Harvard Dash

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Volume 9: Cicero, Pliny

This week, we’re talking about friendship! And old age! And some other stuff! Woooooooo!

So, full disclosure, I’m getting a bit bored of the Greek influence overall. One of my criticisms of the Harvard Classics thus far is the supreme lack of world literature, particularly African and Asian. I get it: the Greeks are what Western civilization was based on. We’re Americans. We love the Greeks in almost the same way that we love bad chocolate, frozen pizzas, cracked.com, cats on the Internet, and Wipeout. The Greeks are practically sacred to us. But I’m tired of them. Let them eat grapes!

tl;dr: I’m just craving some French poetry and being pissy about not getting it this week. Let’s carry on.

So: Friendship. It is a topic that can be easy to take for granted. We often do not consider the value of friendship in our daily lives, but Cicero argues that friendship (by which he means deep, intimate human connection, not mere social activity) is the cornerstone for who we are as human beings. Many of his ideas are things that we would agree with today, such as the idea that one should put his friends above himself, should be able to adapt to new situations and circumstances, and that it should be mutually exhortative. However, he also asserts that friendship cannot occur unless the two parties are highly virtuous, agreed in all matters, and quite decidedly egalitarian as far as the power in the relationship is concerned. Kind of weird. I don’t think many of us believe that we need to agree with our friends about EVERYTHING. I usually don’t care much for people a great deal like myself, because I become bored with the lack of mental stimulation provided by such a counterpart.

The other thing of note is that Cicero believes that only “good” men can truly experience friendship. It’s a point worth looking into, but not one I agree with. At base, I think we all can experience friendship, no matter how selfish or rotten we are. We can always find someone like-minded enough to find some sort of companionship there (though Cicero would argue that friendship springs from a natural impulse rather than from a deliberate calculation of the material advantage it was likely to occur (pg. 19); a point which I am also wont to disagree with), even to the point of real, mutually fulfilling friendship. Friendship can exist and thrive outside of some, but not all internal virtues, as long as the two parties still treat one another respectfully. Two thieves can be the best of friends as long as they refuse to steal from one another. Two murderers can be the best of friends as long as they preserve one another’s lives. Two con men can be friends if they don’t con one another.

I believe that human beings are inherently flawed. None of us can experience perfect friendship, but we are adaptable to the point that the friendship we do experience is not invalidated. It remains a very real and deeply moving thing to invest in friendship, even if it cannot be lived out perfectly.

Old age: Cicero points out and rebuffs four common concerns of growing older:

  1. Old age withdraws us from active pursuits.

Cicero argues that the pursuits of old age are different, but not less than those of younger men. He cites community service, philosophical reflection, and higher learning as just a few of the worthy things old men contribute to society as a whole.

  1. Growing old makes the body weaker.

Cicero suggests that the body’s strength should be used in proportion to what it has, not what it does not. He, as an old man, felt no need for the strength of a young man, as his pursuits no longer required it.

  1. Growing old deprives us of most of our physical pleasures.

Here, Cicero waxes philosophical and suggests that the lack of urges present in an older body is a demonstration of a carefully hewn character, wrought by age and wisdom. This, he argued, was worthy of honor.

  1. Old age is not far removed from death.

What does an old man have to fear from death? His body is material; his soul is immaterial and eternal. The eventual casting aside of aging flesh is not a cause for fear, but for peace, because the long life he hoped to attain as a youth has already been achieved now that he is old. (Remember the Greeks here; it’s important.)

There are more letters, but they are many and would take a long time to recap. To give you a taste for Pliny (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, or Pliny the Younger), his letters are clearly written with an eye to future publication and are quite enjoyable to read, if not somewhat lacking in the intimacy and honesty displayed by Cicero. If you want to read one or two, I would suggest his famous letter describing in the eruption of Vesuvius (his own uncle died in the disaster), or the letter to Trajan regarding his support of suppression of Christianity in Bithynia. You can find English translations for free online at a number of different sources.

(By the way, I am fully aware that both Cicero and Pliny are Roman, not Greek, but the Greek influence is extremely overt so it doesn’t end up changing my feelings much in the long run.)

That’s all for tonight! As always, I welcome your feedback and hope you are enjoying the journey!

 

NEXT WEEK: Volume 10: Smith

The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith

Volume 7: St. Augustine, Kempis, Volume 8: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes

Welcome to the epic Harvard Dash DOUBLE FEATURE!

So, funny story. I was writing this piece last night when my computer crashed around Euripides and I lost about six hours of work. I screamed, yelled expletives at my computer, and punched a door. My husband was remarkably empathetic, and was not even the slightest bit cross at my overtly childish behavior. He did, however, suggest that I take a time-out, cuddle with him, and watch West Wing instead of starting over.

In retrospect, Jordan Kalt is a great deal more sensible than I.

Let’s not waste any time. On to our friend St. Augustine!

There are things I like about the Confessions, and there are things I don’t. It is written something like an autobiography, something like a tell-all, something like a philosophy book, and something like Ecclesiastes. He is frank, but sometimes proud. He is thoughtful, yet sometimes careless. If nothing else, the Confessions are a serious tale of the many spiritual changes a person can undergo in a life of some length, when one has a great deal of time to think things over.

So. The central arguments. I’m not going to waffle around with all the autobiographical filler stuff about Augustine’s sinful BC sex life, because in my opinion, the Confessions contains two interesting central arguments I would rather focus on (and you can read the Confessions yourself if you want the juicy bits).

  1. The problem of evil can be explained in large part by the existence of free will (a relatively new concept at the time).
  2. Human beings are made up of body and soul as one entity, not two alien beings existing together.

Now, at this time in history, philosophy belonged to the Greeks. The widely accepted notion was that the body was evil, as it was finite and material, existing in a finite and material world full of corruption. The soul, on the other hand, was a Form (think Plato), and the Forms were made of light; immaterial, uncorrupted, perfect. The soul was considered to be “trapped” in a cage of human flesh until the body perished, at which point the soul would return to the Realm of the Forms. Even among Christians, this philosophy was far and away the most popular, as denial of the flesh is a key aspect of Christianity as we observe it in Scripture. The Christian version of the Platonic ideas we are talking about here is called Manicheanism, and Augustine was a huge fan for the latter portion of his rather salty youth, the bit where he began to undergo a reform.

