Tolstoy’s Crisis

I added Leo Tolstoy’s short story “The Death of Ivan Ilych” two years into teaching this course.  It is not part of the Great Books list, and in all likely it should not be.  The story is important, but in typical Tolstoy fashion the “moral” is too obvious.  In this way, I find Dostoevsky a better writer with his subtle use of character development to create larger statements about our human-ness.  I added the short story for two reasons.  American students need to read more Russian writers.  The story also creates space for addressing the existential movement that is coming.  Though everything may be meaningless, we appear to need to make some kind of meaning out of it all.  Tolstoy shifts the focus back on the construction of social meaning.  The “warning” the dead man makes to the living is one that we all must engage, even as we attempt to avoid it.  Like Tolstoy’s characters in “Death,” the reader is caught in the gaze but looks away to avert attention to those who do not “see” in the story.

Going to Church with a Hammer or Why You’ll Never Stop Talking about Plato in Greatbooks.

For a Post-Foundationalist in Great Books Nietzsche is like church. I should back up to explain. Great books often lie to you. The thing about Great Books is that they don’t just exist in a vacuum or inside English departments. Great books move the tides. Great Books has value in cultural wars the way machine guns would have had value in the American Revolution. And yet they have been lying to us. If there was a Trojan War (which it is a bit of a misnomer of a question it’s not very likely that Achilles fought a river. But it’s more than that. The question of: what are the god’s doing? , is Odysseus a good man? , what happens to the dead? , and many more are at stake from the very beginning of our pantheon. Of course we are removed; we fancy ourselves above believing on Gods that would live on top of a mountain (here is where you notice that all origin stories seem weird outside of social context). But we were warned about this—warned to look out for what about our institution is mythos and what is real. Plato told us. Plato told us directly that occasionally city builders would need to tell what he called “Noble Lies”, and yet the idea that the stories were lies never comes back up until Nietzsche. “Hebrew and Christian Traditions” gives us books full of stories and ethics that we can pick from and never once in that class do we question why there was so many people who read so few texts and came up with so many different answers, and no one likes to talk about how some accounts of the life of Jesus Christ can exclude things that seem so important in other accounts. But this isn’t just about religion. What Dante did was more ethics than theology yet he made a case for something he believed while acting as if there was authority behind it. The amount of ethics and cultural norms we get tacitly in this pantheon that are grounded as if they are absolute truth is staggering and I could rant about it. But what I have to talk about is Kant because Kant is too much. I would posit that Kant is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. A metaphysical grounding for his morals and tying it to rationality is so gnostic (Voegelinian) and annoying that it completely jolts something. The other enlightenment thinkers do this kind of gnostic work to but Kant really takes the cake for “noble lies” that pretend they aren’t. And so Nietzsche is like church. “The categorical imperative smells of cruelty”(Genealogy of Morals). Preach Nietzsche! This class really should have been called “The World at Twilight” because the veil of “enlightenment” starts its dissent here. In Nietzsche, Conrad, and Weber, we see how destructive “noble lies”—comforting lights in the darkness—can be. We really should be reading Fitzgerald here to round it out—to dispel the lies about rationality from the enlightenment, lies about the white man’s burden, lies about determination (no offence but I hate it), and lies about the American dream all at once. I do love this course in its entirety but while most the authors are just hinting at the twilight on the idols of the modern age— Nietzsche is philosophizing with a hammer.

Maddness in the Darkness

Question: is madness innate or is it brought out through the environment? How does Kurtz’s fall into madness reveal a symptom of “civilization”?

Conrad’s Heart

The use of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the great books canon creates two polar impulses: canons stink and greatness overcomes limitations.  The novella does some interesting work, but as Chinua Achebe has pointed out in “An Image of Africa,” published in Hopes and Impediments, the work remains clouded in the painful colonial enterprise and concludes that Conrad is “a bloody racist.”  In this way, the great books program forces us to read a text that for practical purposes has moved away from a critique of colonialism to the condemnation of Conrad’s inherited racism.  If any text in the great books canon reveals how arbitrary canons can be, it is this one. In a post-colonial world, would we be better off to let this one piece of literature disappear?

Given that students encounter this text at the end of their curriculum, I am convinced that they are capable of understanding the flaws, racism and paternalism, present in the novella.  Remembering Achebe’s critique to read carefully, Conrad’s context matters for understanding the piece.  And on this score, I am more than grateful for the great books pedagogy, which allows us to escape the long history of how the text has been read in a post-colonial world.  In this way, Conrad’s reshaping and ambiguous use of light and darkness reveals as much about how he saw the colonial enterprise once he lived it.  We are often capable of dealing with life in the abstract but abandon the principle in the contact with reality.  As Dostoevsky’s Ivan notes, we can like humanity in general while still despising individuals in particular.  The idea of bringing civilization (light) to the uncivilized (the dark continent) found ample expression in European and American intellectual and missionary life.  Evil resides in the “Other” in this framework.

