Are We Naturally Savage Jerks?

With another week’s worth of reading from the Great Books logged, I’m wondering how anyone who has any degree of familiarity with this body of literature could possibly maintain that it’s irrelevant to life in the modern world. The themes of this past week’s readings (the basis of ethics, the type of political system we live in, the meaning of hearth and home) are about as relevant for 21st-century life as anything can be. It bodes ill for our society if the smart set refuses to see the value here.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books XXI-XXIV (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 506-541)
  2. Last Public Address” of Abraham Lincoln (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 762-765)
  3. The Death of Abraham Lincoln” by Walt Whitman (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 174-183)
  4. The Will to Believe” by William James (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 39-57)
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Book III (GBWW Vol. 10, pp. 41-66)
  6. Of Idleness” by Montaigne (GBWW Vol. 23, pp. 61-62)

This week we say goodbye to Homer (for now), and although we get the end of Lincoln’s life, we still have a few pieces from him to work through later in the program. We have many essays of Montaigne in our future, so I hope you find him palatable.

Here are some comments on last week’s selections:

  1. The Odyssey of Homer, Books XVII-XX: The tension mounts. I can only imagine the self-restraint Odysseus has to show in this section as he watches the outrages being offered daily to his family and possessions. I felt sorry for Amphinomos; it would have been nice for one of the suitors to find redemption, but I may just be trying to baptize this story.
  2. The Articles of Confederation: These look pretty good to me! The only thing most of us are told about the Articles is that they were “inadequate” to the needs of the nation and had to be replaced. Adler has a centralizing bias in politics and no doubt believed this as well. But I think that, at a minimum, we should reexamine this issue after the past two centuries of bloodiness brought about in part by political centralization.
  3. “Of Friendship” by Francis Bacon: I love all the classical allusions here. Bacon does a fine job in succinctly telling us the benefits of friendship. The discussion of royal favorites gave me new insight into the expression “It’s lonely at the top.”
  4. “Circular Letter to the Governors of All the States on Disbanding the Army” by George Washington: Last month I showed my hand by saying I think Washington was America’s greatest president. In this document the exhortation to unity is admirable, and you can feel the empathy Washington has for the soldiers under his command who have been waiting around for their paychecks for a very long time.
  5. The Elements of Euclid, Book II: I confess this book was harder for me to follow than the first one was, but I ultimately got it (I think). I wasn’t comfortable with the notion of a rectangle contained by two segments on the same line until I was about halfway through. It got to the point where one static diagram didn’t seem to be sufficient to carry the mind through the whole proof. Maybe I am more of a “visual learner” than I thought, or maybe my brain just needs some more discipline.
  6. “Nature” by John Stuart Mill: It’s hard to know whom exactly Mill is critiquing here; the only specific references are to the Stoic and Epicurean schools in the text and Leibniz in a footnote. It seems to be a strange hodgepodge of Romantics, Rousseauists mooning after “noble savages,” and deists. I suppose he thinks his ignoring the Christian natural law tradition is justified in the wake of his assertion that a hypothetical Creator cannot be both omnipotent and fully good. He seems unaware of the counterargument that God permits evil to exist in order to bring about greater good. I would have found the essay more satisfying if I had known more specifically who his targets were.

Have fun reading this week!

[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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One Response to Are We Naturally Savage Jerks?

  1. drcdat says:

    The Odyssey of Homer, Books XVII-XX (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 457-505): So much for the suitors. Great suspense. I can’t imagine having the patience to listen to a narration of this back in Ancient Greece.

    The Articles of Confederation (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 5-10): State’s rights. I don’t know if there is any connection or irony, but I was listening to this on audiobook, driving too fast, and got my first speeding ticket in about 20 years.

    “Of Friendship” by Francis Bacon (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 353-358): This harks back to the Cicero essay.

    “Circular Letter to the Governors of All the States on Disbanding the Army” by George Washington (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 474-483): I really enjoyed this one, and the logic and coherence of Washington’s writing. And he wasn’t even considered intellectual.

    The Elements of Euclid, Book II (GBWW Vol. 10, pp. 30-40): now we go to the squares. I find that I understand the logic of these better by 1) looking at the pictures, 2) figuring them out for myself, and then 3) reading the proofs a loud.

    “Nature” by John Stuart Mill (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 477-508): So far my favorite selection out of anything I’ve read. Why? 1) the mental gymnastics required to read it were just fun for some reason, and 2) although I always try to see the historical context for any given author, with this one I started to feel like I was thinking as a mid-19th century English intellectual would think. In fact, in order to understand it, I had to through out my post-modern sensibilities, forget everything I knew about anything from about 1850 to 2015, and really read like I imagine someone in 1850 would read. This also got me to wondering what inherent biases I bring to a text. I was born in 1972, in middle class St. Louis, and am about as Generation X as possible: only child, divorced parents, classic rock was religion, child of the suburbs, hours in malls and arcades, etc. With this said, I assume that I bring a sense of irony/cynicism, a sense of the leveling of high to low culture with me as I read anything, and (especially as I just read the last two sentences) a sense of self-depreciating humor (it’s different then the “selfie” culture of millennials like my children and current students). In the same way Mill seems to bring a sense of restraint, and some inherent cultural beliefs about the quality of individuals based upon education and social class.
    We see this epitomized with one of this essay’s keenest insights into human behavior: “When they say that something which they cannot help admitting to be blamable is nevertheless natural, they mean that they can imagine the possibility of their being themselves tempted to commit it.”

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