(Horses, rifles, and knives see a party of adventurers through the land of expansive plains, craggy mountains, buffalo, and the Sioux.)
“Shaw! Buddy!” Imagine a young, spontaneous Yankee calling out to his friend, both of them just out of college. He proposes that they leave the effeminate comforts of the East, and spend a summer adventuring westward into the untamed lands where life is dangerous and fascinating. Francis Parkman explains (ch.II):
“The restlessness, the love of wilds and hatred of cities, natural perhaps in early years to every unperverted son of Adam, was not our only motive for undertaking the present journey. My companion hoped to shake off the effects of a disorder that had impaired a constitution originally hardy and robust; and I was anxious to pursue some inquiries relative to the character and usages of remote Indian nations, being already familiar with many of the border tribes.”
So they did it. In 1846. Francis was 23. And the recollections of that journey, The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, remain with us as one of the best treatments of the early West that we will ever have. Parkman’s prose has the feel of a chronicle—it is obviously nonfiction, a travelogue. But it is not a ponderous journal of trivia and redundancy through which we must wade for hours to find the few interesting episodes; nor is each sunset a springboard for a forced flight of sentimental fancy in poor imitation of Byron’s Childe Harold or other Old World sketches. Rather, it is an engaging selection of vignettes, personalities, and anecdotes that admit us to the ranks of the “ragamuffin cavalcade” that was Parkman’s expedition. Parkman’s writing is like Parkman himself—the stereotypical American at his best, one might say: direct yet perceptive, practical yet romantic, hearty yet insightful.
(with Rustichello of Pisa)
(An Italian explorer treks fearlessly into the unknown East, and discovers astonishing cultures and kingdoms no European had ever seen).
Marco Polo journeying to the East in the time of the Pax Mongolica, from the 1375 Catalan Atlas, housed at the National Library of France.
We are fortunate that Marco Polo lived long enough and expended the energy to record the greatest travels ever performed by any man to his time and for very long afterwards. He dictated– apparently from memory– his adventures to a romance-writer Rustichello of Pisa while they were prisoners of war in Genoa. No repetitive or trivial diarizing here—this is a very entertaining work, often fascinating and at times hilarious. I am struck, as Polo was, by the variety of customs observed in the many areas through which he trekked. I am also intrigued by the amount of wealth those in power were able to amass; such wealth that Kublai Khan, for the prime example, could romp in several sumptuous palaces with manicured grounds and scenic paths like those of the richest modern European monarch. It surely seems that the book’s two repeated claims may well be true: that Marco Polo had traveled further and knew more of the world than any other man who had ever lived; and that the Mongol empire under Kublai Khan was the largest empire in subjects and geographical area ever to have existed.
(Discours de la méthode)
(A scientist-philosopher wishes that all the deep questions of life could be as certain as his mathematical results—so he decides to start from scratch and make them that way.)
Figures 32 and 33 in L’Homme (Man), Descartes’ 1633 work, illustrating the accordance of the operation of the human body with mathematical principles.
The influence this little book has had over the past few centuries is (to make a ridiculous understatement) vastly out of proportion to its size. It is manageable in a single evening sitting, or (as Descartes is kind enough to inform us) in six roughly equal short sittings. My recent reading of it was over breakfast. It is strange to think that one can read a book so illustrious and philosophical over breakfast, but such is Descartes’ charm. He is of course a philosopher of the highest rank: the cogiter of that most famous phrase in the history of thought, cogito ergo sum. He is one of the chief inspirations for the modern movement in philosophy in which we still are steeped today, which emphasizes, among other things, a systematic and reasoned approach to all matters of inquiry in an effort to gain a scientific understanding of everything there is to know. Yet, again, the charm of Descartes is that he gives us this little journal, this series of ideas, as if he were chatting to us in front of a fire. He tells us how he came to think the way he does about things, rather than giving us “the way things are” in an authoritative or textbook manner. By this strategy he draws us in, perhaps unawares. This is an important quality to recognize in Descartes today, or at least it was for me. For I, like most students over the last fifty years or so, was warned about Descartes in college, as a naughty modernist, a reductionist, a disenchanter, a rationalist. What dry and impersonal words these are, and yet how personal is the Discourse compared with most philosophical writings! The criticisms may very well be true of his system, but there is more to this book than just a set of statements—we get to meet an author, a person. We should meet someone before we criticize him too harshly; often knowing the person tempers our antagonism.