I Don’t Know

When Fanny Price’s cousins in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park learned just how deficient her education had been, they were most unkind.

“Dear mama, only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together—or my cousin cannot tell the principal rivers in Russia—or, she never heard of Asia Minor—or she does not know the difference between water-colours and crayons!—How strange!—Did you ever hear anything so stupid?”

When compared to their own education, Fanny’s was woefully inferior.

“I cannot remember the time when I did not know a great deal that she has not the least notion of yet. How long ago it is, aunt, since we used to repeat the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns.” “Yes,” added the other; “and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the Heathen Mythology, and all the Metals, Semi-Metals, Planets, and distinguished philosophers.”

I would certainly have some trouble putting the map of Europe together. (Especially around the Balkans.) I also don’t know the principal rivers of Russia or the kings of England. Of the Roman emperors, I can only recount the first handful. But Fanny Price was only ten years old, and from a family of quite limited means; what’s my excuse? Indeed, there are a great many notable holes in my knowledge. Although I am somewhat embarrassed to admit these deficiencies, it is far better to admit them then to pretend that I have learned everything that I can or should. And so, I present a (quite incomplete) list of things that I do not know:

  • How many yards are in a rod, furlong, or mile.
  • The books of the Bible, in order.
  • The constellations and their seasons.
  • How to play a musical instrument.
  • The number and names of the bones of the human body.
  • The meaning of “transcendental”.
  • The presidents of the United States, their vice presidents, and their first ladies.
  • The difference between forfeiture and waiver.
  • A second language (very much in spite of my formal education.)
  • Virtually any modern philosophy.
  • Virtually any Asian or Arabic philosophy.
  • And, of course, there are a great many things that I do not know that I do not know.

Much as Dr. Watson was shocked to learn that Sherlock Holmes was ignorant of the heliocentric theory of the solar system, I imagine that my own ignorance on certain subjects must surely surprise others. I will, I hope, remedy at least a few of these deficiencies in time. If nothing else, I have at least one advantage over Fanny Price’s cousins: I know that I have not reached the end of my education.

“If you are ever so forward and clever yourselves, you should always be modest; for, much as you know already, there is a great deal more for you to learn.”
“Yes, I know there is, till I am seventeen.”

Beer of the week: Sarajevsko Premium – Although I could not positively point it out on a map, Sarajevo is the origin of this Euro lager. The brewery is creatively named Sarajevska Pivara. The beer is very pale, and just a little cloudy. The aroma is like that of most Czech lagers that I’ve had, a bit hoppy and a bit malty. I am always surprised how different European beers taste and smell when compared to similar American beers. Sarajevsko is a fine beer, but could be better. More hops would help, for one thing. And it has a slightly sticky mouthfeel rather than a good, crisp finish.

Reading of the week: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – Without giving too much away, Fanny Price ultimately gets the better of her unkind cousins. And as much as this scene demonstrates Fanny’s rusticities and awkwardness, it shows the thoughtlessness and vanity of her cousins and aunt even more.

Question for the week: What do you not know, even though you know that you should?


A Little Bit of Conversation

One of the great joys of reading widely is seeing how authors and ideas respond to each other. This referencing, refuting, and rephrasing done throughout history that has led some to think of the entire development of literature and philosophy as an ongoing conversation. Take, for example, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. That didactic poem was an exploration of the teachings of Epicurus, who lived and wrote some 300 years before Lucretius. In it, Lucretius writes:

Sweet it is, when on the great sea the winds are buffeting the waters,
to gaze from the land on another’s great struggles;
not because it is pleasure or joy that any one should be distressed,
but because it is sweet to perceive from what misfortune you yourself are free.
Sweet is it too, to behold great contests of war in full array over the plains,
when you have no part in the danger.

Some 1,800 years later, the poetess Charlotte Smith responds Lucretius. She also describes the pleasure of looking watching the sea from a safe spot on the shore, but watching men suffer and die takes all of the sweetness out of it:

The upland shepherd, as reclined he lies
On the soft turf that clothes the mountain brow,
Marks the bright sea-line mingling with the skies;
Or from his course celestial sinking low
The summer sun in purple radiance glow
Blaze on the western waters; the wide scene
Magnificent and tranquil seems to spread
Even over the rustic’s breast a joy serene,
When, like dark plague-spots by the demons shed,
Charged deep with death, upon the waves far seen
Move the war-freighted ships; and fierce and red
Flash their destructive fires–The mangled dead
And dying victims then pollute the flood.
Ah! thus man spoils glorious works with blood!

