This is the fifty-first and final in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume L: Introduction, Readers Guide, Indexes
Thus ends my year-long series on the Harvard Classics. Fifty-one volumes of the greatest books ever written (and as many different beers.) I conclude with a few observations, in no particular order:
Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. was the biggest surprise of the whole set. I was totally unfamiliar with the book until this project, but so much did I enjoy it, that it is the only volume that I read cover-to-cover. (To be honest, I didn’t make it quite to the back cover. I did not read all of Twenty Four Years Later, the much-delayed epilogue in which Dana returns to California as a celebrity a quarter of a century after his first voyage.) In the book, Dana provides lively and descriptive account of life on a merchant ship and on the old California coast. Of particular note, one need not understand all of the parts and rigging of a ship to thoroughly enjoy his description of his duties as a sailor.
The general index is an excellent tool. In an age with Ctrl+F text searching, the idea that somebody took the time to read through the entire set and cross-reference words and concepts is truly remarkable. It is a humbling reminder of how easy we have it, and a tribute to those who did the hard work that we now take for granted.
As far as I can tell, the famous 15-minutes-a-day reading plan was not added to the set until 1930. I am not sure about that date, but I am sure that my second edition set does not include it. In the past, the daily program has proved very helpful to me. It is a surefire way to find a readable, thought-provoking passage.
I have commented more than once that the set includes a surprising amount of biographical works. I have always been a fan of biography, so I do not consider this a great flaw. However, I do think that the bulk of the biographical works could comfortably be replaced with more “pure” philosophy or something else.
Speaking of replacements, I cannot help but think that several works included in the Harvard Classics would not make the cut if the series were reimagined today. Dana, Manzoni, and Cellini spring to mind. Milton and Darwin would probably be reduced by at least one volume. Volume XV: Bunyan and Walton would almost certainly be excised entirely.
What would be selected to replace these works would depend very much upon the new editor. For mine, I’d add Homer’s Iliad (which I regard as a shocking omission in the first place.) I would exchange one volume of English poetry for one volume of American. I would also probably include some Marx to go along with Smith. Nietzsche is another obvious choice for inclusion. Of course, there are myriad combinations of works that could make up such a set. General agreement on each inclusion is far too much to ask.
Much less controversial than adding or removing works would be reorganizing the whole set. As it is, I can not make any sense of the organizing principle. It is not chronological and does not appear to have any subject-matter order. The poetry of Milton and Burns are near the beginning, while the volumes of English poetry are near the end. Similarly, Greek drama is at the beginning, continental and modern English drama are in the middle, and Elizabethan drama is near the end. I’d favor a roughly chronological arrangement, but subject-matter organization could also work.
In a general way, there is very little fiction in the series. As Dr. Eliot explains in his Editor’s Introduction, “the whole of nineteenth century fiction, with two exceptions, was excluded; partly because of its great bulk, and partly because it is easily accessible.” As a set, there is no particular point in including a novel by Tolstoy or Austen; copies of War and Peace and Pride and Prejudice are not at all hard to come by. Besides, at between 400 and 450 pages, the volumes of the Harvard Classics would not accommodate War and Peace without abridgment. However, I think that one volume of the set could have been reserved for Russian short stories and one volume reserved for American.
During the course of the year, I exchanged comments on another blog that compared the Harvard Classics and the Britannica Great Books of the Western World. I observed that the blogger omitted any discussion of the books as physical objects. It is my opinion that the Harvard Classics are a better set in physical terms. They are more compact, printed on better paper, and are better formatted. The Britannica set, to nobody’s surprise, is published like an encyclopedia. Consequently, that set is better suited for use as a reference than for ordinary reading. The books are larger and less wieldy. The paper is the thin sort used in bibles and encyclopedias (saving on bulk at the expense of durability and feel.) For the same reason, the pages are laid out in columns. The other blogger’s response to my comment expressed the opinion that the columns make reading easier, but that is obviously incorrect. Columns are employed to save space. That is why they are the preferred format of textbooks, newspapers, and dictionaries, where space is at a premium. Go to the library and pick up any novel you like; it is with good reason that you will not find the pages divided into columns. The Harvard Classics, although not especially high quality books, are an excellent size and format, especially when compared to their younger cousin, the GBWW.
