Hang That Innocent Man from the Nearest Yardarm

If you’re following this Great Books reading program with me, you’re probably encountering at least one and perhaps several works each week you’ve never dealt with before. In fact, last week I got to read five selections for the first time ever. I’m finding so many things to think about and connect in my mind! I hope you’re experiencing some of that same excitement.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Man of Destiny by George Bernard Shaw  (GGB Vol. 4, pp. 300-338)
  2. A Meditation upon a Broomstick” by Jonathan Swift (GGB Vol. 7, p. 40-41)
  3. Plato’s Republic, Book V (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 356-373)
  4. Federalist #47 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 153-156; Antifederalist responses are here)
  5. The Starry Messenger” by Galileo Galilei (GGB Vol. 8, pp. 330-355)
  6. How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter VIII (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 124-132)

This week we are putting to bed the last of the works Adler thought were appropriate for 7th- and 8th-grade students (Shaw’s play). Try not to feel to stupid, though; in the non-fiction areas, we left that grade level behind long ago.

Here are some observations on last week’s readings:

  1. Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) by Herman Melville: Billy Budd is often described as a Christ figure, and certainly there are some parallels: portents at his death, etc. Granting that this is Melville’s intention, I question his understanding of who Christ is, from Budd’s obliviousness in the face of Claggart’s malice to his reaction under interrogation. The captain was an interesting character as well. The story reminded me of the excerpt from Hugo’s Ninety-Three in some ways.
  2. “Meditation on the Divine Will” by Abraham Lincoln: Given Lincoln’s numerous statements against orthodox Christianity, it’s safe to assume that he’s not channeling St. Paul here. Is this just a secularized Calvinism, some form of fatalism, or another thing entirely?
  3. Plato’s Republic, Book IV: The more I think about Plato’s comments on the evils of wealth and poverty, the more unsettled I get. Apart from ignoring any countervailing incentives that wealth and poverty provide, he’s looking at people as though their only value is in the productivity they provide to the State. No wonder Ayn Rand had such a visceral reaction to him. On another note, it’s remarkable how enduring Plato’s tripartite division of the State and soul has been for the last 2,500 years. Freud was a cheap knockoff.
  4. Federalist #46: Madison argues that natural affection to states and localities will keep the central government relatively weak. What he overlooks is the temptation of people to use the central government in an attempt to benefit their states and localities. Witness the sectionalism of the mid-nineteenth century, or today’s Culture Wars. Everyone thinks there has to be a federal solution for everything.
  5. “A Laboratory of the Open Fields” by Jean-Henri Fabre: My goodness, this man liked bugs. His sanguine response to the wasps camping outside his front door was something else. I’d have found a few gallons of chemicals to dump in the area. His point about the value of studying specimens alive in their natural element rather than dead under a microscope is well taken, though. After reading the Carson piece last week (“we know more about space than we do about the oceans”), it was interesting to see Fabre’s complaint (“we know more about the oceans than we do about bugs in our own back yard”).
  6. How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter VII: Dewey does a good job of breaking down the process of reflection into several phases while maintaining some flexibility in how those phases follow one after the other. I’m wondering why, if all this is so straightforward and natural to people, does it need to be taught? Maybe there was some further explanation given in the chapters that were not excerpted by Adler.

I apologize for posting a day late. The backlog of fallout from moving shrinks slowly, unfortunately.

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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2 Responses to Hang That Innocent Man from the Nearest Yardarm

  1. Regarding Madison’s argument in Federalist 46, isn’t it interesting that now, people who have natural affection for their states and localities are considered anti-American.

    • Dr. J says:

      Haven’t you heard? We’re a “proposition nation” now, so if you like hearth and home, kith and kin, you’re an isolationist if not a racist.

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