Throwing Ralph Waldo Emerson into a Volcano

It’s Great Books Monday; are you ready for the Bard? Here are the reading selections for the coming week:

  1. The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 24, pp. 199-228)
  2. Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” (1789) (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 412-414)
  3. Sketch of Abraham Lincoln” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 168-171; this passage is from Hawthorne’s essay “Chiefly About War Matters”; begin reading at the paragraph beginning “Of course, there was one other personage . . .” and stop at the end of paragraph that begins “Good heavens!”)
  4. The Discovery of Radium” by Eve Curie (GGB Vol. 8, pp. 32-42; Chapter XII of Madame Curie)
  5. The Life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola by Cornelius Tacitus (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 274-298)
  6. On Friendship by Cicero (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 286-316)

This week’s readings will be an acid test for me; I’ll be trying to complete them while putting on a conference on my campus. If I succeed, I’m pretty confident I can keep up the pace at least through the rest of this semester.

Now for some thoughts on last week’s readings:

  1. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe: It has probably been twenty years since my last reading of this story, and it freaked me out all over again. Just imagine someone coming to your bedroom door every night and waiting for some “signal” to kill you. And then there is the lunatic’s continual assertions of his sanity based on the evidence of his careful planning of the murder. *shudder*
  2. “The Lantern-Bearers” by Robert Louis Stevenson: The big question here is just what the lanterns represent to these boys (certainly they play a more benign role than the one in the Poe story!). I’m guessing they’re some sort of secret knowledge or power. Stevenson sure doesn’t pull any punches when criticizing Zola and the Naturalists: “This harping on life’s dullness and man’s meanness is a loud profession of incompetence.” Ouch!
  3. Meno by Plato: Don’t let the math section of this dialogue scare you away. Plato is asserting here a couple of very controversial ideas: first, that virtue cannot be taught; second, that all our knowledge is remembered rather than learned as a result of the soul’s pre-existence. I’m not sure I buy either of those.
  4. “New Names for Old” by Edward Kasner and James R. Newman: If you have ever wondered where the term “googol” came from, read this selection. Kasner does a very good job of presenting mathematical concepts on a level that young people (and math dunces) can understand. In fact, my eight-year-old son was reading over my shoulder while I was working through this piece and found it very interesting; I ended up discussing several of the visual examples with him.
  5. “The Land of Montezuma” by William Prescott: So if you were on an extremely risky military expedition in a strange country, seeking to reach your enemies while they’re in a moment of indecision about how to respond to you, would you take a detour to climb an erupting volcano for the heck of it? Apparently, if you were a sixteenth-century Spanish cavalier, you would! It seems like everything was an adventure in those days.
  6. “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson: In one of my less charitable moments, I decided a better title for this work would be “Self-Absorption.” This is a hugely influential essay, and I would guess that if you boiled its message down into 8th-grade language and polled Americans as to whether they agree with it today, the majority would say yes. I just happen to disagree with about 90% of it: the disdain for tradition, organized religion, recreational travel, other people in general, etc. Emerson makes the divinization of the Self sound really profound, but I kept getting the feeling it was just the acting out of someone with authority issues. On the plus side, there are some glimmers of Stoicism here.

Am I spot on? Out to lunch? Off my rocker? Pile on in the comment section below!

[This post was originally published on this site’s parent blog, The Western Tradition.]


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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14 Responses to Throwing Ralph Waldo Emerson into a Volcano

  1. Andy says:

    1. The Tell-Tale Heart
    You hit the nail on the head thinking about how creepy it is to think of someone peering at you while you sleep. I also like Poe’s description of the old-man’s eye and how it became an obsession to the murderer.

  2. Andy says:

    2. The Lantern-Bearers
    I find some parts of this to be the most difficult text to read yet. Does Stevenson always write with such ornate language, almost overly descriptive? I’m sure they were able to imagine grand significance to the lanterns as children. But the dark also does come earlier in September, so maybe they were imagining themselves to be smarter than all the others.

