This is the twenty-fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXV: Autobiography, Etc., J.S. Mill; Essays and Addresses, T. Carlyle
It is clear from a review of the titles in the Harvard Classics that Dr. Eliot was a firm believer of the importance of role models and the possibility of learning from experience. His “five-foot shelf” includes a seemingly disproportionate share of biographical works. In addition to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and biographies by Izaak Walton, the set includes autobiographical writings by Franklin, Woolman, Augustine, Mill, Dana, and Cellini.
If the purpose of studying biography is to learn from positive role models, most of these selections are totally understandable. Franklin’s Autobiography is full of folksy wisdom and Puritanical morality. Augustine’s Confessions describe the path to faith and virtue from a dissolute youth. Johns Donne and Woolman were humble and pious preachers whom one would do well to emulate. Excellent role models, they.
But Thomas Carlyle suggests in his essay on Sir Walter Scott (another biographical work) that the value of biography is more than just an appreciation for role models, but an instinctive attraction to people of distinction. “Such is hero-worship; so much lies in that our inborn sincere love of great men!” If we are to emulate the subjects of biographies, we are to emulate them for their greatness rather than any moral virtue they happen to have. And more likely, we are to find that we are incapable of emulating them and should worship them all the more for doing what we could not.
What’s more, Carlyle claims that the attraction to prominent figures is more important than finding truly great heroes to worship. For even in the hero-worship of merely “noted men” is the seed of the value of following the truly great. “Find great men, if you can; if you cannot, still quit not the search; in defect of great men, let there be noted men, in such number, to such degree of intensity as the public appetite can tolerate.”
Here, I think Carlyle misses the mark. His version of history is a string biographies of a few great men who, by power of personality and virtue (in the Machiavellian sense,) were able to drag society upward. In truth, we give far more credit to “great men” than they deserve. It is the toil of the multitude, and the choices of the many that have led to the tremendous material improvements in society. From the spontaneous order of the market to the physical production of the food and widgets that we need and desire, the actions and decisions of each individual has always better provided for the material needs of society than the dictates of any “great leader”. There is plenty to learn from biographies of notable people, but it is a mistake to assume that their lives alone have brought us here.
Beer of the week: Wells Banana Bread Beer – The name says it all. This not-quite-copper-colored ale is banana bread in a can. The aroma is of bananas and spice. Without being too sticky or sweet, this really does taste a lot like banana bread. It is very smooth with enough spicy hops in the finish to make sure that it tastes like beer as well. And delicious beer at that.
Reading of the week: Sir Walter Scott by Thomas Carlyle – Later in the essay, Carlyle writes, “there is no heroic poem in the world but is at bottom a biography, the life of a man: also, it may be said, there is no life of a man, faithfully recorded, but is a heroic poem of its sort, rhymed or unrhymed.”
Question for the week: How does biography compare to other forms of nonfiction? Is it even fair to call biography a subcategory of nonfiction?
There is no doubt that P.G. Wodehouse was a brainy fellow. Although he wrote the nincompoop exceedingly well (Bertie Wooster, for example), he also wrote convincingly bright characters (such as Bertie’s valet, Jeeves). Beyond the characters themselves, Wodehouse displayed his education in the form of humorous references to “the poet Burns“, and other literary giants. An excellent example is from his short story Rough-Hew Them How We Will. The title of the story, incidentally, is taken from a line in Hamlet.
About halfway though, Wodehouse makes this observation on the subject of Chaucer:
“It is pretty generally admitted that Geoffrey Chaucer, the eminent poet of the fourteenth century, though obsessed with an almost Rooseveltian passion for the new spelling, was there with the goods when it came to profundity of thought.”
It is understandable if some people associate Chaucer more with toilet humor than with “profundity of thought.” After all, in The Miller’s Tale, young Absalom is tricked into kissing an anus, and is then nearly blinded by a thunderous fart to the face. He gets his revenge by sticking a red-hot poker where the sun don’t shine. Profound, indeed.
As has been mentioned on this blog before, the works of Aristophanes, Rabelais and Swift are filled with serious thoughts as well as scatological humor. It is a testament to the authors’ skills that these universally regarded writers were able to marry the divine and the profane, the intellectual and the bodily, the profound and the downright childish in their works. This shows both range, and an understanding of the whole of the human condition.
