The Great Books Project: A Re-boot

The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never HadA couple of weeks ago I posted about self improvement and the 5-foot shelf, a collection of books gathered by Harvard’s legendary president, Dr. Eliot. I wrote in that post that I was going to test his premise that 15 minutes a day spent reading these classics could provide you with an adequate liberal education.
Well, I got about 75 pages into Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and realized I needed some help. The last time I did serious reading of this type was back in college, and then I had a great group of professors to expound, elucidate and explain. Now I’ve got me, and I am a poor substitute. 
Classical education to the rescue.

I have been looking into classical education for a while now- the concept of schooling being broken down into three sections of grammar, logic and rhetoric. I am partly interested because my wife and I (mostly her, lets be honest) are homeschooling our kids, and partly because I want to incorporate some if this into my teaching career.
As I looked into resources I came across A Well Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. Here was a book that could help me get through the ambitious reading project I got myself into. Author Susan Bauer provides a primer on how to attack a book that is not easy reading, largely modeling her method on Mortimer Adler and his classic How to Read a Book.
Not only does she give a battle plan of sorts, but she then provide specific things to look for in each genre of work. Taking her advice I am restarting my journey through The Great Books with some fiction, as this is the most accessible. Don Quixote is first up. 
I will also be journaling, using a slightly modified version of Bauer’s traditional commonplace book. I am using Tumblr to keep my quotes, note and questions. I am purposely not including a link to this (yet) as I don’t think my rambling notes would really be of interest to anyone – except maybe my psychiatrist, if I had one that is.

Hopefully this second stab at The Great Books will be a bit more successful. I am the type of person who thrives when I have a specific plan in place, an A Well Educated Mind has provided that for me. As I have written before, leisure time should be spent on quality self improvement if one is to have the necessary background to truly develop virtue, hopefully my Great Books Project will help my own quest.

Courage or Fortitude?

An Historical View of the English Government: From the Settlement of the Saxons in Britain, to the Revolutin in 1688 : To Which Are Subjoined, Some ... the Revolution to the Present Time, VolumeGotta love Google Books. This past weekend I was strolling the virtual aisles looking for a book or article from sometime in the 19th century. I know it may seem odd to many, but when researching a timeless topic I like to read from the  point of view of earlier writers. They of course come with their own prejudices and blind spots, but they are not my prejudices and my blind spots. Somehow I find that it helps my overall view of the topic to look at it through different eyes.

Anyway, I came across a book that was a bit earlier, but still useful for my purposes,  An Historical View of the English Government, by John Millar written in 1787.  There was one particular section that I zeroed in on. It dealt with the difference between Courage and Fortitude.

Courage and fortitude are virtues, which, though resembling each other in some of the principal features, are easily and clearly distinguished. They are called forth on different occasions; and they do not always exist in the same persons. Courage consists in a steady resolution of submitting to some great evil, which is in some measure uncertain, and takes the name of danger. Fortitude consists in bearing a present pain or uneasiness with firmness and resignation. Courage supposes an active and voluntary exertion. Fortitude, a mere passive suffering. The exertion of courage is opposed and often prevented by the passion of fear, which magnifies and exaggerates all uncertain evils. The exercise of fortitude is counteracted by that weakness of mind which destroys the power of reflection, and renders us incapable of counterbalancing our present pain, by the recollection of any agreeable circumstance in our condition.

Great calamities, and such as are of a personal nature, seem to be the objects of courage; and the most conspicuous triumph of this virtue appears in conquering the fear of death. But fortitude may frequently be displayed in supporting the long continuance of small as well as of great evils; in suffering ridicule, shame, and disappointments, and in submitting with patience and alacrity to the numerous train of vexations ” which flesh is heir to.”

Both courage and fortitude are promoted by every circumstance which leads to the exercise of those virtues; for here men are, by the power of habit, inured to such exertions and sufferings as at first were formidable and difficult.

Writing about the classical virtues requires a certain facility with the definitions, but this left me curious. I have been thinking of fortitude as basically synonymous with courage. Perhaps I need to rethink my own definition. Or perhaps the definitions have simply changed somewhat over the past 200+ years.
Fortitude encompasses more than a singular meaning.

Regardless of whether I completely buy Millar’s argument or not, thinking about the two types of virtue described therein does help me to delve a bit deeper into the overall idea of Fortitude. There are, according to Millar, two types. The first is courage in the face of grave and immediate danger. The second is a more stoic acceptance of one’s station. The latter appears to be of a longer duration and is quite possibly the one more of us will require in our daily lives.

