How to Stare Death in the Face with Style

It’s Great Books Monday, and this week we begin reading the granddaddy of them all. Get ready for the author widely regarded as the fountainhead of the Western literary tradition!

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books I-IV (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 307-350)
  2. The “Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 759)
  3. Of Death” by Francis Bacon (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 348-349)
  4. Beyond the Googol” by Edward Kasner and James Newman (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 137-162; Chapter 2 of Mathematics and the Imagination; this link does not contain the entire chapter, but I couldn’t find the full text anywhere online)
  5. The Eruption of Vesuvius” by Pliny the Younger (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 264-270)
  6. On Old Age by Cicero (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 317-343)

This week we begin the first work that will take us several weeks to read. Rather than make the entire week’s reading from the Odyssey (a course of action that still wouldn’t get us through the poem in one go), we’ll divide it into smaller sections and read it over six weeks while continuing to read in other genres at the same time. I hope that works for everyone.

Here are some comments on last week’s readings:

  1. “Mowgli’s Brothers” by Rudyard Kipling: Somehow I got through childhood without ever reading The Jungle Book, in which this story appears. “Mowgli’s Brothers” is quite different from the Disney-fied rendition many of us know. At bottom, this is about man’s superiority over animals in the natural order of things. Mowgli wishes to remain with the animals, but they will not let him; their fear of him leads them to hate him. He has to “grow up” and assert his dominance to save himself. The day after I read this story, I started my oldest son on The Jungle Book.
  2. “Learning the River” by Mark Twain: I remember reading much of Life on the Mississippi for Dr. Haynie’s class on frontier history back in college, but I certainly didn’t appreciate it then the way I did this time. I think it’s because I never really “got” the humor of Twain’s style until I was in my late 20s. I laughed out loud at several passages last week while still marveling at the descriptions of riverboat life. Twain’s self-deprecation and his larger-than-life characterizations kept me riveted. The anecdote about the sleepwalking pilot was absolutely hilarious.
  3. “On Being the Right Size” by J.B.S. Haldane: So much information packed into so few pages! Now I understand why insects can fall off skyscrapers without being hurt while a horse falling from the same height will “splash” upon hitting the ground. And I’ll never have to worry that military experiments will create gargantuan versions of common animals to terrorize the countryside like in all those 1950s movies. This is good stuff.
  4. “Contentment” by Plutarch: Plutarch says, in essence, to make lemonade when life gives you lemons and to count your blessings. He makes you realize these aren’t just platitudes. And then there’s the cultivation of virtue: “No costly mansion, no mass of gold, no pride of race, no grandeur of office, no charm or force of eloquence can bestow upon life so clear skied a serenity as a soul purged of evil deeds and thoughts which keeps as a fountain of life a character imperturbable and untainted.”
  5. “Fingerprints” by Tobias Dantzig: Is our base-ten counting system a “physiological accident”? It’s a plausible theory, but I wonder if there might be another workable hypothesis; so many explanations of this sort by scientists are really “Just-So” stories. Nevertheless, this was an engaging selection that encouraged me to reflect on the methods of understanding number that we take for granted.
  6. Apology by Plato: So you’ve just been convicted of trumped-up charges on the basis of flimsy evidence, and you’re facing the sentencing committee that will determine whether you live or die. Do you have the gumption to suggest that your “punishment” should be a medal and a government pension to allow you to retire in style? Me, neither. You have to admire Socrates here, although I do remember one Montgomery-area public official a few years ago who, at a community symposium we hosted on this work, expressed the opinion that Socrates got what was coming to him. The haters of philosophy are still with us!

[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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8 Responses to How to Stare Death in the Face with Style

  1. Andy says:

    1. Mowgli’s Brothers
    This is about the superiority of man over the animal kingdom. But it is interesting to note that the animals are not scared of man for his strength, but his smarts. Man is able to participate in all the animal activities, but his edge is in what distinguishes him from the animals. It is also interesting the difference between the older and wiser wolves and the respect for rule of law versus the younger wolves that are manipulated by receiving scraps from a stronger animal.

