Some People Need Killin’

If you’ve followed along with the reading schedule posted here for the last two months, congratulations are in order. You’ve already read over 700 pages of world-class literature and, no doubt, have expanded your horizons by considering questions and problems outside your normal routine. Even if you have read only one or two selections from the list of Great Books linked here, I hope you’ve enjoyed the experience and are interested in continuing the program as you are able.

Here are the selections for the coming week:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books V-VIII (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 350-383)
  2. The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 415-417)
  3. A Call to Patriots–December 23, 1776” by Thomas Paine (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 461-468; Crisis Papers number 1)
  4. Cosmic View by Kees Boeke (GGB Vol. 8, pp. 600-644; the link takes you to the first page of the book’s text, and you can proceed from there)
  5. To the Reader” by Michel de Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, p. 49)
  6. Montaigne; or, the Skeptic” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 546-562)

As you can see, we have some material this week that is grouped a bit more intentionally than the selections of previous weeks: two documents from the American War of Independence and two documents by or about Montaigne, of whom we’ll be seeing much more in the future.

Now for some commentary on last week’s selections:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books I-IV: By the end of Book IV, most first-time readers of the Odyssey are wondering, “Where’s Odysseus?” Have patience! Odysseus’s non-appearance to this point is not just a narrative tease; it allows Homer to demonstrate what a mess things are in Ithaca because of his absence. By the end of this section, you are supposed to think, “All those suitors need to die.” Not only are they violating the culture’s sacred rules of hospitality, they’re also plotting the murder of Telemachos and openly saying they’ll kill Odysseus if he shows up at his own house.
  2. The “Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln: Has there ever been more ink spilled over fewer words than these? I find it ironic that the war allegedly fought to preserve “government of the people, by the people, for the people” resulted in a military dictatorship.
  3. “Of Death” by Francis Bacon: “There is no passion in the mind of man so weak but that it mates and masters the fear of death.” Is that true? I’m going to have to think about that some more. I like how Bacon wraps things up by stating that one’s goal should be to have lived in such way as to be able to pray the Nunc dimittis.
  4. “Beyond the Googol” by Edward Kasner and James Newman: This chapter of Kasner and Newman’s book was more difficult than “New Names for Old,” which we read a couple of weeks ago. After trying to conceptualize the infinite, I felt as though my head would explode. But I think I finally got the central thrust of the chapter that when dealing with the infinite, “the whole is no greater than some of its parts.”
  5. “The Eruption of Vesuvius” by Pliny the Younger: Let me tell you, if I get caught anywhere near a volcanic eruption, I’m not going to sit down in the courtyard and read Livy like Pliny did. At least he confessed he was afraid; he actually thought the world was ending. If you had seen the sun blotted out during the day, I guess you might think the same.
  6. On Old Age by Cicero: Note to self: read this again on my 50th birthday. Cicero makes growing old seem like something to look forward to. In particular, I thought the section on the nearness of death pretty thought-provoking. The idea that the old already have what the young hope for, viz., a long life, is pretty powerful. The part about the old being less tempted to stupidity resulting from the influence of the passions was good, too.

One of the great things for me in organizing this project is that every week I look at hundreds of the greatest literary works in the history of humanity and wonder which few I’ll pick out to read over the next seven days. It’s like a pass to the best buffet in town, and I have to  resist the temptation to gorge. I hope all of you are enjoying the diet thus far.

[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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9 Responses to Some People Need Killin’

  1. David says:

    Just joined so I am playing catch up on the readings- is there a pdf available of the entire seven year reading plan?

    • Dr. J says:

      Hi, David! I am building the reading plan as I go, so there is no complete seven-year schedule anywhere. When I get a little time in the next week or two, I would like to put together a page with a schedule for the first year, and since you mention it, I might as well put a PDF version of the document there as well. Stay tuned.

      • David says:

        Excellent! I have just purchased the 60 volume set of Great Books at Half Price for $25O and was going to do the 10 yr. plan until I came across your blog. I decided right away that I preferred your plan because it was more comprehensive, a more interesting mix of readings, could be completed more quickly, and for your comments on the readings as well.

        I actually have ordered the Gateway series as well (I found a used set in very good condition for $50).

        Three hundred bucks for a liberal arts education doesn’t sound too bad at all 🙂

        Looking forward to the adventure!


  2. Andy says:

    2. The Gettysburg Address
    I never knew that there are multiple versions of the same speech. It is easy to take for granted modern recording technologies. The first sentence is very powerful and sets up the entire speech. He speaks of the war as a defense of freedom, yet the irony is that the separation of the confederacy from the union was more about freedom than Lincoln’s use of force to maintain the power of the DC government. Political speeches haven’t changed over time; exploiting something as evil as slavery to maintain or capture more power.

  3. Andy says:

    3. Of Death
    I agree about “Nunc dimittis; when a man hath obtained worthy ends, and expectations”. That might be a bigger fear than death for some, not achieving those worthy ends and expectations before death.

  4. Andy says:

    6. On Old Age
    I have to admit I didn’t take the time to read the whole thing, but tried to catch some of the highlights. One of my favorite parts was in Part 1, section 3 where he discusses living experiencing culture and living by virtue. Living much and long and harvesting a life of virtuous actions. The other part I enjoyed was about the farmers of the Sabine district. They continue farming until the end and planting the ‘trees to serve a race to come’. That idea of continually building up and creating until the end, is wonderful to think about and very motivating.

  5. drcdat says:

    The Odyssey of Homer, Books I-IV (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 307-350); poor Telemachus; and all the foreshadowing. The question of Odysseus and Calypso presented in the next books suggests the heroic mortal application of Cicero’s essay.
    The “Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 759); always sublime
    “Of Death” by Francis Bacon (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 348-349); more sublimity
    “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); just finished and my head continues to infinitely spin
    “The Eruption of Vesuvius” by Pliny the Younger (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 264-270); love the mock stoic moment of reading while the eruption takes place.
    On Old Age by Cicero (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 317-343); at 42, I accept these arguments rationally, but when I see the drop in my 5K time and other areas of my life, the truth still hurts.

  6. drcdat says:

    I can’t edit my post so here is a foot about a footnote. In “Beyond the Googol” I love the footnote before the Cantor explanation that says “it has been suggested that at this point the tired reader puts the book down with a sigh–and goes to the movies. . . you may grit your teeth and try to get what you can out of them, or conveniently omit them.”

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