The Soul of the Condemned

When I read that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was to be executed for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing, I immediately scrolled down to the comments. I was not surprised at what I found, but a little dismayed.

The bulk of the comments were to the effect that death was too good for Tsarnaev. That he should be made to suffer the same physical injuries that his victims suffered. That the pain he inflicted upon others should be revisited upon his person several times over. No comments that I read advocated anything that resembled compassion, rehabilitation, or even a quick, clean removal of Tsarnaev from our mortal company.

The very beginning of Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault illustrates the cultural shift from public executions and corporal punishment to “improved” and “humane” execution methods and rehabilitation. Brutal public executions used to be the norm for the administration of capital punishment. However the object of the penal system, Foucault observes, has shifted from the body of the condemned to the soul or the rights of the condemned. It is true, of course, that when a person locked in a cell, his body is necessarily involved. However, the purpose of locking up a convict is to take away his liberty, not to punish his body. The same is true of modern capital punishment. The purpose of execution is to take away the condemned’s right to live, not to destroy his body. Although the body is necessarily destroyed by execution, the intent of the act is simply to remove life, not to inflict pain.

This is why the guillotine was designed to instantly sever the head. This is why the hangman measured the rope so that the drop would break the convict’s neck. And this is why, when Tsarnaev is ultimately killed, it will be by injection with a series of chemicals, the first of which will put him to sleep. The separation of body and soul that happens literally with the stopping of Tsarnaev’s heart first happens figuratively when the executioner administers the first dose of chemicals. It is Tsarnaev’s right to live that is being taken by the state; the adverse effects on the body are collateral.

Conduct of Life

Beer of the week: Conduct of Life – The most innovative gifts that my bride and I received for our wedding was a cooler full of “Vermont beer rarities and esoterica.” Among these special brews was this hazy, unfiltered American pale ale from Hill Farmstead Brewery.  The aroma has hints of lemon and pineapple. The beer is smooth and well balanced, though dominated by citrusy hops. It is quite a delicious beer.

Reading of the week: In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka – By the time I was a few pages into Discipline and Punish, I could not stop thinking about this short story by Kafka. The question of what role the body of the condemned has in the penal system is central to this story, as is the shift away from corporal punishment toward… well… something else.

Question of the week: To what extent can capital punishment be divorced from corporal punishment? Would execution be more humane if the condemned never saw it coming?


Wedding’s Eve

I am getting married tomorrow. Naturally, I have much to think about and do that must take precedence over blogging about beer. So this will just be a short reflection on love and understanding.

It is almost cliche to say that men and women speak different languages. But it has been widely and rightly observed that cliches and stereotypes could never have become stock ideas if there were not at least some truth behind them. (Even the tired gag of somebody slipping on a banana peel is based in reality; there have been numerous slip-and-fall lawsuits related to banana peels.) So I know to expect that in married life, we will occasionally run up against a language barrier. I will not always understand her and she will not always understand me. But with patience, we may let love be our translator and eventually convey more in a look or a touch than could be expounded in volumes. And though we may never come to understand each other in every instance, each miscommunication and misunderstanding creates an opportunity for reconciliation and reconnection.

Our constant search for meaning and understanding in this world is part of what draws people together, and by seeking to understand others we may come to know ourselves better than we could in isolation. I happily look forward to communicating with, understanding, and loving my new wife in deeper, more profound ways as we continue our adventures together.

Cheers!

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Beer of the week: Long Trail Ale – This is one of the beers that we have selected for the reception. This German-style brown ale is very pleasant. The roasted malt gives it a bit of caramel-like sweetness. There is not a lot of hops bitterness to balance against the malt, but sometimes it is nice to find an American micro-brew that isn’t super hoppy. This beer is quite good, especially as a beer that everybody can enjoy.

Reading for the week: Henry V by William Shakespeare, Act 5, Scene 2 – After a vicious and bloody military campaign in France, King Harry professes his love to Princess Kate. They literally do not speak the same language, since he is English and she is French, but Harry refuses to let that stand in the way of love. “Now, fie upon my false French! By mine honour, in true English, I love thee, Kate.”

Question for the week:


Yes!—that was the reason

If there is one thing that people do constantly, it is search for meaning. I am not giving humanity more credit than it deserves when I say that. The fact that people look for meaning does not mean that they are engaged in deep philosophy. Very often, the search for meaning is badly misdirected. As discussed last week, people do not often consider the fact that when they ask why, they are asking an equivocal question that can be answered in a multitude of ways. And even when people are able to limit themselves to a fairly narrow question, they are often too ready confuse correlation and causation. Or they give the whole credit for something very complex to a single, superficial cause.

