Harvard Classics, Volume 40: English Poetry, From Chaucer to Gray

Well I’ve gotten to the most daunting part of the Harvard Classics, a 1400 page collection of English Poetry. I’ll be splitting my commentary between each of the three parts, so as to best remember the content and to avoid trying to cram it all into a single wall of text sometime next year.

This collection starts in the 14th Century with Chaucer and ends in the mid-1700’s. The selections from Canturbury Tales, the Prologue and the Nun’s Priest Tale, are basically what I would have picked myself to be representative of the whole work.

Following Chaucer is a set of traditional ballads, including the original Robin Hood stories. Altogether these early works share a few traits in common. First, the language is rough because it is all in non-standardized middle English. The number of archaic words aren’t too much to bear, but the sheer amount of archaic spellings make understanding difficult. Reading these out loud definitely made it easier, because the pronunciations are close enough to modern English to work through, and the spellings tend to spontaneously grant the reader an old-timey English accent. These poems tended to be stories of various sorts.

As time moves forward, the spelling becomes easier and easier, the actual language becomes more and more complicated, and the themes tend to drift from stories to poems about love and death. There’s still some room for religious and heroic works as well.

Eventually the collection gets to Shakespeare, with about 50 of his poems, mostly from the sonnets. All the famous ones are in there, and they are characteristically head and shoulders above his contemporaries in terms of quality.

The general trends of poems love and death continue until you get to the works of John Dryden in the late 17th century. I suppose the English Civil War has a profound impact on the character of the poetry, because takes a turn towards a fuller range of subjects and a notable increase in both technical and emotional quality.

Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man is included in full and is a great poem full of interesting insights on the human condition. I highly suggest reading it.

Throughout the whole collection, one thing that struck me is that the particularly famous authors: Geoffery Chaucer, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Donne, John Dryden, Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray very much do stand out from their contemporaries and very much earn their positions as great English poets.

Next up is the rest of this collection of poetry. The middle volume covers the mid-1700’s to the 1830’s or so. Recency bias on the part of the editors is certainly coming into play here, but so is the period that produced the most great English poetry. We will see which force wins out next time.



Harvard Classics 39: Prefaces and Prologues

This volume of the Harvard Classics was very reminiscent of the volumes of essays I read not too long ago. There are many works crammed together, so I’ll go over some general thoughts and highlights.

The types of works in these volumes fall into three categories: the “TL;DR” of a work, a commentary by the author or a commentary by a translator.

The volume starts off with prefaces to early translations of classical works into English by William Claxton. These are nice primers on a few classic works, but aren’t particularly memorable.

Calvin’s introduction to the Institutes is interesting to anyone curious about the origins of Reformed theology and the extremely short version of it’s major arguments. The big points are spiritual predestination and the view of sacraments as physical representations of spiritual events.

Copernicus’ introduction to his important work is interesting from a historical perspective, but it is not meant to be a literary work of great insight or to teach you what you don’t already know. The same goes for the preface to Newton’s Principa

Literary prefaces by John Know, Edmund Spenser, Sir Walter Raleigh, Henrie Condell, John Dryden, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Johnson are included, but having delayed writing this post, none of them particularly stood out to me, except that I was really impressed with Edmund Spenser’s writing.

Goethe, Wordsworth, Hugo, Whitman and Taine all have introductions from their own works. Despite the fact I really enjoyed other works by Goethe, this particular introduction didn’t send me. Wordsworth presents, in many fragmented parts, a useful theory of poetry, which is very useful considering my current reading. Hugo’s preface to Cromwell nicely laid out Hugo’s intentions with the book, and provided some insight into 19th century novel-writing.

This review was a short one, but unfortunately, this volume was just a bit too scattered and lackluster for anything to really hold my interest and sink in, aside from Calvin. Hopefully that won’t be the case with the next three volumes, the giant collection of English Poetry.

Harvard Classics, Volume 38: Historical Medicine

I admittedly plowed through this volume, and didn’t take time to savor it the way I do with many of the literary ones. This is mainly because the prime interest in these works isn’t their depth of insight, or teaching me new things about medicine I didn’t know before, it is in figuring out how things came to be.

One of the problems with the Harvard Classics, especially the scientific sections, is that it is very out of date and what they saw as new, groundbreaking findings, we think of as common sense. Vaccines, the contagiousness of disease, the importance of anti-septics, and germ theory are all relatively recent developments whose implications have become a matter of habit to modern man.

