Thursday, December 31, 2009

December 31: Curiousity and Interest as Guide to Reading (Vol. 25, pp. 364-374)

"Learn to be good readers ... be discriminate in your reading ... read faithfully, and with your best attention, all kinds of thing which you have a real interest in."

These words were spoken by Thomas Carlyle's in his 1866 inaugural address upon assuming the position of rector of Edinburgh University. It serves, in a way, as the inspiration for Dr. Eliot and the creation of the Harvard Classics.

More reading, and more books, are what Carlyle calls for, and to that, every educated person can agree. In reading is the salvation of the world, for only through books can the flame of civilization continue to burn brightly. In an age where ignorance is exulted, only an educated people can halt the spread of stupidity.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

December 30: Dana Meets a Tattooed Sailor (Vol. 23, pp. 77-86)

More from "Two Years Before The Mast" today, as our hero reaches Gold Rush-era California, circa 1850. Dana doesn't think much of Californians, calling them "an idle, thriftless people." He gets quite descriptive of the dress of women and his trip to Monterey. Dana comes off a bit haughty in this passage, as one might expect a Harvard man to be — the Boston Brahmin looking down his nose at the commoners.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

December 29: These Guests Overstayed Their Welcome (Vol. 22, pp. 296-309)

We get the climax of the "Odyssey" today, when our hero returns home after his long and arduous voyage to find his home filled with freeloaders and suitors trying to make Penelope. There is enough blood and gore in this passage to satisfy the action film constituency as Odysseus kills and kills and kills some more to cleanse his happy home of the hangers-on that moved in after he first left town.

Monday, December 28, 2009

December 28: Ho! for the Spanish Main (Vol. 33, pp. 229-240)

Darwin's voyage is contrasted sharply with today's tale of Sir Francis Drake and how, in 1485, he raided the Spanish gold and silver stores to swipe the precious metals the Spanish explorers swiped from the indigenous peoples of the New World.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

December 27: Million-Year-Old Islands (Vol. 29, pp. 376-389)

On this day in 1831, Charles Darwin and crew set sail on the Beagle. The most famous stop on their tour, the Galapagos Islands, is recounted in today's reading. Darwin's voyage was arguably the first example of exploration without pillage, and the data he gathered greatly informed his research on evolution and natural selection.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

December 26: Silence Cost Her a Kingdom (Vol. 46, pp. 288-300)

On this day in 1606, Shakespeare's "King Lear" had its premiere before Queen Elizabeth's court. In this sequence, Cordelia -- King Lear's dutiful daughter -- struggles with the lack of acknowledgment of her deep and abiding love for her father.

Friday, December 25, 2009

December 25: The Christmas Story (Vol. 44, pp. 357-360)

Saint Luke's version of the birth of Jesus is today's reading. His is the loveliest of the Gospel accounts of this day.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

December 24: Christmas Made a Dull Day (Vol. 35, pp. 266-270)

Today's essay from Holinshed's "Chronicles" reminds us that Christmas wasn't always the big celebration that we know and love today. In the Elizabethian era in England, Christmas was not a feast day. The Reformation eliminated that from the calendar, along with the rest of the Holy Days celebrated in the Catholic Church. It would be many years before Christmas was restored to its previous glory.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

December 23: Saved from a Bonfire of Books (Vol. 32, pp. 121-133)

Today's author, Charles Augustus Sainte-Beuve, was born this day in 1804. He apparently was a pioneer in the field of literary criticism, so he is well-equipped to take on today's question -- "What is a classic?"

His definition is as good as anyone's: "An author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in the heart -- where all seemed known and discovered; who has exposed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time."

Thus, Saint-Beuve writes, "Such a classic may for a moment have been revolutionary; it only lashed and subverted whatever prevented the restoration of the balance of order and beauty."

Of course, this definition infuses the whole of the Harvard Classics, and it would have been a surprise if the editors did not include this essay. Saint-Beuve name-checks all the great writers and in the end concludes that only through knowledge and development of taste can one appreciate the great writers.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

December 22: Rubbing Noses in New Zealand (Vol. 29, pp. 425-434)

More from Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle," this time with our hero and his crew hobnobbing with the natives during the yuletide. Compared to the authors of the previous days, Darwin is a model of clarity.

Monday, December 21, 2009

December 21: "Madam Bubble" Not to Be Discouraged (Vol. 15, pp. 306-318)

John Bunyan's "Pilgrims Progress" is called one of the most popular books in the English language by the editors of this series. This is only so if you prefer allegory written in King James-style English. You can really see the divide between old and new when reading stuff like this and see why Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner were necessary.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

December 20: Egypt Visited by the First Reporter (Vol. 33, pp. 7-17)

The editors of the Reading Guide compare Herodotus to a modern newspaper reporter. Not quite. The beauty of good newspaper writing is that it is made up of short, active sentences filled with strong nouns and verbs and just a touch of adjectives.

Herodotus' "An Account of Egypt" may be well reported, but like much of the writing in the Harvard Classics, it is verbose and convoluted. Maybe in another time, people wrote and spoke like that. But to modern sensibilities, most of what's in the Harvard Classics is impenetrable.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

December 19: Samson Finds a Champion (Vol. 4, pp. 444-459)

On this day in 1660, the blind and impoverished John Milton was released from prison. Today, he writes of another sightless giant -- Samson, who was blinded while a captive of the Philistines. Unfortnately, this is typical Milton -- long, windy and unreadable.

Friday, December 18, 2009

December 18: For a Gentleman (Vol. 37, pp. 136-145)

"Why do we need to learn Latin?" That's been the perennial question of schoolchildren for centuries. Locke's answer, from today's essay, "Some Thoughts Regarding Education," is that it is "absolutely necessary to a gentleman," especially grammar, because you have to master grammar to speak and write properly and you might as well learn from one of the sources of the English language.

Today, Latin has virtually disappeared from our schools. Considering how poorly English is taught, it's hard to see Latin as being essential when so many students are graduating from high school unable to read and write well.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

December 17: Dies on the Eve of Her Son's Conversion (Vol. 7, pp. 160-170)

St. Augustine again, this time telling of how fervently his mother prayed for his conversion and how she died on the eve of his acceptance of Catholicism at the age of 56. His over-the-top style does nothing for me.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

December 16: How Man's Courtship Differs from Animal's (Vol. 24, pp. 37-48)

More from Edmund Burke's "The Sublime and The Beautiful." Today, he writes of passion and love and the difference between "men and brutes" in the pursuit of love. Burke maintains that man's ability to appreciate beauty in all of its forms and his desire for companionship is the main difference.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

December 15: Odysseus Talks with Ghosts (Vol. 22, pp. 145-153)

Perhaps the better title for today's reading should have been "Odysseus Goes to Hell," as Homer's hero makes a side trip to the netherworld to talk with deceased heroes of ages past.

Monday, December 14, 2009

December 14: Pastoral Poems and Politics (Vol. 40, pp. 370-379)

The 17th century poet and essayist Andrew Marvell is featured today with a group of his poems. Nothing particularly striking about his work to these eyes.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

December 13: To the South Seas with the Gallant Drake (Vol. 33, pp. 199-208)

Sir Francis Drake departed for the South Seas on this day in 1577, so we get more heroic narrative from the so-called Golden Age of Exploration. Of course, the heroic part depends on who's telling the story. Since Sir Francis is telling the tale, he comes off much better.

While Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe and was acclaimed as the greatest seafarer of his age, any of these accounts viewed through modern eyes have to fully account for the realization that one man's "discovery" is another man's genocide in the making.

Of course, when the Harvard Classics were assembled, no one cared about the fate of the indigenous peoples who were "discovered." Historians have since corrected that oversight.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

December 12: How the Glorious News was Carried to Aix (Vol. 42, pp. 1066-1068)

Robert Browning died this day in 1889, so we get the poem telling how three riders began a heroic ride from Ghent to Aix, and how only one rider survived to tell the tale.

Friday, December 11, 2009

December 11: The Most Dashing Figure in Athens (Vol. 12, pp. 106-117)

Plutarch again, this time writing about a giant of Athenian society. The handsome, dashing Alcibiades was beloved by his contemporaries until an incident involving the defacement of statues and the mockery of the goddesses Ceres and Prosperine.

Condemned by the people who once revered him, he fled to Sparta and transformed himself from decadent high-living Athenian into a hard-core Spartan.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

December 10: Benvenuto Boasts of Gallantry (Vol. 31, pp. 62-72)

Cellini, the Commander McBragg of the Renaissance, checks in with a story from his autobiography about going after a soldier who made a pass at his woman.

Leaping from the window, knife in hand, he appears more like a swashbuckler than an artist -- or, at least, that's his side of the story.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

December 9: Slavery's Last Stand (Vol. 43, pp. 306-312)

Today we get an interesting document, "The Compromise of 1850," which admitted California into the Union as a free state, but allowed Texas to maintain slavery.

It is among the most craven acts ever passed by Congress, and putting it into this collection serves as a reminder that our public servants are rarely so.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

December 8: Dream Women Shaped His Destiny (Vol. 27, pp. 319-325)

Thomas de Quincy, yet another crazed British essayist, died this day in 1859. In today, "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow," he imagined three women were sent to him so that he might know the depths of his soul. Insane gibberish.

Monday, December 7, 2009

December 7: What Cicero Least Expected (Vol. 12, pp. 222-231)

On this day in 43 B.C., Cicero was killed by Mark Antony's soldiers. Cicero had just been named governor of Sicily and returned to Rome expecting a hero's welcome. Instead, an able statesman and superb orator was cut down by a rival.

Our ace reporter Plutarch tells a familiar story of how Cicero had to deal with the various trials and intrigues that every Roman leader seemed to face. Very few of these guys died peacefully in bed.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

December 6: Moralizing as a Seductive Art (Vol. 27, pp. 73-80)

The last issue of "The Spectator" was published this day in 1712. Joseph Addison, one of the English essayists who wrote for "The Tatler" and "The Spectator," is today's author. The two selections are all over the map. "The Vision of Mizra" is hallucinatory nonsense. "Westminster Abbey" is a meditation on death, and is slightly more readable. Neither are quite my style.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

December 5: Poems by an Artist's Model (Vol. 42, pp. 1181-1183)

On this day in 1830, Christina Georgina Rossetti was born. She is one of the few women included in the Harvard Classics, and she supposedly was known as much for her beauty as for her poetry (as well as being Dante Rossetti's sister).

It's hard to tell how good a poet she is from the four poems they selected. They mostly dwell on death in an Emily Dickinson-like way.

And yes, Miss Dickinson's work didn't make it into the series. A modern remix of the series would probably swap Christina for Emily without a second thought.

Friday, December 4, 2009

December 4: The Queen Weds a Poor Stranger (Vol. 13, pp. 152-162)

Another sequence about Aeneas and Dido from Virgil's "Aeneid." No thank you.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

December 3: Met the Gods of Ten Thousand Worlds (Vol. 45, pp. 603-612)

More religious mumbo-jumbo, this time from the non-Christian branch. "The Birth of the Buddha" is as silly as the Holy Grail sequence of yesterday.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

December 2: Practical Jokes in King Arthur's Day (Vol. 35, pp. 128-134)

Sir Thomas Mallory's "The Holy Grail" makes a reappearance today. It's still just as unreadable today as it was when we last encountered it, and the images of scenes from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" overwhelm any objective attempt to read it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

December 1: Are Skeptics Faulty Thinkers? (Vol. 37, pp. 189-199)

The answer to that question, according to philosopher George Berkeley, is yes — when it comes to religious belief. Today's selection from "Three Dialogues" deals with the question of atheists and freethinkers, but as is the case with Berkeley's stuff, it is convoluted and hard to follow.