And where there is relatively little information, people will make up causes out of whole cloth. One such question that elicits a great deal of pure speculation and fancy is the question of why people die. In Poe’s poem Annabel Lee, the titular character dies of a chill. The narrator tells us that one of the efficient causes of Annabel’s death was a “wind [that] came out of the cloud by night.” Simple cause and effect. (I’ll leave aside the issue of germs for the time being.)

But a wind in the night is too senseless, too arbitrary. The narrator has to find another cause, so he attributes Annabel’s death to the envy of angels. “The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,” killed Annabel Lee for envy of the love between her and the narrator. What nonsense. And yet, what else could the narrator do? How could he stomach the idea that something so important to him was taken away by mere chance? There must be a greater meaning, “as all men know.”

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Beer of the week: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – Sierra Nevada makes some darn good beer. Their flagship Pale Ale is a slightly sweet, well rounded ale. It has just a hint of apricot, and is pleasantly hoppy without being overly bitter. Excellent stuff.

Reading for the week: Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe – We may attribute the dubious angelology in this poem to poetic license. Whatever else might be said about Poe, Annabel Lee is a beautiful and powerful piece of work.

Question for the week: Does the search for meaning ever switch off entirely? Does a man ever see something and not, even subconsciously, attempt to understand its causes?


Cause and Effect

A former professor of mine (in a subject other than philosophy) once complained that people were asking the wrong question when they asked why instead of to what end things happened. I submitted that why is equivocal, and to what end is but one of the reasonable interpretations of why. He ignored me and went on with his tirade.

Obviously, I was not breaking new ground. In Book II of Aristotle’s Physics, four different answers to “why questions” are enumerated. In an attempt to make Aristotle a bit easier to relate to, I will apply these four causes to the beer of the week, Genesse Ice.

First, the material cause of something is the physical matter that it is composed of. The material cause Genesse Ice is water, cheap grain, (not much) hops, and yeast.

Second, the formal cause of something is the essence or archetype of the thing. This cause is certainly the most difficult to grasp, but I think that we can say that this beer’s formal cause is the form “beer” or perhaps the more specific form “ice beer.” (Ice beer is style of beer that has elevated alcohol levels because after it is brewed, some of the water is removed in the form of ice crystals.)

Third, the efficient cause of a thing is the source of its coming to be or its maker. The efficient cause of this beer is the Genesee Brewing Company.

Finally (duh!), the final cause is the end for the sake of which a thing is; the goal. The final cause of Genesee Ice is to get drunk.

Of course, the term “drunk” is equivocal…

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Beer of the week: Genesee Ice – As I mentioned before, Genesse makes some of my all-time favorite cheap beers. This does not fit into that category. Genesee Ice smells like drinking games, and not in a good way. It is the aroma of beer spilled on the flip-cup table. It is the essence of used beer pong cups. The smell is enough to put one right off. The taste, unfortunately, is worse yet. There is an unpleasant sweetness followed by a distinctly metallic aftertaste. This beer is surely meant to be consumed from a brown paper bag or from a plastic cup. And either way, it should elicit the existential question: why?

Reading of the week: Physics by Aristotle, Book II, Part 3 – “Knowledge” Aristotle tells us, “is the object of our inquiry, and men do not think they know a thing till they have grasped the ‘why’.” The problem is that every thing and every action has more than one cause.

Question of the week: Which of your causes do you think defines you most?


Take your tablets along with you…

“It is wonderful how the mind is stirred and quickened into activity by brisk bodily exercise.” – Pliny the Younger

The weather is finally right for outdoor activity and outdoor beers. Throw around the generic plastic flying disc toy. Jog through the park. Grill up some burgers. Crack a cold one and drink to your own vitality. Or, if you prefer a more peaceful outing:

“There is something, too, in the solemnity of the venerable woods with which one is surrounded, together with that profound silence which is observed on these occasions, that forcibly disposes the mind to meditation.” – Pliny the Younger

Stroll leisurely through the forrest. Read a book in the shade of an ancient tree. Compose original verses on the nature of springtime. Casually sip your beer and envelope yourself “in the solemnity of the venerable woods.”   20130702-212742.jpg Beer of the Week: Saranac Wild Hop Pils – This American pilsner is brewed with Belma hops, a variety of hops that was discovered growing wild in Oregon. The pale gold beer has a nice foamy head that leaves good lacing on the glass. Grassy and slightly floral hops dominate the flavor, but it is not especially strong. Overall, this is a light, crisp beer that seems well suited to drinking in large quantities.

Reading of the Week: Letter To Cornelius Tacitus by Pliny the Younger – Pliny went hunting one day (much out of keeping with his genteel and bookish character.) While in the forest, he made more use of his pencil than of his spear. “Whenever you hunt, to take your tablets along with you, as well as your basket and bottle, for be assured you will find Minerva no less fond of traversing the hills than Diana.”

