We’re Not Reading Enough Philosophy!

I had a bit of an epiphany last week. Feeling comfortable about the pace I had set for reading through the Gateway to the Great Books series this year, I decided to run some numbers to determine whether we’d be able to maintain the same pace in years 2-7 of this Great Books reading plan and successfully complete the Great Books of the Western World (GBWW).

After tallying up the pages of the 60-volume set and averaging them out by genre, I realized that if we wait until January 2012 to begin GBWW, we’ll have to read substantially more each week to finish the series in the scheduled time. Moreover, a greater share of that reading will be “hard stuff”: philosophical and theological treatises. I’m afraid that a sharp increase in the difficulty level of the program at that point will discourage everyone, myself included, who is making an effort to follow along with these readings one way or another.

So I have decided to make an adjustment to the reading schedule in the interests of adapting gradually to the longer and more difficult works. Beginning today, I’ll start working some selections from the GBWW series into the weekly readings. This week, for example, I’m putting a relatively easy Platonic dialogue on the list. You’ll see some Homer and other familiar works cropping up in the next few weeks as well. Over the next month, I’ll be trying to bring the weekly readings into balance with the adjusted seven-year pace, so we’ll have comparatively more philosophical works and fewer fictional works during that time. Again, this will keep us more balanced in the long run.

By taking this approach, in addition to avoiding some sudden and severe pain next January, we’ll also have the benefit of sprinkling the works of some of these authors over a longer period. Case in point: we’re less likely to experience Shakespeare overload if we spread his thirty-nine plays out over seven years instead of six.

So with that said, here are the readings for the coming week!

  1. The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe (GGB Vol. 2, pp. 273-277)
  2. The Lantern-bearers” by Robert Louis Stevenson (GGB Vol. 7, pp. 112-121)
  3. Meno by Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 174-190)
  4. New Names for Old” by Edward Kasner and James R. Newman (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 121-136; from Mathematics and the Imagination)
  5. The Land of Montezuma” by William H. Prescott (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 231-243; Book III, Chapter 8 of History of the Conquest of Mexico)
  6. Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (GGB Vol. 10, pp.525-545)

From now on I’ll specify which series each selection comes from: GGB for Gateway to the Great Books and GBWW for Great Books of the Western World.

To keep this post to a manageable length, I’ll give some of my thoughts on last week’s readings tomorrow. Go forth and be enlightened!

[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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7 Responses to We’re Not Reading Enough Philosophy!

  1. Sara says:

    “Good idea,” quoth she who is trying to keep up with the readings.

  2. Thank you for these. Shall we comment on this post when we finish the assignment, or elsewhere?

    • Dr. J says:

      Chris, you can either comment on this post or wait until I publish my own thoughts on the pieces linked from here (next Monday, most likely). If you don’t mind waiting, it might be more helpful to any “drive-by” surfers to have all the comments on a particular piece in one place. But if something really grabs you, and you’re burning to share, please do it here!

  3. Ginger says:

    This is a wonderful service. Thank you for doing it. Even though I’m a little late in starting, I am on board. I’ve read most of them before–but have always wanted to read them with others for the sake of dialog. Thanks again.

  4. drcdat says:

    Better late than never, and making myself post after the readings will keep me accountable. Anyway here is my sentence or two about each selection from last week.

    “The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway (Vol. 2, pp. 169-177): It works a lot better with the complete _In_Our_Time_ collection that traces the coming of age of Nick Adams; the ambiguity of the ending also makes more sense with the general vignette style of the entire collection.
    “Letter to Horace Greeley” by Abraham Lincoln (Vol. 6, pp. 756-757): was he being diplomatic with this one? Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of events in _Lincoln_ would suggest so.
    “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.”): I had just visited the Atlanta High Museum a couple days before reading this one, and had the sentimentality, almost to the point of mawkishness, in some of the 19th century permanent art collection on the back of my mind, and I think this might have biased my reading of this selection. I’ve also taught parts of it before as a close reading exercise (the men are like plants paragraph).
    “Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen” by William Hazlitt (Vol. 5, pp. 284-295): Fielding is one of my all time favorite novelists, so the slight they give to him let me down a bit; however, the early perspective on British Literature was enlightening. Even they couldn’t escape Shakespeare.
    “Michael Faraday” by John Tyndall (Vol. 8, pp. 8-28; Chapters 1-3 of Faraday as a Discoverer): this one struck me as a little dry until the last paragraph, especially compared to the fun with the Beetles last week–let it be.
    The Enchiridion by Epictetus (Vol. 10, pp. 236-254): in the last two years I’ve embraced a lot of the stoic philosophy, so this one was perhaps the most engaging for me. In fact I found myself sharing some of the insights about praise and reputation with one of my more motivated classes today.

    I’ve just noticed that my reflections seem a bit personal, rather than scholarly, but on a Friday night this is enough. Onto week 4 of about 350.

    P.S. On another note, just picked up _The_Great_Ideas_Today_1961_ and over Christmas break read what won’t be covered. There are four new primary sources in it:

    _Experience_and_Education_ by John Dewey. Covered in Vol. 55.
    _Relativity:_The_Special_and_General_Theory_ by Albert Einstein Covered in Vol. 56.
    _The_School_for_Wives_ by Moliere
    Three Essays by Arnold J. Toynbee (one of my undergraduate professors swore by Toynbee)

    The rest resembles the year books that encyclopedia sets would put out with a debate on democracy, world affairs over the last year, and developments in the arts and sciences (the literature one is written by Mark Van Doren). Some of the topics seem mundane such as “Boiling of Crabs” and the additions to the famed Syntopicon give some coherence.

  5. Jane says:

    “The Killers,” wow. I had read it before, but it struck me more this time. Especially that picture of Ole Anderson lying on his bed, knowing the jig was up and he was facing a death sentence. And how clearly Hemingway paints each character with so few words. (Think about what he achieved with only six: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) Just a chilling piece of work.

    I like the Stoics and agree with Epictetus (and Shakespeare) that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” The Serenity Prayer reminds us to remember what we can and cannot change, and how pretty much everything except our own thoughts, feelings and actions in the present are outside of our control. However, I find his exhortation to remain unmoved by even the deaths of one’s wives or children, or one’s friends’ wives or children, pretty harsh and unlikely to make one very popular. Empathy is a human quality and a valuable one.

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