Dostoevsky is a Downer

It’s another Great Books Monday, and we’re on pace to break the 4,500-page mark this week. Just today I was speaking to a colleague about this project and noted how it has helped me to have meaningful conversations and a deepening acquaintance with several colleagues at my university who teach in different disciplines. Now that we’re about to get into biology for the first time, we can cast the net even wider.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill  (GGB Vol. 4, pp. 357-382)
  2. A Plea for Captain John Brown” by Henry David Thoreau (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 714-732)
  3. Letter to Herodotus” by Epicurus (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 216-229)
  4. Federalist #66 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 200-203; Antifederalist responses are here)
  5. An Anatomical Disquisition on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals by William Harvey, Introduction-Chapter V (GBWW Vol. 26, pp. 267-280; you’ll have to scroll down some way on the linked site to skip the editor’s intro and get to Harvey’s text.)
  6. The Way Things Are (or On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius, Book V (GBWW Vol. 11, pp. 58-77)

As promised, we’re up to three short works this week, so if you’re just getting started with the readings, you have some bite-sized portions to from which to choose. I apologize for the double dose of Epicureanism this week, but given the length of the different selections I had available this time out, it seemed like the best combination.

Here are some observations on last week’s readings:

  1. “White Nights” by Fyodor Dostoevsky: This story is pathetic, in the most precise sense of the term. It was especially poignant to me because there was a time in my life when I could have seen myself turning out exactly like the narrator; the passage of fifteen years in the last paragraphs hit me between the eyes.
  2. “The Character of Socrates” by Xenophon: This short selection had several points of interest. For a guy who had a reputation for having his head stuck firmly in the clouds, Socrates’s recommended curriculum seemed remarkably practical. Then there’s this quote: “They live best, I think, who strive best to become as good as possible: and the pleasantest life is theirs who are conscious that they are growing in goodness.” I’m not sure whether anyone in the pagan pre-Christian world could have been closer to the truth.
  3. Second Treatise on Civil Government by John Locke, Chapters XVI-XIX: Locke has a good argument if you accept his premises and his understanding of natural law. I’m not sure I followed the logic of the chapter on conquest though. My understanding of Locke’s view of the importance of property is its connection to one’s labor, which is an extension of one’s body, so I found it strange that he argues that a conqueror has authority over one’s body but not one’s property. Is it because of the unjust nature of conquest?
  4. Federalist #64-65: These papers on the Senate’s role in treaties and impeachments are largely unobjectionable. Of course, so much of the original justification of the Senate was made moot by the 17th Amendment that much of the reasoning here is of historical interest only.
  5. “On Ancient Medicine” by Hippocrates: I imagine that most modern readers would fail to see the point of including this text and others like it in an anthology of this nature. However, the way in which Hippocrates pokes holes in the reasoning of ancient physicians is a great example of the early development of a scientific outlook. It’s interesting that so much of ancient medicine revolved around diet rather than what we think of as “medicine” today.
  6. The Way Things Are (or On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius, Book IV: Some of Lucretius’s attempts to explain the working of the senses seemed a bit clumsy to me. But the statement about there being no purpose to any part of the body goes right to the heart of the naturalistic worldview. Statements like this properly belong in the realm of philosophy, where Lucretius is operating. Unfortunately, too many today attempt to pass them off as science.

I’m posting in the evening rather than the early morning today. In my defense, I made up a day from last week’s Tuesday posting. I hope that next week I’ll be back to the normal early Monday posts.

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 Dostoevsky is a Downer

  1. I think that Dosteovsky’s short stories are very under-appreciated. “Pathetic” is such a good word to describe “White Nights.” Another story of his I recommend is “The Christmas Tree” which is another devastating tour de force. So much emotion is so few pages.

  2. Jane says:

    Hippocrates, On Ancient Medicine: You are what you eat – or you are as sick as what you cannot eat. Do the prescription of chicken soup and the advice to feed a cold and starve a fever date back to the early Greeks?

    Dostoevsky, White Nights: A pitiful tale but unfortunately not an uncommon one today; lonely people abound in our often heartless society, across all ages but increasingly among the elderly. This story reminds me of Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

    “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
    I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
    I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

    I do not think that they will sing to me.”

    Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, IV: Still relevant wisdom about the value and limitations of knowledge rooted in sense perceptions, the role of sleep in solidifying memory, and the ability of the rational mind to counter enslavement to the passions.

    Locke, Concerning Civil Government: Locke argues that the purpose of government is to protect property, shorthand for the individual’s right to prevent others from taking his life, liberty or happiness. If a government fails in this task, the people would be justified in dissolving it and creating a new one. I am adopting this passage as a rallying cry toward overturning the corrosive congressional Trump-GOP nightmare in the 2018 midterm elections:
    “Whensover the legislative…either by ambition, fear, folly, or corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people, by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and by the establishment of a new legislative (such as they shall think fit), provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.”

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