The Silence of Historians

One important rule of history that ought to be remembered is that it is written by the victors. In middle and high school, American students are taught that The Articles of Confederation were inadequate to provide for the governance of the young country. If the school is particularly good, the students read The Constitution and even some of The Federalist Papers. As far as I know, no students read The Articles of Confederation or The Antifederalist Papers. But why would they? The ideas and principles behind those works lost out.

It is also worth noting that The Antifederalist Papers were not a comprehensive project in the way that The Federalist Papers were. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay had a plan that resulted in an organized and cohesive collection of articles addressed to a single state. The Antifederalist Papers, on the other hand, were written independently by an unknown number of authors, addressed to the peoples of several states without any overarching plan. They don’t read as a single work because they were never meant to be grouped together.

Additionally, a large portion of the complaints about The Constitution were rectified by the Bill of Rights. That can make reading the Antifederalists a bit confusing for a modern reader. But it also puts a new spin on the question of what ideology won the day. Every complaint that was addressed by the Bill of Rights is really a victory for the Antifederalists. They recognized dangerous flaws in the new Constitution and made them known. As a result, Amendments were written to memorialize and protect inviolable personal rights.

Aside from concerns about personal liberties, the Antifederalists also worried that a central government would engage in dangerous expansionism, wage wars abroad, and eventually wage war at home to bring recalcitrant (or as they saw it, independent) states to heel. A critical glance at any work on American history should be enough to answer the question of whether these fears ever came to fruition. Although (because?) history is written by the victors, history is no more than “a disgusting and painful detail of the butcheries of conquerors, and the woeful calamities of the conquered”. When the people are happy, free, and at peace, there is very little to fill the annals; “the silence of historians is the surest record of the happiness of a people.” So why are American history books so thick?

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Beer of the Week: Lionshead Deluxe Pilsner – When I first had this beer, local college students told me that it is better known as “Lionshead-ache” because of the hangovers it causes. To be fair, they were in college and Lionshead is very cheap, so the hangovers may have been more related to quantity than quality. As far as taste goes, it is pretty much what one should expect for such a cheap adjunct lager: it tastes of slightly sour grain and naught else. But the bottle caps have pictogram puzzles printed on the inside, so I would certainly take a bottle of this over comparable beers. If you really want to try out the pictogram puzzles but can’t get Lionshead, puzzles can also be found on the bottle caps of Mickey’s and National Bohemian.

Reading for the Week: Antifederalist No. 3 – A number of essays opposed to the new government were compiled and numbered. Although they were not originally meant to be part of an overarching project, these individual writings have come to be known by their respective numbers in this compilation. Antifederalist No. 3 does not actually seem to be aimed at fighting the ratification of The Constitution. The author ruefully concedes that the people desire this new governmental scheme. The new national government will be accepted, not because it is the best possible system, but because the American people are simply and regrettably not up to the challenge of local self-rule: “Alas! I see nothing in my fellow-citizens, that will permit my still fostering the delusion, that they are now capable of sustaining the weight of SELF-GOVERNMENT: a burden to which Greek and Roman shoulders proved unequal.”

Question for the week: The author of Antifederalist No. 3 writes that “Where the people are free there can be no great contrast or distinction among honest citizens in or out of office.” What does it say about the United States that politicians are essentially celebrities?


Nobody wears his watch in a pocket these days.

In the dialogue Meno, Socrates is asked by the eponymous interlocutor whether virtue can be taught. Socrates, as per usual, plays dumb: “I don’t even know what virtue is; how can I tell you if it can be taught?” Meno then lists the virtues of various classes of people, all of which appear to be a form of practical efficiency. After a substantial digression, Socrates and Meno finally get to the business of addressing whether virtue can be taught by establishing a provisional definition of what virtue is: the wisdom or knowledge required to know how to act in a way that will be profitable. That is, prudence. For example, courage is a virtue. Without prudence, however, courage becomes folly. The same is true of every other individual virtue. Prudence is the overarching principle of all virtues.

Some two-thousand years later, Lord Chesterfield took up this interpretation of virtue. In a letter to his son, he used the word “judgement” in the place of “prudence” but expressed the same idea. Each virtue is only good if exercised with good judgement, otherwise it becomes a parallel vice. “Generosity often runs into profusion, economy into avarice, courage into rashness, caution into timidity, and so on.” Judgement (or prudence? or moderation?) is the heart of virtue, because without it all other virtues are vice. But Chesterfield went on to apply this to a field that might not be considered a virtue in itself: education.

“Great learning,” writes Chesterfield, “if not accompanied with sound judgment, frequently carries us into error, pride, and pedantry.” Those who are highly educated but not prudent do not give their contemporaries enough credit. Instead, they rely on the ancients, even upon ancient mad men. “We are really so prejudiced by our education, that, as the ancients deified their heroes, we deify their madmen; of which, with all due regard for antiquity, I take Leonidas and Curtius to have been two distinguished ones.” The study of the ancients is necessary and proper, but what really matters is what is going on today.

