Dung Beetles and a Townful of Liars

If you aren’t following along with the readings I’m posting each Monday, let me tell you that you are missing out on some great stuff. Here are the selections for the upcoming week:

  1. The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway (Vol. 2, pp. 169-177)
  2. Letter to Horace Greeley” by Abraham Lincoln (Vol. 6, pp. 756-757)
  3. The Making of Americans” by Jean de Crèvecouer (Vol. 6, pp. 546-559; excerpted from Letters From an American Farmer; stop reading at the paragraph which ends, “Thus Europeans become Americans.”)
  4. Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen” by William Hazlitt (Vol. 5, pp. 284-295)
  5. Michael Faraday” by John Tyndall (Vol. 8, pp. 8-28; Chapters 1-3 of Faraday as a Discoverer)
  6. The Enchiridion by Epictetus (Vol. 10, pp. 236-254)

Now for some remarks on last week’s readings:

  1. “Of Truth” by Francis Bacon: This is the first of many Bacon essays we’ll be reading this year. Bacon can pack a lot of food for thought into a few words. Here his musing on the progression of the creation week (light of sense→light of reason→illumination of Spirit) is striking. Quoting Montaigne, he says that liars are strange people; they’re unwilling to present the truth to men, but are willing to flout God’s command.
  2. “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg” by Mark Twain: I promise that the irony of juxtaposing Bacon’s essay with Twain’s story did not occur to me when I made the reading selections for the week. If, as Bacon says, “clear and round dealing is the honour of man’s nature,” then the town of Hadleyburg befell the worst fate possible to a community. Leave it to Twain to make a story about the fall into temptation unsettling yet humorous at the same time. The section where Richards racks his brains to remember what service he might have performed to Goodson is pure gold.
  3. The English Bill of Rights (1689): Reading this serves as a useful reminder that the Declaration of Independence and Constitution did not fall from the sky.
  4. “My First Play” by Charles Lamb: I confess I had never read anything by Lamb before last week, but I am very glad to make his acquaintance; he is an outstanding essayist. I found the final section where he discusses his jadedness upon returning to the theater as a teenager poignant.
  5. “The March to the Sea” by Xenophon: If you have ever been unclear on why Western civilization has always looked to the Greeks as one of the primary sources of its traditions, please read this selection. It is an amazing account of how an army stranded in enemy territory, its officers having been murdered during treaty negotiations, maintained discipline and marched hundreds of miles towards allied lands, enduring constant attacks and extreme weather along the way. If you’re not tempted to shout “The sea! The sea!” along with the Greeks when they catch sight of it, there may be something wrong with you! Yet even in the midst of this harrowing account, we find humor; witness the exchange between Xenophon and Chirisophus on the comparative (de)merits of the Spartans and Athenians.
  6. “The Sacred Beetle” by Jean-Henri Fabre: I never thought that fifteen pages about dung beetles could hold my attention, but Fabre’s enthusiasm for his subjects is a bit infectious, and his anthropomorphizing the animals is highly entertaining.

I haven’t exactly been inundated with comments on these posts, although I know some of you are reading along with me. Please chime in and share your thoughts on whichever ones of these selections you’re making the effort to read!

[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.]

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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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19 Responses to Dung Beetles and a Townful of Liars

  1. Lala says:

    Dear Dr J. I commend your ambition and energy in taking on this challenge; when I looked at the list of books in the Gateway series my heart sank as it is so vast and where I have made mini-dents in the collection (much like your self I imagine) to plunge into the entire works takes real courage, determination and stamina. I would love to join you on this great quest but I too am on an endeavour of my own – a long-promised book based on my doctoral research has to be written – too long have I put this off and allowed the ebb and flow of everyday life to distract me and allow procrastination. But I know, having recently found and subscribed to your site, I will thoroughly enjoy reading and pondering on your comments, and therefore savour the experience vicarously.

