Sincere Flattery

This is the seventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume VII: Confessions of St. Augustine and The Imitation of Christ

How fortuitous that Good Friday should happen to coincide with my reading of this volume of The Harvard Classics. But it occurs to me that not every reader of this blog is a Christian, and even those who are may not appreciate the import of Good Friday, St. Augustine, or The Imitation of Christ. And so, a quick review:

Good Friday – The Friday before Easter, the day on which Jesus Christ was executed by crucifixion. A day of solemnity and, for many Christians, fasting. Astute observers will notice that Friday is only two days before Sunday, despite the fact that many Christians talk of Jesus being “three days in the grave.” The origin of this apparent counting error is the expression “on the third day.” Jesus died on and was buried late on Good Friday (the first day), remained in the tomb for all of Holy Saturday (the second day) and was raised from the dead first thing in the morning on Easter Sunday (the third day). And so, he was raised on the third day, but was only entombed for one day and two nights.

Augustine of Hippo – Bishop, theologian, philosopher, and canon regular. According to the Wikipedia article about him, Augustine influenced “virtually all subsequent Western philosophy and theology.” He is also a patron saint of brewers.

The Imitation of Christ – An extremely popular Christian devotional book from the late medieval period. According to the introductory note to The Harvard Classics edition, “with the exception of the Bible, no Christian writing has had so wide a vogue or so sustained a popularity as this.” Although published anonymously (which nowise surprising, considering how emphatically the work emphasizes humility,) it is probably the work of Thomas à Kempis.

Thomas à Kempis – Probable author of The Imitation of Christ and a German-Dutch canon regular.

Canons regular – Priests who live communally under a common Rule, most often the Rule of St. Augustine. Distinct from monks in that canons are members of the clergy. In some cases, as at Tongerlo Abbey in Belgium, canons regular got quite good at brewing beer.

Beer – “Proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” – B. Franklin

Beer of the week: Tongerlo Blond – This history of Tongerlo beer begins with the canons regular of Tongerlo Abbey, so it is a particularly apt pairing with Thomas à Kempis. Tongerlo Blond is a bottle-conditioned ale from Haacht Brewery in Belgium. It is a pretty, copper-colored brew. The aroma is of yeast and malt, with hints of banana and honey. The flavor is a bit subdued, but it is quite good. 

Reading of the week: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis – The primary theme of this book is retreating from the world to seek spiritual self knowledge. “Better of a surety is a lowly peasant who serveth God, than a proud philosopher who watcheth the stars and neglecteth the knowledge of himself.”

Question for the week: Thomas writes that “the greater and more complete thy knowledge, the more severely shalt thou be judged.” Is this truly an warning against pursuing great learning, or is it simply a reminder that great learning comes with great responsibility?

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Tint in Translation

This is the sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume VI: Poems and Songs, Burns

One obvious observation about the Harvard Classics is the very heavy Anglo-American bias. This is evident even from the very first volume: Franklin, Woolman, Penn. None of those authors are indispensable in a set that purports to be a collection of essential readings for a basic liberal education, but all are Anglo-American. Whether Dr. Eliot’s reliance upon American and British authors is reasonable, it is at very least explainable.

The Harvard Classics was published for an American public, with the intent to provide the framework of a liberal education. As such, at least twa considerations favor American and British works over others.

In the first place, it makes sense that an American liberal education should focus on American thought and literature. If a similar project were undertaken in France, it would be shocking if more French authors and works were not included. The same would be true of Russia, or China, or any other nation or region. British authors similarly feature heavily in the Harvard Classics because the history of American thought and literature is inextricably linked with that of England. (William Penn is an instructive inclusion on this point; he is American in the sense that he is the founder and namesake of Pennsylvania, but he was an English gentleman his entire life.)

In the second place, the inclusion of American and British works avoids the serious problem of translation. The books, intended for an English-speaking public, must needs be in English. To the extent that Dr. Eliot was able to select works already in his native tongue, he was able to avoid the serious, and occasionally impossible, task of finding a good translation.

This consideration brings us to this week’s volume: the poems and songs of Robert Burns. On the one hand, Burns is an important part of the Anglo-American literary tradition. On the other hand, his most famous works were written in Scots. (The debate over whether Lowland Scots is a distinct language or merely a dialect must be put off for another day. For now, it is enough to note that it is has limited mutual intelligibility with English.) Although much of Burns’ Scots writing is clear enough for the average American Reader, his vocabulary often requires notes or a dictionary. For example, in The Twa Dogs, (the title of which, itself, is in Scots but is readily comprehensible,) some lines are practically straight English:

“Love blinks, Wit slaps, an’ social Mirth
Forgets there’s Care upo’ the earth.”