The volume starts with the Hippocratic Oath which is interesting mainly because of its fairly modern understanding of what a doctor should be as well as specific calls against assisted suicide and abortion.

The best part of this volume is Ambroise Paré’s Journeys in Diverse Places. Written as a way for Paré to defend himself against accusations of incompetence, this collection of stories is a first hand account of battlefield surgery from the Renaissance. The depictions of war, of medical care, and they types of injuries sustained, and the way people died are deeply moving, and do not paint a romantic image of conflict the way many contemporary sources do.

Next up was William Harvey’s papers describing the circulatory system. What he went through to understand that blood circulated through the body is quite extraordinary, and required the use of living (animal) subjects to figure out.

The common presumption was that blood stayed in one place and the pulse pushed air throughout the body. It is easy to see why people thought that when you consider anatomists were working on cadavers. They intuited that there was some connection between the heart and air because the heart is right between the lungs and the lungs are so dense with blood vessels.

Edward Jenner’s publications on the vaccination for smallpox were an edifying look into rural life in the 18th century as well as a demonstration of how one actually went about testing your medical theories in those days.

It had been known for centuries that once you had smallpox once, you’d never get it again. To that end, sometimes healthy people who were at low risk from dying of smallpox would purposefully infect themselves to gain immunity to protect them later in life. This was still sometimes fatal and could lead to permanent scarring.

Jenner’s discovery was that people who contracted cowpox were immune to smallpox. Cowpox isn’t pleasant, but it generally isn’t deadly, and done in a purposeful way, might just consist of a single pustule on the upper arm.

Jenner experimented with his technique, trying it on people of various ages, and waited until the next smallpox outbreak to see if anyone got it. He had inculcated over one thousand people, and none of them had gotten smallpox by the time he was writing.

Other people, wanting to test the idea, corroborated Jenner’s results on a large scale and began the modern era of vaccination.

Shifting over to the United States is a paper on The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. This would be the father of the Supreme Court justice you probably associate with the name. The elder Holmes is probably best known today for his poem: Old Ironsides, about the USS Constitution.

The main point of the paper is an important, but today obvious, insight. Puerperal fever, which is caused by uterine infection in the post-partum period, was killing huge numbers of women. Holmes figured out that the disease was contagious and carried from patient to patient by the doctor. They didn’t have enough medical knowledge at the time for Holmes to recommend that the doctor shut down his practice for a month if one of his patients got puerperal fever, but it turns out the solution is to sterilize your tools and wash your hands in-between patients.

The Antispetic Principle of the Practice of Surgery by Joseph Lister laid out findings and recommendations for surgeons to use various acids to clean out incisions and wounds in order to prevent infection. Seems like an obvious point today, but it was a big deal at the time.

The papers of Louis Pasteur covered two different topics. The first was his work on understanding fermentation. This is much closer to what we think of as a modern scientific work, so it is filled with hypotheses, tests, results, measurements, and discussions of criticisms. It is pretty dry but nevertheless important research, especially if you enjoy alcoholic beverages.

The second topic is germ theory, that idea that disease was caused by microscopic organisms. His examples are pretty gross. For instance, he took pus from different boils on the same person, cultured them separately and showed they had identical bacteria in them. Doing observations and experiments like this showed how diseases worked and helped bring about modern medicine.

The final work isn’t actually about medicine at all, but about geology and paleontology. Sir Charles Lyell wrote about the contemporary findings in geology, and how the big important conclusion you could draw from studying places all over the world was that geology is always in a state of flux. What is covered by water and what is land changes with time. Different epochs shape lands in different ways, but the constant thing is change. We’ve come a long way in our understanding since then, but we know on that count, Lyell was correct.

Harvard Classics, Volume 37: British Philosophy

This volume of the Harvard Classics was a bit of a slog, covering three extremely influential British philosophers: John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume. These three are giants of the Enlightenment, and so reading them was both elucidating, but something I found a bit tedious.

The work included to represent Locke was his Some Thoughts Concerning Education. This lays out his pedagogical positions starting from early childhood and working his way through late adolescence. The work also primarily concerns the private instruction of a student by a tutor, rather than in a classroom setting. His main recommendations were to use corporal punishment sparingly, focus on good health, and focus on useful subjects giving sufficient time to things commonly taught so the student didn’t look like an idiot when they grew up. Locke also wrote an extended section on bowel movements.

