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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An Easy Way To “Get Out The Vote”

With primary season coming up soon, figuring out how to make an impact. While volunteering for a campaign or some other larger commitment is a great thing to do, you may only be interested in something smaller.

So here’s what anyone can do to to help get out the vote: call up a bunch of people you know who live nearby on election day and ask them: “Have you voted?” and if they haven’t, ask them if they could use a ride or any assistance while they go and vote. The key here is to make it so that person has no excuse for not voting.

That’s a really simple thing to do, but the sad thing is, very few people bother to do it. Every vote helps on election day, and you can help ensure people you know turn out to vote.

Now, there’s obviously some good practice to be used here. You should try and focus on people who are likely to go and vote for your preferred candidates, but obviously don’t make it a prerequisite if someone asks for your help.

In primaries in particular, giving people rides or doing favors for them on election day can do more than mobilize your candidate’s existing base. In a primary, people don’t really know who they should be voting for or why, and they will probably ask you your thoughts. You’ll have a chance to pitch your guy and hopefully that will earn a vote, as much out of gratitude as convincing. Again, it’s not something worth getting belligerent about.

Of course, this can be expanded more widely by targeting organizations likely to have a large majority of voters who lean your way. This gives you more opportunities to help and get out the vote, and can certainly be pitched as non-partisan.

Harvard Classics, Volume 23, Two Years Before the Mast

Of all of the volumes of the Harvard Classics I have read thusfar, Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, Jr is probably the most obscure, but also one of the most entertaining reads in the collection. Being written by an American for a general audience less than two hundred years ago certainly helps to make Two Years Before the Mast very readable today.

The book is a memoir of the author’s two year voyage from Boston to California and back in the early 1830s. The author was a student at Harvard and had an eye condition which made him decide to take a leave of absence from college to do something completely different. The author, after his return, went on to become a prominent lawyer of his era, serving as an US Attorney, among other things.

While the book is generally very easy to read, one word of caution is that it does not pull any punches when it comes to sailing lingo. This wasn’t an issue for me because I grew up sailing a few days a week, but the use of terms could be difficult to someone who doesn’t immediately know what a halyard is.

The main action of the book takes the author aboard a brig called the Pilgrim from Boston, around Cape Horn and to California. The Pilgrim then goes up and down the coast collecting cow hides and depositing them back in San Diego. Eventually, the author is placed in a land job, curing the hides for the journey to Boston. He then trades places with a crewman on another boat, the Alert, as they engage in the same collection of hides. Lucky for the author, the Pilgrim’s voyage had been extended a year, and so by traveling on the Alert, he returned to Boston on schedule. Both ships and the hide-curing house were owned by the same company, which enabled his transfer between these jobs, although not without some drama.

The author’s description of life aboard a humble merchant vessel is a very good primary source for the era, just on the cusp of steam-driven ships becoming popular. His depictions of the arbitrary abuse of power by captains, and the way merchant houses, thousands of miles from legal recourse, took advantage of seamen wound up in major reforms.

The other aspect to the text, the descriptions of California in the 1830s make it a critical primary historical source for the region as well as the best account of the region when the gold rush got underway a little over a decade after his return.

In addition to the historical value, the book is a worthwhile read for its depictions of the human condition in many small ways throughout the journey. Whether isolated on a ship or at a wedding reception, or with people from numerous countries, Two Years Before the Mast gives an account of the common human element.

An interesting thing about the text is the narrator is that while he is from classical Pilgrim stock, an educated reform Christian constantly concerned with the justice given to others and a desire to reform and improve the existing order, he is also someone extremely proud and confident in his people and their culture. On more than one occasion, Dana remarks at how amazingly California would be transformed with American or English colonialism rather than the Criollioes, Castizos and Mestizos that made up the population at the time.

Dana was certainly proven right on this point when he writes about his return to California twenty-four years later. Following the gold rush and much development, California was growing and thriving, with new industry and development.

This book was very popular in its day and the people described in it took a sense of pride at having been a part of it, but it’s relevance has faded with time. For those of you interested in sailing and historical America, it is a first rate book. However, it is not a book of particular artistic merit, nor does is it depict anything of particular historical importance. Two Years Before the Mast is ultimately the story of a sometimes dangerous, often monotonous, and always laborious voyage to a backwater at the far end of the Earth. What makes the memoir stand out is the drama to be found in what was starting to become mundane.