However, as I hoped, Augustine eventually realized a huge flaw in how he had been thinking about the very nature of evil, and particularly of Satan. He had somewhat thoughtlessly accepted that Satan was the opposite of God, like evil is the opposite of good. Of course, when you really consider it, it is doctrinally correct to think of God as far greater than any of the created powers, as He is the First Mover, Designer, and utterly omnipotent over all creation. As Satan is a created being, he is not somehow an evil version of God; not even close. Additionally, the created body cannot be inherently evil if, when God created it, He said it was good. The body must be good, and the soul must also be good, as God created and declared them to be so. God cannot be good and create evil – it would be utterly against His nature and character.

So, Augustine had a whopper of a question on his hands. How can a good God who did not create evil permit it to exist in His creation? Where, if the Creator did not make it, does evil come from?

Augustine’s answer to this question comes in the form of a fairly well-constructed argument. First, evil exists because we as humans have free will. God designed love to be voluntary, just as He designed obedience to be voluntary. He particularly cares about the concept of relationship, and real relationship is always borne out of a voluntary desire to love. God permits us to choose our actions and our decisions, knowing full well that we may choose to break His heart and go our own way. When we broke faith with God, the result of our actions was evil. It was the only thing that occurs without God’s hand – a perversion of creation. Even natural evils are perversions of good, like sickness, because its only purpose is to infect an otherwise healthy host. He also notes that we cannot know the mind of God, and that some things which we, in our limited perspective, knowledge, and wisdom perceive to be evil may not work out to evil ends.

Cool? Cool. Let’s talk about Thomas à Kempis, hereafter known as Kempis because I hate always having to remember the shortcut for that stupid little accent on the “a.”

The Imitation of Christ is an odd little monastic book. It is necessary to note that Kempis is the assumed author (with reasonable evidence), and that the book was technically published anonymously. If you were planning on fighting me in the comments section about the authorship, you can now rest at ease.

To say I didn’t like this book would be technically incorrect. I found all its talk of solitude, devotion, prayer, and spiritual discipline very useful and convicting. However, I will assert that I found it severely lacking in suggestions on how to actually imitate Christ. In my opinion, I found that the book eschewed the world as a whole, and that its solution was to remove oneself as far away from corrupting influences as possible in order to become closer to Christ’s likeness. Occasionally, this is good advice. Christians are called to be aware of how they are being influenced by things around them, and often to step back from the things that tempt and try them unnecessarily. However, Christ’s life was far from monastic. In my limited exegesis of the Gospels, if Christians want their lives to look like Christ’s, there is a very important element of “doing unto others.” What Kempis advocates here is drawing near to Christ in many things, but never in community with others. And God forbid, never in humble, genuine, servant-oriented fellowship with those who do not believe.

What Kempis neglects to discuss is that the completed work of Christ in the Christian cannot be expressed in a vacuum. If it could, Jesus would look like a Daoist. Jesus did retreat. He did devote Himself to prayer, and likely to study. However, He also served. He spent time in the company and fellowship of prostitutes and tax collectors. He invested deeply in twelve men and taught them to go and preach the Gospel to the nations, not to retreat to a mountaintop for the rest of their lives. Mountaintops are good, but valleys are where the work is done.

 

BRIEF INTERMISSION

 

Have you relieved yourself? Refilled your glass of Cabernet? I won’t judge. Take all the time you need.

Welcome to the second session of our double feature: Greek tragedy and comedy! However, since there are so many plays, I won’t summarize them. Instead, I’m going to provide four short biographies of the authors, and I’m going to recommend that you choose one or two of the plays to read, although one of them has to be Aristophanes because it’s the only featured comedy. Most of them are short. They’re very exciting and particularly accessible because most of our modern theatrical practice is directly jacked from these guys.

Aeschylus:

A couple things you need to know, the most important of which is that this guy may have been famously killed when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. It’s such a bummer to be known for your death instead of your incredible body of work. Aeschylus is alleged to have written somewhere around 80 plays in his lifetime, and won the First Prize at the City Dionysia thirteen times. His plays, of which about seven survive, are heavily influenced by his involvement in the Persian Wars. Of the works featured in this collection, I personally recommend “Prometheus Bound.” There are magnificent parallels to the book of Job, and it definitely explores some complex stuff. Some other things to consider about his work: before Aeschylus entered the Greek stage, there was only one actor on stage at a time. Aeschylus introduced a second actor, which ensured that they could engage in onstage dialogue.

Sophocles:

Sophocles was the second in the “Great Trio” of Greek dramatic writers, which also includes Aeschylus and Euripides. He is regarded as the most ingenius of the three by most scholars, and is therefore the most famous. He was a polymath of sorts, able to conduct business, talented in music and art, a general and a diplomat, and a model Greek. He developed further the dramatic dialogue tradition started by Aeschylus, first adding a third and then a fourth actor. As a musician, I would regard his body of work as being similar to J.S. Bach’s – immense in volume, around 120 plays, of which seven survive, very concise in vision, lacking romanticism, more concerned with style and depth than with extraneous elements of the theatre. Of the two plays offered here, I recommend “Antigone.”

Euripides:

The least-acclaimed of the trio of tragic Greek writers, Euripides stands in nearly direct contrast to Sophocles. He lacked the precision and cleanness of his predecessors, and wrote with a much more romantic touch. Eighteen tragedies, one drama, and several fragments of poetry survive from the 120 works originally attributed to Euripides. In Euripides, we begin to see the importance of traditional Greek ideals and the affairs of gods and goddesses dwindle in favor of a much more humanistic vision. Rather than leaning on the ideal and heroic elements of man or gods for material, Euripides seems to delight in dwelling on the more broken aspects of man. His work is much more ripe for the postmodern palate, as it more easily mirrors the entertainment Western culture prefers to indulge in today. I liked “The Bacchae.”

Aristophanes:

At last, we reach some good old-fashioned fun. Aristophanes wrote a total of about forty plays, the first of which was produced while he was so young that his name was withheld from the production. Eleven plays are still in existence, along with fragments of several others. His play, “The Frogs” is filled with wit, ribald joking, satire, and a great deal of nonsense, but marked by a dazzlingly brilliant mind. It is almost necessary to read after all that ridiculously depressing tragedy, so Dr. Eliot was a pretty smart guy to stick it on the end there. Thanks for cheering me up, Doc!

 

NEXT WEEK: Volume 9: Cicero, Pliny

Letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero with His Treatises on Friendship and Old Age by Cicero

Letters of Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus by Pliny

A Catch-Up FAQ Session

If you haven’t been with me these past several weeks, here are some frequently asked questions about just what it is I do here, who I am, if I’m legit, and what this blog is after.

