It’s Great Books Monday here at the Western Tradition. Here are the readings for the coming week:
- “Of Truth” by Francis Bacon (Vol. 10, pp. 346-347)
- “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” by Mark Twain (Vol. 2, pp. 346-386)
- The English Bill of Rights (1689) (Vol. 6, pp. 409-411)
- “My First Play” by Charles Lamb (Vol. 5, pp. 300-303)
- “The March to the Sea” by Xenophon (Vol. 6, pp. 196-222; Book IV of The Persian Expedition)
- “The Sacred Beetle” by Jean-Henri Fabre (Vol. 8, pp. 105-119; pp. 1-36 of The Sacred Beetle and Others)
Now for some thoughts on last week’s readings:
- “The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent” by John Erskine: This piece argues more eloquently than I can the point that good intentions should not fully excuse disastrous decisions. I took a cursory stab at this idea in a blog post a while back. Erskine believes the downplaying of the importance of intelligence is a peculiarly Anglo-American thing, and he cites a number of figures from English literature as evidence for his contention. He argues for the moral value of intelligence this way: “It is the moral obligation of an intelligent creature to find out as far as possible whether a given action leads to a good or bad end; and that any system of ethics that excuses him from that obligation is vicious.” I have a feeling that Erskine might take this idea further than he ought, ending up with some sort of situational ethics. But in other respects he makes some great observations: for example, the recent (to him) sinking of the Titanic could easily have been prevented had the ship’s crew recognized the dangers of steaming at full speed through an area filled with icebergs (about which they had been warned). This failure of intelligence cost hundreds of lives.
- “How Should One Read a Book?” by Virginia Woolf: Should we take a Jekyll-and-Hyde approach towards our reading? Woolf says that we should start out trying to identify as completely as possible with the author, and then at some point become a harsh critic, comparing the work to the very greatest of the genre it occupies. I think Woolf has a pretty poor notion of heaven, but the lofty idea about God’s comments concerning readers at the end of the essay is kind of nice.
- “Of the Study of History” by David Hume: I love this quote: “A man acquainted with history may, in some respects, be said to have lived from the beginning of the world, and to have been making continual additions to his stock of knowledge in every century.” Also, the essay’s fourth paragraph ought to make you ashamed of yourself if you’ve never recognized the value of history before.
- “The Two Drovers” by Sir Walter Scott: I can see how the Scottish dialect might be off-putting to some; I’ve read enough of it by now not to be bogged down by it. If anyone ever criticizes a syllabus of mine for not having enough multicultural content, I’ll put this story in. Here the failure to appreciate cultural background and values leads to a murder. Plus the whole idea of a cowboy story set somewhere other than the American West would be worldview-shaking to a lot of people.
- “The Three Hermits” by Leo Tolstoy: A very humorous illustration of the Orthodox emphasis on simple piety and asceticism. The bishop is portrayed positively, but he ends up performing obeisance to the mentally challenged hermits.
- “Mathematics, the Mirror of Civilization” by Lancelot Hogben: Leaving aside the Marxist readings of linguistic and scientific history, I got a lot out of Hogben’s presentation of mathematics as a language of size. It’s not the first time I’ve seen math compared to a foreign language that must be learned, but I’d not seen such a straightforward argument for the essential need for the citizen’s understanding of it.
I realize I’ve only made superficial comments on each of these readings, but I don’t want the post to get excessively long. If I continue to post 5-6 readings each week, I may end up posting some more detailed observations on two or three selections on Fridays to take some length out of the Monday post.
So what was your reaction to these readings? Whether you read just one or all six, I’d like to get your feedback. What did you like? Dislike?
[This post is part of my seven-year plan to read through the Gateway to the Great Books and Great Books of the Western World sets. The original post describing the plan is here.]