One of the great joys of reading widely is seeing how authors and ideas respond to each other. This referencing, refuting, and rephrasing done throughout history that has led some to think of the entire development of literature and philosophy as an ongoing conversation. Take, for example, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. That didactic poem was an exploration of the teachings of Epicurus, who lived and wrote some 300 years before Lucretius. In it, Lucretius writes:
Sweet it is, when on the great sea the winds are buffeting the waters,
to gaze from the land on another’s great struggles;
not because it is pleasure or joy that any one should be distressed,
but because it is sweet to perceive from what misfortune you yourself are free.
Sweet is it too, to behold great contests of war in full array over the plains,
when you have no part in the danger.
Some 1,800 years later, the poetess Charlotte Smith responds Lucretius. She also describes the pleasure of looking watching the sea from a safe spot on the shore, but watching men suffer and die takes all of the sweetness out of it:
The upland shepherd, as reclined he lies
On the soft turf that clothes the mountain brow,
Marks the bright sea-line mingling with the skies;
Or from his course celestial sinking low
The summer sun in purple radiance glow
Blaze on the western waters; the wide scene
Magnificent and tranquil seems to spread
Even over the rustic’s breast a joy serene,
When, like dark plague-spots by the demons shed,
Charged deep with death, upon the waves far seen
Move the war-freighted ships; and fierce and red
Flash their destructive fires–The mangled dead
And dying victims then pollute the flood.
Ah! thus man spoils glorious works with blood!
Where Lucretius perceives the suffering of others as a sweet reminder of our own relative security, Smith sees the suffering of others (particularly the human-inflicted suffering) as a great mar on the otherwise awe-inspiring world.
This reading of Smith as an answer to Lucretius is supported further by her poem The Emigrants. The poem begins on the cliffs of the English coast, facing France, a country in the midst of a bloody revolution. Shortly before encountering refuges from the conflict, the narrator announces:
For never yet could I derive relief;
When my swol’n heart was bursting with its sorrows,
From the sad thought, that others like myself
Live but to swell affliction’s countless tribes!
Again, where Lucretius finds sweetness in knowing that others suffer more than he, Smith derives no relief. In fact, it seems to make her own suffering even worse; not only must she endure her own sorrows, but also the knowledge that others seem to live only to suffer.
Despite these differences in perspective on the afflictions of others, Lucretius and Smith have a similar opinion about what life would be most enjoyable: one of isolation. For Lucretius, this isolation is found in philosophy, where he would “dwell in the calm high places, firmly embattled on the heights by the teaching of the wise.” For Smith, the desired isolation appears to be more literal:
How often do I half abjure Society,
And sigh for some lone Cottage, deep embower’d
In the green woods, that these steep chalky Hills
Guard from the strong South West; where round their base
The Beach wide flourishes, and the light Ash
With slender leaf half hides the thymy turf!—
There do I wish to hide me; well content
If on the short grass, strewn with fairy flowers,
I might repose thus shelter’d.
Nearly two thousand years separate Lucretius and Smith, and yet they each appear to play a part in the ongoing conversation. The common inquiry into the human condition makes each text richer, and the whole of the Western canon that much grander.
Beer of the week: Optimator – This doppelbock comes from Munich’s Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu. It is a pretty, dark brown with a quickly dissipating head of small bubbles. The aroma has hints of ripe, dark fruit. Optimator is not syrupy, exactly, but it is very rich and full. This is a good beer to sip on over a longish period of time; not just because of the 7.5% alcohol content, but also because the flavor opens up a bit as the beer warms.
Reading of the week: The Emigrants by Charlotte Smith – The French Revolution must have been a very perplexing event for the English. To side with the monarchy was to side with England’s perennial adversary. To side with the revolutionaries was to oppose the very notion of divine right. But the countless victims of such a regime change, no matter their allegiance, are worthy of our pity.
Question of the week: What works do you see as responses to earlier writings?
This is the thirty-eighth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXVIII: Harvey, Jenner, Lister, Pasteur
The label on this week’s beer (pictured below with a pretty sweet lava lamp) makes the same claim as innumerable other German beers. In case you do not read German, bottle says that this beer is brewed in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian “Beer Purity Law.” I have railed against that law in the past, but there are a few things that I would like to set straight.
For some background, the original Bavarian Reinheitsgebot was enacted in 1516. In short, the law regulated the ingredients allowed in beer. Under the Reinheitsgebot, beer could be made only with water, malted barley, and hops. Ostensibly, the law was intended to protect consumers from beer made with inferior ingredients. In practice, it stifled the innovative use of other sources of fermentable sugars, such as wheat or rye, as well as herbs or spices that could be used as an alternative to hops. It also proved to be an effective barrier to the importation of foreign beers that might include such ingredients.