Monday, November 30, 2009

November 30: "Don'ts" for Conversation (Vol. 27, pp. 91-98)

It seems to be the pattern of the reading guide that just when you are about to throw your hands up in despair over the parade of overwrought poets, obtuse philosophers and incomprehensible playwrights, a selection comes along that justifies the time spent with it.

Today is a good example of this pattern. It's Jonathan Swift's 343rd birthday, and to mark the occasion, we get "An Essay on Conversation." It is Swiftian satire at its best as he looks at the common excesses in having to talk with other people in social situations.

It holds up wonderfully after 300 years, because people still talk to much about themselves, prattle on with stories their listeners have already heard many times before, force humor into situations where none is warranted, and so on.

Swift's rule is simple: "Never to say a thing which any of the company can reasonably wish we had rather left unsaid." Also, he advises not to interrupt or allow yourself to be interrupted. To achieve his goal of good conversation — "to entertain and improve those we are among, or to receive those benefits ourselves' — one has to apply an old Vermont aphorism — talk less and say more.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

November 29: How Ideas Originate (Vol. 37, pp. 299-303)

How do we think? In David Hume's "The Origin of Ideas," he writes that the most vivid thought is inferior to the simplest sensation, that thoughts are subordinate to sensations and that it is impossible for thoughts to emerge without the corresponding sensations.

When analyzing thoughts, Hume writes that we should look for the impressions that formed them. An almost to obvious conclusion from today's vantage point, but I imagine this might have been a revolutionary idea in the 18th century.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

November 28: Poems Made from Visions (Vol. 41, pp. 583-592)

William Blake was born this day in 1757 — the man responsible for inspiring Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats, among other overwrought English poets of the 19th century. Someone has to take the blame, I suppose.

Friday, November 27, 2009

November 27: What Land is This? (Vol. 36, pp. 191-204)

Sir Thomas More's "Utopia" is tough going, mainly because it is written in the King James version Biblical style of English and because it is written in such a convoluted way that it is gibberish to modern readers. To get even an inkling of what today's passage is about — it concerns Utopians traveling outside their society — you have to go back to the preceding pages to figure things out.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

November 26: Shakespeare Should Be Heard (Vol. 27, pp. 299-310)

Charles Lamb's "On the Tragedies of Shakespeare," makes the counterintuitive observation that the Bard's work should be read in a book rather than performed on a stage.

Lamb, a 19th century English essayist, is credited (or blamed, if you're not a fan) with reviving interest in Shakespeare's work. He believed that Shakespeare's plays "are less calculated for performance on a stage than those of almost any dramatist whatever."

Why? Because Lamb believed their excellence stems from the way they are filled with "so much in them, which comes not under the province of acting, with which eye, and tone, and gesture, have nothing to do."

In other words, Shakespeare's writing is so strong on its own that performing the plays on stage adds little to their enjoyment.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

November 25: Cupid as Shoemaker (Vol. 47, pp. 469-483)

Today, we have Thomas Dekker's "The Shoemaker's Holiday." Dekker was a contemporary of Shakespeare's and this is supposedly his most famous work. It's the tale of Simon Eyre, a bombastic London shoemaker totally devoted to his craft to the exclusion of everything else. Eyre had little patience nor attentiveness beyond his cobbler shop. He certainly isn't the typical character of Elizabethian drama.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

November 24: The Book That Upset Tennessee (Vol. 11, pp. 23-30)

On this day in 1859, "The Origin of Species" was published. The editors of the Reading Guide here are making a snarky allusion to the Scopes Trial, and the famous row over the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution in 1925.

Even though some are still arguing about its contents, there is little debate that this book helped launch the revolution of modern science. As the Harvard Classics editors wrote, Darwin did more than gather "the ripe fruit of the labors of his predecessors" but "built on the foundations laid by others."

Darwin's theory of the evolution of organisms was not entirely new. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle offered glimpses of it and more modern philosophers from Bacon on added to the understanding that plants and animals did not just magically appear fully formed on the Earth, but changed and developed over eons.

However, it was Darwin that seized upon the idea, inspired by Malthus' theories on overpopulation, that "favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones would be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of a new species."

This idea has never been accepted by fundamentalist Christians, who cling to the idea that God created the world in seven days and everything was ready to go from the beginning. Science proves that this is clearly untrue, yet creationism is still being taken seriously as an idea. Some organisms, apparently, still have some evolving to do.

Monday, November 23, 2009

November 23: Less Than Stardust (Vol. 48, pp. 26-36)

Pascal began writing his "Thoughts" this day in 1654. Today's selection is "Misery of Man Without God." He was apparently a Jansenist — one of the offshoots of post-Reformation Catholicism that resembled Calvinism in its insistence on grace and predestination of the soul at the expense of free will.

While Pascal wrote with fierce logic and reason — maybe with too much of these qualities — he goes spinning off into a meditation of man's place in the universe and concludes we rest somewhere between the infinite and the nothingless void.

Best observation here: "One must know oneself. If this does not serve to discover truth, it at least serves as a rule of life, and there is nothing better."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

November 22: How a Queen Died for Love (Vol. 13, pp. 167-177)

More from Virgil's "Aeneid," and Queen Dido's pain over being deserted by her love. Greek tragedy for those who might like it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

November 21: Bargains in Wives (Vol. 34, pp. 93-97)

Voltaire came down with smallpox in November 1723, which is why we get today's piece on smallpox innoculation. The ancient Circassians seem to have noticed that innoculating the young with the disease would prevent a worse outbreak down the road, which is why the daughters — in high demand by the sultans — were protected. The supposedly "civilized" culture of Europe took a long time to figure this out.

Friday, November 20, 2009

November 20: Old Stories Ever New (Vol. 17, pp. 90-98)

We get the Grimm brothers' "The Valiant Little Tailor" for today's reading — a guy who turned seven dead flies and a lot of bull and bluster into a kingdom.

The Grimms may not have ever heard of the word, "chutzpah," but the tailor certainly possessed it. On sheer confidence alone, he was able to talk his way into power and riches.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

November 19: No Man Knows His Resting Place (Vol. 42, pp. 986-992)

On this day in 1850, Queen Victoria appointed Lord Alfred Tennyson poet laureate. To mark the occasion, we get an exceedingly windy poem, "Morte D'Arthur," on the death of King Arthur. Overwrought nonsense.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

November 18: Apple or Son the Arrow's Mark (Vol. 26, pp. 441-449)

On this day in 1307, the most famous shot in the history of archery took place, and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller tells the story today from his play "Wilhelm Tell."

Tell was ordered to prove his prowess with a bow by taking aim from 100 yards away at his son's head, upon which rested an apple. He made the shot, but afterward, Tell told the governor who ordered him to risk his son's life that he had a second arrow reserved for him had his first shot not been true.

Tell may have gotten hauled off to prison for his bravado, but could he have done anything less? Bravery demands words like these.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

November 17: At Thirty Scott Began to Write (Vol. 25, pp. 410-420)

This selection from Thomas Carlyle's "Sir Walter Scott" might be considered an ode to the late bloomer. Scott showed no signs of being a literary writer until he was 30. He was living a quiet, orderly life, but within that quiet, orderly life, Carlyle said Scott was building himself into the kind of person who's bound to succeed if given the right opportunity at the right time.

"The uttered part of a man's life, let us always repeat, bears to the unlettered unconscious part of an unknown proportion; he himself never knows it, much less do others," writes Carlyle. "Give him room, give him impulse; he reaches down to the infinite with that so straitly-imprisoned of his; and can do miracles if need be!"

Not everybody gets this chance, but Scott was fortunate enough to get his and the result was "Ivanhoe " and a flood of other works. Genius is never enough, you have to have the right circumstances to apply it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

November 16: Just Before the Gold Rush (Vol. 23, pp. 164-168)

More from Dana's "Two Years Before The Mast," but this time, our hero is on shore exploring the Presidios of California in the time just before the gold rush of 1849. It's a nice little synopsis of how the Spaniards shaped the early history of California.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

November 15: Food Profiteers 300 Years Ago (Vol. 21, pp. 450-460)

You thought you were done with "I Promessi Sposi," didn't you. Sadly, no. There's more of it today. This time, Manzoni writes about bread riots and the mass psychosis of panic that was rampant in Milan during the plague epidemic of the 1600s. The government tried to fix grain prices to discourage profiteering, but it didn't work. The scarcer food got, the more panicked the people got.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

November 14: He Worried About It (Vol. 38, pp. 398-405)

Sir Thomas Lyell was born this day in 1797, so we get a welcome dose of reason after Milton and St. Augustine.

This selection from "The Uniformity of Change," continues on the theme from a few weeks ago — that natural phenomena don't just happen, but rather there are patterns and cycles that happen over time. These patterns can be seen over time based on the record left behind — fossils, sediment, rock formations. From this, we can see a definite, uniform pattern of change in the animate and inanimate worlds.

Of course, this doesn't sit well with the creationists who believe the Bible has all the answers about how our world was created. While the Harvard Classics drips with religious piety, it also carves out a significant space for science and acknowledges that there are other explanations beyond the Bible for how our world works.

Friday, November 13, 2009

November 13: When Carthage Was Monte Carlo (Vol. 7, pp. 31-38)

"Things I used to do/Lord, I won't do no more." The lyrics of that old blues song come to mind reading today's passage from the "Confessions of St. Augustine," selected this day for his birthday in 354. He recounts his wild and wicked days in Carthage, which apparently was a hot town in the fourth century. But, of course, he regrets his debauchery and finds God.

The heavy-handed morality of the Harvard Classics can be a bit stifling at times. It is easy to be mistrustful of any sect that says it has all the answers, and Christians seem to be the epitome of self-assurance. In an age when piety seems to have to replaced reason, it's hard to read stuff like St. Augustine's with a straight face.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

November 12: Story of the First Dresses (Vol. 4, pp. 278-290)

More Milton, this time the story of Adam and Eve from "Paradise Lost." Since I said my piece about Milton a couple of days ago, I'll let this pass without comment.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

November 11: America's Doughboy Glorified (Vol. 42, pp. 1402-1412)

Today is Armistice Day, and the editors of the Reading Guide chose this occasion to trot out Walt Whitman and his Civil War-era poetry. (If this seems inconsistent with the 1909 publishing date of the Harvard Classics, it is because the set's reading guide that I'm using was written in 1930).

Whitman is the most modern poet included in his collection and the difference between his work and the rest of the poetry in the Harvard Classics is startling. He's not writing about nightingales or daffodils. He's not ethereal or wracked with longing.

It is poems such as today's "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" or "The Wound Dresser," that deal with death on the battlefield, or "O Captain! My Captain!" and "When Lilacs Last in The Courtyard Bloomed," written after Lincoln's assassination, that show the realness and humanity that presage the great poets of the 20th century.

Maybe my modernity is showing here, but I'd rather read Whitman than Shelley, Keats and the rest of the insipid twaddle that lie in this set's poetry volumes.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

November 10: A Poet Who Piped for his Supper (Vol. 41, pp. 509-520)

English poet Oliver Goldsmith was born this day in 1728. He apparently traveled through Belgium, France and Italy, and cadged meals in exchange for offering entertainment. We get his poem "The Deserted Village" today.

Monday, November 9, 2009

November 9: Once War Songs, Now Pious Prayers (Vol. 44, pp. 318-327)

The Psalms are the fight songs of Christianity and its true believers in times of trial. The ones in this reading — 137 through 145 – are mostly David's writings and alternate between thanksgiving and beseeching God for his blessings.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

November 8: Blind but Unconquered (Vol. 4, pp. 359-369)

John Milton died on this day in 1674. Today's passage is from his sequel to "Paradise Lost," called (naturally) "Paradise Regained."

