He says the birds are scrounging.

St. Francis of Assisi was something of an odd duck. This is especially evident in a cute little sermon of his addressed to his “little sisters, the birds.” St. Francis assured the birds that they were truly blessed: they can fly, they don’t have to till the land, and God was even gracious enough to give them a wonderful suit of feathers since they “know not how to spin or sew.” The birds get on just fine without all the planning and worrying that typifies humanity, and for this they ought to be very grateful.

Although it is fun to imagine St. Francis surrounded by birds of all species attentively listening to his sermon, it seems fair enough to assume that his Sermon to the Birds was meant primarily for people. It echos very closely the Sermon on the Mount, where the explicit message is that we humans ought not worry. Nature provides for all of the wants of the birds and the flowers, so why should we not also be provided for? The only concern for the birds, according to St. Francis, is that they must “beware of the sin of ingratitude.” Humans, who are presumably much better off than the birds, ought to be extra careful to guard against that sin.

Beer of the Week: San Miguel Pale Pilsen – St. Francis is usually depicted with birds and other cute wildlife. St Michael is usually depicted with a huge sword, stomping on a snake. Michael is also known for being the patron of funny shaped beer bottles from the Philippines. There, San Miguel beer it is often used to wash down balut, a popular Philippine street food that would almost certainly make St. Francis cry. Without partially developed duck embryos to chase, San Miguel Pilsen is not a very good beer. The head dissipates quickly and the smell and aftertaste are both a bit rough with a hint of burnt corn.

Reading of the week: Sermon to the Birds by St. Francis of Assisi – The tradition is that Francis actually delivered this sermon to a bunch of birds, which makes him just a little bit more interesting. Of course, the sermon is very short since birds must have exceedingly short attention spans.

Question of the week: Is listening to sermons a leisure activity or simply another sort of human worrying? That is, would a carefree bird ever sit still to listen to a preacher? And if he did, would remain carefree?

A Wet Whistle

The relationship between beer and philosophy has been expounded in this blog before. Specifically in the Wherefore page and in the post Slow and Steady. However, there is a softer and more alluring relationship that has only been touched on briefly: the relationship between beer and music.

In the poem Music by Percy Shelley, several allusions are made to a “thirst” for music. Music is water to the withering flower that is his heart and wine poured from an enchanted cup.  And when one slakes his thirst for music, how does he feel? “The dissolving strain, through every vein, Passes into my heart and brain.” In short, he is intoxicated by it. Like beer, music stimulates the heart to emotion (or perhaps only removes our self-constructed barriers to emotion) and has an effect also on the brain. Just a little is enough to activate the brain and assist in clarifying one’s outlook on the world, larger quantities make everything softer and blurrier.

Music and beer are also simple pleasures that do not require serious reflection or consideration. To be sure, each is a very worthy subject for in-depth study, but there are times when the popular, mass-produced versions are exactly the thing to wet one’s whistle.

Beer of the Week: Tuborg Green – This Danish beer (brewed in Turkey) might be pop culture in a can. The picture may not be clear enough to see this, but there are dancing silhouettes along the bottom of the can (a la an iPod ad) and the words “Liquid Soundtrack.” Tuborg is deep into pop music. Attentive viewers might have noticed strategic product placement for Tuborg in music videos by B.O.B., Eminem, Panic! at the Disco and the Black Eye Peas. If Shelley sees music is “audible wine”, perhaps he could get behind the idea of beer as “liquid soundtrack.” As a beer it is a fairly good European pilsner. It has decent body and mouth-feel for a beer so light. It is also malty, although it is a bit too sweet. It doesn’t offer much in the hops department, but it is definitely a beer that could be had in large quantities. For example, at a concert (if concert beer were not so expensive.)

Reading of the week: Music by Percy Shelley – There is a reason that it is called “lyric poetry.” It would be amazing to hear this poem set to music.

Question of the week: Is it a surprise that at parties or gatherings that include alcohol, the initial conversation often gives way to music and dancing? Is that an effect of the prolonged consumption of alcohol? Or of the cumulative influence of  music?

I Prefer Not To

“Up to a certain point,” observes the narrator in Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, “the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not.” At some point, suffering stops inspiring pity and starts engendering revulsion. Suffering is so repulsive men often cannot bear to look, let alone get close enough to help.

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, the suffering of others reminds one of his own mortality and vulnerability, thoughts that many people would surely prefer to ignore. These thoughts can even be so powerful that one simply cannot bear them.

Another, less justifiable sort of selfishness can also cause a sort of resentment of other people’s suffering. One works hard to make his life as comfortable as possible; this can create a sense of entitlement. Since he has worked hard to safeguard himself against woe and want, he feels entitled to live in a world gated off from the suffering of others.

But selfishness is not the only reason people are repulsed by suffering and attempt to cast off all thoughts of it. Occasionally, one observes a suffering that he can simply do nothing to alleviate. Sometimes there is no balm one can offer, especially when the pain of another is not bodily pain, but distress of the soul.

