To You Our Hearts, To You Our Arms

I was not surprised that the recent terrorist attacks in Paris elicited a strong emotional response (at least among people whose facebook posts appear on my feed.) I was surprised, however, that the attacks in Brussels seemed to get far less attention among the same people. The general sense that I get is that the disparity results from the much closer historical and cultural connection between France and the US of A. But I have Belgian friends, and Belgian beer blows French beer out of the water, so I am sending all of my well-wishes in that direction. (Not that my sentiments are worth anything, but that is what I have to give at the moment.)

Whether in Belgium, France, or anywhere else, the occasion of catastrophe on the other side of the world is an interesting opportunity to reflect on our shared humanity. Why do we care if Belgians are bombed? If Frenchmen are shot? If some natural disaster befalls a distant land? Because we are humans, damn it! And so are those people. Do we do anything about it? Well… maybe nothing very helpful. But we at least take note.

Obviously, I am not the first person to ask why we should care about the calamities that befall people we will never meet. Adam Smith pondered the question over two and a half centuries ago in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity.

He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble?

The age of the internet has changed this aspect of life but little. Now our expressions of sorrow and our reasonings concerning effects take place online, allowing us to interact with a much wider group of people. Now we have instant access to news about events that, in Smith’s time, may have taken months to reach us. But perhaps most importantly, we can now see what’s happened in photographs and videos, bringing every tragedy closer to home in a way that Smith believed foreign events could never be. This, of course, cuts both ways. The immediate and graphic way in which we are able to perceive these events increases the impact of terrorism. But it also allows us to more readily experience the shared humanity that drives us to care at all.

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Beer of the week: Chimay Grande Réserve a.k.a. Chimay Blue – When I visited Belgium a few years ago, I imbibed many excellent beers. Like La Trappe, Chimay produces “Authentic Trappist Ale” inside the walls of a monastery. This, their strong dark ale, is orange-brown with a creamy tan head. The beautiful aroma is sweet and slightly sour. The ale itself is super smooth. The flavor is full, sweet, and delicious with notes of sweet biscuit.

Reading of the week: The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith – After the above-quoted section, Smith goes on to discuss the conflict between self-love and humane impulses. He attributes much to what Freud would later call the superego.

Question of the week: What do you do in response to distant catastrophes?


Confessions of an Belgian Blonde Ale Drinker

“Champagne’s funny stuff,” according to Jimmy Stewart’s character in The Philadelphia Story. “I’m used to whiskey. Whiskey is a slap on the back, and champagne’s heavy mist before my eyes.”

Different alcoholic drinks have different effects on people. Some of those effects are apparently personal rather than universal. I have a friend who stopped drinking moonshine because it produced in her a very melancholy drunk. I have another friend who has sworn off tequila because it made him “rambunctious.” Although wild or irresponsible behavior while drunk on tequila is a common trope, there are others in whom tequila produces much more mellow effects.

Some people are made warm and affectionate by red wine. This is something of a double-edged sword. Warmth and affection can both be good things, but wine can only produce these up to a point before they become grotesque. According to Thomas De Quincy in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, “wine unsettles and clouds the judgement, and gives a preternatural brightness and a vivid exaltation to the contempts and the admirations, the loves and the hatreds of the drinker… In the sudden development of kind-heartedness which accompanies inebriation there is always more or less of a maudlin character, which exposes it to the contempt of the bystander. Men shake hands, swear eternal friendship, and shed tears, no mortal knows why; and the sensual creature is clearly uppermost.”

But that is only true after a point. De Quincy admits that he always found “that half-a-dozen glasses of wine advantageously affected the faculties—brightened and intensified the consciousness, and gave to the mind a feeling of being ponderibus librata suis,” (balanced under its own weight.) De Quincy’s “sensual creature” only took over after he started in on the second bottle. Before then, the rational man seems to have been the main benefactor of the booze.

De Quincy also relates that “the pleasure given by wine is always mounting and tending to a crisis, after which it declines.” I think that beer also has this mounting tendency, but because of how filling it is and because of its relatively low alcohol content, drunkenness from beer develops more slowly than from wine or liquor. And with an especially strong beer, one often drinks so slowly that the added time makes up for the added alcohol.