God willing, most of us will not face life and death peril too often, but we will often need to deal with “suffering ridicule, shame, and disappointments, and in submitting with patience and alacrity to the numerous train of vexations ‘ which flesh is heir to.’”

I now have a new avenue to explore, that of the stoic’s view of the classical virtues. Millar seems to support a stoic approach to fortitude, so it will be interesting to find out the view someone like Epictetus takes on it.

A Failure of Political Skill

Democracy may not be perfect, but it is the best form of government man has come up with to manage a free market, capitalist society. However, in order for a democracy to work its many factions need to have the requisite political skill to compromise in order to get things done.

In the U.S. this must take the form of Democrats working with Republicans. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of our recent polarizing climate is that many on both sides now seem to value ideological purity more than they do the country as a whole. Politics, always an endevour synonymous with a contact sport has seemingly become nothing more than sport to a large number of its participants.

The problem is, this is not a game. And the loser doesn’t get to go play golf in the off-season.

Neither political party holds the high ground right now either. The Democrats, united by their dislike of former President Bush have solidified into an ultra-liberal, semi-socialistic party. For their part, the Republicans have become so afraid of the Tea Party faction that they dare not do anything that even has the faint glimmer of moderation.

The solution comes back to what this project is all about- virtue. The stunning lack of which is best illustrated by looking at the recent failure of the grand compromise on the debt ceiling. For those who have not been following the debate, here is the issue in a nutshell.

Administration officials say the country needs to raise its $14.3 trillion debt ceiling to stop a default on loan obligations, and Republicans want spending cuts in order for them to cooperate. Obama says that in return, he wants new taxes to combine with the cuts to reduce the debt by $4 trillion over the next 10-12 years.

The taxes he has in mind are of course the much talked about Bush tax cuts for those making over $250k. Obama and Speaker Boehner were basically in agreement. This was the opportunity to do something truly big and far reaching. Hell, by the end of their golf-outing negotiations Obama was even willing to put entitlements on the cutting block.

Think about that for a minute, for raising taxes on those who could probably handle it anyway, the GOP was going to be able to take a huge bite out of government spending. To think that we could dig our way out of this debt hole without any pain is folly ~ this was as good a deal as either side was likely to get. Trillions in cuts and modest tax raises.

Then the rank and file on both sides shot it down. No way can we cut into Medicare! NO new taxes!
So, how does virtue come into play you ask?

Neither party, apparently aside from the president and speaker, had the fortitude, or courage, to do what was prudent, or necessary.  Now I will admit I have no insider knowledge here. Maybe there were others willing to put aside short term political gain and do what clearly needs to be done for the nation as a whole. But if so, they have not been very vocal. And the leaders of each party, Obama and Boehner, have to take the blame for that as well. Leaders can only be leaders if people are willing to follow them.

The point remains that until we have people of strength, men and women of virtue in places of power, we will continue to simple play games with our collective future. Real democracy needs real political skill.  Something to think long and hard about as we enter the next election cycle.

Why Charity Matters

Does this sound familiar? It is dinner time and you have just sat down when the phone rings. It is yet another charitable organization looking for a donation. You feel for the caller, after all he is just doing his job and the cause is a good one, but you just don’t have any extra cash. Anyway, if there is a little money left over after paying the bills you should probably put it away in the emergency fund, right?
That pretty much describes me, and I don’t like it.
One of the areas of my own life that I know needs work is my generosity. While technically the virtue of Charity belongs to the theological virtues rather than the four classical virtues, I believe the concept of Justice really requires one to be generous as well. Justice is the ability to balance between self-interest and the rights and needs of others and one way to develop justice is throug being charitable. To paraphrase Isaiah 58:1-10, while charity gives, justice changes. It changes the lives of those giving as well as those receiving.
Most, if not all, of the world’s religions promote charity as a very important moral value. Hinduism, Jainism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Sikhism place particular emphasis on altruistic morality. Here in the U.S. we have always been known as a charitable country. The United States is “a land of charity,” says Arthur Brooks, an expert on philanthropy and a professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, who sees charitable giving and volunteerism as the signal characteristic of Americans. Total American donations for 2006 amounted to almost $300 billion, and individuals accounted for 75.6% of that. In terms of the percentage of GDP given to charity the U.S. more than doubles the second place country, Britain.
While America is generally charitable, as a developed western society we also have a ready-made excuse not to get involved. We pay taxes and our government has programs to help the poor here and abroad. Yet, to rely on this fact as a way to side-step our personal responsibility misses the point. Aristotle famously stated that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” We can easily substitute virtue for excellence.  Are we developing the virtue of Justice or Charity if we let an impersonal government do all the work for us? Besides, most quality charities only use about 10% of their funds for administrative costs. Do you think the government works anywhere near that efficiency level?

