Fitting the Crime

This is the twenty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXVI: Continental Drama

What do John Wilkes Booth, Marcus Junius Brutus, and William Tell have in common? That question would hardly need answering if not for the fact that so many people only remember William Tell for shooting an apple off of his son’s head. Aside from that spectacular display of marksmanship, Tell’s truly remarkable act was the assassination Hermann Gessler, the Austrian governor in Switzerland. And like every other political assassin, Tell had his reasons.

In Friedrich Schiller’s dramatization of the Tell legend, Gessler is a cruel despot. The law that drives the plot of the story is one which makes it a capital offense not to kneel before Gessler’s hat, hung upon a pole. It is the enforcement of this draconian rule that brings Gessler and Tell into conflict.

By the way, the word “draconian”, like so many other words, enjoys popular usage without its origin being generally well-known. Draco was a legislator, but not a tyrant. Just about 2,600 years ago, he promulgated the first written legal code for the city of Athens. And the Draconian Code was a doozy.

According to Plutarch, “Draco’s laws… were too severe, and the punishment[s] too great; for death was appointed for almost all offences, insomuch that those that were convicted of idleness were to die, and those that stole a cabbage or an apple to suffer even as villains that committed sacrilege or murder. So that Demades, in after time, was thought to have said very happily, that Draco’s laws were written not with ink but blood; and he himself, being once asked why be made death the punishment of most offences, replied, ‘Small ones deserve that, and I have no higher for the greater crimes.'”

Anyway, Gessler was cruel, particularly in his treatment of fathers. For failing to kneel to a hat, Tell was forced to choose between execution and shooting an apple off of his son’s head. Another father was blinded for not informing on his son. It’s clear that to Schiller and the Swiss who regard Tell as a hero, one’s allegiance to family is far more important than one’s allegiance to civil authority. A hierarchy of values that Gessler, like most civil authorities, resented.

Beer of the week: Wolters Pilsner – Tell was Swiss and his son was called Walter. This beer is German and is called Wolters. Close enough? I want to like Wolters more. The brand was acquired by the international beer behemoth InBev a while back, but has since become independent once again. Unfortunately they make a pretty average German pils. It is pale gold, with a quickly fading head of large bubbles. The aroma is faint, and primarily of malt. Nothing special. Also, it’s been a while since I complained about the “German Purity Law” as a marketing gimmick, but this beer is another offender. “Hops extract” was almost certainly not invented yet when the Reinheitsgrebot was enacted, yet it is an ingredient in this beer that is purportedly “brewed in strict accordance to the German Purity Law.” (Which, by the way, is not draconian, because it is not enforced at all.)

Reading of the week: William Tell by Friedrich Schiller, Act One, Scene One – Although Gessler is clearly the villain of the play, the Swiss may have driven him to his cruelty. The first act of defiance by Tell is helping the murderer of a government official escape justice. (To be fair, we learn that the murder was committed in response to “unseemly overtures” the official had made to the killers wife, which lends further support to the reading that the real moral of the play is to prioritize familial loyalty over obedience to civil authority.) But everybody that the murderer encounters in this scene approves of the killing and is willing to aid him in making his escape. Gessler must rule with an iron fist if the people will not even consent to the prosecution of an axe murderer. (Did I mention that the murder was committed by cleaving the official’s skull with an axe?)

Question of the week: Criminal penalties generally serve four purposes: rehabilitation, retaliation, prevention (preventing the offender from offending again by being incarcerated, incapacitated, or dead), deterrence (setting an example to deter others from offending.) How does one even begin to balance those objectives?


Scoundrel Worship

This is the twenty-fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXV: Autobiography, Etc., J.S. Mill; Essays and Addresses, T. Carlyle

It is clear from a review of the titles in the Harvard Classics that Dr. Eliot was a firm believer of the importance of role models and the possibility of learning from experience. His “five-foot shelf” includes a seemingly disproportionate share of biographical works. In addition to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and biographies by Izaak Walton, the set includes autobiographical writings by Franklin, Woolman, Augustine, Mill, Dana, and Cellini.

