Drinking the Hemlock

It’s Great Books Monday here at the Western Tradition, and the top hits of Western Civilization just keep on coming. If you have done all the readings since we began in January, you have logged over 1,000 pages by this point and hopefully are a wiser person than you were when you began. You may also be taller and better looking if your results differ from mine. There are many thousands of pages to go, but not to worry; we have six years and nine months to work with!

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books XVII-XX (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 457-505)
  2. The Articles of Confederation (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 5-10)
  3. Of Friendship” by Francis Bacon (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 353-358)
  4. Circular Letter to the Governors of All the States on Disbanding the Army” by George Washington (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 474-483)
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Book II (GBWW Vol. 10, pp. 30-40)
  6. Nature” by John Stuart Mill (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 477-508)

Apologies to any non-U.S. readers of this blog for all the selections from American history. Mortimer Adler constructed these reading lists for Americans in part to deepen their civic understanding, and thus there are more writings from the American political tradition than from any other in modern times. Adler had good reason to be concerned for our cultural literacy . . . I’ll bet 99% of Americans have never read the Articles of Confederation.

Here are some thoughts on last week’s readings:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books XIII-XVI: Those Greek gods are real stinkers. Poseidon’s punishment of the Phaiakians must be one of the most unjust acts in all of Greek literature. And after all the supernatural things that happen in this section, I can’t figure how some critics still insist that the gods in this narrative are simply metaphors.
  2. The Declaration of Independence: This is such great propaganda . . . “swarms of officers to eat out our substance” . . . “merciless Indian savages.” I wish more people would get out of the first two paragraphs and see what the Founders were really upset about.
  3. “Biographical Sketches” by Thomas Jefferson: I had never read these excerpts from Jefferson’s letters before. I found them very enjoyable. The description of Washington is positive and respectful without being hagiographic. Franklin was more subtle than I had realized.
  4. Phaedo by Plato: Most of the discussion here revolves around attempts to prove the preexistence and immortality of the soul. Socrates meanders much more in this piece than he does in the other dialogues we’ve read so far, but I suppose we can forgive a man who is about to be unjustly executed. He sounds almost Hindu when he talks about souls too trapped in carnality coming back as beasts. By the way, it seems incongruous that the last words of the most famous philosopher in the Western tradition are about giving someone a chicken.
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Book I: It has been a long time since 8th-grade geometry class, but I remembered nearly all of Euclid’s propositions, though not their proofs. It was invigorating to follow the careful, methodical reasoning used to reach each of these conclusions. By the time you reach the Pythagorean theorem near the end of the book, you have gotten a genuine mental workout. I’m looking forward to Book II.
  6. “Second Inaugural Address” by Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln’s rhetoric is masterful; he makes it look as though the war was forced on him and that everything he had done was purely defensive. With a Union victory a near certainty by this point, he can afford to be magnanimous. If all you knew about Lincoln came from reading his speeches, you’d definitely think he was a great person.

We’re welcoming spring this week. The days are getting longer and warmer. Why not try reading outdoors?

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

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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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3 Responses to Drinking the Hemlock

  1. I’ve jumped in here in the middle (the beginning middle?) of the readings. I confess, I’ve never read the entire Odyssey, but now I want to go back and read it all. Even though I know how it’s going to end, the suspense in this section is fantastic. I had no idea Homer could be so much fun!
    The Articles of the Confederation, while slightly less exciting, are interesting. I guess I’ve never read those before, either. As someone who has written legal copy (“fine print”) before, I applaud the detailed and through writing. Also: I didn’t know we had invited Canada to be a state. Is the invitation still open?

    • Dr. J says:

      When the Articles were drafted, the war was ongoing, and the colonists were hoping that Canada might declare independence as well and join the U.S. The Canadians weren’t interested, though, and the 1787 Constitution quietly dropped that language.

      I’m surprised that you’ve never read the entire Odyssey, but I guess I shouldn’t be, since I don’t recall being assigned to read it at any point in school. My mother gave it to me to read when I was twelve or so.

  2. drcdat says:

    The Odyssey of Homer, Books XIII-XVI (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 427-466): Back home.
    The Declaration of Independence (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 1-3): I wish that all the “‘mericans” would all read this one at least four times a year along with the Constitution.
    “Biographical Sketches” by Thomas Jefferson (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 522-526; note there are two links here to different letters by Jefferson in which he gives his reminiscences about Washington and Franklin; on the second link, begin reading at the heading “FRANKLIN, BENJAMIN / REFLECTIONS REGARDING “): enjoyed the anecdotes about Franklin and the candor about Washington.
    Phaedo by Plato (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 220-251): the first reading that I really struggled with finishing so far. I had to break this one into 15-20 minute parts each day. When I could understand it, I didn’t really buy much of it. There are some nice lines and sentiments.
    The Elements of Euclid, Book I (GBWW Vol. 10, pp. 1-29): pictures are fun.
    “Second Inaugural Address” by Abraham Lincoln (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 760-761): always a classic

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