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Beer of the week: Delirium Tremens – De Quincy had to deal with opium withdraw, but this Belgian blonde ale is named after the effects of alcohol withdraw. It is very pale in color, with a fluffy head that fades fairly quickly. The beer smells sweet, fruity, and yeasty. The carbonation tickles the tongue as the rich flavor really fills the mouth. The aftertaste lingers for quite a while leaving the hints of spice and alcohol behind. Overall, the flavors and alcohol (8.5%) are very strong. I could definitely see some people being overwhelmed by this ale, though I find it delightful.

Reading for the week: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincy – This excerpt compares the effects of alcohol and opium. De Quincy was criticized very strongly for making opium use sound too appealing. He describes getting high and going to the opera. He paints a picture of himself in a mountain cottage, surrounded by five-thousand books drinking tea (and opium.) I understand the critics; De Quincy makes opium sound pretty awesome. (Until the part about the terrifying hallucinations and nightmares.)

Question for the week: Is there any sort of alcohol that you abstain from because of its particular effects?


Navy Beans

Economics and morality have strange intersections. Many people cannot help but assign moral value to commercial transactions. “It is wrong for athletes to be paid so much while the beer vendor is paid so little.” “It is wrong for bottled water to cost so much.” “It is wrong to sell mustard gas at any price.” For the first two examples, the complaint might as well be against the laws of supply and demand themselves. Baseball players make as much money as they do because the demand for top-level athletic ability is very high and the supply is very low. There is relatively little moral ambiguity in that case. The mustard gas example, however, reaches something beyond economics.

In Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Adam’s son Caleb gives him a gift of $15,000. Caleb insists that he came by the money honestly, having invested in bean futures in anticipation of America’s entry into the First World War. Adam refuses the gift. He makes two claims about why he can’t accept the money: first, the money was stolen from the farmers who could have realized that profit themselves if Caleb hadn’t bought the futures; and second, war profiteering is morally reprehensible.

In response to the first of Adam’s objections, Caleb rightfully denies that the farmer’s were robbed. The farmers were paid nearly 60% over market price for their beans. The profit that Caleb realized on his investment only reflected the risk that he took on himself. If the US had not entered the war and bean prices had remained stable, Caleb would have lost a sizable part of his investment.

The second objection, however, is much sticker. Adam is a member of the draft board. He signs orders sending young men to go and die in a foreign land. Profiting from such a terrible thing as war is, in Adam’s mind, utterly unthinkable. This complaint does not go away simply by saying that somebody was going to profit from the war, so why not Caleb? But is selling beans to the army any different from selling mustard gas to the army? Maybe it is all just supply and demand.

It really is hard to think about this rationally because Caleb is so sympathetic. All Caleb wants is his father’s love. He is convinced that he has done a good job, but his gift is rejected. It is so easy to side with Caleb and to find fault with Adam’s rejection, but maybe there really was something wrong with Caleb’s gift. Maybe it was wrong to profit from the war.

Boot TreadBeer of the week: Boot Tread Belgium Amber Ale – This beer comes from Martens NV, brewers of Willianbräu, Hackenberg, Kinroo Blue, and Damburger. Boot Tread is a pretty amber beer available at the discount grocery store down the street. Even a nation with as proud a brewing tradition as Belgium has its cheap beers, but I suspect that this particular brew is for export only. There is a bit of sweet caramel in the aroma, though not much. Overall, this is a standard, inoffensive cheap ale. Not much more to say.

Reading for the week: War is a Racket by Major General Smedley Butler – After a long career as hired muscle for American economic concerns, Butler finally decides to speak out against the military industrial complex. He maintains that Woodrow Wilson went back on his campaign promise to keep the United States out of the First World War to appease American bankers and manufacturers who stood to lose loads of money if Germany won the war. In this chapter, Butler reviews the obscene amounts of money made by the du Ponts, Bethlehem Steel, and other profiteers during the First World War. Needless to say, Caleb’s $15,000 pales in comparison.

