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).

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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.

Harvard Classics 28, 29 & 30

It has been awhile since I last did a post on the Harvard Classics, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy reading the past 7 weeks.

I continued my reading of essays from English and American sources, this time with a focus on 19th century writing. This second collection was inferior to the first, in my mind. That’s mostly because the second collection of essays was much more contemporary and hadn’t stood the test of time. The Harvard Classics were compiled closer in time to all of these writings than the Harvard Classics are to today. Some things just didn’t hold up well with age. The essay by Thoreau was interesting, but generally the Yankee Unitarian slant of the American authors kept them from feeling relevant. The English authors were repeating on themes that have been done better elsewhere, or are simply out of date. The essay on poetry by Edgar Allen Poe stood out from the endless stream of essays on poetry I’ve read because it made brevity a key aspect of the ability to define a whole poem, ie it should be digestible in a single sitting.

Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle is really more interesting for learning about various far flung lands than for the biology it contains. The book starts off slowly because it is so focused on the biological aspects of things. The problem is this kind of writing, describing strange critters to a popular audience, has been entirely overtaken by the nature documentary. A picture is worth a thousand words, and so Darwin’s long descriptions of the Amazon just aren’t all that interesting. The next area he goes, La Plata, is so like the California from Two Years Before the Mast, that it feels redundant. Fortunately, by the time Darwin gets to the Tierra del Feugo, there are new interesting socieities for him to describe, and he spends much less time going over the uninteresting flora and fauna of the area. They go up the coast through Chile before arriving in the Galapagos.

His description of the Galapagos Islands are the most culturally important bits as it was this visit that would lead Darwin to the theory of evolution. It is again very biologically focused, but it works much better this time than in the Amazon. They complete a circumnavigation by going to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Mauritus, and St. Helena. These all have distinct and interesting societies that are worth reading.

Finally, the last volume in this group was a collection of scientific lectures. This was certainly a tough volume to read, but thankfully a short one. The science that was included was at a mid-to-late 19th century layman’s level. Even though giants like Faraday and Helmholtz are giving the lectures, the material is very accessible. For someone like me, who has a STEM degree, accessible versions of Faraday is a step down from what I’m used to. I don’t think I learned anything genuinely new and useful from the lectures, but there are lots of good experiements and demonstrations described.

Some of the later papers describe the cutting edge of astronomical and geological science. These are interesting purely to see how far we’ve come, since both lectures pre-date the notion of multiple galaxies or plate tectonics. So while the content isn’t relevant anymore, they’re worth reading if you have an interest on the history of science.

So those three volumes are now mercifully finished, and it’s time to look forward to the final 20 volumes. Lucky for me, I’ve read the lecture series as I’ve gone along, so I only have 19 volumes to go. Since I’ve read 22 volumes in the past year, it looks like I’ll be finishing the Harvard Classics before too long. The next three volumes are: The Autobiography of Benventuo Cellini, the last single-work volume, followed by continental essays, and various travel writings. From there we have: the Enlightenment Part 1, Elizabethan literature, Renaissance/Reformation writings, and the Enlightenment part 2. Following those are important medical texts, prefaces and prologues, the gigantic set of English language poetry, American historical documents, religious writings from around the world, two volumes of Elizabethan drama, the works of Pascal, and finally, the Germanic sagas. It should be quite the ride.

Harvard Classics, Volume 27: Essays from Sidney to Macaulay

In this volume of the Harvard Classics, 24 essays were presented spanning the Elizabethan to Victorian eras in Britain. The range of topics included fanciful speculation, biographies, criticism and philosophy. As expected, the various essays ranged from ones that piqued my interest and I really enjoyed, and a few I couldn’t get through fast enough.

Here are my favorites:

Sidney’s Defense of Poesy has a self-explanatory title and it was enjoyable, if a bit archaic, that did a good job of laying out the usefulness of fiction and the metaphorical. His defense is masterful because it lays bare the necessity for these types of works and the precedent set in scripture for poetry and stories.

Jonathan Swift’s essays “A Hint Towards An Essay on Conversation” and “A Treatise of Good Manners and Good Breeding” mock the literary and social conventions of the day. As always with Swift, the satire easily applies over centuries of time and is highly relatable to today.

David Hume’s “Of The Standard of Taste” discusses the ways in which develop our preferences and tastes. Its a bit different from other aesthetic philosophy I’ve read which made it interesting.

My two favorites were the final two essays. The first, Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry”  echoes Sir Phillip Sidney’s work but amplifies it with Shelley’s characteristic flowery prose and intense imagery.

The final essay, Macaulay’s critique of Machiavelli does a great job of diving into Italian history as well as Mediterranean history as a whole and showing how the society that developed in Italy created the circumstances which Machiavelli articulated in The Prince.

That’s all I’ve got to say on the essays. There’s plenty to each one, but the tough part about reading so many is that the impressions you are getting are haphazard and only a few sink in deeply. Looking ahead, there’s another volume of essays to go before moving on to Darwin.

Harvard Classics, Volume 26: Continental Drama

This volume of the Harvard Classics is a set of six plays from Spain, France and Germany. These span the time period from the 17th to Early 19th centuries.

The first play in this collection is Barca’s Life is a Dream, in which a Polish king imprisons his newborn son over an ill prophecy. The play starts with the King and old man, and his son a young adult. The King, facing a succession crisis, decides to invite his son to the palace and see how he’ll act. The son immediately begins a course for a tyrannical rule, trying to seize his father’s throne and to execute all of those responsible for his inprisonment. The Prince is subdued and taken back to his border prison cell where he is convinced the whole interlude in the palace was a dream. When a foreign army arrives to install the Prince on his father’s throne, the Prince, thinking it is perhaps another dream, takes up arms, seizes the throne but ends up being merciful because of his experience in the “dream”. This play speaks to the degree to which the past is a parable by which we orient our future actions. It also speaks to how the same set of events can have different impacts on us if they are fact or fiction.

