Now featuring organization!

What my mind isn't.


What is at the core of Western Tradition? For what paramount value did Socrates die drinking hemlock and Bacon die freezing chickens? Why, end-user convenience, of course! And so dig, if you will, this picture: all my entries organized by volume. I include the titles of the volumes, direct from great-grandfather's spines, in order to give you an idea of what the HC is all about -- an ingredient list, if you will, of the Five Foot Shelf's old-school intellectual muesli.

Volume 1: Franklin, Woolman, Penn
Volume 2: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius
Volume 3: Bacon, Milton's Prose, Thos. Browne
Volume 4: Complete Poems In English, Milton
Volume 5: Essays and English Traits, Emerson
Volume 6: Poems and Songs, Burns
Volume 7: Confessions of St. Augustine, Imitation of Christ
Volume 8: Nine Greek Dramas
Volume 9: Letters and Treatises of Cicero and Pliny
Volume 10: Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith
Volume 11: Origin of Species, Darwin
Volume 12: Plutarch's Lives
Volume 13: Aeneid, Virgil
Volume 14: Don Quixote Part I, Cervantes
Volume 15: Pilgrim's Progress, Donne & Herbert, Bunyan, Walton
Volume 16: The Thousand and One Nights
Volume 17: Folk-lore and Fable, Aesop, Grimm, Andersen
Volume 18: Modern English Drama (Warning: ends at Browning)
Volume 19: Faust, Egmont, etc. Doctor Faustus, Goethe, Marlowe
Volume 20: The Divine Comedy, Dante
Volume 21: I Promessi Sposi, Manzoni
Volume 22: The Odyssey, Homer
Volume 23: Two Years Before The Mast, Dana
Volume 24: On the Sublime, French Revolution, etc., Burke
Volume 25: Autobiography, etc., Essays and Address, J.S. Mill, T. Carlyle
Volume 26: Continental Drama
Volume 27: English Essays, Sidney to Macaulay
Volume 28: Essays English and American
Volume 29: Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin
Volume 30: Faraday, Helmholtz, Kelvin, Newcomb, etc. (Warning: sciency)
Volume 31: Autobiography, Benvenuto Cellini !!!
Volume 32: Lieterary and Philosophical Essays, Montaigne, Sainte Beuve, Renan, etc.
Volume 33: Voyages and Travels
Volume 34: French and English Philosophers, Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hobbes
Volume 35: Chronicle and Romance, Froissart, Malory, Holinshed
Volume 36: Machiavelli, More, Luther Or, "the one I took to college to save money and lost, thereby destroying the value of the set."
Volume 37: Locke, Berkeley, Hume Never again.
Volume 38: Harvey, Jenner, Lister, Pasteur
Volume 39: Famous Prefaces
Volume 40: English Poetry 1: Chaucer to Gray
Volume 41: English Poetry 2: Collins to Fitzgerald
Volume 42: English Poetry 3: Tennyson to Whitman
Volume 43: American Historical Documents
Volume 44: Sacred Writings 1
Volume 45: Sacred Writings 2
Volume 46: Elizabethan Drama 1
Volume 47: Elizabethan Drama 2
Volume 48: Thoughts and Minor Works, Pascal
Volume 49: Epic and Saga

Man, just typing these titles out brings back memories. Not of anything I read -- all that stuff has already gone right out of my head. But memories of doing the act of reading them: in the fine California sun of a morning, or while waiting for my daughter to finish her clarinet lesson. For the unemployed man with a mortgage, reading these books proved a great distraction from unmitigated terror. (Distraction from terror is probably the primitive origin of all philosophy and literature -- to help us forget that we have caught, or someday will catch, gangrene.)

And I realize how little I read of each book, how I only scratched the surface (to continue the gangrene metaphor). It's pretty humbling, even for a hardened dilettante like me. Not as humbling as reading my own writing would be, though. But that is a task I can happily leave to you.

And now it's really over

The press of work (office jobs suck) has prevented me from really engaging with the legacy of this project. In some ways, when thinking about it, I fold it into the general experience of my year of un- and under-employment, instead of evaluating it on its own terms. But I have to come to terms with it, and soon, because I promised I would write an essay about it for some anthology of Manly Men Writing Manly-ly About Masculine Things; I think they're looking for something lighter to contrast with pieces about failed love affairs and unexpected illness. I pitched my essay as a journal of a midlife crisis project -- the way other middle-aged guys train to run a marathon, or take to carpentry, I sat on my ass and read Burke. 5t suited me.

