Get Over Yourself, Walt

With 7,500 pages down and a mere 30,000 or so to go, we are motoring through the Great Books here at the Western Tradition. For new readers, this may be a good week to jump into the program because we have several “one-shot” works this time around, just as we did last week.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Apple Tree” by John Galsworthy (GGB Vol. 3, pp. 323-367)
  2. The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, Book VII (GBWW Vol. 8, pp. 395-406)
  3. Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania” by Benjamin Franklin (GGB Vol. 6, pp. 536-542)
  4. “The Red and the Black” by Charles Sanders Peirce (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 342-348; pp. 606-612 at this link.)
  5. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Ch. 3 (GBWW Vol. 49, pp. 32-39)
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book XVII (GBWW Vol. 16, pp. 512-537; in the linked text, it’s the material under the second of the headings “The history of the City of God from Noah . . .” and its subheads)

We are getting pretty close to finishing the mathematics volume of the Gateway to the Great Books. After this week, I think there will be just four or five selections left for us to read.

Here are some observations from last week’s readings:

  1. Preface to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman: You can easily tell that Whitman is a kindred spirit to Emerson, Thoreau, and other 19th-century authors who are fascinated with themselves and who reject any higher authority. All the stuff about there soon being no more priests, rejecting everything you’ve ever been told in church, making light of all personal failings as long as you’re candid about them, etc., has been a favorite trope of the secular liberal since at least the time of Rousseau. Profundity or puerility? You be the judge.
  2. The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, Book VI: Remember our very first week of readings in this program, when we read Erskine’s essay “The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent”? I was reminded strongly of that piece when going through Aristotle’s discussion of the virtues of the intellect as opposed to the virtues of character. Scientific knowledge, practical and political wisdom, etc.
  3. “Childhood and Youth” by John Stuart Mill: Never again will I think I’m being too hard on my kids after reading what James Mill put his son through: Greek starting at age three, Platonic dialogues and Herodotus (in Greek) by age eight, and much more. Mill goes out of his way to parade his religious skepticism around; that was fairly irritating. However, there were several good observations here about education.
  4. “Of Custom and Education” by Francis Bacon: The emphasis on custom (or habit) gives this essay an Aristotelian flavor. Bacon quite rightly points out that “education” is in effect really an “early custom.” Those who rail against “tradition” would do better simply to acknowledge that they are trying to substitute different traditions for existing ones.
  5. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin: Historical Sketch, Introduction, and Ch. 2: In this chapter the main point seemed to be that there’s no way to define “species” in a way that everyone will agree on. If two species can interbreed, should they be considered different species in the first place? Why not just two varieties of the same species? From what I understand, modern scientists don’t give much credence to the idea of “incipient species.” How much modern “Darwinism” would Darwin recognize?
  6. The City of God by St. Augustine, Book XVI: This book again focuses on the text of Genesis but eventually takes us up through the rest of the Pentateuch as well. I found the speculations concerning the “sons of God” and giants in Genesis extremely interesting. The notion that Hebrew was mankind’s original language was novel to me, although it makes sense aesthetically. I want to know Augustine’s standard for interpreting things allegorically!

Finals are over for me; the averaging and submitting of grades is what delayed my posting until the afternoon. I hope that the next few weeks will contain a less hectic schedule for me, allowing me to do the weekly readings in a slightly more leisurely manner.


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 Get Over Yourself, Walt

  1. Great Books For Men GreatBooksForMen GBFM (TM) GB4M (TM) GR8BOOKS4MEN (TM) lzozozozozlzo (TM) says:

    Actually Thoreau never “rejected any higher authority.”

    Thoreau honored the Great Books and Classics:

    “My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world, whose sentences were first written on bark, and are now merely copied from time to time on to linen paper. Says the poet Mir Camar Uddin Mast, “Being seated, to run through the region of the spiritual world; I have had this advantage in books. To be intoxicated by a single glass of wine; I have experienced this pleasure when I have drunk the liquor of the esoteric doctrines.” I kept Homer’s Iliad on my table through the summer, though I looked at his page only now and then. Incessant labor with my hands, at first, for I had my house to finish and my beans to hoe at the same time, made more study impossible. Yet I sustained myself by the prospect of such reading in future. I read one or two shallow books of travel in the intervals of my work, till that employment made me ashamed of myself, and I asked where it was then that I lived.

