Holy See, Wholly Do!

There are more forms of intoxication than alcohol induced drunkenness. And I am not referring to drugs. “Drunk with power” is more than fanciful speech. Euphoria after exercise is a kind of intoxication. Byron suggested music as an intoxicant. Baudelaire advocated poetry and even virtue for a reliable high. But these other sorts of intoxicants can be quite as dangerous as any drug.

Three coincident events led me to consider the dangers of such intoxicants. First, I started receiving Lapham’s Quarterly. Lapham’s is a literary magazine that includes a very wide range of excerpts and poems. I feel confident that more than a few readings on this blog will be inspired by Lapham’s. Second, Pope Francis is visiting the United States until Sunday evening. And finally, the recent Republican debates have spent a fair bit of time focused on how to “deal with” ISIS and Iran.

These may seem unrelated, but in one of the back issues of Lapham’s there was an excerpt from Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions about Pope Urban II riling the people to war in the Holy Land. History repeats itself and, as Da Vinci said, “everything connects to everything else.”

Two particularly dangerous intoxicants are combined in Mackay’s story: personality cult and military adventurism. Some people are positively enraptured by the presence of a strong personality who has a way with words. And some people seek the thrill of conquest as incessantly as any junkie seeks his next fix. These two intoxicants are often combined with disastrous results. Among the greatest classical examples is the failed Sicilian Expedition by Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Alcibiades was a captivating figure and was able to stir the Athenians so thoroughly up that they neglected wiser advice and set about the course of events that would eventually see their own city fall into enemy hands.

Luckily, the current pontiff is not rallying the people to war. But his popularity, even among non-Catholics, is worthy of critical examination. Many people who see him on his American visit are genuinely ecstatic. And like all intoxication, intoxication with a personality can cloud one’s judgement.

More dangerous, probably, are the Republican presidential hopefuls (to say nothing of the equally dangerous Democratic hopefuls.) They aspire to have their own personality cults. Some of the candidates are already cult figures in some circles. And since the politics of the United States is war, there is little doubt that whoever wins will drum up military adventures that intoxicate the thrill seekers and zealots.

Some drugs are safer than others, and I wouldn’t take a sip of any drink that was mixed by somebody I don’t trust.

Svyturys Ekstra
Beer of the week: Svyturys Ekstra – Lithuania has been a predominantly Catholic nation since the relatively successful Northern Crusades, when the Pope Celestine III declared holy war against the Baltic pagans. Catholicism was officially forbidden during the period of USSR control, but it has bounced back considerably. (Astute readers will have noticed that the map in this photo predates the dissolution of the Soviet Union, so Lithuania is not displayed as an independent nation.) Svyturys Ekstra is straw colored. There is not much aroma to speak of, except a little sweet grass and citrus. Malty sweetness dominates the flavor, with biscuit notes and a hint of tart bitterness at the end.

Reading of the week: Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions by Charles Mackay – “Urban the Second,” writes Mackay, “was one of the most eloquent men of the day.” The pope expertly rallied an eager crowd to war in a distant land. Promising salvation for fighting the infidels yielded an unexpected result (although in hind-sight a quite natural one.) Sure of their absolution, the crusaders engaged in all manner of vice and debauchery.

Question of the week: Moderate consumption of alcohol is not unhealthy, what about a moderate indulgence in getting intoxicated by personality?

Measure Of All Things

Last week’s question included an uncited quotation from H. L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy. Mencken mocked “Rousseau’s noble savage, in smock and jerkin, brought out of the tropical wilds to shame the lords and masters of the civilized lands.” How silly it seems to attribute such modern notions to man in a “state of nature.” (To be fair to Rousseau, he did not describe his “noble savage” as wearing anachronistic clothing, but his behavior and very nature were anachronistic.)

It is not likely to be a coincidence that Mencken’s delightfully caustic writing on the subject mirrors some ideas expressed in harsher terms by Friedrich Nietzsche. Mencken was a great admirer and translator of the mustachioed Saxon.

Nietzsche identified the traditional error of philosophers as the tendency to base a complete philosophical system on contemporary man. The problem is that contemporary man is a very small sample of all humanity. Since Rousseau had no way of knowing what primitive man was like, he simply attributed to primitive man the qualities of contemporary man. But man has been evolving for far longer than the few thousands of years of which we have written accounts. And, perhaps more importantly, man continues to evolve, even as we observe him. So what can we learn about constant, universal truths by first misattributing consistency to ever-evolving man?

Protagoras announced that “man is the measure of all things”, but what good is a measurement if the scale keeps changing?

Beer of the week: Ciuc Pils – This Romanian pilsner is very pale and very bubbly. The aroma is of sweet, cheap grain. There is not a whole lot to be said for the flavor. It is inoffensive, but not particularly good. It is always fun to try a beer from different countries, but there is probably a reason why Romanian beer is not more popular.

