A Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Muriel toward the BeerAndTrembling education fund. Now that the campaign is no longer live, I encourage readers to participate by reaching out in the comments or through the “Make a Recommendation” page.

Mark Twain’s writing is always quotable, usually funny, and occasionally sublime. There are, of course, the odd missteps. For example, I find A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to be a very uneven mix of sunny humor and dark, cynical satire. And I was generally unimpressed when I recently cracked open Innocents Abroad. But tastes vary, and no body of work can be all chefs d’oeuvre.

Even Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not unalloyed genius. Earnest Hemingway advised readers of Huckleberry Finn to quit before the final chapters. But, at least in my opinion, almost everything before Hemingway’s recommended cutoff point is excellent. The book begins with a notice: “PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Despite this stern warning against looking for meaning in the book, it is impossible not to see something important in Chapter XXXI.

By that point in the book Huckleberry Finn and Jim have travelled a considerable distance down the Mississippi River together. Huck is running from his abusive father and Jim is running from slavery. Eventually, they fall in with two traveling grifters. These frauds try to earn quick money by giving dance lessons and lectures on temperance, “missionarying, and mesmerizing, and doctoring, and telling fortunes, and a little of everything.” They are, however, generally unsuccessful. Eventually, they decide on a more profitable scheme: they betray Jim and sell him back into slavery.

It is under these circumstances that Huck is faced with a moral crisis. He sees two options. One option is to contact Jim’s “rightful” owner, in the hopes that Jim may return to his previous slavery rather than the possibly harsher slavery with of his new masters. Or he can attempt to help Jim escape bondage yet again. It may seem easy, from the reader’s point of view, to see what the “right” thing to do is. The problem for Huck is that he has been taught that what is lawful is good, and what is unlawful is bad. And, according to the laws of man and God, Jim is meant to be a slave. To defy those laws is to become a social pariah and invite eternal damnation.

Huckleberry, as the narrator, describes his inner turmoil. He knows that helping a slave to get his freedom, according to society, is about the most wicked, low-down, rotten thing that he could do. He’d be positively ‘shamed to death to face his friends and neighbors after doing such a despicable thing. Moreover, he believes truly that “everlasting fire” is the reward for aiding Jim’s escape. He sincerely, desperately wants to be good. But being good means he must abandon his friend when he needs him the most. Huck tries to pray, but can’t because he cannot repent wanting to help Jim. And if he cannot repent, he cannot be saved. So he makes his choice:

“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell” …

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

Twain later wrote that Huck’s inner conflict was the collision of “a sound heart and a deformed conscience.” Society had played Huck a cruel trick by convincing him that virtue was evil and evil was virtuous. So while he believed honestly that he was irredeemably wicked, he was actually irrepressibly good. His sound heart overcame his deformed conscience.

Beer of the week: Bud Light Orange – Like some of Twain’s writing, this beer seems caught between being for children or adults. On the one hand, it smells and tastes like an orange lollipop. It occasionally even causes that peculiar pain you can get in the back of your jaw when eating citrus candies. On the other hand, it is beer. In fact, although it is too sweet, it is not quite candy-sweet. It actually tastes a bit like beer. But whoever Bud Light Orange is for, it ain’t me. (Although I honestly would try it as the base for a float with vanilla ice cream, because I am a kid at heart.)

Reading of the week: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – There is not much more to be said about this excerpt that I didn’t say above. But I really do find this to be one of the most moving pieces of writing I’ve ever read.

Question for the week: How can we avoid having our consciences deformed by a misguided society?


Bird Law

It has been said that cross-examination is the attorney’s opportunity to testify. That is because on cross-examination, lawyers are allowed to ask leading questions. So the lawyer shapes the testimony, and the witness is simply asked to confirm it. The witness doesn’t have a chance to explain himself or expand on his answers; he is simply expected to say “yes” or “no” on cue. And, as any Socratic interlocutor knows–or quickly learns–giving a series of yeses and noes can often lead to an indefensible position. On redirect examination, the other attorney may be able to get out any explanations or expansions needed to rehabilitate the witness, but it may be too late.

Once one recognizes the power that the questioner has, The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe becomes infuriating. The titular fowl answers gives the same one-word answer to every single question. The narrator recognizes almost immediately that the word “nevermore” is the raven’s “only stock and store.” And yet, the narrator still frames every single question to the raven in a way that is guaranteed to disappoint him! Instead of asking questions that call for negative answers, he continually seeks positive answers.

Here are a few places he could have greatly improved his interview with the raven:

Original
Q: [Will I ever] forget the lost Lenore[?]
A: Nevermore.

Improved
Q: Will I continue to be tormented by the loss of Lenore?
A: Nevermore.

Original
Q: Shall [my soul] clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore[?]
A: Nevermore.