    The student may read Homer or Aeschylus in the Greek without danger of dissipation or luxuriousness, for it implies that he in some measure emulate their heroes, and consecrate morning hours to their pages. The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have. The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity. They seem as solitary, and the letter in which they are printed as rare and curious, as ever. It is worth the expense of youthful days and costly hours, if you learn only some words of an ancient language, which are raised out of the trivialness of the street, to be perpetual suggestions and provocations. It is not in vain that the farmer remembers and repeats the few Latin words which he has heard. Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old. To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written. It is not enough even to be able to speak the language of that nation by which they are written, for there is a memorable interval between the spoken and the written language, the language heard and the language read. The one is commonly transitory, a sound, a tongue, a dialect merely, almost brutish, and we learn it unconsciously, like the brutes, of our mothers. The other is the maturity and experience of that; if that is our mother tongue, this is our father tongue, a reserved and select expression, too significant to be heard by the ear, which we must be born again in order to speak. The crowds of men who merely spoke the Greek and Latin tongues in the Middle Ages were not entitled by the accident of birth to read the works of genius written in those languages; for these were not written in that Greek or Latin which they knew, but in the select language of literature. They had not learned the nobler dialects of Greece and Rome, but the very materials on which they were written were waste paper to them, and they prized instead a cheap contemporary literature. But when the several nations of Europe had acquired distinct though rude written languages of their own, sufficient for the purposes of their rising literatures, then first learning revived, and scholars were enabled to discern from that remoteness the treasures of antiquity. What the Roman and Grecian multitude could not hear, after the lapse of ages a few scholars read, and a few scholars only are still reading it.

    However much we may admire the orator’s occasional bursts of eloquence, the noblest written words are commonly as far behind or above the fleeting spoken language as the firmament with its stars is behind the clouds. There are the stars, and they who can may read them. The astronomers forever comment on and observe them. They are not exhalations like our daily colloquies and vaporous breath. What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study. The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and health of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.

    No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;- not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself. The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech. Two thousand summers have imparted to the monuments of Grecian literature, as to her marbles, only a maturer golden and autumnal tint, for they have carried their own serene and celestial atmosphere into all lands to protect them against the corrosion of time. Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind. When the illiterate and perhaps scornful trader has earned by enterprise and industry his coveted leisure and independence, and is admitted to the circles of wealth and fashion, he turns inevitably at last to those still higher but yet inaccessible circles of intellect and genius, and is sensible only of the imperfection of his culture and the vanity and insufficiency of all his riches, and further proves his good sense by the pains which be takes to secure for his children that intellectual culture whose want he so keenly feels; and thus it is that he becomes the founder of a family.”
    -Walden, Henry David Thoreau

    • Dr. J says:

      That is a great quote; thanks for posting it. I don’t know that it indicates that Thoreau viewed the classics as a higher authority, at least in the sense I’m talking about. I’m referring to something that makes definitive pronouncements before which you submit your own private judgment. I don’t get the feeling that Thoreau would have viewed the classics in that way.

      • Great Books For Men GreatBooksForMen GBFM (TM) GB4M (TM) GR8BOOKS4MEN (TM) lzozozozozlzo (TM) says:

        Thanks! Emerson also believed in a higher authority: “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

        “God enters by a private door into every individual.”
        -Ralph Waldo Emerson

        “A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

        Sounds like Emerson sees God as greater than men.

        Not sure where you are getting the idea that Thoreau and Emerson believed in no higher authority?

  2. Great Books For Men GreatBooksForMen GBFM (TM) GB4M (TM) GR8BOOKS4MEN (TM) lzozozozozlzo (TM) says:

    Sounds like Thoreau also saw God as greater than man:

    It’s only by forgetting yourself that you draw near to God.
    – Henry David Thoreau

    Whate’er we leave to God, God does and blesses us.
    – Henry David Thoreau

  3. Great Books For Men GreatBooksForMen GBFM (TM) GB4M (TM) GR8BOOKS4MEN (TM) lzozozozozlzo (TM) says:

    Whitman sounds like Jesus here:

    “This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
    ― Walt Whitman

    Not sure where you say the belief in no greater authority here?

    • Dr. J says:

      It’s exactly quotes like this that lead me to think Whitman et al do not acknowledge a higher authority (even if they do acknowledge a higher _power_). “Take off your hat to nothing known or unknown.” Whitman will not acknowledge anyone or anything to have authority over him. He will not submit to anything except his own judgment and conscience. It is the glorification of self. It is the same message Emerson propounds in “Self Reliance.” Saying you believe in a Creator is not the same as acknowledging that you will submit to the Creator’s dictates.

      • Great Books For Men GreatBooksForMen GBFM (TM) GB4M (TM) GR8BOOKS4MEN (TM) lzozozozozlzo (TM) says:

        Nowhere in Whitman’s words do I see where he is proposing that one violate the Ten Commandments, nor any Homeric Code of Honor either.

        Odysseus was highly self-reliant on his voyage on home. He relied on his own judgment and conscience. Are you saying the Odysseus failed to submit to the Creator’s dictates?

      • Dr. J says:

        Odysseus took orders from Athena. Whitman won’t tip his hat. It doesn’t matter whether he ever advocated violating the Ten Commandments. The question is, “Who’s the boss?”

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