While Milton is admittedly an acquired taste that I never acquired, his personal story is worth noting. At the time he dictated the text of what would become "Paradise Regained," he was broke and blind and living in obscurity.

He was politically on the outs when he wrote the "Paradises," since he was on the anti-monarchy side of the political and religious wars in England in the 17th century. Milton had an interesting mix of liberty and moral purity — two things that on the surface seem incompatible.

Milton is more complex than he appears. How can one be devoted to what he called "the three species of liberty which are essential to the happiness of social life — religious, domestic and civil" and be an advocate of freedom and tolerance, yet be associated with the Puritans, the folks synonymous with religious reaction and intolerance?

While the "Paradise" poems are what Milton is best known for, he was also someone who fought for ideals more closely associated with the Enlightenment. You'd never know it without reading his other works, which sadly aren't collected in the Harvard Classics and would better illuminate what kind of person he really was.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

November 7: The Voice From a Stone-Dead City (Vol. 16, pp. 100-107)

After an absence of several months, here's another selection from "The Thousand and One Nights," this time the tale of how the inhabitants of Baghdad were suddenly turned to stone.

Friday, November 6, 2009

November 6: A Genius Needs Few Tools (Vol. 30, pp. 13-21)

On this day in 1845, scientist Michael Faraday sent his scientific paper "Experimental Researches" to the Royal Society. Thus we get today's reading from a lecture he delivered in 1859, "Force of Gravitation."

You could call Faraday the precursor to Mister Wizard. Even though he was one of the best scientific minds of his time — his discovery of magneto-electricity being his top find — Faraday could also explain scientific principles in a way that kids could understand.

After wading through some of the wordy and overwritten pieces of the last few days, it's a genuine relief to read something written in plain English.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

November 5: Costly Opinion on Divorce (Vol. 36, pp. 89-99)

William Roper's "Life of Sir Thomas More" is today's reading. Roper, who is Sir Thomas' son-in-law, wrote this in 1515 in the typically overwrought style of the era. You have to wade through a lot of excess verbiage to get to the point of the piece, which is that More was willing to stand up to King Henry VIII on the question of divorce, even though doing do so meant his death.

Standing by his principles meant more than life itself for More, which is why history looks upon him much favorably than Henry VIII.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

November 4: Gold or Glory? (Vol. 26, pp. 87-97)

More from the French playwright Corneille's "Polyeducte" today, as the title character is faced with the choice of becoming a Christian and renouncing everything he has. Another one of those pro-Christian fables that the series seems to specialize in.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

November 3: Letters to an Emperor (Vol. 9, pp. 404-406)

In this passage, Pliny is writing to the Roman Emperor Trajan on the efficacy of torturing Christians. The ruling power is usually ruthless in dealing with noisy minorities, since the rulers always believe they are just and right and correct in what they do. Some things never change.

Monday, November 2, 2009

November 2: Journey Through a Hot Country (Vol. 20, pp. 13-20)

More from Dante's "Inferno" today. Is there really a place called Hell? Better minds than mine have grappled with that idea. We would like to think that the wicked will eventually pay for their deeds, but lacking concrete proof of the existence of the afterlife or a divine arbiter of good and bad, I would rather see the punishment meted out here.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

November 1: Last Strokes of Shakespeare's Pen (Vol. 46, pp. 397-410)

On this day in 1611, "The Tempest" was performed at Queen Elizabeth's court. It was Shakespeare's final play before his death.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

October 31: Witches Walk Tonight (Vol. 6, pp. 110-119)

A silly and inconsequential poem from Robert Burns for All Hallow's Eve for those who believe in ghosts and goblins and witches and evil spirits. As someone who doesn't, it's nonsense to me.

Friday, October 30, 2009

October 30: Geology's Greatest Benefactor (Vol. 38, pp. 385-391)

Sir Charles Lyell is considered the founder of modern geologic studies. Darwin said that "the science of geology is enormously indebted to Lyell — more so, as I believe, than to any other man who ever lived."

Lyell took geology out of the realm of superstition with a bold statement — "By degrees, many of the enigmas of the moral and physical world are explained, and instead of being due to extrinsic and irregular causes, they are found to depend on fixed and immutable laws."

Instead of blaming an earthquake or flood on supernatural forces, it was time to take an objective look at the phenomena and see their commonality with other similar events. Again, the logical progress of the forces of reason over the forces of superstition.

Along with Darwin, Newton, Pasteur and the rest of the scientific giants of the 18th and 19th centuries, Lyell helped to take chance out of the equation as the dominant factor in how the world works, and replaced it with logic, reason and the scientific method. The world as we know it today would not exist without this tremendous leap in human knowledge.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

October 29: Genius Rise from a Stable (Vol. 41, pp. 874-882)

English poet John Keats, the son of a stable man, was born this day in 1795. Keats, together with Shelley and Lord Byron, were the troika of 19th century over-the-top romantic poets.

Yes, "Ode to a Grecian Urn" and "Ode to a Nightengale" are in today's reading and yes, I can't get into these poems any more than I could get into Shelley's. It's the sort of over-emotive drivel that gives poetry a bad name.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

October 28: How Dice Taught Spelling (Vol. 37, pp. 128-136)

British philosopher John Locke died this day in 1704, and today's essay, "Some Thoughts Concerning Education," comes as a bit of a surprise. Who knew that Locke was an advocate of making learning fun?

Locke suggested using dice to help children learn the alphabet, thought Aesop's Fables made a good beginning reader and that learning "should be made as little trouble of business to him as might be.

In an age where schooling was about discipline and memorization, these ideas were radical. Equally radical was Locke's thought that art should be an integral part of the learning process. So many of the educational principles we take for granted today seem to have come from Locke.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

October 27: Fruit of Seven Years Silence (Vol. 45, pp. 661-674)

A dose of Buddhist writings today. One wonders what it was like for someone a century ago to run into the concept of karma? The word gets thrown about so casually today, but it must have been mind-blowing to someone who only knew what he was taught in Sunday School.

The idea that "every deed a man performs with body/or voice or mind,/'tis this that he can call his own,/this with him take as he goes hence/this is what follows after him/and like a shadow ne'er departs" has parallels in the Christian faith. It is a good way to go through life.

Every act of kindness is cumulative and feeds on previous acts of kindness. Whether or not it leads to the promised blessings of the next life is debatable, but goodness generally does seem to begat more goodness and evil somehow, some way, is eventually punished. At least, it would be nice if the world worked this way.

Monday, October 26, 2009

October 26: Franklin Learned the Secret (Vol. 1, pp. 14-21)

Consider this passage from Benjamin Franklin's "Autobiography" a plug for the joy of reading the Harvard Classics. It definitely is an ode to the joys of being a bookworm.

Franklin was an ambitious young man and the fuel for that ambition was his voracious appetite for the written word. As a printer's apprentice, he used his money to buy books and devoured Plutarch and the pulp fiction of his day with equal gusto. He read The Spectator and shamelessly stole from its style. Any spare moment young Ben had was devoted to reading, and the reading in turn informed his writing and served as "a principal means of my advancement."

Ben was wise enough to know he wasn't a poet and that prose was the way to go. He learned from Alexander Pope that the key to converting the readers of your writing to your point of view -- to inform, to please or to persuade -- is to be positive. He quotes Pope as saying that "men should be taught as if you taught them not, and things unknown propos'd as things forgot" and that "for want of modesty is want of sense."

In other words, one can be certain of one's point of view, but it's not necessary to beat someone over the head with it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

October 25: It Greatly Encouraged Intrigue (Vol. 27, pp. 363-372)

I guess the subtitle for this reading would be "sympathy for the devil." English essayist Thomas Macaulay, who was born this day in 1800, writes about Machiavelli and defends him from the common perception that he is the source of all political evil in the world.

If you only read "The Prince," Macaulay wrote, you might believe that. But the rest of Machiavelli's work demonstrate that he is not as evil as advertised.

"The explanation might have been easy if he had been a very weak or very affected man. But he was evidently neither one nor the other. His works prove, beyond all contradiction, that his understanding was strong, his taste pure, and his sense of the ridiculous exquisitely keen," wrote Macaulay.

He believes the reason why Machiavelli has received such a bum rap is due to the time and place that he plied his trade. Northern Italy did not resemble the rest of Europe as it exited the long night of the Medieval Era. It was at its zenith as a commercial and intellectual center, far above anywhere else on the continent. A culture devoted to commerce is not a culture that sees war as a necessity, at least the sort of war where all members of a society march off to fight.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

October 24: Clytemnestra Meets Her Rival (Vol. 8, pp. 52-64)

More blood-soaked Greek drama, this time from Aescheylus' "Agamemnon." Today's selection focuses on Cassandra, the doomsayer who predicted Agamemnon's death and knew that she would be killed by Clytemnestra to avenge her dark vision.

Friday, October 23, 2009

October 23: When Caesar Turned the Tables (Vol. 12, pp. 264-273)

Plutarch is a great biographer, but this selection about Julius Caesar's early years isn't too interesting. The good stuff happens further along, which often happens in this format of little snippets and tastes of authors. Unless the writer is really compelling, you as a reader are left feeling unfulfilled.

The story is amusing, though. When he was a youth, Caesar was captured by pirates. He conned his captors into playing games and lulling them into a false sense of security. After he was freed, he later went back and captured his captors and exacted his revenge.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

October 22: Swift's Love Problems (Vol. 28, pp. 23-28)

I never read Thackeray before. Now I know I haven't missed anything. In today's selection from his biography of Jonathan Swift, he manages to turn a tale of a man torn between two lovers into a total bore.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

October 21: No Fault to Find With Old Age (Vol. 9, pp. 45-56)

Cicero's "On Old Age" is today's reading, as he quotes Cato as saying old age is something "to which all wish we attain, and at which all grumble when attained."

Cato lists four reasons why we grumble. "First, that it withdraws us from active employments; second, that it enfeebles the mind; third, that it deprives us of nearly all physical pleasures; fourth, that it is the next step to death."

Of course, Cato was 84 when he wrote that -- an extraordinary age for the time. But he doesn't want to go back to being young, for old age is a time when a person "is even more confident and courageous than youth."

Age is what you make of it, and Cicero was definitely a believer in the aphorism that attitude is everything.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

October 20: Odysseus Adrift on a Raft (Vol. 22, pp. 68-80)

More from Homer's "Odyssey" today, as the gods decree that our hero would be set adrift at sea to run into more troubles. Not much to recommend here.

Monday, October 19, 2009

October 19: Virtue in Smiles (Vol. 27, pp. 285-295)

Loss is always a hard thing to wrap one's head around, but who would think that in an age of stoics, one would encounter someone who believes tears "refresh the fever of the soul -- the dry misery which parches the countenance into furrow."

James Henry Leigh Hunt's essay today, "Deaths of Little Children," deals with the death of a child and the deep and inconsolable pain that comes with it. He writes how a dead child is frozen in time, an immortal child instead of a future man or woman. He aptly sums up how we the living grapple with the sorrow of a life ended too soon.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

October 18: "If Winter Comes" (Vol. 41, pp. 329-335)

As you can tell from my previous posts, I'm not a big fan of poetry. And Shelley writes the kind of poetry that makes people hate poetry — overwrought, hyperemotional, overly sentimental.

Shelley could be considered the James Dean of English poets. He lived fast and died young at 30. That short life and poetry that's filled with romantic longing and yearning makes him a favorite of those of a certain age.

Are these the silly love songs of the early 19th century?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

October 17: Reason His Only Religion (Vol. 3, pp. 253-265)

We get 17th century philosopher Thomas Browne's "Religio Medici" today, and it is wiggy, unreadable tripe -- a now-obscure rant on religion that doesn't make any sense. This is a good example of how a writer's reputation can fade upon the application of more critical judgments.