On most subjects, Locke was of a mind that students should learn enough not to embarrass themselves, but not to worry about things having a scholarly knowledge of Greek and Latin unless they intended to do scholarly work. In that era, however, Locke considered being able to read Latin as necessary, although he considered knowing all the finer points of grammar to be unnecessary. His big advice for learning Latin was to read the Gospels in that language, since these are works people should be familiar with prior to learning Latin anyways.

In George Berkeley’s Three Dialogues he lays out arguments against the skeptics and atheists of his age. I really dislike the dialogue format because the nature of the format makes it difficult to follow and breaks up ideas with competing arguments. The notion that Berkeley is trying to push ultimately is that, contrary to what Jung calls scientific materialism, ideas are what is real and everything else are projections of ideas. His case for the existence of God is that it becomes necessary for things to be constantly observed in order to exist, so God fulfills the role of universal observer.

Finally there is David Hume’s incredibly important work on epistemology, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. This work looks at the question of the extent that we can actually know things. He basically comes down on the side of you can know what you experience, and you can know solutions to abstract problems, and everything else has to be taken with a grain of salt depending on how well it fits what you already know.

I think Hume mostly gets things right when it comes to treating things with a healthy skepticism, but also acknowledging that being certain of something being false is just as hard as being certain that something is true. One of the things I thought would make this better is a dive into how the experience we have, and what information we choose to consume, has a large impact on what we believe. However, this is probably something that’s easier to see and work with in the information age.

In summary, none of these were life changing experiences, but they were important things to have read and to have grappled with. Next are a bunch of short works on medicine, followed by the big, multivolume set of English Poetry, American Historical Documents, Religious Writings, Elizabethan Drama, the works of Pascal, and finally Germanic Saga.

Harvard Classics, Volume 36: Early 16th Century Writing

The works this time around: The Prince, by Machiavelli, Utopia by Sir Thomas More, and the three big works by Martin Luther were all written in the 1510’s by their respective authors. As far as I can tell, this is the only unifying theme. The works on their own are, however, all very important works in the creation of the modern world.

The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli hardly needs much introduction. It is the first work of what we would call political science since the classical era. The book lays out Machiavelli’s famously pragmatic, practical, and amoral approach to political survival in a period of upheaval in Italian politics. Italy at the time was divided, with Habsburg controlled Naples in the South, the Papal states in the center of Italy, the Florentines, Milanese, Venetians and other small sovereignties fighting amongst each other in the North, with France trying to muscle its way into the scene. Il Promessi Sposi, which depicts the Holy Roman Empire and France duking it out across the Duchy of Milan takes place about 100 years after The Prince was written.

One interesting thing I found in The Prince is that Machiavelli suggests the use of colonizing new people, loyal to the prince, in a newly acquired province, as a way to cement control of the region. It certainly harkens to today’s immigration policies.

Before moving on to Utopia, Thomas More’s biography, as written by his son-in-law was presented since it is by far the best primary source we have for More’s life, and every biography, vingette and portrayal of Thomas More is based on this biography. It is, understandably, very flattering, but it does a good job of relating the details of More’s life. The most consequential events of More’s life come at the end of it, when he refuses to accept Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. His display of piety and conviction in this time have earned him a sainthood in the Catholic Church, eventually being executed for his faithfulness to the Catholic church.

More’s biography, however, serves as a prelude to his most famous work, Utopia. The term utopia is, in fact, coined from this work. The word itself is based on Greek, meaning “no-place”. More certainly understood that his ideal commonwealth was fantasy, and not a prescription for real-life. His big assumption is that everyone would just work hard and contribute to the commons because they were so virtuous. That, of course, is a defining feature of utopian dreaming.

There were two bits that really struck me as particularly interesting. The first was the nature of warfare conducted by the Utopians. While More gives clear definitions of just wars that the Utopians participate in, he also describes their methods of warfare, and they are quite brutal. Even though enemy citizens who have no choice but to oppose the Utopians in battle are spared as far as is possible given the nature of warfare at the time and its effect on agriculture, the people who resist them are brutally slaughtered. A far cry from the catch-and-release warfare that defined Froissart’s Chronicles.

The other interesting thing was the religion of the Utopians. Utopia has religious diversity, and is unacquainted with Christianity until the first Europeans appear. At this point, Christianity gains a foothold, but exists alongside other faiths. More presents all religions as getting at some universal truth, and in this way he presents the Utopian religion as proto-Unitarian. What makes this so interesting is not just the Thomas More is early to the party when it comes to post-Enlightenment religious thinking, but that this view so starkly contrasts with his Catholicism. In Utopia, the religious situation in an ideal society is one where everyone believes what they think is correct. This is a very odd stance for someone who became a religious martyr to take.

