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.