This is the fifteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XV: Pilgrim’s Progress, Donne & Herbert, Bunyan, Walton
In his youth, the poet John Donne had a motto: “How much shall I be changed, before I am changed!” Of course, he was right. As the ancient saying goes, change is the only constant, and humans prove no exception to that rule. Even how we react to change changes over time.
“Variable, and therfore miserable condition of Man;” Donne writes in his Meditation I. He goes on to lament that despite our rigorous efforts to maintain our health, “a Sicknes unprevented for all our diligence, unsuspected for all our curiositie; nay, undeserved, if we consider only disorder, summons us, seizes us, possesses us, destroyes us in an instant.”
Yet, when Donne faced his terminal illness, he embraced the final change. Rather than the careful study of health by means of deliberation “upon [his] meats, and drink, and ayre, and exercises,” as described in Meditation I, Donne more or less abandoned such attempts to remain healthy and alive. He followed through on about half of the regimen prescribed by his doctor, but only did that much for the doctor’s sake. He swore that he would take no more medicine, even “upon the best moral assurance of having twenty years added to his life.”
But it is not very surprising to see a change from fearing death to embracing it. Especially in a man who experienced at various times deep depressions and religious ecstasies. One who went from being a penniless love poet to being a prominent Anglican preacher. How much he changed before he changed!
Beer of the week: Staropramen Premium- Some things do not seem to change. The Staropramen brand has been registered for over a hundred years, and brewing in what is now the Czech Republic has been going on for ten times that long. This is a classic Czech pilsner. It is clear and golden. The aroma is a bit of bread with a bit of those traditional hops. Like the smell, the taste is very well balanced between the malt and hops. This is, simply, an exemplar of the style.
Reading for the week: The Life of Dr. Donne by Izaak Walton – Izaak Walton is best known for The Compleat Angler, a meditation on the art of fishing. He also wrote some biography, primarily of fellow anglers, including his friend John Donne. This excerpt describes Donne’s preparation for his final change.
Question for the week: Like everything else, tastes change. How has your taste for beer changed since your first brew?
This is the last post in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
HUMILITY: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
When I first read Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger, it was paired with his Life of Julius Caesar. This juxtaposition seemed very favorable to Cato. Caesar, a second-rate Alexander and enemy of the Republic vs. Cato, virtue personified and defender of Rome. But a close look at Plutarch’s treatment of Cato makes it clear that the great biographer did not mean for Cato to be taken as the paragon of virtue.
The most pronounced inconsistency of virtue in Cato is his supposed humility. Plutarch shows that below this professed humility was a profound vanity. Cato repudiated his fellow senators for their ostentatious dress. But rather than wearing very plain and modest clothing, Cato wore a black toga that was calculated to stand out more than the even the most luxurious dress of his colleagues. He also made a point of not wearing underwear and sitting with his legs spread apart as if he did not already draw enough attention to himself.
Cato’s vanity is most visible in his visit to Antioch. He arrived to find “a great multitude of people outside the gates, ranged in order on either side the way; here the young men with long cloaks, there the children decently dressed; others wore garlands and white garments, who were the priests and magistrates.” Cato was incensed that the people should have such a grand ceremony in honor of his arrival. Of course, the extravagant greeting was not for him at all; the people were arranged to welcome a dignitary from Pompey. Cato himself, it seems, is the only person who had even thought of holding a parade in his honor. And this accidental admission gave the lie to his professed humility.
And finally, make sure that the audience sees what a hypocrite and poseur Cato was, Plutarch presents his suicide as a farce. Before the deed, Cato reads Phaedo twice. In that dialogue by Plato, Socrates calmly (some Roman philosophers would have argued “stoically”) accepted his fate and drank his poison. After reading this edifying tract on how to die with dignity, what did Cato do? He lost his temper and punched a slave in the mouth, badly injuring his own hand. When the time came to pull the proverbial trigger, Cato was unable to dispatch himself cleanly because he had trouble stabbing himself with his broken hand. He was forced, ultimately, to dig out his bowels with his bare hands. So much for imitating Socrates in his stoic and dignified death.
Beer of the week: Černá Hora Sklepní – This is Černá Hora’s “Cellar style” lager. It is an unfiltered, and therefore slightly cloudy, golden beer. The aroma is bready and the flavor follows closely. Because it is unfiltered, the beer has a bit more flavor than many Czech beers. There is a hint of spice and of apricot and there is just enough hops in the finish to round it out. Overall, this is a pretty good beer.
Reading for the week: The Life of Cato the Younger by Plutarch – A fitting reading would be the section about how Cato loved to drink wine all night and discourse about philosophy. But the suicide scene, presented here, is more on point.
Question for the week: It is probable that this post overstates Plutarch’s intent to show up Cato. For one thing, Plutarch explicitly states that the wearing of black was not out of vainglory. And he also says that Cato afterwards would laugh often at his misunderstanding at Antioch. But can the suicide scene be read any other way than as a farce?
I have heard, and it is almost certainly true, that more new books are published every year than one could conceivably read in an entire lifetime. The same is probably true of blog posts. So cheers to you for spending some of your limited reading time on this blog. It is downright humbling to think about.
