Smackdown 2011: Theseus vs. Romulus

It’s Great Books Monday, and I want to reiterate how immersion in the Western tradition helps you see and interact with the world in a richer and more meaningful way. If you read the “Tornadoes and Tolstoy” post last week, I hope you were able to see how the literature we’re reading helps one reflect on and assess events like the calamitous storms that claimed hundreds of lives in the South last week. Don’t let anyone ever tell you this stuff is irrelevant.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 24, pp. 568-596)
  2. The Way to Write History” by Lucian (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 387-406)
  3. Of Adversity” by Francis Bacon (GGB Vol. 10, p. 350)
  4. Federalist #21-23 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 78-87; Anti-Federalist responses are here.)
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Vol. VIII (GBWW Vol. 10, pp. 150-170)
  6. The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book X (GBWW Vol. 16, pp. 90-112)

I don’t know about you, but after seven weeks of Euclid, a Shakespeare play is starting to look like light reading to me. And we haven’t even gotten to the really hard parts of the Elements yet.

Here are some observations on last week’s readings:

  1. “What Men Live By” by Leo Tolstoy: I’ve already written on this piece in last week’s post “Tornadoes and Tolstoy,” so I’ll only add here that I presume the angel in the story is supposed to be the archangel Michael (Mikhaila).
  2. “Romulus” by Plutarch: It had been many years since I last read this piece. I had completely forgotten that the tradition of carrying the bride over the threshold of the bridal chamber is supposed to be a memory of the Rape of the Sabines. That certainly puts a different spin on honeymoons. It’s also noteworthy how Plutarch is more interested in the qualities of Romulus as a ruler rather than the famous stories of his early life (e.g., being suckled by a she-wolf, killing Remus).
  3. “Romulus and Theseus Compared” by Plutarch: I wanted Plutarch to come out and say which was the better man or ruler, but he restricts himself to judging in particulars and not the overall lives. I found it interesting how each deviated from proper kingship, the one by becoming a tyrant, and the other by becoming “popular.”
  4. Federalist #14-20: So how many policy debates being carried out in today’s newspapers do you know of that mine classical and medieval history so intensely for examples to be learned from? I can’t think of any, either. It’s interesting to see here how Hamilton and Madison are apparently under the spell of Hobbes and can’t appreciate the safeguards offered by divided sovereignty.
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Book VII: I found myself wishing many times while reading this that Euclid had had access to Arabic numerals. Vocabulary is still presenting challenges for me here, particularly near the end when he started talking about “names of parts.” But most of the concepts here are pretty straightforward when translated into the terminology we know (e.g., common factors).
  6. The Confessions of St. Augustine, Books VII- IX: I’ve always found it interesting how Augustine holds back from baptism even after he’s convinced of the truth of Christianity. He recognized that there were still things in his life he was not ready to surrender to God and was honest enough not to enter the Church with his fingers crossed. The passages about the Monica’s passing are very moving.

It’s finals week at my university. I’m looking forward to a summer of reading. I hope you feel the same!

[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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4 Responses to Smackdown 2011: Theseus vs. Romulus

  1. I have enjoyed reading through your posts about your readings in the Great Books. We plan to use a great books based curriculum with our child, and I will read it before the child does. I am sad that Britannica no longer publishes the Great Books of the Western World set. Not a large enough audience? Not a diverse enough representation? I wonder what Adler would say.

    • Dr. J says:

      That must be a very recent development. I was just on their website a month or two ago and saw it there. I think that the accessibility of these texts for free or nearly free on the internet has something to do with the decision.

  2. Victoria says:

    Lucian should have heeded his own advice and omitted Part 2 of this discourse. If the reader doesn’t already know & understand all that he says in Part 2, he will not have enjoyed the delicious humor of Part 1.

  3. Jane says:

    Tolstoy’s “What Men Live By” reminded me of Ovid’s tale about Philemon & Baucis, the poor elderly couple who show hospitality to the disguised gods, Jupiter & Mercury. How ironic yet how frequently it happens that those with more are all the more stingy.

    An article from 2012 described research by a pair of Berkeley psychologists (Piff and Keltner) looking at whether social class (as measured by wealth, occupational prestige, and education) influences how much we care about the feelings of others. In one experiment they asked participants to spend a few minutes comparing themselves either to people better off or worse off than themselves financially. Afterwards, participants were shown a jar of candy and told they could take home as much as they wanted. They were also told that the leftover candy would be given to children in a nearby laboratory. Those who had spent time thinking about how much better off they were compared to others took significantly more candy for themselves–leaving less behind for the children.

    Today more than ever, in an era of fear and distrust, hospitality to strangers seems a dying habit. This video is very funny, yet very sad too: https://vimeo.com/150434291 (Sebastian Maniscalco, “Company”)

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