In the dialogue Meno, Socrates is asked by the eponymous interlocutor whether virtue can be taught. Socrates, as per usual, plays dumb: “I don’t even know what virtue is; how can I tell you if it can be taught?” Meno then lists the virtues of various classes of people, all of which appear to be a form of practical efficiency. After a substantial digression, Socrates and Meno finally get to the business of addressing whether virtue can be taught by establishing a provisional definition of what virtue is: the wisdom or knowledge required to know how to act in a way that will be profitable. That is, prudence. For example, courage is a virtue. Without prudence, however, courage becomes folly. The same is true of every other individual virtue. Prudence is the overarching principle of all virtues.
Some two-thousand years later, Lord Chesterfield took up this interpretation of virtue. In a letter to his son, he used the word “judgement” in the place of “prudence” but expressed the same idea. Each virtue is only good if exercised with good judgement, otherwise it becomes a parallel vice. “Generosity often runs into profusion, economy into avarice, courage into rashness, caution into timidity, and so on.” Judgement (or prudence? or moderation?) is the heart of virtue, because without it all other virtues are vice. But Chesterfield went on to apply this to a field that might not be considered a virtue in itself: education.
“Great learning,” writes Chesterfield, “if not accompanied with sound judgment, frequently carries us into error, pride, and pedantry.” Those who are highly educated but not prudent do not give their contemporaries enough credit. Instead, they rely on the ancients, even upon ancient mad men. “We are really so prejudiced by our education, that, as the ancients deified their heroes, we deify their madmen; of which, with all due regard for antiquity, I take Leonidas and Curtius to have been two distinguished ones.” The study of the ancients is necessary and proper, but what really matters is what is going on today.
One may argue that since Chesterfield’s time, the pendulum has swung the quite other way. The products of today’s education scoff at the ancients as primitive and look only to modern science. A particular example of this is the modern opinion of faith. Any great thinker of the past who was avowedly religious is automatically discounted in the opinion of the modern pseudo-intellectual. Faith is no longer regarded as a virtue, but it is now held to be archaic and indicative of personal weakness. And as for Chesterfield’s admonition against mentioning that one is reading classics, there is surely little chance of that now. I read somewhere the observation that Americans used to learn Latin and Greek in high school. But now they learn remedial English in college. If not for the recent motion pictures about the Persian invasion of Greece, many college graduates would have no idea who Leonidas was at all.
Still, Chesterfield’s advice is well worth heeding. Especially for this blog. Works of greater or lesser antiquity are an obvious part of this project. Partially because of an ingrained deference for the ancients, partially because the readings reproduced here must be in the public domain. I think that I generally avoid fawning over the ancients unnecessarily and from trotting out my education just to let people know that I have one. After all, I freely admit that I am under-educated. I had to search Wikipedia just to learn who Curtius was.
Beer of the Week: Lord Chesterfield Ale – This beer has a pleasant and refreshing hint of citrus. It is not as flavorful as I would hope, but it really is a bit better than the average mass-produced beer. Especially after drinking half a case. Also, it is named for a noted man of letters, which is an obvious point in its favor.
Reading for the Week: Letter XXX from Lord Chesterfield to his Son – The collected letters of Lord Chesterfield to his son are known as Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, so that’s awesome. The first time I read this letter, it almost felt like a rebuke for creating this blog. And I still haven’t quite shaken that impression.
Question for the Week: A number of Americans have made former presidents the objects of their deification. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and others are practically cult figures in various circles. In what way does this differ from an obsession with the ancients?
Not so long ago, I took a two month vacation to travel across Russia and explore Europe. Naturally, there were a number of amazing sights and adventures. I spent seven straight days on a train. I was detained at the boarder between Belarus and Poland. I went down the Danube in a high-speed catamaran. I was physically accosted by Spanish protesters. I held a 3,000 year-old Athenian coin in the palm of my hand. (I am still awestruck at the idea that Socrates or Plato or Aristophanes might have held that very coin. And then, presumably, spent it on wine.) And, of course, I drank a lot of beers.
