Goodbye, Alexander Hamilton

As we close in on the end of the first year of this Great Books reading program, I’m looking back over the list of works we’ve read and can’t help being impressed. That list will only grow, of course. I’ll do some breaking down of the numbers from Year One in early January.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Ch. 55-75  (GBWW Vol. 48, pp. 120-154)
  2. First Inaugural Address” by Abraham Lincoln (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 747-755)
  3. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume, Sections X-XII (GBWW Vol. 33, pp. 488-509)
  4. Federalist #84-85 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 251-259; Antifederalist responses are here)
  5. On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies by William Gilbert, Book IV (GBWW Vol. 26, pp. 77-91)
  6. The Politics of Aristotle, Book IV (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 487-502)

This is the thirty-seventh and final week I will schedule something from the Federalist. That’s right: we won’t be plagued by those political centralizers after this week. And speaking of centralizers, Lincoln’s “First Inaugural” is the last selection we’ll be reading from that gentleman’s pen as well.

Here are some observations on last week’s readings:

  1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Chapters 40-54: Once I got over plot-fixation and realized that a novel’s quality is not dependent on a rapid storytelling pace or the suspense the author creates, I came to enjoy the vignettes and digressions common to 19th-century novels. Sir Walter Scott and Victor Hugo in particular can send up 75-page meanderings that have almost nothing to do with the main plot, but are very entertaining in and of themselves . Fifteen minutes into the Town-Ho‘s story (Ch. 54), I forgot all about Ahab and Moby Dick, and I was actually surprised when the whale burst onto the scene to dispose of the ship’s mate.
  2. “Farewell Address” by George Washington: Washington’s eminently sound and reasonable recommendations read like a laundry list of things our government isn’t doing today. And then there’s Washington’s warning that you can’t have morality without religion. No wonder no one pays attention to this piece anymore.
  3. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume, Sections VIII-IX: Well, I suppose if you’re going to deny that we can know anything about causality, then the question of liberty vs. necessity becomes moot. And if induction is not reason, then animals can’t reason. So we have two puzzles of the ages dispensed with by Hume here in a few pages.
  4. Federalist #82-83: More on the judiciary here. Hamilton attempts to clear up some ambiguity over the respective jurisdictions of the federal and state courts. He also attempts to explain away the lack of any provision for jury trials before the Supreme Court. Fairly technical stuff and not all that interesting.
  5. On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies by William Gilbert, Book III: In this book, Gilbert focuses on the poles of the loadstone and the “opposites attract” idea. What I found most interesting was his discussion of how he tried to replicate the results of some earlier scientists and couldn’t. Conclusion: the earlier scientists had screwed up somewhere.
  6. The Politics of Aristotle, Book III: You mean you need more than a pulse to be a citizen? If society would relearn the lessons of this book, I think we’d see some big changes. Aristotle demolishes the notion that a “pure” form of government (monarchy, democracy, etc.) ever really concerns itself with the good of the whole people.

This is a week for fireplace reading. I have to submit grades this morning and spend most of my week recording lectures for a project, but the prospect of finishing two major works and making significant progress on three more is good motivation to read.

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 Goodbye, Alexander Hamilton

  1. Jane says:

    Aristotle, Politics III: “A citizen is “a person who has the power to take part in the deliberative or judicial administration” of the state, and a state is “a body of citizens sufficing for the purpose of life.” “Man is by nature a political animal, and men, even when they do not require one another’s help, desire to live together… And we all see that men cling to life even at the cost of enduring great misfortune, seeming to find in life a natural sweetness and happiness.” Governments should operate to advance the common good, and in Aristotle’s opinion, those best suited for this are monarchies, aristocracies, or constitutions, provided they are helmed by wise and virtuous people: “…one man, or a whole family, or many persons, excelling all the others together in virtue, and both rulers and subjects are fitted, the one to rule, the others to be ruled, in such a manner as to attain the most eligible life.” Short of actuating educational policies that sort the wheat from the chaff from birth as in Plato’s Republic, I’m not sure how such virtue could be reliably inculcated and later estimated. Our election processes ideally lead toward the best candidates attaining office, but we’ve seen how money and lies have elevated many who proved much less than noble.

    Gilbert, On the Loadstone: Who doesn’t remember simple grammar school experiments with magnets and iron filings? Or those toys with a man’s face where you could make eyebrows, mustache and beard by moving the filings around underneath the plastic covering with the magnet? Gilbert presents sometimes fascinating, sometimes laborious descriptions of the power of loadstones, but more impressively the global effects of the molten iron in the earth’s core. Strangely, although magnetic north has always fluctuated some – about 7 miles per year in the mid-1900s – in the last several decades it has bounced around an average of 34 miles a year. No one seems to know why, though some fear it is related to climate change. I found it interesting that once activated by rubbing with a loadstone, a piece of iron can maintain its verticity for centuries. All this makes me want to properly learn how to use a map and compass, skills that are disappearing in the wake of GPS technology.

  2. Jane says:

    Hume, Concerning Human Understanding, X-XII: I was looking forward to commenting on these final sections of Hume’s work in the next post after this, but now see that you skipped them. Did you not want to argue the other side of Hume’s take-down of miracles, and by extension most religions that depend on them for the establishment of divine authority? “I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument…which if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures.”
    Which is more likely, he asks – that a person may lie (or simply be deceived in his or her perceptions, say due to mental illness, intoxication, or frontal lobe disturbances), or that the laws of nature could be controverted? A follower might counter that belief is a choice based on faith, not on reason. Okay, Hume says; then he should be “conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.” Taking on the voice of Epicurus, Hume also tackles the idea of God as the Creator of the known universe and argues that since we cannot “ascribe to the cause any qualities but what are exactly sufficient to produce the effect,” we cannot ascribe to God any qualities but what we “see he has actually exerted and displayed in his productions.” All the aspects of this world, including all its “illness and disorder,” must then reflect back on their source; there cannot be an all-good, all-just, all-loving God. In this light, the Greeks had the more reasonable idea of gods who were just as jealous and biased and vicious as their human counterparts. Life, though, is perfectly livable without God. “I acknowledge, that, in the present order of things, virtue is attended with more peace of mind than vice, and meets with a more favorable reception from the world. I am sensible, that, according to the past experience of mankind, friendship Is the chief joy of human life, and moderation the only source of tranquility and happiness…. It is still open for me, as well as you, to regulate my behavior, by my experience of past events…. The experienced train of events is the great standard, by which we all regulate our conduct. Nothing else can be appealed to in the field, or in the senate. Nothing else ought ever to be heard of in the school, or in the closet…. All the philosophy, therefore, in the world, and all the religion, which is nothing but a species of philosophy, will never be able to carry us beyond the usual course of experience, or give us measures of conduct and behavior different from those which are furnished by reflections on common life. No new fact can ever be inferred from the religious hypothesis; no event foreseen or foretold; no reward or punishment expected or dreaded, beyond what is already known by practice and observation.” Amen, amen, amen.

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