Joseph Conrad on How to Enjoy Getting Blown Up

On this Great Books Monday we embark on a journey through the greatest poem in the English language. Are you ready? 

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Paradise Lost by John Milton, Book I (GBWW Vol. 29, pp. 93-110)
  2. Antony” by Plutarch (GBWW Vol. 13, pp. 748-779)
  3. Against Those Who Eagerly Seek Preferment at Rome” by Epictetus (GBWW Vol. 11, p. 109-110; Discourses Book I Ch. 10)
  4. Our Feelings Reach out beyond Us” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 54-57)
  5. On the Relation of Man to the Lower Animals” by Thomas H. Huxley (GGB Vol. 8, pp. 160-204)
  6. The Nature and Extent of Divine Doctrine” by St. Thomas Aquinas (GBWW Vol. 17, pp. 3-10; First Part, Question 1 of Summa Theologica)

I think it will be interesting this week to compare Milton and St. Thomas, two of the most important Christian writers whose styles could hardly be more different.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. “Youth” by Joseph Conrad: I felt so terrible for the Judea’s crew, especially the captain. I wondered while reading (and still do) whether I would have reacted the same way as the narrator to the travails they experienced. I’m still young (barely, at 39) and am not sure I would have had the “Whee, what an adventure!” attitude while getting blown up.
  2. Demetrius-I-of-Macedon“Demetrius” by Plutarch: I really enjoyed this biography because I know relatively little about the major political figures of the Hellenistic era, Alexander the Great excepted. I learned a lot from this account. Demetrius’s treatment of the Greeks was pretty bad: a two-year wait to get an audience with him?! No wonder they dumped him for Pyrrhus when they had a chance.
  3. “How from the Fact that We Are Akin to God a Man May Proceed to the Consequences” by Epictetus (Discourses Book I Chapter 9): It’s hard to avoid drawing parallels between this discourse and the passage in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus tells the people not to worry about the morrow. The last sentence, though, sums up so much of the Stoic philosophy: “One man is not miserable through the means of another.”
  4. “Of Sadness” by Michel de Montaigne: If you have kept up with the reading in this program, I’m sure you were nodding your head at Montaigne’s references to characters from Herodotus and the like. He comes across like a curmudgeon, though, saying he’s too rational to be sad and that writers are dumb for linking sadness to wisdom. J.R.R. Tolkien would disagree.
  5. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Ch. 15: If you can’t slog through the entire Origin of Species, be sure to read this chapter, which provides a pretty concise summary of all Darwin’s major arguments. He admits that the lack of evidence in the fossil record, etc., prevents him from demonstrating his case definitively, but believes that his theory fits the best with the available evidence. He leaves the door open for a Creator and even stops short of saying that all life came from a common ancestor. Where one comes down on this question inevitably has a lot to do with one’s a priori assumptions.
  6. Advancement of Learning by Francis Bacon, Book I: Take out the obsequious flattery of James I, and this book has a whole lot to recommend it. There are many pertinent arguments in the defense of learning against those who denigrate it from a variety of motives. Along the way Bacon demonstrates an impressive knowledge of both Scripture and classical history (just as he does in his essays). I particularly liked the discussion of the five “good emperors” during the Pax Romana.

I gave three finals last week and am still in the final stages of a couple of summer classes, with the incoming freshmen hitting campus this weekend. There’s no rest for the weary, but I think I’ll find time somewhere to read this week. I hope you do the same!

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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