Harvard Classics, Volume 7: Augustine & Kempis

I promised when I finished Gibbon’s Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, that I’d be dedicating more time to working on the Harvard Classics. However, when faced with this volume, I decided that I needed to read the Gospels before undertaking two very important works of Christianity. I would have preferred to have read the whole New Testament, and I will with time, but I needed a better base to interact with these works. Much of these texts is lost on a reader who doesn’t have some appreciation for the Gospels and Scripture as a whole. As I had never deliberately read the whole of any of the Gospels, I was well served having the necessary context to understand these works and catch most of the allusions they made to scripture.

Augustine’s Confessions was the first work in this volume and I found it one of the most insightful things I’ve read in a long time. It probably helps that I see reflections of myself in Augustine, our life trajectories are roughly matched up until his conversion and so even though it was 1600 years old, I found it easy to connect with and understand. This work dealt with not only Augustine’s life and the things he had done wrong, it dealt with how and what converted him to Christianity. It is an important thing to consider, as Augustine was familiar with Christianity, well-educated and belonged to a sect known as the Manicheans. It was through Plato & the Epistles of Paul that Augustine found his way to Christianity. The work covers his birth through his conversion.

The other work that was included in this volume is The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis. It was written by a German monk and was a very popular spiritual work. Something Imitation shares with Confessions is that much of the text is devoted to exhorting and praising God. This takes a little getting used to as it is both important but yet superfluous. It is superfluous because, strictly speaking, the exhortations don’t present or advance the argument being made. These are important however, because they help to describe the relationship between the author and God and how their mind grapples with the Almighty.

The Imitation of Christ is broken into four parts. The first book helps direct the actions of your life to better live a devout life. Of all the parts, this is the most useful and relevant to a modern reader seeking a better life. The second book focuses inward and concerns the orienting yourself towards God. The third book is a dialogue between the author and Christ about the nature of spirituality and becoming increasingly more dedicated to spiritual life. The fourth book concerns the daily practice of religion.

The most difficult thing with The Imitation of Christ is the author and audience are monks, and this leaves many issues unaddressed and makes many of the suggestions moot or uninteresting above a scholarly level.

These two works were very worthwhile reads and helped greatly contribute to my spiritual growth, both through their own words and by getting me to read and grapple with scripture more than I ever had before.

The next sets of works will probably not have such an impact on me. The next volume is Nine Greek Dramas, including: Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers, The Furies, Prometheus Bound, Oedipus, Antigone, Hippolytus, the Bacchae and finally the Frogs. I plan on watching performances of as many of these as possible as this tends to be a much better way for me to understand and take in a play. One of the advantages of today versus when the Harvard Classics were put together, is that any sufficiently famous historical play is widely available on YouTube.

After Nine Greek Dramas will come “The Letters and Treatises of Cicero & Pliny”, “The Wealth of Nations”, “The Origin of Species” & Plutarch’s Lives

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