Proof That Not All Cultures Are Equal

Straight lines perpendicular to planes, birds carrying gems to poor people, cannibals, bridge building . . . you encounter all kinds of different things when you read the Great Books. I hope you’ve been following along because we’re closing in on the end of a couple of long works now. But even if this is your first week with us, we’ve got a couple of short pieces for you.

Here are the selections for the upcoming week:

  1. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, Chapter XV* (GGB Vol. 2, pp. 80-90)
  2. The Histories of Herodotus, Book V (GBWW Vol. 5, pp. 160-185)
  3. The Battle with the Cannon” by Victor Hugo (GGB Vol. 2, pp. 146-154; excerpt from Ninety-Three: Part I, Book II, Chapters IV-VI)
  4. Federalist #39-40 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 125-132; Antifederalist responses are here)
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Book XII (GGBW Vol. 10, pp. 338-368)
  6. The Ethics of Belief” by William Clifford (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 16-36)

*The GGB set contains only 117 pages of excerpts from Robinson Crusoe. I plan to read the whole novel, but this week it doesn’t make any difference; all of Chapter XV is in Adler’s excerpts.

We’ll pass the 2,500-page mark this week in our reading program. Does your brain feel stronger yet?

Here are some observations on last week’s readings:

  1. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, Chapters XIV: So Crusoe trusts Friday, but not completely, keeping a barrier between them at night. Smart man. Now, how does one civilize a cannibal? I know Montaigne argued they were as civilized as Europeans, but let’s be real here.
  2. The Histories of Herodotus, Book IV: The figure of Darius provides some continuity, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this book was a big digression from Herodotus’s main story. Scythians . . . yuck! Strangling gobs of people to bury with kings . . . not too different from earlier Egyptians, I suppose, but the dispassionate description of it here made me shudder. Maybe Herodotus just assumes we know not to expect anything better from barbarians.
  3. “The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde: In this story, Christian charity is equated with capital consumption as well as self-sacrifice. Then we have a character linking utility to beauty. Definitely some interesting ambiguities going on here.
  4. Federalist #37-38: It seems like the gist of these two papers was a call for readers not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. That’s fine as far as it goes, if you accept the premise that the Constitution’s opponents were utopians. Some may have been, but others certainly saw the document as representing a move in the wrong direction.
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Book XI: Comprehension at last! Planes, lines intersecting them and others parallel to them . . . this I can get. I’m glad we came back down to earth, so to speak, after the torture of Book X. Things started to heat up again around Proposition 22 or so, but still this book was a walk in the park, comparatively speaking.
  6. “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson: There’s no unified theory here like we had with Mill, but it’s remarkable to me how the 21st century seems to echo Emerson’s quasi-worship of nature, even in its fallacious assumptions about geology banishing Moses and Plato. The section about motion and rest was interesting.

I thought that the summer would give me a more relaxed pace for reading, but I had to spend much of yesterday completing last week’s readings. House hunting takes lots of time, I find.

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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5 Responses to Proof That Not All Cultures Are Equal

  1. Rachel Wishum says:

    In “The Happy Prince” what did you mean by “Christian charity is equated with capital consumption”? I wasn’t getting that from the story, but maybe I didn’t understand what you were saying.

  2. Dr. J says:

    The value represented by the gems and precious metals is not invested to increase production; rather, it’s consumed to meet the immediate needs/wants of the suffering people. If you have a million dollars, is it more Christian to give it all at once to poor people to meet immediate needs or instead to invest it and give the long-term interest generated to the poor, creating more wealth in the process? Wilde seems to be saying the first option is better.

    • Victoria says:

      I think your analysis is correct although I don’t know how savvy Wilde was in matters economic. J.Tucker & M.McCaffrey are both Wilde devotes, so we could ask them. In the meantime, I would say that Wilde was a sentimentalist first & last, so I suspect that the practical issue of which is the more effective means of charity never crossed his mind. The same debate rages periodically between the Chronicles crowd (who claim that one must give one’s goods directly) and the Mises crowd (who see that there are other, perhaps less direct but perhaps more efficient, ways of being charitable).

  3. Rachel Wishum says:

    I see what you’re saying now. I would think the answer would be both; some money might need to go to meeting immediate needs, especially if the person with immediate needs is someone who might be considered your neighbor (I guess by that I mean they have some kind of relationship or proximity to you that makes you the best person at the time to help them), but it’s also important to think of long-term ways to help the poor, and to help those who are poor improve their situation so they are no longer poor and are able to help others. David Johnson lent me the book “When Helping Hurts” that discusses how to differentiate between the need for relief, rehabilitation, and development, and it was some good food for thought. I didn’t get the idea that Wilde was trying to make a point about how to help the poor so much as he was telling a redemption-type story- almost like a Zacchaeus who realized he was wrong and decided to give half of what he had to the poor. But I may go back and re-read the story now, to see what I missed.

  4. Jane says:

    Several of these readings spoke of the gulf between rich and poor and brought to my mind the work of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. People with limited means have to spend all available time and energy seeing to their most basic needs for food, shelter and safety. Those with more can focus on loving relationships, self-esteem and self-actualization.

    As Emerson says, “This palace of brick and stone, these servants, this kitchen, these stables, horses and equipage, this bank stock and file of mortgages, trade to all the world, country house and cottage by the waterside, all for a little conversation, high, clear and spiritual! Could it not be had as well by beggars on the highway? No, all these things came from successive efforts of these beggars to remove friction from the wheels of life, and give opportunity.”

    Likewise, Wilde’s “Happy Prince” is happy while alive because his wealth allows him to live comfortably in a palace, walled off from the rest of the world. As a statue he cannot avoid seeing the suffering in the city around him, compelling him to give of himself to alleviate it. Of course, once he gives everything away and loses his shine the mayor & town councillors take him down and each intends to put up a new statue – in his own image.

    Lately the Anti-Federalists have been more fun to read than the Federalists. I appreciate the former’s complaint that the Constitution’s proponents are suspect because they are aristocratic, highly educated and well-travelled, and because they spin out a lot of words where fewer would certainly do. Doth they protest too much?

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