This is the sixteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XVI: The Thousand and One Nights
Self-awareness is an invaluable trait. To be virtuous generally is undoubtedly good, but to be so without recognizing and understanding one’s own virtues and failings is stunting. How can one ever hope to improve, or even maintain one’s virtue, without first being aware of oneself?
Consider, for example, the barber of Bagdad from The Thousand and One Nights. The barber, in his own narrative about himself, tells the Caliph that that he is known as “the silent sheik” because, despite his immense learning, he is sparse of speech. He then, with little prompting from the Caliph, volunteers to tell six stories, one about each of his six brothers.
By the end of his lengthy recitations, everybody who’d heard him is “convinced of his impertinence and loquacity.” Although the barber claims to be reserved in speech and action, it proves not to be so.
That misapprehension about his own qualities distracts from the reality that he is actually excellent at what he does. As a “barber surgeon”, he is shown to be quite competent. The barber’s tale appears in the midst of a series of stories about a hunchback who has choked on a fishbone and is thought to be dead by everybody who comes across his body. But the barber, talented as he is, skillfully uses ointments and tools to save the hunchback’s life.
If he had a better sense of his own virtues and failings, the barber would be a better man, precisely because he would know better in what ways he could improve. Instead of coming away as a hero for saving the hunchback’s life, we see the barber is a fool for not understanding himself.
Beer of the week: Lech Premium – This Polish lager is pale gold, with minimal white foam. There is something distinctly different between European macrobrews and American macros. The seem more malty and rounded. Although this particular beer is not especially good, it is certainly serviceable. And, in my opinion, better than equivalent American beers.
Reading of the week: The Barber’s Tale of Himself from The Thousand and One Nights – Within the overall frame story of Shahrazad telling tales to keep the king from killing her, there are several stories within other stories. The barber of Bagdad appears in, and then narrates sub-stories to, the story of the hunchback. This is the part where he introduces himself and sets up his brother’s tales.
Questions for the week: Is it possible to be aware of one’s own lack of self-awareness? Or is that a paradox? In what field or characteristic have you badly misjudged your own capacity?
This is the second in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts will be available here. Volume II: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius
The non-aggression principle (or “NAP”) is an important concept in natural rights theory and contemporary libertarian political theory. Essentially, the non-aggression principle holds that one may not forcibly interfere with another or his property. I’ve heard it expressed as: you are free to do as you like so long as you keep your fist away from my nose and your hands out of my pocket.
Wikipedia helpfully lists several other formulations over time:
“Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” – John Locke
“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’, because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual…. No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.” – Thomas Jefferson
“Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.” – Herbert Spencer
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” – John Stuart Mill
“No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.” – Murray Rothbard
Sounds pretty reasonable to me…
Beer of the week: Mastne Cieszyńskie – This is a really good Polish ale. Mastne Cieszyńskie is light brown and a little bit hazy. The smell is classic and malty with a hint of raisin. The flavor follows the aroma. This is a very enjoyable ale.
Reading for the week: Crito by Plato, 44e to 48d – The fact that Plato is in the same volume of The Harvard Classics as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius seems to indicate the editor of the series sided with the Stoics in the ongoing battle for what school of thought gets to claim Socrates as its own. In this excerpt from Crito, the title character is trying to convince Socrates to escape from Athens, where he has been sentenced to death. In part, he argues that if Socrates choses to die when he might otherwise live, he will be committing an act of violence upon his friends and children.
Question for the week: Particularly in the the formulations by Locke and Jefferson, it is clear that the NAP relies on an underlying assumption of equality. Without that assumption, can the principle still be compelling?
Once upon a time, a radical preacher inspired a new and rapidly growing religious sect. After the death of the preacher, the sect continued to expand. Eventually, the civil and religious authorities of the region came to perceive the sect as a threat to the established order. Agents were dispatched to suppress the sect, often with violence. One such agent came to infiltrate the sect and rise to a position of leadership. From that position, he was able to effectively rewrite the tenets of the newly formed religion in a way that made it much more amenable to rule by the civil authorities. And eventually, the state not only condoned the sect, but adopted it as the official state religion.
Most of you have already guessed that I did not make this story up. The preacher is Jesus Christ; the sect is Christianity; the State is Rome; and the agent is Saul of Tarsus, later known as St. Paul the Apostle. There is no way to be sure that Saul of Tarsus remained a government agent after his “conversion”, but it certainly makes for a compelling interpretation.
Before the conversion, Saul apparently had the governmental authority to execute and imprison Christians. (Although he asserts that his authority came from the Hebrew religious leaders, it is somewhat incredible that the Roman overlords would simply allow people to run around killing and imprisoning other individuals under the protection of Rome.) After the conversion, Paul became a prolific writer. In fact, his writings comprise the bulk of the New Testament, much more than the words of Jesus himself. And when compared with the teachings of Jesus, Paul’s writings are decidedly more “pro-state”.