“Classics” make up the bulk of my (and consequently, this blog’s) reading. This is in no small part because the status of a work helps to single it out from the ever-growing piles of books out there. To be sure, there are some books that are regarded as classics but are not to my taste. But at least it’s a starting point. Because time is limited and the number of things to read never stops growing, we need help in deciding what to read.
Reader’s Digest has a bad reputation among many well-read folks, but I am not sure that it is well deserved. Obviously, it is somewhat unfair to an artist to publish his work abridged. We must presume that every word in a book was chosen with care, and any alteration changes the whole work. But as discussed above, there simply is not enough time in the day to read everything. So if a skillful editor can present us with a great book cut down to a manageable length, it may certainly be better than not reading any of it. Of course, it has to be done well, but that is why it is fair to say that editing is its own art. Like a translator, the editor is tasked with modifying the original work to make it accessible to his audience. In general, that probably means changing as little as possible. But it takes a very delicate touch to maintain the artist’s vision while still making the work manageable for the reader.
In his essay Of Studies, Francis Bacon writes that “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others…” So there is a time and place for reading extracts or abridgments, just as there is a time and place for deep and thorough study.
The weekly reading on this blog is usually a small section of a longer work, taken out of context. There is usually a link to the complete text, but the advanced webpage statistics indicate that almost nobody clicks on those. Still, I think that this is a necessary way to get across certain ideas. Surely it is better to read a scene from a Shakespeare play or a canto by Pope than none at all. So I acknowledge that this blog does some harm to the original works by presenting only excerpts. But I think that consideration is far outweighed by the value of having short, curated samples available for people with limited time. At least that’s the hope.
Beer of the week: Kozel Černý – Kozel is a very prominent Czech brand. This offering is their dark Munich-style lager. The head is foamy and quick to dissipate. The aroma is of sweet, dark roasted malt. Notes of caramel dominate the flavor. I would like a bit more hops to balance the sweetness. Nevertheless, Kozel Černý would be my go-to Czech beer.
Reading for the week: New Atlantis by Francis Bacon – Although Of Studies is cited above, that (entire) essay has already been a reading on this blog. A selection from New Atlantis seemed more appropriate, since it would be an excerpt from an unfinished work.
Question for the week: The quotation from Of Studies seems to indicate that each book in itself is worthy of close study, skimming, etc. But my conclusion is that how a book should be read has more to do with the time and interest of the reader than about the book itself. Which is more accurate?
“The most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously.”
That is just one expression of the law of noncontradiction. It can be put in a number of ways, but it always comes down to saying that mutually exclusive conditions cannot coexist.
This raises the first classic St. Patrick’s Day problem (the second classic St. Patrick’s Day problem is alcoholism): what is to be made of the Trinity? The trinitarian notion of God is that God is three persons in one being. The Father begot the Son, and the Holy Ghost proceeds from the two of them. Yet, the three are eternal and exist as a single God. This sure looks like a violation of the law of noncontradiction: nothing can be both one and many. Additionally, one cannot be primary and coextensive. That is, one thing cannot both precede another and be coeternal with it.
St. Patrick attempted to explain the mystery with a sprig of clover, known as a shamrock. A sprig of clover, Patrick observed, has three leaves that are all connected. Each leaf is independent and identifiable, yet they form a single shamrock. So the shamrock is both three and one. Just like the Trinity.
The shamrock example, however, is not very convincing. The leaves of the clover are separate and divisible from each other, and no one leaf is the whole clover itself. In effect, each leaf is just one part of the whole. And the mystery of the Trinity is not that simple (hence the term “mystery”.) The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are each believed both totally independent and totally united. An inescapable violation of the law of noncontradiction.
Dante’s attempt at a visual depiction of the Trinity seems more appropriate than the shamrock. Rather than describing the three persons as simple thirds of the single being that is God, Dante describes God as “three circles, Of threefold colour and of one dimension.” Each circle is simultaneously the same circle and distinguishable. He then goes on to state that “all speech is feeble and falls short” of describing the Trinity.
I dare say that he is right.
Beer of the Week: Primátor Stout – Guinness (both original and draught) has already been featured on this blog. So this St. Patrick’s Day beer is a stout from another part of Europe altogether. This Czech beer pours a very, very dark brown and has a head of large, tan bubbles. The mouthfeel of this surprisingly thin. As it warms, though, this beer really shows its rich malt flavor. Not bad at all.
Reading for the week: Paradiso, Canto XXXIII by Dante Alighieri – After a journey through hell and purgatory, the pilgrim Dante makes it to and through heaven to see the very face (or circles) of God. Not included in this reading is the 4th Sphere of Heaven, where the pilgrim Dante see Boethius. In a recent post on this blog, it was noted that Boethius was put to death by the order of King Theodoric the Great. Theodoric, as it turns out, was not a Trinitarian. He was a follower of Arianism, a heterodox view that Jesus, as “begotten God”, is not co-eternal with God the Father and the Holy Ghost.
