Mobsters, Melting Pots, and Lab Explosions

If you’re reading the Great Books along with me, are you starting to look at the world in a slightly different way?

I think I am, even though I already work with some of these texts as part of my job. Several of the selections over the last three weeks have really fired my imagination, and I’m having new ideas all the time. I am encountering new authors and new perspectives, and in some cases I’m learning a great deal in areas outside my expertise (particularly the sciences). I’ve also been able to have some great conversations with colleagues and other folks growing out of these readings. It seems like almost every time I finish a selection, I think, “I should ask _________ about this and see what he thinks.”

So I hope you’re getting as much personal enrichment as I am from these works. Here are some thoughts on last week’s readings:

  1. “The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway: How annoying it must be to stick your neck out for what’s right, but to no effect. In this story the lives of several people are put at risk because of some guy who can’t be bothered to get out of bed. The other really annoying thing in this story is the speech patterns of the hitmen, who seem to have but one brain between them. I now understand where those gangster caricatures in the Looney Tunes cartoons come from.
  2. “Letter to Horace Greeley” by Abraham Lincoln: Let me get this off my chest: Mortimer Adler is a Lincoln-olater, and I’m not. There are at least eight or ten selections in the Gateway series either by or about Lincoln, a bit of an imbalance compared to what we have from other presidents in the set. OK, now that I’ve said that, I do think this is an important document. If nothing else, it helps demonstrate the complexity of the Civil War and undermine the cartoon version of history that so many of us were taught in grade school.
  3. “The Making of Americans” by Jean de Crevecoeur: If you ever wondered where the “melting pot” notion of America came from, look no further. I was fascinated by the section where he dumps on frontiersmen in contrast to his praising of the salt-of-the-earth yeomen. What would this agrarian have to say about post-industrial America, I wonder?
  4. “Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen” by William Hazlitt: This essay is a one-stop shop for references to famous people of the early modern era. I didn’t recognize all the names, and I’m a specialist in the period. But what may have been more interesting was the reasoning the conversationalists offered for their choices: don’t pick a guy whose writings tell you all you need to know about him. One man picks Judas Iscariot and defends his choice by saying he wanted to try to understand how someone could eat with Jesus and then go out and betray him. If you could choose any two figures from history to meet in the flesh, who would they be?
  5. “Michael Faraday” by John Tyndall: I knew almost nothing about Faraday before reading this; the extent of his accomplishments is remarkable. I especially liked the part where he was making history in his youth by separating liquid chlorine from water for the first time, and an older scientist came in, assumed the oily substance in the beaker was dirty water, chewed him out, and caused an explosion by tampering with the experiment. Those wacky scientists!
  6. The Enchiridion of Epictetus: Does anyone talk a better game on self-control than the Stoics? It’s no wonder the early Christians liked them so much. There is more food for thought in these twenty pages than in some 300-page “self-help” books I’ve read. If you read only one selection from last week’s picks, make it this one.

Much more to come . . . make some time to read this week!

[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 Mobsters, Melting Pots, and Lab Explosions

  1. Caleb says:

    I found this blog while searching for information on the M.L.A program at Faulkner, and have been secretly following along with your Great Book readings.

    My favorite thought from this last section was Epictetus: “If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: ” He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.” -Epictetus

    • Dr. J says:

      Hi, Caleb. It’s great to have you on board with the readings, and I hope you’re getting some good from them! Any chance we’ll see you in Montgomery this fall?

    • Dr. J says:

      Oh, and the line you quote is a great example of why many Christians felt so much affinity with the Stoics. That attitude towards humility is really remarkable.

  2. Caleb says:

    As of now, chances are very good that I will be in Montgomery this fall, sir.

    • Dr. J says:

      That’s great news, Caleb. If you haven’t done so already, please get in touch with Dr. Mike Young and talk to him about the MLA program. We can also put you in touch with some current students if you want that perspective. I hope we’ll get to meet face to face before long!

  3. worldtake says:

    Why not try a little reading outside of the Western Tradition.

  4. worldtake says:

    Sorry, for some reason that html didn’t work
    the link is:

    • Dr. J says:

      Thanks for the link. I have seen this novel but not read it. I have taught courses on various non-Western traditions for over a decade and have made a modest beginning reading their literature.

      Your comment strikes me as a bit odd, though, sort of like someone posting on a website dedicated to discussing poetry that the participants there need to go read novels.

  5. Victoria says:

    “The Killers” was made into a classic Film Noir (1946). But for really entertaining lingo one must turn to Dashell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Earl Stanley Gardner …
    Film Noir is a great genre; every story has the same plot: A (hard-boiled detective) gets into trouble with B (hoodlems) because of C (gorgeous dame sporting 4 inch stilettos, silk stockings & all the right curves). Good stuff!

  6. Victoria says:

    Btw, Crevecoeur is mispelled in your post & label. It’s French for ‘broken heart’. Happy St.Valentine’s Day!

  7. Victoria says:

    Says she who misspells ‘mispelled’!!

  8. Victoria says:

    In re Epictetus: I admire the Stoics, although I often find myself mentally responding, “yes, but …”. I get the unmistakable feeling that their philosophy is incomplete (which, from a Christian perspective, it is), but – the question is – did they?

    In this particular piece I enjoyed his comparisons, e.g. “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.” Vivid?!

    But what kind of onion can be found on the seashore? Hmmm.

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