A post by a facebook friend of mine notified me that it was Fasnacht Day (also called Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, Carnival or Marti Gras.) Unfortunately, I am some 14 time-zones ahead of that friend, so I was already in Ash Wednesday. Ever the rules lawyer, I bought a box of donuts Ash Wednesday morning on the grounds that it was still Fasnacht Day in my home town. In case you were meaning to give something up for Lent but haven’t gotten around to it, I have another loophole ready for you; according to the Orthodox Christians, Great Lent doesn’t start until Clean Monday! That’s right, you can be as intemperate and gluttonous as you want this weekend, just settle down in time for Vespers on Sunday evening.
If you don’t observe Lent (because you are a Mennonite or Atheist or Sihk) that is no reason that you should not take this opportunity to reflect a bit on the subject of temperance. We could all use a bit of temperance now and then. But not too much, that would be intemperate. Maybe. I am not even totally sure what temperance is.
In the Socratic dialogue Charmides, Critias proposes a definition of temperance as “self-knowledge.” Socrates proceeds to thoroughly tear Critias apart, but only after slyly replacing “temperance” with “wisdom” and getting Critias to shift from “self-knowledge” to “the science which has itself as its object.” And then at the end, there is a very awkward back and forth between Socrates and Charmides that makes it really look like they are about to have sex. But ignoring all of these shenanigans, let’s consider on our own what it would mean for temperance to be self-knowledge.
Temperance has, on occasion been used to mean something like total avoidance. The so-called “temperance movement” was organized for the total ban of alcohol. Various religious groups have used the word temperance in conjunction with sexual abstinence. However, temperance is more commonly understood as moderation. This understanding is very much in line with the idea that temperance is self-knowledge.
Take, for example, drinking beer. It will be generally agreed that moderation is the best course with regard to this action. (We take for granted here that totally abstaining from beer is no virtue and drinking to excess is a vice.) Still, it takes a deal of self-knowledge to stay in control of the situation, especially as the more beer one drinks, the less important moderation seems.
The same is true of almost everything. Many great minds have recommended “moderation in all things,” but think of how much self-knowledge is required to know what a “moderate amount” is. So this is temperance: know thyself! And here is where the concept becomes difficult.
When you “know” that you shouldn’t eat that last donut, but you can’t help yourself, you don’t really know it. If you really had full knowledge of yourself and your situation (something that seems impossible,) you would never knowingly act in a way that is to your own detriment. I can feel you objecting through the internet. Seriously though, it is only a lack of knowledge that makes you act in ways that hurt yourself. People act this way all the time, but if they really honestly new better, they wouldn’t. Even if you say to yourself every single day “I know I should go to the gym” but you never actually get there, it isn’t because you are lazy. (Well, not only because you are lazy.) It is because you don’t really know that working out will improve your life any more than lying around in your pajamas watching an entire season of whatever television shows you watch entire seasons of. In fact, it is possible that you are wrong for feeling guilty about not going to the gym; maybe what you are doing instead really is better for you and you are more self-aware than you think.
In the end, the more self-knowledge you have will lead to choices that are more advantageous. And in general, these decisions will tend to be moderate since extremes are rarely the best choices. The better you know yourself the more moderate you will be. And, in the end, the healthier and happier you will be. Once you know yourself, being moderate is much less of an effort, it is only doing what you know is in your best interest.
PS. Only eating a box of donuts all day Wednesday was NOT the action of a temperate man. Hopefully I learned something about myself and will be more temperate in the future.
Beer of the Week: KEO Premium – KEO is the perfect beer to celebrate the arrival of Great Lent because KEO’s majority owner is the Orthodox Church of Cyprus. This is an exceptionally pale and clear beer. Slight malt and just a hint of noble hops on the nose. Good white head. There is something oddly familiar about the taste of this beer but what is familiar is unclear and not good. The finish is light but distinct and slightly sweet, with very soft notes of lemon and vanilla.
Reading of the week: Charmides by Plato – Here, Critias does what I wish more Socratic interlocutors would do; he admits that Socrates has somehow trapped him and simply says that if any of the things that he assented to lead to a contradiction, he is willing to “withdraw them.” But he still asserts that it is not clear whether Socrates or he is “more right.”