The beers I drank in Europe ranged greatly in quality, even in within each country. In Russia most of the beer was not great, but once I accidentally bought kvass (a beer-like soft drink brewed from rye bread.) It was delicious. In Austria and Belarus I happily drank liters of local beer in small restaurants while noshing on delicacies such as blood sausage and stuffed potato pancakes dripping in oil. In England I drank pint after pint of real cask ale, as well as pint after pint of cheap lager mixed with cider. And Belgium… well, words can’t even describe it.
But my appreciation for beer was well honed before my trip. My appreciation for fine art, however, was severely lacking. Sure, I visited the great churches and cathedrals in every city I visited and was thoroughly stuck by the beauty of the architecture and decor. It wasn’t until Amsterdam, though, that I really started looking at the art. After a night of throwing back Heinekens with an Australian backpacker, I decided that I should see the works of Van Gogh. To my dismay, the Van Gogh Museum was closed for renovations. This was a blessing in disguise, so to speak. Because the museum was closed, most of the paintings were on loan at The Hermitage Amsterdam. So instead of just seeing the works of Van Gogh, I got to see an outstanding exhibition of the Hermitage’s impressionist paintings side-by-side with contemporary works in more traditional styles preferred by the French Academy.
In a single day, I learned more about fine art than I’d ever known. Monet, Laurens, and Renoir were transformed from “painters I’d heard of” into real people expressing deep and meaningful scenes across the ages. Works that I recognized from posters or book covers were suddenly put into their proper context. And by placing the works of the impressionists next to those of their contemporaries, I finally saw how impressionism was more than just a new style, it was a movement.
After that day I was hooked. From Amsterdam I went to Paris then on to Italy, spending hours and hours in their amazing museums. (musea?) Don’t get me wrong; I am still no expert. As much as I loved seeing all of those amazing works, I am still mostly ignorant about fine art. In fact, when I got to the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican, I realized my greatest accomplishment as a student of art: I had seen original works by each of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Beer of the week: Short Straw Farmhouse Red Ale - This beer is part of the “Expressionist Collection” from the Blue Moon Brewing Company. The label is pretty obviously inspired by Van Gogh. If I remember the brochure from the museum, Van Gogh is considered “post-impressionist” rather than “expressionist.” But I don’t really know what that means, so I’ll just review the beer. Blue Moon beers are brewed by MillerCoors, but mass-production does not always mean low quality. Unlike Blue Moon’s signature Belgian White, this beer is reddish-amber in color and very clear. The carbonation level is rather high (as the picture shows.) The aroma is a bit yeasty and floral. The taste is quite good. It is a little on the sweet side, but that is balanced nicely by a tart finish. The bottle mentions that the brewers use hibiscus, coriander, and white pepper. It may just be a trick of psychology, but after reading the label I found that I did taste a hint of pepper, especially on the back of my tongue. Overall, I think this is a pretty good beer.
Paintings of the week: Impressionists and Their Contemporaries: Six-Pack of Paintings – In lieu of a reading this week, I have selected a few of the paintings I was lucky enough to see on my trip. I have followed the Hermitage’s idea of placing impressionist paintings alongside roughly contemporary neoclassical and romantic paintings. Pour yourself a beer and really have a good look at these paintings. Notice how Renoir, Monet, and Pissaro present scenes that are absolutely complete, even without the extreme detail of the paintings by Gérôme, David, and Laurens. Marvel at the mastery Laurens had over light and shadow. Seriously, spend some time looking at each. When the David painting looks as blurry as the Renoir, you’ve had enough to drink.
Question of the week: Aristotle and others have philosophized on aesthetics. Horatio Greenough was both a sculptor and essayist on the subjects of art and architecture. And of course, Leonardo da Vinci did everything. Are there any fine artists who are also well known for their philosophic writings?
“I’ll get my homework done later, geez!”
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, even euphemistically!”
