Queequeg’s Coffin and the Great Man Theory of History

It’s Great Books Monday once again, and I’m feeling really motivated this week. I spent some time yesterday looking over what we’re likely to attack in the next few weeks, and it is really great stuff, starting with our selections for today. Jump right in!

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. I’m a Fool” by Sherwood Anderson  (GGB Vol. 2, pp. 511-520)
  2. History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Book I (GBWW Vol. 5, pp. 349-386)
  3. Of Beauty” by Francis Bacon (GGB Vol. 5, p. 94)
  4. First Inaugural Address” by Thomas Jefferson (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 518-521)
  5. What Is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger, Preface-Ch. 2 (GBWW Vol. 56, pp. 467-480)
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book I (GBWW Vol. 16, pp. 165-187; in the linked text, it’s the material under the heading “Augustin censures the pagans” and its subheads)

I’m making some slight adjustments to how I put the readings together each week because the system I had been using would have resulted in mostly short works needing only one week to complete. It seems to me like we need at least three longer works going each week by this point in the program.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Ch. 133-Epilogue: “Where is the ship?” Talk about horrifying! I have to say that Melville cheated here at the end by trying to slide back into a first-person perspective after hundreds of pages of omniscient narration, during which we found out all about different characters’ states of minds and interior monologues, not to mention private conversations which Ishmael would have had no way of overhearing. Still, it’s hard to imagine a more dramatic conclusion to this story.
  2. “Great Men and Their Environment” by William James: James certainly has Herbert Spencer’s number here. This may be the best discussion I have read of the impact of the individual on the course of history. I’m considering making it assigned reading in my Philosophy of History class next year. James is in line with what Ludwig von Mises wrote several decades later about ideas being ultimate data and technologies themselves being the outcome of ideas.
  3. Rules for the Direction of the Mind by René Descartes, XVII-XXI: I wonder if it’s possible to blame Descartes for the modern attempt to cram all human actions and relationships into mathematical equations. If so, we can pin the corruption of economics and the social sciences on him. We’d have to establish links between him and more recent thinkers; I know that he influenced John Locke a great deal. It’s interesting to think about.
  4. Antigone by Sophocles: Reading this play in tandem with Moby Dick, it was impossible not to see some parallels between Ahab and Creon. Both of them are so bull-headed as not to see divine disapproval staring them in the face, and both lead to the deaths of many people around them. Antigone knows that duties to kin and to the gods trump duties to human rulers, and her courage in observing those duties, although ultimately leading to her death, make her one of literature’s great heroines.
  5. “On the Conservation of Force” by H.L.F. von Helmholtz: I always feel so smart when I make it to the end of one of these science pieces and feel as though I understood all of its key points. The big thing for me to take away from this essay was the role of heat production in work, something I very dimly remembered from high school but had never thought through how it fit into the overall conservation of energy.
  6. The Politics of Aristotle, Book VIII: I wish I understood the context for Plato’s and Aristotle’s discussion of musical modes. There is a lot to ponder in the brief section on liberal education vs. menial education. Ditto for the section contrasting leisure to amusement.

Through an odd quirk of the calendar, I have no classes to teach until Wednesday of this week. I’m hoping to be able to clear the decks today and tomorrow by tying up a number of loose ends hanging around from different projects. I hope you’re also planning for a productive 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 Queequeg’s Coffin and the Great Man Theory of History

  1. Jane says:

    Sophocles, Aristotle… and Great Men and Their Environment (James): These readings and many previous ones came to life for me thanks to my first trip to Greece, with my husband last month. It felt amazing to physically visit places that have figured so importantly in history and in many of the readings we have encountered thus far. The Parthenon, the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Mycenae (Agamemnon’s city), and even Thermopylae where Leonidas and the 300 Spartans fell. As Bertrand Russell wrote on opening his History of Western Philosophy, “In all history, nothing is so surprising or difficult to account for as the sudden rise of civilization in Greece.” Why there, and then? Perhaps it was the very inhospitality of the rocky, mountainous terrain that led to more travel, trade, and openness to other cultures, which in turn led to more open minds and refinements in language and customs. And/or it was their reliance on slave labor that allowed men to dedicate time and energy to developing legal, political, and economic systems, as well as art and philosophy. Seeing the huge slabs of rock comprising the Lion Gate and the Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae, the citadel walls of Tiryns and Midea, and the pillars of the Parthenon, I had no trouble concurring with their contemporary citizens that only giants could have been capable of such “Cyclopean” constructions. Giants there were, there and then, and we have yet to improve much on their accomplishments.

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