The World’s Longest and Least Funny Joke

Plato’s dialogues can be rather difficult. And of all the dialogues, Parmenides may be the most baffling. And within Parmenides, the second part, where Socrates has tapped out and Aristoteles acts as Parmenides’ primary interlocutor, is particularly confounding. And the conclusion of the second part is the most enigmatic passage of the lot. But none of that is going to stop me from telling the world just what I think about it, because that’s the kind of guy I am.

It is my position that the conclusion of Parmenides is a goof.* It is a joke at the expense of Parmenides and his followers, a parody of his overly formal, but ultimately meaningless philosophy. To see how I arrived at that conclusion, we need a bit of background.

The dialogue ends like this:

[Parmenides]: “Then let us say that, and we may add, as it appears, that whether the one is or is not, the one and the others in relation to themselves and to each other all in every way are and are not and appear and do not appear.”

[Aristoteles]: “Very true.”


Out of context, it is clear why I take that conclusion to be a joke. By itself, it is an incomprehensible mashing together of contradictory conditions. Read it again; it simply does not make sense.

But the context of the dialogue matters, and all this talk about the one and contradictions do not come out of nowhere. In the first half of the dialogue, the characters primarily focus on Socrates’s famous theory of forms. Parmenides points out several potential problems with the forms, ultimately concluding that Socrates has some work to do.

In the second half, things go a bit pear-shaped. Parmenides, now conversing with Aristoteles, goes through the process of analyzing his own theory of “the one”. His plan is to “consider not only the consequences which flow from [the hypothesis that all reality is one], but also the consequences which flow from denying the hypothesis.” The result of an exhaustive exchange, without the ornamentation typical of most Platonic dialogue, is the nonsense quoted above.

There are a few features of the dialogue that make the concluding line look less like an actual philosophical position held by Plato, and more like a jab at Parmenides’ own philosophy.

In the first place, interpreting Plato is always difficult because he never speaks with his own voice. He generally speaks through the character of Socrates, but that does not mean that everything the character Socrates says should be interpreted as Plato’s own belief. Indeed, Plato has Socrates say a number of things that are pretty clearly NOT what Plato believes, often with the intent of mocking or patronizing his interlocutors. Consider, for example, the end of Ion, where Socrates professes to believe that the rhapsode Ion is divinely inspired, second-hand, by the same muse who inspired Homer. Parmenides is especially obscure when attempting to attribute any ideas directly to Plato. The main narrator is Cephalus, but he was not present for the conversation between Parmenides, Zeno, Socrates, and Aristoteles. Cephalus hears about the conversation from Antiphon. But even Antiphon was not present for the conversation. Antiphon claims to have heard it from Pythodorus, in whose house the conversation supposedly took place. So that final line uttered by Parmenides reaches us fifth-hand. And, notably, Socrates is out of the conversation by that point, so it seems incredible that the line represents what Socrates actually thought, let alone what Plato thought. And if it is not what Plato actually thought, then Plato must have believed there was something wrong about it, if not laughably wrong.

In the second place, Plato is funny, and he meant to be. As mentioned above, Socrates clearly intends to mock some of his interlocutors, and the end of Ion is a great example of him toying with an unworthy interlocutor. And in the Apology, part of the charge leveled against Socrates was that the young men of Athens found the Socratic take-downs of prominent men so amusing. This undermined the youth’s respect for their elders, among other things. Although the character Socrates argues that he was only trying to help his interlocutors find out whether their ideas were built on philosophical bedrock, it seems clear that he occasionally took joy in making them look foolish. So making Parmenides look foolish does not seem out of character for Plato.

It may be argued that the ending of Parmenides is unlike Ion, etc., because in other dialogues, Socrates corners his interlocutors and confronts them with the absurd results of their logical missteps. In Parmenides, however, Socrates is not an active participant in the conversation by the end. He does not twist Parmenides into the absurd conclusion; Parmenides does that to himself. But that distinction could be explained by the age and experience of the character of Socrates. In dialogues with later dramatic dates, an older Socrates is willing to wield the interlocutors’ logical blunders like a slapstick, but the young Socrates, not yet confident in his own philosophy (as demonstrated in the first half of Parmenides,) and faced with the older and respected Parmenides and Zeno, simply observes the absurd conclusion without comment. That doesn’t mean that Plato didn’t chuckle to himself as he wrote that last line.

