This is the sixth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

FRUGALITY: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i. e., waste nothing.
– Franklin

“Every excellency, and every virtue,” writes Lord Chesterfield, “has its kindred vice or weakness; and if carried beyond certain bounds, sinks into one or the other. Generosity often runs into profusion, economy into avarice, . . . and so on.” Frugality (thrift, economy, etc.) is one of those virtues that seems most likely to slip into its kindred vice, parsimony (niggardliness, avarice, etc.) So how can one be careful without being cheap?

Thomas Hobbes would advise prioritizing frugality below ambition. “Frugality,” he writes in Leviathan, “though in poor men a virtue, maketh a man unapt to achieve such actions as require the strength of many men at once; for it weakeneth their endeavour, which is to be nourished and kept in vigour by reward.” To the extent that one’s frugality impedes one’s ambition, the ambition ought to be preferred because our happiness depends on our ability to continually advance.

Of course, this advice is qualified. For one thing, Hobbes concedes that people of limited means ought to practice frugality. It is not totally clear how Hobbes would define “poor men”, but it seems likely that the bulk of humanity falls into that class for purposes of his Leviathan. That particular section of the book starts with an explanation that felicity can only be obtained through constantly fulfilling an ceaseless series of desires. Aside from those at the very top of society, it seems unlikely that many have the resources to properly pursue that “perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.”

Still, even poor folk ought to weigh their goals and aspirations when deciding how to spend their money. Even when money is tight, there are some desires that are “worth it.” Those desires or goals that are likely to lead to long term gain (or, in Hobbes’s terms, are likely to assure the ability to satisfy future desires) are probably worth investing in, and those that are likely to lead to recurring expense (or diminish the likelihood of achieving future goals) should be pursued only cautiously. For example, a tightfisted farmer who purchases a low-quality, second hand plow is probably not doing himself any favors. He is not being frugal, but cheap. Likewise, a thousand dollars spent on a once-in-a-lifetime trip is probably a better choice than buying a thousand dollar snow-mobile (or any other toy) that will result in future expenses in the forms of storage, maintenance, and fuel. In the words of Francis Bacon, “a man ought warily to begin charges which once begun will continue; but in matters that return not he may be more magnificent.”

Beer of the week: DAB Dark Beer – Budgeting for beer is a balancing act where one must consider not only the price, but also the quantity and quality. For example, a six pack of .5L cans of DAB actually costs less than a sixer of 12 oz. bottles of Bud, but tastes much better. And this is not the first time that I have turned to Dortmunder Actien-Brauerei for relatively good beer on the cheap. For a while as a student in 2007, Dortmunder Hansa was my go-to brew. It came in half-liter bottles, and was a serious value for a reasonably good European lager. This dark lager is pretty good. It pours with plenty of tan foam and a decent bready aroma. It has some of the classic dark malt flavors, including an aftertaste of coffee, but without much of the bitterness that often accompanies dark roasted malt. I am a big fan of dark lagers are generally, and this one is no exception.

Reading of the week: Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes – This excerpt is from a section of Leviathan called Of the Difference of Manners. But Hobbes makes it clear immediately that by “manners” he does not mean “how a man should wash his mouth, or pick his teeth before company, and such other points of the ‘small morals’.” What Hobbes is interested in is how one may live in society despite the fact that our happiness depends on our ability to constantly acquire power, presumably over, or at least to the exclusion of, others.

Question for the week: There are beers that fetch hundreds of dollars per bottle on the secondary market. Is it possible that one of those beers is actually hundreds of times better than a dollar beer? Is that even the right way to analyze the price?


Sins of the Author

The last time that I quoted Martin Luther online, I got a single response: “He was an anti-Semite.” Since I had somehow never heard that before, I decided to do a bit of research on the topic.

Apparently, in the early 1520’s Luther wrote that “we must receive [the Jews] cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either.” That sounds like an enlightened and reasonable position.

By the early 1540’s, however, Luther wrote that Synagogues and Hebrew schools should be burned to the ground and that rabbis should be executed if they insist on preaching. He also proposed that the Jews should have their writings and wealth confiscated by the state. That does not sound enlightened and reasonable. That sounds awful, really.