When I discussed the Reinheitsgebot before, I claimed that the Reinheitsgebot was enacted as part of a scheme of protection for the local bakers’ guild. By reducing the demand for wheat and rye, the law reduced prices for those grains, much to the advantage of the bakers. However, I have also heard that the Duke of Munich owned virtually all of the hops farms in Bavaria. As if monopoly status was not enough, the duke used the law to force brewers to buy from him rather than use other herbs or spices to bitter their beer. Either way, the Reinheitsgebot is economic protectionism disguised as consumer protection. Whether it was for the benefit of the baker’s guild or the hops growing monopoly, it was certainly at the expense of everybody else. This sort of economic law was called “legal plunder” by French economist Frédéric Bastiat.
Additionally, I have asserted that the law is now only a marketing ploy. However, a version of the law does still exist on the books in Germany. It only applies to domestic beer production though, so non-conforming imports are now allowed into the country. Its value other than as a marketing ploy is totally unclear to me, especially at a time when innovative brewers around the world are experimenting with new styles and ingredients.
Finally, astute readers will have noticed that yeast is not listed as an acceptable ingredient. Back in 1516, yeast was still centuries from being discovered. It was not until Louis Pasteur’s scientific experiments in the middle of the 19th century that we learned that alcoholic fermentation is the product of living yeast cells. Consequently, the modern version of the law lists yeast as a valid ingredient, as well as ground hops and hops extract. Obviously, yeast has always been used in beer making, even if the brewers did not actually know what it was. Hops extract, however is anything but traditional.
I still think that the Reinhietsgebot was a bad law when it was passed and that the current version is no better. I am glad that my own beer choice is not limited by that law.
Beer of the week: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen – This dark brown rauchbier – German for smoked beer – comes from Bramberg, Germany. The name refers to the fact that the malt is smoked in a kiln over burning beechwood. It pours with plenty of tan head. The aroma is primarily of smoke, as is the flavor. For all the smoke, it is not overbearing. Especially as it warms, Schlenkerla shoes itself to be a very well-balanced brew.
Reading of the week: The Physiological Theory Of Fermentation by Louis Pasteur – For thousands of years before Pasteur’s discoveries, humans have used yeast for brewing and baking. In this excerpt, he describes in part how brewers unknowingly created the ideal conditions for yeast growth and fermentation.
Question for the week: Is yeast really an “ingredient” in beer? Usually, it is added to the wort, where it multiplies and ferments the sugars, and then it is filtered out. That makes it seem more like a process than an ingredient.
This is the thirty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXVI: Machiavelli, More, Luther
It has been said there is no surer sign that an intellectual adversary is defeated than when he stops attacking your ideas and starts attacking you. Martin Luther writes in his Letter to Pope Leo X, “when we can repel the truth by no other pretence, we escape by attributing bitterness, impatience, intemperance, to our adversaries.”
Anybody who follows political news should be aware that this is the standard tactic of all of the most prominent politicians and pundits. (Obviously not the ones that you like and support. You are far to intelligent to fall for such an obvious logical fallacy. And your favorite politicians and talking heads are too upright to stoop to such petty tactics.) Rather than throughly rebutting and defending ideas, these people simply attack the ideas’ proponents. Consider this representative hypothetical:
A: “We should have a flat tax.”
B: “A is a philanderer.”
It is easy, in such a case, to identify the ad hominem and dismiss it as irrelevant. So what if A is a philanderer? That tells us nothing about whether his proposed tax policy is good bad or indifferent. B’s attack is totally unrelated to A’s proposal.
However, one of the most popular forms of ad hominem can be harder to spot. The appeal to hypocrisy (also known as tu quoque or whataboutism) often appears to be on point. For example:
A: “We should support traditional family values.”
B: “A is a philanderer.”
In this case, B’s statement seems relevant. The fact that A is a philanderer certainly appears to bear on the topic of family values. This appeal to hypocrisy is so attractive precisely because it has the semblance of logical refutation. But on closer inspection, the response does not actually refute A’s statement. Rather, it simply attacks A personally. It is totally possible that A’s statement about family values is right, no matter how bad of a spouse A is personally.
The biggest problem with analyzing ad hominem attacks is that if they are true, they may actually have some decision-making value. Whether A is a philanderer does not directly bear on the merits of his tax plan, but it does call into question whether he can be trusted to direct public funds. If his spouse cannot trust him, how can the voters?
(By the way, this example is particularly fertile ground ground for the appeal to hypocrisy. Politicians across the spectrum have bashed opponents for marital infidelity while defending members of their own ranks on the grounds that their personal lives do not effect their ability to govern. Whether they are right when they bash or right when they defend is not important for our purposes. At best, the very fact that they are inconsistent calls into question their motives. At worst it calls into question their reasoning powers. But in any event, it doesn’t really tell us anything about any substantive arguments, only about the people making them.)
And of course, this is true of most ad hominem attacks. Calling somebody a hypocrite, racist, or misogynist is not a refutation of any of their particular ideas or positions; it is merely a personal attack. But if the allegation of hypocrisy, racism, or misogyny is true, it (quite reasonably) makes us question their motives, reliability, and capacity.