I actually overheard an exchange substantially like that once. Until then, I could hardly have imagined a mother scolding her teen-aged child for such a thing. I had never even thought about the fact that “geez” is certainly a euphemism employed specifically to avoid saying “Jesus.” With a little thought, though, one could easily list quite a few very common euphemistic replacements: “gosh” for “God”, “darn” in place of “damn”, “heck” for “hell”, “son of a gun” for “son of a bitch”, “fudge” for… In short, every expletive that you might use with children in the room.
But pervasive euphemisms are not limited to exclamations or insults. The the word “restroom” has long given the squeamish or polite an excuse to avoid saying “toilet” or any other descriptive term. (And who doesn’t prefer a woman who “powders her nose” to one who “shits”?) Some of these euphemisms have been in use so long that we’ve forgotten that they are not the original terms. For example, H.L. Mencken informs us that the word “rooster” only came into usage to avoid having to say the word “cock.”
In his book The American Language, Mencken explores the origins of many of these euphemisms and expletives and compares the American and British sensibilities. Slang is an excellent indicator that American English is thoroughly distinct from British English. (For a crude example on this point, ponder what it might mean “to bum a fag.”) I find The American Language especially interesting because language is constantly evolving and sensibilities are constantly changing along with them. The rapidity of these changes is astounding. A few short years ago, South Park positively could not be aired before 10 pm; last week, I saw a re-run before 10 am.
And even as some words become less and less taboo (remember that episode when the characters of South Park said “shit” over a hundred times?) other words become more taboo. The word “retard” is now considered so offensive that I’ve seen it censored when used in a technical sense other than mental retardation. Similarly, “crippled” has given way to “handicapped” or “disabled”, which have in turn given rise to the euphemisims “handicapable” and “differently abled.”
There are those who rail against such changes, but it is a natural part of the way language evolves. What is edgy or obscene can never remain the same because there are always people pushing and pulling at the limits of decency. Because of this constant flux, it is important to remember that the idea is what matters, not necessarily the word that is used to express it. So, by gosh, you’d better not take the Lord’s name in vain, even using euphemisms.
Beer of the Week: National Bohemian Beer – H.L. Mencken is known as “The Sage of Baltimore” and was also an avid beer-drinker. These facts lead me to the conclusion that Mencken consumed his share of National Beer in his day. I too have had quite a few National Beers. Unlike almost every other American college*, at my college “light beer”** was rarely consumed. We drank Pabst, Miller High Life, and National Beer. In college I could buy a six-pack of National for $3 and I regarded this as a benchmark for price. In Baltimore, (euphemistically known as “The Land of Pleasant Living”,) this beer is called “Boh” or “Natty Boh” or “Bay Water”. But I prefer to call it National Beer, a name more familiar when it was still brewed in “Charm City”. The beer itself really is pretty awful. It is over carbonated and it smells of sour grains. It is not as watery and bland as most cheap beers, but this may not be an advantage since it really does not taste that good. But I’ll still drink it at Orioles games (if the Heavy Seas vendor is too far from my seat); after all, it is nostalgia in a can.
Reading for the Week: The American Language by H.L. Mencken, Chapter 22 Expletives and Forbidden Words – This reading is partially interesting because it is fun to see how much things have changed since the early 20th century. (“Unwell” apparently referred primarily to “women’s troubles” at one time.) It is also partially interesting to see how much things have stayed the same. (All sorts of internal problems are still called “stomach aches” even if the actual source of discomfort is in organs that we prefer not to mention by name.) And finally, it is interesting because there are so many exciting “cusswords” that I can’t wait to try out!
Question for the Week: How aware are you of all the euphemisms that you use from day to day?
When traveling abroad, one often finds that everyday items are really luxuries. The laws of supply and demand are universal, and it is amazing how much money people will spend on something that they would usually take for granted. Among other staggering valuations, I have seen substantial price-tags on peanut butter, asparagus, and cheese. Not even fancy French cheese, stuff that was a few steps above “American Singles“. A very common response to those prices is, “that’s way more than that product is worth!” But does that statement have any meaning?
