Shylock is a Meanie

On this Great Books Monday, gird up your loins, for we are about to embark on a quest for the Great White Whale.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Ch. 1-15  (GBWW Vol. 48, pp. 1-31)
  2. Fabius and Pericles Compared” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 154-155)
  3. The Energies of Men” by William James (GGB Vol. 7, pp. 157-170)
  4. Federalist #75-77 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 222-229; Antifederalist responses are here)
  5. On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies by William Gilbert, Preface and Book I (GBWW Vol. 26, pp. 1-25)
  6. Thomas Aquinas” by Henry Adams (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 422-461)

This week we will also complete our second volume of readings: Volume 10 of the Gateway to the Great Books series. From now on, all our philosophical works will come from the big set. Be afraid.

Here are some observations on last week’s readings:

  1. The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare: After reading the full text of this play for the first time in about ten years, I’ve concluded that modern stagings and film adaptations (such as the recent one starring Al Pacino) put way too emphasis on the Shylock character, turning him into a sort of tragic hero when Shakespeare intended him to be simply an obstacle to the main characters. In the modern stagings, Act V is anticlimactic in the extreme. It’s pretty clear from the text that we are not supposed to like Shylock. His hatred of Antonio stems from economic motives at least as much as it does from indignation over Antonio’s treatment of him. Plus, his daughter thinks he’s a rat.
  2. “Fabius” by Plutarch: Slow and steady wins the race. If ever a leader was justified in saying “I told you so” to his opponents, it was Fabius. It’s sad that after saving Rome through his prudent military leadership (which Hannibal recognized), he succumbed to pride and became an obstacle to Roman victory near the end of his life.
  3. “The Study of Mathematics” by Bertrand Russell: I appreciated Russell’s stress on the beauty of mathematics and its value in leading students to the appreciation of reason. I’m sure his argument that mathematics should not be taught with the technical training of engineers as its primary purpose would be surprising to many today.
  4. Federalist #70-74: These essays deal with the mechanics of the office of president. The argument for the four-year term is reasonable; that against a term limit maybe less so. I thought it interesting that Hamilton found it necessary to spill so much ink in support of the unitary executive. I had never realized that there was much of a call for a sharing of authority among different officers in the executive branch.
  5. An Anatomical Disquisition on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals by William Harvey, Chapters XII-XVII: These chapters detail some of Harvey’s experiments in such a way that others can reproduce them. Taken together, they seem a pretty convincing proof of his thesis of the blood’s circular flow.
  6. Protagoras by Plato: I would very much like to know whether a conversation like this one ever really took place between Socrates and Protagoras. I’m still not convinced by Socrates’s argument that virtue is all one.

I’m happy to announce the birth of my fifth son, Arthur, last Thursday morning. That I am capable of typing these words is due to the presence of my parents, who have driven down from Arkansas to help out. Happy reading this week!

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 Shylock is a Meanie

  1. Jane says:

    Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice: Such a problematic play… and still more so in my mind following the massacre of 11 Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh last weekend. Anti-Semitism seems as built into the human psyche, or at least the Christian and Muslim psyche, as fear of snakes. Perhaps the basic idea of monotheism is the problem; back when cultures had multiple gods, mainly to explain natural phenomena, no one much cared about the differences. Shakespeare’s Shylock comprises most of the negative stereotypes of his time, except for the “if you prick us, do we not bleed” passage. There he reveals a man so beaten down by opprobrium that rage and the desire for revenge have consumed him.

    Plutarch, Fabius: The matching of military wits between Fabius and Hannibal was impressive, though ultimately it was not so much the former’s strategy of wearing the other side down as Scipio’s invading Carthage that finally made Hannibal pull out of Italy to protect his hometown, and Scipio who caused his death. I like Fabius’s response when the public tried to tear him down for appearing to dither: “I should be more faint-hearted than they make me, if, through fear of idle reproaches, I should abandon my own convictions. It is no inglorious thing to have fear for the safety of our country, but to be turned from one’s course by men’s opinions, by blame, and by misrepresentation, shows a man unfit to hold an office such as this, which, by such conduct, he makes the slave of those whose errors it is his business to control.”

    Russell, The Study of Mathematics: In keeping with his observation that “it is a defect, in an argument, to employ more premises than the conclusion demands,” Russell concisely presents mathematics as a practice that elevates the human experience above the ordinary and often destructive stresses of life. The last paragraph says it all: “For the health of the moral life, for ennobling the tone of an age or a nation, the austerer virtues have a strange power, exceeding the power of those not informed and purified by thought. Of these austerer virtues the love of truth is the chief, and in mathematics, more than elsewhere, the love of truth may find encouragement from waning faith. Every great study is not only an end in itself, but also a means of creating and sustaining a lofty habit of mind; and this purpose should be kept always in view throughout the teaching and learning of mathematics.”

    Plato, Protagoras: Here Socrates both rhetorically annihilates the titular Sophist and makes a strong case for “evil” being the pursuit of pleasure while ignorant of probable pain from negative consequences. To paraphrase, when people know better, they do better. In AA, this is called hitting rock bottom or being “sick and tired” of the lousy life that results from addiction. Some research today suggests that sociopathic individuals lack the neurological capacity to feel fear; hence the reckless indulgence in all kinds of heinous acts and the absence of empathy for their victims, whose fear to them is just a curiosity.

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