But the trouble I'm having is the Drawing Conclusions part. I think it's because I didn't start this or continue it, in order to draw conclusions-- or even, really, to learn anything. I wouldn't say that I'm smarter or wiser or better for the experience. I just did it because I thought it was a fun thing to do. If there's any wisdom I gained, it's that I have learned to accept myself as the kind of eccentric individual who thinks it's fun to read something written by one Dead White Guy and selected by another.

And I should say one other thing. In my cynical way, I was always aware of the Harvard Classics as a way for Collier's Publishing to make money off of free content by selling it as status to people like my great-grandfather. But we cynics are all idealists too; and I do believe in the tradition it represents. Not that we should sacralize it, or ignore everything outside of it, but these works are often useful and at times beautiful, and now, it's our turn to keep them meaningful. And so I'm most satisfied that I joined with you, my small but faithful readers, to play my part to shore these fragments against our ruin.

Slightly OT: Perfection Wasted

Today would have been my dad's birthday, so he is very much on my mind, as he was for every entry here at the end. Here's an Updike poem (so even more apropos) he had read at his memorial service:

Perfection Wasted

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market --
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories
packed in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That's it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren't the same.

Arrears blogging: November 17 -- Make It Big

As a critic, I'm a little too timid. That's what comes from being a dilettante -- no confidence. I could be talked out of anything. But this was not Carlyle's problem. He felt that sick people were losers:

We say not that; but we do say, that ill-health, of body or of mind, is defeat, is battle (in a good or in a bad cause) with bad success; that health alone is victory. Let all men, if they can manage it, contrive to be healthy! He who in what cause soever sinks into pain and disease, let him take thought of it; let him know well that it is not good he has arrived at yet, but surely evil,
Did I say "losers"? I meant "evildoers." And note that Carlyle took pains to include bodily sickness in here. This is the last reading I have to do, and in retrospect I think it might have gone better if I had laid on the "sick people are evil" type of pronounciamentos a little thicker. (This despite the fact that Carlyle had praised Scott's childhood polio as making him fit for indoor work.)

The other thing I note with a smile (here I go, smiling again, when I should be thundering) the passage begins with Carlyle talking about how awesome the Scots are:
...a certain spiritual manhood, ready for all work that man can do, endures there. It may take many forms: the form of hard-fisted money-getting industry, as in the vulgar Scotchman, in the vulgar New Englander; but as compact developed force and alertness of faculty, it is still there; it may utter itself one day as the colossal Scepticism of a Hume (beneficent this too though painful, wrestling Titan-like through doubt and inquiry towards new belief); and again, some better day, it may utter itself as the inspired Melody of a Burns...
And then, at the end, there's an aside which seems characteristically Scotch:
[T}he thing men call fame, what is it? A gaudy emblazonry, not good for much,—except, indeed, as it too may turn to money.
Which I take to mean that one of the foremost social critics of the Victorian era thinks it's okay for famous people to do commercials. That is thinking big.

Arrears blogging: November 16 -- Ungovernable

I've remarked before about the similarities between Richard Henry Dana's description of the Mexican-run California of the 1830s and the current version that I live in, and in today's reading, the parallels continue to be downright eerie :

In their domestic relations, these people are no better than in their public. The men are thriftless, proud, and extravagant, and very much given to gaming; and the women have but little education, and a good deal of beauty, and their morality, of course, is none of the best.
I kid; we're no worse here than they are anywhere else (the evidence of this site notwithstanding). In a way, this chapter is but an early example of people from back East disapproving of California for its unmitigated pleasantness. And Dana is from Boston, which makes it a perfect example also:
In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be! we are ready to say. Yet how long would a people remain so, in such a country? The Americans (as those from the United States are called) and Englishmen, who are fast filling up the principal towns, and getting the trade into their hands, are indeed more industrious and effective than the Spaniards; yet their children are brought up Spaniards, in every respect, and if the “California fever” (laziness) spares the first generation, it always attacks the second.
He doesn't like our laid-back ways and our Mexicans, which would actually make him a good caller on KFI talk radio.

