What Is Property?

It’s Great Books Monday once again, and I barely managed to finish last week’s reading in time to make this post. It seems like the ideas in the last batch of selections were headier than usual and required more reflection. Experiences like that are liable to occur when you’re reading the world’s greatest authors in concentrated doses.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Iliad of Homer, Books XIX-XXI  (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 233-263)
  2. On War by Karl von Clausewitz, Ch. I (GGB Vol. 7, pp. 479-497)
  3. Second Treatise on Civil Government by John Locke, Ch. VII-IX (GBWW Vol. 33, pp. 42-54)
  4. Federalist #59-61 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 182-188; Antifederalist responses are here)
  5. The Chemical History of a Candle” by Michael Faraday, Lectures III-IV (GGB Vol. 8, pp. 390-414)
  6. The Way Things Are (or On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius, Book II (GBWW Vol. 11, pp. 15-30)

I just realized that we are in the middle of five long works. That has been unusual up to this point, although it may become the norm within the next couple of years. After next week, we’ll return to having at least two or three shorter pieces each week to snack on for a while.

Here are some observations on last week’s readings:

  1. Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus

    The Iliad of Homer, Books XVI-XVIII: After all the buildup, events in Book XVI move with a very rapid pace. The fighting moves from the ships back to the walls of the city, and we get the deaths of both Sarpedon and Patroclus. The fighting over Patroclus’s body is startling in its intensity, with both sides saying it would be better to lose the war than to leave the corpse behind. I’ve always found the long description of Achilles’s shield curious in Book XVIII. Certainly it’s vivid, but the lengthy interruption of narrative at that point in the story seems out of place.

  2. “On Education” by Arthur Schopenhauer: No instruction in religion before age fifteen? That idea plus the notion that received wisdom is always unacceptable should be enough to prove that Schopenhauer has swallowed the assumptions of the Enlightenment and autonomous human reason whole. Best to take a pass.
  3. Second Treatise on Civil Government by John Locke, Chapters V-VI: Locke’s account of property is still the best that I have come across. Libertarians often cite it as the foundation of their understanding as well, but I had forgotten about Locke’s statement that wastage of property was an offense against the commonality. The libertarians I know wouldn’t like that. I need to look for discussion of that provision in the Austro-libertarian literature. The business about the authority of parents disappearing when the child attains reason sounds plausible, but incomplete.
  4. Federalist #58: I don’t suppose any argument of these authors has been more thoroughly refuted by subsequent events than this one about the size of the House of Representatives keeping up with population growth. With one rep for every 700,000 people today, the notion that any authentic representation is going on is ludicrous.
  5. “The Chemical History of a Candle” Michael Faraday: As I read these lectures, I kept thinking how much more effective it would be if we had an instructional video. I suppose that’s evidence of the poverty of the modern imagination, when we’re so used to having things shown to us that it’s much harder to visualize things from a written description. I bet even the children to whom these lectures were originally delivered were fully engaged in the demonstrations.
  6. The Way Things Are by Lucretius, Book I:  Lucretius isn’t the most polite fellow, the way he calls Heraclitus and others idiots. Not all of his deductions are sound, but the similarity of many of his conclusions to those of modern scientists is remarkable. I can see why modern atheists like him, with his talk of “breaking the bonds of religion” and such, even though he apparently believes in the gods in some form.

We’re in the middle of some glorious weather here in Alabama. I had to put on a sweater this morning to go outside. Perhaps autumn has finally arrived. October is truly the year’s greatest month, and I plan to read outside this week. I hope you will as well.

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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4 Responses to What Is Property?

  1. Dr. T says:

    Question: What is properrty?
    A) Stuff and junk (as defined in my political economy class)
    B) Mine, not yours
    C) Something college students have no concept of since they grew up in a centrally-planned economy with communal resources and where your annoying little sister was allowed to steal your junk without what you considered to be adequate punishment, ergo it must be okay to take other people’s junk because it is yours.

  2. Jon Burnett says:

    They’re “just borrowed; they’re not mine at all.”

  3. Jane says:

    Schopenhauer, On Education: The capacity of the human mind to learn and remember in childhood is vast, yet rationality and judgment do not develop until the teens and early 20s. Schopenhauer argues that subjects like religion and philosophy “where it is necessary to take long views” should not be studied until those later years, because ideas (biases, prejudices, misconceptions) learned early are very hard, if not impossible, to shake. “…wherever a man finds that the aspect of things seems to contradict the general ideas he has formed, he will begin by rejecting the evidence it offers as partial and one sided; nay, he will shut his eyes to it altogether and deny that it stands in any contradiction at all with his preconceived notions, in order that he may thus preserve them uninjured.” This problem is clearly evident in our political situation today, and only getting worse since our educational system is seriously faltering and doing everything Schopenhauer warns against – perhaps even deliberately so.

    Faraday, The Chemical History of a Candle: I wish I’d had such engaging science instruction in my youth. Faraday breaks down the components of fire and combustion, but instead of divesting the phenomenon of mystery, he increases our wonder at just how perfectly life has evolved on this earth, with all the elements and organisms balanced in mutual give and take… at least until now when man threatens to upset the balance through excess carbon burning. If Faraday were alive today, he could handily demolish global warming naysayers simply by updating these lectures for a modern audience.

    Federalist #58: Interesting argument by Hamilton that the larger the legislative body (here discussing the House of Representatives), the more likely it is to be controlled by a potentially dastardly few: “The countenance of the government may become more democratic, but the soul that animates it will be more oligarchic. The machine will be enlarged, but the fewer, and often the more secret, will be the springs by which its motion is directed.” Despite the growth in US population, this fear contributed to the decision in 1913 to cap the total number at 435.

    Locke, 2nd Treatise on Civil Government, V-VI: All is well and good with the fair apportionment and ownership of property based on what a person can produce and use with his own labor, until the invention of money – impervious to spoilage – allowed some to amass much more than others. Government should prevent gross abuse of this potentiality, and for a while, ours did by breaking up monopolies, levying taxes proportionately to income, and regulating the banks. Today? Not so much…

    Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, I: The poet begins with praise of Epicurus’s naturalistic philosophy, saying through him “religion is put under foot and trampled upon in turn; us his victory brings level with heaven,” and a first principle which states “nothing is ever gotten out of nothing by divine power.” He posits that matter is never annihilated but “replenishes one thing out of another” and that everything in nature is “matter and void.”

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