Friday, October 16, 2009

October 16: When Medicine Was a Mystery (Vol. 38, pp. 3-5)

The ancient Greeks may not have been terribly advanced in the practice of medicine, but at least Hippocrates had a good idea of the principles that a practitioner of medicine should have.

"With purity and holiness I will pass my life and practice my art," wrote Hippocrates in his oath. It called for devotion to the craft of medicine above all else. It was perhaps his greatest gift to the medical profession. The techniques and theories of medicine may have improved with the passage of 2,500 years, but the principle of disinterested service to others remains a critical part of medicine. That principle carries over into other endeavors, for a true professional lives his life with purity and practices his craft in a way that serves others.

Likewise for Hippocrates' observation that "timidity betrays a want of powers, and audacity a lack of skill. They are, indeed, two things, knowledge and opinion, of which the one makes its possessor really to know, the other to be ignorant."

Knowledge is the most important thing. It can overcome everything else. It's the only thing that matters.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

October 15: First Families of America (Vol. 43, pp. 28-44)

Celebrating genocide seems to be the theme this week, with bits of imperialism thrown in for good measure. On this day in 1498, Americo Vespucci returned from his first voyage from what came to be called America.

Taken together with Columbus' letter from earlier this week, you can see that the age that the Harvard Classics were assembled in was an age where the white male was supreme and the darker hued folks were mere impediments to the spread of western "civilization."

That is the significant difference between a century ago -- when Columbus, Vespucci and the rest of the explorers were still considered heroes -- and our present age where we see them for what they really are.

"Revisionist" is often used as a slur in the field of history. But, in the case of historians such as Howard Zinn -- who told the story of America from the point of view of the conquered -- revisionist history is a necessary corrective to the original narrative. To not acknowledge the brutal subjugation of native peoples is to gloss over the original sin of the American story.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

October 14: No Spice and Little Gold (Vol. 10, pp. 395-404)

Today's selection from Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" might have been better used as the Columbus Day reading, for in it, Smith looks at the failures of the Spanish conquistadors. The gold-crazed Columbus and those who followed him were doomed to fail, because finding gold is a crap shoot at best.

Smith writes that colonies traditionally serve as safety valves for increased population. When the existing land was filled, some other place had to be found to help absorb the excess. Also, colonies have the added benefit of providing extra security for the colonizing country -- at least that's how the Greeks and Romans approached it.

The Spanish colonizers of the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries were looking for riches, not territory. The lands Columbus found were abundant in natural resources, but that was not enough to justify their taking. It was gold they sought, and given the general defenselessness of the indigenous peoples, it was easy to strip them of the trinkets they had.

The thirst for gold and the failure to recognize its scarcity were the problems that doomed the Spaniards. Smith called it, "the most disadvantageous lottery in the world." Yet the Spaniards had, in Smith's words, "the absurd confidence which almost all men have in their own good fortune," and expected to find more gold and silver than actually existed.

Gold and silver have value because of its scarcity, Smith concluded. That the Spaniards were deluded into thinking otherwise was a big reason why they failed in their efforts to settle North America.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

October 13: Pagan Virtue Perpetuated (Vol. 2, pp. 193-199)

Is it possible to separate the teachings from the teacher?

Marcus Aurelius, whose "Meditations" are today's reading, is lauded for his benevolence and in his writings. Yet this was the same Roman emperor who gave into the panic of his subjects, who blamed the new religious sect called Christians for the war and pestilence that gripped Rome. The same man who preached stoicism, patience and simplicity was the man who did nothing to stop the violent persecution of Christians in the second century A.D.

Perhaps if he remained true to the beliefs he espoused rather than give in to public pressure, Marcus Aurelius might be looked upon more favorably today.

Monday, October 12, 2009

October 12: Columbus' Letter Miraculously Found (Vol. 43, pp. 21-27)

A 1493 letter from Christopher Columbus to Luis de Saint Angel about his voyage to the New World is today's reading. It is impossible to read this now, knowing Columbus' sordid record of genocide and enslavement.

Few historical figures have been so thoroughly demythologized than Columbus. Where once he was a hero, today we see him as one of the most despicable characters in the history of our nation. Even in this letter, you can see how gold was the primary motivation for everything he does and how the inhabitants he finds on these islands are treated as inferiors to be exploited.

A century ago, few gave a thought to what sort of society the indigenous peoples of the New World had. It was automatically assumed that European values were superior and that the natives needed to be converted to Christianity. The subjugation of the godless savages was seen as a necessary and heroic act critical to the advancement of humanity.

This is now rightly seen as anything but heroic. All but the most reactionary see the acts of Columbus and his fellow explorers for what they really were — the original sin that still stains the soul of America.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

October 11: Aeneas Flees from an Inconsolable Love (Vol. 13, pp. 178-188)

Another selection from Virgil's "Aeneid," where our hero leaves Carthage and the lovely Queen Dido, gets caught in a storm and lands on the coast of Sicily. There, King Acestes helps Aeneas to forget his lost love.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

October 10: A Fugitive in Boy's Clothes (Vol. 14, pp. 253-266)

More from "Don Quixote" today, this time of a woman in disguise who reveals herself before our hero. A piece more for entertainment than enlightenment.

Friday, October 9, 2009

October 9: Songs Shake the Walls of Jericho (Vol. 45, pp. 546-556; 567-568)

"Lead, Kindly Light, amid the circling gloom..."

This line, from John Henry Newman's hymn, "The Pillar of Cloud," is one of today's selections because he was baptized on this day in 1845. Faith is this day's theme, hence the greatest hits collection of 1,500 years of Christian hymns.

While the sacred writings section of the Harvard Classics is admirable for its corporation of selections from all the world's major religions, the set as a whole is still the product of a white, male, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant world. Christianity, particularly the protestant variety, was the one true faith of the ruling class. The other faiths seems to be included for their similarities to Christianity, not for their differences.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

October 8: Fielding's Parody Becomes History (Vol. 39, pp. 176-181)

One of the immutable rules of comedy is that if you have to explain what you are joking about, you're probably not doing it right.

Henry Fielding, who died this day in 1764, is given credit for writing one of the great parodies of English literature, "Joseph Andrews," the preface of which is today's selection.

Fielding was lampooning a novel by Samuel Richardson, "Pamela," which was about a virtuous maid-servant fighting off the advances of her young master. Fielding turned the story around to make it into a narrative about Pamela's brother Joseph, who resisted the advances of his mistress.

Again, a nice idea, but if you have to explain, it's not funny.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

October 7: An Uncanonized American Saint (Vol. 1, pp. 283-288)

John Woolman died this day in 1772. The foremost leader of America's Quakers, he contributed greatly to the spiritual life of his era and was one of the pioneers in the crusade against slavery.

From his writings, you can tell Woolman was a man who possessed great humility as a well as a deep and abiding faith in God. His morality and faith were unwavering. All these things, however, do not translate into great writing. His prose is flat and uninteresting, and since it is from his personal journal, self-indulgent.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

October 6: The Atrocious Spectacle of October 6th (Vol. 24, pp. 208-217)

On this day in 1789, the royal family of France was captured as the French Revolution reached a bloody high tide. As we've seen from earlier passages from Edmund Burke's "Revolution in France," he was no fan of the events of 1789.

As a classic conservative, order was his watchword and change was not something to be entered into lightly. Burke believed that liberty was a fine thing, but only "liberty connected with order." He also believed that if a political system had lasted a long time, it must be good based upon the simple fact that it had lasted a long time. Thus, there is no need to change.

Thus. the French Revolution violated every one of Burke's cherished ideas. He was horrified over the loss of traditions and the end of the veneration of royalty. But did the world come apart when the veneration of kings and queens was cast aside? Did the loss of what Burke called "the spirit of nobility and religion" lead to a "poverty of conception, a coarseness and a vulgarity?"

Looking back over the two centuries since the French Revolution, the answer is most assuredly no.

Like all defenders of the status quo, those that benefit from the way things are tend to be the loudest defenders. To Burke, a member of the class he saw threatened by the revolution, democracy was suspect, the people were ignorant rabble that could not be trusted and only the reinforcement of the ancient ways could ensure true liberty. For those not among Burke's elect, revolution sounds like a good idea.

What happened in France was undeniably bloody, it was that way because power concedes nothing without force, and monarchy rarely steps aside peacefully. The release of long-suppressed resentments often can get out of control.

As someone who doesn't believe in infallibility of nobility and religion as organizing principles for a society, I disagree with Burke. His belief that everything respectable was destroyed in the French Revolution is simply the lament of someone who didn't recognize that the world was changing and the ground was shifting under his feet. What happened in France, as well as in the United States, was the triumph of reason over superstition, of the triumph of liberty deriving from people and not from the whim of kings.

Democracy is better than monarchy. Burke, I think, never really understood this.

Monday, October 5, 2009

October 5: Amateur Athlete in Old Athens (Vol. 28, pp. 51-61)

English author and scholar John Henry Newman's "The Idea of a University," was written in the mid-1800s to set down his theory about education. College life in the Athens of old was a rough lot, but students put up with bad food and worse lodging to "imbibe the invisible atmosphere of genius. ... It was what the student gazed on, what he heard, what he caught by the magic of sympathy, not what he read, which was the education furnished by Athens."

To Newman, education wasn't just about books or being cloistered in a hall to study. The Athenian students got as much education from going to the theater to see Sophocles' plays, or to the Agora to hear Demosthenes, or even catching a glimpse of Plato at work, as they did in the classroom.

"Philosophy lives out of doors," writes Newman, and certainly being in an atmosphere where genius was seemingly all around you is the essence of education. The Athens of that era was "a brotherhood and a citizenship of the mind. The mind came first, and was the foundation of the academic polity; but it soon brought along with it, and gathered round itself, the gifts of fortune and the prizes of life."

Education first began as a gathering of minds, and the gathering of minds in ancient Athens seem to feed upon itself and grow exponentially. Learning was an honorable thing and one put up with all sorts of hardships to partake of genius. In the end, it is not the books or the buildings or any of the other trappings of the modern university that makes it a place of learning. It's the ideas and the interplay between students and teachers that make it so.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

October 4: His Mouth Full of Pebbles (Vol. 12, pp. 196-205)

Demosthenes versus Cicero. Plutarch knew that this was a fruitless comparison since, in his view, they were similar in "their passion for distinction and their love of liberty and civil life, and their want of courage in dangers and war...there could hardly be found two other orators, who from small and obscure beginnings, became so great and mighty."

But Plutarch writes that Demosthenes was a lousy public speaker at the start of his public life and "was derided for his strange and uncouth style, which was cumbered with long sentences and tortured with formal arguments to a most harsh and disagreeable excess."

Demonsthenes was so discouraged by the reaction to his oratory, that he gave up public speaking. While his ideas were sound, his presentation was wanting. Plutarch writes that it took the advice of the actor Satyrus to convince Demosthenes that it was "as good as nothing for a man to exercise himself in declamating, if he neglected enunciation and delivery."

So he spend a lot of time "woodshedding," in the jazz vernacular, practicing in private and working on his speaking style. He worked so hard on his delivery that his contemporaries, according to Plutarch, wrote him off as "a person of no great natural genius, but one who owed all the power and ability he had in speaking to labor and industry."

The ability to speak extemporaneously was prized by the ancients, so Demosthenes' style — apparently a blend of lots of prior preparation combined with off-the-cuff speaking — was derided by his rivals. Pytheas said his arguments "smelled of the lamp," but Demosthenes' reply was that "it is true, indeed, Pytheas, that your lamp and my lamp are not conscious of the same things."