I have a hard time understanding how somebody could make such a dramatic shift, but by the end of his life, Luther was apparently a full-blown anti-Semite. This is a truly disturbing revelation. But the next question is a much harder one: why does it matter?

The response “he was an anti-Semite” is a simple ad hominem attack. Even if it is true, the statement does not reach the merits what Luther said. So what value is it? A man I know once saw an elderly Jean-Paul Sartre get off a bus in Paris. He told me that when he saw how old and ugly Sartre was, he immediately thought, “nothing he says can be right.” Obviously, how Sartre looked had no direct bearing on the quality and validity of his writing. Similarly, one could argue that whether or not Luther was an anti-Semite has no bearing on the validity of his writing.

On the other hand, if we agree that antisemitism is not only reprehensible but it shows a fundamental flaw in morals or logic, then Luther’s writings are necessarily suspect. If Luther makes a claim that it is moral and good to steal from or even kill others because of their religious beliefs, how can any of his moral writings be trusted?

Although compelling, that argument is inadequate. Writings should be judged with a critical eye no matter what we think we know about the author. The knowledge that the author has certain biases or prejudices may be helpful in discovering flaws in the writing, but they do not make an otherwise solid piece of writing not worth the reading. The hypocrisies or vices of the author are not necessarily imputed to the work itself. If so, what book would not be guilty of something?

Further, it seems clear that Luther changed his mind about the Jews at some point in his life. So does his antisemitism only taint everything after that change? Or does a late-in-life sin ruin everything that came before it?

As a final thought: Luther was a beer drinker. Does that mean that beer must be bad because it was favored by an anti-Semite? Or does his beer drinking do something to cancel out the prejudice?


Beer of the week: Wernesgrüner Pils – This German Pilsner is reasonably good. I think that it is quite comparable to Pilsner Urquell (which happens to be the beer that I paired with the last Luther reading on this blog.) The aroma is typical pils with a hint of grass. I would like a bit more malt in the body and some more bitterness from the hops, but overall Wernesgrüner is not bad at all.

Reading of the week: Letter to Jerome Weller from Martin Luther – Written in 1530, this letter gives a little insight into the mind of Luther after he wrote the pro-Jewish passage quoted above but before he started advocating arson. This letter is an acknowledgement that nobody is perfect and that obsession over small transgressions is counter-productive to living a good life. Luther advises that when the devil has you worried that all of your little sins will damn you, “drink somewhat more liberally, jest and play some jolly prank, or do anything exhilarating.” Show the devil that you have faith that your sins can’t destroy you.

Question of the week: Could an author do anything so bad that you determined never to read any of his work, regardless of its quality?

Can’t Get Enough of That Wonderful Duff!

Books, wrote Milton in Areopagitica  “are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.” To destroy a book is to destroy thought itself, a crime nearly equal to that of killing a man. A book has a life as “active as that soul was whose progeny they are.” To what extent, though, do the lives of books ever truly separate from the lives of their authors? Don Quixote, argued by some to be the greatest novel ever written, may give us some insights.

Early in Part 1, a curate and a barber purge Don Quixote’s library of the dangerous books that have led him to believe that he was a knight-errant. (It occurs to me that at the time a barber would have also been a surgeon, so why should he not be the one to “cure” Don Quixote by surgically removing the cause of his illness?) Throughout the comical scene of these two passing judgement on books, they show the strength of Milton’s claims. The very idea of destroying “dangerous” books only makes sense if one believes that there is a great potency in them. Further, the books are discussed as if they are people, e.g. “we must condemn him to the fire.” The curate and the barber are reverse of Milton; they recognize the immense power and independent personalities of books, but they conclude that books must be censored where Milton concludes that they must not.

But the curate and the barber do not strictly separate the personality of the books from their authors. By the end of their inquisition, they become weary and lazy. They begin to mix judgments of the books with judgments of the authors: “Let him be kept, both because the author is my very great friend, and in regard of other more heroical and lofty works he hath written.” So the judges are willing to spare some books, not because of their content, but because of their authors. I suspect that this inconsistency is meant to show a flaw of their methods. If the book is dangerous, how can it matter who wrote it? So the curate and the barber are bad judges at best, and, more likely, totally backwards in their thinking. Books really do have a life independent of their authors.

