“Please Don’t Read This”

It’s Great Books Monday, and I want to thank everyone who has encouraged me or otherwise given me feedback on this project. We are still in the early stages of this reading plan, and I want to emphasize again that any reading of the Great Books is better than none, so if this looks like a good idea to you, but you don’t have time to read everything on the weekly lists, please just select one or two pieces to work through in the time that you do have.

Here are the selections for the coming week:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books IX-XII (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 384-427)
  2. Crito by Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 213-219)
  3. Observations on Mental Education” by Michael Faraday (GGB Vol. 7, pp. 208-232; the lecture begins on p. 39 of the linked file)
  4. The Empty Column” by Tobias Dantzig (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 178-189; Chapter 2 of Number: The Language of Science)
  5. The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 199-214)
  6. The Art of Life” by Walter Pater (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 258-261; the concluding section to The Renaissance)

If any of you are itching to sink your teeth into more long works like the Odyssey, rest assured that they will be appearing soon.

Here are some comments on last week’s selections:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books V-VIII: I hope you think Odysseus was worth the wait. Here we see him escape Calypso’s island, spend three weeks on a raft, survive an attack by Poseidon, have the Phaiakian ruler practically throw his teenage daughter (who’s willing) at him, and finally put to shame the young men of the place in an athletic contest. He is apparently one impressive fellow.
  2. Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776): “It is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.” Someone forgot to tell the Virginians that Christianity had nothing to do with the founding of the United States.
  3. “A Call to Patriots–December 23, 1776” by Thomas Paine: I suppose we can forgive Mr. Paine, freezing his hindquarters off in New Jersey, his hard feelings towards those who weren’t enthusiastic about secession from the British Empire. He does make a good point about the inappropriateness of kicking the can down the road and expecting a later generation to deal with the problems of one’s own time.
  4. Cosmic View by Kees Boeke: This was an unexpected trip down memory lane. I’d never read this book before, but I immediately recognized the sequence of images from a film I was shown in a grade school science class many years ago. I have to admit my mind went out of focus at both extremes of scale, but on the whole this was a fascinating mental exercise.
  5. “To the Reader” by Michel de Montaigne: “Please don’t read this book. It’s a waste of your time.” Pretty clever. Now if you have anything to criticize, Montaigne can always say, “I told you already it was bad; what more do you want?” I guess I’ll play along, though.
  6. “Montaigne; or, the Skeptic” by Ralph Waldo Emerson: I think Emerson’s argument here is a bit weird; the skeptic balances the philosopher and the man of the senses. But then his praise of Montaigne seems to revolve around his frankness as much as or more than his judgment. I can see why Montaigne is held in such high regard today, when so many intellectuals view hypocrisy as the very worst of all vices. Better to have no standards at all than to have standards and fail to live up to them, right?

One of science’s greatest classics is on deck for next week, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise. Keep reading!

[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 “Please Don’t Read This”

  1. David says:

    Hi Dr. J,
    Just want to say thanks (and good luck) with your project. I stumbled across your blog yesterday when looking for a graded reading list of the Gateway books. I actually own the entire 1963 set, picked up free as a school library discard.
    I’m also going to read through them and your weekly selections are just right. I just finished my first (Erskine’s essay) this morning before work.
    Thanks again.

  2. Fred Jewell says:

    I got so enthralled by the Twain selection a couple of weeks ago that I indulged in a major digression to re-read (after many years) Innocents Abroad at the expense of reading last week’s selections. I’ll get back on track this week. It’s probably just as well that Innocents Abroad is a relatively unknown work or else the politically correct community would be in such a re-writing frenzy that the effort to “sanitize” Huck Finn would be in dire jeopardy of being marginalized.

  3. Victoria says:

    In re Cosmic View: a friend suggested checking YouTube and, lo and behold, it is a mine of great videos. Here’s one which does the same thing as the book: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxXf7AJZ73A

  4. Jake says:

    I bought the first edition of this collection over a year ago and I’ve only opened a handful of the volumes. I’m going to attempt to stay on track with you as you go through it.

  5. Jane says:

    I hadn’t realized that Thomas Paine had so recently come to America from England before taking up the cause of independence until reading the Paine piece and then looking up more information about him. His open letter to GW written after the new government was underway depicts the federalist vs. anti-federalist struggle and paints quite a different picture of GW than we usually see. It is interesting to think that all the pretty statements about equality were not lived out very long; I always struggled with the fact that Washington, Jefferson, and others were slaveholders. Apparently Paine was snubbed by most major players except Jefferson after his critique was circulated, and lived the rest of his life in obscurity in his riverside home in NY.

    Emerson’s essay on Montaigne was full of pithy gems as usual. He imagines Montaigne to say “One cannot be sure of himself and his fortune and hour, but he may be whisked off into some pitiable or ridiculous plight. Why should I vapor and play the philosopher, instead of ballasting, the best I can, this dancing balloon? So, at least, I live within compass, keep myself ready for action, and can shoot the gulf, at last, with decency.” From what I remember of Montaigne’s essay on death, this describes his position well, and I look forward to revisiting his work.

    Cosmic View reminded me of a satellite photo I saw of the multitudes of people gathered on the Washington DC mall for Obama’s First Inauguration. They looked like tiny ants, indistinguishable one from another. It made me think about how numerous and insignificant we are, in contrast to how narcissistic and self-important we can be. Boeke’s work takes awareness of our place in the world and drills it both up and down to the nth degree….to infinity, I guess.

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