Some People Need Killin’

If you’ve followed along with the reading schedule posted here for the last two months, congratulations are in order. You’ve already read over 700 pages of world-class literature and, no doubt, have expanded your horizons by considering questions and problems outside your normal routine. Even if you have read only one or two selections from the list of Great Books linked here, I hope you’ve enjoyed the experience and are interested in continuing the program as you are able.

Here are the selections for the coming week:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books V-VIII (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 350-383)
  2. The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 415-417)
  3. A Call to Patriots–December 23, 1776” by Thomas Paine (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 461-468; Crisis Papers number 1)
  4. Cosmic View by Kees Boeke (GGB Vol. 8, pp. 600-644; the link takes you to the first page of the book’s text, and you can proceed from there)
  5. To the Reader” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, p. 49)
  6. Montaigne; or, the Skeptic” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 546-562)

As you can see, we have some material this week that is grouped a bit more intentionally than the selections of previous weeks: two documents from the American War of Independence and two documents by or about Montaigne, of whom we’ll be seeing much more in the future.

Now for some commentary on last week’s selections:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books I-IV: By the end of Book IV, most first-time readers of the Odyssey are wondering, “Where’s Odysseus?” Have patience! Odysseus’s non-appearance to this point is not just a narrative tease; it allows Homer to demonstrate what a mess things are in Ithaca because of his absence. By the end of this section, you are supposed to think, “All those suitors need to die.” Not only are they violating the culture’s sacred rules of hospitality, they’re also plotting the murder of Telemachos and openly saying they’ll kill Odysseus if he shows up at his own house.
  2. The “Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln: Has there ever been more ink spilled over fewer words than these? I find it ironic that the war allegedly fought to preserve “government of the people, by the people, for the people” resulted in a military dictatorship.
  3. “Of Death” by Francis Bacon: “There is no passion in the mind of man so weak but that it mates and masters the fear of death.” Is that true? I’m going to have to think about that some more. I like how Bacon wraps things up by stating that one’s goal should be to have lived in such way as to be able to pray the Nunc dimittis.
  4. “Beyond the Googol” by Edward Kasner and James Newman: This chapter of Kasner and Newman’s book was more difficult than “New Names for Old,” which we read a couple of weeks ago. After trying to conceptualize the infinite, I felt as though my head would explode. But I think I finally got the central thrust of the chapter that when dealing with the infinite, “the whole is no greater than some of its parts.”
  5. “The Eruption of Vesuvius” by Pliny the Younger: Let me tell you, if I get caught anywhere near a volcanic eruption, I’m not going to sit down in the courtyard and read Livy like Pliny did. At least he confessed he was afraid; he actually thought the world was ending. If you had seen the sun blotted out during the day, I guess you might think the same.
  6. On Old Age by Cicero: Note to self: read this again on my 50th birthday. Cicero makes growing old seem like something to look forward to. In particular, I thought the section on the nearness of death pretty thought-provoking. The idea that the old already have what the young hope for, viz., a long life, is pretty powerful. The part about the old being less tempted to stupidity resulting from the influence of the passions was good, too.

One of the great things for me in organizing this project is that every week I look at hundreds of the greatest literary works in the history of humanity and wonder which few I’ll pick out to read over the next seven days. It’s like a pass to the best buffet in town, and I have to resist the temptation to gorge. I hope all of you are enjoying the diet thus far.

[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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10 Responses to Some People Need Killin’

  1. dcbaker2005 says:

    I’m way behind, but I ‘print’ PDF files to refer to as I catch up. Thanks for doing this. I really enjoy your comments!


  2. Victoria says:

    I’m waiting for a new (to me) translation of the Odyssey to arrive in the mail: Richmond Lattimore’s poetry version. It was recommended to me by one of my daughters, who has a degree in Ancient Greek.

    I didn’t read Bacon, but it’s worth noting that the Nunc Dimittis is said every night at Compline, in the Divine Office, which is the official prayer of the R.C.Church and is prayed by every priest & religious, in addition to many laymen, including myself. It’s a daily preparation for death. I didn’t read Cicero, though, because I am 50, and have no desire to dwell on it! All I can say is that it doesn’t get easier, in spite of anything Cicero might say, especially with a large family.

    I enjoyed Pliny, and what little I understood of the math selection. The definition of infinity (the whole …) seems to have some bearing on our concept of the Trinity, no?

  3. Victoria says:

    Does anyone know if there’s a modern equivalent to ‘Cosmic View’? I thought it was a great idea, but too dated.

  4. Sean says:

    Dr. J,
    Wonderful site! I just wanted to make a comment to show you I am here following along. Just a point of curiousity, Montaigne’s work here is shown to be in the 23rd volume…should be 25th. Also, I’d like to point out to people that there is a site called LibriVox which has a lot of this literature in “acoustical form,” i.e. audiobooks. It just takes a little digging and searching to find them. Perhaps you can link people to this where it is more visible on your site?

    • Dr. J says:

      Sean, thanks for your comments and participation. On the volume numbering, the numbers of the 1950s and 1990s editions of the Great Book of the Western World are different. Montaigne’s essays are in Volume 23 in the 1990s edition, which is what I’m using for the project.

      I have heard of Librivox but have never used it. At this point I really do not have time to search for audio versions of these works, but if some enterprising person were to volunteer to find those links . . . I’d be happy to post them.

  5. Sean says:

    I’d be happy to compile a list of links for you. 🙂

  6. Jane says:

    These were some heavy readings, and I had to go through most of them more than once. I so appreciate having the actual books, as when I tried reading a few selections online, I just couldn’t grasp the material as well as when I can underline and easily revisit key passages.

    Particularly striking to me were Cicero’s & Bacon’s meditations on aging and death. I think we can live with more appreciation and awareness when we have the inevitability of death in mind, but as Cicero points out, not too much in the forefront of our mind. It’s a delicate balance. And while I am not a believer in the afterlife, it’s comforting to think that a natural death at an older age would be like a slow extinguishing rather than a violent tearing away… and that by that time, especially if one is able to look back with pleasure on a life well-lived, it would not be so feared or resisted.

    While reading about googols and googolplexes, it was hard to believe only 3,000 stars are visible on a clear night, and mind-boggling to contemplate the hugeness of those numbers in comparison. Then to loop back to the Gettysburg Address and consider how many more lives were lost in the Civil War…. I’m still not sure whether “the infinite” exists in anything other than theory, as it seems like we exist in a finite universe? Or does physics suggest the universe is infinitely expanding? Fuel for future exploration.

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