(Note: A version of this post originally appeared at The American Reporter and The Smirking Chimp in 2005)
In the summer of 2004, my wife found a couple of banana boxes of books at the Newfane Flea Market. She thought I might be interested in them, and bought them for $5.
What she found was a nearly complete set of the 51-volume Harvard Classics (Vol. 16, “The Thousand and One Nights,” was missing). This was the literary bargain of the century.
Like most Americans, I'd never been a reader of the classics save for what was indifferently taught in high school — the worst time for introducing great thoughts. Even now, with a lot more education and life experience, this material is not light reading by any stretch.
What does a collection of literature assembled a century ago have to teach us? In an age where the word "liberal" has been transformed into an epithet, where facts are subject to debate and reason is frowned upon, the Five Foot Shelf stands as a reminder of what is missing from today's public life.
The Harvard Classics were assembled in the first decade of the 20th Century by Dr. Charles W. Eliot, who president of Harvard University for four decades. It represents what he believed was a well-rounded library and the cream of a liberal education.
Dr. Eliot defined a liberal education as something that "accomplishes two objects. It produces a liberal frame of mind and it makes the studious and reflective recipient acquainted with the stream of the world's thought and feeling, and with the infinitely varied products of the human imagination."
The Harvard Classics - a series that went on to sell more than 350,000 sets - were put together in a time when people still read books for entertainment and enlightenment. It was a time before mass communications, before the primacy of popular culture, before any of the trappings of modern society were even glimmers in the eyes of Dr. Eliot's contemporaries. Motion pictures were still in their infancy, as was what was then known as wireless telegraphy - today's radio. Television was a distant dream and the Internet, video games, DVDs and shopping malls were far in the future.
What Dr. Eliot selected would have been slightly daunting even to the well-read person of 1909. But it was his belief that it would "afford a good substitute for a liberal education to anyone who would read them with devotion, even if he could spare but fifteen minutes a day for reading."
It would be easy to write off the Harvard Classics as merely an assemblage of writings by "dead white males." And there are many selections that fit Mark Twain's oft-quoted definition of a classic book: "something that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read."
There's a full volume of Milton, way too much English poetry and Elizabethan-era drama and many other works and authors that have earned their modern day obscurity. But there is also Plutarch, Plato, Cicero, Mill, Burke, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire, Pascal, Machiavelli, Descartes, Darwin, Newton, Bacon, Hobbes, Emerson and Adam Smith.
While, as to be expected from Victorian-era Harvard, there is a heavy dose of Protestant Christianity in the series, it also includes Confucius and writings from the Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic faiths -- a mini-course in comparative religious before the term was even invented.
And, also to be expected from Victorian-era Harvard, there is not a female author in the series. That is not the only glaring omission. There's no Marx, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard or Freud. There's too much Mill and not enough Locke and Hobbes. We get the Odyssey but not the Iliad.
We get the complete poems of Milton and Burns, but only a little bit of Chaucer. We get Dana's "Two Years Before the Mast" but not Melville's "Moby Dick."
But one can see where this can lead. The literary choices of 1909 are not the ones of 2009. In considering the other literary lights of the 19th Century that were ignored, as well as those of the 20th Century that was aborning, one would be tempted to add more Thoreau and have less Emerson, or cut back on some of the English dramatic obscurities in favor of Ibsen, Strindberg or Chekhov, or find room for Joyce, Kafka, Woolf, Austen, Yeats, Faulkner, Fitzgerald or Frost.
It makes a great parlor game, but misses the real point of the Harvard Classics. Taken as whole, the main theme of the series is human progress and faith in what Dr. Eliot called "the upward tendency of the human race."
He believed in the power of education and hoped that the Harvard Classics would endure "as an active force toward the sound mental equipment of American reading people." Two world wars, multiple dictators and genocides and one split atom later, it may seem difficult in light of the events of the century that has passed since the Harvard Classics were assembled to still believe in human progress. But we have to, because the alternative is self-destruction.
The idea of reading for self-improvement and enlightenment seems hopelessly quaint. We are hung up on the now and rush faster into the future with precious little or no knowledge of the past. Henry Ford's dismissal of history as "bunk" seems to be the national mantra and anti-intellectualism has always had a substantial following in America.
However, it is important to develop a nation of readers and critical thinkers. Certainly, our present educational system is designed to discourage critical thought, and interest in serious reading is at an all-time low among Americans. But a nation without readers is a nation that is less-informed, less politically and socially active and less independent-minded. It is also a nation that has no sense of the past.
Read Machiavelli, and you understand the Bush administration. Read Darwin, and you see how utterly wrong the creationists are. Read Plutarch and you understand that political intrigue is nothing new. Read Rousseau, Locke and Voltaire and you see why our founding fathers rejected the notion of America as a Christian theocracy. Read the sweep of human thought from Plato and Homer to Emerson and Mill, and you will ultimately end up with a better understanding of what is going around us and see how little new there is under the sun.
While moron chic and anti-intellectualism remain the prevailing fashion, I believe education is the salvation of democracy. There's no better way to fight the forces of ignorance than by arming oneself with intelligence. Today, you can easily find the Harvard Classics in used bookstores and on eBay and all 50 volumes are available in digital form online ( http://www.bartleby.com/hc ). Even if one reads for the 15 minutes a day that Dr. Eliot prescribed, the Harvard Classics, imperfect as they are, is as good a starting point as any toward gaining a true liberal education.