One may argue that since Chesterfield’s time, the pendulum has swung the quite other way. The products of today’s education scoff at the ancients as primitive and look only to modern science. A particular example of this is the modern opinion of faith. Any great thinker of the past who was avowedly religious is automatically discounted in the opinion of the modern pseudo-intellectual. Faith is no longer regarded as a virtue, but it is now held to be archaic and indicative of personal weakness. And as for Chesterfield’s admonition against mentioning that one is reading classics, there is surely little chance of that now. I read somewhere the observation that Americans used to learn Latin and Greek in high school. But now they learn remedial English in college. If not for the recent motion pictures about the Persian invasion of Greece, many college graduates would have no idea who Leonidas was at all.

Still, Chesterfield’s advice is well worth heeding. Especially for this blog. Works of greater or lesser antiquity are an obvious part of this project. Partially because of an ingrained deference for the ancients, partially because the readings reproduced here must be in the public domain. I think that I generally avoid fawning over the ancients unnecessarily and from trotting out my education just to let people know that I have one. After all, I freely admit that I am under-educated. I had to search Wikipedia just to learn who Curtius was.

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Beer of the Week: Lord Chesterfield Ale – This beer has a pleasant and refreshing hint of citrus. It is not as flavorful as I would hope, but it really is a bit better than the average mass-produced beer. Especially after drinking half a case. Also, it is named for a noted man of letters, which is an obvious point in its favor.

Reading for the Week: Letter XXX from Lord Chesterfield to his Son – The collected letters of Lord Chesterfield to his son are known as Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, so that’s awesome. The first time I read this letter, it almost felt like a rebuke for creating this blog. And I still haven’t quite shaken that impression.

Question for the Week: A number of Americans have made former presidents the objects of their deification. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and others are practically cult figures in various circles. In what way does this differ from an obsession with the ancients?


The Impressionists That I Get

Not so long ago, I took a two month vacation to travel across Russia and explore Europe. Naturally, there were a number of amazing sights and adventures. I spent seven straight days on a train. I was detained at the boarder between Belarus and Poland. I went down the Danube in a high-speed catamaran. I was physically accosted by Spanish protesters. I held a 3,000 year-old Athenian coin in the palm of my hand. (I am still awestruck at the idea that Socrates or Plato or Aristophanes might have held that very coin. And then, presumably, spent it on wine.) And, of course, I drank a lot of beers.

The beers I drank in Europe ranged greatly in quality, even in within each country. In Russia most of the beer was not great, but once I accidentally bought kvass (a beer-like soft drink brewed from rye bread.) It was delicious. In Austria and Belarus I happily drank liters of local beer in small restaurants while noshing on delicacies such as blood sausage and stuffed potato pancakes dripping in oil. In England I drank pint after pint of real cask ale, as well as pint after pint of cheap lager mixed with cider. And Belgium… well, words can’t even describe it.

But my appreciation for beer was well honed before my trip. My appreciation for fine art, however, was severely lacking. Sure, I visited the great churches and cathedrals in every city I visited and was thoroughly stuck by the beauty of the architecture and decor. It wasn’t until Amsterdam, though, that I really started looking at the art. After a night of throwing back Heinekens with an Australian backpacker, I decided that I should see the works of Van Gogh. To my dismay, the Van Gogh Museum was closed for renovations. This was a blessing in disguise, so to speak. Because the museum was closed, most of the paintings were on loan at The Hermitage Amsterdam. So instead of just seeing the works of Van Gogh, I got to see an outstanding exhibition of the Hermitage’s impressionist paintings side-by-side with contemporary works in more traditional styles preferred by the French Academy.

In a single day, I learned more about fine art than I’d ever known. Monet, Laurens, and Renoir were transformed from “painters I’d heard of” into real people expressing deep and meaningful scenes across the ages. Works that I recognized from posters or book covers were suddenly put into their proper context. And by placing the works of the impressionists next to those of their contemporaries, I finally saw how impressionism was more than just a new style, it was a movement.

After that day I was hooked. From Amsterdam I went to Paris then on to Italy, spending hours and hours in their amazing museums. (musea?)  Don’t get me wrong; I am still no expert. As much as I loved seeing all of those amazing works, I am still mostly ignorant about fine art. In fact, when I got to the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican, I realized my greatest accomplishment as a student of art: I had seen original works by each of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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Beer of the week: Short Straw Farmhouse Red Ale – This beer is part of the “Expressionist Collection” from the Blue Moon Brewing Company. The label is pretty obviously inspired by Van Gogh. If I remember the brochure from the museum, Van Gogh is considered “post-impressionist” rather than “expressionist.” But I don’t really know what that means, so I’ll just review the beer. Blue Moon beers are brewed by MillerCoors, but mass-production does not always mean low quality. Unlike Blue Moon’s signature Belgian White, this beer is reddish-amber in color and very clear. The carbonation level is rather high (as the picture shows.) The aroma is a bit yeasty and floral. The taste is quite good. It is a little on the sweet side, but that is balanced nicely by a tart finish. The bottle mentions that the brewers use hibiscus, coriander, and white pepper. It may just be a trick of psychology, but after reading the label I found that I did taste a hint of pepper, especially on the back of my tongue. Overall, I think this is a pretty good beer.