If the purpose of studying biography is to learn from positive role models, most of these selections are totally understandable. Franklin’s Autobiography is full of folksy wisdom and Puritanical morality. Augustine’s Confessions describe the path to faith and virtue from a dissolute youth. Johns Donne and Woolman were humble and pious preachers whom one would do well to emulate. Excellent role models, they.

But Thomas Carlyle suggests in his essay on Sir Walter Scott (another biographical work) that the value of biography is more than just an appreciation for role models, but an instinctive attraction to people of distinction. “Such is hero-worship; so much lies in that our inborn sincere love of great men!” If we are to emulate the subjects of biographies, we are to emulate them for their greatness rather than any moral virtue they happen to have. And more likely, we are to find that we are incapable of emulating them and should worship them all the more for doing what we could not.

What’s more, Carlyle claims that the attraction to prominent figures is more important than finding truly great heroes to worship. For even in the hero-worship of merely “noted men” is the seed of the value of following the truly great. “Find great men, if you can; if you cannot, still quit not the search; in defect of great men, let there be noted men, in such number, to such degree of intensity as the public appetite can tolerate.”

Here, I think Carlyle misses the mark. His version of history is a string biographies of a few great men who, by power of personality and virtue (in the Machiavellian sense,) were able to drag society upward. In truth, we give far more credit to “great men” than they deserve. It is the toil of the multitude, and the choices of the many that have led to the tremendous material improvements in society. From the spontaneous order of the market to the physical production of the food and widgets that we need and desire, the actions and decisions of each individual has always better provided for the material needs of society than the dictates of any “great leader”. There is plenty to learn from biographies of notable people, but it is a mistake to assume that their lives alone have brought us here.

Beer of the week: Wells Banana Bread Beer – The name says it all. This not-quite-copper-colored ale is banana bread in a can. The aroma is of bananas and spice. Without being too sticky or sweet, this really does taste a lot like banana bread. It is very smooth with enough spicy hops in the finish to make sure that it tastes like beer as well. And delicious beer at that.

Reading of the week: Sir Walter Scott by Thomas Carlyle – Later in the essay, Carlyle writes, “there is no heroic poem in the world but is at bottom a biography, the life of a man: also, it may be said, there is no life of a man, faithfully recorded, but is a heroic poem of its sort, rhymed or unrhymed.”

Question for the week: How does biography compare to other forms of nonfiction? Is it even fair to call biography a subcategory of nonfiction?

To Be Disliked

This is the twenty-fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXIV: On the Sublime, The French Revolution, Etc., Edmund Burke

One can imagine, hopefully without much effort, that some people actually read this blog. Of those people, there may be a subset who hold the author in such high regard (as regards his taste in suds) that they reckon that a well-reviewed beer on this site is worth a try. This is probably the chief value of reviews, be they reviews of books, theater, or restaurants: the opinions of others can help us choose.

Likewise the opinions of others about other people help us decide with whom to associate. The expression “any friend of Eddy is a friend of mine” exemplifies this notion; the speaker holds Eddy’s choice of company in such high regard that anybody worthy of his friendship is worthy also of the speaker’s. The reverse is also commonly true. Guilt by association is a real phenomenon; “any friend of Eddy must be avoided because Eddy is a bad guy with bad taste.”

Occasionally, however, negative reviews have the opposite of the expected effect. To be despised by certain people is often regarded as a sort of endorsement. Imagine, for example, a politician who is decried by the grand wizard (or whatever silly title he holds) of the KKK. At least some people would regard that as a glowing (if unintentional) endorsement.

When certain of Edmund Burke’s political adversaries attacked his government pension, he took the position that it was an honor to be reviled by such men. “I confess it does kindle, in my nearly extinguished feelings, a very vivid satisfaction to be so attacked and so commended.”

So whether you try the beers that I review positively because you trust my taste, or you try the beers that I hate because I must be wrong, cheers!

Beer of the week: Shiner Bock – This is a reliable go-to lager. It pours clear and orange-brown. It’s got bread notes throughout but not as much flavor or mouthfeel as may be expected from the look of it. It’s a solid porch beer, but nothing special.