Reading for the week: Human, All Too Human, The Traditional Error of Philosophers by Friedrich Nietzsche – This paragraph, describing how philosophers err in assuming that there is something eternal about man, is part of the foundation of a book in which (to quote Mencken yet again) Nietzsche “showed that moral ideas were not divine, but human, and that, like all things human, they were subject to change.”

Question for the week: Does Nietzsche go too far? Is there nothing about humanity that is fixed and eternal?

Govern Less

Everybody ought to be familiar with Thoreau’s motto: “That government is best which governs least.” But does assessment not depend on what government is and where it comes from?

One understanding of the origin of government is the banding together of individuals for their common defense. “If every man has the right of defending, even by force, his person, his liberty, and his property,” writes Frédéric Bastiat, “a number of men have the right to combine together, to extend, to organize a common force, to provide regularly for this defense.” A government so organized may only do what each individual could legitimately do himself. And if the action of government is properly limited to the common defense, it is surely the best government that needs to act the least.

Such a government could not take from one group of citizens to line the pockets of another group any more than an individual could steal from his neighbor. Neither could such a government subsidize a given industry any more than an industrialist could demand that his neighbors fund the building of his new factory. When these things are done by individuals, they are called theft and extortion, so why should they be permitted on a larger scale?

But the idea that government sprang from the collective right of self defense is not universally accepted. John Stuart Mill identifies the origin of government (or at least most governments) as separate from “the people”. In many instances, government did not derive from organized self defense of the governed but from conquest of the strong over the weak. Such governments were “in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people whom they ruled.”

Again, is it not clear that Thoreau’s maxim holds true? At least for those who are subjugated by the hostile ruling class, the government is best which governs (or, if you prefer, subjugates) least.

The twist is that when the people take control of the government, either from the beginning as Bastiat suggests or after popular uprisings occur as identified by Mill, they almost invariably go beyond the scope of simple defense. The tyranny of the majority is every bit as dangerous as the outside forces that Bastiat’s society banded together to defend against. The majority is also every bit as dangerous as the conquering rulers that subjugated Mill’s society.

It seems that however the government comes to be, Thoreau hit the nail on the head.

Granola Shambler

Beer of the week: Berghoff Granola Shambler – It is still technically summer, and it is still warm out, so pumpkin beers can wait. A radler (also known as a shandy) is usually beer mixed with a soft drink such as pop or lemonade. Traditionally, the base beer is a cheap pale lager. Berghoff has attempted to make their radler a bit more fancy. First, they brew the beer with wheat, oats, rye, and barley malt to get a full, rich base. Then they add grape juice and citrus fruits for a refreshing tang. Personally, I think that the amount of fruit they use is over the top. But I do like the idea of trying to make a high-end shandy.

Reading for the week: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill – Language is always equivocal, so it is important to start any serious work with definitions. On Liberty starts with the definition of liberty, not as freedom of will, but freedom from tyranny.

Question for the week: Is the organization of government for the common defense, like “Rousseau’s noble savage in smock and jerkin”, merely a fanciful tale to explain the creation of government?

Heavy Lifting

Plenty of people advocate physical exercise in the morning. Exercise in the morning has a way of waking up the body. After a morning run or weight lifting session, one feels energized and alert and ready to face the day.

My morning routine of late has included not only physical exercise, but also mental exercise. After I run and shower, I sit down with my copy of The Bones. The Bones is a pocket companion to Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. It contains all of the propositions and diagrams of the Elements, without the extended proofs. Without the proofs in front of me, I am forced to remember (if I am lucky) or work though how the propositions function and build upon each other. It is occasionally quite difficult, but always a great mental exercise to prepare my mind for an active day.

In the introduction to his famous translation of the Elements, Oliver Byrne claims that the “sublime science” of geometry is “better calculated than any other to call forth the spirit of inquiry, to elevate the mind, and to strengthen the reasoning faculties.” Is it any wonder that starting the day with a few propositions serves as the perfect intellectual exercise to invigorate the mind?


Beer of the week: La Trappe Quadrupel – The International Trappist Association certifies beers as “Authentic Trappist Products.” To qualify the beers must be brewed inside the walls of a monastery, any proceeds that go beyond maintenance of the monks and the monastery must go to charity, and the beer has to be of “irreproachable quality.” And this beautiful, red/amber ale is the first “Authentic Trappist” reviewed for this blog. As a quadruple, this ale has an alcohol content of 10%. The flavor is rich and full, with notes of very ripe fruit. The alcohol does make itself felt in the end, but not in a harsh way.

Reading for the week: The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid, translated by Oliver Byrne – Like Trappist beer, Oliver Byrne was born in the Netherlands. In his introduction Byrne explains that his intention in translating Euclid is to “assist the mind in its researches after truth.”

Question for the week: There are also those who advocate exercise at other times of day, are there advantages to performing the mental labor of geometry at the end of the day?