List Your Blessings

A popular Thanksgiving tradition is to go around the table, listing the things for which those present are thankful. It can be a very powerful exercise to actually compose such a list. Lists create a sense of scale and the cumulative effect of each item listed tends to compound the others.

Take, for example, the catalog of ships in The Iliad. Several pages of that text are dedicated to listing all of the ships, along with the numbers of their fighting men, that came to the Trojan shores. The seemingly ceaseless recital of the Greeks emphasizes the scale of the conflict. During the battles, the narrative follows individuals as they engage in one-on-one combat. And this is why the catalogue of ships is so important. Without that list to establish the scale of the armies, one could be mislead into thinking of the war as a series of encounters between a handful of individuals rather than between mighty hosts. The knowledge that the Greek and Trojan armies are quite large gives a sense of scale to the dramatic face-offs between the individual heroes.

So this Thanksgiving, give some thought to the vast number of the world’s blessings and how that great list gives context to each individual blessing.

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Beer of the week: Saranac Pale Ale – Saranac, New York is about 300 miles from the site of the fabled first Thanksgiving. In American terms, that’s rather close enough to count as local. This beer has a solid malt body with just a bit of hops bitterness to back it up. Saranac Pale Ale makes for a really good beer for a casual drink.

Reading for the week: The Fourth Book by François Rabelais, Chapter 4.LIX – Some would argue that there is virtually no way to stay awake through the entire catalogue of ships, especially in the drowsy afterglow a large meal. This list is probably more appropriate for Thanksgiving. Rabelais was a master of writing lists, and this particular excerpt is the menu of the Gastrolaters, a people whose god is the stomach and whose religion is eating.

Question for the holiday: In certain cases, shorter lists arguably indicate greater importance. A short list of experts in a field may indicate a higher level of expertise. A short list of friends may indicate more intense or close friendship than a longer list. Are there certain sorts of blessings for which this is also true?

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The Goals of Poetry

A beer is for drinking. A sofa is for sitting. A poem is for… enjoyment? Edification? The imagination and expression of the indestructible order of the universe? Fart jokes?

According to Percy Shelley’s essay A Defense of Poetry, poetry “is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” Stated another way, the work of a poet is to “imagine and express [the world’s] indestructible order.” The problem with trying to create a definition based on these statements is that they are both over and under-inclusive for what we commonly think of as poetry. They are over-inclusive because Shelley means that any expression of eternal truth is poetry regardless of form; he includes the the essays of Francis Bacon and the histories of Herodotus, Plutarch, and Livy as poetry. The content, rather than the form defines the poem according to Shelley. The definitions are also under-inclusive because a dirty limerick, lacking any spark of eternal truth, appears to fall outside of the category of poetry. This sort of content based, distinction seems inappropriate for an art form that includes some very strict formal categories.

Although content based distinction between poetry and non-poetry may not be appropriate, content based criticism of poetry makes a lot of sense. Aristophanes makes a particularly appealing case study for this analysis for two reasons. In the first place, the content of Aristophanes’ plays is superficially very sophomoric; he peppers his work very liberally with scatological and sexual humor. Secondly, despite the ceaseless stream of crude jokes, Aristophanes clearly thinks that there are much bigger things at stake. In an earlier post, I noted that he used the chorus in The Wasps to chide the Athenian audience for not appreciating the good advice that he had provided the city in his plays.

In The Frogs, Aristophanes has the character of Euripides state that the most important trait of the poet is his ability to improve the audience through his wise counsels. This point is taken up by the character of Æschylus and seems very much in line with the tone of the chorus in The Wasps. In the play’s contest between Euripides and Æschylus for greatest all-time tragedian, Æschylus gets the win based not on the beauty of his verse, but on the superiority of his practical advice.

Like the analysis of Shelley, this seems to over-emphasize poetry’s content at the expense of its form. But it is important to note that Aristophanes couches all of this within a work of poetry rather than in a lecture or treatise. He is adamant that he has some very important things to say, but he does so within the structure of his verse. The key, it seems, is the proper balance between form and content. Even the most important and valuable content, if not presented beautifully will not be well received. And the most beautiful verse, without some substantial content, will ring hollow. If the characters in The Frogs are right that the true measure of quality of a poet is his ability to improve his audience, it is clear that the greatest effect on the audience will come from the most skillful combination of form and substance.