Reading of the week: A Letter to a Noble Lord by Edmund Burke – Burke’s detractors gave him an excellent opportunity to both belittle them and to commend himself. And boy, he did not let that opportunity go to waste.

Question for the week: Is there anybody of whom you think so little that you reflexively adopt the opposite of all of his judgments?

Strong Language

This is the twenty-third in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXIII: Two Years Before the Mast, Dana

In the preface to Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. warns: “I have been obliged occasionally to use strong and coarse expressions, and in some instances to give scenes which may be painful to nice feelings; but I have very carefully avoided doing so, whenever I have not felt them essential to giving the true character of a scene.”

Perhaps the most extended example “strong and course” language Dana employed was in relating a telling-off that the crew of his ship received from their captain:

“Away with you! go forward every one of you! I’ll haze you! I’ll work you up! You don’t have enough to do! If you a’n’t careful I’ll make a hell of the ship!…. You’ve mistaken your man! I’m F—— T——, all the way from ‘down east.’ I’ve been through the mill, ground, and bolted, and come out a regular-built down-east johnny-cake, good when it’s hot, but when it’s cold, sour and indigestible;—and you’ll find me so!”

If that is what passed for strong language in 1840, then I’ll be d—d!

Beer of the week: Independence Harbor Amber Ale – This is an ALDI house brand. It had been known as Revolution Harbor, but the name has changed for some reason. Either name seems to allude to Boston Harbor (and perhaps hint at the beer being similar to Samuel Adams). Boston, of course, is where Dana’s life as a sailor began. Independence Harbor is a handsome amber beer with a decent tan head. The aroma is of biscuit. The flavor is the same, with just a bit of honey sweetness at the finish. For the price, this is a very solid beer.

Reading of the week: Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Chapter VIII – I’ve really enjoyed this book. From his descriptions of life onboard a merchant ship in the middle of the 19th century, to his exploration of Californian culture in the days before the gold rush, Dana’s paints vivid scenes. This chapter includes discussion of sailors’ slang, duties onboard, and the ship’s arrival in California. If you enjoy this chapter, the rest of the book should be, in Dana’s language, “nuts to you.” (That’s a good thing.)

Question for the week: It is often said that profanity shows a lack of imagination, but can’t the stringing together of profanities be an art of its own?

Kind Nepenthe

This is the twenty-second in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXII: The Odyssey, Homer

Everyone has a memory or two that he’d rather not. But, as the saying goes, “some things cannot be unseen.” We are blessed and cursed with our powers of memory, but what would result from the ability to chose what memories we retain or erase?

On the tv show Arrested Development, there is a character who takes pills that he calls “forget-me-nows”. The pills are, in fact, Rohypnol: commonly known as roofies. He drugs himself to forget decisions that he regrets. Predictably, by wiping out his memories, he dooms himself to make the same mistakes again, unable to learn and grow from them.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Helen prepares a draught of nepenthe to help Menelaus and others forget their sorrow over comrades lost during and after the Trojan War, particularly the then-missing Odysseus. Nepenthe literally means “anti-sorrow”, but Homer tells us that it worked by bringing forgetfulness. The characters continue to reminisce, however, and ultimately resort to sleep to ease their sorrow. “But come,” says Telemachus, “bid us to bed, that forthwith we may take our joy of rest beneath the spell of sleep.” Perhaps the drug induced the sleep, and in sleep the heroes could forget their melancholy, but it is not clear at all that the nepenthe delivered on its promise of forgetfulness.

Nepenthe is also mentioned Poe’s The Raven. The narrator exhorts himself, “Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget the lost Lenore.” The raven predictably replies, “nevermore.” The narrator has no literal nepenthe, and, as is clear from the raven’s reply, none exists. He is doomed to remember his lost love. There is no nepenthe to forget sorrow and no balm in Gilead to cure a broken heart.

Whether we learn from our memories as GOB fails to in Arrested Development, or we put our memory aside only while we sleep as the characters of The Odyssey do, or whether our memories drive us mad as in The Raven, we cannot really cannot chose to forget. Our only real option is to turn our memories to our advantage, lest they destroy us.