Question of the Week: Is there a better place than the forrest for calm reflection?


An Excellent Piper

Can you sprint through the first several levels of Super Mario Bros.? Can you throw a ping pong ball behind your back and into a cup at the far end of a table? Can you play “Tom Sawyer” on Rock Band without looking at the screen? Can you… play a real musical instrument?

Some skills that require a significant amount of practice seem pretty worthless in the long-run. Some of them may be even worse than worthless since every hour spent playing video games or sports or music is an hour not spent on something more valuable.

“He who busies himself in mean occupations produces, in the very pains he takes about things of little or no use, an evidence against himself of his negligence and indisposition to what is really good.” What Plutarch means is that we have a duty to ourselves to direct our energy toward those activities that are truly improving.

It is important, however, not to be too dismissive. Plutarch suggests that the dedicated study of music, for example, is frivolous. He tells us that an excellent pipe player must be “but a wretched human being, otherwise he would not have been an excellent piper.” I disagree.

Music is a valuable and even essential component of a well-rounded education. And beyond a casual acquaintance with the principles of music and a passing familiarity with some of the greatest composers, the actual playing of music does a great deal of good. Practicing music improves discipline, requires focus and determination, and helps instill an appreciation for order and harmony that transcends music itself. It is true that an excellent piper may be a wretched human being, but it is certainly not a foregone conclusion.

Less obviously, other seemingly frivolous pursuits may likewise have value beyond their evident scope. Video games improve coordination and problem solving skills. Sports improve physical health and social relations. The key, it seems, is not to disregard these pursuits entirely, but to remember always that they are not undertaken for their own sake. Everything we do should be done with an eye toward self-improvement. And if we are improved by something that we enjoy, all the better.

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Beer of the Week: Bernard Černý – Becoming an excellent brewer, for example, is clearly not a “mean occupation”. Bernard is a family-owned Czech brewery. Their dark lager has an exceptionally full flavor. The dark roasted malt gives this beer hints of chocolate covered espresso beans. The smooth brew ends with a pleasant bitterness that really rounds out the flavor nicely. This is one of the best Czech beers I have had.

Reading for the Week: The Life of Pericles by Plutarch – Plutarch starts this book with a story about Caesar rebuking people for fawning over puppies and baby monkeys. It would be much better if that sort of affection were shown to other human beings, rather than being wasted on beasts.

Question for the Week: It is easy to spend too much time on video games or even music and neglect other improving studies. Is their any pursuit for which any time spent is too much?


“And after April, when May follows…”

A large city is not the best place to experience springtime. Just like in the country, there are robins and other birds that reappear in the spring. However, the city’s pigeons and seagulls never leave, so a lot of excitement about the return of the songbirds is lost. Further, there are fewer plants to watch returning to life. There are flowerbeds here and there and trees line some streets, but in the main, spring in the city is not ideal.

Perhaps more important than the return of birds or the blossoming of trees is the familiarity of the seasonal changes. In the poem Home-thoughts, from Abroad, Robert Browning pines for his native England in April and May. I do not believe that springtime in England is much more attractive than it is in Italy. So why pine for England when he had a Mediterranean spring outside his window? Perhaps what Browning really longed for was not English spring per se, but the familiarity of it. The poem mentions specific trees and flowers and birds, not because the flora and fauna of his native land are necessarily superior to those of Italy, but because they are the specific things that he associates with spring.

If that assessment is correct, that what makes spring beautiful is the return of familiarity, then the first sentence of this post is incorrect. A large city actually is the best place to experience springtime for those who intimately know the city and the particular changes that arrive with spring. Those who have lived in the city for a long time will know and expect all of the changes that the seasons bring with them. Still, I can hardly imagine ever thinking “O, to be in Chicago now that April’s there!”

Abita Strawberry Harvest

Beer of the Week: Abita Strawberry Harvest – No matter what the thermometer says, springtime is here, and so are the spring seasonal beers. There is plenty of strawberry in this wheat lager. A close look reveals a fair bit of red particulate floating around in the beer. Strawberry and wheat dominate the aroma. The beer is very fizzy and it is also fruity and tangy without being very sweet. This combination reminds me of vitamin C powder packets. Although this beer did grow on me after a bit, I don’t think I’d buy it again.

Reading for the Week: Home-thoughts, from Abroad by Robert Browning – Although the poem starts in April, it goes on to extol the birds and blossoms of May. So this poem is still a beautiful choice for the first day of this month.

Question for the Week: Spring and autumn seem inherently transitional, while winter and summer seem more consistent. Does spring really bring with it more change than summer does, or do the changes of summer just not stand out as brightly as the first robin or the first green leaf?


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