I have to admit my wife is much further along in the development of Justice than I am. She readily gives of her time, talents and money for causes she believes in and is doing a good job instilling this virtue in our children. In fact, as I write this she is with my oldest child volunteering at a local nursing home- something they do together once a month. I think she is starting to rub off on me too. 
Choose a charity as a family.
As a family we have decided to support two charities. I strongly recommend you chose a cause that speaks to you and not just donate to whatever organization happens to call. For one thing, there is only so much to go around ~ as much as we may want to we can not support everything. But more importantly, by carefully choosing your charity you establish a connection and commitment to that cause. 
Just as an example the organizations my family supports are Green Beans Coffee Cup Of Joe for a Joe program and Catholic Relief Services (CRS). We chose these because, one, the missions of each speak to us on a personal level and two, they are reputable charities who spend a high percentage of our donations on their respective missions. When looking for a charity to support it is important to look at their accounting. Any reputable charity will make this public. For instance, CRS puts 95% of their funding into programs with the remaining 5% into administration and fund raising. This gives them an “A” ranking from The American Institue of Philanthropy.
In order to live a just life we need to look out for each other.  This is something I will be working on in the coming months. I invite you to join me. Find an organization whose mission you believe in and set aside an amount of money you wish to contribute each month. Treat it as you would any other bill- you’d be surprised what you can afford. If the cable bill went up $25 a month would you cancel it or find the money somewhere? 
If you are living in America and are able to log on and read this you really have won the lottery of life. I know I have and its time I start practicing a little gratitude for that.

Self Improvement & The 5 Foot Shelf

Harvard Classics Complete Set 51 Volumes First Edition (The Five Foot Shelf Of Books)I am going to take a break from my ongoing series on George Washington on Leadership in the Workplace to share something that I just recently came across. Now this may not be new to you- after all my quest to live and learn about the classical virtues is still in its infancy. However, even if you have heard of Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf, reacquainting yourself with this valuable resource and cultural experiment can be useful.

First a little history. Charles W. Elliot was the president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909. This is an important era in American education as this comes during the transition from old-style classicism to John Dewey inspired progressivism. Dr. Elliot represented a sensible middle ground. Old-style classicism had become in many ways a caricature of its former glory, more concerned with an archaic curriculum than the foundational ideas behind it. On the other hand many of Dewey’s followers created schools that were so child-centered that they ignored the importance of the content as well as the role of the teacher in a student’s education.

The Five Foot Shelf
Dr. Elliot has gone down in history as one of education’s great reformers, and rightly so, but he also had a deep love of the classics. Here is where the Five Foot Shelf comes in. He was known for claiming that if you spent just 15 minutes a day reading the right books, an amount that could fit comfortably on a five foot shelf, you could give yourself a good liberal education. 

P. F. Collier and Son saw a marketing opportunity and challenged Dr. Elliot to create his list and they would publish it. Thus was born The Harvard Classics. This is an amazing set if you, like me, are interested in a more classical approach to education. As much as Elliot tried to break from the past, he could not escape the fact that to become a truly educated person you must read the best writing. Today’s schools, in an attempt at inclusiveness, often include sub par works. This resource allows you to fill in the gaps of your education as it were.

It Costs How Much?!
Now for the bad news. The set is currently prices $400 at Amazon. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d love if you clicked this affiliate link to Amazon and purchased a set. I would happily pocket the commission safe in the knowledge that I recommended a solid educational resource. However, there is a much better and cheaper way to get a hold of this classic series.

The Internet Archive is a non-profit that was founded to build an Internet library. One of its products is The Harvard Classics.

The most comprehensive and well-researched anthology of all time comprises both the 50-volume “5-foot shelf of books” and the the 20-volume Shelf of Fiction. Together they cover every major literary figure, philosopher, religion, folklore and historical subject through the twentieth century.n 1910, Dr. Charles W. Eliot, then President of Harvard University, put together an extraordinary library of “all the books needed for a real education.”

Adding This to My Bucket List
I for one am going to take up Dr. Eliot’s challenge, albeit 100 years late, and read for 15 minutes a day, going through this series. Admittedly this is a lifetime pursuit, but it is only 15 minutes a day. Surely anyone can spare that. And with the collection absolutely free there just isn’t a good reason not to attempt this goal. Does anyone want to join me? Stop by Twitter or comment below.