This is the fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume V: Ralph Waldo Emerson
Lately, I’ve been thinking about a philosopher who held that the true philosophies of all great minds were intentionally hidden within their works. He posited that subtle references and hints in the works of Plato, Aristotle, etc. can guide careful readers to understand the real opinions of the authors, opinions that they had not dare explicitly express. There are some very fervent admirers of this philosophy. But others have called it a “philosophy of deception,” or “esotericism for the sake of esotericism.”
Even though I haven’t made a serious study of these notions, I do have a habit of looking somewhat askance at examples that are put forward in defense of an overt position. If, on closer examination, it turns out that an example does not really support the position, what then? Did the author simply pick a bad example out of laziness or mistake? Or, as these esoterically-minded thinkers would hold, are bad examples chosen deliberately to hint at an intent other than the explicit intent of the author?
Our questions may be explored with this quotation from Emerson:
“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.” – Emerson, The American Scholar
Seemingly, the examples of Cicero, Locke, and Bacon are wholly appropriate to support Emerson’s point that the young scholar must think for himself. For well over a thousand years, Cicero’s tracts had been mandatory educational reading, and had often been presented as if the student had a duty not only to learn from them, but to accept their views as his own. In fact, there is ancient graffiti from the city of Pompeii that reads, “you will like Cicero, or you will be whipped.”
These authors, however, are not actually good examples of “young men in libraries” who wrote books. Of Cicero’s writings, his early work is almost entirely in the form of speeches made as a legal advocate. His philosophical works were not written until near the end of his life. And although some of Locke’s early manuscripts were published posthumously, all of his major works were published after the age of fifty-five. Bacon’s Essays were first published when he was in his late thirties, and his New Organon (the most likely of his books for Emerson’s “meek young men” to pore over) was not published until he was nearly sixty.
Reading between the lines, what do these examples say about Emerson’s claim that the Western canon was written by “young men in libraries”?
Another trio of examples raises a similar question:
“[T]he highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought.” – Emerson, Self Reliance
Unless I am mistaken, this sentence is meant to convey that the highest merit in thought is to be original. In some respects, it is clear that Moses, Plato, and Milton were all highly original thinkers. The first five books of the Bible, including a large body of law that created a new and distinct society, are traditionally ascribed to Moses. Plato’s work, as I alluded to three weeks ago, has been fought over by philosophical schools seeking to claim his writings as their own foundation. And I recently heard an eminent scholar claim that Milton’s Paradise Lost is the nearest rival of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
Still, these “original thinkers” are all have clearly identified outside sources. Moses, in particular, is striking as an example of originality. The writings attributed to Moses are traditionally viewed as divinely inspired. And this inspiration is not run-of-the-mill genius, but a direct transcription of the words of God. If what Moses wrote was essentially dictated to him by God, how are those ideas original to Moses? And how is it that Moses, of all people, “set at naught” tradition? Similarly, Plato’s corpus is composed primarily of dialogues that purport to express the philosophy of Socrates, not necessarily the philosophy of Plato himself. And although Milton certainly added a tremendous amount of material and emotion, his great poetic works are based on well-worn scriptural stories.
So why do we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton the highest merit, that of originality? Did they really set at naught books and traditions, and speak not what men but what they thought? Is Emerson trying to tell us something in code that he dare not tell us explicitly? Or is this a case of looking for esoteric meaning where there is none?
Beer of the week: Voodoo Ranger – New Belgium’s popular IPA has a lot going for it. It pours with a nice head that leaves decent lacing on the glass. The aroma is subtle, with citrusy hops. The beer is smooth, with a nice bitter bite at the end. And it is all balanced out with a hint of gingerbread.
Reading of the week: The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson – This section of the essay, originally given as a speech, is about the influence of books. Books are both the medium for “transmuting life into truth,” and a source of “grave mischief.” They must, therefore be read in a very particular way.
Question for the week: Is there really something hidden in Emerson’s choice of examples? Or, in looking for deeper meaning, do we just see what we want to see?
