Rising Above

“Not wrong, just different” is a phrase that one is likely to encounter when studying foreign cultures. Table manners fall under this category. Habits such as eating loudly, slurping noodles, or eating with ones hands may be different from place to place, but they are not “wrong” in any absolute sense.

Even in the cases where an absolute wrong is committed, it tends to be a wrong that is committed universally and differs only superficially from place to place. All around the world, the man’s sins are the same, they simply have a certain local flavor. In Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon, a character notes that the difference between scalping an enemy and beheading him is “a mere matter of fashion!”

In the same way, the brutality and viciousness of war differs but little whether it is carried on with missiles or with spears. The biggest differences are the sheer scale of the suffering that these weapons are able to inflict and the ability of the missile to offer a sort of anonymity and distance to its user. An earnest examination of exactly what war entails could hardly fail to render it utterly unpalatable. “Could the great captains of the world float above the scenes of their exploits, they would at last, perhaps, conceive a disgust for blood and conquest.”

Beer of the Week: Hackenberg Premium Export Pils – Hackenberg, brewed by Martens in Bocholt, pairs very nicely with this reading. For one thing, a Belgian beer seems to be exactly the thing when considering the exploration of Central Africa. And Martens Brewery is known for its pioneering technologies, not unlike Dr. Ferguson’s magnificent balloon Victoria. The beer is light gold in color and has a slightly malty aroma. The flavor is surprisingly creamy with just a hint of the typical pilsner hops. All in all, Hackenberg is a fine beer.

Reading for the Week: Five Weeks in a Balloon by Jules Verne, Chapter 20, Excerpt – Verne’s first novel describes the trans-African journey of three intrepid explorers in a hydrogen balloon. In this short excerpt our heroes get a birds-eye view of tribal warfare and compare the barbarism of Central Africa with the barbarism of Europe.

Question of the Week: Is there any sin unique to a specific culture, or are all of the world’s vices variations on universal themes?

The New Beerology

In honor of the Feast of St. Patrick, this post features two of Ireland’s greatest exports: George Bernard Shaw and Guinness Draught. Interestingly, plenty of the Irish population would argue that Guinness is proof that Shaw is incorrect when he claims that God is impotent and perfection has yet to be achieved:  surely God is great and proof of His perfection comes in a pint glass. But leaving beer aside for the moment, let us consider our own existence and its implications.

It is beyond question that man is at the top of the evolutionary ladder.  But is that because God chose the ladder to end at our imperfect level, or is it because creation (and indeed, God’s power to create) is limited to the slow and imperfect mechanism of evolution? As Shaw puts it, “can you conceive God deliberately creating you if he could have created anything better?” This understanding of God makes Him not an almighty and perfect being that condescended to create imperfection, but an ambitious and imperfect experimenter, slowly honing the craft of creation and building toward perfection. As dangerous as this idea is to conventional religion, it gives humanity a purpose; humans are no longer the lowly creations of a wrathful God, they are now the closest thing in the universe to perfection and part of a mandate to keep improving, keep building, and keep evolving spiritually and physically.

Beer of the Week: Guinness Draught – We may reconcile Guinness to Shaw’s world-view in the following way: God gave us beer, but only an imperfect prototype. Through the work of man it has evolved to what it is today. And man’s done a heck of a job. The technology and science behind the “draught” beer in a can is pretty impressive. I don’t totally understand it, but I do understand a tight, creamy head, and beautiful cascading, which is exactly what this beer has. I’m sure there are purists who will quibble that it is better on tap or that Guinness Extra Stout is better tasting, but this is actually a very good beer. Although I’d like it to feel a little more substantial to match the flavor.

Reading for the Week: The New Theology by George Bernard Shaw, an excerpt – In this excerpt of Shaw’s “Lay Sermon”, he outlines the theology he had been building toward: God as a driving force and will that is only effectual over an extended period of time and through the intermediaries of His own creation.

Question for the week: Does this interpretation of God do anything to address the question of first movement? Mustn’t there have been some first being on which evolution was to work? If so, doesn’t that establish some sort of minimum creative power in God beyond simple evolution?

Not too much

“Taken moderately, it is pleasant and useful; but… in the end it renders a man brutish and vicious.” This observation of Montaigne’s rings very true. How delightful is a little indulgence? And how often does one encounter somebody who has gone to far, somebody who’s has rendered himself incapable of reasonable interaction with other human beings? That is exactly what becomes of a man who reads too much Nietzsche.

