(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.
(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.)
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.
Pliny the Younger
(A wealthy lawyer reveals his personality and attitudes, and the way of life in Imperial Rome.)
Many of us are acquainted with, or at least aware of, a certain species of lawyer, politician, or businessman. At first we notice the more grating aspects of his personality. He is near the top of his game, and can barely see beyond his own prosperity. He knows a whole lot of people, many of whom are famous, and somehow he reminds us of this in nearly every conversation. He loves to talk of his success stories, his valuable properties, praise he has received, and difficult decisions or tight places from which he has emerged victorious. He is sensible of the fact that his reputation is what keeps him successful, and he has become entrained on reputation to such an extent that the development of it is unabashedly the single guiding force in his life, the basis upon which he makes all significant choices. Maybe this trait lurks in of all of us to some extent, but what our bold tycoon doesn’t often realize is that so ardently exhibiting a concern for reputation can actually harm your reputation.