His belief that the argument is more important than the style in which it is presented is certainly important, but, as Plutarch writes, while Demosthenes had the substance, it wasn't until he found a style he was comfortable with that he became an orator of the first rank.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

October 3: Good Enough for Chaucer (Vol. 40, pp. 11-26)

The prologue to "The Canterbury Tales" is today's reading, and it is like literary spinach. I never really liked poetry, but Chaucer is as impenetrable now as he was in high school. Even with the copious footnotes to translate some of his words, it's still gibberish.

The Readers Guide lauds Chaucer as a groundbreaking poet, since he was among the first to write in English when English was considered "a vulgar tongue, fit only for servants and working people." Polite society in England in the 14th century conversed in French.

Scottish dialect was what Chaucer used, and to 21st century eyes, he might as well have written in Babylonian for his poetry bears only a passing resemblance to modern English.

Friday, October 2, 2009

October 2: Veteran Tells of Indian War (Vol. 29, pp. 107-111)

As you've noticed from other entries, I'm not a fan of Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle." If ever there was a passage that showed the sensibilities of the time it was written, it is today's passage -- a disjointed account of slaughter and genocide between the Spainiards and the indigenous people of South America.

Darwin writes that "everyone here is convinced that this is the most just war, because it is against barbarians," and tells of how the men and women were killed and the children saved for slavery. This is just?

Darwin returned to England on this day in 1836, during the apogee of the British Empire. Genocide wasn't a concern then, since "civilized" men could kill others with impunity -- particularly those with darker skin. Who are the real barbarians here?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

October 1: Third Quarter Update

If you've stuck around this long, congratulations. Only three more months to go.

If you're just wandering in, I'm doing this blog to celebrate the centennial of The Harvard Classics. It is a day-by-day reading of "The Five Foot Shelf," based on the reading guide that's included in the 1930 edition. The guide picks a 15-minute reading for each day of the year, which I list in the title of each post. The volume and page numbers are based on the print edition, so those of you who are following along with the online edition at might have a hard time finding the selections.

I give a brief comment on each reading (really brief, if I'm not into the piece of the day). I'm not an English literature major, just a journalist and writer who tastes run more toward non-fiction and my biases are on display for all to see. Your mileage may vary.

October 1: Princes Today and Yesterday (Vol. 36, pp. 36-44)

Machiavelli's "The Prince" remains a textbook for leadership after five centuries because he knew what a leader needed to be successful.

He writes a leader who "is strong enough, if occasion demands, to stand alone" and "has a strong city, and who does not make himself hated, can not be attacked, or should he be so, his assailant will come badly off."

That strength comes from inspiring loyalty from one's subordinates and treating them the way you wish to be treated. For this to happen, a leader "must lay solid foundations, since otherwise he will be inevitably destroyed."

For a nation, he says the main foundation is "good laws and good arms," but that one "cannot have the former without the latter, and where you have the latter, one is likely to have the former."

Machiavelli also addresses the use of mercenaries in this passage. He firmly believes that a nation that depends on its own people to defend itself will always be successful, while a nation that relies on mercenaries will "have nothing but loss."

The word "Machiavellian" has become shorthand for evil, cunning and unscupulous behavior, but in this selection, Machiavelli comes off as someone making good sense by making the almost too obvious conclusion that leaders must have the loyalty of their underlings and that justice and fair play is the best way to achieve this. Treat them badly and make decisions not in their best interests, and a leader is doomed to fail.

The person who has to be bribed or coerced into obedience is not likely to be a person who can be counted on when the going gets tough. Every human ultimately acts out of self-interest, but loyalty usually comes from a belief that the leader you put your faith in is someone who is worthy of trust, makes sound decisions, is consistent and fair, possesses the skills to succeed and strives to instill them in his subordinates.

Machiavelli understood this. Cunning is useful at times, but it is no substitute for the principles of sound leadership.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

September 30: A Gentleman According To Emerson (Vol. 5, pp. 199-208)

Compared to the clarity of Confucius, Emerson is obtuse and a bit foppish in today's reading, an attempt to set down the precepts of what makes a gentleman.

But he does have a point when he writes that "The gentleman is a man of truth, lord of his own actions, and expressing that lordship in his behavior, not in any manner dependent and servile either on persons, or opinions, or possessions."

This certainly follows along with Confucius' ideas, but I don't believe, as Emerson does, that gentlemen are a combination of a code of fashion and manner of behavior that's generally agreed upon by the elite.

Although Emerson believes that "in politics and in trade, bruisers and pirates are of better promise than talkers and clerks," I don't necessarily agree that force is a prerequisite for success. All in all, this piece is not prime Emerson, and has a Victorian fustiness about it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

September 29: Prophet of 400 Million People (Vol. 44, pp. 5-14)

It's interesting that the editors of The Harvard Classics led off their two volumes of sacred writings of the world's major religions with Confucius. Packed in this reading is the code to how a true learned person should behave in the world:

“Listen much, keep silent when in doubt, and always take heed of the tongue; thou wilt make few mistakes. See much, beware of pitfalls, and always give heed to thy walk; thou wilt have little to rue. If thy words are seldom wrong, thy deeds leave little to rue, pay will follow.”

“Study without thought is vain: thought without study is dangerous.”

“Who contains himself goes seldom wrong.”

“Gentlemen cherish worth; the vulgar cherish dirt. ... Gentlemen trust in justice; the vulgar trust in favour. ... A gentleman considers what is right; the vulgar consider what will pay. ... The chase of gain is rich in hate."

" A gentleman wishes to be slow to speak and quick to act."

"Without truth I know not how a man can live."

“A gentleman has nine aims. To see clearly; to understand what he hears; to be warm in manner, dignified in bearing, faithful of speech, painstaking at work; to ask when in doubt; in anger to think of difficulties; in sight of gain to remember right.”

"Be not concerned at want of place; be concerned that thou stand thyself. Sorrow not at being unknown, but seek to be worthy of note."

Humility. A love of knowledge. Awareness of one's faults and a desire to improve upon oneself. A concern for others. These are values Confucius set down more than 2,500 years ago, but are sadly in short supply in the modern world. It would be a vastly different place if his precepts were heeded by those in public life today.

But even Confucius wasn't always honored in his time. The last two decades of his life were spent in exile outside the power centers of his time, and his advice was ignored by the emperors. It was only after his death that Confucius was restored to his rightful place as one of the great teachers of all time.

To live a life devoted to truth is to live a life of constant disappointment. The things that Confucius taught weren't invented by him, he merely distilled universal truths, clarified them and passed them on to all who were willing to listen.

Today, humility gets confused with weakness, stoicism with lack of feeling, selflessness with being a sucker for others. The Confucian ideal is seen as a losers game in a cutthroat world. But it remains the right path to follow.

Monday, September 28, 2009

September 28: He Introduced The Germ (Vol. 38, pp. 364-370)

Louis Pasteur died this day in 1895, so to mark this occasion, we have a paper that Pasteur delivered to the French Academy of Sciences on April 29, 1878. As with any academic paper, the writing is dry, but the information it contains -- "the theory of spontaneous generation is chimerical" and that diseases did not just pop up out of nowhere -- was a huge advance in science.

Pasteur had been dead barely 15 years when Dr. Eliot selected his work for Volume 38, a compendium of scientific papers. But even in 1909, Pasteur's place in the pantheon of science was secure,

The introduction to Pasteur's works says it all: "In respect to the number and importance, practical as well as scientific, of his discoveries, Pasteur has hardly a rival in the history of science. He may be regarded as the founder of modern stereo-chemistry; and his discovery that living organisms are the cause of fermentation is the basis of the whole modern germ-theory of disease and of the antiseptic method of treatment."

Pasteur was one of a group of scientists in the 19th century that broke ground in diverse areas. It was not so much a triumph of scientific principles over forklore and superstition as it was the triumph of reason.

It almost seems quaint now to think that people once had respect for science and the scientific method. In our world today, where facts are perceived to have a political bias and scientific studies routinely get slanted to fit the economic, social and political views of the moment, faith in scientific progress has waned. But that faith in necessary for human progress, Reason, bolstered by fact, must prevail.

"It is a terrifying thought that life is at the mercy of the multiplication of these minute bodies, it is a consoling hope that Science will always remain powerless before such enemies." Pasteur was writing about germs, but that statement could also be applied toward every force that seems determined to block progress.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

September 27: Pascal's Fundamentals of Religion (Vol. 48. pp. 181-192)

On this day in 1647, Pascal and Descartes sat down for a conversation. To have France's two greatest philosophers in the same room is one of those "I wish there was a tape of that" moments in history.

Today's selection covers what Pascal thought were the two main truths of Christianity: "That there is a God whom men can know, and that there is a corruption in their nature which renders them unworthy of Him. It is equally important to men to know both these points; and it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness, and to know his own wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer who can free him from it. The knowledge of only one of these points gives rise either to the pride of philosophers, who have known God, and not their own wretchedness, or to the despair of atheists, who know their own wretchedness, but not the Redeemer. And, as it is alike necessary to man to know these two points, so is it alike merciful of God to have made us know them. The Christian religion does this; it is in this that it consists."

Saturday, September 26, 2009

September 26: And The World Rocked With Laughter (Vol. 14, pp. 29-35)

Cervantes' "Don Quixote" went into print this day in 1604, which warrants another selection from that masterpiece. There are not many novels that still stand up after four centuries and is known in the popular culture even by people who've never read it. Granted, it took a hit Broadway musical to do that, but "Don Quixote" still resonates today.

Friday, September 25, 2009

September 25: A Courtship of Twenty Years (Vol. 25, pp. 116-120, 149)

English philosopher John Stewart Mill fell hard for the wife of a friend at a young. Mill patiently waited 20 years until her first husband died beforehe finally married the woman he loved more than any other. He tells the story today in his "Autobiography."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

September 24: Citizens Lured from Their Homes (Vol. 12, pp. 13-23)

A tale of Themistocles and his actions during one of the many wars that raged in ancient Greece is told by Plutarch today. Mildly interesting.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

September 23: Dying Concerns Every Man (Vol. 32, pp. 9-22)

In today's reading from Montaigne's "To Learn How to Die," the French philosopher comes to the conclusion that the purpose of philosophy is to teach men how to die. Unfortunately, you have to wade through a good deal of gibberish before you uncover this.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

September 22: A King for a Souvenir (Vol. 35, pp. 42-53)

The Battle of Poitiers, another obscure episode of European carnage, took place this day in 1356, and Froissart offers the play-by-play in his "Chronicles."

Monday, September 21, 2009

September 21: Aeneas and the Old Witch (Vol. 13, pp. 207-218)

To mark the death of Virgil this day in 19 B.C., we get more from the "Aeneid." Today, Aeneas gets a guided tour of Hell from the Sybil.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

September 20: Women's Rights in the Harem (Vol. 45, pp. 967-974)

The short answer, according to the Koran, is that they don't have many of them. Patriarchal nonsense, like the rest of the religious writings out there.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

September 19: Humor That Survived Slavery (Vol. 14, pp. 48-54)

Cervantes was ransomed from slavery on this day in 1580. Held as a Moorish slave for five years, he was subjected to torture on an almost daily basis. To have survived that experience and still be able to write a novel like "Don Quixote" seems unimaginable.