 

Q. Why are you taking a year?

A. There really isn’t a short answer to this. For one, I love to learn. I’m ambitious to the point that if I haven’t read something I own I feel guilty about it, but lazy enough that unless I set goals for myself, it won’t get done. It has been on my radar to read all these books for a while (heck, my apartment is like 700 square feet and these books take up a lot of room!) but I knew it wasn’t going to happen unless I set the goal. A year seemed reasonable because while I love to read, I also really dig Hulu and composing on occasion.

 

Q. Who do you think you are, offering literary criticisms?

A. Well, to be fair, I think I’m a punk kid with too many opinions and an overabundance of book-schooling, and it’s very possible that I might suggest you back away from the fair-trade skinny latte and stop flaming people online for daring to have an original thought about anything without checking with a professor first to make sure it’s okay. We don’t value autodidactic learning in this culture very much because we’re so afraid of getting anything wrong. I have no problem with getting things wrong. I regularly claim to be no expert on any of the topics I broach, and I am, above all else, looking for depth and discourse to arise from the blogging experience. If I can’t have these, I’ll settle for my own solitary murmurings and be just as happy, and the blog will continue to exist because I tend to lose notebooks.

 

Q. Do you really read the books thoroughly and deeply, or do you skim?

A. I always read thoroughly. I happen to read very, very quickly compared to most people, and I also have a very high comprehension and retention level for what I read (blessing and a curse). Certainly, I hope that my blogs demonstrate that I have truly ingested the material, not just skimmed it, but it’s a fair question. The harder part for me is the writing because it takes me longer to actually do. The worst part is the condensing of the material, especially philosophy. It takes me about 3 days to read the book, then about 3 more days to decide how I am going to approach it, and lately, several extra days to get a bunch of other-life junk done so I can finally sit down and write.

 

Q. You talk about food a lot. Will you write a food blog?

A. I spend too much time looking up new food blogs to drool over to write a food blog.

 

Q. I was offended that you made a very tired joke about Francis Bacon regarding his surname. Why did you resort to such a banal joke?

A. Oh, get over yourself, freshman lit major. Nobody cares. If the Offenbach jokes aren’t dead yet, neither are the Bacon jokes.

 

Q. Why are you writing a blog about literature? Aren’t you a composer?

A. This is a fair question. The honest answer is that I don’t like being limited, and that if I didn’t explore things like literature and physics and Tolkien and cats and anatomy and history and cooking and nature and color theory and signal flow and rockets, I wouldn’t be a very interesting composer because I would have never experienced any of the truly interesting parts of life. I would have no fodder at which to aim my creative cannon, and I certainly wouldn’t have any cannonballs, so to speak. The composer who never leaves the music building to explore the agora is a composer whose music may be technically perfect, but will lack personality, character, and experience. The fact is that good literature is very similar to good music, and studying good things in one area is likely to produce good fruit in another. The real purpose of books, after all, is to trick one’s mind into doing its own thinking. Can’t hurt my music to be doing that.

Join me tomorrow for more #harvarddash!

Volume 6: Burns

So. Robert Burns: Scotland’s most beloved poet, nationalist, and dastardly 18th century rogue. (I knew you were hoping this blog was going to get sexy…)

We should all be celebrating Robert Burns Day, or as it is better known in Scotland, “Burns Night.” (He was Scotland’s national poet, after all). I don’t know why we get so hung up on celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, which none of the Irish really care about, but we avoid the even more epic opportunity to read beautiful poetry, eat haggis, and get smashed like real Scotsmen. You don’t have to wear green, and depending on which party you go to, you can even pass yourself off as a sensitive intellectual if you wait until everyone else is rich-people-drunk on their scotch and soda before you start talking. (Hipsters, I’m looking at you…)

Burns was a lot of fun to read. Have you ever picked up a book that contained a character written in a specific dialect? And then you begin to read that character with a specific voice that doesn’t sound anything like your own inner voice, almost like you are meeting an entirely new person in your own head? If you like that sensation, read Burns. Most of his catalog is written in a specifically Scotch dialect, which can make it hard to read, but it is enormously beautiful. And sometimes vulgar. And more often than not, both. He’s an interesting sort of friend to bring to a holiday dinner with your extended family, and will ensure many happy Christmases where neither you nor he are extended another invitation, yet he provides endless fodder for family gossip because they’re pretty sure he was hitting on your grandmother.

Back in Imperial Russia, Burns was translated into Russian and served as a rallying cry for the oppressed peasant class, which eventually revolted. During the Soviet era, Burns was upheld as the model for poetry and song, as his political preference towards egalitarian relations between humans and their systems of government was evident in his writings.

You definitely know Burns, even if you don’t think you do. The Catcher in the Rye? Taken from “Comin’ Thro the Rye.” Of Mice and Men? Lifted directly from “To a Mouse.”

And the real kicker:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o’ lang syne?

NEXT WEEK: Volume 7: Augustine, Kempis

The Confessions of St. Augustine by St. Augustine
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis

Volume 5: Emerson

Today, we’re going to talk about Nature. There are countless essays in this volume, with topics spanning from Circles to Manners, each one more impeccable in form and style than the last. However, as is my modus operandi, I have chosen to hone in on one particular essay.

Emerson’s essay on Nature is, I believe, of some historical importance for various reasons. First, it unveils the idea of transcendentalism (God can be understood through the lens of Nature), which was a rather new concept at the time. Second, this essay had a significant impact on one Henry David Thoreau when he read it in college at Harvard. The dawn of transcendentalism and Thoreau’s inspiration? I think it’s worth a look.

(Side note: if you have like 5 minutes you can read this too. It’s extremely short.)

So! Summary:

The underlying problem, in Emerson’s mind, is that we as a species do not appreciate Nature’s beauty properly. Essentially, humans are interested in what nature can DO for us in terms of industry, as opposed to respecting and revering what nature does for us (for lack of a better term) naturally. Emerson argues that Nature is the force which keeps us from suffocating under the strain of the things we have built: that which returns us to God. “Cities give not the human senses room enough. We go out daily and nightly to feed the eyes on the horizon, and require so much scope, just as we need water for our bath.” (pg. 224) Our whole selves are made up of the body, the mind, and the Spirit, and Nature feeds the Spirit. Society, on the other hand, ultimately rends the Spirit, disassociating it from its source of nourishment.

To experience the healing and nourishing power of Nature, we must first engage in intentional solitude. Emerson has a hard standard of what qualifies as solitude. Solitude cannot be found in books or in writing or in the silence of one’s own chambers, but in the complete immersion of the self into the silence of Nature.