Here is where Conrad’s work reveals how uncomfortable he had come to see the work of Christianizing the “dark” places on earth.  The near universal rejection of Heart by English audiences reveals the power of his indictment.  Although the Belgium Congo was the target of the novella, England’s own role, and by extension Europe, in “subduing” the earth showed how easy it was to believe in the effort of “improving” a group of people.  In this way, the text reminds us that we may play a role in harming others while trying to make them better.  At the end of a curriculum where progress and enlightenment appear to be the trajectory of learning, Heart of Darkness fits comfortably as a reminder of how wrong we can be.  The true benefit of the canon will be realized when we heed Achebe’s warning that Conrad should be read with a dampened enthusiasm, and alongside Things Fall Apart.

Mendel’s Peas

I am always struck by Gregor Mendel’s claim in the introduction to his paper on the pea experiments that the only way to know something is through extensive testing and statistical analysis of the data.

his appears, however, to be the only right way by which we can finally reach the solution of a question the importance of which cannot be overestimated in connection with the history of the evolution of organic forms. (2)

The importance of the claim was validated during the twentieth century as science correctly replaced “revelation” as the source of evidence in scientific claims.  In this way, Mendel appears far more problematic for a faith in creation as divinely ordered than anything Darwin published, which I have purposefully overstated here.  In this way, Dostoevsky’s engagement with western philosophical thought of the nineteenth century, which anticipated the challenge coming to the life of faith and tried to answer that challenge, was woefully unprepared for the more important challenge that science would pose.

Gregor Mendel

By the time students reach this course, they have either encountered Mendel in their high school biology course or, at Mercer with our above 50% pre-health track, they have taken both the introduction to biology and likely an advanced genetics class. Mendel’s inclusion in the Mercer list of “great books” allows the students to see how an example of science in the nineteenth century had begun the move to rigorous scientific methodology and a willingness to follow the findings wherever they may lead.

Mendel, an Augustinian monk – like Martin Luther – whose scientific interests were broad, performed a multi-year study of pea plants within the confines of the monastery. Monks generally have tasks they are required to perform within the monastic life for the proper functioning of the monastery. In most cases, the task is aligned with the monk’s interests. In this case, Mendel the naturalist is also a monk. Given the time, space, and resources, he sets out to understand how traits within plants – here specifically – peas move from one generation to another. Farmers had for generations worked at genetics. Hardy plant or livestock traits that produced the results the farmer needed were utilized in the next cycle, and as best as possible, weaker traits were removed.  In the now famous 3 to 1 framework, Mendel “discovered” that dominant traits are important but that recessive traits can be “passed” through generations (inherited) until those traits appear in the right set of circumstances. The longterm study revealed through detailed documentation and statistical analysis that creation, at least in peas, was anything but ordered and fixed. Though Mendel is contemporary with Darwin, his work fell into that wonderful academic category of interesting but not groundbreaking.  The “father of genetics” was almost forgotten.  The paper can be daunting in both its level of detail and its its now highly mediated reception. The scientific challenge to faith claims that dominated the nineteenth century, however, is the equal to Darwin’s work.

Nietzsche & Dostoevsky

Referring to Nietzsche’s “Maxims and Arrows” and attempting to build a bridge for discussion with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “Maxim 11” states that, “Can an ass be tragic?  – To be crushed by a burden one can neither bear nor throw off? . . . The case of the philosopher” (33).  Dostoevsky has Dmitri direct a jab at Rakitin’s western sophistication, “The brothers Karamazovs are not scoundrels, but philosophers, because all real Russians are philosophers, and you even though you’ve studied are not a philosopher, you’re a stinking churl” (588).

Can an ass be tragic?   To perish under a burden one can neither bear nor throw off?  Which of the Karamazov brothers is tragic?  How does Smerdyakov fit in the discussion?

A Place to Engage Ideas

I have created this blog for the course Great Books 407. The class is the last in a seven course sequence for Mercer University’s undergraduate General Education program. We read texts from Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov to Camus’s The Stranger. Covering science, social science, and fine arts along the way, the course moves students into the twentieth century and the uncertainty of a world filled with facts and categories. The existential questions become more pronounced, but the ways different authors handle those questions give us insight into how humans adapt and reshape their contexts.

We will use this blog for discussion that moves beyond the classroom and, in my optimistic moments, may even include conversations with former students who have found the texts helpful or enlightening for their lives beyond Mercer.