Where Lucretius perceives the suffering of others as a sweet reminder of our own relative security, Smith sees the suffering of others (particularly the human-inflicted suffering) as a great mar on the otherwise awe-inspiring world.

This reading of Smith as an answer to Lucretius is supported further by her poem The Emigrants. The poem begins on the cliffs of the English coast, facing France, a country in the midst of a bloody revolution. Shortly before encountering refuges from the conflict, the narrator announces:

For never yet could I derive relief;
When my swol’n heart was bursting with its sorrows,
From the sad thought, that others like myself
Live but to swell affliction’s countless tribes!

Again, where Lucretius finds sweetness in knowing that others suffer more than he, Smith derives no relief. In fact, it seems to make her own suffering even worse; not only must she endure her own sorrows, but also the knowledge that others seem to live only to suffer.

Despite these differences in perspective on the afflictions of others, Lucretius and Smith have a similar opinion about what life would be most enjoyable: one of isolation. For Lucretius, this isolation is found in philosophy, where he would “dwell in the calm high places, firmly embattled on the heights by the teaching of the wise.” For Smith, the desired isolation appears to be more literal:

How often do I half abjure Society,
And sigh for some lone Cottage, deep embower’d
In the green woods, that these steep chalky Hills
Guard from the strong South West; where round their base
The Beach wide flourishes, and the light Ash
With slender leaf half hides the thymy turf!—
There do I wish to hide me; well content
If on the short grass, strewn with fairy flowers,
I might repose thus shelter’d.

Nearly two thousand years separate Lucretius and Smith, and yet they each appear to play a part in the ongoing conversation. The common inquiry into the human condition makes each text richer, and the whole of the Western canon that much grander.

Beer of the week: Optimator – This doppelbock comes from Munich’s Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu. It is a pretty, dark brown with a quickly dissipating head of small bubbles. The aroma has hints of ripe, dark fruit. Optimator is not syrupy, exactly, but it is very rich and full. This is a good beer to sip on over a longish period of time; not just because of the 7.5% alcohol content, but also because the flavor opens up a bit as the beer warms.

Reading of the week: The Emigrants by Charlotte Smith – The French Revolution must have been a very perplexing event for the English. To side with the monarchy was to side with England’s perennial adversary. To side with the revolutionaries was to oppose the very notion of divine right. But the countless victims of such a regime change, no matter their allegiance, are worthy of our pity.

Question of the week: What works do you see as responses to earlier writings?

Woman’s Ornament

In my experience, people tend toward one of two extremes when analyzing the writings of the ancients (and, to varying degrees, those of other bygone eras.) The one extreme is to assume that the authors, as products of a primitive time, have nothing to offer. We are so much more enlightened now; all of the ancients must be regarded as quite ignorant. The other extreme is to ignore the faults of the ancients, or, if they cannot be ignored, to make every possible contortion to explain them away. The ancients could not err when it came to thinking because, as Homer’s heroes could single-handedly lift boulders that a dozen modern men could hardly budge, the philosophers of old possessed intellectual powers far beyond those of any modern genius.

Take, for example, the treatment of women by Aristotle and Plato. Our modern understanding of the differences between men and women is very much at odds with the apparent opinions of Aristotle and Socrates on the subject. What do we do in the face of these problematic ancient texts?

One approach is to throw out Aristotle and Plato entirely. Sexism is so embedded in their thought, some opine, that their writing can have no value in our modern world. Even as early as the 15th century, William Caxton wrote that “if [Plato] had made fault in writing of women, he ought not, ne should not, be believed in his other dictes and sayings.”* (As we will see shortly, Caxton does not actually find fault with Plato’s treatment of women.) Likewise, Aristotle was extremely wrong about the role of the female in sexual reproduction, so his philosophy on humans generally can’t be trusted. These “dead white men” are so out of touch with our modern knowledge and sensibilities that they can hardly be considered authoritative on any philosophical question.

(I pause to note that the bland dismissal of these thinkers as “dead white men” always amuses me. The ad hominem attack itself adopts the language of racism, implying that the value of the authors is somehow related to their skin color. At the same time, it ignores the fact that classifying Aristotle and Plato as “white” should certainly raise a few eyebrows.)

