Rudyard Kipling’s poem If— pretty much deserves a line by line analysis of how it is awesome description of what it is to be a virtuous man.* Unfortunately, that would take too long and would be redundant since most of the poem is self-explanatory. A few lines take a bit of thought to sort out, however.
For example, the line “If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,” is not self-evidently virtuous. “If you can think—” is an interesting clause. Every person thinks, so it seems likely that Kipling means “If you can think well.” The ability to organize one’s thoughts and to use one’s reason seems like a sort of virtue in itself, but there is more to it than that. The ability to think may be the very source of virtue. One could argue that without rational thought, virtue is impossible. Rarely do we ascribe virtue (and even more rarely vice) to animals and plants; their actions are guided by instinct, not reason. Is it virtuous to breathe? Or to blink? Can any action be virtuous that is involuntary? And what is a “voluntary” action except one that requires thought?
But the second half of that line, “and not make thoughts your aim,” is a bit trickier. If “thoughts” are not the proper aim, what is? Are “thoughts” being set up in opposition to “thought” in general? That is, is Kipling exhorting his son to avoid becoming obsessed with specific ideas instead of properly appreciating a more rounded “life of the mind”? Many intellectuals would like this to be the answer: thought (in the sense of philosophy) as the proper aim of life. However, I suspect that Kipling has a more active aim in mind.
The whole poem seems to be a call to action, but action is not a proper aim in itself. Unlike philosophy, which may exist for its own sake, action ought to have a separate aim. Little harm can come of thinking for the sake of thinking, but acting for the sake of acting can be dangerous. One ought “not make thoughts or action their aim,” action must be toward some external goal.
So what is the proper aim of life? It seems by the end of the poem that it is to “be a man”. Perhaps simply fulfilling the promise of this poem is the real aim one should strive for.
Beer of the Week: Kunstmann Bock – Goodness, how very dark this beer is! The head is rather quick to fade, but is a lovely tan color on top of the nearly black beer. The taste is absolutely dominated by smokey malt. Some burnt caramel may be detected in the flavor and there is a hint of dark roasted coffee in the finish. The beer is smooth and thick (for a lager) and although I do not particularly care for such dark beers, this offering from Kunstmann is quite good. Not altogether surprising after reviewing Kunstmann’s Pale Ale.
Reading of the week: If— by Rudyard Kipling – This poem is just about impossible to read without feeling inspired. It encourages level-headedness, a stoic attitude toward adversity, and always giving one’s best effort.
*Question of the week: Kipling was writing to his son. Would his advice be different if he were writing to his daughter?
Freedom of religion is widely accepted as one of the founding principles of the United States of America. However, religious freedom was not there from the start.
Every one of the colonies had laws regarding religion. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, non-Puritans were pretty thoroughly persecuted. Quakerism (one of the most peaceful and oatmeal loving of all Christian sects) was expressly forbidden. Some Quakers were even executed by the Massachusetts Bay government for their faith.
One of the first great strides toward religious freedom in America was the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, penned by Thomas Jefferson. He regarded the Statute as one of his greatest accomplishments and instructed that it be memorialized on his tombstone. (His presidency and all of his accomplishments during that period of his life are notably omitted.) In his Notes on Religion, Jefferson asserts that “The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself,” so nobody should be coerced into participating in any specific church. Such a claim seems so obvious to us today that we recoil at the idea of state mandated church attendance.
What is striking to me is the analogy that Jefferson draws between the soul and the body. “The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself ,” just as the care of his body and possessions belong to himself. “Well what if he neglect the care of his health,” he asks rhetorically, “Will the magistrate make a law that he shall not be poor or sick?”
How ironic! Jefferson appealed to the obvious freedom and sovereignty over one’s own body to demonstrate the freedom and sovereignty of over one’s own soul, but today the shoe is on the other foot. Freedom of (and from) religion seems so obvious to us, but the idea of personal physical sovereignty is constantly eroding. Imagine suggesting to Jefferson that one day the state would ban alcohol, “for our own good.” (Jefferson specifically mentions that “consuming his substance in taverns” is an activity in which every man has liberty.) Or, for that matter, the state would ban marijuana or super-sized colas. How incredulous would he be?
The fact is that a man’s body and soul, at least in this world, are inseparable. The state can’t save a man from himself physically any more than it can save him spiritually. “Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills.”
Beer of the Week: Taiwan Beer Gold Medal – At the beginning of the 20th century, the Japanese rulers in Taiwan decided that the people couldn’t be trusted with tobacco, alcohol, opium or salt, so they set up a state-owned monopoly company called the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation. Compare this to state monopolies on vice in America, such as state lotteries where gambling is otherwise prohibited “for our own good.” Today, however, Taiwan is a huge free-market success story and the TTL monopoly has been broken up. However, the 90 year head-start means that Taiwan Beer still dominates the market. Gold Medal is a cheap, mass-produced rice beer, so it is no surprise that it is basically bland and unappealing. The single part of this beer that stands out is the fairly distinct rice flavor. Sure, plenty of beers use rice and other adjuncts, but in this beer the rice plays a very prominent flavoring role. That is not to say that there is much flavor, but it actually is rather interesting how much this beer is unlike even other beers of its genre.