This may seem like crunchy hippie stuff, and on some level it is, but he makes good points. We can often retreat into the world we create instead of retreating into the more unpredictable natural world. Indoors, the weather is always the same, the wildlife doesn’t eat our food (unless you have teenage boys — they count as wildlife), and even the light is under our control. However, something in each of us longs for a lapse in control — an adventure, after all, loses all meaning if we have total control. We long to explore, to seek, to learn, and to know. However, we can fall into exploring, seeking, and learning things we have ourselves created, a sort of comfort zone.

Personally, I have been inspired by Emerson and Thoreau’s discussions on transcendentalism, particularly Thoreau’s Walden. I do not remember often enough the importance of seeking solitude in Nature, but I believe that since I grew up in a quiet, wooded place, I am more aware of my need for it than a lot of people. What about you? Do you avoid Nature due to her unpredictability? Do you embrace the quiet solitude of wildness? Does Nature make you uncomfortable, or do you feel as if you are returning home on a quiet walk in the woods?

NEXT WEEK: Volume 6: Burns

The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns by Robert Burns

Volume 4: Milton

This week, I read the entire collected poetry works of Milton. Great stuff. True to my first impressions of Milton’s absolute classiness, it was precise, pointed, and basically perfect in form and style. There were a few times I wanted to rip out a page or two and stand on top of my desk, but that was mostly my inner post-postmodern millennial trying to kick down the door like a bat outta hell.

Instead of doing my typical “summarize and analyze” thing this week, I thought it would be in keeping with Milton’s “education by doing” philosophy if I just wrote a poem in his style. This is relatively difficult to do, simply because his poetry ran the gamut of forms. I read sonnets, epigrams, canzones, masques, odes, and everything in between. A single volume of Milton’s poetry could serve as a complete textbook of English renaissance poetry by itself, so I simply picked from the multiple options available to me.

Below: a sonnet of Gabrielle J. Cerberville, b. 1991.

When to the dusty volumes of the age
I flee and find a word or phrase or thought
My captive mind is loosed beyond its cage
And curious ideas in it are wrought.
Adventuresome and oceanlike visions
With neither they nor I the teacher sole,
Attempting lone constructs and revisions
Time-traveling to find a common soul.
Fraternizing, these weeks of one-week stands
Have given, in their own right, quite a strain
To both my eyes, my inner mind expands
It’s giving me a headache in my brain.
Around me sun makes seven skyward trips
(In all truth, add another two to six.)

NEXT WEEK: Vol. 5: Emerson

Essays and English Traits by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Volume 3: Bacon, Milton, Browne

“’What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” –Francis Bacon

For week three, we’re going to dive into some Bacon. (By the way, if you live in Indianapolis, you have to try Smoking Goose bacon. I had some yesterday and I almost died of joy. True story.)

We’re also going to look at Milton and Browne, which are equally as fascinating but not nearly as delicious on a grilled cheese sandwich.

In any case, as many of you know, Bacon was a pretty epic guy. Between being a scientist, a philosopher, a politician, and a prolific writer, he had quite a lot going for him, and I’m sure his college applications were very impressive. In fact, there is a theory that Francis Bacon actually wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare because of his uncanny ability to disco with the dictionary.

So, let’s start with “Essays, Civil and Moral.” Bacon, like Franklin or or Penn or Socrates or Epictetus or anyone else we have heard from in past weeks, gives a great deal of the same general moral advice. One should be truthful rather than deceitful, death is not necessarily the greatest horror (a restatement of a fairly common Grecian philosophical idea), envy is an unpleasant character trait, etc. It seems clear, however, that Bacon does not consider himself a moral authority on these topics, unlike, say Benjamin Franklin. He instead offers advice based on what he knows to be moderate, helpful, and consistent with truth. His audience is less of the philosopher-in-training and more of the young business professional seeking moral guidance and wisdom, which almost certainly informs, if not directs his pragmatism. I found much of his advice to be useful, in general, and often very amusing, as his verbal gymnastics are a thing to behold. However, some of his essays, such as those on love and on parenting, seemed a bit cold, as if he had delved so deeply into the particulars of the topics that he had lost the informative edge he was initially intent on providing. The heady stuff was fascinating, but I think he got a bit sidetracked by his own train of thought sometimes. Aside from that, though, it really was very interesting, and I recommend reading these enormously rich essays, impeccable in form and style.

Now, let’s look at The New Atlantis.

This was really, really interesting. It is written in the form of a novel, and depicts Bacon’s ideal of a utopian community. The reason for the title is, in my opinion, self-evident. Like the lost Isle of Atlantis from Greek mythology, Bensalem (Bacon’s utopia) is dedicated to scientific and technological discovery. However, there are differences. Bensalem chooses to remain consciously hidden to protect the purity of its own culture and faith from the corrupting influences of other nation-states. Atlantis, in contrast, was destroyed by the gods, who became angry that Atlantis had grown so wise and powerful (Greek gods had a real jealousy problem). Additionally, whereas Atlantis sought wisdom and knowledge for personal gain and profit, the Bensalemites are interested in these things to improve the lives of those around them (not to mention that there is no form of currency to speak of on the island anyway). An interesting component to this utopian tale is the religious aspect. According to the story, all the Bensalemites are Christians in the purest sense, having been divinely given a copy of the scriptures from St. Bartholomew. By “the purest sense,” I mean that these Christians live completely in peace with one another, as far as we can tell, practically devoid of sin. It’s actually pretty odd, and I’m not sure how Bacon expects it to work with anyone who happens to be a human being living in a fallen world. Is Bensalem some corner of the universe where sin has failed to corrupt people? If so, why do they even bother with Christianity? I want to talk about it more, but we need to move on. It’s a short read, so just sit down and do it. Email me and we’ll dweeb out.

Milton! Gosh, I love this guy. In his outrageous, Greekly-named treatise, “Areopagitica,” he argues for freedom of the press in one of the most well-constructed, wise, and passionate speeches I have ever read. No Huffpost article your Poli-Sci prof assigns for extra credit can compare with this beauty. Let’s lay out his argument point by point.

