Harvard Classics, Volume 15: Pilgrim’s Progress, Lives of Donne & Herbert

This volume of the Harvard Classics was dedicated to 17th century English religious writing. This is a period of great importance for British religious life, as a major axis in the conflicts that broke out in the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution were the religious friction between the Puritans, Anglicans, Catholics and Presbyterians.

Starting with the second author in this volume, Izaak Walton wrote short biographies of spiritual leaders and poets John Donne and George Herbert. These two men crossed paths in their own lives and were influential on the development of the Anglican Church coming in the century following the beginning of the English Reformation. Their life stories as presented by Walton are somewhat like Plutarch’s Lives in terms of length and pace. The main difference is the actual events of their lives were somewhat less exciting than the grand brushstrokes of history. Their lives are interesting as a window into the times, but overall I found myself wondering why they were included in the Harvard Classics. My main thought is they were progenitors of the theological movement that was still playing out in New England seminaries, like Harvard, at the time the Classics were assembled.

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Harvard Classics, Volume 14: Don Quixote

As the Harvard Classics transitions from the ancient to the merely old, Don Quixote stands out as a work of fiction that occupies a similar place as the Canterbury Tales, laying the foundations for modern fiction while being something quite different from it.

The first parts of Don Quixote are the most modern and the most famous. The ’tilting at windmills’ scene happens in the first bit of the book. The story of Don Quixote and his two knightly journeys spans the whole of the book, but an approximatly equal portion of the pages are dedicated to the stories of people they meet along the way.

The main purpose of the work is to satirize Spainish society in its various aspects. Don Quixote, most obviously, is a satire of the still-stereotypical medieval knight, going on adventures and protecting the innocent. That Don Quixote can only find adventure through his own imagination and that his chivalrous pretnesions immediately clash with everyone around him is the main focus of the story. One can’t help but place this in the cultural context of the era, in which Spain was 100 years removed from the end of the 800-year-long Reconquista. The clash of civilizations, the warring kingdoms and emirates and the general uncertainty that made the medieval knight the stuff of legends was over, and had been replaced with the Hapsburgs.

The other stories paint tales of the lives of Don Quixote’s contemporaries, including the upper class, city dwellers, goatherds, and slaves. Each story speaks to the humanity of people at all levels of society. Ironically, the lowest person has had the farthest flung and most daring adventure, participating in naval battles, visiting exotic places and escaping home.

As a part of any worthwhile discussion of a translated work, I should mention that I read the original English translation, only several years after the book was written. I’m not quite sure whether the old style of writing was balanced by the benefit of a contemporary translation. I think a more modern translation would have been more enjoyable to read, because Don Quixote is supposed to be a book where the story delivers the message, and not the minute qualities of each line.

Up next are some English novels that come a bit after Don Quixote: The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Life of Donne, and The Life of Herbert. Following these are Arabian Nights and the triumvirate of Western fabluists: Aesop, The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson.

Three YouTubers Who Embody The Values That Need To Make A Comeback

YouTube, despite its controversies over demonitization and censorship, is home to numerous people posting videos regularly about relatively mundane topics that don’t stray into politics and are free from controversy. For anyone with enough savvy to find interesting content, YouTube can entirely replace television outside the world of scripted drama.

While most professional-quality YouTubers represent the worst of modern society, I want to highlight three that I enjoy and that I believe highlight principles that need to make a comeback.

I’ve written before about David the Good, an extreme composter, gardener and homesteader who lives with his wife and children in the tropics. David’s channel combines humor, useful advice, and interesting knowledge. That’s enough to recommend the channel, but it is not what I want to praise the channel for right now.

David the Good and his channel focus primarily on his homestead and what he is growing there. His viewers get to witness the hard work and patience that it takes to make food and other goods for oneself. We don’t just see the reward at the end, we see the steps that go into it and we have to wait along with David to see how things turn out. That’s what I want to praise David for: showing people the value of hard work, persistence and patience.

One example that comes to mind was the saga with David and the chickens, which I’ll summarize here and link to a few of the videos that focus on them. One day David bought some chickens intending to produce his own free range eggs and poultry. This first required rehabilitating an old coop for the chickens to live in. Then, the chickens didn’t like living in it, and preferred perching in trees. As time went on, the hens didn’t lay eggs in the coop, which meant David and his family had to go looking for where they were. These led to David changing his management of the chickens and how they lived.

Eventually, David got some turkey eggs and some chicken eggs and he managed to get the hens to lay on them. A few weeks later, the chicken eggs hatched, but the turkey eggs never did. We got to see the chicks roam around the coop very cutely, only for them to get eaten by rats getting into the coop soon thereafter. Eventually, David sold off his chickens and ended his attempts at chicken farming for the time being.