For the purposes of this blog, the set has been quite well suited. It has been much easier to do a regular weekly post with the Harvard Classics providing me with a fixed volume for each week. (To say nothing of the fact that the entire set is now in the public domain, so there is no additional concern on that account.) I do not think that this blog has ever been so consistent. Over the past year, I have published a new post every week without fail.
I fear that such consistency cannot be expected in the future. For one thing, it is a lot more work to pick a reading each week when I cannot simply flip through the next volume of a set. For another, I am drinking less beer than I have in the past. At times I have had a backlog of a dozen beer reviews; I am currently at three. But most importantly, a number of life-changing events happened over the course of this last year spent with the Harvard Classics. Suffice it to say that in the coming year I will spend more time pushing a stroller and doing legal research, and less time blogging.
In the next year, and perhaps the next several years, I think it unlikely that I shall return very often to the Harvard Classics. I am very glad that I took the time to read from each volume, and I still think that they look very well on my bookshelf, but they are generally more for show than anything else at this point. Even if I really want to read any work included in the set, there are reasons that I would not reach for my Harvard Classics. For one thing, I would seek out the best translation of any work not originally in English. The Harvard Classics translations are, naturally, old, public domain translations. Consequently, it is likely that a better translation is available to anybody with a library card or an Amazon account.
All in all, I think that Dr. Eliot may be well satisfied with his project. I now that I am.
Beer of the week: All Day IPA – A book series for all time is quite naturally paired with a beer for all day. Founders brews this lovely session IPA. At 4.7% alcohol by volume (compared to the 7.2% of their Centennial IPA), one could easily go through a few of these. It is dark gold with a nice foamy head. It has hints of pineapple in the hop-forward aroma. The flavor has plenty of hops bitterness without being a palate destroyer, and enough malt to round it all out. A very solid choice.
Reading of the week: The Editor’s Introduction to the Harvard Classics by Charles William Eliot – “Within the limits of fifty volumes, containing about 22,000 pages, I was to provide the means of obtaining such a knowledge of ancient and modern literature as seems essential to the twentieth century idea of a cultivated man.” Thus, Dr. Eliot expresses the essence of his project. This excerpt includes a few ideas on how best to approach the set. (The fact that this “introduction” appears in the fiftieth volume, rather than the first, is a quibble that we must leave for another time.)
Question for the week: What works would you add to the Harvard Classics if you were its modern editor? And what would you cut to make way for your additions?
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?
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?
The death of Justice Antonin Scalia last week revealed yet again the terrible state of political discourse in our country. One clear problem involves the call by Senate Republicans to block any and all Obama nominations. This certainly looks like a dereliction of duty, and has been called an “impeachable offense.” (Of course, the most vocal critics of this behavior, ignore the attempted filibuster by Senators Kerry, Clinton, and Obama upon the nomination of Justice Alito.) But what I think is more telling is the personal vitriol toward members of the Court.
All of the biggest political actors had the tact to express their condolences at the death of Justice Scalia, but plenty of casual tweeters expressed their joy. Even worse than the schadenfreude over the death of a Supreme Court Justice were the attacks on (the still very much alive) Justice Thomas. Thomas became a “trending topic” on Twitter because there were so many people wishing that he would be the next member of the Court to die. Two particular themes came to the surface though these Tweets: the perception that Thomas was a mere puppet who always followed Scalia, and the racially charged claims that Thomas was either a slave or a traitor to his people.
I will ignore the racial statements. Those who made them deserve our scorn, but the statements themselves are not worth addressing. They are beneath the dignity of the Court and they are beneath me. The idea that Thomas was a puppet for Scalia, however, is worth evaluating.
According to SCOTUSBlog, Scalia and Thomas agreed in 78% of cases. This is lower than the percentage of cases where Thomas agreed with Alito (81%) and lower than the percentage of cases where Scalia agreed with Chief Justice Roberts (84%). But perhaps more tellingly, that number is positively dwarfed by the percentage of cases where the liberal justices agree. That same source tells us that Justice Breyer agrees with each Justice Ginsburg, Justice Kagan, and Justice Sotomayor a full 94% of the time. The lowest agreement rate among the liberal justices is 91%. Any claim that one or more of the Supreme Court Justices are mere puppets who vote the way they are told is probably nonsense. But if there is any legitimacy to the idea, the statistics indicate that we should be looking at somebody other than Thomas.