Beer of the week: Grolsh Lager – Grolsh is best known in the US for its iconic swing-top bottles. It is also available, it seems, in more standard long-necks. Aside from the bottle, this Dutch macro is unremarkable. It is clear, pale gold with lots of carbonation. Light aroma of toasted grain. Not much to it, but not bad at all.

Reading of the week: The Frogs by Aristophanes – A large part of the disagreement between Æschylus and Euripides in this play is whether characters should be realistic or idealized. Æschylus argues that idealized characters make for better role models, and are therefore better suited to improve the audience. Euripides, on the other hand, favors realistic characters because they are more relatable.

Question for the week: Does even the most shallow or juvenile poem deserve the title of “poetry” by virtue of its form alone?


Humility

This is the last post in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

HUMILITY:  Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
-Franklin

When I first read Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger, it was paired with his Life of Julius Caesar. This juxtaposition seemed very favorable to Cato. Caesar, a second-rate Alexander and enemy of the Republic vs. Cato, virtue personified and defender of Rome. But a close look at Plutarch’s treatment of Cato makes it clear that the great biographer did not mean for Cato to be taken as the paragon of virtue.

The most pronounced inconsistency of virtue in Cato is his supposed humility. Plutarch shows that below this professed humility was a profound vanity. Cato repudiated his fellow senators for their ostentatious dress. But rather than wearing very plain and modest clothing, Cato wore a black toga that was calculated to stand out more than the even the most luxurious dress of his colleagues. He also made a point of not wearing underwear and sitting with his legs spread apart as if he did not already draw enough attention to himself.

Cato’s vanity is most visible in his visit to Antioch. He arrived to find “a great multitude of people outside the gates, ranged in order on either side the way; here the young men with long cloaks, there the children decently dressed; others wore garlands and white garments, who were the priests and magistrates.” Cato was incensed that the people should have such a grand ceremony in honor of his arrival. Of course, the extravagant greeting was not for him at all; the people were arranged to welcome a dignitary from Pompey. Cato himself, it seems, is the only person who had even thought of holding a parade in his honor. And this accidental admission gave the lie to his professed humility.

And finally, make sure that the audience sees what a hypocrite and poseur Cato was, Plutarch presents his suicide as a farce. Before the deed, Cato reads Phaedo twice. In that dialogue by Plato, Socrates calmly (some Roman philosophers would have argued “stoically”) accepted his fate and drank his poison. After reading this edifying tract on how to die with dignity, what did Cato do? He lost his temper and punched a slave in the mouth, badly injuring his own hand. When the time came to pull the proverbial trigger, Cato was unable to dispatch himself cleanly because he had trouble stabbing himself with his broken hand. He was forced, ultimately, to dig out his bowels with his bare hands. So much for imitating Socrates in his stoic and dignified death.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beer of the week: Černá Hora Sklepní – This is Černá Hora’s “Cellar style” lager. It is an unfiltered, and therefore slightly cloudy, golden beer. The aroma is bready and the flavor follows closely. Because it is unfiltered, the beer has a bit more flavor than many Czech beers. There is a hint of spice and of apricot and there is just enough hops in the finish to round it out. Overall, this is a pretty good beer.

Reading for the week: The Life of Cato the Younger by Plutarch – A fitting reading would be the section about how Cato loved to drink wine all night and discourse about philosophy. But the suicide scene, presented here, is more on point.

Question for the week: It is probable that this post overstates Plutarch’s intent to show up Cato. For one thing, Plutarch explicitly states that the wearing of black was not out of vainglory. And he also says that Cato afterwards would laugh often at his misunderstanding at Antioch. But can the suicide scene be read any other way than as a farce?


Chastity

This is the thirteenth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

CHASTITY: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
-Franklin

Like Temperance, Frugality, and Silence, Franklin’s version of Chastity could easily be viewed as a sub-virtue of moderation. He does not advocate sexual abstinence any more than he advocates absolute silence, parsimony, or teetotaling. Rather, Franklin’s advice is to limit sexual exertion to a healthy level. Sex is not bad; over-indulgence is bad, particularly if it leads to a damaged reputation.