On the other side, there are those who would wave away the apparent sexism of the ancients. The easiest way to do that is to simply call them a product of their times and move on. But some offer more convoluted explanations in an effort to keep the ancients from ever being “wrong”. Caxton wrote, “I cannot think that so true a man and so noble a philosopher as [Plato] was should write otherwise than truth.” And because Plato must have been right, Caxton was forced to come up with a way to reconcile the apparently sexist writings of Plato with the more enlightened views of his own day. He did so by concluding that if Plato ever said anything derogatory about women, he was only speaking of Greek women. “For I wot well, of whatsoever condition women be in Greece, the women of [England] be right good, wise, pleasant, humble, discreet, sober, chaste, obedient to their husbands, true, secret, steadfast, ever busy, and never idle, attemperate in speaking, and virtuous in all their works—or at least should be so.” So if Plato says, for example, that teaching a woman to write is multiplying evil upon evil, that may true of ancient Greek women, not of modern English women.

A more modern defense of that same type is to find esoteric meanings that are different from the ancients’ explicit meanings. So when Aristotle, in Book I of his Politics, says that “silence is a woman’s ornament,” he actually means nothing of the sort. The line is actually a quotation from Sophocles’s play Ajax. In the play, Ajax has gone insane by the time he utters the line. Obviously, Aristotle would have been familiar both with the play and the context of the quotation. So when Aristotle says “silence is a woman’s ornament,” he is slyly hinting that only a mad man would actually believe what he is saying. See? Aristotle was never sexist in the first place!

As usual, I favor the course of moderation. We should neither discard the ancients (or any author, really) out of hand, nor should we engage in mental gymnastics to defend the position that any author is always right. There is untold value in studying our intellectual predecessors, but nothing is gained by accepting their writings uncritically.

Beer of the week: Furious IPA – This aggressively-hopped ale from Minnesota’s Surly Brewing Company pours with a nice fluffy head. The piney hops certainly dominate, but there is a good balance with caramel malt notes. The label says that this beer defies categorization, but the IPA label seems right to me.

Reading of the week: Hymn To Aphrodite by Sappho – Here’s a crazy idea: if you want to know the ancients’ views on women, how about reading the poetry of an ancient woman? This is the only complete poem that has survived from Greece’s greatest poetess.

Question for the week: Is there any extant writing older than, say, 1,000 years that is actually not worth studying? Is it possible that anything has survived that long without some serious merit?

*Caxton actually discusses the sayings of Socrates as if Socrates himself was the author of the Socratic dialogues. I have substituted Plato into the quotations to give Caxton the benefit of the doubt; surely he meant to discuss what Socrates said and what Plato wrote.

Harvard Classics Review

This is the fifty-first and final in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume L: Introduction, Readers Guide, Indexes

Thus ends my year-long series on the Harvard Classics. Fifty-one volumes of the greatest books ever written (and as many different beers.) I conclude with a few observations, in no particular order:

Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. was the biggest surprise of the whole set. I was totally unfamiliar with the book until this project, but so much did I enjoy it, that it is the only volume that I read cover-to-cover. (To be honest, I didn’t make it quite to the back cover. I did not read all of Twenty Four Years Later, the much-delayed epilogue in which Dana returns to California as a celebrity a quarter of a century after his first voyage.) In the book, Dana provides lively and descriptive account of life on a merchant ship and on the old California coast. Of particular note, one need not understand all of the parts and rigging of a ship to thoroughly enjoy his description of his duties as a sailor.

The general index is an excellent tool. In an age with Ctrl+F text searching, the idea that somebody took the time to read through the entire set and cross-reference words and concepts is truly remarkable. It is a humbling reminder of how easy we have it, and a tribute to those who did the hard work that we now take for granted.

As far as I can tell, the famous 15-minutes-a-day reading plan was not added to the set until 1930. I am not sure about that date, but I am sure that my second edition set does not include it. In the past, the daily program has proved very helpful to me. It is a surefire way to find a readable, thought-provoking passage.

I have commented more than once that the set includes a surprising amount of biographical works. I have always been a fan of biography, so I do not consider this a great flaw. However, I do think that the bulk of the biographical works could comfortably be replaced with more “pure” philosophy or something else.

Speaking of replacements, I cannot help but think that several works included in the Harvard Classics would not make the cut if the series were reimagined today. Dana, Manzoni, and Cellini spring to mind. Milton and Darwin would probably be reduced by at least one volume. Volume XV: Bunyan and Walton would almost certainly be excised entirely.

What would be selected to replace these works would depend very much upon the new editor. For mine, I’d add Homer’s Iliad (which I regard as a shocking omission in the first place.) I would exchange one volume of English poetry for one volume of American. I would also probably include some Marx to go along with Smith. Nietzsche is another obvious choice for inclusion. Of course, there are myriad combinations of works that could make up such a set. General agreement on each inclusion is far too much to ask.