Reading of the week: Notes On Religion by Thomas Jefferson – This excerpt starts with a very interesting question: “How far does the duty of toleration extend?” This is especially important specifically with regard to religion since most religions assert that they are the one “right” religion and everybody else is not only “wrong”, but damned for it. “Every church is to itself orthodox; to others erroneous or heretical.”
Question of the week: Why has freedom of religion become so widely accepted while other freedoms have eroded?
When Barry H. Obama announced that he was going to use Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible in his second coronation, Dr. Cornel West said that it made his blood boil. He compared Dr. King’s “three crimes against humanity that he was wrestling with” to the problems that exist in this country today. Whatever you think of Dr. West in general, it cannot be denied that he is an eloquent speaker. And in this case, I think he makes a number of good points.
In his sermon entitled Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam, Dr. King lists “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.” So how has the battle against these evils fared since Dr. King’s murder, and what is the status of these issues today?
Poverty: From the collapse of the housing bubble to government bailouts, no reasonable person will argue that economic exploitation and poverty have been fixed in this country, let alone world-wide. Our high unemployment rate is especially hard on the outrageous number of new college graduates who attempt to enter the workforce each year already well up to their eye-balls in debt. This is compounded further by the fact that government sponsored student loans are exempted from bankruptcy law, so there is absolutely no way out of them short of death. To be fair, poverty will always exist, and most of the poor in this country are a lot better off than the poor in some other places. Still, there is plenty of work to be done. For one thing, the poor (and specifically poor minorities) are disproportionately victims of our “prison industrial complex”, which leads me to:
Racism: Dr. West refers to the present prison system in this country as “the new Jim Crow.” More than a few people have called the “War on Drugs” the “War on Blacks”. The connection may not be obvious at first, but DrugWarFacts.org informs us that black Americans make up some 15% of drug users and 60% of all felony drug offenders in state prisons. According to Trevor Burrus, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, “In many American inner cities where the drug war is most earnestly waged, up to 80 percent of young African-American males have criminal records. These young men will endure a lifetime of legalized discrimination, and difficulty finding employment, often because they simply chose to put a prohibited substance into their own bodies.” The hypocrisy of Obama on the issue of weed is fairly pronounced. He has admitted to using marijuana and “blow”, yet if he had been arrested and prosecuted for these “youthful transgressions” he could never have become president. Still his administration has aggressively gone after these victimless crimes, even in states where marijuana has been decriminalized.
Aside from the “War on Drugs”, Dr. West points out that “not one executive of a Wall Street bank [is] goin’ to jail.” He also states that no wire-tappers or torturers under the Bush administration are being prosecuted. (He omits torturers under the the Obama administration, but they are not being prosecuted either.) Which is related to:
Militarism: It should be obvious at a glance that American militarism has gotten much, much worse since Dr. King spoke out against it. There can be no doubt that Dr. King would be extremely critical of his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barry Obama. Rather than run out a laundry list of the awful things done in the name of “national security”, I will simply mention here that the United States government has targeted weddings, funerals and rescuers. Weddings. Funerals. Rescuers. The very thought of it makes me sick at heart.
What response can we have but to speak out against such crimes against humanity? “It is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to come back” to its moral grounding.
I suspect that this post will not be popular with some readers. Some may be turned off simply because it is dark and unpleasant. Others may take issue with what they perceive as my political biases. I also suspect that some people will accuse me of being unpatriotic for being so outspoken against our duly elected chief executive and the government on the whole. But I take heart in the words of Dr. King:
“I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love.”
Beer of the Week: Guinness Original – The world’s problems shouldn’t drive you to despair; they should drive you to drink. Sure there are lots of problems in the world, but there is also a heck of a lot of good. And among the good things is beer. Quite a while back, I reviewed Guinness Draught. Since I am getting back to my anti-war roots with Dr. King, I decided to get back to the roots of Guinness by reviewing Guinness Original. This beer does not have the fancy nitrogen widget that gives Draught its trademark cascading and creamy head. The bubbles are larger and the color is a darker tan, but Original’s head is still quite impressive. The aroma is dominated by the dark roasted malt and the taste is a bit smokey but generally very pleasant and surprisingly fresh and light.
Sermon for the Week: Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – In the tradition of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. King stated that “Every man has rights that are neither conferred by, nor derived from the State.” And like the Founders, King realized that the people must be willing to stand up against an unjust state, even if it “means being abused and scorned.” Since sermons are meant to be heard, not read, I have included a youtube recording.
Question for the week: Have you spoken up for truth and justice lately?
Samuel Adams defended (if not participated in) the destruction of private property as a form of protest. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Ben Franklin was probably some sort of super villain. Besides not being perfect, (who is?) what did these men have in common? Well, they were all talented writers. They were all white. All land-owners. They had lots in common actually. But the most important things they have in common were that they were Americans and they are on this blog’s Reading List. And these two things are related.