There are plenty of areas where I disagree with Justice Thomas, but it is simply ignorant to claim that he is not an independent thinker. He is a prolific dissenting voice on the court, and perhaps that alone is worthy of admiration. It would have been so much easier for him to “just go along” with Scalia, but Thomas was and is his own man.
Beer of the week: Yankee Buzzard IPA – This IPA from Wisconsin Brewing Company is also known as beer #002. Yankee Buzzard is hazy and has a pleasant, hoppy aroma. Hops certainly dominates, but unlike in many IPAs, here they are balanced nicely with the malty body. This is a very good IPA, especially for somebody who does not favor over-the-top bitterness.
Reading for the week: Kelo v. New London, Dissenting Opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas – The City of New London used eminent domain to kick several of its citizens out of their homes and turn the land over to the drug company Pfizer. The Supreme Court ruled that the city did not violate the Constitution by doing so. Justice Thomas, predictably, dissented. In part, I chose this reading because the public response to this case was so negative; most states now have laws that prevent this kind of eminent domain action. But mostly, this reading shows the way that Justice Thomas works. His appeals to original texts are especially interesting to me. (In case the Readings page of this blog left any doubt on that point.)
Question for the week: Do the Justices of the Supreme Court venture too far into the world of practical politics (as Justice Thomas believes), or does the Supreme Court have a right (or duty) to effectuate policy?
It is no secret that the philosophy of John Locke was a profound influence on the American Founding Fathers. After all, his concept of natural rights to life, liberty, and property was prominently displayed at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. But there was also a dramatic change in that document’s language: “property” was replaced with the “pursuit of happiness.”
First, let’s be clear on what Locke actually said: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” How “health” got dropped from popular discourse, I do not know. I suspect that health can easily be subsumed by life, liberty, or both. Health is an integral part of life since an ultimate failure of health results in death. It is also an integral part of liberty, since any failure of health impairs liberty to some extent and a serious failure of health (just short of death) totally prevents one from exercising his liberty. (Those in a coma, for example, can hardly be considered “free”.) So, with health out of the way, we are left with the common formulation of Locke’s natural rights: life, liberty, property.
But when it came time to draft the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for “property.” But why? I have done a little reading and asked a few professors, and gotten three answers:
1. That Jefferson, a land-owner, was appealing also to those who did not own land. Since he did not advocate a system where all men got an equal share of the land, he substituted the pursuit of happiness as something that everybody could achieve (even those destined to be tenants.)
This answer seems least likely to me. Of course the Declaration was a practical document, intended to rally support for the cause of independence, but it was also an exposition of Jefferson’s philosophy. Would he really substitute an entire third of his philosophy of natural rights for a relatively minor appeal to the lower class colonists? I am extremely reluctant to consider anything in the first part of the Declaration to be disingenuous. (Whether all of the complaints leveled at King George were all made in good faith is another question.)
Further, under Locke’s formulation, the right to property relies on the assumption that there is enough property to support everybody. The American continent was regarded as practically limitless in size at that time. Why would Jefferson object to the idea that anybody who did not then own land could just move west and acquire property by mingling his labor with the land? And if he did believe that, then why not present that as yet another reason why even landless Americans should support the cause of independence?
2. That the right to property is merely a subset of the right to pursue happiness.
What could that really mean? Even if we allow that acquisition and possession of property is but a single possible path to happiness, what else falls in that category? What else is included in the right to pursue happiness that is not already included in liberty? And how are these other subsets of the right to pursue happiness related to the right to property?
I have heard that the pursuit of happiness can be divided into pursuit of earthly happiness (i.e. through the acquisition of property,) or heavenly happiness. This makes this language a nod to freedom of religion.