The saga of the chickens was, all in all, an unremarkable story, played out over many videos released as they were happening, without a planned coherent narrative. It was a story that unfolded before us over, with the participants unsure of the final result. However unremarkable the story would be as the plot of a scripted drama, novel or “reality” TV show, the chicken saga showed some very real truths about work, patience and perseverance, as well as the fact that sometimes you have to admit failure and move on. Those are virtues I think we need to see more of and the kind of thing that plays out on many simultaneous strands on David’s videos.

The next YouTuber I’d like to talk about is a channel I’ve only just found but I am readily enjoying. The channel “Forgotten Weapons” follows around an expert in antique weapons as he teaches about, reviews and fires, a wide range of weaponry. The channel is extremely prolific and is both entertaining and informative.

What I’d like to praise about “Forgotten Weapons” is its dedication to expertise and education. On the second point, firearms are something of a mystery to people who aren’t familiar with them. They are capable of great violence very suddenly, and therefore quite intimidating. “Forgotten Weapons”, by carefully reviewing the mechanisms and features of all of these weapons lifts the veil of ignorance that surrounds then. I can’t help but watch the channel and learn more about a field I’m only slightly familiar with.

The dedication to expertise Ian demonstrates in every video on forgotten weapons is a testament to years of learning and continual effort to stay on top of the game. In a society that treats expertise as having a Wikipedia or first page on Google level of understanding, Ian’s deep knowledge shows us what true expertise is and how far apart from the casual observer it is.

The final YouTube channel and personality I’d like to praise is perhaps the one you anticipated when you read the title, “The Report of the Week”. The Report of the Week is the pseudonym of the host, and the name of the channel, which these days is primarily for episodes of “Running on Empty: Food Review”, a series of reviews of fast food dishes.

Colloquially known as “Reviewbrah”, the host stands out with his youth, northeastern accent, slicked hair and classic suits. Reviewbrah carefully and thoughtfully reviews several fast food products a week, focusing on the latest releases.

Besides his dry humor, and calm demeanor, I would like to praise Reviewbrah for his dedication to excellence and merit. When Reviewbrah reviews an item of fast food, he applies a well-honed technique for reviewing. First, he lays out the marketing pitch from the company, the broader context of the menu item, and his expectations. Next, Reviewbrah examines the food, noting it’s appearance and whatever interesting information he can glean before he tries the food. After several bites and a few moments of contemplation, Reviewbrah notes his immediate experience with the food before generalizing his thoughts for a wider audience and specifying what works, what doesn’t, and for marginal items, who will like it and who won’t. He finishes by using his experience to update the broader context he mentioned before and then concludes the review.

I don’t know if Reviewbrah is familiar with Aristotle, Burke or Goethe, but his process of reviewing, even for something as mundane as fast food, is an example for anyone who reviews consumer products and even people who review artistic work. Reviewbrah’s dedication to this level of technique shows a real concern for the search and identification of excellence that just does not rear its head very often among countless blogs, videos and podcasts.

These three channels illustrate principles that I find lacking today, which I believe are necessary for a rebirth of American greatness. Those principles are: achievement takes hard work and time, demonstrated expertise is something to learn from and aspire to, and that excellence is something worth searching for and celebrating. Make sure to check out all three.

Harvard Classics Volume 13: The Aeneid

Virgil’s Aeneid is billed as the great work of Latin literature. Composed during the reign of Augustus, the Aeneid tells the story of refugees from Troy, fleeing the city and led by Aeneas, Trojan prince and son of Venus, and their journey to carve out a new homeland on the banks of the Tiber. This is an incredibly powerful narrative of a people on the verge of destruction battling the elements, their weariness and enemy armies in their quest to make it to their new homeland.

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Harvard Classics Volume 12, Plutarch’s Lives

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives has been a staple of people reading the classics for hundreds of years. For many of the great enlightenment thinkers, it was their first exposure to Greek and Roman history and the works of antiquity. I hardily agree with the special place Plutarch has amongst the ancient histories, as evidenced by the short interval since my post last week on Darwin. Plutarch wrote biographies instead of a history, and this lends itself well to the student of antiquity. Understanding all the swirling events going on in Classical Athens, the Age of Alexander, or the Fall of the Roman Republic is extremely difficult, but following one figure at a time, learning about not just their accomplishments, but also their character, adds a touch of personality to what is often a dull subject. Continue reading “Harvard Classics Volume 12, Plutarch’s Lives”

Harvard Classics Volume 11: The Origin of Species

The inclusion of The Origin of Species in a collection like the Harvard Classics is an interesting one. The book was only about 50 years old at the time the collection was put together, and it is one of the most recent things in the whole of the classics. The passage of a century has vidicated its inclusion in the series.

Darwin wrote The Origin of Species as the culmination of decades of work. The theory of natural selection was so radical, and lacking in support from other theories around it, that the work had to be done in the finest of scientific fashions. I note the significance of theories that come later, because knowledge of plate tectonics and genetics would have made Darwin’s job much easier.