Don Quixote is an attractive subject for this sort of study for another reason. Supposedly, Don Quixote, Part 1 was published with no intent of their being a second part. The story is complete and deeply satisfying, with no need for further adventures. However, Cervantes wrote in a time without intellectual property law. The character of Don Quixote was so popular, that other authors wrote their own adventures for the man of La Mancha. (The same thing, incidentally, happened with the character Sherlock Holmes.) Cervantes, unhappy to see his character appearing in other writers’ works, published Part 2 as the definitive final adventure of Don Quixote.

Proponents of strong intellectual property law claim that without it, inventors will not invent and writers will not write. But Cervantes continued to write, even after his character was employed elsewhere. Charles Dickens was not protected by IP law, but he still made a living. Once an idea is out in the world, it has its own life. How can the author expect to keep that life reined in?


Beer of the week: Duff Beer – Speaking of intellectual property, the makers of this beer have had to spend a lot of time in court fighting for the right to use the name and logo of Homer Simpson’s drink of choice. Surely an American company that tried this would lose the fight, but this beer is German, and Europeans love sticking it to America almost as much as they love protected place names. The beer itself probably isn’t too different from what the Simpsons creators had in mind. It really is a very ordinary mass-produced beer. The only hint that this is really a cheap German lager instead of a cheap American lager is that there is no hint of corn or rice in the flavor and there is a little bit of hoppy dryness in the finish, maybe even a touch of grass. I overpaid just because of the name, but if this were priced the same as beers of similar quality, I could definitely see my way to imitating Homer and drinking a lot of it.

Reading of the week: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – The curate and the barber put together a mock auto-da-fé for the dangerous books in Don Quixote’s library. The scene is very comical. I particularly like when the curate laughs at the naive old woman who suggests blessing the library with holy water, only to replace blessing-with-water with purging-by-fire.

Question of the week: If a book has a life of its own, isn’t strong IP law a form of slavery? Shouldn’t ideas be free to work wherever they might be of most use?

Put a flag on it!

Given the opportunity to go back in time to the summer of 2001 and invest in the manufacture of American flags, would you? I suppose that the question needs a bit more detail: You have the technology to go back in time, but only to the summer of 2001. While you are there, the only thing you can do is buy stock in a company that makes American flags and decorative magnets for automobiles. You have no power to substantially change any events and buying the stock does not change anything about the present except for how much money you have. Do you buy that stock?

I suspect that there are two common responses to this hypothetical: “Of course. I’d be foolish not to collect big ol’ dividends from the giant uptick in American flag sales,” and “No. The recent proliferation of flag-waving distresses me. Sights of streets lined with the national flag look shockingly similar to images from Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. Over-the-top nationalism and militarism is a serious problem in this country and I want nothing to do with it.”

Early 19th century American sculptor Horatio Greenough offers another reason not to invest in the mass-marketing of American flags: when the flag is everywhere, it loses any special meaning. (It is important to note that Greenough’s complaint came at a time when seeing five American flags in a single day seemed excessive; he could scarcely have imagined the modern applications.) Greenough’s essay Aesthetics in Washington includes a section entitled The Desecration of the Flag. Therein, Greenough explains why he thinks that the flag has no place at taverns or peepshows or even private homes: the flag is desecrated by being used simply as an ornament by anybody and everybody. It is a very special symbol and to have it plastered everywhere greatly diminishes how special it is.

Some might argue that as a free and democratic people, Americans have a right to use the flag however they see fit. Greenough seems reluctant to allow that. But he doesn’t have to. Even if people do have a right to use the flag, that doesn’t make it right. People have a right to “excessive beer-drinking and other gluttonies”, but that doesn’t mean that they should. Asserting the right to fly the flag or be rude or to curse is just bootstrapping simple barbarism to the noble concept of freedom, something the flag once stood for.