The key, as I see it, is to readily identify ad hominem attacks, and give them the weight that they deserve. In the context of a debate of actual issues, that weight extremely low. When possible, ideas should be assessed on their own merits, not on those of their proponents.
Beer of the week: Julius Echter Hefe-Weissbier – This wheat beer from Würzburger Hofbräu is named for Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn, a leader of the Counter-Reformation, who used his power as Prince-Bishop of Würzburg to combat Lutheranism. I doubt he’d like me pairing this beer with a reading in which Luther writes that the Catholic Church “stinks in the nostrils of the world.”
As for the beer, it is hazy and orangish. The foam consists of large, quickly dissipating bubbles. The aroma has some of the classic banana notes of a German hefeweizen. Ultimately, the flavor is a bit underwhelming. This beer is pretty good, but not great.
Reading of the week: Martin Luther to Pope Leo X – It is no mere coincidence that this post was inspired by a Luther reading. Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post addressing a particular ad hominem criticism of Luther. In this letter, he follows up his statement about ad hominem attacks with several paragraphs of blatant ad hominem criticisms, ending with calling the Catholic Church “the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death, and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness.” What a hypocrite!
Question for the week: Do you know of any politicians or pundits who consistently stick to the issues and avoid the ad hominem tactic?
This is the twenty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXVI: Continental Drama
What do John Wilkes Booth, Marcus Junius Brutus, and William Tell have in common? That question would hardly need answering if not for the fact that so many people only remember William Tell for shooting an apple off of his son’s head. Aside from that spectacular display of marksmanship, Tell’s truly remarkable act was the assassination Hermann Gessler, the Austrian governor in Switzerland. And like every other political assassin, Tell had his reasons.
In Friedrich Schiller’s dramatization of the Tell legend, Gessler is a cruel despot. The law that drives the plot of the story is one which makes it a capital offense not to kneel before Gessler’s hat, hung upon a pole. It is the enforcement of this draconian rule that brings Gessler and Tell into conflict.
By the way, the word “draconian”, like so many other words, enjoys popular usage without its origin being generally well-known. Draco was a legislator, but not a tyrant. Just about 2,600 years ago, he promulgated the first written legal code for the city of Athens. And the Draconian Code was a doozy.
According to Plutarch, “Draco’s laws… were too severe, and the punishment[s] too great; for death was appointed for almost all offences, insomuch that those that were convicted of idleness were to die, and those that stole a cabbage or an apple to suffer even as villains that committed sacrilege or murder. So that Demades, in after time, was thought to have said very happily, that Draco’s laws were written not with ink but blood; and he himself, being once asked why be made death the punishment of most offences, replied, ‘Small ones deserve that, and I have no higher for the greater crimes.'”
Anyway, Gessler was cruel, particularly in his treatment of fathers. For failing to kneel to a hat, Tell was forced to choose between execution and shooting an apple off of his son’s head. Another father was blinded for not informing on his son. It’s clear that to Schiller and the Swiss who regard Tell as a hero, one’s allegiance to family is far more important than one’s allegiance to civil authority. A hierarchy of values that Gessler, like most civil authorities, resented.
Beer of the week: Wolters Pilsner – Tell was Swiss and his son was called Walter. This beer is German and is called Wolters. Close enough? I want to like Wolters more. The brand was acquired by the international beer behemoth InBev a while back, but has since become independent once again. Unfortunately they make a pretty average German pils. It is pale gold, with a quickly fading head of large bubbles. The aroma is faint, and primarily of malt. Nothing special. Also, it’s been a while since I complained about the “German Purity Law” as a marketing gimmick, but this beer is another offender. “Hops extract” was almost certainly not invented yet when the Reinheitsgrebot was enacted, yet it is an ingredient in this beer that is purportedly “brewed in strict accordance to the German Purity Law.” (Which, by the way, is not draconian, because it is not enforced at all.)
Reading of the week: William Tell by Friedrich Schiller, Act One, Scene One – Although Gessler is clearly the villain of the play, the Swiss may have driven him to his cruelty. The first act of defiance by Tell is helping the murderer of a government official escape justice. (To be fair, we learn that the murder was committed in response to “unseemly overtures” the official had made to the killers wife, which lends further support to the reading that the real moral of the play is to prioritize familial loyalty over obedience to civil authority.) But everybody that the murderer encounters in this scene approves of the killing and is willing to aid him in making his escape. Gessler must rule with an iron fist if the people will not even consent to the prosecution of an axe murderer. (Did I mention that the murder was committed by cleaving the official’s skull with an axe?)
Question of the week: Criminal penalties generally serve four purposes: rehabilitation, retaliation, prevention (preventing the offender from offending again by being incarcerated, incapacitated, or dead), deterrence (setting an example to deter others from offending.) How does one even begin to balance those objectives?
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.
“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?
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?