Throwing Ralph Waldo Emerson into a Volcano

It’s Great Books Monday; are you ready for the Bard? Here are the reading selections for the coming week:

  1. The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 24, pp. 199-228)
  2. Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” (1789) (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 412-414)
  3. Sketch of Abraham Lincoln” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 168-171; this passage is from Hawthorne’s essay “Chiefly About War Matters”; begin reading at the paragraph beginning “Of course, there was one other personage . . .” and stop at the end of paragraph that begins “Good heavens!”)
  4. The Discovery of Radium” by Eve Curie (GGB Vol. 8, pp. 32-42; Chapter XII of Madame Curie)
  5. The Life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola by Cornelius Tacitus (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 274-298)
  6. On Friendship by Cicero (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 286-316)

This week’s readings will be an acid test for me; I’ll be trying to complete them while putting on a conference on my campus. If I succeed, I’m pretty confident I can keep up the pace at least through the rest of this semester.

Now for some thoughts on last week’s readings:

  1. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe: It has probably been twenty years since my last reading of this story, and it freaked me out all over again. Just imagine someone coming to your bedroom door every night and waiting for some “signal” to kill you. And then there is the lunatic’s continual assertions of his sanity based on the evidence of his careful planning of the murder. *shudder*
  2. “The Lantern-Bearers” by Robert Louis Stevenson: The big question here is just what the lanterns represent to these boys (certainly they play a more benign role than the one in the Poe story!). I’m guessing they’re some sort of secret knowledge or power. Stevenson sure doesn’t pull any punches when criticizing Zola and the Naturalists: “This harping on life’s dullness and man’s meanness is a loud profession of incompetence.” Ouch!
  3. Meno by Plato: Don’t let the math section of this dialogue scare you away. Plato is asserting here a couple of very controversial ideas: first, that virtue cannot be taught; second, that all our knowledge is remembered rather than learned as a result of the soul’s pre-existence. I’m not sure I buy either of those.
  4. “New Names for Old” by Edward Kasner and James R. Newman: If you have ever wondered where the term “googol” came from, read this selection. Kasner does a very good job of presenting mathematical concepts on a level that young people (and math dunces) can understand. In fact, my eight-year-old son was reading over my shoulder while I was working through this piece and found it very interesting; I ended up discussing several of the visual examples with him.
  5. “The Land of Montezuma” by William Prescott: So if you were on an extremely risky military expedition in a strange country, seeking to reach your enemies while they’re in a moment of indecision about how to respond to you, would you take a detour to climb an erupting volcano for the heck of it? Apparently, if you were a sixteenth-century Spanish cavalier, you would! It seems like everything was an adventure in those days.
  6. “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson: In one of my less charitable moments, I decided a better title for this work would be “Self-Absorption.” This is a hugely influential essay, and I would guess that if you boiled its message down into 8th-grade language and polled Americans as to whether they agree with it today, the majority would say yes. I just happen to disagree with about 90% of it: the disdain for tradition, organized religion, recreational travel, other people in general, etc. Emerson makes the divinization of the Self sound really profound, but I kept getting the feeling it was just the acting out of someone with authority issues. On the plus side, there are some glimmers of Stoicism here.

Am I spot on? Out to lunch? Off my rocker? Pile on in the comment section below!

[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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11 Responses to Throwing Ralph Waldo Emerson into a Volcano

  1. Kay Pelham says:

    Hello Dr. J, I found your blog and your reading plan at the beginning of last week after following Tom Wood’s link at Facebook. I decided to see what I could do about taking this journey along with you. I managed to make it through Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 6.

    I found the journey with the Spanish army to Montezuma very interesting and kept wondering which side the author favored. (I’ve been to Mexico City and experienced “Montezuma’s revenge”).

    “The Tell-Tale Heart” was indeed sick.

    I found a lot that made me think and examine myself and many things that I related to and found to be valid in Emerson’s essay. Although, as a believer, some comments made me cringe, I was able to look past those and find some truth. I found his observations on “conforming” and “consistency” very compelling. I wrote about “consistency” here

    I thought there were similarities between what Stevenson and Emerson said in their essays. Each individual is important. Each individual has real thoughts and ideas. Emerson was writing about the person himself who shouldn’t feel intimidated by the world, but know that he has something to say. Stevenson was presenting it from the outside and challenging us to not place everyone in a blob, but to know that there is a fire burning inside every individual we pass in that blob.

    Looking forward to seeing what I get through this week. Thanks for sharing your journey.

    Kay Pelham

    • Dr. J says:

      Greetings, Kay. It’s great to have you on board!

      Re: your comments, Prescott in several places expresses regret at the destruction that followed Cortes’s conquest of Mexico, but it’s also clear that he finds much to admire in the conquistadores. I think it’s probably a more balanced treatment than what you often see today in writing on the subject.

