Gods and Devils

This is the forty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLVI: Elizabethan Drama 1

Part of the problem of deifying or vilifying political leaders is that each approach dehumanizes its subjects. History’s greatest and most powerful men were, after all, only human. None were gods; none were devils. To think of them as anything but human is misleading and dangerous.

The classic example is Hitler. He was a bad guy, to say the least. But to think of him as evil incarnate or some other non-human abstraction is particularly dangerous because it creates the false impression that such a man could not come to power again. By ignoring Hitler’s humanity, we lower our guard against the next Hitler, and perhaps inadvertently foster the conditions under which such a person may come to be.

For the same reasons, it is dangerous to deify leaders that we like. No matter who your favorite political figure is, that person is, underneath it all, an ordinary person. And like everybody else, that person is subject to passions, temptations, and personal flaws. And when a political hero is a living person, there is the dangerous temptation to grant them unlimited power on the assumption that they can and will wield it with superhuman competency and trustworthiness.

Beer of the week: Smithwicks Red Ale – When the nobles pressured Edward II of England to exile his favorite, Gaveston, he made him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. This red-brown ale comes from that very island. It has an aroma of toasted malt. The flavor is nicely balanced between that toasted malt and a bit of hops bitterness.

Reading of the week: Edward the Second by Christopher Marlowe – This scene shows Edward II of England as neither saint nor devil. He is misled by ambitious underlings and lets his affection for his favorites interfere with his decision-making. But that does not render him totally incompetent. The rebellion that ultimately leads to his downfall is a back-and-forth affair; at one point Edward captures and executes several of the leading nobles, nearly ending the revolt.

Question for the week: What is the best defense against the worst people coming to power?



This is the forty-fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLV: Sacred Writings 2

It is the time of the year when we celebrate the birth of a god in human form who would later overcome death. The god-man’s was a virgin birth, foretold by angels and prophets. The birth occurred en route to his earthly parent’s familial home. I refer, of course, to the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, Buddha. Or Jesus Christ. Or both.

Aside from the similarities alluded to above, there is a great deal in common between Christianity and Buddhism. But is that because they share a common source, one religion influenced the other, or mere coincidence?

One of the core beliefs of the Baha’i faith is that all of the world’s major religions, including Christianity and Buddhism, were divinely inspired for their specific places and times. Consequently, the similarities between these religions are no mere coincidence. Each religion is revealed and shares in the universal and essential points. Those issues upon which the religions differ are simply minor details to adapt the one true religion to various times and places.

The Baha’i point of view, of course, has never amounted to a majority, let alone a consensus. Generally, it appears that similarities between Christianity and Buddhism are mere coincidences for the most part, and generally more superficial than they may seem. In fact, the term “parallelomania” was coined specifically to give a name to authors taking such apparent similarities between religions too far.

Still, it is certainly worth considering what leads disparate people to arrive at similar religious tenants. “In their later developments Buddhist and Christian ceremonies show an extraordinary resemblance due in my opinion chiefly to convergence,” wrote Sir Charles Eliot, a British diplomat to the Far East. (Not to be confused with Dr. Charles Eliot, president of Harvard and editor of the Harvard Classics.) “[T]hough I do not entirely exclude mutual influence.”

Perhaps, rather than some direct or indirect interaction between Christians and Buddhists, that “mutual influence” is some deeply embedded aspect of the human psyche. Something about Christmas (and Buddha’s Birthday, and countless other religious beliefs and observances) strikes a chord within us all.

Beer of the week: Chang Classic – Aside from China, Thailand has the largest Buddhist population in the world. This Thai lager has some nice herbal hops in the aroma. It pours a clear, pale gold, with lots of big bubbles that fade fast. The flavor is a bit sweet, dominated by adjunct grain. It could do with a bit more hops, but it is a light and refreshing beer.

Reading of the week: The Birth of Buddha – This story is translated from the Jātaka tales. These stories describe some of Buddha’s many births, in both human and animal form.

Question for the week: Is there some important aspect shared by all religion?

The Gentle and the Vulgar

This is the forty-fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLIV: Sacred Writings 1

The structure of the Analects, or Sayings of Confucius, is not entirely clear to me. Some chapters apparently deal with more or less specific themes. For example, Chapter X is a description of Confucius’s character and habits. Other chapters, such as Chapter XV, seem to be mere collections of thoughts and precepts without any particular organizing principle. As such, it is rather difficult to know how much the order of the sayings matters. However, it as only fair to assume that somebody thought that the structure was important, otherwise, why should the sayings be in the order that they are?

Assuming, then, that the sayings were purposefully ordered, two adjacent lines in Chapter XV stand out to me:

The Master said: “A gentleman fears lest his name should die when life is done.”

The Master said: ‘A gentleman looks within: the vulgar look unto others.”

I gather that “gentleman” here is “junzi” or “prince”. However, unlike the original meaning of “prince” as the hereditary heir to the throne, the word is used throughout the Analects to signify an ideal moral actor. Confucius appears to have favored a system of meritocracy, where morally superior men of any birth-status could rise to prominence. One goal — perhaps the primary goal — of the Analects is to instruct readers on how to be junzi.

