Review of The Harvard Classics, Volume 1

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve set out to tackle the Harvard Classics. These are what the President of Harvard at the turn of the 20th Century determined was the core of western thought. The goal was to create a set of works which, if read, would give the reader a solid liberal education, measured by turn of the 20th century standards.

One might be concerned that I am using Harvard’s recommendations. After all, Harvard is, according to neo-reactionary theory, the root of modern ills. But back then, universities were still concerned about making their students as knowledgeable as possible. So while it might not be a reactionary set, it certainly doesn’t push anything near a progressive agenda.

Don’t take my word for it, read their lecture on US History. Not only will you be much better informed about US history, you will see what a narrative of American history devoid of progressive input looks like. It is a noticeable difference versus everything you’ve seen before.

Volume One of the Harvard Classics is devoted to first hand accounts of life in Colonial America. The ones included are: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Journal of John Woolman and Fruits of Solitude by William Penn.

Benjamin Franklin needs no introduction. His autobiography covers up until 1757, during his first stint as the Pennsylvania Assembly’s representative in Europe. The Autobiography does a great job of covering his life in sufficient detail without getting bogged down. He does a great job of describing life in the colonies. He writes as if his reader may be in a foreign land or time. That makes the text quite timeless.

Being Ben Franklin, the text wouldn’t be complete without some life tips. He has plenty of them, some of them that are still relevant today. There is an extended section on his self-improvement method, which is worth the read.

The crazy thing about someone like Ben Franklin, is the more you learn about him, the more accomplishments there seem to be. He used his social popularity to start many of the city services of Philadelphia by assembling volunteers. He even commanded a militia regiment in the French & Indian War, though they didn’t fight.

Franklin was very well traveled, making regular trips to Boston, New York and various parts of Pennsylvania. He makes two trips to England during the autobiography and offers a look at life there as well. Franklin also seems to have a way of meeting up with powerful people wherever he goes. When he travels to Europe, he socializes with people who remain well-known to this day. One of his big life regrets is that his friend never introduced him to Newton during his first stint in London.

All and all, Ben Franklin’s autobiography will give you lots of insight into the social and economic situation of Colonial America. It also provides life advice which has stood the test of two centuries.

The Journal of John Woolman is a very different sort of work. While Franklin wrote exclusively after the events depicted, the Journal was just that, his recaps of the events from recent months.

Unlike Franklin, Woolman was an extremely devout religious man and Quaker. His writing oozes with spirituality that is usually reserved for the work of early Church Fathers. At every crossroads, he reflects on his religion and seeks God’s aid. The introduction to the book goes out of its way to point out to the reader the impact Woolman had in Colonial America, as he was too humble to communicate the changes he made within the Quaker community.

Those changes were very significant. He convinced many Quakers to give up slavery in some shape or form. Some of the ways he did that were very interesting because he tailored his message to the person he was convincing. He was careful to avoid disparaging his audience and was able to convince many to release their slaves based on the possibility of future mistreatment, rather than calling the slave holders themselves sinful.

The most interesting parts of the journal, for me, were towards the end. When he travels in America, he hardly comments on the passing scene. He doesn’t describe the places he goes or much of how things work. You don’t learn too much about colonial America. However, when he traveled to an Indian village and to England, he described his surroundings in detail. This also included his passage across the sea.

Two more additional points proved interesting in the Journal. First, you can see the intellectual beginnings of the modern progressive movement. There are times when Woolman’s language could come straight from a modern college professor. It is jarring because it usually serves as a departure from someone who’s philosophy on life centers around seeking rightness for oneself and convincing others to join in, but occasionally he talks about it in striking terms.

The other point is interesting on a purely personal level. At some point within the book, Woolman meets with a relative of mine. I found that incredible and it was really exciting. It is pretty cool to have kin that played a small part in a piece of Western canon.

The final work in Volume 1 are William Penn’s The Fruits of Solitude and More Fruits of Solitude. This work is basically spiritual advice for his fellow Quakers. It consists of a long list of proverbs, organized by theme. They describe the proper way to live one’s life.

The most interesting thing about this work isn’t so much the advice Penn gives, it is either vague or applicable to its time period, but the philosophy espoused within. Penn’s philosophy contains the roots of modern day progressivism. The main difference is that it is constrained by faith and by a focus on self.

In the high trust, low time preference society of Friends, (similar to the Amish and Mennonite communities today), this kind of thinking works well. People make money and give their excess freely to those in their community who need it. Spiritual devotion and community values keep people from taking advantage of this type of society. Eliminate those constraints, but try to institute that system via government, and you’ve got the progressives of today.

Looking back through a modern lens, William Penn would seem to provide justification for the left to act as it does. However, I think it is pretty plain to see that small, tight-knit communities are a pre-requisite for the kind of society Penn pushes for.

I think it is easy to see, however, from Woolman and Penn, how the modern progressive movement has roots in extreme Protestantism. Moreover, these works provide valuable insight into the philosophical underpinnings of large parts of early America.

I personally loved Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, I really struggled to get through Woolman until the end, and Penn was quick but dull. Gaining the wisdom contained in the latter two books is better found by reading the Gospels then by their interpretation.

I’ll return next time to review Volume 2, covering Greco-Roman philosophy covering Plato, Epicetus and Marcus Aurelius.

1 thought on “Review of The Harvard Classics, Volume 1”

  1. It’s great to come across others who are reading this collection; I have been working my way through for about a year now. Excellent insight on seeing modern progressivism in Woolman and Penn; I’d like to go through them again with that in mind.

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