And finally, the conclusion is a philosophical dead end. There is simply nowhere to go from there. The theory of forms, as discussed in the first half of the dialogue, went on to become a great hallmark of Platonic philosophy, not the one and it’s implicit self-contradictions. So either the last line of Parmenides is an extremely complex but profound and valid philosophical conclusion that remains inexplicably absent from the rest of Plato’s work, or it actually is as silly and nonsensical as it appears on its face. And because I do not understand it, I choose to believe it is not serious.

Parmenides is a joke, bring on the next book.

Beer of the week: Colbitzer Weizen – This hefeweizen comes from Germany’s Hofbrauhaus Wolters. It pours with a big sticky head. The aroma has the classic yeasty notes of the style. The flavor is pleasant, with hints of bread, banana and clove. I would like more of a spice bite at the end, but this is a pretty good beer at a really good price.

Reading of the week: Parmenides by Plato, 126a-128e: As a final bit of support for my theory that the dialogue is a satire of Parmenides’ philosophy, this week’s reading includes the part where Zeno explicitly states that people “jeer at [Parmenides] and assert that if the all is one many absurd results follow which contradict his theory.” Before the philosophical substance of the dialogue begins, Plato primes us for the idea that Parmenides’ ideas are laughable.

Question for the week: Sometimes, satire is so on-point that it is difficult to identify as satire. (See also Poe’s Law.) Is that good satire because it is so close to what it is mocking, or is it bad satire because it does not serve its purpose if people can’t tell whether it is earnest?

*My claim is a big one, and somewhat unusual for this blog. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, which explains the length and depth of this post. To the rest of my analysis above, I would also like to add the weight of an appeal to authority. (Whatever value that may be.) In the book Plato’s Parmenides Reconsidered, Mehmet Tabak apparently argues that Parmenides does not have an important philosophical message, but is primarily a satirical criticism of Plato’s philosophical opponents. I learned of Dr. Tabak’s book near the end of drafting this blog post, so although I have not actually read it, I am more than willing to assume that Dr. Tabak makes all the same points that I do, and that he supports my conclusion entirely.


Read Widely

Eva Brann, for those who are not familiar, is the former dean and currently a tutor at St. John’s College. I recently read a speech given by Ms. Brann about the “great books” education. In it, she reminds her audience that reading nothing but the classics is untenable and undesirable:

I am not, incidentally, for a reading regimen of exclusive greatness. It is too rich, like a diet of “white soup,” the cholesterol-laden concoction served in Jane Austen’s well-off houses at dinner parties. I am for reading a lot of stuff: adventure, mystery, travel, cookbooks, westerns (my favorites), historical fiction, fantasy, space and science-fiction—from fine to terrible. They are all supplements to life, experiences I could not possibly live through but would dearly like to have—vicariously.

One might even make the argument that reading Twitter feeds has some value. Say what you will about social media, but you have to admit that people staring at their phones are at least reading. (Well, some of the time, anyway.)

Ms. Brann is not the first person to advocate reading widely in addition to reading the classics. It is no surprise, of course, that the very notion is practically one of the tenets of classical liberal education.

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel in verse, Aurora Leigh, the titular narrator describes her formal education under her aunt. It is a stifling mixture of pious theology, German, classical French “(Kept pure of Balzac and neologism)”, music, domestic arts, and “a dozen books on womanhood.” The “liberal education” of a lady is circumscribed to a few particular fields that would prepare her for a life of agreeing pleasantly with her husband when his conversation is not completely over her head.

