On Being Intelligent and Stuff

It’s Great Books Monday here at the Western Tradition. Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Of Truth” by Francis Bacon (Vol. 10, pp. 346-347)
  2. The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” by Mark Twain (Vol. 2, pp. 346-386)
  3. The English Bill of Rights (1689) (Vol. 6, pp. 409-411)
  4. My First Play” by Charles Lamb (Vol. 5, pp. 300-303)
  5. The March to the Sea” by Xenophon (Vol. 6, pp. 196-222; Book IV of The Persian Expedition)
  6. 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:

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “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.
  4. “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.
  5. “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.
  6. “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.]

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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14 Responses to On Being Intelligent and Stuff

  1. Vickie says:

    FYI, the link you listed for “The March to the Sea” is only a preview and does not contain any part of the book but the introduction.

  2. The Two Drovers I like in some ways and others not so much. I do enjoy what seemed to be a criticism of the English attitude towards to Scottish. They seemed very demeaning and held a very elitist view. On the other hand, the story seemed to try to justify the action of the Scot, which I see as a kind of excuse for individual responsibility. Modern criminal apologists would love such a story, but those who blame individuals and not societies for crime should abhor that aspect of it. But at least the Scot was punished for his action, which could mean that even though the author tried to sympathize with the Scot, he ultimately sees blame lying with the individual. Very interesting.

  3. Chris Godat says:

    I’m a year behind you, but I thought that I would follow your reading lists (who knows I might just catch up someday). Anyway here are my thoughts on all of the above:

    “The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent” by John Erskine: Fun to read aloud in a British voice.

    “How Should One Read a Book?” by Virginia Woolf: I love the quote that “But we tire of rubbish-reading in the long run.” Perhaps this is the best introduction to the Great Books and their ilk.

    “Of the Study of History” by David Hume: “Oh the poor fair sex and their study of history”; maybe revolutionary in mid 19th century England, but its import hasn’t seemed to hold.

    “The Two Drovers” by Sir Walter Scott–another interesting selection by an author whose reputation seems more historical than aesthetic. In graduate school I was forced to take a course in Jane Austen and Walter Scott, so I’ve never revisited either. Scott might have been the . Stephen King of his day in terms of popularity and historical interest. This story strikes me as interesting in that its one act of violence would serve as an appalling climax for an early 19th century audience; compare this to someone like Cormac McCarthy (my vote for the best living American author).

    “The Three Hermits” by Leo Tolstoy–a very odd selection for a Tolstoy short; I would have preferred the first chapter of “Resurrection” or maybe one of the longer stories such as “Hajdi Murad”

    “Mathematics, the Mirror of Civilization” by Lancelot Hogben: “Because it is good medicine to realize how long it took others, more clever than ourselves, to grasp what we now try to grasp”; another great quote. Of the 6 readings this one was my favorite and in 7 years I might read the entire book. Onto week 2.

    • Dr. J says:

      Chris, you’ll be seeing some more Tolstoy as we move forward. There are three of his short stories in the “Gateway” series and one of his novels in the big series.

      On the Walter Scott story, what do you think accounts for the likely difference in the cultural reception of the one act of violence? I doubt we’re more accustomed to in-the-flesh violence than people of the early 19th century, but we probably are more inured to depictions of violence.

      • Chris Godat says:

        You’re correct that in the 19th century they probably saw a lot more of the things that get R ratings (violence, sexual content, sudden deaths, etc).

        I think a lot of the one act of violence has to do with the aesthetics of 19th century story telling, one big build to one big climax. One act of violence after another becomes very episodic (wait until you get to Don Quixote and its American successor Huck Finn), and has become part of our current culture (ironic that I cite two older texts, and honestly Heroditus is about as episodic as any story comes).

        As for Tolstoy I read pretty much everything in English translation last fall, so “The Death of Ivan Illych” is still fresh in my mind.

