On Stupid Companions and Murdering Governments

I’m a bit tardy getting the post up today since I was fighting off a fever last night, so apologies to any of you who have been champing at the bit. Here are the selections for the upcoming week:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books XIII-XVI (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 427-466)
  2. The Declaration of Independence (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 1-3)
  3. Biographical Sketches” by Thomas Jefferson (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 522-526; note there are two links here to different letters by Jefferson in which he gives his reminiscences about Washington and Franklin; on the second link, begin reading at the heading “FRANKLIN, BENJAMIN / REFLECTIONS REGARDING “)
  4. Phaedo by Plato (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 220-251)
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Book I (GBWW Vol. 10, pp. 1-29)
  6. Second Inaugural Address” by Abraham Lincoln (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 760-761)

We’re starting Euclid this week. The Elements is the most successful mathematics textbook in the history of the world. We’ll be reading from it for a few months, and I hope everyone will give it a try. I expect it will be a challenge for most of us, but I am looking forward to it.

Here are some comments on last week’s readings:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books IX-XII: This is the section of the Odyssey with which readers are most familiar. There are so many fantastical stories here that some have concluded Odysseus was just making it all up to impress his hosts. I’m not in that camp. What does it say about Odysseus that he keeps so many secrets from his companions, though?
  2. Crito by Plato: I expect most libertarians would dislike this dialogue. What is the individual apart from society? According to Plato, not much, if anything. Even granting that observation, does it follow that the polis can kill you if it wants, and that you’d be returning evil for evil in trying to avoid that? Does your “implied consent” to the laws of the place go that far? I’m not too sure about that.
  3. “Observations on Mental Education” by Michael Faraday: My wife and I agreed that this one was a bit hard to follow. All the references to “table raising” are about séances where the table would allegedly move of its own accord. Faraday wants everyone to adopt a scientific mindset which asserts nothing without proof. He does except religious dogma from this requirement. I wonder if he would be in Hume’s camp on miracles.
  4. “The Empty Column” by Tobias Dantzig: I used to watch merchants do calculations with an abacus when I lived in China, and I could never figure out how they did it. I prefer having a zero to put in that empty column. Thank you, unknown Hindu, for coming up with that.
  5. The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon: Government scientists perform secret experiment . . . Bacon always sounds so modern! I wonder what this story would have looked like had he ever gotten around to finishing it. I like the imaginative account of Bensalem’s conversion to Christianity and the deluge in the Americas. What about this statement?: “The reverence of a man’s self, is, next religion, the chiefest bridle of all vices.”
  6. “The Art of Life” by Walter Pater: This whole business of “burning always with the hard, gemlike flame” to succeed in life presumes that this life is all there is. It’s too Dead Poets Society. “You’re just food for worms, boys.” If you believe that there is something beyond the grave, the formation of habit is not a bad thing as Pater says, as long as the habits fortify us spiritually.

I’m on spring break this week and looking forward to having time to read that’s not attended by near-constant interruptions. I shouldn’t even have to get up at 5:00 a.m. to get my reading done. Have a great 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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2 Responses to On Stupid Companions and Murdering Governments

  1. Vicki says:

    OK, not a lot of enthusiasm from the troops about Euclid! Is anyone going to attempt it (other than the courageous Dr.J)? I took a look at it and already know that I’d need a teacher to get me thru it. My 10th Grader is in the middle of it herself, so perhaps she could help, but I suspect that I’ll ditch it in order to spend time on other reading. I’m caught up on The Odyssey, having resorted to an audiobook which I can listen to while knitting!

    The thing that always fascinates me about the Declaration of Independence is the capitalization: is there any rhyme or reason to it?

    I enjoyed both chapters of the Numbers book, and Plato/Socrates pieces. Plato is a very mixed bag; I’m looking forward to Aristotle! But it is fascinating, and important, to remember that the intrinsic value of every human being’s life is a Christian development.

    ‘The Art of Life’ I, also, found pretentious. It reminded me a little of Miss Jean Brodie, whose Prime we read about in my book group this month.

  2. Jane says:

    I like “Crito” for its depiction of Socrates accepting his death sentence, however false the charges were on which it was decided. Being a member of a society requires understanding and adhering to its laws, and at times an individual’s rights to self-expression might be judged secondary to keeping the overall peace. If you don’t like a given community’s rules, you can leave and find another one. Staying implies agreement with the expectations.

    Pater’s “Art of Life” brought to mind Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book “The Happiness Myth,” in which she summarizes the wisdom of the ages and says happiness is built on the proper balance of three components: A good day, euphoria, and a good life. On a good day things mostly go well and there is small enjoyment, say of a pleasant visit with a friend. Euphoria is a peak experience, above the ordinary, achieved through use of drugs or alcohol or risk-taking like mountain climbing or sky diving. A good life requires regular effort, such as work, housekeeping, and child-rearing. It cannot be achieved if too much time is spent chasing fun or euphoria. So there’s where I think Pater goes wrong, prescribing too many peaks and deriding the habits that make a good life possible.

    On the other hand, I respect Pater’s concern that habits, or automatic behaviors, may cause us to move as though sleepwalking through life, not really noticing beauty and wonder in the mundane as toddlers do when they are first experiencing the world. We should strive to see as an artist does, to be alert in all the senses to the gifts around us, and to appreciate their ephemerality. “Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.”

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