    • Dr. J says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, Lala. I hope that you’ll be able to take a break occasionally from the work on your book and read a few of the shorter works I link to. Some of them are only a couple of pages long. There are so many perspective-broadening things in these readings, and I’m getting all kinds of ideas from them that I can use in my own teaching. And please feel free to post your thoughts here anytime!

  2. Lala says:

    The other problem is that living in England I do not have access to the series, as it is only published in the States (I believe?) But as suggested by a couple of other people who commented on your endeavour the books should be available online. And I do have some in my personal collection. What would we do without the internet, although I much prefer to delve into a book and curl up in a chair, or snuggle with one in bed, or sit at a desk with one propped up for investigation and perusal. or take one on to a train, and on the beach. Not for me the Kindle. I think of small sticks of wood to light fires when I hear this word. I will look into it and see if I can participate in some of the selections. They look quite manageable to me. Let’s see how it goes Dr John. I will report back in due course…

    • Dr. J says:

      The series is out of print; I don’t know whether it is available from secondhand sellers outside the U.S. If you’re unable to find one and want the tactile sense of paper when you read, there’s always the Print command!

    • Susan England says:

      Doctor J – I have read your prior to posts about the book selections and extracts. Would it be too awkward of me if I start with the first batch of readings? It will mean that I may be commenting retrospectively?

      • Dr. J says:

        I’d highly recommend reading “The Great Conversation” (linked in earlier posts) before starting the readings. Otherwise these can really be done in any order. If you prefer reading what I’ve linked the last couple of Mondays before reading what I posted yesterday, that’s fine. Or just jump in where I am now. Whatever works best for you and suits your tastes.

  3. Doc, I’ll be firing up the Kindle and following along. This is a great idea.

  4. Vickie says:

    “For sheep don’t throw up the grass to show the shepherds how much they have eaten; but, inwardly digesting their food, they outwardly produce wool and milk.” – Epictetus, on becoming a philosopher

    I knew there was a really good reason why I never spoke up in my classes 🙂

  5. The Sacred Beetle was very well written. Reading a scientific journal of today would make anyone pang for this kind of writing. Sure, it doesn’t go straight to the point, and tries to make the discovery a narrative, but it is enjoyable while still being informative. I dare anyone to read an article in a scientific journal and tell me that they were as captivated as they were by this essay. I can’t wait to read more scientific works if they are like this.

    • Dr. J says:

      Unfortunately, not all of the scientific reading in the Great Books series are as engaging as Fabre’s, but I have learned a lot from the ones I’ve encountered thus far.

  6. David says:

    I have just begun my journey through the Great Books, having purchased both sets in this seven year’s series and it is very refreshing to be reading these great works.

    Today I made the acquaintance of Charles Lamb expecting it to be boring but finding it engaging instead.

    I found myself caught up in Charles’ childlike wonder at his first play, sympathetic to the disappointed jadedness with which he returned to the theater, and moved by how he managed to recover some of that early joy when “comparison and retrospection soon yielded yielded to the present attraction of the scene, and the theater became to me, upon a new stock, the most delightful of recreations.”

    Moral of the Tale: The way to keep a childlike wonder from six to sixteen to sixty is to treasure your memories while appreciating the present moment for its own wonders and experiences,

  7. David says:

    Read Book 4 of Xenophon’s autobiographical Anabasis today. It made me think how we are all connected as one generation builds upon the one that came before.

    Greece had already thrown back two Persian invasions and then beat the Persians on their own home turf in this epic fighting withdrawal. This work was instrumental in stoking the fire in the Hellene heart to bring down the king of kings.

    It made me wonder: without Xenophon would Alexander the Great be remembered today as Alexander the Mediocre?

    • Dr. J says:

      One point of clarification, David: the military expedition described by Xenophon took place some 50+ years before Alexander’s time. Xenophon’s Greeks were mercenaries hired by a claimant to the Persian throne to assert that claim. During the expedition, their employer was killed, and the Persians wouldn’t negotiate with them for passage out of the country. That’s why they had to march out as they did.

