Young People, You WILL Die, So Stop Pretending

Another Monday, another 100+ pages of Western civilization’s best in the books. What’s not to like?

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller” by Gustave Flaubert (GGB Vol. 3, pp. 371-392)
  2. Theseus” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 1-15)
  3. Of Anger” by Francis Bacon (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 359-360)
  4. Federalist #11-14 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 53-62; Anti-Federalist responses are here.)
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Book VI (GBWW Vol. 10, pp. 99-126)
  6. The Confessions of St. Augustine, Books IV-VI (GBWW Vol. 16, pp. 24-54)

We’ll have our first taste of Plutarch’s Lives this week; it is a very long work, but episodic by its nature, so we won’t have to read from it every week. I expect we’ll take it in small doses over a couple of years.

Here are some comments on last week’s readings:

  1. “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane: This story is autobiographical, based on a real shipwreck Crane survived off the Florida coast. It is a frustrating read in part because of its realism. When the vacationers wave to the men in the boat, obviously not realizing their plight, you want to scream.
  2. “On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth” by William Hazlitt: This piece reminded me of Cicero’s “On Old Age,” which we read several weeks ago. I know that when I was younger, I felt as though I had all the time in the world to accomplish every possible goal in life, and since becoming a professor I have talked to many students who apparently feel the same way. The awareness of one’s limited time comes only gradually. I pity those who face the prospect thinking there is nothing beyond this life.
  3. “Of the Education of Children” by Montaigne: Did anyone else notice the irony of Montaigne’s dismissal of the study of classical languages even as he drenches his discourse in quotations from and allusions to classical authors? I like the part about teaching philosophy to children: “A hundred students have caught the syphilis before they came to Aristotle’s lesson on temperance.”
  4. Federalist #6-10: I don’t know about you, but Hamilton’s not really convincing me. Madison in #10 is better, and I can see why #10 is one of the most quoted of the essays. Still, nothing in Madison’s argument would warn us against world government, and can anyone imagine a State on such a scale free of faction?
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Book V: I kept thinking as I read this book, “Surely there’s a simpler way to prove these propositions; they seem almost self-evident.” I am guessing that fractional notation had not been developed in Euclid’s day; that alone would have simplified his proofs greatly, I think. There actually were one or two surprises for me here.
  6. The Confessions of St. Augustine, Books I-III: There is so much to admire in this work that it’s difficult to know where to focus. For one thing, it seems like every other sentence contains a quotation from the Psalms. Also, the unflinching manner in which the author confronts his sins is remarkable. I have yet to meet a classroom full of students that didn’t immediately relate to the story about stealing pears. I’ve always found the circuitous route by which Augustine came to Christianity to be fascinating.

After a harried week of house-hunting, I’m looking forward to a more relaxed schedule for reading this week. I hope you’re finding some time away from whatever tends to distract you so that you can enjoy some of these works as well.

[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 Young People, You WILL Die, So Stop Pretending

  1. Pingback: Man Up with a Memento Mori | The Western Tradition

  2. Jane says:

    “When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers.

    Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: ‘Yes, but I love myself.’

    A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.” — Stephen Crane, The Open Boat

    This sense of an indifferent universe, so effectively conveyed by Camus in his writings, represents my perspective on life & death. I don’t expect there to be anything awaiting me past the transition, but I don’t believe it a cause for pity. Why should we be greedy for more when we can have and do so much in the time we are given? And why should we think ourselves so special and deserving of another chance at life beyond what we are allotted, and unlike any other living creature which lives and dies without fanfare?

    “The boat was headed for the beach. The correspondent wondered if none ever ascended the tall wind-tower, and if then they never looked seaward. This tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree, to the correspondent, the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual — nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent. It is, perhaps, plausible that a man in this situation, impressed with the unconcern of the universe, should see the innumerable flaws of his life and have them taste wickedly in his mind and wish for another chance. A distinction between right and wrong seems absurdly clear to him, then, in this new ignorance of the grave-edge, and he understands that if he were given another opportunity he would mend his conduct and his words, and be better and brighter during an introduction, or at a tea. …

    It seems that instantly the beach was populated with men with blankets, clothes, and flasks, and women with coffee-pots and all the remedies sacred to their minds. The welcome of the land to the men from the sea was warm and generous, but a still and dripping shape was carried slowly up the beach, and the land’s welcome for it could only be the different and sinister hospitality of the grave.

    When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.”

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