After all, Montaigne was not writing about over-indulging in beer; he was writing about over-indulging in philosophy. Excessive pursuit of philosophy, he argues, carries with it the same negative effects as other excesses. “Excess,” he writes, “enslaves our natural freedom.” One loses his liberty when he gives himself over completely to philosophy (or to drinking, love, or anything else regardless of whether it is a good thing in smaller doses.)

Since we’ve just entered Lent it seems like a prudent time to address moderation. Many people give something up for Lent. This has many purposes and can be very useful. Giving up something for Lent can help one appreciate what is really important in life. It can also lead one to contemplation about the value of sacrifice (and direct one’s thoughts to The Sacrifice.) It can teach a lesson about self-control. But a gentle touch is required; giving up too much or focusing too much on the deprivation can be just as bad as over-indulging. One must always keep in mind that the deprivation itself is not the goal. “The archer that shoots over, misses as much as he that falls short.”

Beer of the Week: 333 Export – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: rice probably should not be an ingredient in beer. Rice is, however, a main ingredient in Budweiser and just about every Asian beer. In a general sort of way, rice beers can be pretty good, but not great. And 333 is not good enough to be the exception that proves the rule. The carbonation level seemed more appropriate for a soda pop than a beer and it had very little hoppy bitterness. What it did have was a tropical sweetness that I could not place. The aftertaste made me think of banana and clove, but neither really captures the familiar but illusive flavor in 333. Perhaps the brewers of 333 strongly advocate moderation, because (even though it is actually fairly decent) I could hardly imagine drinking more than one or two glasses of this sweet beer.

Reading for the Week: Excerpt from Of Moderation by Michel de Montaigne – As is somewhat typical of Montaigne’s essays, Of Moderation quickly jumps from thought to thought. This short and lively essay begins with the claim that even virtue can be made into vice by squeezing it too hard and ends with stories of human sacrifice by Native Americans.

Question for the Week: When people are asked if they would like some beer (or some cream in their coffee or syrup on their pancakes) they often reply with “yes, but not too much.” I’ve always hated that expression because “too much” is obviously more than they would want; otherwise, it would not be “too much.” But could it be that the expression isn’t as stupid as it seems at a glance? Might it actually reflect our innate desire for excesses and represent a sort of mastery over that desire? Perhaps “not too much” is actually short for “I know that I would over-indulge if I gave my desire its head, so although I would consume too much, this time I will be moderate.”

Unoccupied Territory

Seoul has a very large community of foreigners. One of the largest sub-groups of this community is US military personnel. It is often shocking, even disconcerting, to see a GI walking the streets of Seoul. This is especially true the farther one is away from the large garrison in the middle of the city.

Part of what is so striking about seeing soldiers walking about is the ambiguity of their purpose. Why should there be a United States military garrison in the capital of a foreign country? Not just a foreign country, but an ally. Of course, there is the perpetual threat of war with North Korea (to which the presence of American military is either a deterrent or provocation, depending on how one looks at it.) But the soldiers who come to Korea are not typically the sort who seek action, since a number of other posts are more likely to see any fighting. When my uncle joined the army, the Vietnam War was raging and every soldier who didn’t want to fight requested to be stationed in Europe working with computers. Knowing that so many people would make that request, and that nearly as many would be denied and sent to Vietnam as the default second option, my uncle requested to be a cook in Korea. It wasn’t a glamorous or exciting position, but it kept him from being on the front-line in a war-zone. In this regard, I see him as the paradigm for the American soldier in Korea; essentially, soldiers ought to be men of peace. As Machiavelli wrote, “In whom ought there to be a greater love of peace, than in him who can only be injured by war?”

Beer of the Week: Bia Ha Noi – Speaking of American military exploits in East Asia, this week’s beer is Vietnamese. This lager is rather sweet and malty, with a very limited hops flavor or aroma. It would make a fine beer for a session and did a wonderful job washing down spicy noodles.

Reading for the Week: The Preface to The Art of War by Niccolò Machiavelli – In his address to Lorenzo de Medici, Machiavelli first shows how different the modern soldier is from the modern citizen (a distinction that holds true even today,) and then explains the reasons why that ought not be so.

Question for the week: Machiavelli points out that a good soldier is exceptionally loyal, peace-loving and God-fearing. Since these traits are also desirable in citizens, shouldn’t all citizens be subjected to a military regime?