Harvard Classics, Volume 3: Essays by Milton

Volume 3 of the Harvard Classics was short and narrowly focused. It contained the text of a pamphlet written by John Milton on free press and a letter he wrote on education. [Edit: 12/22/2016, the edition I had ommitted 2/3 of the volume. Works by Francis Bacon and Thomas Browne were included as well. I’ve added an update at the end.]

The pamphlet on free press is set in the backdrop of the First English Civil War in 1643.(Aside: any time you see the First … War, you know you’re dealing with a complex history). The Long Parliament, now waging war against the King, had passed a law requiring all printed work to be licensed.

Milton urged Parliament to drop this idea by pointing out how tough it was to implement, that it would drive ideas underground, and that it was against the spirit of the Reformation. Milton conceded the need for government censure of libelous, defamatory, blasphemous and heretical works when they were found and signaled against anonymous speech. All and all, it is an argument that we hardly need to make in America, however it does bring to mind the discussion of “fake news” and forces trying to gain a stranglehold on the flow of information.

The second essay details a schedule of education for a young man. Academically, the goal is to give the student easy to read Greek and Latin works that also have relatively simple subject matter and increase difficulty over time. This is supplemented with religious education in the evenings. Other languages are added to the mix as necessary.

Most interesting is that half of the student’s time is to be dedicated to physical and martial prowess. Fencing, horseback riding, camping, tactics and strategy form a critical component of the nobleman’s education.

That’s all there is for Volume 3 of the Harvard Classics. Volume 4 promises to be both extremely long and difficult. It includes the full poems of Milton along with Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.

[Update 12/22/2016 starts here]

After writing this previous section, I realized the Kindle version of the Harvard Classics was messed up and I missed two authors and their essays.

The first author was Francis Bacon who was a prominent Englishman during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. The two works of his were a collection of essays and a work of speculative fiction, The New Atlantis. The main value I found in the essays were the discussions of the mundane elements of life for the English nobility. Bacon discusses things like the proper location and building of a manor house and all of the concerns that go with it. With the advent of central air conditioning and heating, this is largely irrelevant, but showcases the sorts of mundane considerations a Stuart era English noble would have had. His more traditional moral philosophy doesn’t strike me as anything special, but is nevertheless a solid discussion of many of life’s situations and emotions.

Bacon’s story, The New Atlantis, is something of a 17th century sci-fi story. Set on an imaginary island in the South Pacfic, Bacon encounters an advanced civilization. While this is mostly an excuse to talk about his own utopian vision, it exposes many things about Bacon’s worldview that would otherwise go unmentioned.

The final essayist, Sir Thomas Browne, writes about the intersection of religion with rational thought in Religio Medici. This is a thoughtful piece on how to handle the parts of the Bible that don’t make logical sense and things which recent events, like the discovery of America, were uprooting. This work is thus still relevant today.

All and all, English Essays was an eclectic assortment of topics which provided great insight into 17th century England. I will be moving through the next volume, Milton’s poetry, more slowly as I catch up on other reading over the holidays.

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