The problem that people so often have is that they get the idea that the commonly accepted price is the real value of something. “San Miguel can be had for pennies in Manila, so it is not worth $5 here.” That sort of thinking is simply not sound. Items don’t have a set value. The value of anything is determined by supply and demand, and since supply and demand constantly vary, values constantly vary. If San Miguel costs more in one place than in another, it is because the markets support different costs.
An important thing to remember as the consumer is that your willingness to pay (along with the willingness of everybody else) is the demand. If you think something is too expensive, you are right. But if you complain that something is too expensive and you still buy it, it wasn’t really too expensive, was it? On a clear day, I may tell you that Mickey’s Fine Malt Liquor is not worth buying at any price. Yet, in a moment of weakness, I may actually make the same purchase that I’ve regretted again and again. At the time of purchase, though, I clearly think that the beer is worth more than the money I am giving up. Otherwise, the sale would never happen.
To be sure, in retrospect we often feel ripped off. For example, if I knew how awful that Brazilian beer was, I would never have paid so much for it. But what I am talking about here is the asking price for a known good. Now I think that Brazilian beer really is too expensive, but only too expensive for me. For anybody who happens to actually like it and is willing to buy it at that price, it is worth every penny. All transactions in a market economy happen because both the buyer and the seller think that they are getting the better end of the deal.
Beer of the Week: Bass Ale – Bass was once a go-to beer for me. It is a pretty amber beer with a good malt body and a very comforting flavor. However, this batch was brewed in New York and it is not what I remember or expect from Bass. Compared to my memory, this American version is sweeter. It also has a hint of sourness from the grains, like sourdough bread. It may still be above average for large-batch American beer, but I am disappointed.
Reading for the Week: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome – Simply because Jerome could not get any mustard, he was suddenly willing to trade everything he had and more for a single spoonful. He had witnessed this supply and demand problem before: “I heard a man, going up a mountain in Switzerland, once say he would give worlds for a glass of beer, and, when he came to a little shanty where they kept it, he kicked up a most fearful row because they charged him five francs for a bottle of Bass.”
Question for the Week: In a way, Three Men in a Boat is really about conspicuous consumption: a group of friends go on a boating holiday with the (unstated and probably subconscious) intention to display their affluence and social standing by engaging in costly leisure. At what point do things become more desirable because of the apparent disconnect between their price and their “real” value? Are larger natural diamonds actually worth more because they have fewer practical applications?
The sun is shining. The breeze is warm and fresh. The mounds of snow start melting away to reveal mounds of garbage. City life is hell.
I can say without hyperbole that litterers are worse than Hitler. If you litter, you are a bad person, deserving of scorn and derision. Luckily, there is hope for you yet. You can be redeemed from your sinful ways. You don’t need to find Jesus or go to church or any of that. Just stop littering. It’s that simple. Don’t throw your trash on the ground like an asshole.
A friend of mine who was a smoker observed that all smokers litter. But truly I tell you, even smokers can be saved. I once met a smoker who had worked as a ski instructor in a national park. The penalties for littering cigarette butts in the park were severe. (Not to mention the forest fire hazard that cigarette butts would cause.) So he learned to put out his butts, pocket them, and throw them away when he got to a trash can. “But that’d make his clothes smell,” I can hear some of you smokers yelling at your computers like idiots. The thing is, his clothes already smelled like smoke because, you know, he was a smoker.
In the final analysis, litterers will always litter because of a problem identified by Professor Coase. Littering is a classic externality. Externalities exist when one person forces an expense or benefit on another person who had no choice whether or not to accept it. Litterers force the expense of cleaning up their trash on somebody else (society at large in a general way, though it actually falls on more or less specific parties.) According to Coase, if the litterer and the person charged with cleaning up trash could get their heads together, the clean up person could just pay the litterer not to do it and we would reach the most economic result. Unfortunately, the transaction costs of identifying all of the litterers and all of the people who suffer at the hands of the litterers would be far too high to be able to negotiate an economic result. Some people will always value the time it would take them to walk to the trashcan on the corner more than they will care about the cost they are inflicting on society, both monetarily and aesthetically. And those people are terrible.