Beer of the week: Newcastle Brown Ale – An English beer is a good pair for the Father of English literature. This attractive red-brown beer has long been a favorite of mine. There is sweet, caramel malt in the aroma. The flavor tracks the smell, with malt dominating. There is not a lot of hops to balance the malt out, though, so Newcastle can be a bit too sweet at times.
Reading of the week: The Parson’s Tale by Geoffery Chaucer – Although The Canterbury Tales was not completed, it is clear that this was meant to be the final tale. However, The Parson’s Tale is not a tale at all, but a sermon on sin and penance. Giving the parson the final word was evidently important for Chaucer’s project. This sermon shows a great familiarity with scripture and doctrine, quoting extensively from the Bible as well as Saints Augustine, Ambrose, Bernard, etc. This excerpt focuses on pride, and although the parson is extremely dry and grave, I find his discussion of current fashion very funny. (Particularly his suggestion that particolored hosery creates the impression that the wearer’s “privy members are corrupted by the fire of Saint Anthony, or by cancer, or by other such misfortune,” and the lamentation that tight hose and short jackets cause some people to “show the very boss of their penis and the horrible pushed-out testicles that look like the malady of hernia in the wrapping of their hose; and the buttocks of such persons look like the hinder parts of a she-ape in the full of the moon.”) The narrator is pretty clearly not trying to draw laughs with this section, but I am pretty sure that Chaucer is.
Question of the week: Who is your favorite potty-mouthed profound pontificator?
Thanks to innumerable news headlines, I know that Washington D.C. is a hotbed for corruption; that Silicon Valley is a hotbed for technology firms; that universities are a hotbed for political dissent. Hotbeds abound. But it was not until I read Politics and the English Language by George Orwell that I even realized that I didn’t know what a hotbed is! And I strongly suspect that most of the writers who use the word don’t know either.
A hotbed, I am informed, is a piece of earth that is heated by the introduction of decaying manure or compost for the purposes of encouraging germination. Presumably, a long time ago, some clever individual decided to speak about a certain locale or community as a hotbed, one particularly conducive to the growth of a certain ideology rather than seeds. It is a very vivid and apt metaphor. Or, rather, it was a very vivid metaphor. It has been so overused that the word no longer evokes any imagery at all. Hotbed is now just an ordinary word, used by writers who are too lazy to think of their own phrases to convey an image.
In search of another example, I typed “roughshod” into a google news search and found nearly 2,000 recent articles that included the word. Politicians ride roughshod over the Bill of Rights, greedy developers ride roughshod over our communities, football teams run roughshod over their opponents. Ironically, the football examples are almost accidentally accurate. A roughshod horse is one that has special spiked horseshoes for handling icy conditions. Football players wear spiked shoes as well and, on occasion, literally run over their opponents. Still, when writers use the word roughshod, they almost certainly do not expect their readers to picture the equestrian equivalent of tire chains. Like hotbed, roughshod is a dead metaphor and its use is simply lazy writing.
As much as I hate to call out Herman Melville, I suspect that George Orwell would have ripped into him for this sort of writing. Just after I read Politics and the English Language, I reread Benito Cereno and finished Billy Budd, Sailor. While reading, I was constantly distracted by lines that would have drawn hefty rebukes from Orwell. At one point in Billy Budd, Melville provided a doubly questionable phrase by both mixing metaphors and using a metaphor apparently without knowing (or caring) what it actually means: “these words so fatherly in tone, doubtless touch[ed] Billy’s heart to the quick.”
Let us break this down, shall we? “To touch one’s heart” is a metaphor as old language itself (probably.) It is hardly objectionable on that count, though; the heart is still the symbolic center of emotion and there is perhaps no better way to say that words inspire emotion than to say that they touch the heart. “[Cut] to the quick”, however, is an expression that occasionally gets used without any real understanding. The quick is the living flesh under one’s finger or toenails. When one trims his nails, he must be careful not to “cut to the quick”, lest he experience a sharp pain. If somebody else cuts one to the quick, the injury is multiplied because of the intimate nature of the injury. The person doing the cutting is no passing stranger and certainly not an avowed enemy; he is somebody who has been trusted to aid in one’s personal toilet. So when I read that words touched Billy’s heart to the quick, I pictured an anthropomorphic heart having his fingernails clipped. Surely that is not the image that Melville wanted to convey, but that is what his words seem to imply. How can a heart be touched to the quick? According to Orwell, such a mixing of metaphors is “a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.” If Melville did not stop to think what his words really conveyed, why should any reader care either?