While Jesus’ position on secular authority (and social hierarchies generally) are ambiguous at best, Paul is all-in on the authority of civil government. Jesus said “render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” At most, this is a bland endorsement of following the law. More likely, when read with the rest of Jesus’ statements about money, this is an indictment of wealth-seeking. “You should not care about having to pay your taxes because you should be concerned with Godly things rather than material things.”
Paul, on the other hand, states explicitly that the emperor has moral authority to rule, and that to disobey the state is to commit a sin against God. Because all power comes from God, every king is an instrument of God’s will. And this position is not limited to good or virtuous kings. Whoever happens to be in charge, be they ever so vile, must be obeyed because they are in power by God’s grace. Grotius explains that for Paul, “the kingly office, even under all circumstances, was appointed by God… [so] regal power would retain its indelible sanctity, though in the hands of an ungodly man.”
That sort of blind obedience is exactly the sort of tenet that a monarchical empire such as Rome would want it’s growing fringe religious group to have. When crimes against the state are punishable by both corporeal and spiritual means, the religion has become a very valuable tool for power.
Beer of the week: Perla Honey – There has got to be some sort of lesson here about “too much of a good thing”. I think that the components here are good, but in the wrong proportions. It definitely tastes like real honey, and the beer is smooth and seems good, but it is impossible to tell under the sheer quantity of honey. It is like taking a shot of honey. If the sweetness were dialed way down, I think this would be really good.
Reading of the week: On the Law of War and Peace by Hugo Grotius – This excerpt from Grotius’s treatise purports to refute arguments that Christian scripture proscribes war. He relies, predictably, on the writings of St. Paul.
Question for the week: If all kings, no matter how despicable, are ordained by God, it is clearly a sin to rebel. However, if a pretender to the throne is successful in overthrowing the king, he becomes the new king and all of his actions are sanctioned. The lesson appears to be that rebellion is only a sin if it is unsuccessful. Is there any way to salvage Grotius’ (or Paul’s) position on this matter without resulting in an absurdity?
Today, the City and people of Chicago celebrate Casimir Pulaski Day. Pulaski was a revolutionary in his native Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. After his faction’s defeat in the War of the Bar Confederation, Pulaski moved to the Americas and continued his work as a freedom-fighter. He, along with Hungarian Michael Kovats, reformed the Colonial Cavalry and died in combat against the British. Chicago’s connection to Pulaski is one of shared heritage; the Polish population of Chicago is reportedly the largest of any city other than Warsaw.
Holidays, whether official or not, are important for people. They should allow people to reflect on and celebrate the important things in life. Since St. Martin’s Day in November, I have tried to find ways to celebrate every day for the myriad gifts I’ve received. Pulaski Day provides a convenient excuse to lift a glass in honor of the things that make life good. From pierogi and beer to brave patriots like Pulaski himself, the Polish people have given America and the world a number of cultural gifts. Pulaski Day is an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate those gifts.
So, here’s to Brigadier General Casimir Pulaski and all of the Polish immigrants who did their share to make this country great! Na zdrowie!
Beer of the week: Kujawiak Export Beer – Although this beer is Polish, it reminds me of Korea. Something in the aftertaste of Kujawiak reminds me of nurungji, the rice that burns to the bottom of the pot. Koreans make tea with this scorched rice and even make candies in nurungji flavor. Kujawiak is a pretty, highly carbonated, golden beer. It smells of sweet malt. Aside from the burnt rice aftertaste, there is not a whole lot of to this beer. I am about equal parts confused and pleased by Kujawiak.
Reading for the week: The Constitution of May 3, 1791 – Although Pulaski did not live to see it, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth adopted a written constitution in 1791, considered to be the second constitution of its kind (after the American Constitution.) The Constitution established the Catholic Religion as the official religion of the state, but “guarantee[s] freedom to all rites and religions”. It also affirmed the obligation of the nobility to protect the peasantry, out of “justice, humanity and Christian duty,” as well as the nobility’s “own self-interest properly understood.”
Question for the week: What does Casimir Pulaski Day mean to you?
The New Year represents opportunity for new adventure. Every single day consists of a series of decisions which may lead to daring exploits, wild escapades, or… comfortable nights at home. (Which may be every bit as fulfilling as any carousal.) Of course, there are also decisions which may lead to ruin. But no matter where one’s decisions lead, the key to enjoying the adventures of life as they come is not to not dwell on what could have been but for missteps, circumstance, or reluctance to take a leap.
In the second novel in George MacDonald Fraser’s series The Flashman Papers, Royal Flash, the aged narrator (and great veteran of outlandish adventure) reflects on as much: “I’ve seen too much of life to fret over if’s and but’s. There’s nothing you can do about them, and if you find yourself at the end of the day an octogenarian with money in the bank and drink in the house — well, you’d be a fool to wish that things had fallen out differently.”
