The start of the summer semester!

It’s the end of week two of the summer semester and I am only getting around now to posting my reflections from last week! Oh well! Here is the post I meant to publish last week. It’s rather rushed but hopefully gives you a sense of what I am studying. 

My first week of the summer semester is already over! I am relieved, honestly, that it went by so fast because it’s a sign of how smoothly each day went in balancing the kids and school (in the summer semester we have class Monday thru Thursday, afternoons and evenings).

This semester I am taking Math and Science and a class on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I’ve enjoyed all of my classes so far, and I will try to give you my initial sense of the material.

So, for our seminar we have started with the Latin poet Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, in which he articulates his Epicurean view of the world, starting at the level of atoms and working outward to explain almost every major phenomena of nature and human life. He writes this luxurious poem to his friend Memmius, in order to convince him, it seems, that there are material explanations for everything and that everything dies. He believes that the human soul is made of “soul atoms” that are intermingled with the atoms of the body, and that when the body dies the soul also dies, returning back into the cycle of matter in which atoms combine and come apart to form new things. So death, he says, is not to be feared, for there will be no “after-life”—either good or bad—for the soul to experience. He seems to believe that there are “gods” but that they are completely uninvolved with the creation of the earth or the human drama. Religion is, therefore, pointless. Gods are some other sort of creature, existing in another realm in which they lead the best life of utter peace, unconcerned with any pain or conflict. In that sense they represent the kind of life to which Lucretius’ philosophy aspires: a “peaceful” life without pain. How, from the kinds of beliefs that he painstakingly sets forth about the world and human life, would one be led to this kind of life? What would the living out of that sort of philosophy look like?

Our math tutorial is completely different than anything we’ve done so far. We are working through the geometry of Euclid, from the very beginning of his Elements. Much of our class is spent in working out his propositions on the board. So far, for example, we have learned how to make an equilateral triangle from one line and how to draw a line from a point that is equal to another line. These might seem fairly simple, but they aren’t so straightforward because we are using no numbers or means of measurement. It might seem dry but we are all very excited in class!! I think that the process of problem solving—so clear and objective—unifies the group in a way that discussing a philosophical or literary text does not.

If you’d like to get a taste of what it is like, here is Euclid’s first proposition of Book 1, how to construct an equilateral triangle from a finite straight line. 

And now…my favorite text of the semester so far…Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Tocqueville was a French aristocrat and political thinker living in the first half of the nineteenth century. He wrote this text about the United States for his fellow frenchmen, in order that they might understand and emulate the particular virtues of the kind of democracy found in the new country. We are still pretty early in the text but he writes majestically, painting even the geography of America with incredible insight and expressiveness.

Part of the reason I am enjoying it so much is that Tom is reading it alongside me, so we have been discussing it at home and I get to hear which parts really dazzled him. Being a boy raised along the great Mississippi River, he loved the description of the river in Chapter 1: “The valley watered by the Mississippi seems to have been created for it alone; it dispenses good and evil at will, and in that it is like the god. Along the river, nature shows an inexhaustible fertility” and later “The Mississippi Valley is, all in all, the most magnificent dwelling that God has ever prepared for the habitation of man, and nonetheless one can say that it still forms only a vast wilderness” (Mansfield translation, p. 21).

Anyway, the text is rich with reflections on early America and the distinctiveness of our government and culture. I look forward to seeing how his narrative develops.

1 Comment

  1. I’m afraid to open the Euclid link. But I am interested in the descriptions of early America! I think you did a great job of explaining Lucretious’ philosophy and pointing out the weaknesses.

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