With the end of Two Years Before the Mast, is the end to a long string of volumes dedicated to narrative works. The next two volumes focus on Burke, Carlyle and Mill will finish up the first half of the Harvard Classics and begin marked shift towards compilations of shorter works (The Voyage of the Beagle and The Autobiography of Beneventuo Cellini being the exceptions).

Harvard Classics, Volume 22, The Odyssey

Some of the volumes in the Harvard Classics are such obvious texts to include that there really isn’t much to say about them. The Odyssey is one of the most important texts in human history, and it is worth reading repeatedly.

This was my second time reading The Odyssey, but it was still very worthwhile to have read again. The scenes, emotions and characters are integral parts of how Western man understands himself. Odysseus is both physically and mentally far above the other men that surround him by the story. Tempered by twenty years of hardship and strife, Odysseus is a very different sort of hero than is typical of storytelling today, and that’s what makes The Odyssey stand out so much. Odysseus’ triumph, the infiltration of Troy in the wooden horse, is well in the past. The adventures of Odysseus are recounted in The Odyssey as an extended flashback, but only make up about a quarter of the narrative.

At its core The Odyssey is about a great man struggling through the part of a hero’s journey that is usually portrayed as easy and triumphant. Events home in Ithaca didn’t stay static for twenty years while Odysseus was off adventuring, and a new generation of men rose with the expectation of influence and power. Odysseus’ journey ends with him sneaking into his own kingdom, plotting to get inside his own home, and slaughtering the countrymen that have wronged him in his absence by living off his estate and trying to marry his wife. This resolution immediately threatens to stir up a civil war before Zeus intercedes to close the door on the conflicts first stirred up with Helen’s abduction.

Odysseus doesn’t get a triumphal return. His wife, his son, his father, his dog, Athena, and a few old servants are even happy about his return, while everyone else had moved on with what they presumed was a new status quo.

The Odyssey truly is one of the most important works in our literary canon and it is also one of the most accessible works with numerous high quality translations. This is one that I not only recommend you read, but it is one you must read.

The next volume of the Harvard Classics continues the nautical theme with Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr, an account of his voyage as a sailor aboard a trading vessel. Following Dana are some of Burke’s more famous works, then a selection of works from John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle. From there is a collection of Spanish, French and German drama and a two-volume collection of English and American essays.

At this point, the Harvard Classics includes very few remaining ancient or medieval sources. The main focus for the rest of the Harvard Classics is the Western European tradition from 1500-1850. I’m not sure whether this will increase or decrease the rate at which I’ve been working through the volumes. At my current pace of about one volume every three weeks, I should finish in about 18 months.

Harvard Classics, Volume 21: I Promessi Sposi

The most recent volume of the Harvard Classics is the only modern fiction novel included in the set of 50 volumes. While there is a whole set of 20 volumes dubbed the “Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction”, I Promessi Sposi’s inclusion in the original set points to its significance and quality. Alessandro Mazoni’s 1827 work comes in second to Dante as the most important work in the Italian canon, and for good reason. I Promessi Sposi is a masterful historical fiction novel that blends the personal conflicts of lower class Milanese with the backdrop of war, pestilence and famine.

I Promessi Sposi starts with a simple personal conflict. Late at night, a local clergyman is accosted by ruffians, warning him of the dire consequences should he perform the wedding of the two protagonists. This conflict, however, eventually leads to a pageant of personal struggle for both protagonists as they separate and find themselves in a series of ever-escalating predicaments.

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Harvard Classics, Volume 20: The Divine Comedy

Usually in these posts I talk about a work, and how it fits into the Western canon, but with Dante that is a little bit different. The Divine Comedy is doesn’t just fit into the Western canon, it defines a large portion of it. Compared to other volumes, I spent significantly more time working through Dante and getting everything I could out of it. A short blog post certainly does not suffice to do more than to hopefully encourage further study by the reader.

The Divine Comedy was written in the early 14th century, and is the most important literary work of a whole millennia of our civilization. The Divine Comedy marks the beginning of an explosion in literature. The world Dante describes is still the Medieval one, with a highly structured and hierarchical universe where things tie together in a way that seems almost allegorical today.