        After working it out last night, I think that I am going to try to do just the Great Books in a 4 year time span. I want to prove to myself that it is possible to get a basic/canonical liberal arts education in the normal span of a college career. I also want more of a chronological approach to the ideas. I’ll still be in touch with your conversation and try to post a response to your reading. So I’ll be in touch.

        I like how you read The Iliad right before Moby Dick as Melville really was creating a lot of parallels between the two; you might want to just finish the series and do War and Peace next as Tolstoy had a copy of the Iliad at hand while writing it. Also what better book to read in the heart of winter.

  4. Katie says:


    Don’t ask me how but…somehow I got linked to this site when I was researching a book called “The Only Road North – 9000 Miles of Dirt and Dreams” by Erik Mirandette. If you haven’t read it already, you should! I would love to know your thoughts.

    By the way…I realize that the world is a small one – so, this could be crazy… but, I think we knew each other at the age of 16. I lived on Pamela Lane. You had a little silver car. It’s crazy to think how long it has been! As I look back, it seems like another person lived that life a great many years ago from now. HA!

    At any rate…this list of books sounds amazing! I will forward this to a good friend of mine who I do triathlons with. He would love it.

    May God Bless you and your family! If this is the wrong Chris, I highly apologize to anyone who may be reading this.


  5. ChazIng says:

    Hi Dr. J, The Sacred Beetle is available for free: http://archive.org/details/sacredbeetleothe00fabr

  6. pseudosymbiotic says:

    I appreciate what you are doing with this blog. I am another one of those people that have heard of the Great Books from reading about Adler. I would never have even started such an ambitious goal without having you blazed the path.

    I have not yet finished week 2’s readings, but so far have found Virginia Wolfe to not be of my liking. Her work was rather uninteresting and common sense. I am not one of those people that think you truly can see things from someone else’s view point. To me it is paralleled to reading someone’s mind.

    David Hume’s work was a bit winded, but had some real jems in it (including the paragraph you pointed out).

    Sir Scott’s work had several lines that were worth chewing on. The one I appreciated the most was:

    “for the fear of retaliation must withhold the hands of the oppressor where there is no regular law to check daring violence.”

    Thank you again for everything you are doing. I have a Graduate degree, but by no means feel educated. I am very good at what I do professionally, but that and money do not make a man.

    • Dr. J says:

      Kudos to you for taking a stab at a reading program like this. Your comment on Hume reminded me that so many of the older works proceed at a much more leisurely pace than what we’re used to in today’s culture, driven by the internet and the soundbite. I’ve viewed these readings as, among other things, an opportunity to develop the virtue of patience.

  7. pseudosymbiotic says:

    With regard to the Bill of Rights, does anyone know the difference between “illegal” and “against the law”?

  8. Jane says:

    My father gave me his GBWW set some years ago and I’ve made a few stabs at reading selections. A recent binge through books 1-5 of “Game of Thrones” left me starving for substance, so I was excited to stumble upon this blog and commit to a steady diet of classic works. I agree with Virginia Woolf that one should not waste time on rubbish reading (I compare it to not wanting to rack up precious calories with cold french fries). Now I hope you continue with the plan and these posts stay up for at least another decade!

    I will try to post a few comments after finishing each group of readings as a way to stay on track. This week proved an entertaining start.

    I enjoyed “The Three Hermits” the most, and disagree with you when you say the Bishop was portrayed positively. He reminded me of Emerson’s opinion that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…” The Russians (particularly Dostoevsky) skewered the arrogance and pomposity, if not the outright fraud and criminality, of the priestly sects. I suspect that is Tolstoy’s purpose in contrasting the truth and simplicity of the hermits vs. the insistence of the Bishop that his is the right/only way to properly pray. Even Hogben traces the scheming of priests back to the dawn of math when he comments on those who capitalized on predictions of eclipses to wow the commoners and bring coins into the coffers!

  9. rpowell2014 says:

    Mirror of Civilization, Makes me think of the elites using “science” over us politically for example global warming.

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