Beer of the Week: Samuel Smith Pure Brewed Organic Lager Beer – This beer is a bit better and a bit maltier than an average mass-produced lager. However, it simply does not finish strong. There is neither enough malt or hops to really make this beer work. It doesn’t taste bad, but it really should have more flavor. I wanted to like this more.
Reading for the Week: Politics and the English Language by George Orwell – “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Politicians like when language deteriorates and gives way to meaningless platitudes and dead metaphors because it is much safer for them to say things without substance than to actually put forward a clear and concise thought.
Question for the week: While some of the phrases that Orwell objects to are still in common usage, such as Achilles’ heal, axe to grind, others have gone the way of Betamax, such as ring the changes on, jackboot, and take up the cudgel. What more recent phrases have become so overused that they are now devoid of meaning?
When traveling abroad, one often finds that everyday items are really luxuries. The laws of supply and demand are universal, and it is amazing how much money people will spend on something that they would usually take for granted. Among other staggering valuations, I have seen substantial price-tags on peanut butter, asparagus, and cheese. Not even fancy French cheese, stuff that was a few steps above “American Singles“. A very common response to those prices is, “that’s way more than that product is worth!” But does that statement have any meaning?
The problem that people so often have is that they get the idea that the commonly accepted price is the real value of something. “San Miguel can be had for pennies in Manila, so it is not worth $5 here.” That sort of thinking is simply not sound. Items don’t have a set value. The value of anything is determined by supply and demand, and since supply and demand constantly vary, values constantly vary. If San Miguel costs more in one place than in another, it is because the markets support different costs.
An important thing to remember as the consumer is that your willingness to pay (along with the willingness of everybody else) is the demand. If you think something is too expensive, you are right. But if you complain that something is too expensive and you still buy it, it wasn’t really too expensive, was it? On a clear day, I may tell you that Mickey’s Fine Malt Liquor is not worth buying at any price. Yet, in a moment of weakness, I may actually make the same purchase that I’ve regretted again and again. At the time of purchase, though, I clearly think that the beer is worth more than the money I am giving up. Otherwise, the sale would never happen.
To be sure, in retrospect we often feel ripped off. For example, if I knew how awful that Brazilian beer was, I would never have paid so much for it. But what I am talking about here is the asking price for a known good. Now I think that Brazilian beer really is too expensive, but only too expensive for me. For anybody who happens to actually like it and is willing to buy it at that price, it is worth every penny. All transactions in a market economy happen because both the buyer and the seller think that they are getting the better end of the deal.
Beer of the Week: Bass Ale – Bass was once a go-to beer for me. It is a pretty amber beer with a good malt body and a very comforting flavor. However, this batch was brewed in New York and it is not what I remember or expect from Bass. Compared to my memory, this American version is sweeter. It also has a hint of sourness from the grains, like sourdough bread. It may still be above average for large-batch American beer, but I am disappointed.
Reading for the Week: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome – Simply because Jerome could not get any mustard, he was suddenly willing to trade everything he had and more for a single spoonful. He had witnessed this supply and demand problem before: “I heard a man, going up a mountain in Switzerland, once say he would give worlds for a glass of beer, and, when he came to a little shanty where they kept it, he kicked up a most fearful row because they charged him five francs for a bottle of Bass.”
Question for the Week: In a way, Three Men in a Boat is really about conspicuous consumption: a group of friends go on a boating holiday with the (unstated and probably subconscious) intention to display their affluence and social standing by engaging in costly leisure. At what point do things become more desirable because of the apparent disconnect between their price and their “real” value? Are larger natural diamonds actually worth more because they have fewer practical applications?
This week was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the single bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. The battle had a tremendous number of lasting effects. For one, much of the land in and around the town of Gettysburg is now property of the federal government. As a child, I would run and play among the boulders of a section of the battlefield park known as Devil’s Den. I probably did not give adequate reflection to the fact that many young men fought and died among those rocks. But I was six; give me a break.
Perhaps the most notable offshoot of the battle was the inspiration for the single most celebrated piece of American propaganda ever written: The Gettysburg Address. It is almost universally praised as a brilliant piece of oration. In some circles, however, Lincoln has been accused of blatant hypocrisy in the Address. The principal point of the speech is that the Union troops who fought and died fought in defense of the principle of self-determination. In actual fact, the Confederate soldiers were the ones fighting for self-determination. The elected legislatures of their states had, by democratic vote, decided to secede from the United States. Secession was a radical but not unprecedented course of action. If it was more radical than the American Revolution, it was only more radical because as states they had more government input than they had had as colonies.