  1. The licensing system (censorship) was not adhered to by the Greeks and Romans. In many cases, works were considered blasphemous or inappropriate, but only after publication, never before. In those cases, the works were destroyed and the writers punished. The point of even mentioning this in his argument is that a work should be allowed to be examined, refuted, and discussed AFTER publication, not before its ideas have had a chance to be articulated.
  2. The purpose of reading is not always to only receive positive material, but also to learn how to filter out bad ideas. He cites Moses, David and the apostle Paul as greatly educated men who read books of all sorts, not just good ones. Milton points out that the mind is not so fragile as to be corrupted by every bad idea it comes in contact with, especially if one is allowed to filter out what he considers to be good and bad material himself.
  3. Censorship will ultimately fail because it only focuses on one aspect of societal corruptiveness. Reading is not the only way to spread or receive ideas. One can also speak. If one censors the bad books to protect the ignorant, their ideas will already have most likely been read by the learned. How are we to know that the learned are equipped to stand firm against the corruptive ideas in the bad books? The margin of potential error is simply too great.
  4. Licensing is “a dishonor and derogation to the author, to the book, to the privilege and dignity of learning.” Most authors do not produce a book in order to corrupt people, and if it is censored, it will have been by a subjective process, left entirely up to the licenser’s judgment. Faith and knowledge need to be tested, but if the governing bodies decide what is and is not appropriate for the learner, the learner will become lazy and never truly grapple with his own beliefs and ideas, much less the ideas of people different from himself. Nobody, argues Milton, should be given the power to silence others.

“Of Education” is another interesting treatise by Milton, addressed to one Mr. Samuel Hartlib, the son of a Polish merchant. He lived in London, and he spent much of his time and money pursuing educational and philanthropic ideals. According to the content of the letter, we can gather that Mr. Hartlib requested Milton’s thoughts on the education of gentlemen, and that “Of Education” is Milton’s response to that query.

Milton goes all the way back to Medieval education and dissects bits of it that simply did not do its job well – chiefly, that Medieval education was made as banal and uncomfortable as possible, and that it removed all joy from learning. He talks of how “our time (was) lost partly in too oft idle vacancies given both to schools and universities, partly in a preposterous exaction, forcing the empty wits of children to compose themes, verses and orations, which are the acts of ripest judgment and the final work of a head filled by long reading and observing, with elegant maxims, and copious invention. These are not matters to be wrung from poor striplings, like blood out of the nose, or the plucking of untimely fruit.” (pg. 237) Milton was not in favor of endless rote memorization without true understanding, although he was a staunch advocate for what we would consider a most remarkably rigorous education for young people. Milton ultimately wanted the pursuit of learning to inform the active lives of students – to allow them to become better Christians as well as better citizens due to their study of all things.

Browne’s “Religio Medici” (or, “The Religion of a Doctor”) is quite interesting. I could never quite decide whether I agreed or disagreed with him, and in my mind, that is the real charm of a good book. I found myself doing a bit of a mental ballet as I read it. The best word I have to describe it would be “dainty.” He speaks of his Protestantism and the high value he places on his own reason and the Holy Scriptures, above that of church authority and ritualistic religiosity and liturgy. However, beyond that particularly interesting point, I really enjoyed his descriptions of Biblical truths through the lens of scientific knowledge. Since Browne was a doctor, he thought in a very particular way, and it definitely was unique for the time. Where things got weird was when he started talking about alchemy and physiognomy, but even then, one must consider how long ago this book was written and how much we have learned since then about the way the world works.

That’s all for this week, friends! Tune in next Friday night! (Sorry this post was so late, but every student needs to attend a few parties now and again.)

NEXT WEEK: Vol. 4: Milton (again! And all alone this time!)

The Complete Poems of John Milton by John Milton

Volume 2: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius

Ah, logic. Greeks, Stoics, gadflies, my bread and butter. These guys knew how to make it happen. Pure logic. I still recall my freshman philosophy class with a great deal of fondness. Who doesn’t like a little Socratic method with their morning tea? For those of you who don’t know, Socrates never wrote any of his own dialogues down. He had a young fellow by the name of Plato (yes, for all you philosophers out there, I am aware that there is some disagreement about whether or not Plato really wrote the dialogues down, but just bear with me, I’m going with general consensus on this) who was something of a disciple, or student of Socrates. (You know, a Grandmaster never says he’s a Grandmaster. He lets other people do that for him.) In any case, I am disappointed that we don’t get to talk about any of Socrates’ other dialogues, because they’re really interesting. Let’s start by blowing through Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. Apology: The point of the Apology is that Socrates has been brought before the Men of Athens under charges that he has been corrupting the youth and blaspheming the gods (basically, he has been disturbing the peace). Socrates has no defendant, and treats his prosecutor (Meletus) the same way he would treat a student: by engaging in a dialogue with him about the nature of his accusations. He breaks down the logical fallacies in Meletus’s argument one by one, until essentially he begins to monologue about what his ultimate purpose is on earth, ultimately resulting in (spoiler alert!) his death sentence. He begins with the idea of corruption (the following is a loose paraphrase). Socrates: Who, in fact, is the improver of the people? Meletus: The laws. S: Who knows the laws? M: The judges. S: Are the judges able to instruct and improve youth? M: Yes. S: All of them, or some of them? M: All of them. S: And the audience? M: Yes. S: The Senators? M: Yes. S: The ecclesiasts? M: Yes. S: So, in fact, everyone in Athens improves and elevates the youth except me? M: Yes. S: Well, damn. And so on and so forth. (It’s not a great example of his method here, for which I apologize, but I want to get through everything I can in an extremely abridged fashion.) Then, Socrates changes the subject to horses, asking Meletus if it also holds true that one man does them harm and all the world does them good. He answers his own question, saying that of course not, in fact, the opposite is true: only one man (the trainer) is really able to do them good, and that all others who are inexperienced and clumsy can only ever do them harm. Then he moves on to the idea of good and bad citizens, asking, again rhetorically, which ones are better to live among. Finally, he asks if anyone would prefer to be injured rather than benefited by those who live among him. Socrates affirms that the charges against him are of intentionally corrupting the youth, and says that he either does not corrupt them or he corrupts them unintentionally, citing that if he did corrupt someone intentionally, it should follow that the person he corrupts would likely bring him harm, and not good, due to the nature of corruption. (phew!) That aside, he moves on to the charges borne out of the corruption jargon – the thing that the court really doesn’t like is that he supposedly teaches the youth to disregard the gods and is a teacher of atheism, and the “corrupting the youth” thing is a nice bag to stuff it in. Socrates tears this argument down in like fashion, eventually stating that “injustice and disobedience to a better, whether God or man, is evil and dishonorable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil.” (pg. 18) Gently, but deftly, he tells the Men of Athens that, essentially, they want to kill him because he annoys them, not out of any real sense of justice or deference to the gods. He considers himself a necessary irritant to keep the minds of the people from becoming dull: “I am that gadfly which God has given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.” (pg. 19) At this point, he advises (note that he does not plead, beg, or implore to any degree) the council to spare him, because “if you were to strike me dead, as Anytus advises, which you easily might, then you would sleep for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you gives you another gadfly.” (pg. 19) Socrates then reminds the people that he talks with anyone, not just those who can pay, and whether anyone turns out to be decent or dreadful “cannot justly be laid to my charge, as I never taught him anything.” (pg. 21) Clearly, Socrates considered himself more of a surgeon than a teacher – someone who poked and prodded at the mind to bring out what was already inside. The council doesn’t buy it, and Socrates is all like “eh, whatever, death is still the greatest adventure.” (paraphrase, again.) Crito I’m going to heavily abridge this one, because we have some heavy crap to drudge through. But in any case, this is a dialogue between Socrates and Crito while Socrates is in prison awaiting his death. (Dialogues of Socrates are usually titled after the person with whom Socrates was conversing.) Crito is a disciple of Socrates mentioned in Apology. Crito comes to see Socrates and is concerned that Socrates is being too calm about this whole thing, and it is implied that Crito himself is a little hurt that Socrates is willing to die without putting up a fuss. There’s some muddle, and then Crito suggests that Socrates should really hightail it out of there for everyone’s good, as the decision to have him put to death was frightfully unjust. Socrates begins by asking if he is correct to maintain that “some opinions, and the opinions of some men only, are to be valued, and other opinions, and the opinions of other men, are not to be valued.” (pg. 35) Crito agrees, and Socrates asks if only the good are to be valued, and the opinions of other men (read: bad men) are not to be valued. He then asks if the opinions of the wise are good, and the opinions of the unwise are evil. At this point, I feel that I must stop and point out what I believe to be a major fallacy in many of Socrates’ dialogue-driven arguments. Socrates seems to be comfortable with the notion that good people are always good and bad people are always bad. Bad people are always unwise (this idea is echoed in Epictetus as well as Marcus Aurelius, and most of the Stoics, really), and good people are usually wise. Goodness is the state of being learned and following in the footsteps of what one knows to be good, which is also considered wisdom. However, badness is simply the ignorance of goodness, because if Man knew how to behave in a wise, kind, genial fashion, he would always choose to do so, that being the optimal state of functioning. But we know that bad people can choose to do good things, and most bad people know that being selfish, cruel, or unkind is not the way we ought to behave. Hypocrites only exist because people know the way they ought to behave, and yet they choose to ignore their own advice. Our natural state of being is wickedness, but it is my experience that we never truly leave that natural self behind us as we mature. We are still selfish and cruel and unkind, but most of us find ways to mask it so we don’t get thrown in prison for being our true selves. I believe that none of us are truly good in the sense that Socrates or any of the other sophists mean, regardless of any self-improvement ventures we may embark upon through education or manners or spirituality, and history can speak for itself on that matter. Returning to Socrates, he suggests that the State has made this decision, and it would be unjust of him to defy the state in deed after he has sworn his allegiance to them in word. In point of fact, he appears to be giving supreme power to the State, not only to enforce the law, but to determine with unchecked absolution what is right and what is wrong, who should live and who should die. In other words, who is Socrates to say the State is being unjust? It’s the State. The whole point of its existence is to be the standard of rightness, the determiner of justice, the hand of God. A common idea, really. Phaedo Okay, last bit on Socrates, I promise. Then we’ll blow through some Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius and call it a night. So this takes place in Socrates last moments, and he and some dude named Phaedo, along with some other guys, have a conversation about the afterlife. Socrates offers four arguments in favor of the afterlife:

  1. The argument that Forms (souls, see Plato’s writings on the Realm of the Forms to understand more about Socratic and Platonic ideals of the soul, which inform a lot of Gnostic thought) are eternal and unchanging, in direct polar opposition to bodies, which are finite and in constant flux. He cites the differences between cold and warmth, among others.
  2. We possess some innate knowledge at birth, implying that our souls inhabited our bodies after existing in some other place, carrying the knowledge with them.
  3. Invisible, incorporeal things are different in essence from visible, corporeal things (try thinking of wind versus rain, and you’ll get the basic idea). Socrates claims that the soul, being invisible and incorporeal, contains an essence which does not die with the physical form.
  4. The Forms are the cause, not the result of literal matter. Incidentally, they are also perfect, unmarred by flesh. Because the soul is a Form itself, it cannot die, and thus must live on somewhere else.

Pretty cool stuff. I personally think that Socrates was still assuming a lot without much real proof, (like, that a soul exists at all, and that his idea of a soul isn’t some random projection of self mixed up with a few carryover ideas from Greek mythology) and a few of his arguments are a bit redundant (like points 1 and 4), but what’re you gonna do. It’s 344 BCE. I’ll give the guy a break. The Golden Sayings of Epictetus Epictetus was a Greek slave. He was lame, supposedly the result of cruel beatings from his master (in fact, he is something of a philosophical Aesop, when you think about it), and at some point he came into contact with the Stoic philosophy of C. Musonius Rufus. After he was emancipated from his slave labor, he became a teacher. He, like Socrates, left no personal writings, and all that we know of his teachings were the remembrances of his student, Arrian, who compiled a volume entitled “Discourses and Encheiridion,” from which the Golden Sayings are taken. Ultimately, Epictetus placed a great deal of emphasis on three points:

  1. Man must cultivate and learn to obey Reason in his soul (often referred to as a man’s “Guardian Spirit” in Epictetus’s sayings).
  2. Happiness can only be found by choosing contentment in all circumstances, and all the riches of this world are vain if a man cannot control his own emotions.
  3. Reliance on one’s external circumstances for joy or happiness is a crutch of the worst degree, and suggests that a man is chained to the world rather than directed by Reason.

