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.