Some lines, however, are all but unintelligible without aide:

“At kirk or market, mill or smiddie,
Nae tawted tyke, tho’ e’er sae duddie,
But he wad stan’t, as glad to see him,
An’ stroan’t on stanes an’ hillocks wi’ him.”

And Burns is but one example of this sort of problem. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English can be a real struggle to understand. Even American authors who write in dialect can be a tough read. Consider this quotation from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:

“Oh, it’s de dad-blame’ witches, sah, en I wisht I was dead, I do. Dey’s awluz at it, sah, en dey do mos’ kill me, dey sk’yers me so. Please to don’t tell nobody ’bout it sah, er ole Mars Silas he’ll scole me; ‘kase he say dey AIN’T no witches. I jis’ wish to goodness he was heah now– DEN what would he say! I jis’ bet he couldn’ fine no way to git aroun’ it DIS time. But it’s awluz jis’ so; people dat’s SOT, stays sot; dey won’t look into noth’n’en fine it out f’r deyselves, en when YOU fine it out en tell um ’bout it, dey doan’ b’lieve you.”

Difficult to understand, perhaps, but fun.


Beer of the week: Magic Hat #9 – This Vermont beer is a very solid choice. It is clear and amber. The aroma is of malt and some sour, dark fruit. Apricot is certainly the star of the flavor, backed by bready malt. Even so, the beer is not overly sweet, just darn good. And I really dig that the 12 oz. bottle is labeled as “3/4 pint”.

Reading of the week: The Twa Dogs by Robert Burns – This poem is a great piece of satire by Burns. The dogs, one a farmers collie and the other a lord’s Newfoundland(?), discourse about how different the lives of the rich are from those of the poor.

Question for the week: Is it better to have copious notes, explaining even obvious words or analogies, or to have too few notes, requiring lots of guesswork?


Prime Examples

This is the fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume V: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a philosopher who held that the true philosophies of all great minds were intentionally hidden within their works. He posited that subtle references and hints in the works of Plato, Aristotle, etc. can guide careful readers to understand the real opinions of the authors, opinions that they had not dare explicitly express. There are some very fervent admirers of this philosophy. But others have called it a “philosophy of deception,” or “esotericism for the sake of esotericism.”

Even though I haven’t made a serious study of these notions, I do have a habit of looking somewhat askance at examples that are put forward in defense of an overt position. If, on closer examination, it turns out that an example does not really support the position, what then? Did the author simply pick a bad example out of laziness or mistake? Or, as these esoterically-minded thinkers would hold, are bad examples chosen deliberately to hint at an intent other than the explicit intent of the author?

Our questions may be explored with this quotation from Emerson:

“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.” – Emerson, The American Scholar

Seemingly, the examples of Cicero, Locke, and Bacon are wholly appropriate to support Emerson’s point that the young scholar must think for himself. For well over a thousand years, Cicero’s tracts had been mandatory educational reading, and had often been presented as if the student had a duty not only to learn from them, but to accept their views as his own. In fact, there is ancient graffiti from the city of Pompeii that reads, “you will like Cicero, or you will be whipped.”

These authors, however, are not actually good examples of “young men in libraries” who wrote books. Of Cicero’s writings, his early work is almost entirely in the form of speeches made as a legal advocate. His philosophical works were not written until near the end of his life. And although some of Locke’s early manuscripts were published posthumously, all of his major works were published after the age of fifty-five. Bacon’s Essays were first published when he was in his late thirties, and his New Organon (the most likely of his books for Emerson’s “meek young men” to pore over) was not published until he was nearly sixty.

Reading between the lines, what do these examples say about Emerson’s claim that the Western canon was written by “young men in libraries”?