      To be fair to Emerson, he may have been living in a much more “conformist” culture than we do today, when there is so much emphasis on self-esteem, and every child can be the president when he grows up, so his rebellion against that is more understandable. I do think that he fails to see the value in convention and social norms; these things are usually not arbitrary and are very often there for perfectly good reasons.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, and I hope to see more of them as we go forward!

  2. Caleb says:

    Last week was the first time I had ever read anything by Emerson, so it is possible that my extremely positive reaction to his essay is due to my ignorance. Hopefully, his prose will one day be translated to an eighth grade reading level like you mentioned so I can more fully comprehend this work.

    I am for organized religion and tradition. However, it is important that one’s love of these things comes from a firm foundation in study and introspection. After reading “Self-Reliance,” I think Emerson would prefer a thinking, inquisitve conformist rather than the noncomformity that comes merely out of a desire to conform which is so common today.

    I am for recreational travel. I enjoy skiing, therefore, I love going to Colorado and Utah. Emerson would have a problem with me going to Colorado and Utah if I went out of a desire to “find myself.” I can “find myself” in my home of Arkansas perfectly well.

    The paragraph in praise of the “sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont” was also very motivating.

    • Vickie says:

      For an “eighth grade reading level” version, see here:

      I would characterize this as a very modern translation which does not attempt to capture the true meaning of the author but instead seeks to turn it into a feel-good, humanist sermon.

    • Dr. J says:

      I don’t fault anyone for liking the essay. There are a thousand things in our cultural context that urge us to endorse it. Fifteen years ago, before I started any serious study of the classical tradition, I would have been enthusiastic about it.

  3. Dr. J.,

    I was hoping you’d give me a more definitive explanation of the meaning of the “lanterns” in Stevenson’s piece. I guess I thought the stress was on the emotion, if you will” the boys experienced with the lanterns than on the meaning of the lanterns per se. But I see their representing the power to see things others don’t, with Stevenson stressing the rather innocent joy of the adventure of discovery.

    Best wishes,


  4. Vickie says:

    This version of The Discovery of Radium has pages missing, because of the copyright.

  5. Victoria says:

    Not being a math/science person I am resolved to make an effort to read those selections. I enjoyed “New Names for Old”, perhaps because it focuses on linguistics, which I love. The naming of things (a task given to Adam before the Fall, which implies that he understood the nature – form and matter – of things) is not only fascinating, but deeply mystical. There is much more to it than meets the eye!

    “Unfortunately, as soon as people talk about large numbers, they run amuck. They seem to be under the impression that since zero equals nothing, they can add as many zeros to a number as they please with practically no serious consequences.” – perhaps someone at the Federal Reserve should read this book, too?!

  6. Pingback: Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Lantern-Bearers” Revisited | The Western Tradition

  7. Jane says:

    The preface to “The Tell-Tale Heart” says that Poe tried to examine one primary emotion in each of his stories, and that this one focuses on the emotion of guilt. Mightn’t what the narrator thought was the sound of the dead old man’s heart have been his own heart racing with the fear of detection? The preface also reveals that Poe was orphaned while just a toddler. This background likely contributed to his acute emotional sensitivity, alcoholism and other drug use, which in turn translated into a good amount of weirdness in his writings.

    Was it by accident that you picked an essay by Emerson that includes this sentence: “The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.” Weird coincidence with “Tell-Tale Heart” or what! Although Emerson veers toward Objectivism/Ayn Randian thought when he rails against altruism and conformity, I like his encouragement to live in the present and be authentic, and believe his philosophy pairs well with the current popularity of mindfulness meditation in psychotherapy practice and mainstream culture. And who can deny how eminently quotable he is? I like putting my pencil to work when I read, but the material doesn’t always avail.

    I likewise disagreed with “Meno”‘s major premises. It does seem random whether a person turns out “good” or virtuous, or whether a person wants to strive toward being so; it’s true that good people have bad children, and vice versa. But I do believe that one can learn to be decent, judicious, honorable, etc – or better said, to behave decently, judiciously, and honorably. It can be a matter of practice & self-discipline. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is a habit, not a virtue.”

    How about Cortes and those crazy Spaniards? I wish we could see photos of what those cities and villages looked like before the Empire was destroyed; Prescott describes them as idyllic. I was especially moved by his depicting Montezuma as completely blown away by this sudden appearance in his centuries-old world of these foreigners with their horses and armaments and determination to conquer all. The whole thing must have seemed like a bad dream, or like they had come from some other planet. It’s no wonder he couldn’t muster any defense.

    Finally, learning about googols and googolplexes was fun, particularly the part about a 9-year-old coining those terms, and in light of the ubiquitous Google (and their corporate headquarters, Googleplex) in our time. I had trouble conceptualizing the number googolplex and just how many zeroes would come after that 1 vs. the 100 after the 1 in a googol. But the difference between these very large but finite numbers and the idea of infinity is intriguing, and I look forward to reading more about that in a future installment.

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