Some “small-government” and “states’ rights” proponents are less cynical, and even defend the failed Confederate States on the grounds that the CSA were motivated by self-determination, states’ rights, and principled politics. But do the historical documents bear that out?
Beer of the week: Slow Ride Session IPA – To avoid (additional) needless controversy, I have paired this reading with a beer from a Colorado, which was not yet a state during the brief existence of the CSA. New Belgium’s session IPA is quite good. My 12-pack seems to have been over carbonated; every can foamed over when opened. Otherwise, there is nothing to complain about. The beer is a hazy orange-yellow with lots of white foam. Some yeasty aroma makes it past the strong, citrusy hops smell. The flavor is not as strong as expected, but it is nicely balanced and refreshing with a nice citrus finish. One certainly could drink this beer over the course of a long session.
Reading of the week: The Constitution of the Confederate States of America – This is the kind of thing that every middle school student in the United States should be required to read in history class. It did not even occur to me that I should read it until I was in my late twenties. It is instructive as to the causes of the Civil War, but also a useful tool for evaluating the Constitution of the United States.
Question of the week: There are some other changes worth mentioning: the CSA president would have served for 6 years with no chance for reelection. Also, all bills passed by congress would have a single purpose (eliminating omnibus bills and unrelated riders.) Finally, the president would have the power to issue line item vetoes. Are any of the changes made by the Confederates worth considering as amendments to the Constitution of the USA?
“Brevity is the soul of wit” is a wonderful aphorism.* In no small part, that is because it encapsulates a lot of what makes aphorisms themselves so delightful. Whether they are called fragments, maxims, epigrams, proverbs, or pensées, aphorisms can be awful lot of fun to read. When done well, they are pithy, profound, and memorable. But for those very reasons, they can be somewhat difficult to approach as serious reading.
One short phrase can provide enough insight to sustain a very deep discussion. And yet, it is often easy to consume multiple aphorisms at a time, like so many kernels of popcorn. This seems particularly true when the author has put his thoughts into a particular order. There is plenty of value in being able to flip open a book of aphorisms and read one at random, but that seems to discount the value of the author/editor’s decisions in arranging them. Consequently, there is a tension between attempting to read aphorisms as stand-alone thoughts or as a composed collection.
For example, in his book of aphorisms, Vectors, James Richardson wonders: “Why shouldn’t you read this the way I wrote it, with days between the lines?” But that thought is number 369 out of 500. So is it really a serious suggestion on how he thinks the book should be read? An invitation to re-read Vectors with a new focus?
It seems unlikely that there is a “wrong way” to approach aphorisms, but it is worth giving some thought to the different ways in which they can be read. It is also probably important to remain aware of context; without context, a good aphorism may be no more than a cliché.
*Now is probably a good time to mention that the line “Brevity is the soul of wit” is spoken by a long-winded character in an extremely lengthy play. This irony is, perhaps, the best thing about it.
Beer of the week: Fat Tire Amber Ale – This is a tasty little ale from New Belgium Brewing Company. It starts with light, flowery hops on the nose, but the taste is a nice balance between the hops and malt. It gets better as it warms slightly in the glass and the bready malt starts to shine through. Pretty darn good.
Reading for the week: Maximes and Moral Reflections by François de La Rochefoucauld – These dozen selected aphorisms seem fairly representative of La Rochefoucauld’s work. And although each could stand on its own, together they exhibit a distinct line of thought. A couple suggestions on how to read La Rochefoucauld: the author himself suggests that “the best approach for the reader to take would be to put in his mind right from the start that none of these maxims apply to himself in particular, and that he is the sole exception, even though they appear to be generalities.” Lord Chesterfield recommends that one should “read in the morning some of La Rochefoucault’s [sic] Maxims; consider them, examine them well, and compare them with the real characters you meet in the evening.”
Question for the week: How do you like to read aphorisms?
What an embarrassment! By my count, this is post #199 on this blog. And yet, there has not been a single weekly reading written by a woman. (I honestly thought that I had included a reading by Baroness Orczy, but it seems that I mixed up The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Prisoner of Zenda.) What can account for such a tremendous oversight? A number of factors probably play a part.
One fairly innocuous factor is that the women authors that I am familiar with wrote novels. It is much harder to find an appropriate reading for this blog from a long form book. Prefaces, essays, and the like are much easier to dip into for an excerpt. However, there are quite a few readings on this blog from novels, so that cannot account for much of the disparity.
Additionally, many of the readings on this blog come from so-called “great books” lists. In particular, the Harvard Classics (partially pictured below) has been the an excellent resource. However, a quick review of the index confirms that the editor of the Harvard Classics totally omitted any female authors. It seems that I’m neither the first nor the most prominent curator of readings to do so.
For similar reasons, my reliance on public domain and ancient works certainly skews this blog away from female authors. The vast majority of older works, particularly from antiquity, are by male authors. Aside from Sappho, I am not sure that I could name an ancient Greek woman, let alone an ancient Greek woman author. Although the balance shifts somewhat as we approach modernity, there are simply a lot more readily available works by men than by women.
But perhaps the biggest reason is my own biases and flaws. I gravitate toward authors with whom I am familiar and with whom I perceive common interests and ideas. And those authors are almost exclusively men. (They are also predominantly American or Western European, but that is another bias for another day.) It is not that I don’t believe that women are capable of producing great works; Jane Austen and George Eliot would have wiped out that belief in me if I’d ever held it. But a combination of my experiences, resources, and my own narrow world view has resulted in a reproachable lack of appreciation for female authors. One that I hope to remedy.
To be clear, the solution is not inclusion for inclusion’s sake. Reading anything simply because it was written by a woman is patronizing. It does a disservice to the author by neglecting her merits in favor of her sex. And it does a disservice to the blog and its readers for the same reason. Our time is valuable, so what we read has to have its own worth independent of its author.
The solution, it seems, is to cast a wider net. To seek out new readings from other resources. Rather than relying on my past experience with authors or on their interactions with each other, I need to find a way to encounter a greater variety of writers of quality. I hope not to overlook any truly great books, regardless of who wrote them.
One valuable resource that I have found (at a thrift store for 69¢ per volume) is the Heath Anthology of American Literature. The Heath has the stated goal of publishing the under-appreciated works of women and minorities alongside the established literary canon to present a broader view of the development of American literature. An unsurprising inclusion in the Heath is Anne Bradstreet, the first New World poet of either sex to have her work published in England. Her poetry is clearly of the finest quality, and more than worth the reading. Bradstreet rightfully scoffed at those who would look down on a work because its author wore a dress:
“I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits.
A Poet’s Pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits.”
Writing, too, is women’s work. And a woman’s work is never done.
Beer of the week: Dundee India Pale Ale – This New York IPA is pretty amber. The smell is of sweet biscuits and marshmallow. The malt is definitely dominant in the flavor. The beer is hoppy, but it is not overly bitter, and certainly not as strongly hopped as many American IPAs. Dundee makes quite a serviceable beer.
Reading for the week: In Reference to Her Children, 23 June 1659 by Anne Bradstreet – What could be a better reading for Mother’s Day Weekend than this touching poem about a mother’s dedication to her children? Bradstreet does well to portray the pride and joy of motherhood, as well as the bittersweet experience of watching her children grow up and start their own independent lives.
Question for the week: Who are other female authors that would be good readings for this blog? Comment below.
In his biography of Charlemagne, Notker the Stammerer relates a story of two “Scotchmen [who] were unrivalled for their skill in sacred and secular learning.” These men would go into the market and call out, “Ho, everyone that desires wisdom, let him draw near and take it at our hands; for it is wisdom that we have for sale.” This claim drew in the crowds and, ultimately, the attention of the emperor.
The twist in the story, however, is that the Scotsmen really had no interest in marketing their learning to make a profit. They had simply come to realize that if they offered to teach for free, nobody would be interested. Because the price tag is the first signal that the market sees, things that are being given away for free or sold cheaply are assumed to have little worth. Likewise, some people put extremely high prices on their products (even if they intend ultimately to sell for a much lower price) in the hopes that the product will appear more desirable.
I was a tangential party to a real life example of how asking price affects perception. One of my side jobs in college was dealing cards for a promotional company that ran poker tournaments as fund-raisers. The tournaments were well organized and quite successful. However, the owner of the business quickly discovered that some prospective clients saw his very reasonable prices and decided that they wanted to go with a more up-scale competitor. His solution was to raise the prices without changing anything about the product. And it worked. New prospective clients assumed that the high price was a good indicator of the product’s high quality. Business actually increased after the price went up, precisely because the price went up. Like Notker’s Scotsmen, the owner of the promotional company learned that sometimes you have to ask for more than you need, just to get people’s attention.
Beer of the week: Modelo Especial – The head on this beer faded so quickly that I couldn’t get a good photo of it before it was gone. Modelo Especial is a clear, gold brew. It has little aroma or flavor to speak of, really. It’d be easy enough to drink a bunch of this stuff at a party Cinco de Mayo fiesta, but otherwise, why bother? And don’t get me started on the price!
Reading of the week: The Life of Charlemagne by Notker the Stammerer, Book I, 1-4 – Charlemagne filled his court with educated men, such as the aforementioned Scotsmen, and had them educate the children of his kingdom. He found that the highborn children did not take to their lessons as well as the commoners. The lesson, again, seems to be that certain assumptions about value need to be carefully scrutinized.
Question of the week: How much does the asking price affect your perception of a product’s value?
Ken M., one of the world’s finest internet trolls once complained that “today’s archeologists seem hellbent on making discoveries at any cost, leaving nothing for future generations.” He followed that statement up with the opinion that “they should at least plant new discoveries to replace the ones they harvested.”
It is a bizarre joke, but I think that it is hilarious. The funniest party is that people take him seriously despite his ludicrous statements. What makes the position so ridiculous is the implicit position that there may one day be nothing left to learn; that someday soon, man might reach the end of knowledge. But as Seneca wrote in his Natural Questions, “the world is a poor affair if it do not contain matter for investigation for the whole world in every age.”
What would it even mean for humans to reach the end of knowledge? Is it even conceivable for there to be nothing left to discover? On the sci-fi cartoon Futurama, alien beings got close to obtaining all knowledge, but they were then forced to destroy the universe before any new information was created. The world is always changing, so there is always more to learn.
And even in situations where immense quantities of raw information are known, that does not amount to knowledge. It is still necessary to interpret and synthesize the data. So do not give in to Ken M.’s fear that discoveries will run out. Seek boldly to learn everything that you can, knowing that there are plenty of mysteries left for the rest of us.
Beer of the week: Two Brothers Prairie Path – Speaking of new discoveries, somebody has discovered how to use enzymes to break down gluten. When I first got this beer, I did not notice that it is “Crafted To Remove Gluten”. Rather than brew the beer with gluten-free grains such as rice and sorghum, Two Brothers brews this beer with malt and then treats it with an enzyme that breaks down the gluten. Prairie Path is a pale, orange-gold color. The head fades very quickly. The aroma is vaguely of citrus and rice. The beer itself is a bit citrusy but feels very thin. It is a perfectly acceptable, easy-drinking beer. But I feel bad for those who are gluten intolerant if this is the most flavor they can get in a gluten-reduced beer.
Reading of the week: Natural Questions by Seneca, XXX & XXXI – After discussing the slow advance of knowledge from generation to generation, Seneca goes on to chide his countrymen for giving up the vigorous pursuit of knowledge and virtue in favor of indecency and vice. Among other things, he accuses others of “[d]issolute effeminacy and corruption”.
Question of the week: Is there any field in which humans have genuinely learned all there is to know?