  3. Andy says:

    3. Meno
    Socrates does like to tease: “Why, because you always speak in imperatives: like all beauties when they are in their prime, you are tyrannical; and also, as I suspect, you have found out that I have weakness for the fair, and therefore to humour you I must answer.”

    I think Plato is mistaking professional teaching of virtue with the sort of teaching that comes through proximity and experience. Not only do I learn from my vice-ridden mistakes but also from seeing how my father behaved in certain circumstances. Maybe my soul is just remembering virtue though.

  4. Andy says:

    4. New Names for Old
    You don’t have to be a math dunce to appreciate the language. In my opinion, one of the larger problems with education and is that it is actually better for the teacher to make the student feel like subjects cannot be explained to a layman. They may be difficult subjects and require more than a five minute explanation, but if it cannot be explained to with common word usage, then you don’t know what you are talking about. I read that while I was studying physics (can’t remember by who), but it always stuck with me. That’s why I am very skeptical of highly mathematical theories in physics and economics that cannot be explained like the authors wrote this piece.

    I did enjoy the discussion of the counting numbers, especially the references to the kindergarten children and tribes. Thinking about it more, it happens all the time in every day language. “Tons and tons of blank” or “infinite”, I will definitely be more cognizant of it the next few times I hear these euphemisms.

  5. Andy says:

    5. The Land of Montezuma
    Taking the scenic route, that’s what modern day explorers do also. Except he was part explorer and part Conquerer. I’ve got to give it to Prescott, what wonderful writing. Especially in the parts describing the immense collection of wildlife that they had gathered. I also find it interesting that the people away from the capital spoke of how oppressive Montezuma was, but the people nearby came to the defense of his reputation. I would think that is something that is repeated throughout history. The powerful take their plunder and spend it mostly in their own neighborhood.

    The thoughts of Cortes are interesting also. This man has just witnessed some of the most beautiful things and people that he has ever seen, yet the avarice of his ego wants it all for his own. He can’t intermingle peacefully and take home the gifts he has received, he wants it all.

  6. Andy says:

    6. Self-Reliance
    He does come across as a misanthrope, but doesn’t anyone who is wishing to sing the praises of the individual against society. This seems like an attempt at persuasion to me. So is it best for Emerson to say throw down those shackles of society and rise to the glory that is within you or to say, yeah your life is pretty good, you just need to work on getting that inner fire a little. Maybe it is because I have some of the same thoughts as Emerson. Tradition is important, but can be confining. Traveling is no problem, but then saying you know more about life because you have seen other parts of the world is snooty. Organized religion provides a framework for the maintenance of the soul, but can also be destructive to a man’s soul. Emerson could have more bluntly pointed out that self-reliance does not mean rejecting society, but I don’t think he is 90% wrong. I read pieces like this and am always reminded of singing “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine” with my grandmother.

  7. Ginger says:

    OK so I’m 11 months behind. I’ll still post my thoughts.

