Cannibalize This, Montaigne

I trust everyone had a merry Christmas and is ready to plunge back into the reading of the Great Books today!

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Ch. 93-101  (GBWW Vol. 48, pp. 188-204)
  2. The United States in 1800” by Henry Adams (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 322-359; Vol. I, Ch. I and VI of History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson)
  3. Rules for the Direction of the Mind by René Descartes, I-XI (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 223-240; I could not find a complete version of this work online, but this site contains at least the summary of each rule. Here is a volume containing the entire text.)
  4. Sanity of True Genius” by Charles Lamb (GBB Vol. 5, pp. 308-310)
  5. On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies by William Gilbert, Book VI (GBWW Vol. 26, pp. 106-121)
  6. The Politics of Aristotle, Book VI (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 520-526)

We finish Gilbert this week and have two standalone works for the part-timers out there. Our Moby Dick selection is light this time out because of the length of the Henry Adams piece, but we’ve made great progress and should finish that novel in two or three weeks.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Ch. 76-92: So much in this section . . . a man falling into a whale’s head and almost sinking to the bottom of the ocean inside it, another whale carcass sinking before the spermaceti can be extracted from the head, etc. I continue to be struck by the continual references to the Bible and the classical world. The whaling Hall of Fame was hilarious!
  2. “The Virginia Constitution” by Thomas Jefferson: I’ve never read Notes on the State of Virginia before except for a handful of the most famous passages. I found this to be a surprisingly pragmatic evaluation of the merits and demerits of Virginia’s constitution. The historical survey of the state’s government was good, too; he identifies the irregularities of the Interregnum as the foundation of problematic relationship between the colonies and Parliament leading up to the revolution.
  3. “Geological Evolution” by Sir Charles Lyell: Lyell is unjustly dismissive of catastrophists, particularly in view of the fact that catastrophes continue to make dramatic changes to geologic structures all the time. All he has done is substitute one set of assumptions for another; he hasn’t really proven anything.
  4. “Of Cannibals” by Michel de Montaigne: I’ll concede that there were people in Montaigne’s day who, inappropriately, saw nothing of value in 16th-century American cultures. Still, his attempt to play the “noble savage” card leaves much to be desired. Present-day textbooks in the humanities routinely include this essay as the last word on the relative value of early modern cultures. Would it be impolite to point out that Montaigne stayed put in France instead of trying to join the noble cannibals?
  5. On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies by William Gilbert, Book V: Now this was pretty impressive. I had never dreamed that you might be able to identify your latitude by measuring the compass needle dips. I’m sure that everyone in 1600 was surprised, too, and that this accounts for the excruciatingly detailed description of the experiments Gilbert used to establish the hypothesis.
  6. The Politics of Aristotle, Book V: Don’t abuse the poor, and don’t expropriate the rich. Pretty simple rules for avoiding revolution, but how often have they been ignored? Even though Aristotle dislikes tyranny, he devotes more space to preventing revolution in that form of government than to any other, possibly because it’s the most unstable form.

This week will be a lull for many people because of vacations and light workloads. I’m still in the middle of a big project and visiting family, but I’m looking forward to wrapping up 2011 on a high note by staying on track with this project. Maybe it’s a good time for you to peruse the list of works we’ve encountered and do some catching up?

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 Cannibalize This, Montaigne

  1. Jane says:

    Aristotle, Politics Book V: “Everywhere inequality is a cause of revolution…and always it is the desire of equality which rises in rebellion…. Inferiors revolt in order that they may be equal, and equals that they may be superior…. Men are excited against one another by the love of gain and honour – not in order to obtain them for themselves, but at seeing others, justly or unjustly, engrossing them.” Envy is not just a human problem; chimps become enraged when a companion gets a grape and he only a cucumber after completing the same task.

    Our country was on a path of equalizing with the post-WWII New Deal and attempts to regulate monopolies promoted by Wilson earlier, but recent decades have seen steady erosions, if not outright demolitions, of these policies to allow the unfettered concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few. Aristotle suggests that one way to carry out a revolution is by fraud; “sometimes the citizens are deceived into acquiescing in a change of government, and afterwards they are held in subjection against their will.”

    I worry – and I don’t think I’m paranoid – that American democracy is being subjected to a massive, calculated, long-term fraud perpetrated by an oligarchical faction and meant to undermine the system’s checks and balances. This faction is succeeding in consolidating so much control that no election process could ever restore its integrity. The demise of public education and with it a standard, empirically-based curriculum; the brainwashing of the general populace fostered by the resulting decline in critical thinking and fueled by internet-distributed misinformation; the stacking of judicial appointments on local, state and federal levels based on certain “readings” of constitutional law; the gerrymandering of voting districts that follows; the encouragement of massive campaign donations by corporations and individuals with wealth-building missions; and the free pass given to said corporations and individuals to sock away billions in offshore accounts, avoiding taxes and stripping away not just social programs but also basic attention to public infrastructure and services…. These developments suggest to me a covert political revolution transforming our constitutional democracy into an oligarchy/plutocracy, or worse yet, a tyranny (if worries about our current president winning another term and then putting his family members in line to continue in power come true), and I am not sure how or whether the majority will catch on soon enough to defeat it.

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