Philosophers in the Rain

In his Notes on Democracy, H. L. Mencken applies his outrageous wit to the idea that gentlemen ought to go into politics to drive out the mountebanks (and for good measure, he describes the 19th Amendment prohibition on alcohol as a barrier to good men ever being elected):

Thus the ideal of democracy is reached at last: it has become a psychic impossibility for a gentleman to hold office under the Federal Union, save by a combination of miracles that must tax the resourcefulness even of God. The fact has been rammed home by a constitutional amendment: every office-holder, when he takes oath to support the Constitution, must swear on his honour that, summoned to the death-bed of his grandmother, he will not take the old lady a bottle of wine. He may say so and do it, which makes him a liar, or he may say so and not do it, which makes him a pig. But despite that grim dilemma there are still idealists, chiefly professional Liberals, who argue that it is the duty of a gentleman to go into politics—that there is a way out of the quagmire in that direction. The remedy, it seems to me, is quite as absurd as all the other sure cures that Liberals advocate. When they argue for it, they simply argue, in words but little changed, that the remedy for prostitution is to fill the bawdyhouses with virgins. My impression is that this last device would accomplish very little: either the virgins would leap out of the windows, or they would cease to virgins.

Read it again; I’ll wait.

His acerbic, cynical, and supremely clever writing will never get old. Unfortunately, it is really easy to let his delivery overshadow the message. There is much more to Mencken’s writing than bons mots. It is, I think, no coincidence that this quotation comes from a section of the book entitled Utopia. That word, naturally, has entered the English language by way of Thomas More’s philosophical fiction of the same name. In Utopia, the main character, Raphael Hythloday, expresses an opinion very similar to Mencken’s (although his presentation is not quite as humorous):

[A philosopher who joins the advisers to the king] will find no occasions of doing any good—the ill company will sooner corrupt him than be the better for him; or if, notwithstanding all their ill company, he still remains steady and innocent, yet their follies and knavery will be imputed to him; and, by mixing counsels with them, he must bear his share of all the blame that belongs wholly to others.

Raphael does not give up on the philosopher having a positive effect on politics, however. He claims that many philosophers have done their part to improve governance by writing books, “if those that are in power would but hearken to their good advice.” It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see More winking very emphatically at any ruler who happens to pick up Utopia.

To my knowledge, Mencken never made any similar statement. But if he didn’t believe something along those lines, why did he write on politics at all?

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Beer of the Week: Long Trail IPA – The India Pale Ale was invented to survive the long sea voyage from Great Britain to India. Extra alcohol and extra hops both acted to preserve the beer on its voyage. Raphael was a few centuries too early (and a fictional character,) but he surely would have appreciated having a supply of IPA for his long journey two the distant island of Utopia. And this Vermontonian IPA is a really tasty example of the style. It is unfiltered, just as the original India Pale Ales would have been. The aroma is dominated by floral hops. The flavor has hints of citrus and even a bit of caramel malt can be tasted through the hops. Many American brewers get overexcited about making their IPAs as bitter and hoppy as possible, but Long Trail has crafted a beer with a very good balance of flavors.

Reading for the Week: Utopia by Thomas More – Before the quotation above, Raphael Hythloday presents just how ridiculous he would seem in the court of the king of France. Where other advisers would advocate war, deceit, conquest, and financial trickery, he would advise peace, reform, and justice. And he’d be laughed out of the capital.

Question for the Week: Would it make any difference if, rather than being an adviser to the king of France, Raphael spoke of being a member of the American president’s cabinet?

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