On her own, however, Aurora engages in a private and personally guided course of study. She starts with the Greek of Theophrastus and the Latin of Aelian, but she eventually devours all manner of books. Bad books, good books, “some bad and good at once.” She reads moral books, genial books, merry books, melancholy books. She, like Ms. Brann, has a firm grounding in the classics, but is eager and able to see the value in all manner of writings.

Beer of the week: Semedorato Premium- In honor of the half-Italian protagonist of Aurora Leigh, this week’s beer is the 100% Italian Semedorato Premium. Semedorato is also brewed with 100% malt, rather than with adjunct grains. This lager is pretty much what I expect out of a Mediterranean beer. It is crystal clear and quite pale. The aroma is faint and slightly sweet. The flavor is understated, but pleasant. It is a very drinkable, if unremarkable beer.

Reading of the week: Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – This excerpt is from Book One of the nine-book poem. The orphaned title character has come to live in England with her aunt. Very much in spite of the aunt’s attempts to raise Aurora to be a proper lady, Aurora becomes obsessed with literature and decides that she wants to be an author.

Question for the week: Ms. Brann’s favorite “non-classics” are westerns. What is your favorite “non-classic” genre?

Vital Air

Science and beer go together like philosophy and beer. Or art and beer. Or pretzels and beer.

Around the time of the American Revolution, brewing played an important role in the early study of chemistry. Dr. Joseph Priestley was one of the first people to isolate oxygen and identify some of its remarkable properties. He wrote a six-volume work entitled Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air in which he describes a number of different “airs” – “gasses” in modern English – and his experiments with them.

His “fixed air” – our “carbon dioxide” – was readily supplied by a nearby brewery. The fermenting beer provided such a great and steady supply of the gas that it became a favorite subject for experimentation. Dr. Priestley found that in fixed air, “a candle would not burn, and a mouse would have died presently.” He even used an upside-down beer glass for his make-shift gas chamber:

If I want to try whether an animal will live in any kind of air, I first put the air into a small vessel, just large enough to give it room to stretch itself; and as I generally make use of mice for this purpose, I have found it very convenient to use the hollow part of a tall beer-glass… which contains between two and three ounce measures of air. In this vessel a mouse will live twenty minutes or half an hour.

For the purpose of these experiments, it is most convenient to catch the mice in small wire traps, out of which it is easy to take them, and, holding them by the back of the neck, to pass them through the water into the vessel which contains the air. If I expect that the mouse will live a considerable time, I take care to put into the vessel something on which it may conveniently sit, out of reach of the water. If the air be good, the mouse will soon be perfectly at ease, having suffered nothing by its passing through the water. If the air be supposed to be noxious, it will be proper (if the operator be desirous of preserving the mice for further use) to keep hold of their tails, that they may be withdrawn as soon as they begin to show signs of uneasiness; but if the air be throughly noxious, and the mouse happens to get a full inspiration, it will be impossible to do this before it be absolutely irrecoverable.

If that description made you feel bad for the mice, you should know that you are not the first to have that reaction. At least part of the time he was making these experiments, Dr. Priestly was a tutor at the Warrington Academy. A colleague of his at Warrington had a daughter named Anna Laetitia Aikin, later Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who grew up to be a prominent woman of letters. One of her early works was a poem, dedicated to Dr. Priestley, called The Mouse’s Petition. The poem was written from the point of view of a mouse that had been trapped by Dr. Priestley and lamented it’s prospective demise on the alter of scientific research. As the story goes, Anna placed the poem in the trap with the mouse, and when Dr. Priestley found it in the morning, he set the mouse free. Scientists, after all, are not completely heartless.

Beer of the week: Rusty Red Ale – Building on the work of Dr. Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier demonstrated that respiration and combustion are forms of oxidization: oxygen bonding with other elements. Like respiration and combustion, rust forming on iron is a form of oxidization. This red ale is from Wisconsin’s O’so Brewing Company. It pours a dark red-brown with a head that dissipates very quickly. The aroma is mostly of roasted malt. The beer is bready, and the flavor follows. It is pleasant and malty, but I’d like a little more flavor. Even more caramel malt or more hops bitterness. Or both.

