Achilles, the Three-Fifths Clause, and a Piece of Chalk

It’s another Great Books Monday, and if you’re like me, you’re feeling a sense of accomplishment for finishing Plato’s Republic this past week. Hopefully you’ll get that feeling many more times as we make further progress in this project.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Iliad of Homer, Books X-XII  (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 111-148)
  2. A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift (GGB Vol. 7, pp. 42-49)
  3. Characters” by Jean de la Bruyère (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 102-105; Adler excerpts the following entries: I.24, V.43, VI.18, VI.83, X.11)
  4. Federalist #55-56 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 172-176; Antifederalist responses are here)
  5. On Mathematical Method“by Alfred N. Whitehead (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 51-67; Chapters I-III of An Introduction to Mathematics)
  6. The Sentiment of Rationality” by William James (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 58-87)

It seems amazing, but after reading William James this week, we’ll only have a couple more selections remaining in the GGB‘s volume of philosophical essays. Do you feel smarter?

Here are some observations on last week’s readings:

  1. The Iliad of Homer, Books VII-IX: The duel between Aias and Hector is pretty impressive. Strange how they try to kill each other, and then give each other presents. It’s also noteworthy how Achilles essentially admits his own petulance when he refuses to be reconciled to Agamemnon and return to the fighting near the end of Book IX.
  2. “Of Experience” by Michel de Montaigne: I’ll be honest; I could have done without reading about Montaigne’s kidney stones. In fact, a lot of this essay reminds one of an old-timer who is determined to talk about his various ailments to anyone who will listen. There are some flashes of brilliance, though. I especially liked the stuff about laws near the beginning of the essay.
  3. Plato’s Republic, Book X: I suppose it’s safe to say that Adler et al were not persuaded that poets should be banished; almost one-third of the Great Books collections consists of imaginative literature, or “imitation.” Still, Plato ends this work with a bang: a scene of judgment and reincarnation. In my view, the argument for the soul’s immortality rescues the argument for always acting justly regardless of material gain.
  4. Federalist #54: Much of this essay is a defense of the Three-Fifths Clause, and there is a certain logic to it given the assumptions of the day. Both North and South wanted to have it both ways when it came to counting or not counting slaves for purposes of representation and taxation. Southerners wanted to count them for representation but not for taxation; Northerners wanted the reverse. No doubt Madison and Hamilton would have been bewildered by the claims of Al Gore and others that the Three-Fifths Clause was making some sort of metaphysical judgment about the humanity of black people.
  5. “On a Piece of Chalk” by Thomas Huxley: This is one of two selections in the GGB set by “Darwin’s bulldog.” The discussion of the formation of chalk and the similarities of England’s deposits to the Atlantic floor is clear and compelling. The extrapolations near the end of the essay are less so, and Huxley shows his hand with very prejudicial comments on the last couple of pages. “Detached observer,” indeed.
  6. How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter XIX: Dewey makes what, again, seem to be straightforward and commonsensical recommendations for education. It’s unfortunate that the implementation of these ideas often seems to be next to impossible. With the “combination of play and work,” for example, what teachers often end up doing is trying to trick students into learning something in the context of a time-consuming game or “activity.” In other areas, such as the study of “dead languages,” there’s no way to get around rote learning of conjugations, declensions, and the like. Dewey shrinks from such activities in disgust.

We had gorgeous weather after the tropical storm blew through last week, and I actually put on a sweater a couple of times. It has warmed up a bit since then, but I have high hopes that there will be more reading outdoors in the near future.

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 Achilles, the Three-Fifths Clause, and a Piece of Chalk

  1. Victoria says:

    Here’s something fun for those who are reading the Great Books: the Battle of Marathon reenacted! The photos are wonderful!

  2. Dr. J says:

    Very colorful. Thanks!

  3. Jane says:

    Homer, The Iliad, VII-IX: Many more Greeks and Trojans dying in battle, often described with poetic natural references, e.g.: “… now he bowed his head as a garden poppy in full bloom when it is weighed down by showers in spring – even thus heavily bowed his head beneath the weight of his helmet.” In this section Agamemnon admits to Nestor that he did wrong by Achilles and sends Ulysses with a squad to beg his forgiveness, offer to return Briseis, and provide other incentives to bring him back into the fight. Achilles doesn’t budge. Then Diomed, who I think is the next most honorable hero after Hector in this story, exhorts the Achaeans to sup well and get ready to renew their efforts the next day.

    Plato’s Republic, Book X: In this last chapter, Socrates takes aim at the arts, describing them as not just poor imitations of the real and ideal forms but also as degraded ones, or potentially degrading to those who consume them. “Imitative art has no true or healthy aim” and “is an inferior who marries an inferior, and has inferior offspring.” Even Homer should be banished, because if one allows “the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed best, but pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our State.” I concur that the vast majority of today’s art and entertainment appeals to least common denominators, and that the lures of junk food, junk media and the overuse of alcohol and other drugs leads to vast wastage of human energies which might otherwise be productively applied to the betterment of society. Plato ends by extolling the just man who avoids extremes and seeks the mean, has faith in truth and right, avoids the lures of wealth and power, and “endures to the end of every action and occasion of his entire life,” saying he “has a good report and carries off the prize which men have to bestow.”

    Montaigne, Of Experience: Montaigne comments on the constant drive of a healthy mind to learn and know, while warning that “there is no end of our inquisitions; our end is in the other world.” No one should believe himself a truly new or independent thinker; “our opinions are grafted upon one another” and “he who is mounted highest, has often more honour than merit, for he is got up but an inch upon the shoulders of the last one.” Better, he says, to live one’s life fully and attentively, accepting all within it whether deemed good or ill, and know ourselves, as Apollo’s temple inscription tells us. “I had rather understand myself well in myself, than in Cicero. Of the experience I have of myself, I find enough to make me wise, if I were but a good scholar…” The essay is full of bon mots about living pragmatically, enjoying the many fruits of life with relish, and appreciating the aging process as nature’s way of making death less painful; “it will kill but a quarter of a man or but half a one at most.” There’s a section of the piece that could have been titled “Of Kidney Stones,” containing graphic descriptions of the pitfalls of enjoying too many rich sauces while drinking too little water. My favorite quote: “…by how much the possession of living is more short, I must make it so much deeper and more full.”

    Huxley, On a Piece of Chalk: A clear argument supporting terrestrial time periods more in line with Darwinian evolution than the religion-based attacks against it in those days, and promoting purely natural causes for the “physical changes of the globe in past times.” What might he have thought about the man-made accellerants of change and species die-offs – the pollutants, the immortal and deadly plastics, and the more intentional weapons of mass destruction?

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