“I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.”

Beer of the Week: Damburger Export – This is not a very good beer. It has almost no aroma, it goes down like water and it has a hint of metal in the aftertaste. The best thing this beer has going for it is that although the head dissipated very quickly, there was actually some very significant lacing on the glass. I would probably Damburger again if no other beer were available, but in the words of Bartleby:  “I prefer not to.”

Reading of the week: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville, excerpt – This is a strangely haunting short story that is “not an easy read.” The reader learns almost nothing about Bartleby except that he is a troubled soul.

Question of the week: If suffering is so repugnant to people, what was the attraction of the classic freak show or of the gladiatorial games?

Slow and Steady

The reasons for combining beer and philosophy in this blog are many. Beer and philosophy are both luxuries, even when they are at their lowest quality. Societies that have placed great value on one have historically placed great value on the other. They even have occasionally produced similar physical effects on people. But the primary reason for their combination is the complimentary way in which they pace each other.

Arthur Schopenhauer mocked erudite accademics who pride themselves on the sheer quanity of reading they have done. “Ah, how little they must have had to think about, to have been able to read so much!” Like drinking beer, reading should be done at a leisurely pace. There is no glory (outside of a frat party) in drinking more beer than anybody else and there is no prize (to my knowledge) for having read the most books. Both beer and philosophy are to be savored, pondered over and really understood, rather than consumed so quickly that one can hardly be said to have “enjoyed” them. We may leave for another time the question of Natural Light and romance novels, which may be the exceptions that prove the rule.

Beer of the Week: Carlsberg – The can announces that this is “probably the best beer in the world.” It is safe to say the beer falls short of the claim. It is good, but not the world’s best. It is slightly sweet and slightly sour and finishes with a crisp (although fairly weak) hoppy tingle. There is something unusual about it, but it’s hard to pin down. This beer is certainly worth taking some time to think about.

Reading of the week: from On Men of Learning by Arthur Schopenhauer – Schopenhauer, who may best be described as “an old crank”, blasts modern academia, Pliny the Elder, and specialists of all sorts. Even though he admits that no individual can ever learn “even the thousandth part” of the knowledge “which would be generally worth knowing,” one has to attempt to spread himself across many fields and find ways to turn information into inspiration.

Question of the week: What sort of ratio is appropriate in terms of time spent reading and time spent thinking about what one has just read? Is the ratio of time spent drinking beer to time between drinks similar?

A Dog and His Bone

Proof of the adage “people see what they want to see” can be found in a number of fields. Politics is likely the easiest place to observe the phenomenon. For example, people with diametrically opposed political opinions, when presented with the same information, tend to believe that the new information justifies their previously held beliefs. This is known as confirmation bias.

Even more interesting is the ability of people to find meaning in places where there is none. “Do you believe, upon your conscience, that Homer, whilst he was a-couching his Iliads and Odysses, had any thought upon those allegories, which Plutarch, Heraclides Ponticus, Eustathius, Cornutus squeezed out of him?” asks Rabelais. These men, who were no mean thinkers, “found” volumes worth of hidden ideas in Homer’s epic poems. Rabelais insists that the author does not think deeply upon what he writes, but with glass in hand he lightly dictates his stories.

However, just because the author does not consciously insert layers of secret meanings into his work does not mean that we are wrong to look for meaning therein. As it becomes a dog to meticulously extract every last bit of marrow from a bone, it “becomes you to be wise, to smell, feel and have in estimation these fair goodly books.” In fact, one ought to seek out meaning in all things, not because meaning has been hidden there for us to find, but because the search for meaning human nature, just as it is the nature of a dog to chew on bones.

Beer of the Week: Victoria Bitter – The search for some deeper meaning often leads one into the bottom of a bottle. However,  this Australian macro does not have many answers. It has a faint, somewhat sweet and bready odor. VB is highly carbonated and tastes of malt and adjunct sweetness with hardly a hint of hops. It’s good enough to have a few while watching the rugby, but it’s nothing special.

Reading of the week: The Author’s Prologue to the First Book of Gargantua by François Rabelais, excerpt – The introduction that Rabelais gives to his book is somewhat perplexing. It is not surprising that he advises the reader not to judge a book by its cover; on the surface, Gargantua seems like little more than a giant collection of scatological humor and bodily diversions. Rabelais promises that under it all there is “a doctrine of a more profound and abstruse consideration, which will disclose unto you the most glorious sacraments and dreadful mysteries.” He then promptly announces that he did not let his writing get in the way of his gluttony and tippling, says that he has a “cheese-like brain” and makes a poop joke.

Question of the week: Rabelais seems sincere in his claim that there really is something valuable hidden under all of his toilet humor, so does he claim that Homer (whom Rabelais calls “paragon of all philologues”) never imagined the hidden meanings in his own work?