Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I own a few volumes of Great Books of the Western World from Encyclopædia Britannica. (And most of the volumes that I do not own I can get online for free curtesy of The University of Adelaide.) In fact, I suspect that at least half of the weekly readings on this blog can be found in that set.
Mortimer Adler, one of the minds behind the Great Books set, was very interested in the idea that liberal education was appropriate for everybody. Apparently, he kept up a correspondence with a plumber in Utah who had purchased his books. This man served as proof to Adler that an appreciation of and relationship with the Great Books is possible for anybody.
Adler was interested in his “philosophical plumber” because he showed that even in the average man there could be a philosophical soul. I have always enjoyed something of the opposite observation: that the lowly or crude can be found in the great works and their authors. From the schoolyard humor of Aristophanes, Swift, and Rabelais (all three of whom have works included in the Britannica set) to the scatological love notes of Joyce and Mozart. The real draw of these is how out of place and time they seem.
One of the real pleasures in life is finding something new and different where it is unexpected.
Beer of the week: Primátor 24% Double – One such surprise is finding a delicious double porter from a country that is known for its golden lagers. As far as I can tell, the percent symbol (%) on this label should actually be a degree symbol (°). The brewers at Pivovar Náchod apparently use a decent pile of malt to get the sugar content in this beer up to 24° Plato. So much sugar produces both a high alcohol content (10.5%) and a very sweet flavor. This double porter is a very dark brown with a creamy tan head that fades a bit too quickly for my liking. The high alcohol content is evident in the aroma. The flavor is predominantly sweet, almost like a fruit cake or a rum cake. It is a very rich, thick sweetness. Initially, this sweetness is nearly overpowering; I felt a pressing need to consume a salty snack to balance it out. After a while the alcohol content makes itself known by cutting through the sweetness and by imparting a pleasant flush to the face. The quality of this beer can’t be doubted, but it is hard to imagine when a beer this strong and sweet would be ideal.
Reading for the week: Cordas v. Peerless Transp. Co. decision by Judge Carlin – This 1941 court decision involves a mugging, a carjacking, and an entire family being hit by a taxicab with nobody behind the wheel. It is also very artfully written with many classical allusions and comical turns of phrase. It reminds one of a Wodehouse story. In the words of the Honorable Judge, the story is “a breath-bating drama with a denouement almost tragic.”
Question for the week: Why is it that things most catch our eye when they seem out of place?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
Could anything be less obvious? In all of the most visible ways, men are anything but equal. Some are strong, some are rich, some are intelligent. Very few are all three. In every measurable way, men are simply not created equal. In fact, the inequality of man has been carefully studied and tends to fall into a bell curve.
However, our societal dedication to the idea that everybody should be equal has occasionally resulted in efforts to “rectify” natural inequalities. This can be done either by giving the disadvantaged a leg-up or by handicapping the advantaged. But both of these remedies miss the real meaning of equality in American society.
The way in which all men are created equal is “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Everyone, regardless of his strength or wealth or intelligence, is possessed of equal rights. It is our rights that make us equal, and attempting to achieve other, less meaningful equalities by modifying our fundamental rights is a dangerous mistake.
Beer of the week: Daisy Cutter Pale Ale – This is a delicious and popular pale ale from Half Acre Beer Co. in Chicago. Daisy Cutter is a slightly hazy, amber beer. The aroma is of floral hops with a hint of pine. The body is pleasant and malty with a good hops kick that leaves a pleasant tingle. Overall, this is a very well balanced and very tasty brew.
Reading for the week: The History of Rome by Livy – In much of the English-speaking world, “tall poppy syndrome” refers to a collective desire to disparage or attack the most successful or prominent members of society. This reading contains the origin of that expression: symbolic advice to strike off the heads of the tallest poppies.
Question for the week: Is there a minimum sort of equality in strength/wealth/intelligence required to exercise the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
The Confederate battle flag was ceremoniously lowered from the South Carolina Capitol this morning. The democratic process worked as well as it ever does. A duly elected legislature voted to remove the banner from the government-owned building. Nothing to it.
But the debate over flying the flag on state property has spilled into questions about whether businesses should be allowed to sell the Confederate battle flag or whether private citizens should be able to fly the flag on their own property.
Recently, Scott Hancock, an associate professor at Gettysburg College proffered a novel solution to the “problem” of people flying the Confederate flag in their own yard. If he had his way, the town government would pass an ordinance defining what the flag stands for. He does not propose any specific wording for this ordinance, but his suggestion would apparently be along the lines of: “It is hereby ordered that the Confederate battle flag shall be understood to represent treason, racism, and chattel slavery, and that the flying of said flag shall be seen as an endorsement of same.”
