Are We Naturally Savage Jerks?

With another week’s worth of reading from the Great Books logged, I’m wondering how anyone who has any degree of familiarity with this body of literature could possibly maintain that it’s irrelevant to life in the modern world. The themes of this past week’s readings (the basis of ethics, the type of political system we live in, the meaning of hearth and home) are about as relevant for 21st-century life as anything can be. It bodes ill for our society if the smart set refuses to see the value here.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books XXI-XXIV (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 506-541)
  2. Last Public Address” of Abraham Lincoln (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 762-765)
  3. The Death of Abraham Lincoln” by Walt Whitman (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 174-183)
  4. The Will to Believe” by William James (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 39-57)
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Book III (GBWW Vol. 10, pp. 41-66)
  6. Of Idleness” by Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 61-62)

This week we say goodbye to Homer (for now), and although we get the end of Lincoln’s life, we still have a few pieces from him to work through later in the program. We have many essays of Montaigne in our future, so I hope you find him palatable.

Here are some comments on last week’s selections:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books XVII-XX: The tension mounts. I can only imagine the self-restraint Odysseus has to show in this section as he watches the outrages being offered daily to his family and possessions. I felt sorry for Amphinomos; it would have been nice for one of the suitors to find redemption, but I may just be trying to baptize this story.
  2. The Articles of Confederation: These look pretty good to me! The only thing most of us are told about the Articles is that they were “inadequate” to the needs of the nation and had to be replaced. Adler has a centralizing bias in politics and no doubt believed this as well. But I think that, at a minimum, we should reexamine this issue after the past two centuries of bloodiness brought about in part by political centralization.
  3. “Of Friendship” by Francis Bacon: I love all the classical allusions here. Bacon does a fine job in succinctly telling us the benefits of friendship. The discussion of royal favorites gave me new insight into the expression “It’s lonely at the top.”
  4. “Circular Letter to the Governors of All the States on Disbanding the Army” by George Washington: Last month I showed my hand by saying I think Washington was America’s greatest president. In this document the exhortation to unity is admirable, and you can feel the empathy Washington has for the soldiers under his command who have been waiting around for their paychecks for a very long time.
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Book II: I confess this book was harder for me to follow than the first one was, but I ultimately got it (I think). I wasn’t comfortable with the notion of a rectangle contained by two segments on the same line until I was about halfway through. It got to the point where one static diagram didn’t seem to be sufficient to carry the mind through the whole proof. Maybe I am more of a “visual learner” than I thought, or maybe my brain just needs some more discipline.
  6. “Nature” by John Stuart Mill: It’s hard to know whom exactly Mill is critiquing here; the only specific references are to the Stoic and Epicurean schools in the text and Leibniz in a footnote. It seems to be a strange hodgepodge of Romantics, Rousseauists mooning after “noble savages,” and deists. I suppose he thinks his ignoring the Christian natural law tradition is justified in the wake of his assertion that a hypothetical Creator cannot be both omnipotent and fully good. He seems unaware of the counterargument that God permits evil to exist in order to bring about greater good. I would have found the essay more satisfying if I had known more specifically who his targets were.

Have fun reading this 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.]

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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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6 Responses to Are We Naturally Savage Jerks?

  1. Vickie says:

    “—the dreaded Scylla of European interference, and the Charybdis of the tremendously dangerous latent strata of secession sympathizers throughout the free States” –Whitman’s “The Death of Abraham Lincoln”

    Hey! I know what that means now!! Cool!

  2. Vickie says:

    “—not calm old Socrates, drinking the hemlock—”

    Oooooh! I know that one too! This is pretty exciting 🙂

  3. Victoria says:

    Even though I’ve read both books before, it didn’t occur to me until I happened to be reading both at the same time, this month, that there are similarities between The Odyssey & The Book of Job.

    • Dr. J says:

      That is a good observation. The suffering and eventual deliverance of each of the protagonists provides a kind of common frame. I had never thought about that before, either.

      • Victoria says:

        It also seems to me that God treats Job very much as the gods do Odysseus. Both books seem to reflect a natural view of the relationship between God & man (The Book of Job antecedes God’s more particular revelations of Himself to the Israelites).

  4. Jane says:

    In my work as a Red Cross disaster volunteer, I too regularly see the devastation wrought by Nature on all persons in the path of any particular storm regardless of their being good, evil, religiously faithful, atheistic, or…. name the attribute. I concur with Mill’s assessment that there is nothing inherently noble about Nature and it is completely indifferent to our presence on this globe. There is no such thing as a “natural right” to equality or justice, perhaps only the evolutionary truth that the fittest survive. Any advances in human existence have come about through the efforts of some of our kind to improve their lot and, even if only in an ancillary way (because ultimately most of us selfishly seek our own ends), that of their community. Mill suggests that some of these contributions toward the overall good are made by religious believers who seek to mimic or carry out the will of a benevolent God, but their achievements do not then prove the existence of that God.

    “The scheme of nature regarded in its whole extent cannot have had, for its sole or even principal object, the good of human or other sentient beings. What good it brings to them is mostly the result of their own exertions. Whatsoever in nature gives indication of beneficent design proves this beneficence to be armed only with limited power; and the duty of man is to co-operate with the beneficent powers, not by imitating buy by perpetually striving to amend the course of nature – and bringing that party of it over which we can exercise control more nearly into conformity with a high standard of justice and goodness.”

    Control, however, takes effort to develop, not least over the self or Id as Freud called it. Mill grants that the seeds of some positive virtues are present in human nature, but they are hard to find and cultivate amidst “the weeds that dispute the ground….rankly luxuriant growths.” To cultivate them, he basically recommends a course of autodidacticism much like the one we are undertaking with this Great Books Project.

    “…what self-culture would be possible without aid from the general sentiment of mankind delivered through books, and from the contemplation of exalted characters real or ideal? This artificially created or at least artificially perfected nature of the best and noblest human beings is the only nature which it is ever commendable to follow.”

    Let us read on, and further refine our base natures!

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