Line 15.19 makes it appear that reputation matters to the gentleman, even after death. However, given the idea of the gentleman as an ideal moral actor, he would not merely want to be remembered, but to leave a legacy of being righteous. He would not want to be remembered for any act or characteristic that is inconsistent with the well-deserved status as “junzi.”

However, 15.19 seems to be at odds with 15.20.

In 15.20, Confucius contrasts the gentleman with “the vulgar.” It appears that Chinese word can also be rendered as “the small man” or “the petty man”. Throughout the Analects, the small man is given as a counterexample to the gentleman. Unlike the ideal morality of the gentleman, the small man’s ethical vision is narrow and self-serving. While the gentleman is inclusive, the small man is partisan. While the the gentleman seeks the good, the small man seeks profit. And so on.

It could be that 15.20 merely extols self-sufficiency; the gentleman is self-sufficent, while the small man relies on — or even leeches off of — others. However, read in conjunction with 15.19, it seems that the gentleman “looks within” for validation of his own worth. That is, he judges himself based on his own (proper) ethical standards, while the small man requires the validation of others. The problem, of course, is that the “others” to whom the small man looks are most likely vulgar themselves. In short, a gentleman takes little stock in public opinion of him because he holds himself to a different (and better) standard. The small man, desirous of public approval, is willing to debase himself for the sake of popularity. This reading is similar to the argument in Plato’s Republic that it is better to be good-but-reviled than to be lauded as good but actually not be. Though all the world think ill of you, it is better to know that you are good in your own heart than to succumb to the wrong public opinion of what is good.

But if that reading of 15.20 is correct, what sort of legacy can the gentleman hope to leave behind in 15.19? Who will remember the gentleman if he has has taken no particular stock of his public reputation? It seems possible that, worse than not being remembered at all, the gentleman will be remembered poorly by the vulgar masses because they lack the capacity to properly judge his virtue.

One way to reconcile the apparent contradiction between these sayings is that the gentleman ought to take stock of the opinions of other gentlemen. The gentleman in 15.19 is anxious to be remembered, not by the masses, but by other righteous men. And the small man’s error in 15.20 is seeking the approval of the vulgar, rather than the approval of his betters. That reconciliation is somewhat unsatisfying because it makes 15.20 appear to be an incomplete thought. Although the gentleman should “look within”, he should also be conscious and sensitive to the opinions of other gentlemen. Although the approval of others should not drive his actions, it may be a useful tool in determining whether his own opinion of himself is accurate.

Beer of the week: Busch Beer – This extremely pale macro lager is a bit of a surprise. It has the classic cheap beer smell and taste, but without much or any of the bad off notes. There is a bit of corn in the flavor, but none of the stickiness or sharp tastes that often come with that. For what it is, Busch Beer is a totally serviceable brew.

Reading of the week: The Sayings of Confucius, Chapter XV – This chapter also includes such gems as “A gentleman does not raise a man for his words, nor scorn what is said for the speaker,” and “Do not do unto others what thou wouldst not they should do unto thee.”

Question for the week: How important is it to leave a legacy?

Erik’s Sons Were First

This is the forty-third in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLIII: American Historical Documents

As a member of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Michael Angelo Musmanno set a record for most dissenting opinions filed by a justice. In fact, it only took him a few years to write more dissenting opinions than all of the other justices on the court had collectively written in the previous 50 years.

Musmanno was, in a word, quarrelsome. He was extremely vocal about his opinions of Nazis, Communists, jazz music, and Henry Miller. But what really fired him up was Vikings. He hated Vikings. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “nothing aroused his volatile Italian temper so much as any claim that Christopher Columbus did not discover America.”

To refute arguments that Icelanders, rather than Columbus, reached North America first, Musmanno wrote a book called Columbus Was First. Of course, we now know that he was wrong. Vikings certainly reached North America around 500 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In 1960, ruins of a Norse settlement were discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, confirming Mussmano’s secret fear.

But why was Musmanno so certain about something beyond his ken? At least partially, it was racial pride. Musmanno was deeply invested in Italian-American advancement. If it turned out that the Italian hero Columbus was a half-millennium late to the party, that would be bad for the cause. But Musmanno probably fought so hard on the side of error mostly because he was a quarrelsome jerk who wanted to impose his own opinion on everyone and everything.

As it turns out, the Vikings who beat Columbus to the punch were, themselves, racist and belligerent. According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, the first encounter between the Vikings and Native Americans (whom the Vikings called “Skrellings”) did not go well. The Norsemen killed eight of the first nine natives they encountered. Ultimately the norse settlement of North America failed because of violent conflicts with the natives and because of the Vikings’ inability to live peacefully even among themselves. Maybe Musmanno would have found kindred spirits in the ancient Viking settlers, had he only given them a chance.

Beer of the week: Zhygulivske Lager – This beer from Ukraine’s Obolon Brewery is named for the beer of the Soviet Union. On the label appears to be a Viking longship (for some reason.) Zhygulivske is an amber-colored lager. The aroma is faint, but pleasant and malty. The flavor follows the smell. I can’t pronounce it, but I sure can drink it.

Reading of the week: Saga of the Greenlanders – The Harvard Classics appears to incorrectly identify this text as part of the Saga of Eric the Red. Although both sagas tell of the discovery of Vinland, they are distinct texts with some key differences.

Question for the week: Does the Viking “discovery” of North America really diminish thr achievements of Columbus?