Hang That Innocent Man from the Nearest Yardarm

If you’re following this Great Books reading program with me, you’re probably encountering at least one and perhaps several works each week you’ve never dealt with before. In fact, last week I got to read five selections for the first time ever. I’m finding so many things to think about and connect in my mind! I hope you’re experiencing some of that same excitement.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Man of Destiny by George Bernard Shaw  (GGB Vol. 4, pp. 300-338)
  2. A Meditation upon a Broomstick” by Jonathan Swift (GGB Vol. 7, p. 40-41)
  3. Plato’s Republic, Book V (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 356-373)
  4. Federalist #47 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 153-156; Antifederalist responses are here)
  5. The Starry Messenger” by Galileo Galilei (GGB Vol. 8, pp. 330-355)
  6. How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter VIII (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 124-132)

This week we are putting to bed the last of the works Adler thought were appropriate for 7th- and 8th-grade students (Shaw’s play). Try not to feel to stupid, though; in the non-fiction areas, we left that grade level behind long ago.

Here are some observations on last week’s readings:

  1. Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) by Herman Melville: Billy Budd is often described as a Christ figure, and certainly there are some parallels: portents at his death, etc. Granting that this is Melville’s intention, I question his understanding of who Christ is, from Budd’s obliviousness in the face of Claggart’s malice to his reaction under interrogation. The captain was an interesting character as well. The story reminded me of the excerpt from Hugo’s Ninety-Three in some ways.
  2. “Meditation on the Divine Will” by Abraham Lincoln: Given Lincoln’s numerous statements against orthodox Christianity, it’s safe to assume that he’s not channeling St. Paul here. Is this just a secularized Calvinism, some form of fatalism, or another thing entirely?
  3. Plato’s Republic, Book IV: The more I think about Plato’s comments on the evils of wealth and poverty, the more unsettled I get. Apart from ignoring any countervailing incentives that wealth and poverty provide, he’s looking at people as though their only value is in the productivity they provide to the State. No wonder Ayn Rand had such a visceral reaction to him. On another note, it’s remarkable how enduring Plato’s tripartite division of the State and soul has been for the last 2,500 years. Freud was a cheap knockoff.
  4. Federalist #46: Madison argues that natural affection to states and localities will keep the central government relatively weak. What he overlooks is the temptation of people to use the central government in an attempt to benefit their states and localities. Witness the sectionalism of the mid-nineteenth century, or today’s Culture Wars. Everyone thinks there has to be a federal solution for everything.
  5. “A Laboratory of the Open Fields” by Jean-Henri Fabre: My goodness, this man liked bugs. His sanguine response to the wasps camping outside his front door was something else. I’d have found a few gallons of chemicals to dump in the area. His point about the value of studying specimens alive in their natural element rather than dead under a microscope is well taken, though. After reading the Carson piece last week (“we know more about space than we do about the oceans”), it was interesting to see Fabre’s complaint (“we know more about the oceans than we do about bugs in our own back yard”).
  6. How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter VII: Dewey does a good job of breaking down the process of reflection into several phases while maintaining some flexibility in how those phases follow one after the other. I’m wondering why, if all this is so straightforward and natural to people, does it need to be taught? Maybe there was some further explanation given in the chapters that were not excerpted by Adler.

I apologize for posting a day late. The backlog of fallout from moving shrinks slowly, unfortunately.

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 Hang That Innocent Man from the Nearest Yardarm

  1. Regarding Madison’s argument in Federalist 46, isn’t it interesting that now, people who have natural affection for their states and localities are considered anti-American.

    • Dr. J says:

      Haven’t you heard? We’re a “proposition nation” now, so if you like hearth and home, kith and kin, you’re an isolationist if not a racist.

  2. Jane says:

    Melville, Billy Budd: A heart-wrenching story and another take on the inexplicable, irreconcilable elements of good and evil in the human soul. That Vere and other officers are convinced of Billy’s innocence yet must apply due punishment seems to allude to the sacrifices and concessions individuals must make to live in society together. Laws must be upheld; a few small exceptions could lead to major breaches. Reading this kind of philosophical fiction helps one grapple with these deep questions and grey areas of morality and mortality. It’s important to encourage young people to read such classics and keep them from falling into obscurity. I fear today’s offerings for children and young adults lean too heavily toward visual media, discouraging deeper thinking, and are overly simplistic, drilling everything down into stark black or white terms.

    Plato’s Republic, Book IV: Lots of good quotes here. “When the guardians of the laws and of the government are only seemingly and not real guardians, then see how they turn the State upside down…” “Wealth…and poverty; the one is the parent of luxury and indolence, and the other of meanness and viciousness, and both of discontent.” “Good nurture and education implant good constitutions, and these good constitutions taking root in a good education improve more and more, and this improvement affects the breed in man as in other animals.” Who would disagree that the best State or individual should possess the virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice? In borrowing liberally from Plato (and other ancients), Freud brought the timeless struggle between the spiritual, rational, and appetitive parts of the psyche to the attention of modern man. Today’s psychological interventions are drawing increasingly from understandings of brain functioning and the impact of trauma on development. Mindfulness practices can expand the spiritual side, while cognitive-behavioral approaches help the rational side gain ascendance over the appetitive or emotional. Much the same ideas and still helpful to impart to suffering people, though despite what insurance companies might dictate, not likely to help them in only 8 to 10 sessions.

    Fabre, A Laboratory of the Open Fields: This piece reminded me of a fragment from William Blake: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour.” And Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space…” Fabre takes joy in the tiniest of creatures living in his small plot of land. He doesn’t envy others who travel far and abroad in search of new discoveries. As a person with enough means but not overmuch, he falls in that middle category between poverty and wealth which Plato argues is the sweet spot in the selection we just read. This notion is borne out by recent studies showing that $75,000 per year is the point after which people earning more report no greater degree of happiness. Unfortunately in 2012 some 68% of Americans fell under that amount, and it could be worse now given the widening wealth gap worldwide. Anyway, I like Fabre’s attitude and agree that our world is fascinating no matter how small a piece of it is considered.

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