This view of chastity and eros would have served Hippolytus well. The mythical Hippolytus worshipped Artemis, the chaste goddess of the hunt, to the exclusion of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. In Euripides’ version of the story, Hippolytus comes on the scene with a an offering for Artemis: a “woven wreath, culled from a virgin meadow, where nor shepherd dares to herd his flock nor ever scythe hath mown, but o’er the mead unshorn the bee doth wing its way in spring; and with the dew from rivers drawn purity that garden tends.” And he follows this carefully cultivated sacrifice with a total rebuff of Aphrodite. “No god, whose worship craves the night,” he says, “hath charms for me.”

Hippolytus’ sage attendant understands the error of this attitude, and advises him to maintain at least “courteous affability” with all of the gods. Although he does not say so in so many words, this is because the gods of the Greek pantheon represent the many facets of humanity. It is fine, even proper, to have a favored god as a patron, but all of the gods must have their due. To deny any of the various gods entirely is to deny an entire aspect of human nature. And that is as true of Aphrodite as it is of the rest.


Beer of the week: Indio – When it comes to Mexican beers, darker is almost always better. This Mexican dark lager pours with big, sticky bubbles. The aroma is not much different than a Corona. The flavor is profile includes some rice and a slight hint of caramel that lingers. And, although it has more flavor than most pale lagers from south of the boarder, it is just about as refreshing.

Reading of the week: Hippolytus by Euripides – The play begins with Aphrodite spelling out exactly what her plan is to avenge herself upon Hippolytus. She is intent upon “bring to ruin all who vaunt themselves at” her.

Question for the week: Is rage particularly tied to love in a special way? Could Hephaestus, god of craftsmen, or Athena, goddess of wisdom, be as spiteful as Aphrodite?


Tranquillity

This is the twelfth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

TRANQUILLITY: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
-Franklin

As discussed in more than one earlier post, Epictetus is pretty much the go-to guru on not being disturbed by trifles. Did your favorite beer glass shatter when you dropped it? Hey, that’s what glass does; it breaks. You enjoyed it while you had it, but now it has just started it’s long and inevitable return to its constituent parts. Did you get splashed at the swimming pool? What did you expect? Water gets splashed around at the swimming pool, no big deal. Did your wife or child die? People are mortal; get over it.

Ok, so the death of a family member is more than a trifle. And when Epictetus compares the death of a child to the breaking of a cup, it just doesn’t ring true. Surely nobody is that stoic. At least no mentally healthy person is. (And, as I noted before, there is no reason to think that Epictetus was ever married or fathered any children. So he didn’t really know what it is like to lose a wife or child.)

Seneca, at least, admits that a certain amount of grief is appropriate in the face of death. “Let not the eyes be dry when we have lost a friend, nor let them overflow,” he writes. “We may weep, but we must not wail.” He admits that even this allowance seems harsh, but his reasoning is somewhat more compelling than that of Epictetus. To Seneca, pronounced grief is a false show of affection. Loud wailing is an outward attempt to prove one’s love. However, one can only keep up abject mourning for so long. So if the measure of one’s love for the departed is the extent of his wailing, then even the most bereaved must finally “be over” the loss. True friends, however, will measure their love, not in tears, but in happy memories. Because unlike lamentation, which must eventually exhaust itself, happy memories can go on indefinitely.

Beer of the week: Lagunitas IPA – This California/Chicago IPA is a lovely orange-gold with fluffy white foam. Although there is plenty of hops, it is not excessively bitter. This is a nice malty India pale ale with a hint of tartness in the finish.

Reading for the week: Letter LXIII to Lucilius from Seneca – Another problem that Seneca observes with abject lamentation is that it shows that the loved one was not appreciated enough during his life. It smacks of carelessness to wail over the time that one should have spent with the deceased. After all, shouldn’t we direct all of that emotion toward the friends that are still with us, lest we set up a cycle of waiting until death to give voice to our love?

Question for the week: Are you making the most of the limited time that you have with your friends and family? (Obviously not. Rather, how can you make better use of your time with your friends and family?)


