Kill ’em All and Let the Gods Sort Them Out

It’s Great Books Monday. We’ve completed one quarter of readings and have twenty-seven to go. My only regret in setting up this project is that I didn’t begin it years ago. I begin each week with a sense of anticipation that really motivates me to devour this reading, and I invariably end the week wiser than when I began it.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. Of Love” by Francis Bacon (GBB Vol. 10, pp. 351-352)
  2. The Constitution of the United States (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 11-21)
  3. Federalist #1-#5 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 29-38; click here for the Anti-Federalist responses)
  4. The Doctor in Spite of Himself by Moliére (GBB Vol. 4, pp. 52-81)
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Book IV (GBWW Vol. 10, pp. 67-80)
  6. Discourse on Method by René Descartes (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 265-291)

This week we begin reading through the Federalist Papers, which argued for the ratification of the Constitution. Not quite as exciting as Homer, but there you have it. I have never read straight through these essays from beginning to end, so I’m sure I will learn many things. I wish Adler had included the Anti-Federalist Papers in the series as well, because we’ll only be hearing one side of this debate, so if you want extra credit I’ll link to the Anti-Federalists as well each week, and you can read their responses to each essay.

Here are some comments on last week’s readings:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books XXI-XXIV: If this story had been written in the 21st century, it would have ended with Book 22 or 23. But for the ancients, Book 24 would have been critical. Social harmony had to be restored in the wake of the suitors’ massacre. It’s a downer that we end with the knowledge that Odysseus still has to travel far and wide to satisfy the gods even after his homecoming.
  2. “Last Public Address” of Abraham Lincoln: I’m not really sure why Adler selected this essay for inclusion in the series; nearly the whole thing is dealing with the particulars of readmitting Louisiana to the Union. Maybe it’s because he raised the possibility of giving freed slaves the vote, although he didn’t actually give a ringing endorsement of the idea.
  3. “The Death of Abraham Lincoln” by Walt Whitman: Was Whitman in the theatre at the time of the assassination? I don’t think he was, but he writes as though he were. It’s interesting to see how Whitman tries to reconcile his adulation of Lincoln with his belief that individuals are of comparatively little importance in history.
  4. “The Will to Believe” by William James: This essay has some great phrases; I loved the reference to the “slouchy modern thinkers” who won’t speak to each other in Latin. I appreciated the way in which James exposes the presuppositions that empiricists hold on faith, and also how he points out that the refusal to take anything on faith is the triumph of fear over hope.
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Book III: So now I know that pretty much everything we know about circles comes from making triangles inside or around them. We started seeing some longer proofs in this book; I think one ran to almost three pages. Fortunately, at this point I’m still able to follow everything without too much difficulty, and didn’t have to reread anything more than once. I could feel my brain increasing in size the whole time.
  6. “Of Idleness” by Montaigne: I was struck by the four quotations from classical authors occurring within a few lines of each other in this very brief essay. It’s noteworthy how Montaigne originally sought idleness and then found he couldn’t handle it.

We’re rolling into the last month of the spring semester, and the pace of life on campus is getting more and more frenzied. I hope whatever is coming your way this month won’t prevent you from doing some mind-broadening reading. 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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3 Responses to Kill ’em All and Let the Gods Sort Them Out

  1. Victoria says:

    On Love: “There is a tide in the affairs of women which, taken at the flood, leads Lord knows where.” – Lord Byron (he would know!)
    I’m finding Bacon more readable as I become more familiar with him.

  2. Jane says:

    Having read verse translations of The Odyssey in the past, I enjoyed this prose one of Samuel Butler’s (though the Roman versions of all the names threw me off at first). So many references live on in our metaphors: Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens, the Cyclops, the Trojan Horse… While The Iliad mostly lauds the physical prowess of its characters, The Odyssey celebrates intelligence, not just of the main male protagonist but also the female. The female gods and demigods are also pivotal. I remembered the Steely Dan song on the Aja album, Home at Last: “Well, the danger on the rocks is surely past/Still I remain tied to the mast/Could it be that I have found my home at last?/Home at last.” Such a great scene: opening himself up to the beauty of the Siren song, after first following Circe’s advice and avoiding the lure to doom.

    James’s The Will to Believe reminded me of my Irish Catholic father’s response when I once asked him whether he believed in God. He said, “In the presence of doubt, I prefer to err on His side rather than against.” That’s the essence of Pascal’s Wager and for the most part of this essay. James points out that waiting for further proof will prove an eternal wait, and not to decide is a decision. Agnosticism is thus an untenable position. I need to think about this one.

  3. Vic says:

    One thing that struck me about James’ essay is that he seems to criticize acceptance of Pascal’s wager as a shallow and cynical form of faith. But is that really so different than what James advocates – accepting faith because it means embracing the hope that a faith is true rather than the fear that it is in error? Pascal is saying rather the same thing: if you accept religious faith, you have everything to gain if you’re right and nothing to lose if you’re wrong. You accept hope, in other words, rather than fear.

    That doesn’t invalidate James’ position, of course. But it seemed he threw a little needless shade at poor Pascal …

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