An important tenet of Christian belief is that salvation requires, at the very least, a belief in Christ as the source of salvation. (Aside: We’re about to get much more into this issue). It strikes me as odd that someone who laid down their life for a particular interpretation of Christianity would say that the ideal society would have a wide divergence in beliefs. What kind of ideal society, after all, lets masses of people suffer eternal damnation?

Now that we’ve broached the issue of Christian theology, it is time to talk about Martin Luther. This reading comes at an interesting time, given the controversy surrounding the Catholic church in the United States at the moment. Of course it is also important to note my own biases in this case, as a Protestant, I’m generally going to be sympathetic to Luther’s views because even though I had never read them before, they certainly comport with why I don’t plan on joining the Catholic church anytime soon.

The works of Luther that are included are the big three that kicked off the Protestant reformation. The first are the Ninety-Five Theses. These are Luther’s list of complaints about the sale of indulgences within the Catholic church. He kept his criticism tepid compared with later works, but his objections come from a desire to see the religious life of Europe more closely align with the Gospel, and the notion of buying your way out of repentance goes against the idea. Moreover, selling indulgences on the behalf of the deceased seems ludicrous, because once a person is dead, they aren’t under the Pope’s authority anymore. Anyways, given the events of the Counter-Reformation, these issues were eventually rectified by the Catholic Church, at least in the main. But by then, the world had started spinning and Luther’s list of grievances grew into irreconcilable differences.

In the three years between Martin Luther nailing the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the monastery, Luther continued to write and develop his theology that broke with what he saw as innovations away from the way Christianity was practiced, and the way Christianity was supposed to be practiced according to scripture. In Letter to the Christian Nobility, Martin Luther lays out his greater set of complaints about the Catholic church. What he lays out as the extra-Biblical additions of the Catholic church strike true, although in other places he correctly points out that these additions are not, in and of themselves, bad things, but Luther argues that some of them have had the effect of driving people away from proper belief. This work constitutes a strong indictment and calls for a total re-working of the Catholic church. For this, and for refusing a summons to Rome (probably a smart move given the treatment of Jan Huss), Luther was excommunicated.

The final work by Luther was a work of straight theology called Concerning Christian Liberty. The main theological idea to rise out of this is the Protestant notion that salvation is achieved by faith alone. Christian liberty, according to Luther is a freedom from ceremony, structures that enable Christianity as well as freedom from the Mosaic laws. Conversely, while he is on Earth, the Christian is obligated to live their life in the service of others, to use the opportunity that has been given to them to do good works. Critically, however, the performance of works is inconsequential, in Luther’s eyes, to Christian salvation. Luther argues that someone who has faith in Christ will naturally go out and do good works as a part of their belief.

This argument is an important one theologically, and a serious point of contention between Protestants and Catholics, but ultimately, the same three factors are in play: faith, good works, and salvation. The difference is which are causes and which are effects. The Catholic places good works as a cause for salvation along with faith, while the Protestant sees faith alone as the cause of both salvation and good works. A big point Luther makes is that works done without faith can’t be considered good works, because they are necessarily done for personal glory, rather than God’s. Since faith is therefore a pre-requisite for good works, it cannot fall as a pre-condition to salvation. I won’t bother with scriptural references here because ultimately, both sides can present passages which seem to favor their side, and I’m not prepared to step into arguing theological points which do not have a strong consensus.

With all of that said, this was a very impactful volume of the Harvard Classics. All of the works are incredibly influential even today in their various fields. From here, there is a volume of Enlightenment-era English writers, followed by a volume on medicine, prologues, and then the English poetry collection. I have been working on the poetry in spare moments, in order to prevent myself from trying to dive through a huge survey of 700+ poems in a couple of months. Things are starting to get close to the finish line. At my average pace of 37 volumes (I’ve read volume 50 already) in two years, I have about nine months left to finish the collection. At the pace of the past year (26 volumes), I have about six months left. Either way, there’s still quite a bit left.

Harvard Classics, Volume 35: Early English Prose

There were three partial works in this volume which covered some of the most important English prose pre-dating Shakespeare. All of these works are very long, and on their own would take up several volumes. So while all of them are important to understanding English culture, they are not so great as to push out other works.

