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:
- The Odyssey of Homer, Books XXI-XXIV (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 506-541)
- “Last Public Address” of Abraham Lincoln (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 762-765)
- “The Death of Abraham Lincoln” by Walt Whitman (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 174-183)
- “The Will to Believe” by William James (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 39-57)
- The Elements of Euclid, Book III (GBWW Vol. 10, pp. 41-66)
- “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:
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.”
- “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.
- 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.
- “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.]