Beer of the week: Tell Tale Heart IPA – Happy Friday the 13th! By all rights, this beer should be paired with Poe’s story The Tell Tale Heart. But that Poe is not included in the Harvard Classics, and I had no interest in sitting on this review for a year until I am through with this Harvard series. So here it is. RavenBeer makes a whole line of Poe-themed brews. This is an orangish IPA with a nice, creamy head. There are nice floral hops in the aroma and a well-balanced combo of malt and hops. Tell Tale Heart is a good East Coast IPA.

Reading of the week: The Odyssey by Homer, Book IV, lines 184 – 314 – After Helen has poured the nepenthe, she tells the company how Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, once sneaked into the besieged city of Troy.

Question for the week: What would you forget if you could?

Corruption in Times of Corruption

This is the twenty-first in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXI: I Promessi Sposi, Manzoni

Positions in civil government, from national presidency to homeowners’ association board seats, can be magnets for those who would take advantage of their neighbors. An excellent example of this corruption can be found in I Promessi Sposi, (most often translated as The Betrothed,) by Alessandro Manzoni. When the plague struck Milan in 1629, vicious and rapacious men saw an opportunity. The tumult caused by the plague made it easy for these bad actors to operate without consequence. Indeed, many of them found it expedient to take official government posts, the better to steal and blackmail. “The villains, whom the pestilence spared and did not terrify, found in the common confusion, and in the relaxation of all public authority, a new opportunity of activity, together with new assurances of impunity; nay, the administration of public authority itself came, in a great measure, to be lodged in the hands of the worst among them. Generally speaking, none devoted themselves to the offices of monatti and apparitori but men over whom the attractions of rapine and license had more influence than the terror of contagion, or any natural object of horror.” And once it was clear how much profit was to be made as a government-employed extortionist and robber, these men worked to perpetuate the plague, and thereby perpetuate their power. They would “purposely let fall from their carts infected clothes, in order to propagate and keep up the pestilence, which had become to them a means of living, a kingdom, a festival.” It is remarkable what those in power are capable of doing to maintain their position.

But, as rare as they may be, there actually are examples of political leaders who come into power for noble reasons and maintain their virtue despite that power. Manzoni relates the story of Father Felice Casati, a Capuchin friar who became a sort of minor autocrat during the plague. As the pestilence spread through Milan and the surrounding area, the population of the Lazaretto of Milan swelled. The Lazaretto was a huge quarantine building that became a city unto itself. Although people were dying at a prodigious rate, the population of the Lazaretto exploded as more and more people contracted the plague. At one point, as many as 16,000 people filled the Lazaretto. With so many sick and desperate people, good governance was needed to keep the Lazaretto from becoming pandemonium. The Board of Health decided to install Father Felice as governor of the Lazaretto. Although not a glamorous appointment, the governor was granted “primary and ultimate authority” within the Lazaretto. With this power Father Felice “animated and regulated every duty, pacified tumults, settled disputes, threatened, punished, reproved, comforted, dried and shed tears.” He was absolute dictator within the confines of his quarantine kingdom, but neither that power nor the plague corrupted him.

In at least this once instance, there was an exception to Lord Acton’s axiom that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But to rely on every (or virtually any) politician being another Father Felice is probably a mistake. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken: cleaning up politics by electing righteous people makes no more sense than cleaning up a brothel by filling it with virgins; they either lose their virtue or jump out the window.

Beer of the week: 98 Problems IPA – This hazy orange India Pale Ale is a product of Michigan’s Perrin Brewing Company. The aroma is dominated by pineappley and floral hops. The hops also dominate the flavor, with crisp bitterness both up front and lingering in the aftertaste. Despite the name, there’s not much wrong with 98 Problems.

Reading of the week: I Promessi Sposi by Alessandro Manzoni – Although I Promessi Sposi is a work of fiction, the author tells us that his account of the plague is historically accurate. This excerpt tells how members of the Milanese public attacked doctors, accusing them of fabricating the claims about the plague for personal gain. It is an excellent study in how people will reject the truth and accuse its bearers of evil motivations if the truth is adverse enough to their interests.