But while censorious disapproval is the native song of the Yankee liberal, and so easy to make fun of, it doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong; Dana takes pains to point out how miserable the Indians have it:
When a crime has been committed by Indians, justice, or rather vengeance, is not so tardy. One Sunday afternoon, while I was at San Diego, an Indian was sitting on his horse, when another, with whom he had had some difficulty, came up to him, drew a long knife, and plunged it directly into the horse’s heart. ...The poor fellow was seized at once, clapped into the calabozo, and kept there until an answer could be received from Monterey. A few weeks afterwards, I saw the poor wretch, sitting on the bare ground, in front of the calabozo, with his feet chained to a stake, and handcuffs about his wrists. I knew there was very little hope for him. Although the deed was done in hot blood, the horse on which he was sitting being his own, and a great favorite, yet he was an Indian, and that was enough. In about a week after I saw him, I heard that he had been shot. These few instances will serve to give one a notion of the distribution of justice in California.
Nowadays there would also be a proposition on the ballot about this -- perhaps advocating that the corpse get life imprisonment or something -- misleading ads cluttering your TV and radio and mailbox and answering machine. So you see, there is more industriousness in California than there used to be.

Arrears blogging: November 15 -- Hard Times

I am often amused by the disconnect between the Daily Reading and the Guide's description of it. Today, for example, we're promised:

Food profiteering was as active in plague-stricken Milan 300 years ago as in modern times. Shops were stormed for food. Read how the Council strove heroically to fix fair rates.
And in the actual reading (from Manzoni's "I Promessi Sposi"), we read how it wasn't heroic at all, but a terrible policy that was a disaster:
The multitude had tried to procure abundance by pillage and incendiarism; the legal arm would have maintained it with the galleys and the scourge...It is easy, too, to see, and not useless to observe, the necessary connection between these stranger measures; each was an inevitable consequence of the antecedent one; and all of the first, which fixed a price upon bread so different to that which would have resulted from the real state of things. ... In proportion, then, as the consequences begin to be felt, it is necessary that they whose duty it is should provide a remedy for each, by a regulation, prohibiting men to do what they were impelled to do by the preceding one...[T]he disproportion between food and the demand for it, (which far from being removed, was even increased, by the remedies which temporarily suspended its effects)
The free-marketers reading this will smile -- see what happens when government gets mixed up in the magic of the market? But Tories like myself would urge them to look a little deeper; the government only got mixed up because a mob formed; the key is to promote wise policies that prevent mobs in the first place -- and laissez-faire often seems to cause the mobs to form. (Although we in the TV business are doing our best to keep them at home and away from the meetings!)

There is also something in here that will satisfy the non-conservative. In the tale of a heroic priest, Manzoni also draws a little object lesson in favor of the permanent welfare state:
But these fruits of charity, which we may certainly specify as wonderful, when we consider that they proceeded from one individual, and from his sole resources, (for Federigo habitually refused to be made a dispenser of the liberality of others), these, together with the bounty of other private persons, if not so copious, at least more numerous, and the subsidies granted by the Council of the Decurioni to meet this emergency, the dispensation of which was committed to the Board of Provision, were, after all, in comparison of the demand, scarce and inadequate.
However, Manzoni notes that by then people were too hungry to be a mob, and the passage ends with a little meditation that seems appropriate when we contemplate the monstrous totalitarian evils of the 20th century:
It is worthy of remark, that in such an extremity of want, in such a variety of complaints, not one attempt was ever made, not one rumour ever raised, to bring about an insurrection: at least, we find not the least mention of such a thing. Yet, among those who lived and died in this way, there was a great number of men brought up to anything rather than patient endurance; there were, indeed, in hundreds, those very same individuals who, on St. Martin’s-day [when there had been bread riots -- ed.], had made themselves so sensibly felt...But so constituted are we mortals in general, that we rebel indignantly and violently against medium evils, and bow in silence under extreme ones; we bear, not with resignation, but stupefaction, the weight of what at first we had called insupportable.
Yucky but true. Or, in the words of one of my favorite Onion headlines, "Americans Shrug, Line Up For Fingerprinting."