Epictetus revered Socrates (most philosophers did, at this point), and particularly loved his mild behavior towards his aggressors and the ability he displayed to free his own mind from the literal physical imprisonment of his external circumstances. A few of his verses: LIX: “God is beneficent. But the Good is also beneficent. It should seem that where the real nature of God is, there too is to be found the real nature of the Good. What then is the real nature of God? – Intelligence, Knowledge, Right Reason. Here then without more ado seek the real nature of the Good. For surely thou dost not seek it in a plant or in an animal that reasoneth not.” (pg. 137) LXV: “When a youth was giving himself airs in the Theatre and saying, ‘I am wise, for I have conversed with many wise men,’ Epictetus replied, ‘I too have conversed with many rich men, yet I am not rich!’” (pg. 140) LXXII: “If a man would pursue Philosophy, his first task is to throw away conceit. For it is impossible for a man to begin to learn what he has a conceit that he already knows.” (pg. 146) The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus At last, we come to the end. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor from 161 AD – 180 AD. He is known by many as one of the few truly just emperors of Rome, whose rule was both moderate and fair, though plagued by a great deal of troublesome barbarian warfare. For most of his rule, he stayed away from unnecessary violence, but during his time on the throne Rome was visited by a dreadful disease, and the people called out for the Christians to be sacrificed, as they had most certainly brought the wrath of the gods upon their heads, and he relented to the people and many perished. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations read almost like a journal or an autobiography; first detailing his various mentors and the beginnings of his education, then moving into various philosophical topics, often citing Socrates and Epictetus, among other stoics and sophists. He obviously respected his father, in whom he observed “mildness of temper, unchangeable resolution in the things which he had determined after due deliberation; and no vainglory in those things which men call honours; and a love of labour and perseverance; and a readiness to listen to those who had anything to propose for the common weal; and undeviating firmness in giving to every man according to his deserts; and a knowledge derived from experience of the occasions for vigorous action and for remission. And I observed that he had overcome all passion for joys; and he considered himself no more than any other citizen, and he released his friends from all obligation to sup with him or to attend him of a necessity when he went abroad, and those who failed to accompany him by reason of any urgent circumstances, always found him the same.” (pg. 196, v. 16) Aurelius echoes the Stoic idea that bad people are bad (or unfortunate) because of a lack of knowledge, not an innate badness within all of us that we know to be bad, and not good or natural in regard to what we were created to be. “Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.” (pg. 198, v. 1) This post is already too long, so I will take pause here and hang up the mantle for another week. I am, by my own estimation, something of a thinker, but not a great philosopher, so this has been a good exercise for me and I hope you have enjoyed my brief analysis. I am ever apologetic that I cannot go into greater detail in these posts, but if I did, we’d never get through the books. I am certain that more excellent opportunities to engage with philosophy await us in future volumes! NEXT WEEK: Vol. 3: Bacon, Milton, Browne Essays, Civil and Moral and The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon Areopagitica and Tractate on Education by John Milton Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne

Volume 1: Franklin, Woolman, Penn

Well, I have finished reading through Vol. 1. Due to the fact that the first two readings were an autobiography and a journal, and the third was essentially a book of proverbs, I don’t have much in the way of analysis. However, I can give you my various criticisms and accolades concerning each, since as we all know, opinions can be formed on the shakiest of foundations.

Franklin’s autobiography is broken into four parts. Parts 1, 2, and 3 are broken up into large chronological chunks, and part 4 was written later but ties seamlessly to part 3. Ben Franklin began writing his autobiography well before the Revolutionary War. I assume that the reason he chose to do this was because, like Beethoven and so many other self-aware people throughout history, he realized that people would inevitably want to know about his life.

The first part was written to his son as a sort of letter, because I guess writing a letter about yourself and giving it to your kid is better than actually sitting down with them and telling them stories about yourself. That’s probably just me being picky, but still. In any case, he starts by talking about what a smart boy he was growing up, and how much he loved to read. Through his love of reading, he discovered an interest in writing, and improved his skill by studying Addison and Steele’s Spectator. Eventually, he started writing the “Silence Dogood” essays and finds some modest success in doing so, and eventually revealed himself to be the author. His brother, who employs Ben in his printing shop, is furious that Ben would be so vain as to accept such accolades, and worries that he will become over-proud. The rest of part 1 doesn’t do much for the reader unless you like inspirational stories about how Ben Franklin is the best at everything, including being the most humble (see more on this below.)

Part 2 contains two letters from friends, both of whom encourage Franklin to continue writing the autobiography, as they have read part 1 and enjoyed it immensely. After the letters, Franklin talks a bit about his plans to open a public library, and how it turned out to be a smashing success. However, before all that, he starts to go into what I think is probably the most interesting part of the autobiography, where he describes his budding interest in Deism and eventual creation of the famous Virtues, which is where I will start my real analysis (I don’t care much for part 3 or 4, as they are both much of the same, with a little interesting talk about the Revolution sprinkled in here and there, and besides, nobody wants to read a 10,000 word post on Franklin, since we still need to get to Woolman and Penn).

Franklin became a Deist around age 15 when he read some of Boyle’s Lectures, which were actually intended to refute Deism. They had the opposite effect on Franklin, and he found that the quoted arguments of the Deists held more water than the refutations. He decided eventually, however, that Deism, while potentially true, was not terribly useful as a doctrine, and chose to pursue virtue as “truth, sincerity, and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life,” and that “though certain actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it, or good because it commanded them, yet probably these actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us, in their own natures, all the circumstances of things considered.” (pg. 56)

Franklin then went on to detail his plan for self-improvement, which as a general form is taken from Cicero, the Bible, Pythagoras, and Socrates, to name a few, but in my opinion, he was probably most heavily influenced by Aristotle’s notion of “telos.” His thirteen virtues were as follows (pg. 79-80):

  1. Temperance
  2. Silence
  3. Order
  4. Resolution
  5. Frugality
  6. Industry
  7. Sincerity
  8. Justice
  9. Moderation
  10. Cleanliness
  11. Tranquility
  12. Chastity
  13. Humility

His overall intention was to “acquire the habitude of all these virtues.” (pg. 80) That is, he was reasonable enough to know that he would not be able to address all his weak points at once, but that he would need to master one area at a time.

I am impressed with Franklin to some degree, and I think he deserves it. He was a very accomplished man. He was an inventor, a revolutionary, an author, a political genius, a humorist, and countless other things which we have no time or space to mention here. However, he fails to impress me in his futile quest for personal virtue. This list of virtues, while commendable, is ultimately unachievable because he is starting from a point of presumed weakness, which thus disqualifies him to recognize or define morality in any great way. Franklin could work on his futile quest for the rest of his life, but ultimately, the standard he uses to define success in his endeavor is just an imaginary, less sinfully afflicted version of himself, a sort of pious personal Übermensch.

Frankly, virtue is a hopeless solo endeavor. Even in the absence of an objective religious standard outside himself in each one of these areas, it would seem obvious that he should appoint someone whom he felt was qualified to assess him in his progress and give him honest feedback in regards to it. All morality is warped when determined by fallen men. Even slaveholders can convince themselves that their occupation is virtuous when it serves their own ends. Franklin fails to realize, or at worst, intentionally ignores, that human beings are inordinately selfish by mere nature alone, and that even the quest for personal virtue is essentially futile if said morality is obtained only to serve one’s own ends. When the quest for virtue becomes a mountain to be conquered, it can never contain the real spark that makes it truly good and useful – the simple key that virtue can only be found through humble submission to the standard that is Christ. Without that, you only have religion – self-betterment to achieve a personal feeling of righteousness.

That being said, I believe that if you want to read any more about Franklin, you ought to just read the autobiography yourself.