Flashman’s point of view may seem unfair; not everybody will survive to an advanced age, let alone with his mind, health, and bank account intact. But the sentiment is appropriate for all people. Regardless of station, nobody can turn back time and make better decisions. Likewise, wishing that things had worked out differently is always foolish since wishing will not make it so. The best that one can do is enjoy the current conditions and learn from past mistakes. Adventure still lies ahead, one need only take a step…
Beer of the week: Tatra Mocne – The label of this beer is adorned with the visage of an Indiana Jones-type character, so it seems appropriate for a meditation on adventure. On one of my adventures, I spent some time in Poland. While there, I enjoyed quite a few pints of local dark lager. On a recent trip to my neighborhood liquor store, I spotted two varieties beer from the Polish brand Tatra: “Original” and “Mocne”. Since the Mocne can is black and I am not literate in Polish, I grabbed it in the hopes that it was the dark lager that I remember so fondly. Unfortunately, the Polish word for dark is “czarne”; “mocne” means strong. Rather than a smooth dark lager, I purchased a high alcohol (7%) lager, basically a malt liquor. The aroma and flavor are quite standard for a cheap malt liquor. Disappointing, really. Not all adventures pan out.
Reading of the week: The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope – The Prisoner of Zenda is one of the most successful adventure novels of all time. I am familiar with the story more through parody than from reading the book itself. This frantic and exciting excerpt gives a taste of what can result from a deliberate scheme for adventure, or from the mere circumstance of mistaken identity.
Question of the week: What adventure do you anticipate in 2016?
Neil deGrasse Tyson, for those who do not know, is the host of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. He is also a very popular author and scientist. Oh, and the people of the internet love the guy.
Two Tyson posts have appeared repeatedly on my newsfeed on The Facebook recently. The first is a quote from Mr. Tyson:
“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether you believe it or not.”
This is a good soundbite, but what does it mean? At a glance, it seems to set science up as a foil to religion: unlike religion, science isn’t about belief, it is about fact. But no religion, to my knowledge, actually claims that the source of divinity is belief in divinity. Any god that gets his power from the belief of people isn’t much of a god. Any Muslim could say “the ascension of the Prophet is true whether you believe it or not.” Any Christian could say, “the divinity of Christ is true whether you believe it or not.” Neither of those claims is less (or more) compelling than Tyson’s because nobody says that belief creates truth.
Tyson’s real point is that belief (or, more properly, faith) has nothing to do with science. That should be accurate. But truth doesn’t have anything to do with science either. Modern science is not the pursuit of truth, it is the pursuit of repeatable results. Science isn’t a belief system, it is a method. If repeatable results should lead to real truth there must be an intermediate step: philosophy.
Which brings me to the other Tyson post that has blown up on The Facebook. An author from The Week called Tyson a philistine because Tyson said in an interview that philosophical questions get in the way of scientific progress.
To some extent, Tyson is right. Questions about what “the meaning of meaning is” do not lead to scientific discovery. This is because scientific progress and philosophy have a very complex relationship. In terms of method and discovery, science does not require or even leave room for philosophical questions. If it is just about the experiment at hand, philosophy can only get in the way. But the big picture requires philosophy to understand what to make of new discoveries. And what the broader goal of the scientific project is. And even where the limits of scientific method lie.
Whether Tyson actually believes that science is actually opposed to religion or philosophy, I cannot say; all I have seen of his work is out-of-context quotations. But to those people who think that is what Tyson is teaching and that he is right, I advise a review of history:
Nicolas Copernicus, in the introduction to his treatise On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, quoted both the Psalmist and Plato in addition to Plutarch and Ptolemy. (He obviously had a thing for “P” names.) Tyson is an astrophysicist and would no doubt hold up Copernicus as one of the greatest fathers of astronomy. If not the greatest father of astronomy. But Copernicus was not single-minded in his pursuit of repeatable results. To be sure, one of his goals was the very practical aim of creating an accurate calender, but he also sought things that scientific method can not yield by itself: personal growth, appreciation of beauty, understanding of divinity. Science is a tool, not an end in itself. And it is certainly not a substitute for religion or philosophy.
Beer of the week: Tyskie Gronie – Copernicus is probably the best known Polish thinker. (Although Marie Curie is quite popular in these parts.) Tyskie is probably the best known Polish beer. This photo makes it look straw colored and hazy, but Tyskie Gronie is actually golden and perfectly clear. The beer is very carbonated and has a very faint aroma, with hints of grain and cider. The head is white and fluffy but fades quickly. The taste is fairly standard for a big brewery European lager. I would, and probably will, drink Tyskie again. But it is mostly just a session beer.
Reading of the week: On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres by Nicolas Copernicus – Copernicus probably had a number of reasons for including a philosophical and religious introduction to his revolutionary (sorry) treatise. Although I suspect that he really did believe what he wrote, it was probably also a sort of defense against censure by civil and religious authorities.
Question of the week: Why has the “natural philosopher” split into the “scientist” and the “philosopher”? Can’t a natural philosopher exist today?