    “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe (GGB Vol. 2, pp. 273-277) I started re-reading this again, but only got partway down the first page. One author I refuse to read is Poe. I don’t like his dark writing or strange unsettling conclusions. One reading of The Tell-Tale Heart is more than enough for me.
    “The Lantern-bearers” by Robert Louis Stevenson (GGB Vol. 7, pp. 112-121) This was a delightful painting of times gone by. RLS has a wonderful writing style.
    Meno by Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 174-190) I know Socrates was great, but I get frustrated by the Socratic method. My son and I debate back and forth this way all the time. When he was young, it was lots of fun-he asking questions-me answering-then switching. But now that he is an all-knowing young adult plus much much more intelligent and logical than me, it is anything but fun. Perhaps that is the main reason the Athenians had Socrates put to death. It doesn’t feel nice to be put in one’s place like this.
    “New Names for Old” by Edward Kasner and James R. Newman (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 121-136; from Mathematics and the Imagination) This is delightful. I wish I had entered the fairy-land of mathematics as a young girl. My daughter Emily went to Montessori school, where she was made aware of binomial and nominal squares at age 3 or 4. She loves higher math and does very well thinking logically. Sadly and mathematically, Montessori school nor its didactic apparatus aren’t usually affordable for families with several children. Another daughter, Katie, and a son, Spencer, somehow discovered this land as well. However, Katie’s journey was cut short, and Spencer immigrated to the land of Creative Writing at an early age. I have attempted to go to math fairyland and hope to finally discover the entrance.
    “The Land of Montezuma” by William H. Prescott (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 231-243; Book III, Chapter 8 of History of the Conquest of Mexico) Prescott’s writing is superb. Unfortunately, Prescott’s idea that this hike to massacre and rob the people of Mexico was not Christian in any way. Jesus taught us not to kill or steal. Cortez did both in his greed. He also enslaved the survivors and brought terrible plagues that wiped out most of the population of the continent.
    “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (GGB Vol. 10, pp.525-545) The idea of self-reliance is compelling to me. In my life, I’ve embraced home birth, home school, and now would like to have home production of my food. My children are embarrassed and say I thrive on controversy and disdain tradition. But that’s not it. I am simply not a conformist or a joiner. I march to the beat of my own drummer. Although I espouse LDS-Christian religious beliefs, I don’t just take another person’s word for it. I study and learn and seek guidance from the Holy Spirit and synthesize and apply. But we’re talking about Emerson here. Even with stoicism and authority issues, Emerson’s message is mostly good and right. Just look at what our traditions have done to our planet. A little self reliance might not be a bad idea, Anyway, Emerson let his light shine as Andy says.

    • Dr. J says:

      Plato takes patience, to be sure. I get frustrated when he goes down a road that dead-ends and has to turn around and come back to an earlier fork.

      I think Emerson would say to you that you’re not self-reliant precisely because you submit yourself to a religious authority. That’s one of my biggest problems with him.

  8. belisarius77 says:

    Finished Meno yesterday and it has given me a lot to think about (or recall?)…

    Before reading this I might have answered the question “What is virtue?” much as Meno did by saying it was justice, fortitude, temperance, prudence, etc. But these are virtues not virtue itself.

    I was surprised that Socrates never really came to a definition himself other than to say it was a divine inspiration like what poets receive whereby we recall from our immortal soul’s past experiences what virtue is intuitively even if we cannot teach it or describe it.

    As an Eastern Orthodox Christian I wondered how I would have answered the question, “What is virtue?” and whether Socrates would have found the answer acceptable had he lived a few centuries later as an early Greek Christian. In fact, the whole discussion reminded me somewhat of the altar to the Unknown God in Acts.

    If I were to offer a single word definition of virtue from a Christian POV it would probably be godliness or Christlikeness. Getting more specific it would be a living participation or communion with God’s energies as opposed to His essence. But would a Christian Socrates have seen this as the real definition of virtue (only defineable when brought together in a Person greater than the individual virtues) or only as a life of virtue but not the thing itself?

    Perhaps he would have thought of the divinely inspired Hebrew poet who foretold this bringing together of the virtues in the Incarnation: “Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other,” (Psalms 85:10)

    This is ending up my first month in the 7 yr plan and I am surprised at how these readings stir the mind. It is wonderful how these works can speak to each of us and sharpen our own perspectives in unique ways like this.

  9. belisarius77 says:

    On Kasner’s mathematical “New Names for Old” I can only say this, “Never in the history of my personal reading have I been delighted as much yet understood so little of what I was reading.”

    This is really a great strength of the reading program in which we are engaged. If left to my own devices I will always pick books within a fairly narrow set of subjects; the reading program is an incredible experience for me not only for the high quality of the readings but also for the great variety of genres to which I am exposing myself.