Beer of the Week: Tucher Helles Hefe Weizen – This past summer, I saw several American flag beer cans. Can anybody honestly say that using the flag as a marketing gimmick for cheap beer doesn’t cheapen the flag itself? Greenough would be disgusted to see the American flag in the form of a crumpled Budweiser can on the side of the road. Astute observers will notice that the design of the Tucher Helles Hefe Weizen can is patterned after the flag of Bavaria. But Tucher’s can has a problem that even worse than it’s dubious use of the Bavarian flag; the can claims this beer is brewed “in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot.” I seem to mention this former law quite often. I know that it is just a marketing tactic to make the beer sound natural and pure, but when it is patently false it just irks me. Wheat was not an acceptable ingredient under the Reinheitsgebot (neither was yeast, but that is another issue,) so it is impossible for a hefeweizen to comply with the law. False advertising not withstanding, the beer is alright. It is light and cloudy and it smells of banana. The flavor matches the smell exactly, which is actually a bit of a shame because it doesn’t really have any spice or bite at all; it is just sweet and smooth. It is missing something, but what it does have is pretty good.

Reading of the week: The Desecration of the Flag by Horatio Greenough – This is the second reading choice from an author mentioned in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s English Traits. Therein, Emerson wrote that “Greenough was a superior man, ardent and eloquent, and all his opinions had elevation and magnanimity.” He was also, by Emerson’s account, very handsome. The Desecration of the Flag is a section of an essay entitled Aesthetics in Washington, which also includes an interesting architectural critique of the Washington Monument.

Question of the week: Would you go back in time and invest in the flag company?

Alternatively: Is it not profoundly ironic that many of the people who would purchase American flag underpants or special edition American flag beers are the people who claim the most respect for the flag itself? (Unfortunately, I suspect that this hypothetical person is not self-aware enough to express his opinions about the flag in this way: “Flag burning should be a crime and I regard it in no way hypocritical that I leave shit stains on a pair of boxers that are designed to look like Old Glory.”)

It’s not what you know; it’s who you know. Also, what you know.

Today I watched a marathon of the television show Shark Tank.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, if I remember high school English class correctly, was a close friend and mentor of Thoreau. He also had a correspondence with Walt Whitman. Whitman, it seems, was acquainted with Oscar Wilde. (And if the rumors are true, they were “well acquainted”, if you catch my drift.) But Emerson’s connections did not stop there.

In his book English Traits, Emerson describes meeting and conversing with a number of great artists and literary figures of his day: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, William Wordsworth, Thomas de Quincey, and more. I suppose that it should not be shocking that these sorts of gentlemen would move about in the same circles, but I still find it remarkable that so much talent and intellectual power should be found among a small group of people who know each other. It calls to mind Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle and Theophrastus, although those gentlemen were all in the same city*.

Even more interesting than the people Emerson met was the conversations that they had. In English Traits, he describes conversations about a wide range of topics, from poetry and politics to art and architecture. These men were not just writers, they were well educated and extremely well rounded intellectuals. Reading this book has made my painfully aware of my own educational deficiencies. I imagine being introduced to Emerson and the conversation flagging. He, naturally, would want to talk about modern trends in art and philosophy. I would sheepishly admit that I know nothing about either subject and ask if he’d ever seen Shark Tank.

Beer of the Week: Köstritzer Schwarzbier – One would expect me to pair an English beer with English Traits. However, I chose a German beer to help make up for something that Emerson missed out on. When he traveled Europe, Emerson did not visit Germany because Goethe was already dead. Not only did Emerson not get to meet Goethe, he didn’t get to drink delicious German beers! “Schwarzbier” means “black beer”, and Köstritzer lives up to the name. It is not quite as black as pitch, but very little light makes it through when the glass is held up to the light. The aroma is mostly malty. The flavor has plenty of influence from the dark-roasted malt, but there is also a nice balance of hops to round out it out. The feel is light and refreshing for a beer this dark. Overall, this is a very nice beer.

Reading for the Week:  English Traits by Ralph Waldo Emerson – This selection of English Traits includes Emerson’s account of his meeting with Walter Savage Landor (to whom he was introduced by the very well known American sculptor Horatio Greenough.) They discussed everything from ancient art to entomology. What an fascinating conversation that must have been.

