Lilac and Lab Coats

In the story Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorn, a young student named Giovanni finds no more pleasant pastime than to look out of his window into Doctor Rappaccini’s garden and quietly observe the beautiful flora (before he turns his attention to the story’s eponymous fauna.) To him, the flowers were “gorgeously magnificent” and the fountain sparkled “cheerfully” in the sunlight. Giovanni understood the garden as beauty and artistic inspiration.

Doctor Rappaccini did not view the garden in the same way. Rappaccini did not see the warm, vibrant garden that Giovanni saw, but a cold, sterile laboratory. And although he was surrounded by beautiful flowers, universally observed to invoke warm emotion, “there was no approach to intimacy between himself and these vegetable existences.” And this was actually frightening to Giovanni.

As important as scientific study is, it is still off-putting to see the harsh, cold light of reason shined on something that would otherwise be seen as simple and beautiful. The scientific project, the unrelenting systematic investigation on all subjects, has led to amazing discoveries. But if the world is viewed only scientifically, it will be found to be cold, indifferent and unsatisfying to humanity. One must, occasionally, stop to smell the roses.

Beer of the Week: Asahi Black – Like flowers, beer can (and, when the time is right, should) be studied. More often, however, it should simply be enjoyed. Asahi Black has a faint smell of licorice, a dark tan (but quickly fading) head and a nice roast malt profile. The body is nice and smooth as well. One might expect a more watery beer from Asahi, but Black has a very nice mouth-feel. It is not a great beer, but it is definitely a pleasant change of pace.

Reading of the week: an excerpt from Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorn – This short story is about science gone wrong. Doctor Rappaccini uses science to change something that is beautiful and pure into something that is poisonous and vile.

Question of the week: Is there any subject that science ought not probe?


Gold malt does not a pilsner make…

“When I lye tangled in her haire,
And fetterd to her eye,
The birds, that wanton in the aire,
Know no such liberty.”

Richard Lovelace was no stranger to paradox. To him, freedom was entanglement; servitude was liberty. In his most famous poem To Althea, from Prison, Lovelace considers himself freer than the birds despite his imprisonment. The source of this freedom? Love and service. And, perhaps, drinking. Although it seems that the stanza about drinking is more of an expression of the freedom of his imagination than about actual wine since he was in prison. Although prison wine is a thing.

He is free because he loves, and is therefore bound to, Althea. Love is both binding and liberating. But it is not only love for his woman that makes him free, but love for his King. When proclaming “the sweetnes, mercy, majesty, and glories of [his] King,” he is freer than the wind. Here, the paradox is greatest. To have a king is to be a “subject,” a title which many philosophers have equated with “slave.” By declaring the authority of his master, he asserts his own freedom. This theme has been explored extensively in Christianity where King or Lord is used metaphorically to refer to God. On first reading, I assumed that the “King” (notice the capital “K”) was God. However, Lovelace was actually in prison for presenting a pro-royalist petition to the House of Commons, so it would make sense from a political protest point of view for King to refer to King Charles. So dutiful service to a master, man or God, may be at the heart of freedom.

Beer of the Week: The Master – Speaking of masters, Asahi’s all-malt pilsner has a very bold name. But can any beer back up such a billing? It starts sweet, light, and creamy on the nose. The taste is a bit creamy with a decent malt profile. The finish has an almost metallic tinge which is not altogether pleasant. It is really a good beer and well may be “The Master” in Japan, but even the can admits that they are but apprentices to “German brewing.”

Reading of the week: To Althea, from Prison by Richard Lovelace – “Stone walls doe not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage;” with these lines, Lovelace flirts with stoicism, accepting that the things of the body are outside of his control and relying only on his own intellect to experience freedom. However, he comes a bit short of stoicism by attributing his freedom to his relationship with Althea and his King.

Question of the week: As long as he loves Althea, he is free. But if she were to die while he remained imprisoned, he would be crushed. So, if she died and he had no way of finding out, he would remain happy and “free.” Is this validation of the claim “ignorance is bliss”? Is freedom simply a delusional state that can only be maintained in the long run by ignorance or outright denial? Or is it proof of the stoic claim that nothing external is the cause of freedom, only the mind of the individual?


Beer Pressure

There is an amusing and potentially dangerous concept at American colleges: beer pressure. It is simply peer pressure to drink. The term can be used playfully as in the sentence: “I should study, but I’ll give in to beer pressure and join my friends at happy hour.” It can also be more serious: “I knew that I shouldn’t drink any more, but when they loaded the funnel and started cheering I caved to beer pressure. Now if you will excuse me, I have to spew.”

