Of Philosopher-Kings and Megalomaniacs

It’s Great Books Monday once again, and our train keeps on rolling. It’s quite healthy to read something from several different time periods on a regular basis; the practice helps to keep you from unconsciously adopting the biases of a particular era by making those biases more evident. This week we have selections from the ancient world, the 18th century, and the 20th century.

More specifically, here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. Animal Farm by George Orwell, Chapters I-V  (GBWW Vol. 60, pp. 477-496)
  2. Themistocles” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 88-102)
  3. Plato’s Republic, Book VI (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 373-388)
  4. Federalist #48 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 156-159; Antifederalist responses are here)
  5. “Mathematics in Life and Thought” by Andrew Forsyth (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 26-46)
  6. How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter IX (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 132-143)

Figuring out where to place the six new volumes (#55-60) of the 1990 edition of GBWW is a bit of a challenge; obviously they were not part of the reading plans Adler drafted in the 1960s. I figured Animal Farm is one we could tackle early on, though. The Forsyth selection is a lecture delivered in 1929, and I cannot find a copy of it online.

Here are some observations on last week’s readings:

  1. The Man of Destiny by George Bernard Shaw: I can only imagine English people in the 1890s listening to themselves being described by Napoleon in the final scene. I can’t see their responding too warmly. This was the first play I’ve ever read by Shaw–Saint Joan is in the GBWW set–and I appreciate his ability to turn a phrase and his sense of the comic. Too bad those talents were spent in advocating Fabian Socialism . . .
  2. “A Meditation Upon a Broomstick” by Jonathan Swift: This man never pulls his punches, does he? Who would have thought of using a broomstick as a memento mori?
  3. Plato’s Republic, Book V: The advocacy of the holding of wives and children in common just begs for a rebuttal, and of course Aristotle gave us one, which we’ll read in due course. I can see the feminist love/hate relationship with Plato again here: on the one hand he says women should do all the same things as men, but on the other he says they’re obviously not as good at anything as men are. This is also the section where Plato unveils the philosopher-king in response to the question of whether a state like the one they’re discussing could ever exist.
  4. Federalist #47: Madison is nothing if not thorough here, insisting on showing how each one of the the thirteen states separates executive, legislative, and judicial functions. I was ready to cry uncle after four or five. His argument: if none of the states has a perfect separation of branches, one shouldn’t expect the proposed central government to have it, either. Fair enough.
  5. “The Starry Messenger” by Galileo Galilei: I’ll be honest: I’m glad the editor decided to abridge the section where Galileo gives a daily log of the position of the four moons of Jupiter. You can feel the excitement coming through his narrative, though. To think that he was the very first person ever to see those moons, or to see the surface of our moon well enough to discern its topography.
  6. How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter VIII: Again, a good summary in this chapter, this time on the process of judgment. But you can see the danger signs in one or two places, particularly when he critiques the educational system of his day for “putting product before process.” After decades of Dewey-inspired pedagogy, we know that teachers have given students process without product.

I don’t know what the weather’s like where you are, but we’ve been in the dog days of summer for weeks here in Alabama. Triple-digit temperatures are no fun. I hope everyone finds a way to stay cool while reading this week.

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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 Of Philosopher-Kings and Megalomaniacs

  1. Jon Burnett says:

    Having just read Galileo’s work this semester, I can appreciate that selectivity. I wish my editor would have done a bit more of that himself!

  2. Jane says:

    Shaw, The Man of Destiny: Not a fan of farce, I couldn’t imagine sitting through this play if it were produced today. But I appreciated the piece for reminding me of Napoleon’s impact on the world of his time, and for Shaw’s take on morality as evinced by his “three sorts of people” – the low, the middle, and the high. “The low are beneath morality, and the high above it….It is the middle people who are dangerous: they have both knowledge and purpose. But they, too, have their weak point. They are full of scruples: chained hand and foot by their morality and respectability.” To me this sums up how ineffective today’s moderate political camps are in reining in the radical fringes on either side. They just aren’t devious enough to push back or wield similar propaganda and shock tactics, so their logical appeals to law, reason, and fairness are obliterated in the public arena.

    This segues well to Federalist #47, in which Madison begins to lay out the rationale for a separation of powers among the three branches of government. Unfortunately today we are witnessing steady attacks on the balances set out in the Constitution, with Congress’s 2016 blocking of Obama’s nominee for Supreme Court justice a most heinous example. Here in my state of North Carolina, the congressional majority’s machinations are truly Machiavellian. Our Attorney General, Josh Stein, said the NC government is now the least representative democracy in the entire Western Hemisphere due to district gerrymandering and appointments of partisan justices who have upheld baldfaced efforts to suppress minority votes.

    Galileo’s Starry Messenger was a treat and made me consider the moon’s appearance and phases more closely than I have in many moons. We just had a blue moon a few days ago, when it is full twice in the same month. It struck me when the introduction to the work said Galileo’s observations “take on added interest today, when close-up photographs have been taken and there is a near prospect of putting men on the moon.” The pace of technological advancement since these books were published makes that achievement seem like ancient history, and our machines have probed so much further into space; yet there is still “no place like home,” no other planet we can live on, so we damn well better work harder to keep from destroying it.

    Swift’s Meditation upon a Broomstick: It’s always bracing to see a monkey made out of vain mankind. Swift does it well.

    Finally, Plato’s Republic Book V: To deflect irritation at the demeaning portrayal of women and bafflement as to how people could avoid begetting children with relatives later down the line if their offspring were concealed from them, I look at all this as a metaphor suggesting how leaders could avoid the entrapment of desire and possessions and focus on wise governance. Perhaps a parallel could be drawn to how the Catholic Church has maintained control over its priests: prohibit marriage and children, prohibit ownership of property, and require that they pull up stakes and move to new parishes on a regular basis. Since Socrates is mainly working up to a description of a just individual by way of a just state, I’m not going to get too worked up by the particulars.

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