Improved
Q: Will I remain separated from Lenore?
A: Nevermore.

See? Once the narrator knows the answer that is coming, all he has to do is arrange the question to suit that answer. Instead, things get worse and worse as he keeps asking the wrong questions. And when it is time to rid himself of the bird, he makes the same mistake.

Original
Q: Take thy beak from out my heart and take thy form from off my door!
A: Nevermore.

Improved
Q: Do you plan on staying here long?
A: Nevermore.

It’s almost like the narrator didn’t really want to forget Lenore and be rid of the avian manifestation of his grief.

Beer of the week: Sorachi Ace – This farmhouse ale from The Brooklyn Brewery is brewed with the somewhat unusual Japanese hybrid hops variety of the same name. The beer is quite light in color and slightly hazy, with a foamy white head that dissipates quickly. The aroma is yeasty and lemony. The beer is crisp and bright, and finishes with a bit of spice and a lingering tartness that hangs in the back of the throat.

Reading of the week: Apology by Plato – Expected The Raven, didn’t you? Well that poem has already been used as a weekly reading, so although it is certainly worth rereading (which can be done here,) I picked Socrates’s cross-examination of Meletus for this week. Nearly two and a half millennia later, this portion of the Apology remains a masterclass in cross-examination.

Question for the week: In what contexts do you carefully frame questions to your advantage?


Tetrapharmakos – Third Dose

This is the third in a series of four posts on Epicureanism (and South American beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

Step 3: καὶ τἀγαθὸν μὲν εὔκτητον – What is Good is Easy to Get

According to Seneca, The Garden of Epicurus bore the following inscription: “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.” As a result of the Epicurean focus on pleasure, Epicureanism is often misunderstood as decadent and gluttonous. We associate Epicureanism with good food, good drink, and plenty of both. But that is not a fair characterization.

“By pleasure,” writes Epicurus to Menoeceus, “we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.” Good things are those that satisfy our basic needs. Striving for more than our minimum requirements actually decreases our pleasure because it makes us anxious. Because luxuries are hard to acquire, the effort to get them results in a net loss of pleasure. To say nothing of the unpleasant aftereffects of overindulgence.

As Montaigne put it, “If you found your pleasure upon drinking of the best [wine], you condemn yourself to the penance of drinking of the worst. Your taste must be more indifferent and free.” Why spoil your palate on expensive wine and deny yourself the pleasure of cheap wine? There is more pleasure in prudently settling for the basics than anxiously scrambling after the best.

Beer of the week: Chaski Porter – Given Montaigne’s dictum about settling for cheap wine, I suppose that I should have paired this week’s reading with a cheap beer. But I got this Peruvian porter from Barbarian Cerveceria Artesanal at a very good price, and by drinking only one at a time, I maximize the pleasure while minimizing anxiety over my beer budget. Chaski is very carbonated. It is dark brown with a rocky, tan head. The aroma has hints of soy sauce and chocolate. The beer is a bit thinner than expected, with coffee notes dominating. I am not a big porter drinker, but Chaski is pretty good.

Reading of the week: Of Drunkenness by Michel de Montaigne – The philosophy of Montaigne is difficult to pin down. It is not accurate to call him an Epicurean, but he was certainly influenced by Epicureanism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy relates that Montaigne’s Essays quote one verse out of every sixteen in Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things.

Question of the week: Is there not a certain pleasure in working toward and attaining something beyond our basic needs?


Tetrapharmakos – Second Dose

This is the second in a series of four posts on Epicureanism (and South American beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

Step 2: Ἄνύποπτον ὁ θάνατος – Don’t worry about death

Many Roman gravestones bear the epitaph: Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo – I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care. This sentiment is a natural consequence of Epicurean materialism. To Epicurus, each living person is simply a particular assemblage of atoms. Before we existed, our atoms were parts of other combinations. After death, our atoms will separate and form new combinations. When there is no more life, there is no more person. All that remains is the atoms. Death means nothing to dead people because there are no dead people, only decaying bodies.

But what about the living? The dead may not care about death, but why shouldn’t we? “Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation,” Epicurus writes. “Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”

And this principle is not just about how we should approach death, it informs how we should approach life. Once we appreciate that our existence is utterly fleeting, we are free to live wholly for the present, without fear of what is to come afterward.

Beer of the week: Latitud Cero° Apachita – This Belgian-style wheat ale comes from Ecuador’s La Paz Cervecería. The Latitud Cero° line of beers is named for the fact that the beer is brewed on (or at least very near) the equator. Apachita is a slightly hazy golden beer. It’s got notes of banana in the aroma, and tastes a bit of banana taffy. Apachita is smooth and delicious, if a bit sweeter than I’d like.