It is worth noting that later in 1776, but also in Philadelphia, another important document was drafted: the first Constitution of Pennsylvania. In its Declaration of Rights, the drafters asserted “That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Here, the pursuit of happiness is separate from the right to acquire, possess and protect property. It appears that at least the Pennsylvanian Founders did not consider property rights to be a mere subset of the pursuit of happiness. Religious freedom was also provided for by the Constitution of Pennsylvania, undermining the earthly/heavenly distinction suggested above. If property and religion are the two parts of the pursuit of happiness, why name all three separately?
3. That Jefferson did not believe that property rights were natural rights; that property rights are derived entirely from society.
This is a very interesting answer to the question of why property is replaced by the pursuit of happiness. I first saw this hypothesis in an article by Albert Alschuler of the University of Chicago. Alschuler claims that Jefferson’s departure from Locke on the point of property is the result of Jefferson siding with Scottish Enlightenment thinkers (including Lord Kames, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and David Hume) on the issue. The Scots apparently diverged from Locke on the question of whether property rights were natural or wholly societal in origin.
Of course, this could explain why the right to property is not listed in the Declaration, but it does not explain what the pursuit of happiness is. I’d better do some more reading and have a beer…
Beer of the week: Philadelphia Pale Ale – From the same city that brought us the Declaration of Independence, the Pennsylvania Constitution, and the United States Constitution comes this pale ale. Yards Brewing Company produces this very light-colored beer. It is very crisp and refreshing despite a decent malt body. Although it is an ale, it drinks more like a pilsner. I think that this beer is quite good.
Reading of the week: Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, Declaration of Rights – The rights to life, liberty, and property are accounted for by this document, but there are a great number of more particular rights besides. Among the rights provided for are procedural protections for criminal defendants, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right of the people to modify or abolish the State government if they deem it best to do so. And, since the state was founded by Quaker pacifists, the right of a conscientious objector to refuse military duty is also guaranteed (provided he pays for a replacement).
Question of the week: What is the pursuit of happiness?
A former professor of mine (in a subject other than philosophy) once complained that people were asking the wrong question when they asked why instead of to what end things happened. I submitted that why is equivocal, and to what end is but one of the reasonable interpretations of why. He ignored me and went on with his tirade.
Obviously, I was not breaking new ground. In Book II of Aristotle’s Physics, four different answers to “why questions” are enumerated. In an attempt to make Aristotle a bit easier to relate to, I will apply these four causes to the beer of the week, Genesse Ice.
First, the material cause of something is the physical matter that it is composed of. The material cause Genesse Ice is water, cheap grain, (not much) hops, and yeast.
Second, the formal cause of something is the essence or archetype of the thing. This cause is certainly the most difficult to grasp, but I think that we can say that this beer’s formal cause is the form “beer” or perhaps the more specific form “ice beer.” (Ice beer is style of beer that has elevated alcohol levels because after it is brewed, some of the water is removed in the form of ice crystals.)
Third, the efficient cause of a thing is the source of its coming to be or its maker. The efficient cause of this beer is the Genesee Brewing Company.
Finally (duh!), the final cause is the end for the sake of which a thing is; the goal. The final cause of Genesee Ice is to get drunk.
Of course, the term “drunk” is equivocal…
Beer of the week: Genesee Ice – As I mentioned before, Genesse makes some of my all-time favorite cheap beers. This does not fit into that category. Genesee Ice smells like drinking games, and not in a good way. It is the aroma of beer spilled on the flip-cup table. It is the essence of used beer pong cups. The smell is enough to put one right off. The taste, unfortunately, is worse yet. There is an unpleasant sweetness followed by a distinctly metallic aftertaste. This beer is surely meant to be consumed from a brown paper bag or from a plastic cup. And either way, it should elicit the existential question: why?
Reading of the week: Physics by Aristotle, Book II, Part 3 – “Knowledge” Aristotle tells us, “is the object of our inquiry, and men do not think they know a thing till they have grasped the ‘why’.” The problem is that every thing and every action has more than one cause.
Question of the week: Which of your causes do you think defines you most?
In the English language, we have gendered pronouns. Masculine: he, him, his. Feminine: she, her, hers. When discussing unidentified individuals, the traditional approach has been to use masculine pronouns. For example: “He who hesitates is lost.”
