Drinking the Hemlock

It’s Great Books Monday here at the Western Tradition, and the top hits of Western Civilization just keep on coming. If you have done all the readings since we began in January, you have logged over 1,000 pages by this point and hopefully are a wiser person than you were when you began. You may also be taller and better looking if your results differ from mine. There are many thousands of pages to go, but not to worry; we have six years and nine months to work with!

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books XVII-XX (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 457-505)
  2. The Articles of Confederation (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 5-10)
  3. Of Friendship” by Francis Bacon (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 353-358)
  4. Circular Letter to the Governors of All the States on Disbanding the Army” by George Washington (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 474-483)
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Book II (GBWW Vol. 10, pp. 30-40)
  6. Nature” by John Stuart Mill (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 477-508)

Apologies to any non-U.S. readers of this blog for all the selections from American history. Mortimer Adler constructed these reading lists for Americans in part to deepen their civic understanding, and thus there are more writings from the American political tradition than from any other in modern times. Adler had good reason to be concerned for our cultural literacy . . . I’ll bet 99% of Americans have never read the Articles of Confederation.

Here are some thoughts on last week’s readings:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books XIII-XVI: Those Greek gods are real stinkers. Poseidon’s punishment of the Phaiakians must be one of the most unjust acts in all of Greek literature. And after all the supernatural things that happen in this section, I can’t figure how some critics still insist that the gods in this narrative are simply metaphors.
  2. The Declaration of Independence: This is such great propaganda . . . “swarms of officers to eat out our substance” . . . “merciless Indian savages.” I wish more people would get out of the first two paragraphs and see what the Founders were really upset about.
  3. “Biographical Sketches” by Thomas Jefferson: I had never read these excerpts from Jefferson’s letters before. I found them very enjoyable. The description of Washington is positive and respectful without being hagiographic. Franklin was more subtle than I had realized.
  4. Phaedo by Plato: Most of the discussion here revolves around attempts to prove the preexistence and immortality of the soul. Socrates meanders much more in this piece than he does in the other dialogues we’ve read so far, but I suppose we can forgive a man who is about to be unjustly executed. He sounds almost Hindu when he talks about souls too trapped in carnality coming back as beasts. By the way, it seems incongruous that the last words of the most famous philosopher in the Western tradition are about giving someone a chicken.
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Book I: It has been a long time since 8th-grade geometry class, but I remembered nearly all of Euclid’s propositions, though not their proofs. It was invigorating to follow the careful, methodical reasoning used to reach each of these conclusions. By the time you reach the Pythagorean theorem near the end of the book, you have gotten a genuine mental workout. I’m looking forward to Book II.
  6. “Second Inaugural Address” by Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln’s rhetoric is masterful; he makes it look as though the war was forced on him and that everything he had done was purely defensive. With a Union victory a near certainty by this point, he can afford to be magnanimous. If all you knew about Lincoln came from reading his speeches, you’d definitely think he was a great person.

We’re welcoming spring this week. The days are getting longer and warmer. Why not try reading outdoors?

[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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3 Responses to Drinking the Hemlock

  1. Tami says:

    The link to Washington’s letter doesn’t seem to be right. It is just to his “earnest prayer” that was part of the letter. The letter itself takes up 9 pages in GGB, but this prayer is only 3 paragraphs.

  2. Jane says:

    I couldn’t find any premises I concurred with in Plato’s “Phaedo.” Disdain for the body, reincarnation/transmigration of souls, hellfire for transgressors, communion with the gods reserved for those philosophers who achieve the utmost detachment from carnality – here is a source for religious mythology that redirects energy away from improving life on earth while instead preparing for some promised yet rationally unlikely afterlife. In college I wrote a paper describing the similarities between Socrates and Jesus (it seems referential to Socrates’s death when Jesus prays “Let this cup pass from me,” for example); I wonder if I still have it around somewhere…

    I love this line in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we not be judged.” I still can’t reconcile that the American revolutionaries, having declared that “all men are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights,” didn’t abolish slavery from the start. Jefferson’s depiction of Washington differs from Thomas Paine’s and he doesn’t touch on Washington’s growing wealth and slave ownership, perhaps because he had slaves also (and had children with one). As Orwell said, “Some pigs are more equal than others.” Maybe some of those pigs were the transmigrated souls of hypocritical founding fathers.

    Having plowed my way through the first book of Euclid’s “Elements,” I felt rewarded by the last proof, establishing the Pythagorean theorem. I don’t think I had ever seen the diagram of the actual squares sitting on the lines of the triangle. Very cool! I then went out and bought a compass, a protractor, and a sheaf of graph paper so I can attempt to draw some of these proofs as I go on. I find it hard to believe that I made it all the way through geometry, trigonometry and calculus without really understanding it, but so goes our modern education: the emphasis is on memorization and testing, not on comprehension and practical application.

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