Secession has been derided as “unconstitutional”, but it may even have been less radical than the creation of the Constitution itself. The Constitutional Convention was brought together to revise the Articles of Confederation, not to throw them out and invent a new government. And the proposed changes were to be approved by Congress and by the states, but the framers specifically included instructions for the ratification of their own new document. These instructions totally bypassed Congress (from whom the Convention originally received the authority in the first place) and also determined that the new Constitution would be effective even without the consent of every state. As it turns out, consent of the governed may not be the great American guiding principle that Lincoln and so many others claim it is.
Beer of the Week: Spitfire Kentish Ale – The Spitfire fighter plane was an instrumental tool of the British military in the Battle of Britain. If either side had a few Spitfires at the Battle of Gettysburg, history would remember the battle quite differently. Mainly it would be remembered as “the battle where some insane time-travelers showed up with weapons that would not be designed for another hundred years and wreaked havoc.”
Spitfire Kentish Ale, however is not a weapon. It is a beer is brewed by Shepherd Neame, brewers of Bishops Finger. As such, Spitfire is also protected by a “Protective Geographic Indicator” by the European Union. Heaven forfend that another beer should be marketed as “Kentish Ale”. Anyway, Spitfire sure is a pretty amber beer. The smell is tangy and sweet and a bit grassy. The full malt body is balanced nicely with slightly spicy hops. It is pretty darn tasty.
Reading for the Week: The Gettysburg Address – This blog post certainly seems to come down on one side of the whole issue. It is important to note that the Confederate States made their decision to secede based on the argument about the spread and maintenance of the institution of slavery. Lincoln was right to start his Address with “the proposition that all men are created equal.” Early drafts of The Declaration of Independence, to which Lincoln refers, included an indictment of the slave trade; it was only a matter of time before the philosophical values of the Declaration came into direct conflict with the awful institution of slavery.
Question for the week: The Gettysburg Address includes the line “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Did Lincoln really not think that this speech would be remembered? If so, was it because he thought that it really wasn’t all that good?
There are some who would call a visit to the Hall Of Fame or trip to Munich for Oktoberfest a “pilgrimage.” For the most part, those statements would be made tongue-in-cheek. But in what way does such a journey differ from an “actual” pilgrimage?
Even traditional religious pilgrimages had an element of vacation about them. Before modern transportation, it would not have been uncommon for people to live their entire life in a small village. The journey for a peasant from a remote farmstead to a city with a cathedral would have to be more than a religious or spiritual experience. He would see products, buildings and even whole classes of people that were totally novel to him. For the more well-to-do pilgrim, the vacation aspect can become even more prominent. Mecca (which has become an absolute byword for a pilgrimage destination) has swanky hotels, fancy restaurants and high-end shopping to accommodate the pilgrim of means. For Catholics, the religious experience is still important, but a trip to the Sistine Chapel is about the art first and foremost.
What really separates the pilgrimage from vacation is the aspect of sacrifice. Sure it takes time, effort and money to go on any trip, but a trip to Graceland can’t really be “offered up” as penance. Especially for the poor or ill, the hardship of the journey is actually treated as a bargaining chip with God or the Saints. “They didn’t answer your prayers when you were praying at home? Make a pilgrimage and let them know you are serious!” There is no reason to expect that Mary’s power to intercede for the ill is limited to a small town in France, but by actually making the effort to travel to Lourdes, the faithful ill make a claim that their effort deserves Mary’s attention. (Attention she apparently isn’t in the habit of giving to homebodies.)
So my trip to England may not have technically been a pilgrimage, no matter how good the beer was.
Beer of the Week: Bishops Finger – According to the label, “Bishops Finger is named after an ancient Kentish signpost found on the pilgrims’ way pointing to Canterbury and the shrine of Thomas à Becket.” What a perfect beer for this post!
Also, there is some interesting background information about the beer regarding economics and politics. Bishops Finger was first brewed to celebrate the end of malt rationing after WWII. For well over a decade after the war, the government imposed rations on food items. Barley malt being a food item, the beer industry was greatly discouraged. (Although rationing was not as severe in the United States, some well known economic thinkers have speculated that the “great depression” was ended not by war-time government spending, but by war-time austerity. Not only did people spend less on discretionary items, they saved more in the form of war bonds. The result being that when the war ended, there was a good deal of private capital accumulated and ready to be invested. But that is another post.)
