A Fond Farewell to Herodotus

This week we will break the 3,000-page mark in our Great Books reading project. If you are new to this site, don’t let that number discourage you for a minute! Everyone starts from zero, and it’s not necessary to read everything we’ve been through on this site to get a great deal from the program. Pick something small to start and jump into the Great Conversation!

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson  (GGB Vol. 2, pp. 288-341)
  2. Resolutions when I Come to Be Old” by Jonathan Swift (GGB Vol. 7, p. 42)
  3. Plato’s Republic, Book III (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 325-342)
  4. Federalist #45 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 147-150; Antifederalist responses are here)
  5. The Sunless Sea” by Rachel Carson (GGB Vol. 8, pp. 132-146; Chapter 4 of The Sea Around Us)
  6. How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter II (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 101-114)

The Carson book is still under copyright, and the Google Books text of Chapter 4 I’ve linked to is incomplete. If anyone can find a link to the full text, please let me know.

Here are some observations on last week’s readings:

  1. The Tempest by William Shakespeare: It never ceases to amaze me that some people continue to defend Caliban as a victim of “colonialism” when the text makes clear that he wasn’t treated harshly until his attempted rape of Miranda. Moreover, he shows no remorse whatsoever. Anthony Esolen gave a fantastic lecture on this play on our campus a few years ago, showing how Shakespeare is drawing heavily from Isaiah and other Biblical texts in this work, which essentially constituted his public farewell to the stage.
  2. The Histories of Herodotus, Book IX: I confess I found the constant Spartan maneuvering from one end of the Greek line to the other to avoid facing the Persians to be pretty comical. Mardonius falls victim to hubris here, and the subsequent disorder in the Persian ranks is noteworthy, particularly with the general who took his troops out of the battle before they had fought, marching them straight to the Hellespont. And what about the story of the guy who cut his own foot off to get out of the shackles?
  3. Plato’s Republic, Book II: The story of the Ring of Gyges is fun (remember Gyges from Herodotus’s first book?). I don’t want to show my hand too early here, but I’ve never been fully convinced of Socrates’s argument that justice is still desirable in the circumstances set up by Glaucon and Adeimantus absent a “heavenly reward.”
  4. Federalist #44: This essay defends the Constitution’s explicit restrictions on State powers, which make sense for the most part. The discussion of the “necessary and proper” clause seems reasonable on its face, but historical experience has invalidated its value, in my opinion. It has turned out to be a loophole through which an 18-wheeler can be driven to concentrate more and more power at the political center.
  5. “The Sphinx” by Francis Bacon: I found Bacon’s interpretation of the story of the Sphinx a bit fanciful. Sure, you can “read” the sphinx that way, but I seriously doubt that it originated as a parable for the sciences. Adler points out that Bacon’s confidence at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution that the problems of the natural world and of the human condition are of a piece was probably misplaced.
  6. How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter I: I’m almost certain that Dewey and I will have a falling out before the end, but this chapter was pretty good. Of course, I had a hard time sticking with him when so much of his illustrations rested on the false notion that Christopher Columbus lived in an era when everyone thought the world was flat.

I’m writing this post from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I’m attending the annual meeting of the Mythopoeic Society. Yesterday I presented a paper as part of a panel including Corey Olsen and other members of the weekly seminar on the Silmarillion in which I’ve been participating since January. It has been a great experience, but I’ll be glad to get home and see my family today. I think I’ll read some Great Books on the plane!


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 A Fond Farewell to Herodotus

  1. James says:

    What? The Spartans, the very epitome of manliness and fortitude, chickened out while fighting the Persians? And I thought they spent all their time fearlessly battling Persian rhinos and malformed Persian goliaths while wearing red capes and leather underwear, and yelling, “This is Sparta!” in Scottish accents.

  2. Dr. J says:

    According to Herodotus, the continual moving wasn’t due to cowardice. The Greek strategy was to position the Athenians opposite the Persians because they had fought them before at Marathon and had knowledge of their tactics; the Spartans were to face Persia’s Greek allies, with whose tactics they in turn were accustomed to. (All the Spartans who had faced Persia at Thermopylae, of course, were dead.) The Persians kept shifting their own lines so as to be opposite the Spartans. It was like musical chairs.

  3. Jane says:

    The Tempest: In this last play by Shakespeare, forgiveness reigns and no one dies! I like the interpretation some later critics have made that the human id-ego-superego are represented by Caliban-Prospero-Ariel. And I love Miranda’s 15-year-old id response on seeing the shipwrecked men: “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!” Unfortunately, as Aldous Huxley points out in the novel whose title he took from this quote, things/people are too often less wondrous once you get to know them.
    Herodotus, The Histories, Book IX: More agonizing battles, but finally the Persians are expelled. I like the redemption story of Aristodemus, who had been shamed for escaping death at Thermopylae and proved the bravest fighter at Plataea. And how about the revenge of Xerxes’s wife on his mistress – having the young woman’s mother, Xerxes’s sister-in-law, horribly mutilated? And then Xerxes kills his brother? Gives a whole new association to the implications of a coat of many colors.
    Plato’s Republic, Book II: Most notable to me for the story of Gyges and the ring conferring invisibility. Great thought experiment suggesting how apt most humans would be to pursue immoral or illegal means to achieve their ends if they could avoid punishment. Likely an original source for Wagner’s operatic Ring Cycle and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. I’ll never forget having a true dopamine rush on hearing Siegfried’s aria in Die Walkure…
    Federalist Papers, #44: I think this statement is an excellent rationale for making clear and detailed statements of law and policy, and working to close loopholes when they are found to have negative consequences: “No axiom is more clearly established in law, or in reason, than that wherever the end is required, the means are authorised; wherever a general power to do a thing is given, every particular power necessary for doing it is included.”
    Bacon, The Sphinx: While Oedipus succeeds in ending the Sphinx’s terrorism by solving the riddle about man’s limits and mortality, immediately after doing so he fulfills prophecy by unknowingly killing his father and marrying his mother…leading to further tragedy when he learns the truth years later. I believe it’s a stretch for Bacon to use the Sphinx tale as a metaphor for scientific inquiry, and that the Greeks were (as usual) commenting on the challenges and temporality of human existence.
    Dewey, How We Think: I read the entire piece so will make an inclusive comment here. In retrospect I regret how few opportunities I had in school to learn on both levels – concrete and analytic. I remember best the teachers who made their subject matter matter – who taught through practical application and exposure to real objects, situations, and problems. Most provided rote, formulaic material that we memorized for tests and promptly forgot. I am hoping these readings will provide springboards to thinking about current issues and will help me to live better. Writing these posts helps prompt deeper consideration and consolidation, the better to achieve that end.

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