Paintings of the week: Impressionists and Their Contemporaries: Six-Pack of Paintings – In lieu of a reading this week, I have selected a few of the paintings I was lucky enough to see on my trip. I have followed the Hermitage’s idea of placing impressionist paintings alongside roughly contemporary neoclassical and romantic paintings. Pour yourself a beer and really have a good look at these paintings. Notice how Renoir, Monet, and Pissaro present scenes that are absolutely complete, even without the extreme detail of the paintings by Gérôme, David, and Laurens. Marvel at the mastery Laurens had over light and shadow. Seriously, spend some time looking at each. When the David painting looks as blurry as the Renoir, you’ve had enough to drink.

Question of the week: Aristotle and others have philosophized on aesthetics. Horatio Greenough was both a sculptor and essayist on the subjects of art and architecture. And of course, Leonardo da Vinci did everything. Are there any fine artists who are also well known for their philosophic writings?


Cheese and Crackers!

“I’ll get my homework done later, geez!”
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, even euphemistically!”

I actually overheard an exchange substantially like that once. Until then, I could hardly have imagined a mother scolding her teen-aged child for such a thing. I had never even thought about the fact that “geez” is certainly a euphemism employed specifically to avoid saying “Jesus.” With a little thought, though, one could easily list quite a few very common euphemistic replacements: “gosh” for “God”, “darn” in place of “damn”, “heck” for “hell”, “son of a gun” for “son of a bitch”, “fudge” for…  In short, every expletive that you might use with children in the room.

But pervasive euphemisms are not limited to exclamations or insults. The the word “restroom” has long given the squeamish or polite an excuse to avoid saying “toilet” or any other descriptive term. (And who doesn’t prefer a woman who “powders her nose” to one who “shits”?) Some of these euphemisms have been in use so long that we’ve forgotten that they are not the original terms. For example, H.L. Mencken informs us that the word “rooster” only came into usage to avoid having to say the word “cock.”

In his book The American Language, Mencken explores the origins of many of these euphemisms and expletives and compares the American and British sensibilities. Slang is an excellent indicator that American English is thoroughly distinct from British English. (For a crude example on this point, ponder what it might mean “to bum a fag.”) I find The American Language especially interesting because language is constantly evolving and sensibilities are constantly changing along with them. The rapidity of these changes is astounding. A few short years ago, South Park positively could not be aired before 10 pm; last week, I saw a re-run before 10 am.

And even as some words become less and less taboo (remember that episode when the characters of South Park said “shit” over a hundred times?) other words become more taboo. The word “retard” is now considered so offensive that I’ve seen it censored when used in a technical sense other than mental retardation. Similarly, “crippled” has given way to “handicapped” or “disabled”, which have in turn given rise to the euphemisims “handicapable” and “differently abled.”

There are those who rail against such changes, but it is a natural part of the way language evolves. What is edgy or obscene can never remain the same because there are always people pushing and pulling at the limits of decency. Because of this constant flux, it is important to remember that the idea is what matters, not necessarily the word that is used to express it. So, by gosh, you’d better not take the Lord’s name in vain, even using euphemisms.

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Beer of the Week: National Bohemian Beer – H.L. Mencken is known as “The Sage of Baltimore” and was also an avid beer-drinker. These facts lead me to the conclusion that Mencken consumed his share of National Beer in his day. I too have had quite a few National Beers. Unlike almost every other American college*, at my college “light beer”** was rarely consumed. We drank Pabst, Miller High Life, and National Beer. In college I could buy a six-pack of National for $3 and I regarded this as a benchmark for price. In Baltimore, (euphemistically known as “The Land of Pleasant Living”,) this beer is called “Boh” or “Natty Boh” or “Bay Water”. But I prefer to call it National Beer, a name more familiar when it was still brewed in “Charm City”. The beer itself really is pretty awful. It is over carbonated and it smells of sour grains. It is not as watery and bland as most cheap beers, but this may not be an advantage since it really does not taste that good. But I’ll still drink it at Orioles games (if the Heavy Seas vendor is too far from my seat); after all, it is nostalgia in a can.

Reading for the Week: The American Language by H.L. Mencken, Chapter 22 Expletives and Forbidden Words – This reading is partially interesting because it is fun to see how much things have changed since the early 20th century. (“Unwell” apparently referred primarily to “women’s troubles” at one time.) It is also partially interesting to see how much things have stayed the same. (All sorts of internal problems are still called “stomach aches” even if the actual source of discomfort is in organs that we prefer not to mention by name.) And finally, it is interesting because there are so many exciting “cusswords” that I can’t wait to try out!

Question for the Week: How aware are you of all the euphemisms that you use from day to day?