Pity and Fear and Hamlet

I’m still trying to claw my way back to a normal schedule of Great Books posts; I guess making up one day each week isn’t too bad. This week we pass the 2,500-page mark in Imaginative Literature. Also, with the completion of Huck Finn last week, we have put to bed another volume of the Great Books of the Western World series. That makes three.

Here are the readings for this week:

  1. The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov (GGB Vol. 4, pp. 249-294)
  2. The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Book III (GBWW Vol. 35, pp. 406-424)
  3. Of Progress or Improvement” by Epictetus (GBWW Vol. 11, p. 102-103; Discourses Book I Ch. 4)
  4. Of Riches” by Francis Bacon (GGB Vol. 7, pp. 25-27)
  5. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Ch. 10 (GBWW Vol. 49, pp. 152-156)
  6. An Introduction to Metaphysics by Henri Bergson (GBWW Vol. 55, pp. 65-89)

With only one carryover work from earlier weeks (Epictetus’s Discourses are standalone essays), this is a good week to jump into the readings if you have been sitting on the sidelines. This week we read our final Bacon essay, although we’ll encounter another one or two longer works of his later.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Ch. 37-43: All’s well that ends well. Jim is freed legally, Tom gets his romantic battle scar, and Huck is freed from his abusive father, fortune intact. 
  2. The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Book II: I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but I found this book frightening. It seems to be in practice a recipe for totalitarianism. Undivided sovereignty, godlike legislators, everything to be subordinated to the expediency of the State . . . EEEK! 
  3. The Discourses of Epictetus, Book I Chapter 3: Only two paragraphs here, buta profound thought that follows from the acceptance of a supreme God. If all men are God’s children by virtue of our rational faculty, what’s the big deal about being a son of Zeus?
  4. hamlet-branaghHamlet by William Shakespeare: You can’t go one page in this play without running into a one-liner that has become a familiar quotation in the English language. Can someone explain to me why some critics “read” the ghost as just a figment of Hamlet’s overworked imagination when three other people see and hear it as well? Also, Act II Scene 2 . . . loads of cultural references: Jephthah, Plautus, Seneca, Troy. It’s a feast.
  5. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Ch. 9: I had to deal with several distractions while reading this chapter, and I’m not certain I understand how it fits into Darwin’s overall argument. He talks about how hybrids are almost always infertile, but that mongrels from the union of different varieties are almost always fertile. The infertility of hybrids is not, according to him, the result of natural selection.
  6. The Poetics of Aristotle: I have to confess, my interest began to trail off a bit in the later sections when he goes into all the details of the meter of the Greek language. However, the earlier parts are pretty powerful. I took an “Aristotle and Shakespeare” course in graduate school in which the professor argued that no Shakespearean tragedy ever rose to the highest level described by Aristotle because the hero is always brought down by his own flaw. Hamlet’s indecisiveness certainly fits with that assessment.

My university’s second summer session began Monday, and I am teaching a full semester’s worth of classes over the next 7-8 weeks, partly because a colleague is moving to another school, requiring me to cover some teaching for him. Handling that while keeping up with this reading schedule will be stimulating!

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 Pity and Fear and Hamlet

  1. If I remember right, hybridism is one of the objections brought against Darwin. There are four chapters where Darwin just addresses objections. Hybrids are either not possible or they are very rare. Therefore species are set. You can’t breed different species together to produce selectable variations. But, as we know now, variation comes from genetic mutation….no hybrids required. I don’t remember what Darwin argued, but I think he granted that hybrids don’t occur in higher orders, but that they sometimes do in lower. The fact that hybrids don’t occur doesn’t eliminate the fact that variations occur in the offspring of species.

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