I, like so many Americans, have a certain respect and curiosity about great Americans. Because we have a nationality and history in common, their lives and ideas seem to have more direct baring on my own life and ideas. As the Venerable Bede wrote, ” take care to become acquainted with the actions and sayings of former men of renown, especially of our own nation.” Because one’s own countrymen present a more immediate and relateable example, it is easier to take that example to heart.
The book from which I quoted Bede is his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Astute readers may have observed some irony in me quoting a British author when talking about the value of studying the lives of great Americans. However, I regard Americans as supremely fortunate in their lineage. The American government, culture and language all have a mixed heritage, so when I want to study the lives of “former men of renown” I regard more than just Americans as my predecessors. The history of America includes much of the history of England and, indeed, of most of the world. From Homer forward, there is an intellectual common thread that runs right down to the present. And that is why this blog is not only American authors.
One may object that my Reading List has a number of categorical omissions. Every single reading to date was written by a European or an American man. The closest thing to an exception would be the colonial works of Kipling and Orwell, inspired by their time in India and Burma, respectively. Of course, they maintained their Britishness throughout their colonial adventures. In fact, one could argue that there is nothing more British than staying British while colonizing the world. But that is another topic all-together.
Clear omissions include: women and anybody not of European heritage. These are not intentional. The omission of women is the product of probability: this is basically a classics blog and the bulk of classic literature and philosophy has been produced by men. I have read some female authors in my day, but the idea of combing Middlemarch for a 5 paragraph excerpt worth writing about is a bit daunting.
As far as non-Europeans, the problem is that there is a certain remoteness about them. I am not sure how to approach, for example, Confucius because his writings and ideas are not ingrained in the culture around me. I suspect that there are common threads that can be grasped, but they may be harder to find.
So I will appeal to you, the reader: If there is an author or class of authors that you think I should read and discuss here, make a recommendation on the appropriate page or in the comments section. (Just as a heads-up, I am not likely to write about anything very modern or very obscure because the Reading List is only possible because the texts I use are in the public domain.)
Beer of the Week: Old Speckled Hen – America’s mixed heritage shows itself in its beer as much as anything. Although the biggest producers are inspired primarily by central European lagers (cf. the American and Czech Budweisers,) American brewers are getting back to their roots by brewing more ales. And the English have been a big influence on us in that regard. This smooth, malty ale is a real treat. The malt is balanced very nicely by a very pleasant bitterness that lingers slightly, beckoning to be washed away by another smooth, malty sip. This cycle continues until the glass is suddenly empty. Plus it is very nearly the same color as my beard… so that’s cool.
Reading for the Week: the Preface of Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede, Excerpt – Bede is the only Englishman included in Dante’s Paradiso and is the only English doctor of the Catholic Church. So as it turns out, Bede is one of the most renowned men of his own nation, and rightly so. Although much of the Preface is Bede citing his sources, he slips in at the end that the “true rule of history” is “the instruction of posterity.”
Question for the week: What, exactly, is posterity supposed to learn from history?
Don’t leave me, she says. Or if you must leave, wait a month, a week, a day, a minute. Each and every extra second together is worth my very life.
No, I must go now.
And so, Aeneas abandons Dido. He will not tarry even for a moment. He loves her, “but the firm purpose of his heart remains.”
What would it look like for a person to have such a sense of destiny? A real person. We come to expect this sort of grand purpose in characters like Aeneas and Napoleon, but for anybody else it comes across as disillusions of grandeur. Still, this is the idea that is sold every day as the heroic archetype. From sports stars to politicians, the story goes: “he knew he was destined for greatness.”
Well what if there actually are a lot of people with Aeneas’s “firm purpose” of heart? If such people exist, it seems that only a very small percent could ever achieve anything that looks like greatness. Greatness is, by definition, exceptional. As a rule, people are not great. So if there are many people of “great resolve”, some must leave their Didos on the shore for naught. These people must give up real, tangible goods in search of their destiny. How many men have sailed off only to find that there was nothing waiting for them on the other side of the sea? How many people “knew” they were destined for great things, but things beyond their control kept them down. “Unfilled destiny” is an oxymoron; if a man is truly destined for greatness, he achieves it.
On the other hand, how many lands have gone undiscovered because it is easier to settle than it is to explore? How many men missed out on greatness because they wavered in their purpose?
In short, destiny seems to do more with conviction and effort than any supernatural guiding force. So I am destined to drink beer; the firm purpose of my palate remains. Beer of the Week: Birra Moretti – If not for Aeneas, the whole history of Italy would have changed, and this beer would never have been brewed. The bottle says that Birra Moretti is “The Beer in Italy.” I would have put “The” in italics, but I am sure that they know what they are doing. The head is nice and fluffy, but it does not last very long at all. The smell is pretty standard for an adjunct lager and the taste is fairly bland, but it is certainly a drinking beer. All things considered “The Beer in Italy” probably doesn’t stand up to well against “The Wine in Italy.”
Reading of the week: Aeneid by Virgil, Book IV – Dido sends her sister to beg for Aeneas to stay. She doesn’t go herself. Sounds pretty middle school to me.
Question of the week: Was Dido as destined to die as Aeneas was destined to leave?