Question of the week: How close can one get to perfect self-knowledge? What about perfectly right self-opinion?
I observed some time ago that our imagination fills in very large sections of our memories. We really only remember a few details and imagine the rest. For example, when remembering things about my time in Australia, I made a startling discovery: in my mind’s eye, the driver’s seat in the car was on the left side. When I took the time to think about it, I realized that I must have simply remembered a few specifics and when my imagination pieced it back together the cars went back to my memory’s default setting.
I need hardly mention that the past get’s colored with emotion. The principle cause of nostalgia is that there are chunks of time for which we ignore the bad things that happened (even without realizing it.) The same, of course, can be true of remembering hard or unpleasant times, but somehow that seems far less common.
The future is doubly unclear. We can only guess what the future holds, so we imagine based on our past experience. That is to say, we rely very heavily on a flawed memory of the past whenever we try to anticipate the future. So if a farmer whose memory was colored by recent hardship and whose best laid schemes have gone awry say of the future “tho’ I canna see, I guess an’ fear!” The cause of this guess is nothing other than a projection of memory: “things have gone wrong in the past, they’ll go wrong again.”
To be sure, understanding the past is key to anticipating the future. As George Santayana said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But the quality of the memory matters and has a profound influence on the outlook.
So we live on a breadthless line between a blurry past and dim future, trying to clarify the one to shed light on the other.
Beer of the Week: Tucher Pilsner – “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley,” but this beer doesn’t seem like the result of a well laid scheme. Overall, it seems rather half-hearted. Unlike our past or our future, the beer is extremely clear and light (although that’s not really a good thing in this case.) The head fades quickly and the aroma is nearly nonexistent. The overall flavor was no more impressive. Bland with an unpleasant aftertaste. Not a good choice.
Reading of the week: To a Mouse by Robert Burns – The poet says that the mouse is blessed in comparison to man, if only because the mouse lives entirely in the present. The mouse has no regrets and no dread of the future. At least it sounds that way, I don’t speak Scots. (Oh, and in case you can’t figure out either, I’ve attached a video to help with pronunciation.)
Question of the week: If plans go wrong, were they really “the best laid schemes”? Is there any contingency that absolutely, positively could not have been accounted for with just a bit more attention to detail and a wider imagination?
It is remarkably hard for me to review beers. Actually, it is hard for me to review just about anything thoroughly. In most cases, I suspect this is because I am such a “big-picture” guy and reviews and critiques tend to focus on individual aspects.
I find this especially in the case of things that I like. I am sure that if I really put my mind to it, I could figure out and explain what I love about the movie Raising Arizona or why a delicious shandy is so good on a hot day. But I’d rather not. If something is really, really good, it is because every aspect of it is working perfectly in harmony. Harmony, by the way, is the perfect example of this. Any three musical notes are as good as any other, but when played as a chord, is it possible to say one note is more important? If some part stands there is a problem. To totally enjoy something is to not perceive each part in itself.
Thomas Carlyle wrote in Characteristics that this sort of obliviousness to the parts showed the greatest health of the whole. One may readily perceive that people don’t really notice their own bodies until there is something wrong. We are told that even the pleasant sensation in the muscles caused by exercise is actually the result of muscle tissue tearing. When bodies are functioning perfectly, their functioning is the easiest to overlook.
Carlyle even extends this idea to all of life. When our lives are at their best, we forget all the details and focus on the whole of living. It is only when life is out of order that we get bogged down in details.
Beer of the Week: Heineken – The most popular beer in the Netherlands, this pale lager has long been highly regarded abroad as well. The initial aroma is crisp and hoppy, but it fades quickly. The flavor is somewhat watery and grainy and lacks a good hops kick. There are heaps of beers that are worse, but also plenty of beers that are better. As far as macro-brews go, it really is an alright beer, but it isn’t good enough that one could get lost in the flavor.