Much less controversial than adding or removing works would be reorganizing the whole set. As it is, I can not make any sense of the organizing principle. It is not chronological and does not appear to have any subject-matter order. The poetry of Milton and Burns are near the beginning, while the volumes of English poetry are near the end. Similarly, Greek drama is at the beginning, continental and modern English drama are in the middle, and Elizabethan drama is near the end. I’d favor a roughly chronological arrangement, but subject-matter organization could also work.

In a general way, there is very little fiction in the series. As Dr. Eliot explains in his Editor’s Introduction, “the whole of nineteenth century fiction, with two exceptions, was excluded; partly because of its great bulk, and partly because it is easily accessible.” As a set, there is no particular point in including a novel by Tolstoy or Austen; copies of War and Peace and Pride and Prejudice are not at all hard to come by. Besides, at between 400 and 450 pages, the volumes of the Harvard Classics would not accommodate War and Peace without abridgment. However, I think that one volume of the set could have been reserved for Russian short stories and one volume reserved for American.

During the course of the year, I exchanged comments on another blog that compared the Harvard Classics and the Britannica Great Books of the Western World.  I observed that the blogger omitted any discussion of the books as physical objects. It is my opinion that the Harvard Classics are a better set in physical terms. They are more compact, printed on better paper, and are better formatted. The Britannica set, to nobody’s surprise, is published like an encyclopedia. Consequently, that set is better suited for use as a reference than for ordinary reading. The books are larger and less wieldy. The paper is the thin sort used in bibles and encyclopedias (saving on bulk at the expense of durability and feel.) For the same reason, the pages are laid out in columns. The other blogger’s response to my comment expressed the opinion that the columns make reading easier, but that is obviously incorrect. Columns are employed to save space. That is why they are the preferred format of textbooks, newspapers, and dictionaries, where space is at a premium. Go to the library and pick up any novel you like; it is with good reason that you will not find the pages divided into columns. The Harvard Classics, although not especially high quality books, are an excellent size and format, especially when compared to their younger cousin, the GBWW.

For the purposes of this blog, the set has been quite well suited. It has been much easier to do a regular weekly post with the Harvard Classics providing me with a fixed volume for each week. (To say nothing of the fact that the entire set is now in the public domain, so there is no additional concern on that account.) I do not think that this blog has ever been so consistent. Over the past year, I have published a new post every week without fail.

I fear that such consistency cannot be expected in the future. For one thing, it is a lot more work to pick a reading each week when I cannot simply flip through the next volume of a set. For another, I am drinking less beer than I have in the past. At times I have had a backlog of a dozen beer reviews; I am currently at three. But most importantly, a number of life-changing events happened over the course of this last year spent with the Harvard Classics. Suffice it to say that in the coming year I will spend more time pushing a stroller and doing legal research, and less time blogging.

In the next year, and perhaps the next several years, I think it unlikely that I shall return very often to the Harvard Classics. I am very glad that I took the time to read from each volume, and I still think that they look very well on my bookshelf, but they are generally more for show than anything else at this point. Even if I really want to read any work included in the set, there are reasons that I would not reach for my Harvard Classics. For one thing, I would seek out the best translation of any work not originally in English. The Harvard Classics translations are, naturally, old, public domain translations. Consequently, it is likely that a better translation is available to anybody with a library card or an Amazon account.

All in all, I think that Dr. Eliot may be well satisfied with his project. I now that I am.

Beer of the week: All Day IPA – A book series for all time is quite naturally paired with a beer for all day. Founders brews this lovely session IPA. At 4.7% alcohol by volume (compared to the 7.2% of their Centennial IPA), one could easily go through a few of these. It is dark gold with a nice foamy head. It has hints of pineapple in the hop-forward aroma. The flavor has plenty of hops bitterness without being a palate destroyer, and enough malt to round it all out. A very solid choice.

Reading of the week: The Editor’s Introduction to the Harvard Classics by Charles William Eliot – “Within the limits of fifty volumes, containing about 22,000 pages, I was to provide the means of obtaining such a knowledge of ancient and modern literature as seems essential to the twentieth century idea of a cultivated man.” Thus, Dr. Eliot expresses the essence of his project. This excerpt includes a few ideas on how best to approach the set. (The fact that this “introduction” appears in the fiftieth volume, rather than the first, is a quibble that we must leave for another time.)

Question for the week: What works would you add to the Harvard Classics if you were its modern editor? And what would you cut to make way for your additions?