Reading of the week: Letter to Menoeceus by Epicurus – Epicurus was an extremely prolific writer, but very little of his ouvre has survived. Three letters were preserved by Diogenes Laërtius. His letters to Pythocles and Herodotus (not that Herodotus) describe his physics and metaphysics. This letter describes his ethics.

Question for the week: It is actually reassuring to believe that there is nothing after death? Or is it distressing?


New Year’s Resolution Complete!

I don’t know what the official success rate is for New Year’s resolutions, but it’s got to be crazy low. For that reason, I am positively shocked that I’ve actually I followed through on my 2019 resolution all the way to the finish. As I detailed in March, June, and September, my resolution for the year was to memorize two poems per month. The final quarter of this year, I memorized:

October:
The Charge of the Light Brigade
 by Alfred Lord Tennyson. The military action immortalized by this poem took place in October, 1854, 165 years ago.
The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. Although the poem is principally set in a “bleak December”, it is most associated with Halloween. (Especially for fans of The Simpsons.)
November:
My Soul is Dark
 by Gordon, Lord Byron. November is often a dark, cold month that inspires dark thoughts.
My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns. I actually wanted to memorize To a Mouse, which is set in November, 1785. But the Scots language Burns employs would make memorization a bit too tough for me. My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose is much more… English.
December:
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
by William Wordsworth. The true value of the beautiful sight of daffodils dancing in the breeze was not in the moment, but the ability to call the scene to mind long after the flowers have wilted.
A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore. How better to end the year than with the single most popular Christmas poem of all time?

And so concludes this year’s resolution. I intend to continue memorizing a poem a month until I run out of memory and need to delete some things. Brains work like magnetic disc drives, right?

Beer of the week: The Grey Lady – The Grey Lady is a spiced wheat beer from Cisco Brewing Company on Nantucket. The beer is pale and hazy, and smells yeasty and a bit fruity. The flavor has pronounced notes of ginger and clove and just a bit of tartness at the end. It is an excellent beer, but I think I’d like it to be just a bit more flavorful, both in terms of sweetness and spice.

Reading of the week: A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore – According to Wikisource, this poem “is largely responsible for the contemporary American conception of Santa Claus, including his appearance, the night he visits, his method of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer, and that he brings toys to children.” However, a couple details did not make it into the popular image of Santa. For one thing, Moore’s St. Nicholas smokes a pipe. Additionally, Moore’s St. Nick, although still “chubby and plump,” is quite small. He is described as a “jolly old elf” driving a “miniature sleigh” pulled by “eight tiny reindeer.”

Question for the week: Do you have any poems memorized? If so, which? If not, why?


Where the Story of Christmas Begins

I don’t know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I’m telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it. It’s a thing you don’t want to go wrong over, because one false step and you’re sunk. I mean, if you fool about too long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you.

Get off the mark, on the other hand, like a scalded cat, and your public is at a loss. It simply raises its eyebrows, and can’t make out what you’re talking about.

P.G. Wodehouse

The Christmas story–the nativity of Jesus, not the beloved 1980’s movie with the BB gun–comes from the gospels. But each gospel writer took a different starting point for Jesus’ origin story.

Matthew starts the story 42 generations earlier, with Abraham fathering Isaac. The genealogy goes on through Jacob and Judah, Kings David and Solomon, and finally Joseph, husband of Mary. (Also in that bloodline are Jehoshaphat, Salmon, and Zerubbabel, whose names are curiously absent from most popular baby name lists.) Matthew goes into the annunciation (when an angel announced the holy pregnancy,) then the birth, and then the visit of the wisemen from the East.

Mark starts with a quotation from the prophet Isiah. He then skips Christmas altogether, and introduces John the Baptist and Jesus as adults.

Luke, not content to let the story speak for itself, starts with something of an author’s prologue. He addresses the gospel to someone called Theophilus (which, if my Greek is any good at all, must mean something like “God’s friend” or “God’s beloved” or “God-lover”.) Before getting into the classic Christmas stuff, Luke spends the better part of a chapter on the conception of John the Baptist, the annunciation, and John’s parents. It isn’t until chapter two that we get the birth, the manger, and the shepherds.

John famously starts his gospel “In the beginning…”, which seems reasonable enough. But the beginning that John identifies predates creation itself (if anything can be said to “predate” the very notion of time.) John covers the entirety of pre-creation through the birth of John the Baptist in about six verses. The birth of Jesus gets a single verse, and then jumps right into the exploits of adult Jesus.

As usual, a closer look raises more questions than answers. Why is the Christmas story relatively unimportant to most of the gospel writers? Why did the gospel writers start in such different ways? Who is Theophilus, anyway?

Beers of the week: Our Special Ale (2017 & 2019) – Our Special Ale is Anchor Brewing Company’s annual holiday beer. Having got my hands on a cellared bottle of the 2017 edition I decided to compare it with the 2019 version. (Although Anchor does not particularly recommend aging their holiday beers, they do claim that it will mellow with age.) The recipe changes from year to year, so differences between the two can’t be attributed solely to the aging.

