Montaigne Is a Jerk

Having crossed the 3,500-page mark of our Great Books reading project this past week, it’s time to celebrate by returning to the fountainhead of Western literature and putting ourselves on track to–wait for it–finish a volume of the Great Books of the Western World within a couple of months!

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Iliad of Homer, Books I-III  (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 1-38)
  2. Of Bashfulness” by Plutarch (GGB Vol. 7, pp. 97-109)
  3. Plato’s Republic, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 401-416)
  4. Federalist #51 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 162-165; Antifederalist responses are here)
  5. “The Running Down of the Universe” by Sir Arthur Eddington (GGB Vol. 8, pp. 565-580; Chapter 4 of The Nature of the Physical World)
  6. How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter XIV-XV (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 169-185)

I can’t find the Eddington piece online; the best I can do is a link to the 1928 book from which it came.

Here are some observations on last week’s readings:

  1. Animal Farm by George Orwell, Chapters VI-X: Orwell has those Soviet commissars pegged, right down to their habitual drunkenness. The lack of resistance to the rewriting of history is disturbing but all too plausible. And in the end the animals finally learn what Mises and Hayek tried to tell them: central planning benefits only the planners.
  2. “On Democritus and Heraclitus” by Montaigne: So does Montaigne strike you as a bit of a jerk? “I like the guys who hate and ridicule humanity more than those who just hate it.” Please.
  3. Plato’s Republic, Book VII: Here we have the famous Allegory of the Cave along with praise of arithmetic and geometry. I think I’ll send a quote or two to my math colleagues this week to encourage them.
  4. Federalist #49-50: The argument in these two papers is against the periodic recourse to “the people” for ratification of the government’s actions or in cases of a suspected constitutional breach by one branch of the government. The reasoning here is plausible, but the question remains unanswered: What recourse do we have when the government oversteps its constitutional bounds? If your answer is “the Supreme Court,” you’ve missed the point.
  5. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin: I’m no Darwinist, but I enjoyed this work, particularly the recollections of other famous Englishmen Darwin was able to meet. My kids love The Three Caballeros movie, and I was glad to be able to tell them I had just read about a man who took a trip to Bahia; however, my three-year-old seemed upset that Darwin went there in a ship instead of on a train like Donald Duck did.
  6. How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter X-XII: So Dewey likes the scientific method. I’m waiting for him to explain, as I’ve been waiting for any “social scientist” to explain, how you can experiment on people and expect the same reliability of results that you get when experimenting on inanimate stuff.

School is firing up again here. I’m wading into the philosophy of history and the Middle Ages, among other things. Everyone is busy; don’t let it keep you from reading something this week, though!

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 Montaigne Is a Jerk

  1. Jane says:

    Montaigne, Of Democritus and Heraclitus: We haven’t gotten to him yet, but did Hobbes channel a bit of Montaigne’s low opinion of humankind? Or did Swift? “I think we can never be despised according to our full desert. …I do not think we are so unhappy as we are vain, or have in us so much malice as folly; we are not so full of mischief as inanity; nor so miserable as we are vile and mean.” He seems to contradict his own earlier comment, that “amongst the functions of the soul, there are some of a lower and meaner form; he who does not see her in those inferior offices as well as in those of nobler note, never fully discovers her…” While I don’t exactly disagree with the skewering, in this essay Montaigne fails to mention any of the better angels of our nature.

    Plato’s Republic Book VII: Here we have the parable of the cave, probably the best known sequence in this work. While not exactly true to the meaning Plato was intending, I like to use this with my therapy clients (especially the younger one) as a metaphor for the pitfalls of immersion in today’s media. Basing one’s views of the world on perspectives gleaned through TV, films, news stories and social media is today’s equivalent to the chained people mistaking the shadows on the wall for reality. It also reminds me of Orwell’s Big Brother literally watching people through their screens, and the replacement of books by the immersive, all-four-walls home video theaters in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. If respect for learning for learning’s sake, or for the sake of being a good person and leading a good life, continues to dwindle, this tendency to mistake the imitations for the real thing will not just be a shame for the individuals thus limited but a threat to the democratic processes of our society.

    Darwin, Autobiography: On reading this, I was really puzzled by the lack of comment on any of the controversy provoked by Darwin’s proofs of the evolution not just of plants and animals species but also of the “higher” animal, homo sapiens. What is most notable is his incredible humility, apparent throughout the narrative and summed up well at its end: “… my success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been – the love of science – unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject – industry in observing and collecting facts – and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense. With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points.”

    Darwin’s accounts of his intense interest in the littlest of living things and the way he befriended and was helped by other naturalists reminded me of this quote from Joseph Campbell: “If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”

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