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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.