Cleanliness

This is the eleventh in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

CLEANLINESS: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation. 
– Franklin

By Moscow, I did not smell very good. That fact is not surprising. After all, I’d been without a shower since Vladivostok, some 5,752 miles away. Hell, I’d been without warm water all that time. But the fact is, the trans-Siberian railway is primarily for people traveling only a fraction of the line. Doing the long-haul is not for those who are overly scrupulous about cleanliness.

Even on less extreme journeys, travel is usually dirty. This is especially true when it is done right. I don’t mind the tiny handprints on my khakis from the macaques or the rust stains on my jeans from my ill-conceived trip across the Hangang. A certain amount of mess shows that one has been doing something interesting.

Perhaps the unavoidable (and enjoyable) filth of travel is the best argument for maintaining a clean house and observing excellent personal grooming when at home. The true interest of travel is the experience of the new and the different. So for the proverbial dusty trail to be enjoyed properly, it must be made to stand in contrast to the dust-free homestead.

Beer of the week: Zombie Dust – Would that the dust in my house were all Zombie Dust! It took a trip across state lines, a wedding, a slumber party, and a very gracious friend for me to get my hands on this coveted pale ale from 3 Floyds. (There are certainly cleaner and easier ways to get my hands on this beer, but that’d be way less fun.) Zombie Dust pours with a frothy head, and smells strongly of tropical fruit. Mango, pineapple, and citrus assault the nose. The beer is quite hoppy, tingling from the time it touches the tip of the tongue until the bitterness catches just a bit in the back of the throat. But as it warms, caramel notes start to emerge and the yeasty sediment makes itself known. Truly, this is an excellent beer.

Reading of the week: Fellow-Passengers by Robert Louis Stevenson – The Scottish author wrote of paddling across Belgium in a canoe, rambling through the French mountains with a donkey, crossing the oceans by steamer, and ultimately settling in Samoa. This chapter is from his book Across the Plains, in which he details his train travels from New York to California. According to Stevenson, the trains crossing this continent smelled “of pure menagerie, only a little sourer, as from men instead of monkeys.”

Question for the week: Franklin’s advice is to “tolerate no uncleanliness”, but such a stark prohibition seems at odds with the moderation advocated in the rest of his moral precepts. How can we reconcile these ideas, especially given the fact that an obsession with cleanliness is manifestly harmful?


Moderation

This is the tenth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

MODERATION: Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
– Franklin

As I noted in an earlier post, Sydney winters never get cold enough for a proper polar bear plunge. As a result, those who want a real winter swim have to be creative. Members of the Bondi Icebergs Club take blocks of ice with them into their beautiful tidal swimming pool. Cold water swimming is meant to be both salubrious and invigorating.

On the other temperature extreme (and on the other side of the world) are the Finns, who take great pride in their scorching hot saunas. There are even competitions (some of which end quite badly) where contestants attempt to sit in the hottest temperature for the longest period. Aside from the dangers associated with doing it competitively, the use of saunas is regarded as healthful and rejuvenating.

How does one reconcile these practices with the general proposition that extremes are harmful? The conclusion, I think, must be that extremes are not dangerous in themselves. A certain amount of extremity pushes the body (or the mind), very much in the way that physical exercise does. What is dangerous about extremes is when they cease to be extreme. Extremes are extraordinary conditions to be endured, and they should not be allowed to become ordinary.

Pop-Up IPA

Beer of the week: Pop-Up IPA – A “session” IPA is a tribute to moderation. It is a drink for those who want the flavor of an IPA without the extreme hopping or alcohol level. Unfortunately, I think that Boulevard dialed this beer back a little too much. To be sure, it is a fine beer, but the flavor is not quite as full as I would like.  Pop-Up is a cloudy session IPA with a thick, sticky head. The beer’s aroma is dominated by grassy, floral hops. The aftertaste has a hint of pepper.

Reading for the week: Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite by Molière, Act I, Scene VI – “Men,” says one character in this scene, “for the most part, are strange creatures, truly! You never find them keep the golden mean; The limits of good sense, too narrow for them, Must always be passed by, in each direction; They often spoil the noblest things, because They go too far, and push them to extremes.”

Question for the week: Are occasional extremes really good for us, or is that just a justification for indulging in extremes that ought to be avoided.