Seriously, don’t be a terrible person: don’t litter.
Beer of the Week: New Planet Off Grid Pale Ale – Gluten-free beer. Is nothing sacred? This beer has a sweet grainy smell. My first thought was that the aroma was malty, but there is no barley malt in it. The beer is actually very sweet, but the sweetness from sorghum and brown rice extract is decidedly NOT the same as sweetness from barley or rye malt. The beer is actually rather good tasting, but it is simply unlike other beers. If I ever had to go gluten-free, I would certainly miss the other options, but I could certainly see myself drinking this regularly.
Reading for the Week: Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Chapter 17 – For a beer called Off Grid Pale Ale, there could hardly be a reading more suitable than Walden. In this section, Thoreau describes watching sand and clay form into beautiful and familiar patterns as the snow melts and washes it slowly down hill. He sees in these rivulets all of nature’s splendor. The patterns in the sand are of a kind with leaves and blood vessels and butterfly wings; the very earth seems to be pulsing with life. This passage is a remarkable contrast to my own experience of watching the melting snow wash garbage slowly down the gutter.
Question for the Week: Do you litter? If so, did your parents do a dreadful job of raising you?
“And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” When his disciples heard, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.“
There are two interpretations of this passage from Matthew 19 that I have heard many times. Both of which I find incompatible with the actual text.
One interpretation is to assume that the meaning of “eye of a needle” is not obvious. Some people claim that “the eye of the needle” was actually the name of a small outer gate. Camels, being large and difficult to handle, could only be made to pass through this small gate with great effort. This interpretation is popular with those who wish to be rich themselves, since it means that rich men are not literally incapable of achieving salvation; it is only more difficult.
As far as I know, there is no historical evidence to support the term “eye of the needle” meaning a small gate. (So sayeth Wikipedia.) More importantly, this interpretation makes no sense in context. Why would the disciples be “exceedingly amazed” if Jesus described something that was only a minor inconvenience? And then why would Jesus go on to state that “with men this is impossible”? I have heard in defense of this interpretation that the gate was actually too small for camels, so it was impossible for a camel to pass through. In that case, why bother looking for a different meaning for the term “eye of the needle”? Impossible is impossible and it makes no real difference whether it is the eye of a needle, a one inch hole or a door that is slightly too small.
And if the final conclusion is that rich men actually are incapable of salvation, that brings us to the next interpretation: that it is simply impossible for the rich to enter heaven. The syllogism is simple:
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God;
A camel absolutely cannot pass through the eye of a needle; Therefore,
A rich man cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
Of course, this ignores the next line: “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” Applying this line to the result of our earlier syllogism:
A rich man cannot enter into the kingdom of God;
With God all things are possible; Therefore,
With God a rich man may enter into the kingdom of God.
So there you have it. The salvation of the rich is possible, but requires a miracle from God.
Beer of the Week: Tsingtao Pure Draft – This Chinese beer is very pale, very clear, and very boring. It is promising to see Asian brewers starting to make rice-free beer, but this one is a dud. There is some malty sweetness but very little hops. It almost comes off as an attempt at a beer flavored soft drink.
Reading of the Week: Epictetus and Seneca by Walter Savage Landor – Emerson wrote of Landor, “He has a wonderful brain, despotic, violent, and inexhaustible, meant for a soldier, by what chance converted to letters, in which there is not a style nor a tint not known to him, yet with an English appetite for action and heroes.” His appetite for action and heroes and his command of style are evident in his Imaginary Conversations of Greeks and Romans. In this dialogue between the great stoic philosophers Epictetus and Seneca, Epictetus really gives Seneca the business for thinking that he can be both rich and a philosopher. “Fortune cares little about philosophers; but she remembers where she hath set a rich man, and she laughs to see the Destinies at his door.”