Another trio of examples raises a similar question:

“[T]he highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought.” – Emerson, Self Reliance

Unless I am mistaken, this sentence is meant to convey that the highest merit in thought is to be original. In some respects, it is clear that Moses, Plato, and Milton were all highly original thinkers. The first five books of the Bible, including a large body of law that created a new and distinct society, are traditionally ascribed to Moses. Plato’s work, as I alluded to three weeks ago, has been fought over by philosophical schools seeking to claim his writings as their own foundation. And I recently heard an eminent scholar claim that Milton’s Paradise Lost is the nearest rival of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Still, these “original thinkers” are all have clearly identified outside sources. Moses, in particular, is striking as an example of originality. The writings attributed to Moses are traditionally viewed as divinely inspired. And this inspiration is not run-of-the-mill genius, but a direct transcription of the words of God. If what Moses wrote was essentially dictated to him by God, how are those ideas original to Moses? And how is it that Moses, of all people, “set at naught” tradition? Similarly, Plato’s corpus is composed primarily of dialogues that purport to express the philosophy of Socrates, not necessarily the philosophy of Plato himself. And although Milton certainly added a tremendous amount of material and emotion, his great poetic works are based on well-worn scriptural stories.

So why do we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton the highest merit, that of originality? Did they really set at naught books and traditions, and speak not what men but what they thought? Is Emerson trying to tell us something in code that he dare not tell us explicitly? Or is this a case of looking for esoteric meaning where there is none?

Beer of the week: Voodoo Ranger – New Belgium’s popular IPA has a lot going for it. It pours with a nice head that leaves decent lacing on the glass. The aroma is subtle, with citrusy hops. The beer is smooth, with a nice bitter bite at the end. And it is all balanced out with a hint of gingerbread.

Reading of the week: The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson – This section of the essay, originally given as a speech, is about the influence of books. Books are both the medium for “transmuting life into truth,” and a source of “grave mischief.” They must, therefore be read in a very particular way.

Question for the week: Is there really something hidden in Emerson’s choice of examples? Or, in looking for deeper meaning, do we just see what we want to see?


Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness

This is the fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IV: The Complete Poems in English by John Milton

Samson, the Old Testament character of prodigious strength, is an odd sort of hero. Like a Hebrew Hercules, he performed tremendous feats, but the moral of his story not altogether simple. Samson was quick to anger, cruel to animals, indiscriminate in his violence, and, worst of all, he drank nothing but water.

Samson was a Nazirite, which means that he was consecrated to God and made specific vows: In the first place, Nazirites vow to drink no wine. The second vow is to leave one’s hair uncut.  And finally, Nazirites vow to avoid ritual uncleanliness by coming in contact with the dead, including funerals.

How did Samson fare in attempting to keep his vows? As to the injunction against drinking wine, he appears to have followed through. Maimonides taught that alcohol is not forbidden for Nazirites, so long as it is not derived from grapes. But Samson’s version of this vow seems to be one of total abstention. Most English translations seem to follow The King James Version, stating that Samson was to “drink no wine nor strong drink.” Some more modern translations say that he was to avoid “wine or any other alcoholic drink.” The Contemporary English Version specifically includes beer. In the words of Milton, Samson’s “drink was only from the liquid brook.”

As for cutting his hair, Samson famously kept this vow until he was deceived by a prostitute called Delilah. She, then, cut his hair in his sleep, rendering him powerless. Having followed through on this part of the Nazirite vow was the source of his strength, and without his hair he was as weak as any other mortal.

And as for avoiding corpses, I am inclined to think that he did a terrible job. The Bible does not tell us about him attending funerals or strolling through cemeteries, but he killed a bunch of guys. And it seems to me that when he beat a thousand men to death with the jawbone of an ass, he got in plenty of corpse touching. I have heard it argued that at the time that he touched the Philistines, they were not yet dead, and that they only became dead after he touched them. This argument elevates form over substance. And, at any rate, that doesn’t account for the time that he killed thirty innocent men and stripped the clothing from their bodies to give to the people who figured out his stupid riddle. Stripping the clothes from dead men is most certainly NOT in keeping with the Nazirite’s vows.

If the goal of life is righteousness, then I think that the Nazirite vows may actually be a stumbling block. There is no doubt that the discipline and dedication required to follow though with the vows can be a valuable tool for contemplation and self-improvement. But if one simply follows through with the strictest literal interpretation of the vows, he risks achieving ritual purity without achieving righteousness. That is, the Nazirite vows are not the end. Samson followed the vows, but did that justify tying foxes together by their tails and lighting them on fire? Did leaving his hair uncut make it ok for him to frequent brothels? Is it ok to murder thirty men over a riddle, so long as he can do so and not break his vows? (And, again, I think it is important to emphasize that the men who were killed were not the ones who tricked his wife into giving up the solution to the riddle. They were presumably unaware of Samson’s reason for murdering them.)