Recently, in terms of the development of the English language, there has been a push to change this practice in an attempt to be more inclusive of women. After all, females make up about half of the population and she who hesitates is equally lost. One approach to this problem is the use of the “singular they”. This is particularly common in the possessive. For example: “whoever said that I am spiteful better watch their back.” However, there is a lot of push-back against using the plural pronoun as a neuter singular. For one thing, it sounds queer to many people because it does not make grammatical sense to simply substitute a plural word in place of a singular one. Another strategy is to simply use the feminine pronouns rather than the masculine. This is generally effective, but can seem affected. It seems particularly affected when the context would clearly apply to a man far more often than to a woman. For example: “the perpetrator of a brutal multiple homicide can be held liable for emotional injuries she causes to the families of her victims,” or “one should make sure that she has applied Just For Men™ hair dye evenly throughout her mustache.” (Note that a woman certainly could commit brutal homicides or dye her mustache, but these acts are more likely those of a man.)
I am a bit of a traditionalist. I try to avoid the singular they entirely. I prefer the use of the masculine pronouns for unidentified individuals because it just sounds more natural to me. Of course, I will use the feminine where context clearly makes the individual more likely a woman. For example: “when choosing a brassiere, one should make sure that the elastic does not dig into her skin.” (Again, a man could purchase a bra for his own personal use, but the advice clearly applies more to women.)
The point of this post is not to engage in an argument about the changing role of women in society. I am not writing to claim that it is not important to encourage women to enter academic or professional fields that have traditionally been male dominated. Interest in mathematics, science, engineering, and all sorts of valuable studies should be fostered in all students who show an interest or talent in them, regardless of sex. My purpose in this post is simply to advise that choosing pronouns for the purpose of being inclusive should be secondary to choosing pronouns to make the author sound like he knows how the English language works.
I read a published court decision today that sacrificed clarity and general quality in an apparent attempt to be gender-inclusive. A federal judge, a person whose entire livelihood relies on his ability to clearly explain rules, reasoning, and conclusions, proposed this three-factor test to determine whether an attorney may disclose confidential information to prevent a future crime:
“First, how much information did the attorney possess suggesting that a crime was going to be committed before he disclosed? Relatedly, how much investigation did the attorney conduct to inform herself of the circumstances and resolve any doubts she may have had? Third, how convinced was the attorney that their client was going to commit a crime (for example, did he believe beyond a reasonable doubt?)?” (Emphasis added.)
In three sentences about a single hypothetical attorney whose conduct is being evaluated, the judge used two masculine pronouns, two feminine pronouns, and the singular they. These word choices did not change the meaning of the paragraph, but it did make the whole thing unnecessarily complex. The last sentence is particularly bad. It refers to “their client” and then asks what “he believe[d]”. The judge is asking about what the attorney believed, but it appears that he is asking what the client believed. Clarity has been sacrificed for… what? What real value did the judge add to this paragraph by indiscriminately bouncing from pronoun to pronoun?
Perhaps there are some people who would not have been distracted or confused by the judge’s word choice. Maybe the fact that I don’t like the way he writes says more about me than it does about him. But his job is to write, and he could have conveyed his thoughts more clearly by picking a gender and sticking with it. This paragraph makes his work look sloppy. If his writing is sloppy, people might assume that his reasoning is sloppy as well. And for a judge, that consideration should easily outweigh any desire to make everybody feel included.
Beer of the Week: Genesee Cream Ale – The first time I ever had this beer, I purchased it because it was the cheapest available option. If I recall correctly, before taxes it was less than 50¢ per can. Despite the name, “cream ales” do not contain any dairy products. (Unlike milk stouts, which are brewed with lactose for extra sweetness.) I actually find it to be very palatable. It does have a certain smoothness and nice body for a cheap, mass-produced beer, and at a price that is hard to beat.
Reading for the Week: At a Vacation Exercise in the College, Part Latin, Part English by John Milton – It is a significant understatement to say that Milton knew how to use language well. The excerpt of this address by he made while he was yet a student is a testament to the power of the English language in the right hands. After delivering an oration in Latin, Milton changes to English poetry and announces that it is the English language that is best equipped to attire the deepest and choicest thoughts.
Question for the Week: Do you think that the use of feminine pronouns when talking about unidentified individuals sounds affected? Is that a good enough reason not to do it?