Question for the week: Assuming that it is morally wrong to sell mustard gas to the army because it may be used to kill innocent people, is it morally wrong to sell beans to the army because the soldiers who eat the beans may be used to kill innocent people? What about selling beans to the factory worker who makes the gas? What about selling beans to the mechanic who fixes the car of the factory worker who makes the gas? How far removed must the transaction be before it is no longer “profiteering”?


In Australia, they are called “thongs”.

One of the most common criticisms one sees of politicians is that they “flip-flop”. A politician who changes his position on issues is regarded as untrustworthy. What faith can be put in a man who contradicts himself. But, in the words of Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

In the case of the elected politician, he not only contains multitudes, he represents multitudes. Should not a democratically elected representative be willing to change his stance on an issue if he finds that his constituency has changed its stance? Some might argue that the politician’s primary duty is to reflect the current opinion of the electorate. If he flip-flops, that is only because the people vacillate.

And even if the politician does think for himself rather than repeat to the crowd whatever it wants to hear, individuals change their ideas and opinions all the time. Hopefully, they do not bounce back and forth between belief systems or ideologies willy-nilly, but even the most important beliefs and ideas are subject to change. As William Harvey wrote, good and true men do not “think it unworthy of them to change their opinion if truth and undoubted demonstration require them to do so.” It is much more admirable and sound to change one’s opinion than to stubbornly hold onto an opinion that has been proved to be wrong.

But still, the flip-flopper is reviled. And often, rightly so. The idea that a politician should simply mirror the opinion of his constituency is very problematic. In that case, the best politician has no virtue or integrity of his own. This precludes any man of principle from being elected. And as far as being willing to be convinced of the truth and to abandon old opinions in the light of new information, that is so rarely the case that such a person would not even be called a flip-flopper; he would be called something much worse.

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Beer of the week: Kinroo Blue – Kinroo Blue is basically a store-brand Blue Moon, so I did not expect much. On one hand, this Belgian white ale has the edge on Blue Moon simply because it is actually from Belgium. On the other hand, I have had other beers from Brouwerij Martens NV, some of which were not particularly good. But we must judge the beer on it’s own merits, regardless of its origins. This cloudy, straw colored ale has lots of orange peel and clove on the nose. It is also quite fizzy, with lots of white foam. The flavor is sweet and citrusy, and fairly good for what it is. This is certainly not a great beer, but it is refreshing and reasonably priced.

Reading of the week: On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals by William Harvey – In the Dedication to this ground-breaking work on the circulation of blood, Harvey really lays into those who cling to the natural philosophy of the ancients despite mounting scientific evidence.

Question of the week: Does the elected politician have a duty to his constituency to vote against his own conscience if the majority is large enough?


I Prefer Not To

“Up to a certain point,” observes the narrator in Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, “the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not.” At some point, suffering stops inspiring pity and starts engendering revulsion. Suffering is so repulsive men often cannot bear to look, let alone get close enough to help.

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, the suffering of others reminds one of his own mortality and vulnerability, thoughts that many people would surely prefer to ignore. These thoughts can even be so powerful that one simply cannot bear them.

Another, less justifiable sort of selfishness can also cause a sort of resentment of other people’s suffering. One works hard to make his life as comfortable as possible; this can create a sense of entitlement. Since he has worked hard to safeguard himself against woe and want, he feels entitled to live in a world gated off from the suffering of others.

But selfishness is not the only reason people are repulsed by suffering and attempt to cast off all thoughts of it. Occasionally, one observes a suffering that he can simply do nothing to alleviate. Sometimes there is no balm one can offer, especially when the pain of another is not bodily pain, but distress of the soul.

“I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.”

Beer of the Week: Damburger Export – This is not a very good beer. It has almost no aroma, it goes down like water and it has a hint of metal in the aftertaste. The best thing this beer has going for it is that although the head dissipated very quickly, there was actually some very significant lacing on the glass. I would probably Damburger again if no other beer were available, but in the words of Bartleby:  “I prefer not to.”