      You may know all this already, but I was afraid someone else reading the thread might think Xenophon was talking about Alexander’s army.

      • David says:

        Good point, Dr. J, I was a little vague in my comments. Xenophon’s Anabasis was indeed before Alexander who used it as a field guide in the early phases of his Persian expedition. I think I have also read about Alexander that he would sleep with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow as well.

  8. Glen Sprigg says:

    Well, I just finished the last of the readings (I skipped Hadleyburg, since I’ve read it twice already and remember it well enough). My thoughts so far:

    On Truth: I’m not too familiar with Bacon, but I agree with your comment on the irony of lying to men while God looks on. Truth is, sadly, very elusive in today’s discourse, and we need to get that back if Western society is to survive the next century.

    Bill of Rights: Yes, it’s very similar in structure to the Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights, almost a combination of the two in some ways. It’s good to see how our view of liberty evolved over time.

    The Sacred Beetle: This was actually an easy read, although the subject was somewhat gross. But hey, he was certainly an enthusiastic observer, wasn’t he? i too wish that today’s scientific readings were as easy as this to digest (no pun intended, definitely).

    My First Play: The wonder of childhood. This actually reminded me a bit about one of the first movies I ever saw: Star Wars, in its original theatrical release. I loved it, and it started a lifelong fascination with sci-fi. However, I also remember spending a good chunk of the movie curled up behind the seat or in my father’s lap because Darth Vader scared the living hell out of me. Hey, I was only six. Now, as an older (but probably not much wiser) man I can watch it with all the backstage knowledge and behind-the-scenes documentaries to remind me that it’s not real. But it was real when I was there the first time, believe me.

    Xenophon: Truly a military classic; I noticed Xenophon’s third-person narration which struck me as a bit odd, but then he wasn’t writing it to aggrandize himself. Terse, to the point, and straightforward, just as it should be.

    Hadleyburg: As I said, I’ve already read it twice and I didn’t feel the need to read it again. I never really found the story humorous, though; it struck me as a rather sad story about how easily men can fall into corruption despite their best intentions. Twain rightly points out that avoiding temptation is easy if you’re never tempted. True strength comes from facing those temptations and rejecting them.

    On to Week 4!

  9. Jane says:

    Having just recovered from a binge on George RR Martin’s “Game of Thrones” books, I could swear that he plumbed Xenophon for material as I felt like I was right back among the Wolves and the Lions in Westeros. And it was weird to come across “The Sacred Beetle” just after reading a reference to Australia’s importation of certain dung beetles to wrangle the mountains of wet crap generated by the hordes of imported cattle that their own native beetles could not digest, having evolved around the drier droppings of kangaroos and the like.

    Of this lot, I found the Twain story most thought-provoking. So true that “the weakest of all weak things is a virtue which has not been tested in the fire.” I work in the field of addictions treatment and always warn clients that inpatient treatment is only helpful if followed by lengthy outpatient aftercare; relying on a 30-day rehab stint alone would be like taking a rock out of a mud puddle, washing it off, and then throwing it back in while expecting it to stay clean.

    This story also reminded me of Philip Zimbardo’s groundbreaking work in the psychology of morality, starting with his (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment in the 70s where his randomized student guards became sadistic torturers of the student prisoners within a matter of hours. In a more recent book, “The Lucifer Effect,” he describes how one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch, particularly when that apple has influence over the others and they are all in a novel and/or challenging environment. Zimbardo was an expert witness in the Abu Ghraib case. One could say that works like Zimbardo’s aim to scientifically prove the truths about human nature which writers like Twain observed and described eons ago.

  10. Donna says:

    So happy to see the comments above just recently posted, nice to know I’m not alone at the starting line. I was able to purchase both sets of books this summer and am slowly plugging along. Nice to see your new post Dr J, welcome back….thank you so much for guiding this work, it is life changing.

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