Friday, September 18, 2009

September 18: Home After Storms and Adventures (Vol. 23, pp. 348-356)

On this day in 1836, our intrepid sailor Richard Henry Dana Jr. sailed into Boston Harbor, at the end of his "Two Years Before The Mast." Today's reading expresses Dana and his crewmates' joy at "coming back to our homes, and the signs of civilization from which we had so long been banished."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

September 17: Romance on a New England Farm (Vol. 42, pp. 1351-1364)

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,  
The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’

Those words come from the poem, "Maud Miller," written by John Greenleaf Whittier, who died this day in 1892. This tale of a fair farmer girl and a rich judge is the centerpiece of today's readings, and needless to say, the poem doesn't have a happy ending.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

September 16: Penalty for Silence (Vol. 35, pp. 363-370)

More from Hollinshed's "Chronicles" today, and the various penalties such as hanging, beheading, drawing and quartering, branding and whipping that awaited criminals found guilty in the Elizabethian-era's justice system in England.

Barbarous doesn't even begin to describe this kind of justice. And the penalty for silence at one's arraignment? The accused "are pressed to death by huge weights laid upon a board, that lieth over their breast, and a sharp stone under their backs."

Sadly, in some settings, we've not progressed very far from this sort of treatment of the accused.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

September 15: Refused to Serve Three Terms (Vol. 43, pp. 233-249)

George Washington's "Farewell Address" was published on this day in 1796. It was his retirement notice, both a statement of his intention not run for a third term as president and some final advice for the still-young nation to follow. A prime example of a different, nobler age of political oratory.

Monday, September 14, 2009

September 14: Dante and St. Peter (Vol. 20, pp. 387-395)

One batch of hallucinatory religious nonsense deserves another, so today we get Dante's "Divine Comedy," where our hero, after journeying through Hell and Purgatory, arrives at St. Peter's doorstep for judgment.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

September 13: Good That Came From a Game Pit (Vol. 15, pp. 13-23)

John Bunyan was liberated from prison and pardoned on this day in 1672. Many English literature majors would argue that he should have stayed in prison as penance for writing "Pilgrim's Progress."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

September 12: Love Letters of Elizabeth Browning (Vol. 41, pp. 923-932)

On this day in 1846, Robert Browning took Elizabeth Barrett as his lawfully wedded wife, so naturally, we get Mrs. Browning's "Sonnets from the Portuguese" today. Here's a taste...

YET, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed

And worthy of acceptation. Fire is bright,

Let temple burn, or flax; an equal light

Leaps in the flame from cedar-plank or weed:

And love is fire. And when I say at need
I love thee … mark! … I love thee—in thy sight

I stand transfigured, glorified aright,

With conscience of the new rays that proceed

Out of my face toward thine. There’s nothing low

In love, when love the lowest: meanest creatures
Who love God, God accepts while loving so.

And what I feel, across the inferior features

Of what I am, doth flash itself, and show

How that great work of Love enhances Nature’s.

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11: Wages -- Why and How Much? (Vol. 10, pp. 66-74)

More economic theory from Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" today, this time, the regulation of wages.

  "What are the common wages of labour, depends every where upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower the wages of labour. ... A man must always live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him. ... The demand for those who live by wages, therefore, necessarily increases with the increase of the revenue and stock of every country, and cannot possibly increase without it. The increase of revenue and stock is the increase of national wealth. The demand for those who live by wages, therefore, naturally increases with the increase of national wealth, and cannot possibly increase without it."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

September 10: Famous Poet-Physician (Vol. 42, pp. 1365-1370)

Oliver Wendell Holmes is famous for many things, but perhaps he is most famous for today's poem, "Old Ironsides."

AY, tear her tattered ensign down!

  Long has it waved on high,

And many an eye has danced to see

  That banner in the sky;

Beneath it rung the battle shout,
 And burst the cannon’s roar;—

The meteor of the ocean air

  Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Her deck once red with heroes’ blood,

  Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o’er the flood

  And waves were white below,

No more shall feel the victor’s tread,

  Or know the conquered knee;—

The harpies of the shore shall pluck
  The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered hulk

  Should sink beneath the wave;

Her thunders shook the mighty deep,

  And there should be her grave:
Nail to the mast her holy flag,

  Set every threadbare sail,

And give her to the god of storms,

  The lightning and the gale!

This poem, about the U.S.S. Constitution and the nickname she earned when cannonballs bounced off the side of her hull in battle, is credited with saving this old warship from destruction. She sits in the Charlestown Naval Yard today, a monument to the days of wooden ships and iron men.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

September 9: When Nature Beckons (Vol. 5, pp. 223-230)

Emerson retired from the ministry on this day in 1832. Today's essay from 1842, "Nature," expresses the joy that only someone who has lived through the extremes of New England weather can understand –- the joy of a perfect and bright sunny day outdoors.

"The day, immeasurably long, sleeps over the broad hills and warm wide fields. To have lived through all its sunny hours, seems longevity enough. The solitary places do not seem quite lonely. At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he makes into these precincts. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. Here we find nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

September 8: When Europe Lay Under Ice (Vol. 30, pp. 211-230)

German scientist Herrman von Helmholtz died this day in 1894. Today's reading is from a scientific paper he delivered in 1865, detailing the effects of the ice age and the massive glaciers that covered northern Europe and most of North America.

Monday, September 7, 2009

September 7: The King's Love (Vol. 49, pp. 199-209)

The opening to an ancient Irish epic from the 12th century, "The Destruction of Da Derega's Hostel," is featured today. It is a familiar story, a warrior-king smitten with a beautiful woman, with troubles to follow.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

September 6: The Pride of All Scotchmen (Vol. 25, pp. 393-403)

Thomas Carlyle's "Sir Walter Scott" is today's reading, an ode to the Scottish novelist and poet. Called the father of the historical novel, he died broke -- literally writing himself to death in his last years to pay off his debts. Scott's heirs would be the ones to reap the benefits.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

September 5: Survival of the Fittest (Vol. 11, pp. 353-357)

On this day in 1857, Darwin first outlined his theory of natural selection. He found that those organisms that were better able to adapt to their environments were more likely to survive and reproduce than those that had trouble or could not adapt. The favorable variations that allow members of the same species to survive are then transmitted to successive generations.

Darwin's theory of natural selection held that the origin and diversification of species results from the gradual accumulation of these individual modifications. This is the key element of his theory of evolution, as we learn from today's reading from "The Origin of Species."

Friday, September 4, 2009

September 4: Voltaire Criticizes (Vol. 34, pp. 85-93)

Another selection from Voltaire's "Letters on the English," in which he made some rather unfavorable comparisons of French customs to those of the English. The French authorities, naturally, disagreed and threatened Voltaire with prison.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

September 3: Seven Years to Reach England (Vol. 43, pp. 174-179)

On this day in 1783, England and the United States signed the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War and formally recognized the American colonies as free and independent states. It took more than seven years of fighting from the day the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia for this day to happen.

Tellingly, England could have driven a hard bargain. Instead, it conceded to the new republic all land between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi River, with the northern boundary pretty much as it is today. It also gave the Americans fishing rights off the Canadian coast. The generous terms of this treaty reduced tensions between the United States and England and ultimately set the stage for a lasting friendship between the two nations.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

September 2: Too Great a Price for Love (Vol. 18, pp. 88-100)

More of the Antony and Cleopatra saga, this time from Dryden's "All For Love." It was on this day in 31 B.C. that the Battle of Actium was fought. Instead fighting, Antony fled to be with his great love. To him, she was worth forfeiting an empire for.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

September 1: Expelled from College, Founded a City (Vol. 1, pp. 321-331)

William Penn was arrested for preaching in London on this day in 1670. For being a Quaker, he got tossed out of Oxford. But, of course, he went on to bigger and better things in the New World.

Monday, August 31, 2009

August 31: America's Greatest Thinker (Vol. 5, pp. 5-15)

On this day in 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his "American Scholar" lecture before the Phi Beta Kappa society in Cambridge, Mass. It is a wordy, convoluted talk about learning and education, and an extremely tough slog even in small bites.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

August 30: Simple Life in a Palace (Vol. 2, pp. 222-228)

Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome, yet lived a quiet and simple life. How? Read today's piece from his "Meditations.'

Saturday, August 29, 2009

August 29: Cleopatra Bewitches Mark Antony (Vol. 12, pp. 339-349)

Speaking of tragic love stories, it was on this day in 30 B.C. that Cleopatra died after her lover, Marc Antony, committed suicide. Plutarch tells the tale in today's selection.

Friday, August 28, 2009

August 28: The World's Love Tragedy (Vol. 19, pp. 158-167)

On this day in 1749, Johann Wolfgang Goethe was born. That's why we get more "Faust" today.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

August 27: Priceless Treasures of Memory (Vol. 6, pp. 317, 417, 442, 511)

More poetry from Robert Burns today. This seems to be his greatest hits package with "Auld Lang Syne," "My Bonie Bell," "Saw Ye Bonie Lesley" and "A Man's A Man For A' That."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

August 26: The Prince of Wales Wins His Spurs (Vol. 35, pp. 27-33)

The Battle of Crecy was fought on this day in 1346. Jean Froissart's "Chronicles" describe what happened in yet another pointless battle from an era of European history filled with pointless battles that we know today as "The Hundred Years' War."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

August 25: Britain Saved by a Full Moon (Vol. 30, pp. 27-33)

On this day in 1882, Sir William Thomson Kelvin delivered a lecture on tidal patterns, which is our reading today.

We'll let Lord Kelvin, who had one of the most creative and wide-ranging scientific minds of the 19th century, take over from here as he discusses how little the Romans knew about tides and how that knowledge foiled Julius Caesar's attempt to conquer Britain.

It is curious to look back on the knowledge of the tides possessed in ancient times, and to find as early as two hundred years before the Christian era a very clear account given of the tides at Cadiz. But the Romans generally, knowing only the Mediterranean, had not much clear knowledge of the tides. At a much later time than that, we hear from the ancient Greek writers and explorers—Posidonius, Strabo, and others—that in certain remote parts of the world, in Thule, in Britain, in Gaul, and on the distant coasts of Spain, there were motions of the sea—a rising and falling of the water—which depended in some way on the moon. Julius Cæsar came to know something about it; but it is certain the Roman Admiralty did not supply Julius Cæsar’s captains with tide tables when he sailed from the Mediterranean with his expeditionary force, destined to put down anarchy in Britain. He says, referring to the fourth day after his first landing in Britain—”That night it happened to be full moon, which time is accustomed to give the greatest risings of water in the ocean, though our people did not know it.” It has been supposed however that some of his people did know it—some of his quartermasters had been in England before and did know—but that the discipline in the Roman navy was so good that they had no right to obtrude their knowledge; and so, although a storm was raging at the time, he was not told that the water would rise in the night higher than usual, and nothing was done to make his transports secure higher up on the shore while he was fighting the Britons. After the accident Cæsar was no doubt told—”Oh, we knew that before, but it might have been ill taken if we had said so.”

If the Roman navy was a little more on the ball, the whole course of history might have changed.

Monday, August 24, 2009

August 24: Survivor's Story of Vesuvius (Vol. 9, pp. 284-291)

On this day in 79 A.D., Vesuvius erupted and buried the city of Pompeii under countless tons of lava, volcanic ash and rocks.

What I didn't realize before today's reading was that Pliny — both the elder and the younger — witnessed the disaster and that Pliny the elder died while trying to rescue refugees. Pliny the younger fled with his mother and survived. It is his account that we have today of the death and destruction at Pompeii.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

August 23: What is a Beautiful Woman? (Vol. 24, pp. 78-88)

From Edmund Burke's essay, "On the Sublime and Beautiful," we get his musings on beauty and see how he addresses this subject with the most dry and boring prose imaginable.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

August 22: Aboard the Old Sailing Ships (Vol. 23, pp. 99-111)

Is it because he was a Harvard man, or because the editors love sailing stories that we get another selection from Dana's "Two Years Before the Mast" just a week after the last one?

