How to Stare Death in the Face with Style

It’s Great Books Monday, and this week we begin reading the granddaddy of them all. Get ready for the author widely regarded as the fountainhead of the Western literary tradition!

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books I-IV (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 307-350)
  2. The “Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 759)
  3. Of Death” by Francis Bacon (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 348-349)
  4. Beyond the Googol” by Edward Kasner and James Newman (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 137-162; Chapter 2 of Mathematics and the Imagination; this link does not contain the entire chapter, but I couldn’t find the full text anywhere online)
  5. The Eruption of Vesuvius” by Pliny the Younger (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 264-270)
  6. On Old Age by Cicero (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 317-343)

This week we begin the first work that will take us several weeks to read. Rather than make the entire week’s reading from the Odyssey (a course of action that still wouldn’t get us through the poem in one go), we’ll divide it into smaller sections and read it over six weeks while continuing to read in other genres at the same time. I hope that works for everyone.

Here are some comments on last week’s readings:

  1. “Mowgli’s Brothers” by Rudyard Kipling: Somehow I got through childhood without ever reading The Jungle Book, in which this story appears. “Mowgli’s Brothers” is quite different from the Disney-fied rendition many of us know. At bottom, this is about man’s superiority over animals in the natural order of things. Mowgli wishes to remain with the animals, but they will not let him; their fear of him leads them to hate him. He has to “grow up” and assert his dominance to save himself. The day after I read this story, I started my oldest son on The Jungle Book.
  2. “Learning the River” by Mark Twain: I remember reading much of Life on the Mississippi for Dr. Haynie’s class on frontier history back in college, but I certainly didn’t appreciate it then the way I did this time. I think it’s because I never really “got” the humor of Twain’s style until I was in my late 20s. I laughed out loud at several passages last week while still marveling at the descriptions of riverboat life. Twain’s self-deprecation and his larger-than-life characterizations kept me riveted. The anecdote about the sleepwalking pilot was absolutely hilarious.
  3. “On Being the Right Size” by J.B.S. Haldane: So much information packed into so few pages! Now I understand why insects can fall off skyscrapers without being hurt while a horse falling from the same height will “splash” upon hitting the ground. And I’ll never have to worry that military experiments will create gargantuan versions of common animals to terrorize the countryside like in all those 1950s movies. This is good stuff.
  4. “Contentment” by Plutarch: Plutarch says, in essence, to make lemonade when life gives you lemons and to count your blessings. He makes you realize these aren’t just platitudes. And then there’s the cultivation of virtue: “No costly mansion, no mass of gold, no pride of race, no grandeur of office, no charm or force of eloquence can bestow upon life so clear skied a serenity as a soul purged of evil deeds and thoughts which keeps as a fountain of life a character imperturbable and untainted.”
  5. “Fingerprints” by Tobias Dantzig: Is our base-ten counting system a “physiological accident”? It’s a plausible theory, but I wonder if there might be another workable hypothesis; so many explanations of this sort by scientists are really “Just-So” stories. Nevertheless, this was an engaging selection that encouraged me to reflect on the methods of understanding number that we take for granted.
  6. Apology by Plato: So you’ve just been convicted of trumped-up charges on the basis of flimsy evidence, and you’re facing the sentencing committee that will determine whether you live or die. Do you have the gumption to suggest that your “punishment” should be a medal and a government pension to allow you to retire in style? Me, neither. You have to admire Socrates here, although I do remember one Montgomery-area public official a few years ago who, at a community symposium we hosted on this work, expressed the opinion that Socrates got what was coming to him. The haters of philosophy are still with us!

[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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8 Responses to How to Stare Death in the Face with Style

  1. TopCat2x2 says:

    I was only able to get to one of the selections this past week and couldn’t resist reading about Kipling’s Mowgli for the first time. I must admit to being surprised at how darkly different it is from the animated movie Jungle Book.

    First impressions of the story were of the universal uncomplicated acceptance of youth. It seems only babies and young children can transcend the boundaries of differences between cultures/species to live in harmony. But as Mowgli grows up the pressures of peers, family, and cultures find that simple coexistence no longer acceptable, and in some cases even intolerable due to bigotry. And as it is in reality, the only thing that really changed was everyone’s perception of what was proper.

  2. Fred Jewell says:

    Mowgli’s problems don’t arise from pressures of peers, family, and culture. His human culture, family, peers are never part of the story, and he never becomes estranged from his wolf family and culture as a consequence of growing older. The story is about the corrupting influence of an evil personality who never accepted Mowgli and who bided his time until he was able to corrupt a generation either too young to remember the past or indifferent to its message.

