declare the glory of God, where another writer might interpret them altogether differently” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 89).

What is The Confessions about? In light of the above, Adler and Wolff answer that it is man’s relation to God as exemplified in Augustine’s relation to God. They cite as typical an event in Book I. Augustine fell seriously ill, his mother (a Christian) wanted him baptized, but Augustine suddenly recovered and the baptism was deferred. “We know, of course, that the rest of The Confessions is nothing but a continuation of this story: baptism tentatively resolved on and yet postponed again and again” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 90). Why did Augustine continually postpone baptism? Adler and Wolff present provide quotations from The Confessions that indicate that it was because he wasn’t ready to give up his sins. They conclude that a main theme of The Confessions is sin and man’s inability to overcome it.

Augustine’s Intellectual Doubts

[Augustine] has genuine intellectual doubts that need to be overcome before he can become a Christian. His first doubt is more a matter of pride than anything else. In his initial look at the Scriptures they seem to him to say lowly and simple things and not, for instance, to be comparable in their tone and manner with the writings of Cicero…. Much more serious and disturbing to him are his later doubts, which led him toward a materialistic conception of God and toward Manicheanism. (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 91)

Adler and Wolff go on to explain that Manicheanism was a religion which held that there are two equal principles in the world, one of good or light and one of evil or darkness. The two struggle against each other, sometimes one being in ascendance and sometimes the other. When the evil principle prevails, evil comes into the world. Adapted to Christianity, evil occurs in the world when Satan (the evil principle) prevails over God (the good principle).

However, the book of Job shows that Satan is inferior to God and can cause problems only when God allows him to. This seems to leave the problem of evil‒there being evil in the world when God is good‒unexplained.

Augustine’s answer to the problem is found in Book VII of The Confessions. First he considered the idea “that free-will was the cause of our doing ill” (St. Augustine, The Confessions, in volume 18 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 44). However Augustine found this idea unsatisfactory, thinking that if God made man of such an evil nature that he would will to do evil, God was ultimately responsible for that evil.

Augustine solved the problem by recognizing that evil is not a substance: “I inquired what iniquity was, and found it to be no substance, but the perversion of the will, turned aside from Thee, O God, the Supreme, towards … lower things” (St. Augustine, The Confessions, page 49). Thus evil consists not in choosing something intrinsically evil but in choosing a lesser good than a greater good, Adler and Wolff provide an example of this from Augustine’s own life:

He refuses to be baptized, because he prefers the pleasures of the flesh. Now these pleasures, having been instituted by God, are also good; but to prefer them to the good of loving God is, of course, in the Christian view, evil.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, pages 93-94)

However Adler and Wolff point out that claiming that there is no absolute evil amounts to saying that everything which exists is good. And they ask, “But does it seem correct that everything is good? Can dirt, disease, poverty, pain, crime, brutality, be interpreted as merely lesser goods? In what sense is pain a good? In what sense is disease a good?” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 96) What do you think?

6. Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached the sixth reading in the first volume of the latter, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff. It considers five selections (four biographies and one comparison) from Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans.

In their guide to Lives Adler and Wolff illustrate how it is familiar to us and sketch Plutarch’s life, show why Lives is viewed as a book of moral instruction, and discuss four specific questions about Plutarch and Lives. Here I’ll just sketch Plutarch’s life and consider his purpose in writing Lives.

Plutarch was a Greek biographer and miscellaneous writer. Born in Chaeronea in Boeotia (an ancient district in east central Greece) about AD 46, he studied mathematics and philosophy in Athens and spent some time in Rome but lived for the most part and died in his native city (in AD 120). There he held both political and priestly offices. He had at least five children. Although his fame rests primarily on  The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, he wrote many other works besides it.

“Admired for their wisdom as well as for their information, his writings were long used as source books for anecdotes and moral exempla; they influenced the origins and development of the essay, the biography, and the writing of history; and it was from his Parallel Lives that the generally accepted images of the great historical figures of Greece and Rome were derived” (“Plutarch,” in The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, Macropaedia volume 14, page 578).

The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans contains 46 biographies of Greek and Roman heroes in pairs chosen for their similarity of character or career and generally followed by a formal comparison. Composed in Plutarch’s later years, it displays impressive learning and research. His aim wasn’t to write history, which he distinguished from biography, but to provide his contemporaries with model examples of behaviour. However “in the course of writing he discovered that more and more it was himself who was deriving profit and stimulation from ‘lodging these men one after the other in his house.’” (biographical note in Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, volume 14 in Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page v)

“Plutarch is not just an ordinary of biography. He is uniquely the writer of comparisons which give us the liveliest understanding of ancient Greece and Rome. The men he compares are the great ones of their day‒the great bad ones as well as the great good ones. In his parallel lives and comparison of Numa and Lycurgus, we have two great benefactors of mankind‒two lawgivers. In his treatment of Alexander and Caesar, we have two great conquerors and ruthless seekers after power. And, there presenting us with their parallel lives, he leaves the comparison for us to draw.” Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, volume 1 in The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, page 64)

7. The Bible’s Book of Job

The book of Job portrays the struggle of its main character, Job, to understand why he, a “blameless and upright” man who “feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV), had lost his possessions, children, and health. Both what happens in the book and what Job and others say about what happens are relevant to what is commonly called “the problem of evil,” why there is evil and suffering in a world created and ruled over by an all-powerful and good God.