Friday, August 21, 2009

August 21: Hidden Treasures in an Old Book (Vol. 7, pp. 118-126)

And speaking of more hallucinatory religious nonsense, here comes more of St. Augustine's "Confessions." Today, he writes of the treasures that can be found in the Bible.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

August 20: Plot Against Eve (Vol. 4, pp. 154-164)

Milton's "Paradise Lost" was published this day in 1667, so we get the story of how Satan plotted against God to bring sin to mankind by using Eve to carry out the plot. More hallucinatory religious nonsense.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

August 19: Roses Boiled in Wine (Vol. 38, pp. 50-58)

Ambroise Paré was a famed military surgeon of the 15th century, and he outlines some of his treatments in today's reading, "Journeys in Diverse Places." The editors single out the "astonishing treatments and cures," but the real gist of Paré's writing is the total futility of war and the barbaric (by modern standards) medical treatment that the wounded received at the time.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

August 18: "I Took Her By The Hair and Dragged Her Up and Down" (Vol. 31, pp. 312-323)

More from Cellini's "Autobiography," this time about how models were treated by the artists of the Renaissance. From the title of today's reading, you can guess that they weren't treated very well.

Monday, August 17, 2009

August 17: Three Walls Luther Saw (Vol. 36, pp. 263-275)

Continuing the religious theme, we get some of Martin Luther's "Address to the Nobility" today, part of his campaign to reform the Catholic Church which eventually led to the breakaway Christian sects we classify today as Protestants.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

August 16: Inspiring Ritual of Temple Worship (Vol. 44, pp. 286-295)

More of David's psalms today. Something for the divinity students to chew over.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

August 15: Into Death's Face He Flung This Song (Vol. 49, pp. 166-173)

Roland died this day at Roncesvaux in 778 in battle against the armies of Charlemagne. So, we get "The Song of Roland" (not to be confused with "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner," by Warren Zevon, which is infinitely better than the song about the other Roland).

Friday, August 14, 2009

August 14: A College Boy Goes to Sea (Vol. 23, pp. 30-37)

On this day in 1834, Richard Henry Dana Jr. shipped out of Boston to start his two-year voyage immortalized in "Two Years Before The Mast."

Ill health forced Dana to drop out of Harvard, but he wanted adventure and to see the world. He instead ended up with a great yarn and returned to Harvard a hero.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

August 13: Too Close to See the Battle (Vol. 41, pp. 732-735)

The Battle of Blenheim happened this day in 1704, when the armies of England and France clashed in a town in Bavaria. Thirty thousand French and Bavarian soldiers died, while just 11,000 of the Duke of Marlborough's men perished.

It's a rather obscure moment in European history immortalized in today's poem by Robert Southey. Because it breaks down this poem better than I can, here's an analysis of "After Blenheim" from the 1912 book "Historic Poems and Ballads," edited by Rupert S. Holland.

"Southey's poem tells how a little girl found a skull near the battle-field many years afterward, and asked her grandfather how it came there. He told her that a great battle had been fought there, and many of the leaders had won great renown. But he could not tell her why it was fought or what good came of it. He only knew that it was a 'great victory.' That was the moral of so many of the wars that devestated Europe for centuries. The kings fought for more power and glory; and the peasants fled from burning homes, and the soldiers fell on the fields. The poem gives an idea of the real value to men of such famous victories as that of Blenheim."

Southey died in 1843, years before the carnage of other larger wars would litter Europe with tens of millions of corpses. But he instinctively understood the futility and stupidity of war.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

August 12: Zekle's Courtin' (Vol. 42, pp. 1376-1379)

James Russell Lowell's poem "The Courtin'" is today's selection, and it's in a Robert Burns-like dialect style. Nineteenth century lovin' for those who care.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

August 11: Clever Repartee of Epictetus (Vol. 2, pp. 176-182)

More aphorisms from "The Golden Sayings," by the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus today. He advises that when someone speaks ill of you, make no defense, but answer, "He surely knew not my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these only."

Monday, August 10, 2009

August 10: "Give Them Cake," said the Queen (Vol. 24, pp. 143-157)

On this day in 1792, the French royal family was imprisoned and they certainly earned their trip to the slammer. The title of today's reading is an allusion to Marie Antoinette's famous reply to the protests of starving Parisians complaining of bread shortages, "Well, then, let them eat cake."

We get the details today from Edmund Burke in his essay, "The Revolution in France."

Sunday, August 9, 2009

August 9: English Bridal Party Jailed (Vol. 15, pp. 326-334)

Issak Walton was born this day in 1593, and I will again protest here that the editors of the classics should've included "The Compleat Angler," instead of Walton's biographical essays such as this one on John Donne and how Donne was arrested after marrying his employer's niece.

Her father was enraged, and he had the entire bridal party jailed. Donne eventually was release, but he ended up without a position, without money and without his bride.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

August 8: Men Transformed by Circe's Wand (Vol. 22, pp. 133-144)

More of Odysseus' adventures today from Homer's "Odyssey." This time, our hero and his crew are stranded on a remote island governed by an enchantress. But the crew ticked off Circe, so she turned them into pigs.

Friday, August 7, 2009

August 7: The Last Golden Words of Socrates (Vol. 2, pp. 45-54)

In today's reading from Plato's "Phaedo," he and his friends are visiting with Socrates in the final hours before his death sentence was to be carried out.

Needless to say, they were hanging on Socrates' every word, trying to glean one last moment of enlightenment before the end.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

August 6: A Prophet of Aerial Warfare (Vol. 42, pp. 979-986)

Alfred Lord Tennyson was born this day in 1809. Flying machines weren't yet invented, yet Tennyson wrote this line: "For I dipt into the future — saw the nation's airy navies grappling in the central blue."

That comes from the poem "Locksley Hall," which is today's reading. Inadvertantly, since the editors chose this piece long before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which happened this day in 1945, this poem has extra added resonance. In particular, these lines:

Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new:
That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.
So I triumph’d ere my passion sweeping thro’ me left me dry,
Left me with the palsied heart, and left me with the jaundiced eye;
Eye, to which all order festers, all things here are out of joint,
Science moves, but slowly slowly, creeping on from point to point:

Slowly comes a hungry people, as a lion creeping nigher,
Glares at one that nods and winks behind a slowly-dying fire.

Yet I doubt not thro’ the ages one increasing purpose runs,
And the thoughts of men are widen’d with the process of the suns.

What is that to him that reaps not harvest of his youthful joys,
Tho’ the deep heart of existence beat for ever like a boy’s?
Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers, and I linger on the shore,
And the individual withers, and the world is more and more.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

August 5: Joys of the Simple Life (Vol. 6, pp. 134-140)

On this day in 1788, Robert Burns married Jean Armour, the excuse for the editors giving us another Burns poem. Today, it's "The Cotter's Saturday Night," a Scotch ode to the joys of home and hearth.

The best line in this poem: "An honest man's the noblest work of God."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

August 4: World's Greatest Bedtime Stories (Vol. 17, pp. 221-230)

Hans Christian Anderson died this day in 1875, and he is more than deserving of the title of today's reading.

Monday, August 3, 2009

August 3: When the Greeks Sacked Troy (Vol. 13, pp. 110-117)

Aeneas and his boys lay waste to Troy in today's selection from Virgil's "Aeneid." Unfortunately for Aeneas, his target, King Priam, gets away.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

August 2: Poems from a Heart of Love (Vol. 40, pp. 326-330)

Seventeenth century English poet William Drummond is featured today, and overwrought love poems is what you get.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

August 1: His Influence Still Lives (Vol. 39, pp. 27-33)

Heavy-handed religious piety from the heavy-handed John Calvin is today's reading.

H.L. Mencken's definition of Puritanism, "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy," certainly applies to today's reading.

Friday, July 31, 2009

July 31: Charm School for Women (Vol. 27, pp. 148-150)

That 18th century English troublemaker, Daniel Defoe, landed in the stocks on this day in 1703 for "defiance of public opinion." One of his opinions that got him into was the idea that women should have an education equal to that of men.

His essay, "The Education of Women," seems self-evident today, but it was just one of the writings that got him in deep trouble with the powers of the time.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

July 30: The First English Colony in North America (Vol. 33, pp. 263-273)

On this day in 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert landed on Newfoundland, near what is today the city of St. John's. Even in July, Newfoundland is not exactly the most hospitable of spots, as he tells the story in "Voyage to Newfoundland."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

July 29: Stonehenge: England's Unsolved Mystery (Vol. 5, pp. 453-462)

During a visit to England, Ralph Waldo Emerson went to see Stonehenge and expressed amazement at what he called the "uncanny stones." Even one of America's greatest thinkers couldn't quite wrap his brain around this monument.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

July 28: An Idyl of Agriculture (Vol. 27, pp. 61-69)

English poet Abraham Cowley died this day in 1667, but instead of his poetry, we get prose today. His essay, "On Agriculture," reads much easier than his poems as he gets gushy about the joys of farming.

“We may talk what we please,” he writes “of lilies, and lions rampant, and spread eagles, in fields d’or or d’argent; but, if heraldry were guided by reason, a plough in a field arable would be the most noble and ancient arms.”

Monday, July 27, 2009

July 27: Once Surgeons Operated in Frock Coats (Vol. 38, pp. 257-267)

On this day in 1867, Lord Joseph Lister published a paper on antiseptic treatment, which is today's selection.

Lister, the surgeon to Queen Victoria, built on the work of Pasteur when he realized that the formation of pus was due to bacteria, and proceeded to develop his antiseptic surgical methods.

The immediate success of the new treatment regime led to its general adoption, and infections are a lot less deadly now than they were in the 19th century.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

July 26: Peace Amid Strife (Vol. 7, pp. 205-211)

The German monk Thomas à Kempis died this day in 1471. The author of "The Imitation of Christ" led a cloistered life apart from the upheavals of 15th century Europe. Deep religious piety, for those who may like it.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

July 25: A Goddess and Her Mortal Love (Vol. 49, pp. 391-395)

More Norse nonsense, this time the "Lay of Brynhild" -- the story of the daughter of Woden who carried dead heroes to Valhalla, until she fell from grace and fell for Sigurd, a hot mortal dude.

Friday, July 24, 2009

July 24: Indian Sorcery Blamed for an Earthquake (Vol. 29, pp. 306-316)

Charles Darwin and the merry men of the good ship Beagle rejoin us today with this story about a South American city ruined by an earthquake. The indigenous people blamed the women for casting a spell to make a volcano erupt. Darwin knew better.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

July 23: Friendship Above Love? (Vol. 3, pp. 65-72)

Sir Francis Bacon was knighted this day, so we get this meditation on friendship and what is the true test of a friend.

In Bacon's view, "How many things are there which a man cannot, with any face or comeliness, say or do himself? A man can scarce allege his own merits with modesty, much less extol them; a man cannot sometimes brook to supplicate or beg; and a number of the like. But all these things are graceful in a friend’s mouth, which are blushing in a man’s own."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

July 22: Trapped in a Cave with a Frenzied Giant (Vol. 22, pp. 120-129)

In this passage from Homer's "Odyssey," we find our hero and his crew stranded on an island of one-eyed giants. Odysseus found a way to blind the giant holding them captive and escape.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

July 21: Scotland's Own Poet (Vol. 6, pp. 70-79)

Robert Burns died this day in 1796, so we get more of his doggerel today. Great if you're a Scot, not so much if you're not.