Now, let us move on to Woolman. I really enjoyed reading this. I was struck with two observations as I read:

  1. Woolman was a truly, legitimately humble man. He speaks very little about himself at all, for a journal. He may be the single most important reason that the Quakers spoke out faithfully against slavery a hundred years before it was abolished (when during his lifetime it was not uncommon for Quakers to own slaves), and yet he preferred to proclaim the glories of God and the wonder of the Gospel than to trouble himself with trifling about his personal accomplishments, which were considerable.
  2. Woolman could have easily been a Franklin under different circumstances.

Let’s start from point 1. Woolman struggled greatly with personal sin throughout his life, and detailed it in his journal with a great degree of sincerity. He was very self-aware, and agonized over personal virtue, eventually coming to the conclusion that the Gospel of Christ was not primarily about perfecting the individual, but rather redeeming humanity to Himself. Therefore, he sought to publicize the plight of the marginalized and establish their personhood, hoping to bring them to the saving knowledge of Christ and do his part in bearing the burden of the Gospel. The most prominent beneficiaries of John Woolman’s work were slaves, particularly among the Quakers. Self-betterment only ever comes up in Woolman’s journal as a faulty idea attempted by foolish people who cannot recognize their own frailty without God.

Concerning my second point, Woolman and Franklin had a lot of similarities in their raw human makeup. Both were exceedingly persuasive, genteel, given to high standards personal excellence, ethical, and methodical. However, while Franklin chose a more idealistic path of self-improvement in order to address his moral failings, Woolman chose to place himself under the Gospel. This, it appears, made all the difference, both in terms of virtue and of life direction.

Woolman was certainly no William Wallace. He was not built to be a violent revolutionary, pillaging the remains of a corrupt society and recapturing it for God’s glory in a sort of spiritual crusade. However, he was the undisputed leader of a lifelong revolution, from one congregation to another, from one job to another, and is, as I said before, he was probably the most important factor in the Quaker rejection of slavery simply due to his dedication in pleading with people to recognize the human beings beside them as fellow tzelem elohim. Woolman truly believed of all human life, no matter how low, that “these are the souls for whom Christ died, and for our conduct towards them we must answer before Him who is no respecter of persons… the indignation of God is kindled against oppression and cruelty, and in beholding the great distress of so numerous a people will find cause for mourning.” (pg. 207)

John Woolman provides us with an excellent example of nonviolent change on a large scale in a relatively short amount of time. He appealed to his brethren on behalf of their slaves and convinced them to change their minds, which is hard enough, but then to change their conduct and way of life, something which is much harder to do. He never so much as had a shouting match with anyone as far as I can tell, and yet something in his nature and passion appealed to Man’s better nature and persuaded him to change his conduct in an altogether altruistic way. I believe that Woolman’s appeal to the plight of the enslaved would have been utterly vain without his steadfast belief that “(He) alone is able to turn the hearts of the mighty, and make way for the spreading of truth on the earth, by means agreeable to His infinite wisdom.” (pg. 208)

I am greatly pained to skip past all the other wonderful topics that Woolman explores in his journal, such as the pursuit of profit, pacifism, humanism, consumerism, and general social justice. I would love to pick apart his hamartiological arguments and compare them to those of St. Augustine, etc. However, speed is the name of the game, and we must move along.

Finally, we come to Penn’s Fruits of Solitude. First, you need to know that this is NOT the William Penn you are thinking of. (These are not the droids you’re looking for…) This is his son, also named William Penn. He was a devout Quaker, and wrote a number of short verses during life, including his multiple imprisonments. He is an interesting combination of Franklin and Woolman in style and form, making heavy use of Franklinian pith and wit to create memorable, quippy sayings, but drawing on a Woolman-like mystical spirituality. It is ultimately useless to analyze these sayings, as they are meant to stand alone or in short groups, but I will close with a few of my favorites:

On Government:

329. “Government has many Shapes: But ‘t is Sovereignty, tho’ not Freedom, in all of them.” (pg. 350)

337. “Let the People think they Govern and they will be Govern’d.” (pg. 350)

On Respect:

254. “A Man like a Watch, is to be valued for his Goings.” (pg. 345)

On Country Life:

221. “As Puppets are to Men, and Babies (dolls) to Children, so is Man’s Workmanship to God’s: We are the Picture, he the Reality.” (pg. 342)

On Pride:

26. “In his Prayers he says, Thy Will be done: But means his own: At least acts so.” (pg. 325)

 

NEXT WEEK: Vol. 2: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius

The Apology, Phaedo, and Crito, by Plato

The Golden Sayings by Epictetus

The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Week 1 – An Introduction

I have been threatening to do this for a while now.

A few things you need to know about me to understand why I’m doing what I’m doing here:

1. I just graduated from college with a degree in music composition. (Big bucks, people.)

2. I decided not to go directly to grad school because I have $17,000 in school debt.

3. I really, really like school. Like, I never want to leave.

4. I got really sad when it hit me that I didn’t have any school left. Sad as in depressed. Depressed as in I stopped cleaning my apartment and going anywhere.

So, I started to think. And I realized two things:

1. Education isn’t synonymous with “going to school.” I should know that, I was homeschooled. Education is something you do for yourself, even if you are in school.

2. I have a lot of books. I’ve read many of them, but there are a few dense puppies on my shelves that I have never traveled through.

As I realized these things, my eye wandered to my shelf of Harvard Classics. My Grandma Joan gifted them to me years ago for my birthday, assuming that I would be at least somewhat likely to read them. I have always intended to read them, but things kept getting in the way. The most obvious “thing” standing in the way of this epic literary adventure has been — you guessed it — formal education.

A wild idea formed in my mind.

Harvard University president Dr. Charles Eliot put together 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics. There are 52 weeks in a year. I like personal challenges, except when I have to change my eating habits or run on a treadmill. Why not challenge myself to read all 51 Harvard Classics in a year? At least one book per week, one week off for Christmas vacation. Totally doable. Free Harvard-level education. It’s almost too good to be true.

Of course, it wouldn’t be enough to just say I had read them, or that I was reading them at such a clip (seriously though, I am a fast reader). I needed some way to prove I had done it. Hence, this blog. Journey with me as I blast through the classics, blog about my experience, and post my own humble analyses of the great literary works I am reading over the next year. If you feel so inclined, join me!

This week: Volume 1.

Franklin, Benjamin. His Autobiography (Full disclosure: I kind of cheated a little and started this one already to make sure I could keep up the pace. I should be good.)

Woolman, John. The Journal of John Woolman

Penn, William. Fruits of Solitude