It’s not what you know; it’s who you know. Also, what you know.

Today I watched a marathon of the television show Shark Tank.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, if I remember high school English class correctly, was a close friend and mentor of Thoreau. He also had a correspondence with Walt Whitman. Whitman, it seems, was acquainted with Oscar Wilde. (And if the rumors are true, they were “well acquainted”, if you catch my drift.) But Emerson’s connections did not stop there.

In his book English Traits, Emerson describes meeting and conversing with a number of great artists and literary figures of his day: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, William Wordsworth, Thomas de Quincey, and more. I suppose that it should not be shocking that these sorts of gentlemen would move about in the same circles, but I still find it remarkable that so much talent and intellectual power should be found among a small group of people who know each other. It calls to mind Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle and Theophrastus, although those gentlemen were all in the same city*.

Even more interesting than the people Emerson met was the conversations that they had. In English Traits, he describes conversations about a wide range of topics, from poetry and politics to art and architecture. These men were not just writers, they were well educated and extremely well rounded intellectuals. Reading this book has made my painfully aware of my own educational deficiencies. I imagine being introduced to Emerson and the conversation flagging. He, naturally, would want to talk about modern trends in art and philosophy. I would sheepishly admit that I know nothing about either subject and ask if he’d ever seen Shark Tank.

Beer of the Week: Köstritzer Schwarzbier – One would expect me to pair an English beer with English Traits. However, I chose a German beer to help make up for something that Emerson missed out on. When he traveled Europe, Emerson did not visit Germany because Goethe was already dead. Not only did Emerson not get to meet Goethe, he didn’t get to drink delicious German beers! “Schwarzbier” means “black beer”, and Köstritzer lives up to the name. It is not quite as black as pitch, but very little light makes it through when the glass is held up to the light. The aroma is mostly malty. The flavor has plenty of influence from the dark-roasted malt, but there is also a nice balance of hops to round out it out. The feel is light and refreshing for a beer this dark. Overall, this is a very nice beer.

Reading for the Week:  English Traits by Ralph Waldo Emerson – This selection of English Traits includes Emerson’s account of his meeting with Walter Savage Landor (to whom he was introduced by the very well known American sculptor Horatio Greenough.) They discussed everything from ancient art to entomology. What an fascinating conversation that must have been.

Question for the week: What is the reason that there are apparently so few thoroughly rounded intellectuals these days? Is it because of increased disciplinary specialization?

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One Comment on “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know. Also, what you know.”

  1. *I have never seen anything that suggests that Aristotle or Theophrastus ever actually met Socrates. It seems, however, that they were both in their late teens at the time of Socrates’ death, so they were contemporaries at least.


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