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.