Everybody is aware, and is told more times than can be counted, that peer pressure can be bad. It can lead to hangovers or worse. It also, over time, can habituate people to behavior that they would otherwise eschew. In this way, it actually limits one’s own personal freedom. Not only does one now act against his own better judgement in the moment, through repeatedly engaging in actions and attitudes that are detrimental, those habits becomes part of him (cf. Nicomachean Ethics, Book II.)

This pressure also comes from people other than peers. Superiors, subordinates, even strangers on the street have expectations to which people respond. In Shooting an Elephant, George Orwell wrote about the societal pressure felt by every member of the occupying British forces in East Asia: “He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy [who]… shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”

What often gets overlooked, however, is the fact that societal pressures are not always detrimental. Awareness of the expectations of others force people to act certain ways that are good. Mature adults do not carry on and cause mischief in part because they are aware that they would be judged for it. People constantly modify their behavior to conform to the expectations of those around them and that helps keep a society civil. If the society is generally a virtuous one, there exists a certain self-generating effect. Societal pressures first constrain people to act in virtuous ways and over time the habit of virtue is established and the individuals actually become virtuous.

In short, do not pressure your friends to drink large quantities of cheap beer, but pressure your friends to drink good beer responsibly. Over time, the habit of being responsible will become true virtue.

Beer of the Week: Tiger Lager – The setting of Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant is the Malay Peninsula and this beer comes from the very tip of the peninsula, Singapore. Aside from the exotic origin, this beer does not have much going on. The head fades quickly, the aroma (such as it is) is dominated by grain. The flavor is not as watery as one might expect from this style, but the aftertaste is a bit sour with a hint of metal. It could certainly be good for washing down spicy food, but water is also good for that.

Reading of the week: Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell – Before he was a full-time writer, George Orwell was an officer in the Spanish Civil War and spent several years as an imperial policeman in Burma. Shooting an Elephant is written in the first person, although it is doubtful that the story is actually biographical, since there appears to be no record of Orwell shooting an elephant (which the narrator claims is “a serious matter… comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery.”) What is biographical, however, is the personal opinions expressed about the British Empire and the nature of tyranny.

Question of the week: What sort of balance must be struck between conforming to societal norms and pursuing one’s own desires and conscience? In the perfect society, would there be any conflict between the two?


Freedom as Duty

This week, the United States celebrated Independence Day. But what is Independence Day? It is not the anniversary of the expulsion of British forces from the States. Neither is it a celebration of the establishment of the federal government of the United States. No, it is actually the anniversary of the signing of The Declaration of Independence. The celebration, properly understood, is not about the country or government of the United Sates, but about the statement of a universal right for men to be free.

To be sure, The Declaration is about the United States specifically and consists primarily of complaints against the oppressive government of the colonies by Great Britain, but it has a much larger view. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These are the rights of all men everywhere. And when a government abridges or fails to protect these rights, it is not only the right of the people to “alter or abolish it,… it is their duty.”

If freedom so deeply rooted in the soul of man and every person has a duty to fight for his freedom, how can despotism ever exist? Force and the threat of force are surely enough to dissuade some or most people from attempting to assert their rights. More often, however, the duty to fight for freedom becomes neglected in the same way that most duty is neglected, laziness and habit. Over time, people become accustomed to the gradual usurpation of their rights and “experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” It takes a concerted effort and a good deal of courage to not be complacent. But it is not just ones right to stand up for freedom, it is one’s duty.

When reflecting on the recent holiday, remember that it was not a celebration of the flag or for the republic for which it stands. Independence Day is a celebration of the God-given right of all men to be free and an exhortation to fulfill one’s duty to defend that right.

Beer of the Week: Miller Genuine Draft – This style of beer is known as an “American adjunct lager.” It is the most popular style of beer in the world. This is because it is bland, inoffensive, and cheap. Better than Budweiser, MGD is not that bad; it is simply boring. Still, I’d much sooner drink it than throw it into Boston Harbor.

Reading of the week: The Declaration of Independence, Paragraph 2 by Thomas Jefferson – “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” The second paragraph of The Declaration of Independence is the most philosophically dense and interesting section. It addresses natural rights, social contract theory and is simply very well written.

Question of the week: Can one make the free choice to accept slavery?