Saturday, June 16, 2012

Centennial of the Harvard Classics

The Spring 2006 issue of Papers in Language & Literature has an essay by William T. Going, professor of English at Southern Illinois University, on the impending centennial of the Harvard Classics, a 51-volume collection, intended to include the best that has been thought and written in all cultures and ages, which was published in 1909 under the editorship of Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University.  Dr. Going's essay is an appreciative one, opening with an account of how he discovered the set of books among his father's books.  As far as he can remember, his father never read the books, but Dr. Goings did, gradually, over a period of two decades.
The Harvard Classics are rather wide-ranging in scope, not as Eurocentric as one might suppose them to be.  The two volumes dedicated to sacred writings include, in addition to the Judaeo-Christian scriptures, the writings of Confucius, Buddhist writings, and extensive selections from the Koran.  The Arabian Nights are given an entire volume. Other fiction, however, is limited to two volumes, one a novel by Manzoni and the other the first part of Don Quixote.  Along with the many volumes of poetry and drama, there are several volumes of travel accounts and scientific papers.  Darwin, surprisingly, is given two volumes, one for The Origin of Species and the other for The Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle.  Receiving volumes of their own are Robert Burns and Richard Henry Dana, writers who are now almost forgotten.  The following authors each merit a volume: Emerson, Milton, Cellini, Homer, Virgil, and Plutarch.  The social sciences are represented by Rousseau, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke.

The Harvard Classics does not include either Freud or Marx.  For those great representatives of social pseudo-science, one must turn to the Great Books of the Western World, which appeared a half-century later, under the editorship of Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago.  The 51st volume of the Harvard Classics is given over to lectures by various academicians of the time.  The counterpart in the Great Books collection is the prefatory volumes introducing "The Great Ideas."
I discovered the Harvard Classics at the public library some 50 years ago and have read portions of them over the years.  As of yet, I have not read any of the lectures in the 51st volume nor, for that matter, any of "The Great Ideas" so carefully assembled by Mortimer Adler.  Has anyone out there done so?
By happenstance, I picked up my copy of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and began reading it again after having first read it some 15 years ago and vowing never to return to it.  Generally, I agree with the assessment of the late Samuel T. Francis, foremost of the paleoconservatives, that Burke is irrelevant to the U.S.A.  Although I appreciated the work of Russell Kirk, I had always thought that he wasted his talents in attempting to resuscitate Burke as a guide for American conservatism.  However, in my second reading of Burke, I came across the following passage, possibly the most famous with the exception of the one in which he ponders on the power of good men doing nothing (or something to that effect):   
" But one of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated, is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters; that they should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation—and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances, as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers. By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways, as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer. " 

The rhetoric of the passage is thorny, allowing no easy passage to an understanding of it.  The sense of it, or part of the sense of it, is something like the following:  The commonwealth to be enduring must be grounded in something that will hold in terror and awe those who temporarily hold power over it. Elected officeholders, who are not so bound, will yield to the temptation to destroy, pillage, loot all that is within their grasp and leave nothing to their posterity.  They will in effect repudiate all notion of having any posterity.  They will reduce humans to the level of one brood of brutes following upon another, unmindful of all values.
Burke is arguing for an established church, a monarchy, an aristocracy.  Any other contrivance of government, he believes, will yield up a ruling class which will care nothing for those who come after them. (As Libertarians love to ask:  "What has posterity ever done for us?") Monarchs and aristocrats, unlike elected officials, have a proprietary interest in the kingdoms and lands which they own. From an American, republican standpoint, of course, Burke is arguing for the impossible.  The U.S.A. today is ruled only by a wealthy class, the class Burke disdained in favor of the aristocrats, a class which through its acceptance of globalization and mass immigration shows a willingness to let the very sovereignty of the U.S.A. itself dissolve (but only if enough power of state remains to enforce a contract and to secure their property).
Those who want to look at the Harvard Classics (or even read some of them) may do so easily by going to  There Mr. Bartleby (or whoever lurks behind that nom de Internet) has assembled all 51 of the volumes.   Most of the titles in both the Harvard Classics and the Great Books are also available at the Online Books page hosted by the University of Pennsylvania's library.   (Simply "google" Online Books.)

[ Originally written on Feb 18, 2007 ]          

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