The work, as Darwin states, is one long argument. He first lays out the case that domesticated animals very clearly evolve due to the selection of humans. Then, Darwin discusses that the lines between species and varieties within a genus aren’t very well defined, so its not appropriate to think of a species as an immutable definition that doesn’t change based on circumstances. With these two premises asserted, he makes his main argument: that when animals are in a Malthusian state, natural selection will tend to adapt, evolve and create species.

The rest of the work focuses on Darwin’s counter arguments to criticism. Rather than spend the whole book discussing cases where natural selection fits nicely with available evidence, most of the book is spent looking at edge cases where evolution has a more difficult time. A well known instance of this criticism is the eye, and Darwin spends significant time looking at how an eye could have evolved through small, beneficial steps.

Darwin, as I mentioned before, is hindered by the contemporary knowledge of geology and biology. For instance, without plate tectonics, evolution has difficulty explaining how similar dinosaurs show up in America and Europe when the same present-day animals aren’t native to America and Europe. Darwin spends many pages discussing drifting and migration when present day geology answers the question easily.

The Origin of Species ultimately falls into a similar category as The Wealth of Nations. It is a victim of its own success and the revolutionary aspect of the work is lost a bit because the conclusions are so widely accepted today. The interesting parts of both of these works, for the modern reader, is in the meticulous research and examples provided, rather than the revolutionary hypotheses being presented.

With Darwin finished, the Harvard Classics is going to start moving into a long section of narrative works, a welcome change from the majority of volumes so far. The next volume is a selection of Plutarch’s Lives, perhaps my favorite ancient work, and I will be reading the Aeneid for the first time after that.

Harvard Classics Volume 10: The Wealth of Nations

The foundational tome in economics, The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith proved to be a worthwhile and interesting read for reasons the author didn’t intend. I’m going to get the one big complaint about this book right out of the way, if you’ve taken a course or even just an interest in economics, you have gotten the core message from The Wealth of Nations. In that sense, the book is a victim of its own success. Its ideas are embedded into discourse to this day, and the people who talk about economics in any serious way are familiar with his major points. To that extent, The Wealth of Nations is a book that would be extremely influential to a student in a great books program learning economics for the first time. It clearly states its ideas, and it gives mountains and mountains of evidence. There is so much in The Wealth of Nations, that the Harvard Classics uses an abridged version which cuts out much of the those mountains of evidence.
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Harvard Classics Volume 8: Nine Greek Dramas

Recently I finished Volume 8 of the Harvard Classics, which was nine ancient Greek dramas. Ancient Greek drama flourished over the course of two generations at the height of Classical Athens. It is really more appropriate to call it Athenian drama rather than Greek drama, as the most important playwrights all hailed from and performed in the great city.

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Thoughts on Clausewitz

Carl Von Clausewitz’s On War is widely considered the peak of books on military theory. That is certainly my take away after reading series of books that make up On War. Clausewitz is pre-eminently qualified to write a book like this. At the age of 12 he joined the war against Revolutionary France. His young adult life was spent in service in the Prussian army, and was one of the minds behind rebuilding the army in the wake of its dissolution by Napoleon. Thereafter, at the age of 30, he entered the service of the Russian army as Prussia, a subject of France at that time, was a part of the invading force. During the Waterloo campaign, Clausewitz served as chief of staff to the Prussian Third Corps. After the Napoleonic wars, he served as head of the Prussian War College.

 

However, Clausewitz died an untimely death due to cholera, and left behind an uncompleted work. Much of On War is made up of lists, summaries and outlines of the work that was to follow. The work that was clearly well-polished, like the book on Defense, stands out above the rest in its quality. 

Clausewitz’s mode of philosophy struck me as very inspired by contemporary trends in German philosophy. His book seeks an idealistic representation of war, describing it in its most abstract forms, and building from that starting point. This makes the book feel well organized and structured. One of the things Clausewitz lacked was the mathematical theory to describe some of the ideas he had on probability. He clearly is trying to make points about the Bayeseian nature of the various factors of war. Each factor influences probabilities, but nothing forms any certainties.

Clausewitz often finds himself pre-empting critics who will look to his general principles for understanding war and look for exceptions to try and prove him wrong. This is generally known as the “Not all X are like that” argument, which is supposed to contradict generalizations. As Clausewitz repeatedly points out, if you cannot make imperfect generalizations about the world, it is impossible to interpret it in any useful way. Just because one in ten times something doesn’t match a pattern doesn’t mean that one should ignore the fact that nine out of ten times it does match that pattern.

While Clausewitz is a brilliant writer who has many fine things to share, I think reading the book isn’t something people should undertake lightly or is particularly necessary to a well-rounded education. Clausewitz’s examples are almost always drawn from the Napoleonic Wars or the campaigns of Fredrick The Great. These are the sorts of things that I’m sure aspiring Prussian generals were quite familiar with, but to even a history buff like myself, I found myself constantly reference Infogalactic to read about the battles he draws his examples from.

Ultimately, I’m glad I read Clausewitz, and I fully understand why he is so revered, but unless you’re a serious military historian, theorist or aspiring combat leader, this is a work you could let pass.