Unless you’re taking a dedicated course in the book, most college courses cover a selection of the 100 Cantos that make up the Divine Comedy. Even though I found the whole experience very valuable, I can understand why colleges run their courses this way. The moments when Dante is transcendent are truly something special. But those instances do not occur in every Canto and as far as I can tell, my own assessment of which Cantos were the most interesting agreed with collegiate opinion.

The Divine Comedy is split into three main components, the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Inferno usually gets the most attention because it is the least interested in theology, and the descriptions of people who do not eventually make it to heaven, especially those near the boundary, are some of the most interesting parts of the book. The common thread that runs through all three books is Love. In Inferno we see the result of putting other emotions ahead of Love. In Purgatorio, people are struggling with misplaced love. At the end of the Paradiso, Dante sees that the source of energy behind the whole of creation is Love. The object of Dante’s love, driving him forward is Beatrice. Dante longs after Beatrice through most of the books until she arrives to help him ascend into heaven, where she is with him almost to Dante’s final meeting with the Trinity.

It really is a silly exercise to try and talk about the depth, beauty and poetry of the Divine Comedy in a limited post. All I can really do is agree with the consensus that it is a sublime work that can be appreciated by from a single reading, but can also occupy the careers of scholars.

But now, with the Divine Comedy finished, we’ve reached a turning point in the Harvard Classics. From here on out, most of the readings are more modern, and there are fewer epic tomes known to everyone who goes to college. The big exception is the Odyssey, which is Volume 22. Before we get there, I’ll be reading the Italian novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed).

Harvard Classics, Volume 19: Goethe & Marlowe

This volume of the Harvard Classics was dedicated to Napoleonic-era German poet, dramatist, novelist, scientist, and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In addition to three works by Goethe, Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan drama “Dr. Faustus” is included as both reference and an important work of English drama.

Beginning with Marlowe, “Dr. Faustus” is the greatest play of its era not written by Shakespeare. “Dr. Faustus” tells the story of a German scholar who, seeking arcane knowledge, makes a pact with the devil for the services of Mephistopheles. The deal is Mephistopheles will serve Faustus throughout the remainder of his life, at which point Faustus’ soul will belong to the devil. The action of the play consists of Faustus’ search for knowledge, his pact with the devil, and his subsequent fall. In between are humorous scenes, possibly added after the fact, with the Pope and the Emperor. Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” is a great piece of drama, but Goethe surpasses it entirely.

Goethe’s take on the Faust legend is a bit different. In this one, Faust strikes a better bargain with the devil. In this case, the Faust’s soul is contingent on Mephistopheles being able to satisfy Faust’s quest for knowledge. The Harvard Classics only includes Part 1 of Faust, which is powerful enough on its own. While the devil brings Faust to a series of pleasurable encounters, the second half of the story is dominated by Faust and his lust for the maiden Gretchen. The main object of Goethe’s Faust is the depiction of the modern soul. Faust strives for knowledge and the sublime, but can never be satisfied in his quest for either of them. Spengler uses this characterization to describe modern society as a whole. This focus on the emerging modern man in the wake of the Enlightenment and the beginning of the Romantic era makes the verse relevant to today. The issues Goethe grapples with in Faust are issues we still have with us today.

In addition to Faust, another Goethe play, Egmont, was included in this collection. Count Egmont was a noble in the Spanish Netherlands whose execution was a flashpoint that started the Eighty Years War, which resulted in Dutch independence. The play outlines the last days of Egmont’s life, and the tumults going on in the Netherlands. Ultimately, this play casts Egmont as an early progenitor of Goethe’s ideal of national self-determination and liberty. The most famous part of Egmont however, is not the play itself. The score for the play was written by Beethoven, and the overture does a better job describing the play than my measly paragraph ever could.

The final work of Goethe in this volume was Hermann and Dorothea. A simple love story, beautifully written in verse, and set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars make it an engaging work of literature.

Next up on the docket is Dante’s Divine Comedy, followed by Il Promessi Sposi, The Odyssey, and Two Years Before the Mast to round up a long stretch of narrative-driven works.