    • TopCat2x2 says:

      Observations and impressions about this story were based on a single thread within the complex elements of relationships. To Mowgli the wolves are his family, peers, culture. And because of disrupting influences in his adopted world, perceptions about him changed within ‘his brothers’ and he’s forced to leave behind innocence and tolerence because of differences. Now as a very young adult he’s had his first taste of bigotry, boundaries that can’t be crossed, and yes, hatred so strong that it’s willing to destroy.

      • Dr. J says:

        Top Cat, I’m not sure that a close reading of the story can sustain the interpretation you’re placing on it. To me, the key exchange is between Mowgli and Bagheera.

        Bagheera says, “The others they hate thee because their eyes cannot meet thine; because thou art wise; because thou hast pulled out thorns from their feet–because thou art a man.” He’s indicating a fundamental difference between Mowgli and all the other species in the jungle (wolf, tiger, panther, bear, etc.). It’s something in the nature of things, not something socially constructed. Not even Bagheera, who loves Mowgli and has lived among men, can meet his gaze. The tiger may have aggravated the tension between Mowgli and the wolves, but he did not create it.

        I think that if you read this as some sort of allegory of social intolerance or bigotry, you’ll end up missing what Kipling is saying about man in relation to nature. Of course, whether Kipling is right or wrong is another question.

        My two cents. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  3. Kay Pelham says:

    Socrates seemed like a sassy old man that held his integrity to the end. I like his point about the dishonesty of pleading for ones life or throwing oneself on the mercy of the court when you have done nothing for which to be found guilty. And I like how he pointed out that some of those who would condemn him would do so simply because they were offended that he didn’t carry on with loud cries and tears as they did when they were brought in on far lesser charges. Socrates had no intention to use great words and emotion to manipulate anyone into finding him not guilty. His actions and the truth he told about them were his witness. It was up to his judges to do the right thing.

    Mark Twain had me in stitches. I love his set up of how the young boys dreamed of being steamboatmen and then his experiences of finding out it wasn’t all glamorous. “There was something very real and work-like about this new phase of it.” Work-like! Nice. Although he struggled with remembering all the bends and scenery that he was to memorize to be a pilot, he sure seemed to remember them well as an older man to relate them to his readers.

    “On Being the Right Size” left me wondering how a fella could look that deeply into a perfect creation and call himself an atheist –which I would assume means that he does not believe they were created on purpose by an intelligent being. I realize I come to the story with a belief in a Creator already, but there certainly wasn’t anything in this learned scientist’s descriptions of how things couldn’t do what they do if they were any bigger or any smaller that would cast a doubt on the belief that I do hold.

    “Fingerprints” – Wow! Fascinating stuff. The critters that have a number sense. The mama wasp that knows if her eggs are male or female and deposits the appropriate number of victims for their food. The squire and the crow who lost count at five. I love stories of word origins. Calculus means “pebble.” Hey, I took Pebble senior year in high school! I got stuck at the story about the French peasants and their finger trick for multiplying. I saw that it did work, but I want to know why it does. How did those guys figure it out?

    Thanks again for having us at your reading party. I’m trying to figure out a way to divide it up through the week to get more read. Better luck this week.

    Kay Pelham

  4. I read out of order and really enjoyed how Plato’s Apology made itself relevant so quickly in Plutarch’s Contentment. Hopefully after reading all of this I will start to recognize for myself the references that are present in great literary works without having to look at the footnotes (at least not every time).

    • Dr. J says:

      Yes! That’s the point at which you start to feel like you’re an “insider” in the conversation. I’m now regularly noticing references to works I’ve read sometime in the last 18 months.

  5. Jane says:

    Twain amazed me with his descriptions of the amount of brainpower it took those pilots to know every subtlety of that ever-changing river. And he is so humorous. I recommend his hilarious essay lambasting James Fenimore Cooper for his exaggerations in the Leatherstocking Tales.

    This week I most enjoyed Plutarch’s “Contentment.” As a mostly cognitive-behaviorist counselor, I appreciate the Greeks for their wisdom about how the quality of our life depends largely on our attitude toward it. Shakespeare summed it up: “Nothing is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.” Marsha Linehan, the psychologist who developed Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a popular method for treating borderline personality disorder, mined these works for their advice on how to use reason to rein in and better functionalize emotion.

    I also appreciate the comments about nonattachment. As a Red Cross disaster volunteer, I am constantly reminded of the inconstancy of possessions, and how we need to enjoy what we have but be prepared to let things go. Losing “stuff” is not so hard as losing people, though…

    To live in this world

    you must be able
    to do three things:
    to love what is mortal;
    to hold it

    against your bones knowing
    your own life depends on it;
    and, when the time comes to let it
    to let it go.

    — Mary Oliver, “In Blackwater Woods”

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