Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

It’s Great Books Monday once again, and this week we are on track to pass the 3,500-page mark of this reading program. It seems crazy that after reading so much, we have yet to complete a single volume of either the Gateway to the Great Books or the Great Books of the Western World, but when you have seventy volumes to work through, that’s how it goes.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. Animal Farm by George Orwell, Chapters VI-X  (GBWW Vol. 60, pp. 496-524)
  2. Of Democritus and Heraclitus” by Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 186-187)
  3. Plato’s Republic, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 388-401)
  4. Federalist #49-50 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 159-162; Antifederalist responses are here)
  5. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (GGB Vol. 8, pp. 47-93)
  6. How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter X-XII (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 143-169)

I hope you’re in the mood for some science this week; Darwin’s autobiography makes up almost half of the reading this time out.

Here are some observations on last week’s readings:

  1. Animal Farm by George Orwell, Chapters I-V: I think I was in high school the last time I read this book, and I knew relatively little about the Soviet Union then. This time through, I’m struck by how exact the allegory of the Russian Revolution and following years is. I wonder how far Orwell is willing to go with the innate capacities of the different species of animals; it seems as though making that concession by itself could threaten the whole socialist project.
  2. “Themistocles” by Plutarch: Hopefully, this biography was a smooth read for you if you read Herodotus over the last few months with me. It’s amazing to the modern mind how war heroes like Miltiades and Themistocles can find themselves booted from their cities not long after their victories. I found very interesting the statement that ostracism was not so much to punish the ostracized as it was to limit the potential violence of the envious.
  3. Plato’s Republic, Book VI: You knew Plato had to play the Sun card sooner or later if you were familiar with that philosophical tradition to any degree. Still, the whole discussion of sight and the contrasting of it with the other senses seemed a bit strange to me.
  4. Federalist #48: Would that Madison had been as concerned to safeguard from the executive branch as he was to safeguard us from the legislature. Obviously he did not anticipate the imperial presidency of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
  5. “Mathematics in Life and Thought” by Andrew Forsyth: This is a solid exposition of the value of mathematics to society. Essentially he argues that the modern world could not exist without it. But at the same time he shows respect for the Great Tradition of Western learning and recognizes the limitations of the natural sciences. What’s not to like?
  6. How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter IX: This chapter seemed a bit more subtle to me than the preceding ones. Taken one way, it’s almost as though you could read Dewey as arguing that ideas don’t mean anything. Nor do things in themselves. Meaning from his perspective is a connection between the human mind and the “real world.” Of course, for those of us with a theocentric orientation, this position is problematic.

My scrambling to finish up summer projects in anticipation of the fall semester’s beginning kept me from posting much last week. We have freshmen on campus now to dominate my attention for the next couple of days, and classes begin Wednesday. I’m counting on the Great Books to keep me sane through it.

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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1 Response to Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

  1. Jane says:

    George Orwell, Animal Farm: So much awful truth about human nature in so few words. This is a work of humanitarian genius, a desperate effort to wake his contemporaries up to the murderous schemes of Stalin and his followers. It isn’t just about the end-product evils of Bolshevism/Socialism/Communism, but about any person’s propensity to be corrupted by power. The book pairs nicely with The Republic, in which Plato acknowledges this grave fault and recommended guiding a select class of citizens toward eschewing wealth and power and dedicating themselves to wise governance for the good of all, not just a few. Orwell brilliantly captures the hopes and then ultimate despondence of the less powerful, the good-natured, hard-working Boxers of the world who are discarded when no longer useful. Now, we have voices all around us warning of the growing chasm between rich and poor and the potential for abuse of technologies to control thought and behavior; yet what are we doing to curtail it?

    Plato’s Republic Book VI: This passage reminds me of Voltaire and his decision to retreat to a farm commune near the end of his life: “Those who belong to this small class [disciples of philosophy] have… seen enough of the madness of the multitude; and they know that no politician is honest, nor is there any champion of justice at whose side they may fight and be saved. Such an one may be compared to a man who has fallen among wild beasts – he will not join in the wickedness of his fellows, but neither is he able singly to resist all their fierce natures, and therefore seeing that he would be of no use to the State or to his friends, and reflecting that he would have to throw away his life without doing any good either to himself or others, he holds his peace, and goes his own way… seeing the rest of mankind full of wickedness, he is content, if only he can live his own life and be pure from evil or unrighteousness, and depart in peace and good-will, with bright hopes.” I take this as a reminder of the limits of our ability to alter the course of human affairs. It doesn’t mean I will stop trying to effect positive change where I can in the world, but I will stop short of sacrificing my own personal peace in the process.

    Plutarch’s Themistocles: Interesting to learn that Themistocles was responsible for the buildup of Greek naval power, which indeed served them well for a period of time. Also interesting that he ended up exiled and chose suicide over being compelled to fight (and possibly lose) against his original countrymen. As Aristotle said, never count a man happy until after he has died, for fortunes can, and often do, change.

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