Question for the week: Paradiso ends with the the pilgrim Dante’s “desire and will” being acted upon by “The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.” I take that “Love” with a capital “L” to be God Himself. Is it better, or merely oversimplifying to think of God as Love itself rather than as a Trinity?
The question “why do bad things happen to good people?” is a classic of philosophy and theology. But rather than address that question head on, perhaps it is better to pursue a more practical inquiry. Once we accept the premise that “bad things happen to good people”, the practical question is “how should one deal with bad things happening?”
Obviously, there is no shortage of literature and philosophy that could shed light on this question. The Book of Job, Augustine’s Confessions, Epictetus’s Handbook all spring to mind, and those are just among the writings that have already been featured here. But time is short and my beer is getting warm, so I’ll limit myself to three examples of how calamity may be met:
When the title character of Robinson Crusoe found himself stranded on a desert island his reaction seems somewhat undignified. He relates:
“After I had got to shore and escaped drowning, instead of being thankful to God for my deliverance, having first vomited, with the great quantity of saltwater which had got into my stomach, and recovering myself a little, I ran about the shore wringing my hands and beating my head and face, exclaiming at my misery, and crying out, ‘I was undone, undone!’ till, tired and faint, I was forced to lie down on the ground to repose, but durst not sleep for fear of being devoured.”
But eventually, Crusoe was able to turn his mind and energies toward practical work. He collected necessary goods from among the shipwreck, including books, paper, and ink. He also set about constructing a habitation complete with shelves and furniture. Only after he had taken care of the immediate bodily concerns of his predicament could he turn to contemplation and religion. It looks like dedicating one’s energy to the labor of surviving is the key to bridging the gap between despair and contemplation. One can’t properly reflect while still in a panic, so Crusoe must settle himself down by establishing his settlement.
But what happens when there is no labor to be performed? What if all work is already accomplished or if all work is futile? This is the condition of Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius was imprisoned by Theodoric the Great on a charge of treason. Realizing that his situation was inexorable, he fell to weeping. Like Crusoe, Boethius was initially consumed by despair. But unlike Crusoe, Boethius had no practical labor to turn his mind from his grief. But he did have a pen and ink. Even without the bridge of practical work, Boethius was able to direct his mind to philosophy. In a prison cell, sure that he would lose his life shortly, he produced what proved to be one of the most influential philosophical works the in world. Boethius was able to move directly from despair to contemplation, without needing some labor to take his mind off of his predicament.
And finally, for those who have neither the practical skills of Crusoe, nor the intellectual powers of Boethius, one can always take the Baudelaire approach to dealing with the inevitable calamities of life: Get Drunk.
Beer of the week: Staropramen Unfiltered (Nefiltrovaný) – This unfiltered wheat beer is quite a treat. Unlike many wheat beers, this one has a strong aroma of floral hops. The beer itself is very cloudy and the remaining yeast provides some extra texture and spice. Although it is sweet, with hints of fruit, the hops and coriander provide a finish that really balances the sweetness.
Reading for the week: The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, Book I, Sections 2 &3 – Last week’s claim that Chaucer was a profound thinker is somewhat bolstered by the fact that Chaucer translated The Consolation of Philosophy from Latin. It was, in Chaucer’s day, perhaps the single most popular philosophical work.
Question for the week: What do you do when bad things happen?
There are complaints in some circles that there are not enough “strong female characters” in modern entertainment. And perhaps that really is a problem with modern entertainment. But maybe that just means that we should look to the ancients. After all, strong female characters are as old as theater itself. Consider The Oresteia by Aeschylus:
The trilogy starts with Clytemnestra, Queen of the Argives, taking revenge on her husband for killing her daughter. Despite the name of the play, she is clearly the main character of Agamemnon. She is both sympathetic and relentless in her determination to make Agamemnon pay for his sins. A woman wronged, Clytemnestra kills the warrior king who led the sack of Troy. A strong female indeed.
The final play of the trilogy, The Eumenidies, is regarded as the first dramatic presentation of a jury trial. And who are the principle participants in the trial of Orestes? The judge: Athena, goddess of wisdom. The prosecution: the Furies, ancient goddesses of retribution. It is true that the Apollo’s defense of Orestes results in an acquittal, and Athena specifically declares outright that she prefers the masculine to the feminine. But the play ends with the female immortals negotiating and eventually contracting an alliance that will preserve the city of Athens and the institution of trial by jury under their patronage. It is the strong, benevolent goddesses that we have to thank for many of the central aspects of our culture.
Beer of the week: Zlatopramen 11 Degrees – Zlatopramen makes a wide range of flavored radlers, but this is their standard Czech lager. It is fairly basic, with a golden color and fluffy white head that fades just a bit too quickly. Aromatic hops lead the smell, with hints of grass. The taste is also dominated by the hops. The beer is not too bitter by any means, but they did not skimp on the bitterness either. Overall, I think this is Czech lager is quite good.
Reading for the week: Antigone by Sophocles – How about Antigone for a strong female lead? Her sister told her that women could not contend with men, and you know what Antigone had to say? “Maybe you can’t contend with men, but just watch me!”
Question for the week: Who is your favorite female character? (Ancient or modern.)