And now, Bishops Finger has been granted a “Protective Geographic Indicator” by the European Union. Have you ever heard pedants prattle on about Jack Daniels not being bourbon because it is not distilled in Kentucky? Or I about sparkling wines not all being from Champagne, France? Well now they can assert that Bishops Finger is the only real “Kentish strong ale.”
History, economics and protectionism not withstanding, this is a great beer. It is a beautiful copper color with a thick head that laces wonderfully. The smell has hints of caramel and sweet malt. It is full bodied and smooth and simply delicious.
Reading for the Week: The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffery Chaucer – This Prologue paints an amazing picture of society, with all of its strata, in Chaucer’s time. However, this excerpt is not about the pilgrims themselves, but the spring-time conditions that inspire travel.
Question for the week: Where would you go on a beer pilgrimage? Tell us in the comments.
Samuel Adams defended (if not participated in) the destruction of private property as a form of protest. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Ben Franklin was probably some sort of super villain. Besides not being perfect, (who is?) what did these men have in common? Well, they were all talented writers. They were all white. All land-owners. They had lots in common actually. But the most important things they have in common were that they were Americans and they are on this blog’s Reading List. And these two things are related.
I, like so many Americans, have a certain respect and curiosity about great Americans. Because we have a nationality and history in common, their lives and ideas seem to have more direct baring on my own life and ideas. As the Venerable Bede wrote, ” take care to become acquainted with the actions and sayings of former men of renown, especially of our own nation.” Because one’s own countrymen present a more immediate and relateable example, it is easier to take that example to heart.
The book from which I quoted Bede is his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Astute readers may have observed some irony in me quoting a British author when talking about the value of studying the lives of great Americans. However, I regard Americans as supremely fortunate in their lineage. The American government, culture and language all have a mixed heritage, so when I want to study the lives of “former men of renown” I regard more than just Americans as my predecessors. The history of America includes much of the history of England and, indeed, of most of the world. From Homer forward, there is an intellectual common thread that runs right down to the present. And that is why this blog is not only American authors.
One may object that my Reading List has a number of categorical omissions. Every single reading to date was written by a European or an American man. The closest thing to an exception would be the colonial works of Kipling and Orwell, inspired by their time in India and Burma, respectively. Of course, they maintained their Britishness throughout their colonial adventures. In fact, one could argue that there is nothing more British than staying British while colonizing the world. But that is another topic all-together.
Clear omissions include: women and anybody not of European heritage. These are not intentional. The omission of women is the product of probability: this is basically a classics blog and the bulk of classic literature and philosophy has been produced by men. I have read some female authors in my day, but the idea of combing Middlemarch for a 5 paragraph excerpt worth writing about is a bit daunting.
As far as non-Europeans, the problem is that there is a certain remoteness about them. I am not sure how to approach, for example, Confucius because his writings and ideas are not ingrained in the culture around me. I suspect that there are common threads that can be grasped, but they may be harder to find.
So I will appeal to you, the reader: If there is an author or class of authors that you think I should read and discuss here, make a recommendation on the appropriate page or in the comments section. (Just as a heads-up, I am not likely to write about anything very modern or very obscure because the Reading List is only possible because the texts I use are in the public domain.)
Beer of the Week: Old Speckled Hen – America’s mixed heritage shows itself in its beer as much as anything. Although the biggest producers are inspired primarily by central European lagers (cf. the American and Czech Budweisers,) American brewers are getting back to their roots by brewing more ales. And the English have been a big influence on us in that regard. This smooth, malty ale is a real treat. The malt is balanced very nicely by a very pleasant bitterness that lingers slightly, beckoning to be washed away by another smooth, malty sip. This cycle continues until the glass is suddenly empty. Plus it is very nearly the same color as my beard… so that’s cool.
Reading for the Week: the Preface of Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede, Excerpt – Bede is the only Englishman included in Dante’s Paradiso and is the only English doctor of the Catholic Church. So as it turns out, Bede is one of the most renowned men of his own nation, and rightly so. Although much of the Preface is Bede citing his sources, he slips in at the end that the “true rule of history” is “the instruction of posterity.”
Question for the week: What, exactly, is posterity supposed to learn from history?