    The picture of the Spanish cavaliers in Prescott’s work offered a refreshing glimpse of the positive side of the conquistadors’ great spirit of adventure and elan as well as reminding us that the Aztecs were an oppressive empire that the surrounding Indians were happy to help overthrow. Most of us are only taught the vices of the gold-hungry Spaniards who were trying to ram their religion down the throats of the native Americans. We forget what an awful religion the victim-hungry Aztecs had and how dismally they treated their fellow Indians. Good and evil run in varying amounts in every culture.

    • Dr. J says:

      I’m glad you’ve had that reaction to these readings. I do the same thing you do and tend to select works within a relatively narrow range when I’m on my own. I have learned a great deal in the last year by getting outside my comfort zone with a number of these selections.

  10. belisarius77 says:

    Read Emerson’s Self-Reliance today and agree with your assessment. Being a conformist or a non-conformist tells me nothing about someone’s character. If the values society teaches are good we should conform, if not we shouldn’t. I think that in today’s radically individualistic society it takes more independent thinking to respect tradition than not.

  11. Gerrald says:

    Coming 2.5 years late to the party, but anyway: Meno was really asking for a reflection. I was looking forward to my first bit of GBWW, but was quite disappointed. Found Socrates’ style to be highly off-putting. Imagine a guy asking for confirmation of his own genius every single sentence, really annoying.

    Anyway, good to read old philosophy, and instead of becoming nostalgic about good old times, instead conclude that we came a long way – in my opinion, we moved away from pointlessly trying to nail down definitions to work with terms even if we are not able to exactly define them. A positive development in my opinion.

    Definitely hoping for a to my taste more tasty morsel of GBWW next time.

    Loved rereading the Poe story though – reminded me of the first time I read it, in a pocket book with many of Poe’s short stories, one even more suspenseful than the other.

  12. drcdat says:

    “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe: As a high school English teacher for 20 years, I sort of feel that Poe is overrated. I have taught this one a lot, and enjoy it for its sense of melodrama.
    “The Lantern-Bearers” by Robert Louis Stevenson: Stevenson is another hard nut to crack, and one of those 19th century writers who are hard to place in context. Stylistically fun to read, but content-wise not much stuck with me.
    Meno by Plato: My hardest part with Plato is getting over the obvious Socrates will have all the right answers tone, which can be a bit too obvious and simple for my post 20th century sense of irony and ambiguity (how hipster of me). But the question can virtue be taught is one that we are still wrestling with today, and indicative of a larger question of what it means to teach and/or learn. The answer of whether or not virtue can be taught depends upon what we mean by taught. As an educator for the last 20 years, I have come to the realization that internal motivation more than anything else is responsible for learning. So when we say teaching people, do we mean the teacher giving an amazing lesson, or do we mean that the student somehow was ready to learn and the teacher happened to be there. Plato would seem to suggest the later, which suggests part of the problem with traditional K-12 (and probably K-16) education: students can’t learn anything until they are ready to learn it. Sort of like my failing at this reading project 3 years ago, but now giving it another go.
    “New Names for Old” by Edward Kasner and James R. Newman: I am finding that I am enjoying these old math books a lot, especially some of the little quips and asides in this one.
    “The Land of Montezuma” by William Prescott: As I read this, I ask myself when did the tone of modern historical writing become modern. Compare to Xenophon and this is more to my taste, but compare to something like Shelby Foote then this still sounds a bit quaint. I don’t need a lot of footnotes, but there is something foreign about these old accounts that I can’t put my finger on. Once again, this might reveal more about me as a modern reader than the text itself. On a side note, the discussion of the volcano got me into a wikipedia loop about highest points in several countries and how prominence with mountains is defined.
    “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson: I think that you might have been too harsh on this one. I don’t think that he is saying don’t travel, or understand tradition, or ignore organized religion, but look at everything on your own terms. With someone as educated and versed in the great books as an Emerson, I don’t see him as a proponent of cultural anarchy, but as someone very inline with 19th century optimism, especially the influence of a Napoleon.

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