The first partial work was a few excerpts from Jean Froissart’s Chronicles. This work is, in total, about a million words long, and is a contemporary history of the Hundred Years War. The particular events covered are two major battles in France, a border skirmish between the English and Scottish as well as a peasant revolt. These events all take place during the reign of Edward III and Richard II.

As a whole, these show how warfare worked in the late medieval period, and how knights and chivalry worked their way into the brutal business of war. The most interesting thing was the capture and ransom of enemy combatants. Noblemen, decked in armor usually weren’t going to be killed in a fight quickly, and so someone who knew they weren’t going to win would simply surrender. He’d be brought back to camp, agree to pay a ransom, and be let go in order to procure it. Everyone played by these rules, and it made war something of a sporting affair for the upper class.

This type of warfare also made decisive victory difficult. In the Battle of Poitiers, the English captured the French king. This wasn’t great news for France, but the country stayed intact and there was still a negotiated peace rather than an unconditional surrender of French forces. England ended up trading territory with France to consolidate its position, rather than placing Edward onto the French throne, even though the issue of French succession was the cause of the war.

The next partial work is one book out of 21 total from Thomas Malory’s Le Mort D’Arthur covering the quest for the Holy Grail. Malory’s work is the definitive source on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur is only a minor character in this portion, with Sir Galahad, Sir Lancelot, and other knights taking their turns in the spotlight.

It is a bit hard to tell what genre this belongs to, whether it is fantasy, historical fiction or some combination. A complicating factor is the tendency for Medieval authors to presume the world has always been like their own time, so it can be hard to place a time period when the setting is clearly medieval, but references make it seem like the world is only a few generations removed from the crucifixion of Christ.

The depth to which Christian themes are embedded in the story is a bit astounding to the modern reader. The fantastic elements exist squarely within an Christian framework and understanding.

An interesting note is that this portion of Le Mort D’Arthur is particularly influential to today for reasons that couldn’t be predicted when it was selected for inclusion in the Harvard Classics. This particular section contains source material for both Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The adventures of the knights seem to have served as the basis for at least a few scenes as well as some of the plot framing in Monty Python. Likewise, much of the lore surrounding the Holy Grail that is introduced in this book is utilized in Indiana Jones. That made the whole section a bit more fun to read, since I was able to connect it to other things.

Finally comes a portion of William Harrison’s A Description of Elizabethan England. These are basically just short essays describing different things about life in that particular time and place — cities and towns, religious life, types of dogs, what people ate, what people wore, etc. For someone inclined towards studying history, you couldn’t ask for a better primary source. The purpose of the writings was to be read by people unfamiliar with his country and come to understand it better. These are well done, thorough, mostly devoid of tangents and includes some humor regarding the times. All and all, it was a very good read.

As entertaining as this volume was, it is time to move on to works from the early 1500s from: Machiavelli, Sir Thomas More and Martin Luther.

Harvard Classics, Volume 34: Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Hobbes

In this volume of the Harvard Classics, I got a chance to read a smattering of 17th and 18th century philosophy, that is loosely organized as : “Big French names plus Thomas Hobbes”. With a set like this, you’re trying to fit as many important things as possible, and I guess this was a good way to squeeze Hobbes in rather than be forced to cut him.

Descartes’ Discourse on Method, is a biographical account of how Descartes got to where he was as a philosopher and how he developed his theories. The tough thing with Descartes is that he is a very important figure because of who he inspired, not because of his work itself. The big exception is that Descartes is the person who figured out you could represent algebraic functions as curves and vice-versa. Anyone who has made it through 8th grade can thank Descartes for the invention of the Cartesian coordinate system.

The work itself goes through Descartes’ education, which was both substantial and in line with the scholars of his day. He bounces around Europe being dissatisfied with what he had learned and felt full of doubt. The genesis of his philosophy was therefore to strip away everything where he held doubt and start from scratch, to with the foundational truth of: “I think, therefore I am.”

Voltaire’s Letters on the English present a description of various interesting parts of England, focusing on religion, government, and the arts. Voltaire takes on these topics with his characteristic wit and intelligence. He has a very good perspective on England as he lived there while exiled from France.

Moving on into deeper philosophy is Rosseau’s: On the Inequality of Man. This work, in my opinion, really doesn’t hold up all that well, not because of some fault of Rousseau as much as how our understanding of the world has changed since Rousseau’s day.