And the fact that Samson lost his strength when his hair was cut seems to further this form over substance problem. Samson did not break his vow. His hair was cut while he was asleep. And yet, Samson lost his power and his favor from God because of what somebody else did. The power, it seems, was not even in the obedient dedication to God, but in the show of dedication – the hair itself. Without his long hair, nobody can tell that he is a Nazirite just by looking at him; he loses his strength, not because he broke his vow, but because he looks like he broke his vow. The appearance of righteousness is more important for Samson than inward righteousness.

In short, wouldn’t it be better to drink wine, sport a buzz-cut, attend funerals, and not be a violent psychopath?

Beer of the week: Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (2017) – This is an uncommonly strong beer to go with a reading about an uncommonly strong man. Every year, Goose Island releases it’s limited edition Bourbon County Brand line of beers. These special brews are aged in used bourbon barrels. The 2017 Barleywine is an excellent beverage. It is 14% alcohol, and it shows. But it is so smooth that the alcohol is warm but not harsh. The aroma has notes of vanilla. In the flavor there is a hint of pepper (from the bourbon barrel, perhaps.) Dark cherry is a stand-out in a very rich flavor profile. What a treat!

Reading of the week: Samson Agonistes by John Milton – Milton’s version of Samson attributes his downfall to a lack of wisdom, and a weakness for women: “what is strength without a double share of wisdom?” In this section of the tragic poem, Samson is talking with his father Manoa about the proper course of action now that he is imprisoned and blind. Certain of Manoa’s exhortations are reminiscent of Crito’s appeal to Socrates: “Repent the sin, but if the punishment Thou canst avoid, self-preservation bids.”

Question for the week: Ultimately, I think that my reading of the story of Samson is not the intended reading. Samson is meant to be a hero, not a cautionary tale about elevating religious form over virtuous substance. How can his story be read more charitably?


Champions for Truth

This is the third in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume III: Bacon, Milton, Browne

Imagine that you are in a debate, say, about politics or about who is the best third baseman of all-time. Then, a new interlocutor chimes in, and he is on your side! The problem, though, is that he is not very knowledgeable or articulate. As a result, he is doing you no favors by speaking up. In fact, he is setting your opponent up for easy points. If this guy would just shut up, you know that you could win this debate, but you are being forced to defend poorly thought-out and poorly expressed arguments rather than having the benefit of crafting your own.

This is not an unusual set of circumstances, especially in a world where such “discussions” take place in the form of nesting comments to an article or facebook post. But, of course, these circumstances are not new. Nearly 400 years ago, Sir Thomas Browne offered some advice on the subject that is still eminently applicable.

In the first place, chose whom you debate wisely: “Where we desire to be informed, ’tis good to contest with men above our selves; but to confirm and establish our opinions, ’tis best to argue with judgments below our own, that the frequent spoils and Victories over their reasons may settle in ourselves an esteem and confirmed Opinion of our own.”

Secondly, just because you are right doesn’t mean that you are equipped to defend your position: “Every man is not a proper Champion for Truth, nor fit to take up the Gauntlet in the cause of Verity: many from the ignorance of these Maximes, and an inconsiderate Zeal unto Truth, have too rashly charged the Troops of Error, and remain as Trophies unto the enemies of Truth. A man may be in as just possession of Truth as of a City, and yet be forced to surrender; ’tis therefore far better to enjoy her with peace, than to hazzard her on a battle.”

And finally, you may be firm in your opinions, but if you are intellectually honest, you should be willing to abandon those opinions entirely if presented with a better argument. And, as a consequence, you should not be upset with those who disagree with you (or those who agree with you, but for the wrong reasons): “I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion, or be angry with his judgment for not agreeing with me in that from which perhaps within a few days I should dissent my self.”

BBVanilla

Beer of the week: Breckenridge Vanilla Porter – Breckenridge Brewery is a personal favorite, and this offering does not disappoint. A lovely porter with lots of, but not too much, vanilla. It pours with a nice tan head, and the beer has a decent amount of body. A very good beer.

Reading of the week: Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne – Like so many good books, this tract on religion was banned by the Catholic Church. In this selection, Browne endeavors to distinguish heresies from “bare Errors, and single Lapses of understanding.”

Question for the week: Browne advocates debating our intellectual superiors to learn, and debating our intellectual inferiors to solidify and gain confidence in our positions. Is it easy to distinguish when we are trying to learn and when we are trying to build confidence? Aren’t their elements of both in most debates?