Before going into why Professor Hancock’s proposal is a bad one, I would like to acknowledge a few important points that he is correct about. First, he acknowledges that freedom of speech (like all of the rights that are primary to the American way of life) is a negative right. This means that the power of speech is not something that the government gives to its citizens, but something which it cannot take away. He also acknowledges that the most reasonable and effective method of dealing with the objectionable speech of others is to simply ignore it. Beyond these points, however, Professor Hancock seems to be profoundly misguided.
The most obvious mistake that the professor makes is the determination that a simple majority of people are capable of determining what a word or symbol “means” to everybody. Perhaps in the realm of the purely utilitarian, such is the case. A simple majority could, by democratic vote, determine that a red octagon posted at an intersection means “cars approaching this intersection must stop and yield right-of-way.” But private speech cannot be so restricted. If the legislature passed an ordinance that defined the word “swag” as only “such plunder as is carried off by pirates”, that would have no effect on how frat boys and rappers use the word or what they mean when they say it.
When Professor Hancock says that the Confederate flag does not represent bravery in battle, camaraderie among brothers-at-arms, or an independent spirit, what he is really saying is that the flag does not mean that to him. To everybody who flies the flag with the intention of conveying the aforementioned virtues, the flag absolutely does represent them. And just because one person does not agree with that interpretation of a symbol does not mean that he can legislate what the symbol means for everybody, even if he has a majority on his side.
To paraphrase Wittgenstein, a symbol’s meaning is in its use. If person A flies the Confederate flag to show his pride in the independent spirit of the South or to express his belief that states’ rights are primary to national sovereignty, that is what the flag stands for. If person B views the flag and does not (or chooses not to) understand A’s meaning, then there has simply been a breakdown in the language game. B cannot declare unilaterally that A was the cause of the miscommunication and create new rules to suit his own understanding.
Beer of the week: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA – This strong, clear IPA is quite good. It is also very, very hoppy. In fact, the first sip was so hoppy that I was a bit overwhelmed by the strong aftertaste. As I kept drinking, however, I found that the beer actually has a strong malt backbone under all of that hops. Once I got over the initial bitterness I found that this beer is actually quite well balanced.
Reading for the week: Philosophical Inquiries by Ludwig Wittgenstein, §40-47 – This reading shows how we have to be careful in attempting to define the “meaning” of words or symbols. If I say “The Confederate battle flag ‘means’ a certain piece of fabric, red with a starry blue cross,” I am saying something quite different from “The Confederate battle flag ‘means’ slavery, oppression, freedom, or history.” Even the meaning of the word meaning is not unequivocal!
Question for the week: Rather than an ordinance defining the Confederate battle flag as something bad, why not pass an ordinance defining the Confederate battle flag as the official flag of racial harmony? Wouldn’t that be likely to have a more positive result?
When I read that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was to be executed for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing, I immediately scrolled down to the comments. I was not surprised at what I found, but a little dismayed.
The bulk of the comments were to the effect that death was too good for Tsarnaev. That he should be made to suffer the same physical injuries that his victims suffered. That the pain he inflicted upon others should be revisited upon his person several times over. No comments that I read advocated anything that resembled compassion, rehabilitation, or even a quick, clean removal of Tsarnaev from our mortal company.
The very beginning of Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault illustrates the cultural shift from public executions and corporal punishment to “improved” and “humane” execution methods and rehabilitation. Brutal public executions used to be the norm for the administration of capital punishment. However the object of the penal system, Foucault observes, has shifted from the body of the condemned to the soul or the rights of the condemned. It is true, of course, that when a person locked in a cell, his body is necessarily involved. However, the purpose of locking up a convict is to take away his liberty, not to punish his body. The same is true of modern capital punishment. The purpose of execution is to take away the condemned’s right to live, not to destroy his body. Although the body is necessarily destroyed by execution, the intent of the act is simply to remove life, not to inflict pain.
This is why the guillotine was designed to instantly sever the head. This is why the hangman measured the rope so that the drop would break the convict’s neck. And this is why, when Tsarnaev is ultimately killed, it will be by injection with a series of chemicals, the first of which will put him to sleep. The separation of body and soul that happens literally with the stopping of Tsarnaev’s heart first happens figuratively when the executioner administers the first dose of chemicals. It is Tsarnaev’s right to live that is being taken by the state; the adverse effects on the body are collateral.
Beer of the week: Conduct of Life – The most innovative gifts that my bride and I received for our wedding was a cooler full of “Vermont beer rarities and esoterica.” Among these special brews was this hazy, unfiltered American pale ale from Hill Farmstead Brewery. The aroma has hints of lemon and pineapple. The beer is smooth and well balanced, though dominated by citrusy hops. It is quite a delicious beer.
Reading of the week: In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka – By the time I was a few pages into Discipline and Punish, I could not stop thinking about this short story by Kafka. The question of what role the body of the condemned has in the penal system is central to this story, as is the shift away from corporal punishment toward… well… something else.
Question of the week: To what extent can capital punishment be divorced from corporal punishment? Would execution be more humane if the condemned never saw it coming?