Breaking Captain Ahab’s Head on an Anvil

We’ve put it off for too long; it’s time to read some ancient Greek drama.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Ch. 133-Epilogue  (GBWW Vol. 48, pp. 246-260)
  2. Great Men and Their Environment” by William James (GGB Vol. 7, pp. 171-194)
  3. Rules for the Direction of the Mind by René Descartes, XVII-XXI (GBWW Vol. 28, pp. 257-262; 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. Antigone by Sophocles (GBWW Vol. 4, pp. 159-174)
  5. On the Conservation of Force” by H.L.F. von Helmholtz (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 451-484)
  6. The Politics of Aristotle, Book VIII (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 542-548)

I’ll be sorry to bid farewell to Ishmael and the crew of the Pequod, but we’ve had a great voyage. We’re also finishing the Politics and Descartes’s Rules this week, giving us more closure than we’ve enjoyed in a single week up to this point.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Ch. 102-132: Ahab fascinates me. I have an idea for a post drawing an analogy between him and a modern corporate CEO. The exchanges with Starbuck draw out some great contrasts, but I also like the part where he offers to lay his head on the blacksmith’s anvil so the crease in his brow can be smoothed. I’m intrigued by all the supernatural overtones as well, from the tempering of the harpoon with heathen blood to the lightning storm.
  2. “Of Repentance” by Michel de Montaigne: I was a bit surprised to see this veer into a commentary on old age near the end, but this is one of the few places where Montaigne shows his Christian faith and the necessity of submission to the divine will. I’ve had mixed reactions to several of his essays, but there were some fine passages in this one.
  3. Rules for the Direction of the Mind by René Descartes, XII-XVI: I’m going to have to go back and look at some of these again this week. I did like his insistence on understanding the question before attempting to find an answer. It’s easy to see how this method will be applied very usefully to the physical sciences; its applicability to questions involving the “human element” is much less certain.
  4. “Of Seditions and Troubles” by Francis Bacon: The analytical portion of this essay was stimulating, and from the point of view of a ruler, I suppose the counsel was pretty effective as well. Not having read Bacon in several weeks, I was struck all over again by the classical quotations.
  5. “Probability” by Pierre Simon de Laplace: I enjoyed the clear exposition of the mathematical concept here. His discussion of convention and the assigning of intelligent design to certain patterns with which we are familiar reminded me of Hume for some reason. This whole notion of being able to solve all problems through the application of probability led Adler to comment, “His was not an age of intellectual humility.”
  6. The Politics of Aristotle, Book VII: Some things here obviously I would shy away from: selective infanticide, etc. Still there are several important ideas lost on the modern mind here. For example, the natural limits to the size of the city is a notion that we really need to recover.

It’s a rainy day here in Montgomery, and unfortunately I have to head out into it shortly. We’ve had spring-like weather for several days, but the cold is scheduled to return soon. I’m looking forward to some Great Books by the fire.

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 Breaking Captain Ahab’s Head on an Anvil

  1. Jane says:

    Montaigne, On Repentance: As in so many of his essays, here Montaigne delineates the attitude I aspire to regarding living, aging, and dying: “Were I to live my life over again, I should live it just as I have lived it; I neither complain of the past, nor do I fear the future; and if I am not much deceived, I am the same within as I am without. ‘Tis one main obligation I have to my fortune, that the succession of my bodily estate has been carried on according to the natural seasons; I have seen the grass, the blossom, and the fruit; and now see the withering; happily, however, because naturally. I beat the infirmities I have the better, because they came not till I had reason to expect them, and because also they make me with greater pleasure remember that long felicity of my past life.” I also like his humble statement that “I do not teach, I only relate.”

    Bacon, Of Seditions and Troubles: This brief essay cautions against all that is currently occurring in our and other governments across the globe. We are seeing “libels and licentious discourses against the state,” “false news…hastily embraced,” “discords, and quarrels, and factions…carried openly and audaciously…a sign the reverence of government is lost.” Bacon points to “poverty and much discontentment” as fuel for seditions and says “the first remedy or prevention is to remove by all means possible…want and poverty in the estate” by way of balancing trade, repressing waste, regulating prices, and moderating taxes. Liberal politicians are following this playbook and recommending exactly these corrections; troubles will increase if their efforts are blocked. But seditions? Could today’s citizenry rise up in any effective manner against these damaging forces?

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