I’m considering the book of Job here guided by the study of it provided by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff in An Introduction to the Great Books and a Liberal Education, the first volume in Encyclopedia Britannica’s The Great Ideas Program (1959). Adler and Wolff divide their study into six sections: the book’s place in the Old Testament, its parts of the book, the problem that it deals with, solutions to the problem suggested in the book, a comparison of the book with Oedipus the King (considered in an earlier study in this series), and five specific questions about the book.

Here I’ll just share what Adler and Wolff say about the problem that the book deals with and the solutions to the problem suggested in the book and consider one of the five specific questions which they pose.

The Problem

Adler and Wolff open their presentation of the problem thus:

“The problem with which Job wrestles may be indicated by a very simple question: How are divine rewards and punishments allocated? Or, more agonizingly: why, in God’s universe, do the good sometimes suffer and the wicked prosper?” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and a Liberal Education, page 78).

They go on to demonstrate that there is no problem if there is no God, if God exists but is not always and in all respects good, or if God exists but is not all-powerful and conclude their presentation of the problem thus:

“We can see, therefore, that on the positive side the problem of divine rewards and punishments arises from the conception of one God, a God who is good, omniscient [all-knowing], omnipotent [all-powerful], and governs the universe. For such a God‒‒nd this is the God of the Old and New Testaments‒would be expected to reward the good and to punish the evil. Yet the daily experience of men shows that here on earth the opposite often appears to be the case.” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and a Liberal Education, page 79)

Solutions to the Problem

Job’s three friends‒Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar‒solve the problem by claiming since that God punishes only the wicked but is punishing Job, Job must be wicked. Job denies that only the wicked are punished, showing that many of them prosper temporarily, and maintains his innocence (see especially chapter 31).

Finally God intervenes, speaking directly to Job. He makes two speeches, in the first enumerating the wonders of creation and in the second inviting Job to show his power. He then says to Eliphaz, “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7).

Adler and Wolff comment:

“But what has God said? He said that he, Job, was just. This we know to be true, for we know that his punishment is not due to any transgression, but to God’s wager. [This is referring to God’s wager with Satan in chapters 1-2 of the book that Job would not speak evil of God even if God let Satan cause Job to lose his possessions, children, and health.] He has also said that God does not always punish the wicked; he often lets them prosper, but in the end he will cast them down.” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and a Liberal Education, page 82)

But, as Adler and Wolff point out, this leaves Job and us wondering why God sometimes delays punishing the wicked and allows misery to happen to the just and leaves us wondering why God would engage in a wager with Satan. They add:

“If Job has spoken rightly, there is only one part of his last speech that can give us a hint: ‘Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know’ (Job 42:3). This confession of Job’s and man’s ignorance, of his inability to understand God’s ways comes, of course, after God’s speeches pointing to the many things that God can do and man cannot. They set the stage for this final admission of one more thing that God can do and man cannot: Govern the world.” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and a Liberal Education, page 82)

A Question

One of the five specific questions which Adler and Wolff ask about the book of Job is, “How are God’s actions compatible with his goodness?” They answer:

“It may be that no man can be sufficiently good to deserve anything except punishment. But would it not be a surer sign of God’s goodness‒if not justice‒if God were to reward men like Job, who are as just as it is possible for men to be, rather than those who are clearly wicked?

“This is one of those shoals on which thought about God and his goodness always threatened to founder. Job did not understand the problem intellectually. Instead, when God speaks to him directly and shows him his own weakness and ignorance, he submits‒without understanding‒to God’s will (see 42:3).

“God’s providence, of course, extends beyond Job and his concerns. It takes in also his three friends; also Elihu [a young man who speaks between the conversation between Job and the three friends and God’s speeches to Job]; also Satan. Could it be argued that, at the price of the evil suffered by Job, good is brought into the world? That good might be the increased knowledge and humility of Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, Elihu, and Job himself; and also the humiliation of Satan.” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and a Liberal Education, pages 84-85)

My personal response to “Could it be argued that, at the price of the evil suffered by Job, good is brought into the world?” is that although such could be argued, that doesn’t mean that all evil suffered by Christians occurs to bring about good any more than it occurs, as the three friends argued, as punishment for sins those Christians have committed. I think that it also occurs because of God’s allowing people to exercise free will and because of God’s allowing nature to take its course (feel free to ask me to expand on this). But how would you respond to Adler and Wolff’s original question and to their answer to it.

A few years ago the church small group which my wife and I attend studied what the book of Job says about the problem of evil. A report on our study appears at: