Friday, January 02, 2015

A Year With The Harvard Classics - 2015-01-01

2015-01-01 - Intro & Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography


One of the most prized set of books I inherited from my father is a complete 51 vol. set of The Harvard Classics. Also known as "Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf," the series was compiled and edited by then President of Harvard, Dr. Charles W. Eliot and was first published in 1909 . I remember marveling at this collection, returning to it many times during childhood to find one quote or another and more especially as I researched papers during my collegiate and graduate careers.  When I inherited the set shortly after my father's death in 1994 it became a constant reference for early sermons and reflections, especially as anniversaries of renowned works and authors came and went (I remember especially enjoying rereading Don Quixote in preparation for the 400th Anniversary of the publication of this masterpiece in 2005.

It has long been a dream of mine to make the time to engage this gift in a disciplined manner.  So I have resolved this year to attempt to complete the annual cycle of readings published as Fifteen Minutes a Day: The Reading Guide, and reflect regularly on what I experience on these blog pages.  I hope the journey is fascinating enough to warrant your return to tag along and if inclined, engage in dialogue.

On "How Dr. Eliot Solved Your Reading Problem" the reading guide includes the following from the compiler himself.  [Italics not in the original]

"Before the reading plan represented by the Harvard Classics had taken dfinite form, I had more than once stated in public that in my opinion a five-foot--at first three-foot shelf would hold books enough to afford a good substitute for a liberal education to anyone who would read them with devotion, even if he could spare but fifteen minutes a day for reading."

On "Dr. Eliot's Aim" Dr. Eliot continues:

"My aim was not to select the best fifty, or best hundred, books in the world, but to give, in twenty-three thousand pages or thereabouts, a picture of the progress of the human race within historical times, so far as that progress can be depicted in books."

On "Liberal Education Defined" Dr. Eliot notes:

"Liberal education accomplishes two objects.  It produces a liberal frame of mind, and it makes the studious and reflective recipient acquainted with the stream of the world's thought an feeling, and with the infinitely varied products of the human imagination.  It was my hope and belief that fifty volumes might accomplish this result for any intelligent, ambitious and persistent reader, whether his early opportunities for education has been large or small.  Such was the educational purpose with which I undertook to edit The Harvard Classics."

January 1:  Franklin's Advice for the New Year

"Resolution:  Resolve to perform what you ought; perform with out fail what you resolve."--was one of the rules for success framed by America's first "self-made" man"  Read from Franklin's Autobiography (vol. 1, pp. 79-85)

Resolution (above) is a description of the fourth of Benjamin Franklin's thirteen virtues which he outlines as follows in his autobiography:

1. Temperance - Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. Silence - Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order - Let all things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution - resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality - Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
6. Industry - Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity - Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and , if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice - Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation - Avoid extreams [sic]; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness - Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths [sic], or  habitation.
11. Tranquility - Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity - Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness [sic], 
      weakness, or the injury of your own or anther's peace or reputation.
13. Humility - Imitate and Socrates.

In his reflection on these, Franklin describes his discipline of attending to each virtue, one at a time, assigning one per week over the year, in order of rotation, as listed.  During his daily reflection each evening, he would take care to mark those virtues for which he had found fault in himself.  He would resolve his week successful if the row was blank, pertaining to the particular virtue to be dealt with at the time, on the columned sheet he developed for this discipline,  .  

Of this discipline of reflection Franklin notes particularly, 

"My scheme of Order gave me the most trouble; and I found that, tho' it might be practicable where a man's business was such as to leave him the disposition of his time, that of a journeyman printer, for instance, it was not possible to be exactly observed by a master, who must mix with the world, and often receive people of business at their own hours.  Order, too with regard to places for things, papers, etc, I found extreamly [sic] difficult to acquire.  I had not been early accustomed to it, and, having an exceedingly good memory, I was not so sensible of the inconvenience attending want of method."

In other words, Franklin was a "piler."  A revelation that makes me appreciate him even more, and one that I share in particular with him.  I say this even as I spy a clean desk for the first time this fall; having taken the past few days of vacation to clean up so that I might at least begin the new year with a pretense of order.

The fact that I will return to clean up my desk many times in the next year, and each time, struggle with the feeling that I have somehow failed in my vision of being "more organized" is also answered by Franklin, and something worth reflecting on, especially as the annual round of New Year's resolutions is upon us again.

"In truth, I found myself incorrigible with respect to Order; and now I am grown old, and my memory had, I feel very sensibly the want of it. But, on the whole, tho' I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour [sic], a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it; as those who aim at perfect writing by imitating the engraved copies, tho' they never reach the wish'd for excellence of those copies, their hand is mended by the endeavor, and is tolerable while it continues fair and legible."

This is perhaps the most important reminder for the beginning of any New Year and for the making of resolutions.  As we begin again, let us be of full resolve that we will accomplish more of what we plan and strive to be.  And even if we fall short of the set goal, as will often be the case, let us remember that we are made better in the act of striving toward these goals.  

Here in is the essence of hope eternal.  Not putting our faith in outcomes.  No one can predict the future.  Instead, let us put faith in the aiming, knowing that regardless of what the future brings, there is something important to do now.

Among the handful of quotes that adorned the little book that Franklin crafted to catalog his attempt to live virtuously, is the following prayer he wrote.  May the essence of its sentiment be a guide and reminder in the coming year and beyond.

"O powerful Goodness! bountiful Father! merciful Guide!  Increase in me that wisdom which discovers my truest interest. Strengthen my resolutions to perform what that wisdom dictates.  Accept my kind offices to thy other children as the only return in my power for the continued favors to me."

Amen and Blessed Be.


Rebecca said...

My American Lit students are often amused by parts of Franklin's plan, especially by the notion that one becomes humble by "imitat[ing] Jesus and Socrates."

Rev. Aaron R. Payson said...

Humility is such a lost art. I hope things are well with you and yours in "that little bit of New England in the heart of Appalachia"!