One of Rousseau’s fundamental assumptions is that humans, in a state of nature, are inherently peaceful with one another and everyone shares resources with each other. Today, especially in a post-Darwin world, we recognize that the state of nature is a state of competition and scarcity. We also recognize that behavior involving monopolizing access to resources, particularly in food and access to mates, is, in the words of Jordan Peterson: “older than trees”.

So Rousseau, who insists that heirarchies amongst men are unnatural and artificial, is undermined by modern biological understanding of very simple creatures as well as humans’ nearest animal relatives.

The second Rousseau work, a selection from his novel, Profession of Faith By A Savoyard Vicar, is, more-or-less the case for deism. In this work, a fictional clergyman explains his faith to the protagonist. Rousseau is basically right here that there’s only so far you can get with pure reason for justifying religion, and that the missing ingredient is revelation. Of course the problem is Rousseau rejects using anything but pure reason and settles for deism. Again, Rousseau’s reliance (and that of the when Enlightenment) of reason as the beginning and end of knowledge is an Achilleo heel.

The final work is the first half of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, “Of Man”. The whole purpose of this work was to build up an understanding of what it means to be a human and what that means. Contrary to Rousseau, Hobbes presumes that, stripped of society, humans are nasty brutes to each other. While somewhat better than Rousseau, because it acknowledges the competition for limited resources, it still falls a bit short because of the meaningful biological relationship between kin that exists even in a natural state.

Hobbes goes on to say that humans naturally exist in a state of war with each other, and that maximum liberty: doing what you want, whenever you want, means perpetual war. Humans enter into agreements with each other in order to create peace, one agreement at a time. In doing so, they surrender a bit of freedom for security and the ability to prosper to the larger whole. As time goes on, the entities in a perpetual state of war agglomerate into kingdoms, and the weilder of the surrendered liberty is sovreign.

Hobbes holds up surprisingly well given his early date (during the English Civil War), but ultimately his understanding and philosophy is superceded by the development of philosophy.

One of the big problems the Enlightenment philosophers, as a whole, have, is that the questions they chose to concern themselves have been subject to so much revision in our understanding. Ancient philosophers concerned themselves with what it means to live a good life, and these hold up exceptionally well because they stay relevant. However, a theory on how man came to form society has suffered a death by a million cuts from evolution, anthropology, and all sorts of other fields of study.

With that, we have another volume completed. Next up are late-Medieval writings, followed by two more volumes of philosophy, including: Machiavelli, Thomas More, Martin Luther, John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume. From there lies the home stretch covering a wide gamut of subjects: Medicine, Prefaces, Poetry (3 vols), primary sources of American History, Religion (2 vols), Elizabethan drama (2 vols), the works of Blaise Pascal, and finally Germanic Sagas.

Harvard Classics, Volume 33: Voyages and Travels

Well, I certainly blew threw this volume of the Harvard Classics. It was the perfect storm of free time and a subject I greatly enjoy.

Voyages and Travels covered two main topics: ancient descriptions of foreign cultures, and contemporary accounts of Elizabethan-era English exploration.

The first reading was Herodotus’ description of Egypt. The description was of Egypt in its final days as a nation ruled by the original native Egyptians and culture. In the time period Herodotus covers, Egypt is annexed by Persia. From here, Egypt is handed off to Greek, Roman, and Arab rule. In these last days, Egypt is a very ancient place, with very ancient customs, more ancient than any nation on Earth today. Egypt is a spent power that maintains its wealth and ability to feed far more than its own population. Everyone in Egypt is crowded around the Nile, and this creates a dynamic of stasis in society. Egyptian religion is explained through a Greek pagan context by Herodotus, but it nevertheless seems to be more modernized and syncretic with surrounding pagans than one might expect. It certainly doesn’t seem like either the Greeks or Egyptians considered their religions mutually exclusive.

Moving on from Egypt, there is also an account of Germany provided by the first century AD Roman historian Tacitus. The Germans are barbarous through and through. Their dress, their manners, their institutions and their ways all scream “barbaric” to the modern reader. Of course, if you’re European, there’s a good chance these people are your ancestors.

