Comparing the Great Books of the Western World to the Harvard Classics (Part III): Assessing the Philosophy Selections

I think the real limitation of Harvard Classics can be seen in the philosophy selections it contains.  Unfortunately, I think the Harvard Classics could have been put together with much greater efficacy, had the editor taken a much more piecemeal approach in selecting excerpts to be included.  Otherwise, I am not sure I see any way that Harvard Classics could present a sustained usefulness to a readership seeking novelty in the set.  The approach of the Great Books of the Western World, including whole swathes of philosophical literature, essentially, obviates the most desires to own the Harvard Classics, at least as far as the philosophy goes.  In fact, when I began this blog, I owned the Harvard Classics, but not the Great Books of the Western World; but finding the latter to be such an asset, I now on it and sold the former.  I still think that the Harvard Classics would be sufficient for a folks seeking a baseline set of the essentials, but I cannot recommend the Harvard Classics to a philosophically inclined audience that wants more than the basics.  Part of the reason that the Harvard Classics is overwhelmed on this score is that Adler, the editor and compiler of the Great Books, was a philosopher.  My personal thought is that philosophy should undergird any education, so as to avoid the dogmatisms that the history of humanity has become known for: an education must consider the implementation of knowledge and understanding in such a way that it considers the student as a whole person, and accept responsibility for the fact that the education will affect the mind well beyond the scope of the subject learn.  At any rate, I really think the Harvard Classics needed micromanagement of precisely extract portions of texts, sewn into the set, in order for the set to have a continued value for intellectuals that will go beyond the undergraduate education.  Of course, the Harvard Classics were compiled for the undergraduate, but, still, I think the set could have served this function while serving the postgraduate.

Among the merits of the philosophy included in the Harvard Classics is the fact that there is an obvious intention of including practical life philosophy (Aurelius and Epictetus).  That is to say, Elliot definitely had the same concern regarding education, that it treat the student holistically, as a person.  What concerns me is that the noted lack of Greek philosophy is a concern.  Most of those champions of anti-ethnocentrism can sometimes miss the importance of ancient Greek thought; it is not just that an emphasis on Greek thought must, somehow, imply that Greece was the origin of all intelligent thought, or some nonsense like that.  Even if the Anglophone world has treated ancient Greece in this way, to dismiss the importance of ancient Greece is missing the forest for the trees.  Much of what survives from the earliest instances of human thought captured in writing happens to be Greek, a merely contingent fact.  Moreover, much of it can be traced (or there are historical intimations of such traces, even if impossible to substantiate) to other cultures: mathematical traditions from Babylon, with an outside possibility of China; astronomy, á la Heraclitus, coming from Egypt; the Delphic injunction to “know thyself” is known to come from the temple in Karnak; the first suggestions of the “soul” as a concept comes from the ancient Namibians in Africa; and there are many other such instances that can be put forward.  The point I want to get across is that there is a sense in which ancient Greece should be viewed as one part (it happens to be the earliest captured in writing, in most cases) of a continued heritage of a human culture, apart from an ethnic culture.  The “human tradition of thought and social activity” is a view that emphasizes the importance of ancient Greek thought, and dismissing it on ethnocentric grounds is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Therefore, I am a strong advocate for what Mortimer Adler has done, in including so much Greek philosophy and drama, and it concerns me that Elliot put no such emphasis on ancient Greece.  My personal opinion is that there are static elements of a continued human condition which are most obvious when reading ancient Greek literature.  More or less, an emphasis on the history of ideas, without a clear grounding for the static subset of the overall human condition, means emphasizing the non-static component of the human condition, thereby giving false impressions that may lead to relativism.  This is part of the reason I thoroughly agree with including ancient Greek thought in such a collection.

I have to air an agitation with the HC, regarding Kant.  The HC does not include any part of the Critique of Pure Reason, and I find this unacceptable.  It is the single best work by the single greatest thinker to ever live, end of story.  I applaud Mortimer for including, but any philosopher (I hope) knows how important the work is, which mitigates the praise a bit.  Many non-philosophers don’t hear as much about it because it is generally considered a difficult read, and some of my non-academic friends said it was downright impossible to understand.  However, I think that it is the one work which should be struggled with over the course of one’s life, if there is any.  However, in the vein of practical philosophy once again, I think Elliot did well to include Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, where Kant’s greatness, creativity, and power is definitely on display.

The HC has its moments, though.  Included, which I highly approve of, are Letters by Voltaire, a very important excerpt from Rousseau’s Èmile, and parts of Locke.  Overall, I think Elliot may have gotten into the groove of the right line of thinking late in the editing process; and I do know he was pressed for time, which hurt the product a bit.

The pros of the GBWW, as far as philosophy goes, are fairly straightforward.  For instance, the fact that the set contains, as far as I can recall, the complete extant corpus of each Aristotle and Plato is a fantastic point.  There is a more than reasonable number of works by Descartes and Bacon (not to mention all of his plays).  Volume 35 is basically dedicated to a part of the history of literature that comprises the development of epistemology.  I am tempted to complain that Leibniz and others aren’t included, but the set is not strictly about philosophy, and I am happy with what it does contain, so… One can’t complain about the selections of Rousseau chosen, either.  As I said in the first post in this series, I am quite confused about the choice of which of Nietzsche’s works were chosen, and that is a mystery that remains in my mind.  (Click here for post with further commentary.)

Since we are on the topic of Nietzsche, one may wonder why he was not included in the HC.  I am not sure.  The HC were chosen at the end of the first decade of the 20th century, so there should not have been ideological problems.  The problems I am referring to are those involved with the fact that Elisabeth Fӧrster Nietzsche, Friedrich’s sister, edited and used Nietzsche’s works as anti-Semitic propaganda.  As you can imagine, this was not hard to do.  The ideological part of it all is that Nietzsche’s work, up until Walter Kaufmann’s biography, was associated with the Nazi movement.  Therefore, it is not completely clear to me why, being that Elliot made his selections before all of this, didn’t include Nietzsche.  After all, many consider Nietzsche to be the greatest literary mind of the German language, beyond the philosophical merit of his work.  Not including Li Po or Pushkin is one thing, because they may not translate so well, but I haven’t the slightest clue about the reasoning for the omission of Nietzsche.

One last point, and I will let the reader fill in the rest of this complaint, is the fact that Elliot is so Eurocentric with his selection.  The GBWW are bad on this point, too, but the GBWW only omits Eastern European literature —a notable offense, itself, granted; but the HC omits Eastern European literary traditions and Mideastern, and almost completely omits Eastern and African literature (I am stretching, here, including Aesop in African literature).  No Indian philosophy, no Native American philosophy, and so on.  Unfortunately, this is the way that school is taught, too, with this scalpel-like precision to include such a small part of the world’s literary and philosophical tradition.  It’s sad, and both fail, but what is one to expect, given the nature and mentality of North American education.  We need not be multicultural fanatics to promote some perspective, or is it really being proposed that nothing else is worth inclusion?  I find this last point hard to believe.

Overall, if you are looking for philosophy, go with the GBWW.

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Filed under Great Books and Harvard Classics Series, Literature, Philosophy

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