The 2017 edition is very dark brown, with just a hint of red, and a tan, rocky head. Its aroma has notes of smoke and black licorice. The main flavors seem to come from dark-roasted malt, without much hops to speak of.

The 2019 is dark red-brown, with a lighter, more uniform head. The aroma has some bright hops. The flavor is nicely balanced, with some dark malt notes and a bit of bright hops and spice.

Between the two versions, I certainly prefer the 2019. It is brighter and more carbonated, probably because it wasn’t aged. And, whether it is attributable to the aging or not, the 2017 seems a bit flat and one-note.

Reading of the week: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, Prologue – As Wharton points out in her introduction to the second edition, “the climax, or rather the anti-climax, occurs a generation after the first acts of” Ethan Frome. As a result, she set the prologue of the book long after the principal action, introducing the title character as a fifty-two-year-old with a bad limp. The reader must cross many chapters and two decades to learn the limp’s cause.

Question for the week: Where would your story begin? At your birth? At the birth of your most distant known ancestor? Or, like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, would your story begin at your funeral?


Tetrapharmakos – First Dose

This is the first in a series of four posts on Epicureanism (and South American beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

In his Life of Epicurus, Diogenes Laërtius relates forty Principal Doctrines of the Epicurean school. The first four of these doctrines came to be known as the Tetrapharmakos: the four-part cure. The Tetrapharmakos is a prescription for living a good life.

Step 1: Ἄφοβον ὁ θεός – Don’t Fear God

There are a number of ways to arrive at this maxim. The traditional Epicurean way is rather pious. Epicurus and his followers believe in God. Well, the gods. And for the Epicureans, God is perfect. But, a perfect being could have no cause to act at all, let alone act in a response to the thoughts or deeds of an infinitesimally insignificant such as man. Diogenes Laërtius put it this way: “A blessed and eternal being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; hence he is exempt from movements of anger and partiality, for every such movement implies weakness.”

Lucretius, the poet laureate of Epicureanism, expressed this belief in verse:

For all the gods must of themselves enjoy
Immortal aeons and supreme repose,
Withdrawn from our affairs, detached, afar:
Immune from peril and immune from pain,
Themselves abounding in riches of their own,
Needing not us, they are not touched by wrath
They are not taken by service or by gift.

God is simply too perfect–hence perfectly content–to be moved to either anger or love by humans.

Another (significantly less pious) way to arrive at the maxim may seem obvious to us: atheism. If there is no God, then there is clearly no need to fear God. Lucretius certainly does not entertain that line of thought directly, but gets within spitting distance. He writes:

Likewise, thou canst ne’er
Believe the sacred seats of gods are here
In any regions of this mundane world;
Indeed, the nature of the gods, so subtle,
So far removed from these our senses, scarce
Is seen even by intelligence of mind.
And since they’ve ever eluded touch and thrust
Of human hands, they cannot reach to grasp
Aught tangible to us. For what may not
Itself be touched in turn can never touch.

So the nature of God is so subtle that it is utterly beyond our senses, and only very faintly perceptible by our reason. But if we can’t perceive God, and we cannot affect or be affected by God, then it really makes no difference whether God exists at all, right? So although Epicurus and Lucretius were clearly not atheists, their philosophy seems open to those who are.

So much for why the faithful and why atheists should not fear God. But what about those who doubt God’s perfection and consequent aloofness? What if God is active in the world? In that case, God must be unpredictable because we cannot know what will move God to wrath or good humor. Such a God is not worth fearing because no amount of worry or supplication can assure us of ending up on the right side of an unpredictable and capricious God.

So, whether you are a believer or an atheist, take the first dose of the Tetrapharmakos and don’t fear God. For best results, take with beer.

Beer of the week: Chicha Tu Mare – This Peruvian sour ale is brewed with corn, quinoa, and honey. It is a hazy, orangish brew with big, quickly-dissipating bubbles. Sour fruit notes dominate the aroma. The beer is both sour and astringent. The astringency makes one’s mouth feel dry, then the sourness activates the salivary glands. The honey is very subtle, mostly in the aftertaste. I suppose that a light body is typical of sour beers generally, but I think I’d like this beer to be a bit heavier.

Reading of the week: Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, Epicurus – As mentioned above, the Tetrapharmakos only refers to the first four of forty total Epicurean Principal Doctrines. This reading consists of is the whole list, including number 34: the controversial position that acting unjustly is an evil only so far as it creates a fear of being caught and punished.

Question for the week: Can the maxim “don’t fear God” be squared with religious revelation? Or does it really only work for those who have reasoned the existence of a perfect God (or reasoned the non-existence of any God)?