Two extraordinary men of intellect, Charles P. Curtis, Jr. and Ferris Greenslet, selected and edited a compendium entitled, The Practical Cogitator – The Thinker’s Anthology. Curtis, a Boston Lawyer who taught Constitutional Law at Harvard, and Greenslet, Literary Editor at Houghton Mifflin, spent almost a decade in an ambitious undertaking almost beyond the reach of minds as capacious as theirs.
Curtis anticipated the outbreak of World War, and as one who had commanded a destroyer in the First World War, he knew the deadening routine of life in anticipation of engagement. He had filled empty hours during his tour of duty in recalling and transcribing essays that had been of importance to him throughout his life. His hope was to gather the essential great ideas and great expressions in a concentrated collection so that the next generation of soldiers would have a portable library in a single edition.
Meeting Greenslet at Houghton Mifflin, Curtis found the literary collaborator capable of inspiring and organizing the anthology. The book was not finished by the outbreak of World War II, but finally reached the public in 1945. A second and third edition followed.
From the start, Curtis and Greenslet wanted the anthology to provoke thought. The entries are often short; these are expressions of the most central observations of writers and philosophers. In many cases, the juxtaposition of ideas in conflict encouraged critical response. The basic outline of the work was to be found in the following sections:
Man In Search of Himself
He Solicits His Past
He Turns to Nature and Scrutinizes Her and Himself
He Lives With His Fellows
They Better Their Condition
They Must Have Peace, Security, and Liberty and Justice
He Seeks Solace and Beauty and Friendship and Love and Even Something More
He Takes Better Aim
The first passage in the anthology, a sentence written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, suggests the modesty with which this challenging compendium was conceived.
“Any two philosophers can tell each other all they know in two hours.”
From Montaigne to Sarte, and from Confucius to Whitehead, each author makes his case in elegant brevity. More than 100,000 copies were published, and appreciation for the book remains constant and enthusiastic.
It happened that my mother worked with Ferris Greenslet at Houghton Mifflin. One of the parent companies had belonged to my great-grandfather, and although financial reversal had cost the Crocker family the ownership of the enterprise, residual good will provided my mother an opportunity to find a place in the editorial offices at the end of the Depression, just as war was about to break out and the collaboration of Greenslet and Davis was to begin.
My mother traveled in the company of some exceptional and celebrated people but maintained that Ferris Greenslet was the most impressive mind she had ever met.
I do not presume to continue work that he and Curtis began; their work was free of irony and cavil. Mine is not. And, where their anthology promised practical cogitation, mine celebrates whimsy. They set out to offer something of substance to soldiers in need of inspiration and comfort. Mine simply suits my own, often silly, interests.
Welcome to the Impractical Cogitator.