Question of the Week: How far can the parallels between Mark 19 and Epictetus and Seneca be drawn? In what way is Christian salvation like philosophy? Are the rich barred from both for the same reasons?
Given the opportunity to go back in time to the summer of 2001 and invest in the manufacture of American flags, would you? I suppose that the question needs a bit more detail: You have the technology to go back in time, but only to the summer of 2001. While you are there, the only thing you can do is buy stock in a company that makes American flags and decorative magnets for automobiles. You have no power to substantially change any events and buying the stock does not change anything about the present except for how much money you have. Do you buy that stock?
I suspect that there are two common responses to this hypothetical: “Of course. I’d be foolish not to collect big ol’ dividends from the giant uptick in American flag sales,” and “No. The recent proliferation of flag-waving distresses me. Sights of streets lined with the national flag look shockingly similar to images from Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. Over-the-top nationalism and militarism is a serious problem in this country and I want nothing to do with it.”
Early 19th century American sculptor Horatio Greenough offers another reason not to invest in the mass-marketing of American flags: when the flag is everywhere, it loses any special meaning. (It is important to note that Greenough’s complaint came at a time when seeing five American flags in a single day seemed excessive; he could scarcely have imagined the modern applications.) Greenough’s essay Aesthetics in Washington includes a section entitled The Desecration of the Flag. Therein, Greenough explains why he thinks that the flag has no place at taverns or peepshows or even private homes: the flag is desecrated by being used simply as an ornament by anybody and everybody. It is a very special symbol and to have it plastered everywhere greatly diminishes how special it is.
Some might argue that as a free and democratic people, Americans have a right to use the flag however they see fit. Greenough seems reluctant to allow that. But he doesn’t have to. Even if people do have a right to use the flag, that doesn’t make it right. People have a right to “excessive beer-drinking and other gluttonies”, but that doesn’t mean that they should. Asserting the right to fly the flag or be rude or to curse is just bootstrapping simple barbarism to the noble concept of freedom, something the flag once stood for.
Beer of the Week: Tucher Helles Hefe Weizen - This past summer, I saw several American flag beer cans. Can anybody honestly say that using the flag as a marketing gimmick for cheap beer doesn’t cheapen the flag itself? Greenough would be disgusted to see the American flag in the form of a crumpled Budweiser can on the side of the road. Astute observers will notice that the design of the Tucher Helles Hefe Weizen can is patterned after the flag of Bavaria. But Tucher’s can has a problem that even worse than it’s dubious use of the Bavarian flag; the can claims this beer is brewed “in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot.” I seem to mention this former law quite often. I know that it is just a marketing tactic to make the beer sound natural and pure, but when it is patently false it just irks me. Wheat was not an acceptable ingredient under the Reinheitsgebot (neither was yeast, but that is another issue,) so it is impossible for a hefeweizen to comply with the law. False advertising not withstanding, the beer is alright. It is light and cloudy and it smells of banana. The flavor matches the smell exactly, which is actually a bit of a shame because it doesn’t really have any spice or bite at all; it is just sweet and smooth. It is missing something, but what it does have is pretty good.
Reading of the week: The Desecration of the Flag by Horatio Greenough – This is the second reading choice from an author mentioned in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s English Traits. Therein, Emerson wrote that “Greenough was a superior man, ardent and eloquent, and all his opinions had elevation and magnanimity.” He was also, by Emerson’s account, very handsome. The Desecration of the Flag is a section of an essay entitled Aesthetics in Washington, which also includes an interesting architectural critique of the Washington Monument.
Question of the week: Would you go back in time and invest in the flag company?
Alternatively: Is it not profoundly ironic that many of the people who would purchase American flag underpants or special edition American flag beers are the people who claim the most respect for the flag itself? (Unfortunately, I suspect that this hypothetical person is not self-aware enough to express his opinions about the flag in this way: “Flag burning should be a crime and I regard it in no way hypocritical that I leave shit stains on a pair of boxers that are designed to look like Old Glory.”)