Again, Essays

by Paul Mathers


John Milton, by Walter Bagehot

In all honesty, I find that I am beginning to either go too long between updates or cramming my head too full of essays. I remember that this was a review of one or more books about Milton. I remember that it was a good read, although, again, odd to read a review of a book that I am not called upon to read. I remember the discussion of the characters of Satan and Eve in Paradise Lost, which included the age old argument that Milton made Satan into a character perhaps a bit too understandable for someone claiming to view him as a villain (in case you’re wondering, I reject this hypothesis. I believe Milton was attempting to illuminate why and how we have such an enemy in Satan. In order to do so, he had to get into the mindset of one who rebels against authority. That is why it is such a great poem. Artists have a thing called imagination which allows them to do such things. It does not mean that they are secret Satanists).

Was it good? I seem to remember thinking it was. Did I learn from it? Well, it seems what I’ve written above stuck with me anyway. Would I recommend it? I would recommend just about anything by or having to do with John Milton.

Science and Culture, by Thomas Henry Huxley

What an oddity, given our vantage point! Huxley gives a speech in praise of scientific learning. In doing so, he has some harsh words for those who believe that education should be towards the purely, immediately obvious vocational (a battle which we still fight). But he also speaks against a “classical education.” He does so to promote the “scientific education.”

We must look at this through the filter of his time. The battle for scientific education of any kind was still being waged. Huxley was talking to the current Texas Board of Education. From my point of view, it is unfortunately and highly ill advised to throw a classical education under the bus in order to gain science curriculum. RATHER YOU NEED BOTH! And you can have both. In our time, a classical education is all but dead. The Humanities are endangered species. So:

Was it good? It was well written. Did I learn from it? I learned what I’ve just said about Huxley and his time. Would I recommend it? I cannot.

Race and Language, by Edward Augustus Freeman

Oh dear me, no. We really don’t need to hear from 1870 on the subject of race, do we? Surely this is one instance where, though we clearly still have a long way to go, we are far wiser than our ancestors.

As it progressed, my reaction was mixed. On one hand, Freeman’s thesis seems to be along the lines of “race doesn’t really matter as we are all human.” He, to some extent, illustrates this by surveying in narcotic detail the history of language (language not being an indicator of race as it shifts dramatically through history). Sound fine, right? But then he’ll throw in words to the extent of “but the real indicator of race, as we now know, is the shape of the skull.”

Oh, Freeman. Sit down and let the future teach you about race, please.

Good? No. Terribly dull and the good bits are dwarfed by the forehead slaps. Learned from it? Nothing I didn’t already know about racial views in 1870. Recommend it? Nope.

Truth of Intercourse, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Stevenson is an excellent writer and a breath of fresh air in light of what I just sat through. His (extremely short) essay talks about the impossibility of pure truthfulness, citing the possibility of being disingenuous while speaking the truth, or dishonest while never even speaking a word, and so forth.

Good? Great! Learned from it? Yes! Recommend it? YES!

Samuel Pepys, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Samuel Pepys retained the charming vibrancy of experience that a child possesses well into middle age, or so says Stevenson. Stevenson is telling us about a six volume set of The Diaries which he has purchased (although very little of the piece is a book review so much as a biographical thumbnail sketch). Does it make one want to read Pepys? Yes! Unfortunately, The Diaries are not included in this series and so you’ll have to wait until you’re done with the series in a year or so.

Good? Yes. Learned from it? Learned quite a bit about Samuel Pepys about whom I formerly knew that he wrote famous diaries and nothing else. Recommend it? Yes, although the cloud of despair at this point in the series makes it difficult to work up a whole lot of enthusiasm over something that reinforces how much you would like to be reading other things.

Next up: The conclusion of the two volumes of essays.