Reading of the week: Characteristics by Thomas Carlyle – “Boundless as is the domain of man, it is but a small fractional proportion of it that he rules with Consciousness and by Forethought,” Carlyle writes. What he means is that the rational mind is only really capable of singling out the smallest and most mechanical bits of life and nature. In general, we perceive the world as a whole. And the world is the more beautiful for it.
Question of the week: Are things more beautiful when they are mysterious or are they more beautiful when we can see and understand their intricacy? For example, I can look inside a watch and be impressed because it is beyond me how all of the little pieces work. How does an expert watchmaker see the inside of a watch?
In a recent post, I discussed the possibility of their being virtue in Don Quixote’s impossible goals. There may be something really valuable about attempting the patently impossible as long as it is for the right reason. But what would we say if Don Quixote had been killed by the windmill? Could we still reasonably glorify taking on the impossible if it meant ones own distruction?
Take, for example, the protagonist in Excelsior by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (If you require a refresher on the poem, read it here before you continue. While you’re up, grab yourself a beer; I’ll wait.)
Unlike with Don Quixote, we are given no background on the mission of the unnamed youth of Excelsior. All we know about his plan was that it involved crossing a certain mountain pass and that it happened during less than ideal conditions. Our biggest hint as to why is his oft repeated slogan: “Excelsior!” Which means something like “ever higher.” Perhaps he is some sort of thrill junkie?
Unlike Don Quixote’s quests as a knight errant, the youth’s desire to get “ever higher” is not single-minded. Don Quixote does not doubt or lament is calling, but the youth groans and sighs and even sheds a tear at the offer to renounce or even just delay his climb. But this isn’t inconsistent with an addiction to thrill seeking. Plenty of addicts of all descriptions recognize the destructive nature of their addictions and suffer immense inner turmoil because of it. There are people who genuinely want to quit but cannot. And in the end, the youth wanted to stop climbing the mountain but couldn’t, and his addiction killed him.
The poem is really a downer if it is about addiction. However, the poem does not really sound like it is about addiction. But if it is not addiction, what is it? Why did the youth not act more judiciously? He was warned against proceeding and his sigh and groan and tear all show that he wanted to stop but could not. What compelled him to go on? And, since he died because of it, can whatever drove him on be a good thing? If he were a martyr and he walked to his death for the glory of God or to promote a cause, that would be something. But the only cause he espoused was “Excelsior.”
Perhaps “Excelsior” really is a cause. The youth realized that progress really is everything. If he had stopped to rest in the Alpine village, he would not only have stopped making progress, he would have been going backwards. And what gives this interpretation more weight than the addiction hypothesis is the way the poem ends. Unlike an addict who is disfigured by his vice, the youth is “lifeless, but beautiful”. We even get to hear his final thought (maybe.) It is not one of lamentation and regret, bitter about his poor choices and his inability to overcome his addiction; instead, it is “serene”. The last thought is noble, even triumphant, “like a falling star”.
Still, the youth is dead. What does he or the world have to show for his decision to go ever higher?
Beer of the Week: Nepal Ice – Nothing makes a beer more appealing than freezing to death on a mountain. Ask the nice people of Nepal. This does not appear to be an “ice beer.” It is also not very impressive. With an aggressive pour, a lot of head will develop, but the large bubbles dissipate quickly. The smell is barely noticeable. As far as the taste, a sort of unpleasant sweetness from the adjucts pervades, only to be followed by a sort of wet mouth-feel as though one somehow failed to swallow it all on the first attempt. The old man from Excelsior should have said “Try not this beer.” However, like the hero of the poem, I would not have heeded the advice anyway. The bottom of my glass is inclines ever higher.
Reading of the week: Excelsior by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – The basic plot of the poem is a man traveling about on foot on a fairly treacherous mountain pass. Despite good advice to rest the night in an alpine village (and potentially get to second base with a buxom lass,) he continues on his way, driven on by his mantra: “Excelsior.” Then he succumbs to hypothermia and dies.
Question of the week: The offer to “rest [his] weary head upon [the maiden’s] breast” brings a tear to the young man’s eye. Although this indicates his inner desire to stay, he carries on. Why?