The next play was the first of three French plays, Polyeucte by Corneille. This play stays very true to the Aristotlean conception of the ideal drama. The action of the play is the tumult surrounding the conversion of Saint Polyeuctus during the persecution of Christians under Decius. There’s tension between Polyeucte and his father-in-law, the local governor. Polyeucte’s wife, Pauline is split between devotion to her husband, the affections of a Roman general and loyalty to her father. In the end, Polyeucte receives the death of a martyr but his example moves the hearts of the pagans, who embrace Christ.

The second French play is a reinterpretation of Euripide’s play Hippolytus, called Phaedra, written by Racine. This play shifted the details of the myth compared to Euripide’s version, which appeared earlier in the Harvard Classics. The play was still very much over-dramatic for my tastes, but I enjoyed this version more than the first. The central conflict lies between an elderly Theseus, his bastard son, Hippolytus and Theseus’ young wife Phaedra. Phaedra falls in love with Hippolytus, Theseus appears to die, Phaedra pursues Hippolytus, but when Theseus returns, Phaedra claims she had been seduced, and Theseus puts his son to death. Phaedra then tells Theseus her lie and commits suicide.

Moving on from the high drama of Phaedra, the final of the French plays is Moliere’s classic Tartuffe. This is one of the classic comedy of manners, poking fun at the foibles of upper class French society, which provides an endless source of material. The titular character plays himself off as a pious beggar and the master of a French manor, as well as the dowager, fall under his spell and help him get on his feet and defer to him on every occasion. Eventually, the daughter of the house is promised to Tartuffe in marriage. This causes such outrage, that the other members of the house plan to ensnare Tartuffe into making a pass at the wife of his benefactor. Tartuffe dutifully attempts to seduce her, but when accused, Tartuffe uses reverse psychology to convince his benefactor that he had done no wrong. Embarrassed, Orgon, the master of the house and Tartuffe’s benefactor, gives Tartuffe all of his legal possessions and the deed to his estate. When Tartuffe makes another pass at Orgon’s wife, Orgon is hiding under a table in the room and throws Tartuffe out of his house. Tartuffe sends the police to extract Orgon and his family from the house that rightfully now belongs to Tartuffe, but the intercession of the King sets things right in the end.

The fifth play in this collection is another comedy, Minna Van Barnhelm, by Lessig, the first of two German works. This play tells a story of two lovers who met during the Seven Years War who are reunited. They both still love each other, but the former Major is now destitute, disgraced, and crippled and so he refused to go forward with their betrothal. A back and forth continues when news reaches Minna that the Major is about to be wealthy and respected once again, she hides this from him and instead pretends to be destitute and disgraced herself. The Major rejoices at her sorry state, because he feels comfortable in marrying her, however the tables are turned when the Major finds out that he has been restored to his former position following a dispute with the government. Minna chides him before ending the ruse and they get married, both with high status and plenty of money.

The final play is the most epic in scope and length, Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell. The legend of William Tell, forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head, who then took revenge on the Imperial viceregent who had forced him to do it, is weaved into the story of Swiss independence. Written at the height of Napoleon’s reign, the play aligns itself with the political struggles of the day and praises the German and Anglo-American type of freedom over the French version. This freedom is the freedom to set your own destiny, to be ruled lightly and locally, and to live and die by your own skill. The play is showcases a love of nature and simple life, and merges these themes well with the ideals of the Swiss Confederation. This play was very reminiscent of Goethe’s Egmont in theme and tenor. No surprise given that Goethe both directed the first production and gave the initial idea to Schiller.

This volume marks the last bit of proper literature for some time in the Harvard Classics. Philosophy, science, history and essays will make up the next 13 volumes, with the exception of a selection from Sir Thomas Malory. The next two volumes are a collection of English and American essays covering writers starting in the Elizabethan era, and finishing with an essay on Lincoln’s final two years. This is followed by Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and a collection of important scientific papers.

Harvard Classics, Volume 25 – John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle

This volume of the Harvard Classics included two of the most important English thinkers of the 19th century, John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle. These two authors strongly contrast each other, with Mill defining classical liberalism and starting the modern liberal tradition, and Carlyle representing a defense of the pre-ideological order. The trouble with Mill and Carlyle is that, even though they were writing 150 years ago, their conflict is one that still echoes through till today, and I am decidedly aligned with Carlyle and have am a-priori distaste for Mill’s philosophy.

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Harvard Classics, Volume 24, Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke was an 18th century English politician who is credited as the founder of conservative politics. The big reason he got to be the father of conservatism is because he was part of the first generation of people to observe ideology first hand, and his opposition to revolutionary politics and defense of an order carefully cultivated over many generations sets him apart from many of the men of his age who remain famous to this day.

Many of his writings have been ordered and this Harvard Classics volume focuses on four works in particular. Two works are aesthetic philosophy and two concern contemporary politics. The first, a short treatise called On Taste, investigates the meaning of taste, how it is cultivated and the difference between good and bad taste. His conclusion is that taste is honed by experience, familiarity, and practice. As a whole, the piece felt extremely dated because many of his discussions on art not only contradict the modern art movements, but also the preceding romantic movement. The trouble is a good framework should provide insight not just to the past but into the future, and I struggled to see how Burke would incorporate luminaries such as Monet and Van Gogh into his theory. Jackson Pollack, of course, would be right out.

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