Reading of the week: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville, excerpt – This is a strangely haunting short story that is “not an easy read.” The reader learns almost nothing about Bartleby except that he is a troubled soul.

Question of the week: If suffering is so repugnant to people, what was the attraction of the classic freak show or of the gladiatorial games?


Open for discussion

“Read not… to find talk and discourse,” writes Sir Francis Bacon in his essay Of Studies. Studying for the sake of discoursing well, Bacon reckons, is mere ornamentation. This sort of study is different in kind from studying for the sheer delight of studying, which is “in privateness and retiring.” However, this is only the case if by “discourse” Bacon means “winning arguments.” Only with such a narrow definition does his claim make sense.

Discourse is an essential part of studying. In fact, the very act of  questioning Bacon on this point is discourse. Even if it is done alone. The interaction between the author and the reader is discourse (even if it does seem like a rather one-sided conversation.) Moreover, the questioning is the most delightful part of studying. The act of questioning shows that there is active learning going on. And eventually, the reading and questioning becomes too delightful and one absolutely cannot refrain from talking about it with others. Or perhaps writing his own part of the dialogue that was started long ago.

After all, that is the point of this blog. Beer and study can both be enjoyed privately, but if one has a true passion for either, he will invariably seek to share it with others. Beer tastes better in the company of friends and through discourse, philosophy comes to life.

Beer of the Week: Willianbräu Weizen – Like so many beers that find their way to me, this one has an interesting origin. Willianbräu is apparently brewed in Belgium for an Italian “Brand Management” company. I think this is essentially a supermarket house-brand. Over all, it is pretty bland, but I could imagine sitting outside with a few good friends, drinking way to many of these on some warm sunny day. In fact, I rather like imagining that.

Reading of the week: Of Studies by Sir Francis Bacon – It comes as no surprise that Bacon, the great champion of philosophy for the sake of practical ends, advocates learning so that one can properly “weigh and consider” (which almost has to refer to “the judgment and disposition of business”) rather than for discourse or for leisure.

Question for the week: Bacon prescribes different studies for different intellectual goals. Does it seem likely that the mind is actually exercised differently by mathematics than by language studies?


Rising Above

“Not wrong, just different” is a phrase that one is likely to encounter when studying foreign cultures. Table manners fall under this category. Habits such as eating loudly, slurping noodles, or eating with ones hands may be different from place to place, but they are not “wrong” in any absolute sense.

Even in the cases where an absolute wrong is committed, it tends to be a wrong that is committed universally and differs only superficially from place to place. All around the world, the man’s sins are the same, they simply have a certain local flavor. In Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon, a character notes that the difference between scalping an enemy and beheading him is “a mere matter of fashion!”

In the same way, the brutality and viciousness of war differs but little whether it is carried on with missiles or with spears. The biggest differences are the sheer scale of the suffering that these weapons are able to inflict and the ability of the missile to offer a sort of anonymity and distance to its user. An earnest examination of exactly what war entails could hardly fail to render it utterly unpalatable. “Could the great captains of the world float above the scenes of their exploits, they would at last, perhaps, conceive a disgust for blood and conquest.”

Beer of the Week: Hackenberg Premium Export Pils – Hackenberg, brewed by Martens in Bocholt, pairs very nicely with this reading. For one thing, a Belgian beer seems to be exactly the thing when considering the exploration of Central Africa. And Martens Brewery is known for its pioneering technologies, not unlike Dr. Ferguson’s magnificent balloon Victoria. The beer is light gold in color and has a slightly malty aroma. The flavor is surprisingly creamy with just a hint of the typical pilsner hops. All in all, Hackenberg is a fine beer.

Reading for the Week: Five Weeks in a Balloon by Jules Verne, Chapter 20, Excerpt – Verne’s first novel describes the trans-African journey of three intrepid explorers in a hydrogen balloon. In this short excerpt our heroes get a birds-eye view of tribal warfare and compare the barbarism of Central Africa with the barbarism of Europe.

Question of the Week: Is there any sin unique to a specific culture, or are all of the world’s vices variations on universal themes?