Arrears blogging: November 14 -- Our High-Strung Planet

One of the things about the science stuff in the Harvard Classics is that it's difficult for the non-scientist to figure out how outdated it is. Take Charles Lyell, giant of geology (apparently), and stimulator of Darwin. In today's reading he makes an argument that the geologic processes we've seen are the same ones that made the geologic world we dig into and puzzle about, or at least he appears to; it's pretty dense going:

The readiest way, perhaps, of persuading the reader that we may dispense with great and sudden revolutions in the geological order of events is by showing him how a regular and uninterrupted series of changes in the animate and inanimate world must give rise to such breaks in the sequence, and such unconformability of stratified rocks, as are usually thought to imply convulsions and catastrophes.
Do we believe this anymore? I mean we believe it in the sense that we don't believe that the fossil record is the way it is because of the Flood; but I think we have a better sense of all the catastrophes our poor planet has been through -- extinctions and the planet almost freezing to death and it's current incarnation of deciding that it would rather be Venus.

In fact, in the section of this reading where Lyell starts talking about why the fossil record is so random, you get the sense that Mother Earth is one of those unstable, ever-changable moms you read about in the My-Crazy-Family genre of memoir:
Forests may be as dense and lofty as those of Brazil, and may swarm with quadrupeds, birds, and insects, yet at the end of thousands of years one layer of black mould a few inches thick may be the sole representative of those myriads of trees, leaves, flowers, and fruits, those innumerable bones and skeletons of birds, quadrupeds, and reptiles, which tenanted the fertile region....

The sediment of the Rhone, for example, thrown into the Lake of Geneva, is now conveyed to a spot a mile and a half distant from that where it accumulated in the tenth century, and six miles from the point where the delta began originally to form. We may look forward to the period when this lake will be filled up, and then the distribution of the transported matter will be suddenly altered...

Rocks before concealed may have become exposed by denudation; volcanos may have burst out and covered the surface with scoriƦ and lava...
Of course, being a Californian, I know that the earth cannot be propitiated. Geologists, taking the long view as they do, seem to be fairly cool about this. Maybe natural philosophy is the best one after all.

Arrears blogging: November 13 -- Portrait of a Puritan As A Young Man

In the opening of today's passage (which I first encountered in an Updike short story, coincidentally enough) St. Augustine is hard (heh, heh) on himself:

TO CARTHAGE I came, where there sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves. I loved not yet, yet I loved to love, and out of a deep-seated want, I hated myself for wanting not. I sought what I might love, in love with loving, and safety I hated, and a way without snares... For this cause my soul was sickly and full of sores, it miserably cast itself forth, desiring to be scraped by the touch of objects of sense. ... I defiled, therefore, the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscense, and I beclouded its brightness with the hell of lustfulness...
He got all up in there, is what he's trying to say, and what an awful sin he found it to be, his rolling around in the hay with girls. (I particularly like, as an image, his sick soul "desiring to be scraped by the touch of objects of sense" -- true enough, really -- why do bankers build big houses? To scrape the sores of their souls with them.) And then, even worse, he went to the theater:
But I, miserable, then loved to grieve, and sought out what to grieve at, when in another’s and that feigned and personated misery, that acting best pleased me, and attracted me the most vehemently, which drew tears from me. What marvel that an unhappy sheep straying from Thy flock, and impatient of Thy keeping, I became infected with a foul disease?
It's good that the Harvard Classics contains within it at least one rant against popular culture infecting a wayward youth? For that's what Augustine is, in this part of his autobio -- he's nineteen. Somehow I missed this fact when I was assigned this book in college, even though I was nineteen myself at the time. I suspect that, like the young saint, I had my mind on other things.

And when you go back and read the passages, they seem to be describing not so much an archsinner as a typical nineteen-year-old, let loose at college in a big city, weepy over his pop culture, feeling deeply, chasing the opposite sex, hot for love and perhaps confusing lust with it. He even wants to be a lawyer to please his mother. He could be anybody (which is his point, I guess). And that he presents himself here, in later life, condemning the wild ways which he has made sure to enjoy already -- well, that's small-c classic too.