Monday, July 20, 2009

July 20: A Cobbler in Jail (Vol. 15, pp. 59-69)

John Bunyan was thrown in jail for preaching without a license. He should have been thrown in jail for writing "Pilgrim's Progress," which the editors call "the greatest allegory in any language, second only to the Bible, and I call unreadable rubbish.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

July 19: She Wanted Heroes All to Herself (Vol. 33, pp. 311-320)

Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned on this day in 1603. He was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, but when he fell in love with another woman, he was thrown in the clink. Today's reading, "Discovery of Guiana," is more of that heroic explorer nonsense the editors seem to love.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

July 18: They Loved In Vain (Vol. 18, pp. 359-368)

I wasn't aware that Robert Browning also wrote plays, but then again, drama is one of my literary blind spots. But this selection from "The Blot in the 'Scutcheon" is as stilted as 17th and 18th century drama -- even if this was written in the 1830s.

Friday, July 17, 2009

July 17: A Throne for Son or Stepson? (Vol. 26, pp. 133-148)

The playwright John Baptiste Racine was elected to the French Academy on this day in 1673. Racine was a contemporary of Corneille, except that he supposedly has more humanized characters in his plays than Corneille's. It's hard to tell, though, since Racine's work — excerpted here from "Phaedre" — is just as unreadable as Corneille's.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

July 16: The Mohammedan Jesus (Vol. 45, pp. 908-913)

This day in 622 A.D., marked the beginning the Muslim era of time, so we get this selection from the Koran.

Most Muslim haters don't know it, but Jesus Christ is part of Islam's pantheon of prophets, and the story of his birth is part of the Koran. It's just in Islam, Jesus plays second fiddle to Mohammed.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

July 15: When Elizabeth Dined (Vol. 35, pp. 271-288)

More from Holinshed today on the manners of the Elizabethian era, this time — how they behaved at the dinner table in the presence of the Queen and her noblemen. Of interest only to the historical obsessives.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

July 14: The French People Triumph (Vol. 24, pp. 268-273)

Allons enfants de la Patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
(Come, children of the Fatherland, The day of glory has arrived!)

Those opening words from La Marseillaise are for Bastille Day, the day in 1789 when that fortress prison was captured and the French Revolution was set in motion.

Unfortunately, today's selection from Edmund Burke, a conservative who deplored the excesses of the French Revolution, is the wrong choice for this occasion.

Monday, July 13, 2009

July 13: Athenians Also Complained of Taxes (Vol. 12, pp. 47-57)

Harry S. Truman once said that "the only thing new is the history you haven't read." He was a big fan of Plutarch, and he probably loved today's reading.

The citizens of ancient Greece complained about their taxes being too high and how Pericles was spending the money, but as Plutarch tells it, Pericles made sure he used those tax revenues for public works and beautification projects that solidified his support with Athenians. This allowed him the popular support he needed for more ambitious undertakings.

Somewhere, Harry is smiling at that story.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

July 12: But He Walked! (Vol. 28, pp. 395-405)

Henry David Thoreau was born this day in 1817, and amazingly, today's essay, "Walking," is the only piece of his in this series.

In 1909, Thoreau apparently wasn't yet seen as the inspiration of environmentalists, freedom fighters, back-to-the-landers and every person who ever wanted to drop out of society and live simply and as close to nature as possible.

Not including "Walden" or his essay "Civil Disobedience" is one of the more glaring omissions of this series.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

July 11: Star Gazing — A Cure for Tired Minds (Vol. 30, pp. 311-321)

Astronomer and scientist Simon Newcomb died this day in 1909. Today's selection, "The Extent of the Universe," was written in 1906 and is the most modern entry in the volume of scientific writings.

It is a good glimpse into how much the pioneers in the field of astronomy opened the door for all the subsequent explorers of space. It's truly amazing how well Newcomb's work holds up today, considering it was written in an age before supercomputers and space telescopes.

And he offers this advice: go outside on a clear, moonless night and look up at the Milky Way. If you live in a place where light pollution is at a minimum, savor the view and be humbled by its magnificence.

Friday, July 10, 2009

July 10: America's First Immigrants (Vol. 43, pp. 14-20)

The Vikings beat Columbus to the New World by several centuries, and today's reading, "The Voyages to Vinland," tells some of the story. Unfortunately, what should be an exciting story is rendered into something not interesting here.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

July 9: A Little Lying Now and Then (Vol. 3, pp. 7-19)

Sir Francis Bacon became Privy Councilor this day in 1616. In this reading, Bacon offers his attempt to answer the eternal question, "What is truth?"

Bacon finds that absolute truth is important in theological or philosophical principles, but in what he calls "the truth of civil business ... clear and round dealing in the honor of man's nature" and that the mixture of falsehood "is like allow in gold and silver, which may make the metal work better, but it embaseth it."

A touch of falsehood may make a man feel better, Bacon says, and the elimination of it from daily affairs would "leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and imposition."

In other words, without white lies and rationalizations, we would all have a tough time getting through each day.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

July 8: Italy's Fair Assassin (Vol. 18, pp. 288-300)

Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned this day in 1822, so we get his play, "Cenci." As dramas go, this one sinks to the bottom.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

July 7: Scandal That Lurked Behind Lace and Powder (Vol. 18, pp. 115-128)

English playwright and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan was buried in Westminister Abbey on this day in 1816. With characters named Snake, Backbite, Careless and Sneerwell, there's little doubt about what Sheridan's most famous play, "The School for Scandal," is about – reckless gossip and scandal loosed upon the land, couched in the stuffiness of 18th century nobility.

Monday, July 6, 2009

July 6: The Origin of "Utopia" (Vol. 36, pp. 135-142)

Sir Thomas More, the "Man for All Seasons," was executed by Henry VIII on this day in 1535. He was the man who invented the word, "utopia," which certainly was not the England he lived in during the 16th century. More envisioned a world where an intelligently managed state perfected happiness. Given he was living in a time of doltish despots, you can see why More dreamed of something better.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

July 5: A Tailor Entertains a King (Vol. 16, pp. 149-162)

It's strange to follow up one of the most stirring and inspiring documents in American history with a selection from "The Thousand And One Nights." But the editors do.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

July 4: Some Chose to Remain British Subjects (Vol. 43, pp. 150-155)

Yes, it's true that some of the residents of the British colonies in America stayed loyal to the crown during the Revolutionary War and didn't want an independent government. Those are not the people we celebrate on this day.

We instead celebrate the brave men who gathered in Philadelphia on this day in 1776 and ratified a document whose words echo through the ages — the Declaration of Independence. We celebrate the men who ignored the nervous nellies that feared the crown, and told the most powerful monarch in the world to perform an anatomical impossibility upon himself.

Friday, July 3, 2009

July 3: Gettysburg by an Eyewitness (Vol. 43, pp. 326-335)

On this day in 1863, the pivotal battle of the American Civil War was winding down. Frank Aretas Haskell's "The Battle of Gettysburg" is a perfect example of how history is written by the victors. After all, in 1909, Gettysburg was still in the living memory of the editors of this series, and in the minds of the Yankee elite that ran Harvard, it was a glorious victory.

Haskell's account was written just after the battle as letters to his brother. The horrors of the battle were still fresh and the portrayal of certain of his fellows officers and soldiers in the Union army was unsparing. It is a great primary source for anyone who wants to know more about the bloodiest three days in American history.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

July 2: "Julius" Becomes "July" (Vol. 12, pp. 310-315)

Julius Caesar was not a man to rest on his laurels. He was always seeking new glories to pursue. So, to insure that the dates for certain festivals would fall at the same time each year, he tweaked the calendar and took the liberty of naming the mid-summer month after himself. Plutarch gives us a glimpse into the restless and relentless ambition of Caesar.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

July 1: Darwin Not First Evolutionist (Vol. 11, pp. 5-17)

On this day in 1858, Charles Darwin published the outline of what became "Origin of Species." While Darwin gets all the credit (and blame) for evolution, he admits here — in the opening of "Origin" — that he wasn't the only one, and certainly not the first one, who thought of the idea. He was, however, the man who synthesized the work of his predecessors, put a fresh spin on it, and put it all together in this book.

July 1: At the Midpoint

For those of you who have just walked in, welcome. For those of you who been reading along, congratulations for sticking it out this far.

Just to review what's going here, this is a day-by-day reading of The Harvard Classics, based on the reading guide that's included in the 1930 edition that I am doing to mark the centennial of the series. The guide picks a 15-minute reading for each day of the year, which I list in the title of each post. The volume and page numbers are based on the print edition, so those of you who are following along with the online edition at might have a hard time find the selections.

I give a brief comment on each reading. I'm not an English literature major, just a journalist and writer who tastes run more toward non-fiction. So, I am a bit more harsh on the poetry and plays than someone who enjoy that sort of stuff.

Not everything in this set holds up well, and one can while away the hours picking the works and authors that ought to be included and the ones that should be deleted. But if you view The Harvard Classics as a snapshot of what the educated elite of the first decade of the 20th century thought was important, it makes for an interesting contrast between today's canon and the canon of 1909.

So, thanks for stopping by, and on with the show.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

June 30: Rather King Than Majority (Vol. 25, pp. 195-203)

A selection from John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty," where he discusses the tyranny of the majority and how it is as much an evil as the misrule of king.

This reading might be more a reflection of the fear of the editors of a populist uprising against the elites, but "On Liberty" remains one of the essential essays on the meaning of democracy. Mill is dense and wordy and tough to read, but his thoughts are undeniably important.

Monday, June 29, 2009

June 29: "Is That a Dagger I See Before Me?" (Vol. 46, pp. 357-365)

On this day in 1613, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was destroyed by fire, which is why get "MacBeth" — the story of a king who killed his way to the top — for today's reading. Of course, since this is a play, our protagonist expresses remorse for his actions. There are no ghosts haunting the real life MacBeths who have blood on their hands.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

June 28: Pages from the Pampas Book of Etiquette (Vol. 29, pp. 51-60)

Darwin and his merry band land in what is today's Uruguay and hang out with the Spaniards in today's selection from "Voyage of the Beagle." Not compelling at all.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

June 27: Do You Take Poison Daily? (Vol. 3, pp. 22-26)

Sir Francis Bacon enrolled in Cambridge University on this day in 1576. In today's selection from his "Essays," Sir Francis makes the not exactly earthshaking observation that envy is a poison, an infection that ruins sound men's souls.

Friday, June 26, 2009

June 26: In the Lair of the Green-Eyed Monster (Vol. 49, pp. 45-50)

"Beowulf," the epic poem that is the bane of every high school student's existence, is today's selection. Ugh! Fortunately, it's only a small taste.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

June 25: Advice to Virgins from a Wise Man (Vol. 40, pp. 334-340)

"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying; And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying?" Advice from Robert Herrick, an oversexed country minister to convince young women to marry, lest they become old maids.

For a man of the cloth, Herrick's poems spend an inordinate amount of time dwelling on young love and sex — albeit camouflaged in flower allusions.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

June 24: Had No Right Hand (Vol. 16, pp. 120-133)

Another selection from "The Thousand and One Nights," this time about a handsome man who did everything with his left hand — out of necessity since the right one got lopped off in his pursuit of gold and riches.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

June 23: Greek Scholar at Three (Vol. 25, pp. 9-20)

James Mill, the father of John Stuart Mill, died this day in 1836. In this selection from his autobiography, John Stuart Mill tells how his father taught him Greek and Latin when he was three. Young John also got plenty of arithmetic and copious amounts of history and philosophy — Gibbon, Plutarch, Hume and the like.

That's plenty of heavy lifting for a toddler, but he loved it, took to it, and his unusual early education enabled him to start writing books at age 12. It is certainly a convincing argument for home schooling.

Monday, June 22, 2009

June 22: Pliny Tells Ghost Stories (Vol. 9, pp. 311-314)

Here's a selection from Pliny's "Letters," but instead of philosophy, we get a story about a ghost who dragged his jangling chains around a house in Athens, scaring the heck out of the occupants. Odd choice.