Question for the week: What is the reason that there are apparently so few thoroughly rounded intellectuals these days? Is it because of increased disciplinary specialization?

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”

My college experience included a mandatory music tutorial. Singing was a big part of the class. Everybody was required to learn and sing works by Mozart, Palestrina and, naturally, St. John’s alumnus Francis Scott Key.

Although every single student was required to take this course, rumor has it that some professors refused to teach it on philosophical grounds. Their objection was not that it was an unfair requirement or that the forced singing was cruel; their objection was that the music was too good. These professors were non-Christians, and since the bulk of the music we studied was religious, they were concerned that the beauty and power of the music would break down their rational defenses against religion. Being forced to listen to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion over and over might undermine their reason and and convert them. Music is that powerful.

Nobody seemed concerned that listening to Don Giovanni over and over might turn them into amazing lovers.

Beer of the Week: Warsteiner Premium Verum -“Verum” means “truth”. Whether the name implies that it is “truly premium” or a “true pilsner”, I do not know. Perhaps the meaning could be that this is “true beer”. Although a bit light on both smell and flavor, I could get behind the claim that this is “true beer.” This seems like a very solid, if not exceptional, European pilsner; and to me a good pilsner is true beer.

Recording for the Week: Ave Verum Corpus by Wolfgang Mozart – Instead of a reading this week, there is an audio recording. There are plenty of wonderful pieces of music that I could have used to illustrate the point about the power of music, but I could not pass up the opportunity to pair Premium Verum beer with Ave Verum Corpus. Not being able to understand Latin is no defense against the power this piece of religious music. The music is so beautiful that the words simply must be right; how can something so wonderful be wrong?

(Then again, the titular “magic flute” in Mozart’s great opera has been claimed by some to be little more than a thinly veiled dick joke. So beautiful music doesn’t always carry with it profound truth.)

Question for the week: Almost everybody has felt music effect their mood, but has it ever effected your reason?

Scanning the Vault of Heaven

This is a very popular time of year for people to go on vacations. You can tell by all of the beach photos showing up on your facebook feed. So (aside from drinking beer) what is the best way to relax while on holiday?

Turn of the century astronomer Simon Newcomb had a few thoughts on the subject. In his essay The Extent of the Universe, Newcomb writes that “Bodily rest may be obtained at any time by ceasing from our labors, and weary systems may find nerve rest at any summer resort;” but that is merely physical rest. To rest the mind and the soul he prescribes contemplation of the night sky:

“I know of no way in which complete rest can be obtained for the weary soul—in which the mind can be so entirely relieved of the burden of all human anxiety—as by the contemplation of the spectacle presented by the starry heavens.”

The movements of the heavenly bodies are regular, ordered and unchanging. (Well, not exactly unchanging, but Newcomb points out that the amount of change over the whole history of human existence has been all but imperceptible.) This is why the astronomer Ptolemy asserted that the study and contemplation of the skies instills the soul with “the sameness, good order, due proportion, and simple directness contemplated in divine things.”

So even if you don’t get a chance to go on a fancy vacation, pick a clear night when you can lie on your back with a beer in hand (be careful when trying to drink in that position) and marvel at the beauty and order of the heavens. “The thinking man who does this under circumstances most favorable for calm thought will form a new conception of the wonder of the universe.”

Beer of the week: 5,0 Original Export – Despite only 5.2% alcohol it does taste more strongly of alcohol than the 5.0% 5,0 Original Pils. The whole brand is about making beer as cheaply as possible, so it is hard to be disappointed. It isn’t very good, but is exactly what it aims to be: a drinkable, very cheap beer. (No surprise that it is a product of Oettinger.)

Reading of the week: The Extent of the Universe by Simon Newcomb, Excerpt – In the hundred or so years since Mr. Newcomb died, tremendous advances and discoveries have occurred in the field of astronomy, but that is no reason to stop reading his work. The philosophical truths about the contemplation of the heavens remain unchanged.

Question of the week: Why does Newcomb think that the contemplation of the heavens can relieve anxiety while Pascal claims that thinking about the vastness of space fills him with dread? Is the difference in how they are thinking about the subject? Or is it due to a fundamental difference in the men themselves?