  2. Andy says:

    2. Learning the River
    The story of Mr X asleep at the wheel was excellent. I was able to connect the most with some of the earlier chapters in which he is describing the sheer awe of the task ahead of him; those wide eyes of wonder that I’ve felt as a neophyte before. Trying to understand every little detail of the river in order to navigate it safely is no small feat. Twain’s self deprecating humor lends itself to a novice’s perspective because that is how I have felt when attempting to learn something that seems impossible to do. Plus I like the story where he didn’t gain the girl’s attention but ends up saying he “loathed her anyways”, ha!

  3. Andy says:

    3. On Being the Right Size
    This story is packed with lots of information. Not bad for an early essay; at least I think early in terms of our scientific knowledge regarding biology and zoology. The difference in complexity and composition as systems become larger is something entertaining to wrap the head around. Don’t we see these difficulties in humans that are born taller and larger than average? I think I remember reading or seeing something about the tallest man in the world and the health issues that he has faced. The commentaries on society at the the end are amusing as well. I have no affinity for socialism, but I believe he is correct asserting that governance breaks down in larger populations.

  4. Andy says:

    4. On Contentment
    This is one of those that should be read and re-read at a young age. One of the parts of they essay I most appreciate is section 5 where he discusses Plato’s description of life compared to a game of dice, and counters that life lived randomly is vulnerable to the emotions of the moment. Plutarch really starts to discuss lemons to lemonade in section 6, opening with the hilarious take on missing the dog with the rock but hitting the step-mother. Section 14 and 15 are also a favorite because they discuss focusing too much on unpleasant memories. It seems that there is a strong victim culture in society, maybe it has always been that way, but Plutarch’s words on moving from regret or dissatisfaction to thankfulness and contentment resonate well. He mentions, as others have, that virtue is the cornerstone for avoiding regret. Since improving one’s situation is the foundation of freedom and human action, there has to be a state of discontentment; Plutarch helps to remind us not to let the discontentment overwhelm us and keep us from taking positive action.

  5. Andy says:

    5. Fingerprints
    It may be that our base 10 counting system originated from our 10 fingers. I had not heard of a quinary system, based on the number 5. The theory that the ancients had their hands full and couldn’t use both hands to count is difficult for me to fully believe. I don’t know the whole reason for the different measurement systems, english and metric; but I would think that some of the similar reasons existed for the creation of different counting schemes in the ancient languages. I also learned that Lincoln was using his toes to count when he said ‘four score and seven years ago’. I need to ask the kindergarten teachers I know, but are kids taught numbers first by finger counting? If not, is that something that would speed a child’s understanding of basic mathematics?

  6. Andy says:

    6. Apology
    It’s amazing the anger people have towards words and ideas. To put a man to death over them is unimaginable, but I suppose public sentiment is easily swept into fervor. Socrates seems to go through the range of emotion in this; I think I detect a little boastfulness, pride, arrogance yet humility. I would probably go through a range of emotions too, and it would be incredibly difficult to defend a man’s right to think and have conversations. It was pretty courageous of him to say how unwise the politicians are when they were the ones deciding whether he lives or dies. I would have to agree with him on that point, though.

  7. drcdat says:

    With a week off, I managed to jump ahead a week.
    “Mowgli’s Brothers” by Rudyard Kipling (GGB Vol. 2, pp. 126-141). My son is into scouts, and I see where they got a lot of their language. Kipling is a curious writer whose reputation seems to have suffered from prejudice against Victorianism.
    “Learning the River” by Mark Twain (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 50-98; Chapters 1, 4, and 6-14 of Life on the Mississippi). I grew up in St. Louis, and went to undergraduate in New Orleans, so for the first 24 years of my life, the Mississippi was always close. I’ve read the entire book at least 3-5 times–still good stuff, and the editors picked the best selections.
    “On Being the Right Size” by J.B.S. Haldane (GGB Vol. 8, pp. 149-154): Love the early modernist science style of writing for the masses.
    “Contentment” by Plutarch (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 264-281): Anything stoic makes me happy, so this was right up my alley. I didn’t know that Plutarch went beyond writing comparative histories.
    “Fingerprints” by Tobias Dantzig (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 165-177; Chapter 1 of Number–The Language of Science): So far, I think that these popularizations of mathematics in the GGB are my favorite reads.
    Apology by Plato (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 200-212): Having taught for 20 years, I reflect that this essay reflects every teacher’s worst fear, and still seems to be a favorite story about teaching (i.e. the maverick teacher who changes lives but somehow ends up paying for it).

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