Question for the week: What is the best mechanism for curbing political corruption?

What Hope

This is the twentieth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XX: The Divine Comedy, Dante

Having descended to the very pit of hell, and climbed the mountain of purgatory, Dante the pilgrim at last ascends into the celestial spheres of paradise. As was the case through Inferno and Purgatorio, Dante meets many souls in Paradiso. Among them, James son of Zebedee. St. James poses three questions about hope.

In context, the questions clearly refer to hope as a theological virtue. In the previous canto, St. Peter inquires about faith. In the next, St. John tests Dante on charity. Canto XXV is about the sister of those two virtues: hope. But how do Dante’s answers square with the common definition of hope rather than the theological?

What is hope?

Dante says that hope is the sure expectance of a joy to come. This oversteps the usual meaning of hope. It is possible to hope for a joy that never does come. (As when I hope that my favorite baseball team will win.) On the other hand, if one is absolutely certain that a joy is forthcoming, we might not call that hope at all. Such certainty would preclude mere hope.

Rather than Dante’s formulation, it seems more likely that commonplace hope is the present experience of a joy to come. Hope allows us to experience now some portion of a possible future joy. For example, I hope one day to visit Munich for Oktoberfest. That present hope of a potential future occurrence allows me to experience some joy today in the planning and dreaming. Even though I am not certain that I will ever make it back to Germany, I hope that I will. I am therefore able to take present joy in the hoping.

How does it flourish in you?

Dante does not answer this question for himself. Rather, Beatrice vouches for his hope. She tells St. James that not a single member of the church has more hope than he.

Taking the mundane meaning of hope, we may see that people are always possessed of some hope. Humans are always forward thinking. To be sure, sometimes we do not think very far ahead, but we always think ahead somewhat. Even as we reach for the beer mug, we look forward to the pleasure of taking a sip. Is the expected joy more than a moment away? No. But is it in the future relative to when we start to reach for the glass? Absolutely. Because the first motions toward any objective are aimed at the completion of that objective, there really is no such thing as “instant gratification”. Rather, every single decision is made with an eye to a future good. The only truly instant gratification that exists is hope. Even before we begin to move toward the future good, we experience some joy of it through hope.

What is its source?

Dante, still discussing the theological virtue of hope, says that its source is scripture. He singles out the Book of Isaiah, John’s Gospel, and the Epistle of St. James. (What an apple-polisher!)

Surely scripture can be a source of commonplace hope, but we need not set our sights so high. In fact, it is the smallest things that may be the greatest sources of hope. As discussed above, every action is performed with the hope of achieving some goal. The smallest actions are the most likely to succeed. I flip the light switch in hopes of lighting the room; I go to the bar hoping to get a beer; I cross the street hoping to get to the other side. In all of these things, my chance of success is so high, that I am entitled to hope for the best. Cynical as it may sound, I have virtually no hope of becoming an astronaut at this late stage in my life. So, although the potential future joy is very great, the present “hope value” is quite low. And although the joy of trying a new beer is relatively low compared to visiting the moon, the odds that I will like the beer of the week are quite high. As a result, the present hope value (to coin a term) is quiet high.

Anyway, I hope you liked this post.


Beer of the week: Mississippi Mud Black & Tan – From the celestial spheres to the Mississippi Mud. Pre-bottled black & tan misses out on the very best feature of the classic mixed beer: the layering. Layering is not only visually appealing, it allows the drinker to experience the two beers as they mix, so no two sips are ever quite the same. Even so, pre-mixed black & tan is usually delicious. This is a very tasty combination of porter and pilsner. It is deep amber in color with a creamy tan head. The aroma is of fresh sourdough and cocoa. The flavor is full without being heavy, with some nice dark cherry notes in the finish. Good thing it is sold by the quart; one glass might not be enough. Oh, and the name is a lie; Mississippi Mud is brewed in upstate New York.

Reading of the week: Paradiso by Dante Alighieri, Canto XXV – This canto is pretty well outlined above.

Question for the week: Is Dante’s definition of hope (the sure expectance of a joy to come) or my definition (the present experience of a potential future joy) better? Is there a better definition still?