After these ancient accounts comes several writings about the career of Francis Drake. The first covers Drake’s privateering along the Spanish Main and his overwhelming success. His trip around the world is also highlighted, but I wish it had been longer and held more detail. The last piece on Drake covers the aftermath of the Spanish Armada where Drake leads an English fleet on a punitive campaign against the Spanish colonies in the West Indies that was ultimately unsuccessful. It is not hard to see through all of this why Drake is such an important figure in English history. These works largely add another piece of the puzzle, in addition to The Voyage of the Beagle and Two Years Before the Mast, on the nature of Spanish colonialism in the Americas.

After Drake, there are two more voyages covered, whose captains were half-brothers. Gilbert’s attempts at colonizing Newfoundland are covered, even if they ended up in failure. This proved interesting for its discussions of whether or not the East Coast was a place fit for Europeans to live. I think that answer has been decisive in the affirmative.

The final voyage was the exploration of Guiana by Sir Walter Raleigh, notable for his establishment of the Roanoke colony and introduction of tobacco to Europe. Raleigh, at the end of his life, had fallen out of favor and went on an expedition up the Orinoco river in search of El Dorado. In an insane case of confirmation bias, Raleigh claims to have actually proven the city of gold existed and was ripe for the taking. The aftermath of that journey was that the newly coronated King James sent Raleigh and an expeditionary force to take El Dorado. In the return trip, they attacked a Spanish outpost when they were forbidden to fight the Spanish, and then everyone realized there was no city of gold in the interior of Venezuela. As a result, Raleigh was hung. All of that doesn’t detract from the real-life Heart of Darkness of his adventure into parts unknown.

With the conclusion of the 33rd volume of the Harvard Classics comes three volumes of very well known Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment era philosophy, along with a volume of Medieval literature for good measure.

Harvard Classics, Volume 32: Literary and Philosophical Essays

I know we just got through reading two volumes of essays, but there was one more volume of essays left to work through, this time from Continental (French, German and Italian) authors.

Unlike the sprawling English language collections, the essays in this volume were particularly great. This is probably due to the wider field from which they were drawn and the reduced size of the collection (One volume versus two).

Continue reading “Harvard Classics, Volume 32: Literary and Philosophical Essays”

Harvard Classics Volume 31, The Autobiography of Benventuo Cellini

This volume of the Harvard Classics, the last volume which contains only a single work, is the autobiography of Florentine goldsmith, metal worker, sculpter, soldier, murderer, and philanderer Benventuo Cellini. It is a celebration of a life lived to its fullest through ups and downs, triumphs and imprisonments, and through all sorts of circumstances.

Let us get one thing out of the way very quickly with Cellini, his autobiography contains many morally objectionable things, some of which he is repentant for, others he acknowledges his wrong doing, but many others he tries and justify. This adds flavor to the book and makes it what it is, but I need to add that disclaimer up front.

Cellini starts the story of his life from the beginning and works his way up until the time he stopped writing, and the work ends rather abruptly. Cellini presents his own life in a quasi-mythological way, at least at first, before settling in to a memoir style.

Over the course of his life, Cellini was recognized as the greatest living goldsmith, and a great at other art forms as well. He was a peer of Michaelangelo, who appears throughout Cellini’s life. Over the course of the autobiography, two Popes, a King of France and a Duke of Florence become major characters as the patrons of Cellini’s work.

Cellini constantly seems to be on the move because someone has it out for him wherever he was, I lost track of the number of attempts on his life: whether by brigands, poison or the orders of a magistrate, that occurred throughout the biography.

It certainly isn’t hard to see how Cellini came to be so hated everywhere he went. Not only was he extremely talented and unwilling to be beholden to anyone but himself, he was arrogant, cruel and choleric to everyone he encountered, including Kings and Popes. To his credit, Cellini did manage to not anger the Holy Roman Emperor in their one meeting in Rome. Cellini didn’t just attract animosity due to his personality, his talent and ability to create personal attachment between himself and various sovereigns made him a target for court intrigue, especially those who were looking to supplant him as a favored artist with one of their own favorite artists.

The biggest value of the autobiography, however, is its value as a primary source for life in Italy and France during the Renaissance. In the moments between great action and drama, the little details of 16th century life seep through, whether it is about traveling, the relative prices of things, diets, medicine, the ways people socialized or the de facto legal system, there is so much of Renaissance life to be experienced through this autobiography.

Cellini’s autobiography is certainly a unique work for the position and personality of the author, as well as the ancillary information about life in his era. I was very glad to have had the opportunity to read this volume.

Looking ahead is a volume of essays by Continental writers, and a volume of stories of travels from all across history. From there we go to 18th century philosophy and Elizabethan literature.