Call Me Ishmael

This week our Great Books reading program will pass the 5,000-page mark. That calls for a celebration! I hereby give you permission to take this Thursday off from work if you’re in the United States.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Ch. 16-22  (GBWW Vol. 48, pp. 31-48)
  2. Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol” by Edmund Burke (GBWW Vol. 7, pp. 237-271)
  3. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume, Sections I-III (GBWW Vol. 33, pp. 451-458)
  4. Federalist #78-79 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 229-234; Antifederalist responses are here)
  5. On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies by William Gilbert, Book II, Chapters 1-7 (GBWW Vol. 26, pp. 26-43)
  6. The Politics of Aristotle, Book I (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 445-455)

You didn’t think we’d get out of our first year without reading anything by Aristotle, did you? Note the juxtaposition of two opposing 18th-century minds this week: Hume and Burke.

Here are some observations on last week’s readings:

  1. Modern Nantucket

    Moby Dick by Herman Melville: In the first chapter of this book, which was only three pages in the GBWW edition, I counted eight references/allusions to the classical world and another one to the Bible. You must know the stories, people, and places of the Western tradition to be able to make sense of the Great American Novel. Modern readers often are frustrated at the leisurely pace of plot development in this and other 19th-century works; fifteen chapters into Moby Dick, Ishmael and Queequeg have barely gotten to Nantucket and eaten some chowder. But you know the characters by that point. I think the story is great, excepting Ishmael’s complete misapplication of the Golden Rule to justify worshiping his bedfellow’s idol.

  2. “Fabius and Pericles Compared” by Plutarch: Plutarch tries to make this a dead heat, but it seems to me like Fabius should get the nod, mainly because Pericles, through his imperial policy, helped make Athens hated throughout Greece and got it into the war that ruined it.
  3. “The Energies of Men” by William James: I don’t quite know what to do with this piece, mainly because I don’t know whether it has been superseded in the last fifty years. I had always assumed the “second wind” phenomenon was physiological instead of psychological, but James’s examples of yogis, etc., were pretty interesting.
  4. Federalist #75-77: These essays deal most directly with the president’s treaty-making power. I thought the justifications offered were reasonable; it’s unfortunate that the treaty power has been so twisted in the last 100 years that is now used to impose all sorts of obligations on the American people completely contrary to the spirit of the actual Constitution.
  5. On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies by William Gilbert, Preface and Book I: For an entire 1.3 seconds, I seriously considered trying to reproduce the experiments Gilbert outlines in this book, but then I thought better of it. The first 80% of this reading was pretty ho-hum, but then Gilbert hits you between the eyes with his thesis that the whole earth is a loadstone.
  6. “Thomas Aquinas” by Henry Adams: If you don’t want to read the Summa Theologica after reading this essay, there is something wrong with you! I thought the analogy of St. Thomas’s theoretical construct to the Gothic cathedrals of the 12th and 13th centuries was brilliant. I also loved the statement that the medieval Church was “more liberal than any modern State can afford to be.” That sentence was worthy of Chesterton.

I’d like to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving. This one will be unusual for me because it will be the first Thanksgiving in my entire life that I will spend at home. I plan to spend some of the time I’d normally be in the car reading instead. Why don’t you do the same?

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 Call Me Ishmael

  1. Jane says:

    Melville, Moby Dick: When I saw this coming up on the list, I went ahead and read the whole thing. I’m glad I did, despite my college experience when it felt like such a slog to get through it. True, it bogs down at times with long descriptions of types of whales and such, but in so doing perhaps mimics the tedium of months at sea. What horrors those men went through, and put those poor animals through! The central conflict of the vengeful old man and the solitary old mammal who is simply following its survival instincts so aptly sums up the hubris of mankind and how little we deserve to be at the top of the food chain given how mercilessly we treat the beings below us. And what an ending! Like Billy Budd, it builds to such a crescendo of action and imagery… truly a work of art, and so sad that Melville didn’t live to see it thus appreciated.

    James, The Energies of Men: James discusses how we generally use only a small fraction of our possible mental & physical energies, and how pushing ourselves past initial fatigue can bring greater focus and accomplishment. On the one hand we have the constant admonitions to sleep 8 hours a night, and here we have a rationale for why the likes of military leaders and CEOs function admirably on an average of 4 or 5. James says “we are each and all of us to some extent victims of habit neurosis…we live subject to arrest by degrees of fatigue which we have come only from habit to obey. Most of us may learn to push the barrier farther off, and to live in perfect comfort on much higher levels of power.” I can attest to the benefits of mindfulness and yoga, and agree that saying “no” to “some habitual temptation or performing some courageous act will launch a man on a higher level of energy for days and weeks, will give him a new range of power.” In the recovery community, we call this the “pink cloud” period of early sobriety. And I like the idea of “fearthought,” attributed to Horace Fletcher, getting in the way – “the self-suggestion of inferiority.” “One part of our mind dams up – even damns up! – the other parts. Conscience makes cowards of us all.” Hamlet would be a good follow-up to this.

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