Reading of the week: The Mouse’s Petition by Anna Laetitia Barbauld – Barbauld’s narrator mouse makes compelling appeals that are both philosophical and sentimental. The poem also has a line that makes me curious about how intimate the author was with Dr. Priestley’s work. The mouse claims that “The cheerful light, the vital air, / Are blessings widely given.” The term “vital air” was one of the names given to oxygen, so it is possible that Barbauld was making a specific reference to Dr. Priestley’s experiments with different gasses. Also, lest the reader get the wrong idea about the good doctor, Barbauld added a note to this edition of the poem to say that she did not mean to attribute any cruelty to Dr. Priestley, of whom she maintained the highest regard.

Question for the week: The use of animals in scientific research is a touchy subject. Some extremely important discoveries have resulted from the death and suffering of countless animals. Is there anything like a clear line that can be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable animal testing? For example, might we agree that testing cosmetics on animals is never ok, or that testing prosthetics on animals is always ok?

I Don’t Know

When Fanny Price’s cousins in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park learned just how deficient her education had been, they were most unkind.

“Dear mama, only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together—or my cousin cannot tell the principal rivers in Russia—or, she never heard of Asia Minor—or she does not know the difference between water-colours and crayons!—How strange!—Did you ever hear anything so stupid?”

When compared to their own education, Fanny’s was woefully inferior.

“I cannot remember the time when I did not know a great deal that she has not the least notion of yet. How long ago it is, aunt, since we used to repeat the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns.” “Yes,” added the other; “and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the Heathen Mythology, and all the Metals, Semi-Metals, Planets, and distinguished philosophers.”

I would certainly have some trouble putting the map of Europe together. (Especially around the Balkans.) I also don’t know the principal rivers of Russia or the kings of England. Of the Roman emperors, I can only recount the first handful. But Fanny Price was only ten years old, and from a family of quite limited means; what’s my excuse? Indeed, there are a great many notable holes in my knowledge. Although I am somewhat embarrassed to admit these deficiencies, it is far better to admit them then to pretend that I have learned everything that I can or should. And so, I present a (quite incomplete) list of things that I do not know:

  • How many yards are in a rod, furlong, or mile.
  • The books of the Bible, in order.
  • The constellations and their seasons.
  • How to play a musical instrument.
  • The number and names of the bones of the human body.
  • The meaning of “transcendental”.
  • The presidents of the United States, their vice presidents, and their first ladies.
  • The difference between forfeiture and waiver.
  • A second language (very much in spite of my formal education.)
  • Virtually any modern philosophy.
  • Virtually any Asian or Arabic philosophy.
  • And, of course, there are a great many things that I do not know that I do not know.

Much as Dr. Watson was shocked to learn that Sherlock Holmes was ignorant of the heliocentric theory of the solar system, I imagine that my own ignorance on certain subjects must surely surprise others. I will, I hope, remedy at least a few of these deficiencies in time. If nothing else, I have at least one advantage over Fanny Price’s cousins: I know that I have not reached the end of my education.

“If you are ever so forward and clever yourselves, you should always be modest; for, much as you know already, there is a great deal more for you to learn.”
“Yes, I know there is, till I am seventeen.”

Beer of the week: Sarajevsko Premium – Although I could not positively point it out on a map, Sarajevo is the origin of this Euro lager. The brewery is creatively named Sarajevska Pivara. The beer is very pale, and just a little cloudy. The aroma is like that of most Czech lagers that I’ve had, a bit hoppy and a bit malty. I am always surprised how different European beers taste and smell when compared to similar American beers. Sarajevsko is a fine beer, but could be better. More hops would help, for one thing. And it has a slightly sticky mouthfeel rather than a good, crisp finish.

Reading of the week: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – Without giving too much away, Fanny Price ultimately gets the better of her unkind cousins. And as much as this scene demonstrates Fanny’s rusticities and awkwardness, it shows the thoughtlessness and vanity of her cousins and aunt even more.

Question for the week: What do you not know, even though you know that you should?

Harvard Classics Review

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?

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?

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?