Harvard Classics, Volume 36: Early 16th Century Writing

The works this time around: The Prince, by Machiavelli, Utopia by Sir Thomas More, and the three big works by Martin Luther were all written in the 1510’s by their respective authors. As far as I can tell, this is the only unifying theme. The works on their own are, however, all very important works in the creation of the modern world.

The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli hardly needs much introduction. It is the first work of what we would call political science since the classical era. The book lays out Machiavelli’s famously pragmatic, practical, and amoral approach to political survival in a period of upheaval in Italian politics. Italy at the time was divided, with Habsburg controlled Naples in the South, the Papal states in the center of Italy, the Florentines, Milanese, Venetians and other small sovereignties fighting amongst each other in the North, with France trying to muscle its way into the scene. Il Promessi Sposi, which depicts the Holy Roman Empire and France duking it out across the Duchy of Milan takes place about 100 years after The Prince was written.

One interesting thing I found in The Prince is that Machiavelli suggests the use of colonizing new people, loyal to the prince, in a newly acquired province, as a way to cement control of the region. It certainly harkens to today’s immigration policies.

Before moving on to Utopia, Thomas More’s biography, as written by his son-in-law was presented since it is by far the best primary source we have for More’s life, and every biography, vingette and portrayal of Thomas More is based on this biography. It is, understandably, very flattering, but it does a good job of relating the details of More’s life. The most consequential events of More’s life come at the end of it, when he refuses to accept Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. His display of piety and conviction in this time have earned him a sainthood in the Catholic Church, eventually being executed for his faithfulness to the Catholic church.

More’s biography, however, serves as a prelude to his most famous work, Utopia. The term utopia is, in fact, coined from this work. The word itself is based on Greek, meaning “no-place”. More certainly understood that his ideal commonwealth was fantasy, and not a prescription for real-life. His big assumption is that everyone would just work hard and contribute to the commons because they were so virtuous. That, of course, is a defining feature of utopian dreaming.

There were two bits that really struck me as particularly interesting. The first was the nature of warfare conducted by the Utopians. While More gives clear definitions of just wars that the Utopians participate in, he also describes their methods of warfare, and they are quite brutal. Even though enemy citizens who have no choice but to oppose the Utopians in battle are spared as far as is possible given the nature of warfare at the time and its effect on agriculture, the people who resist them are brutally slaughtered. A far cry from the catch-and-release warfare that defined Froissart’s Chronicles.

The other interesting thing was the religion of the Utopians. Utopia has religious diversity, and is unacquainted with Christianity until the first Europeans appear. At this point, Christianity gains a foothold, but exists alongside other faiths. More presents all religions as getting at some universal truth, and in this way he presents the Utopian religion as proto-Unitarian. What makes this so interesting is not just the Thomas More is early to the party when it comes to post-Enlightenment religious thinking, but that this view so starkly contrasts with his Catholicism. In Utopia, the religious situation in an ideal society is one where everyone believes what they think is correct. This is a very odd stance for someone who became a religious martyr to take.

An important tenet of Christian belief is that salvation requires, at the very least, a belief in Christ as the source of salvation. (Aside: We’re about to get much more into this issue). It strikes me as odd that someone who laid down their life for a particular interpretation of Christianity would say that the ideal society would have a wide divergence in beliefs. What kind of ideal society, after all, lets masses of people suffer eternal damnation?

Now that we’ve broached the issue of Christian theology, it is time to talk about Martin Luther. This reading comes at an interesting time, given the controversy surrounding the Catholic church in the United States at the moment. Of course it is also important to note my own biases in this case, as a Protestant, I’m generally going to be sympathetic to Luther’s views because even though I had never read them before, they certainly comport with why I don’t plan on joining the Catholic church anytime soon.

The works of Luther that are included are the big three that kicked off the Protestant reformation. The first are the Ninety-Five Theses. These are Luther’s list of complaints about the sale of indulgences within the Catholic church. He kept his criticism tepid compared with later works, but his objections come from a desire to see the religious life of Europe more closely align with the Gospel, and the notion of buying your way out of repentance goes against the idea. Moreover, selling indulgences on the behalf of the deceased seems ludicrous, because once a person is dead, they aren’t under the Pope’s authority anymore. Anyways, given the events of the Counter-Reformation, these issues were eventually rectified by the Catholic Church, at least in the main. But by then, the world had started spinning and Luther’s list of grievances grew into irreconcilable differences.

In the three years between Martin Luther nailing the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the monastery, Luther continued to write and develop his theology that broke with what he saw as innovations away from the way Christianity was practiced, and the way Christianity was supposed to be practiced according to scripture. In Letter to the Christian Nobility, Martin Luther lays out his greater set of complaints about the Catholic church. What he lays out as the extra-Biblical additions of the Catholic church strike true, although in other places he correctly points out that these additions are not, in and of themselves, bad things, but Luther argues that some of them have had the effect of driving people away from proper belief. This work constitutes a strong indictment and calls for a total re-working of the Catholic church. For this, and for refusing a summons to Rome (probably a smart move given the treatment of Jan Huss), Luther was excommunicated.

The final work by Luther was a work of straight theology called Concerning Christian Liberty. The main theological idea to rise out of this is the Protestant notion that salvation is achieved by faith alone. Christian liberty, according to Luther is a freedom from ceremony, structures that enable Christianity as well as freedom from the Mosaic laws. Conversely, while he is on Earth, the Christian is obligated to live their life in the service of others, to use the opportunity that has been given to them to do good works. Critically, however, the performance of works is inconsequential, in Luther’s eyes, to Christian salvation. Luther argues that someone who has faith in Christ will naturally go out and do good works as a part of their belief.

This argument is an important one theologically, and a serious point of contention between Protestants and Catholics, but ultimately, the same three factors are in play: faith, good works, and salvation. The difference is which are causes and which are effects. The Catholic places good works as a cause for salvation along with faith, while the Protestant sees faith alone as the cause of both salvation and good works. A big point Luther makes is that works done without faith can’t be considered good works, because they are necessarily done for personal glory, rather than God’s. Since faith is therefore a pre-requisite for good works, it cannot fall as a pre-condition to salvation. I won’t bother with scriptural references here because ultimately, both sides can present passages which seem to favor their side, and I’m not prepared to step into arguing theological points which do not have a strong consensus.

With all of that said, this was a very impactful volume of the Harvard Classics. All of the works are incredibly influential even today in their various fields. From here, there is a volume of Enlightenment-era English writers, followed by a volume on medicine, prologues, and then the English poetry collection. I have been working on the poetry in spare moments, in order to prevent myself from trying to dive through a huge survey of 700+ poems in a couple of months. Things are starting to get close to the finish line. At my average pace of 37 volumes (I’ve read volume 50 already) in two years, I have about nine months left to finish the collection. At the pace of the past year (26 volumes), I have about six months left. Either way, there’s still quite a bit left.

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.