Equipollence

This is the fourth and final post in a series on skepticism (and Goose Island beers.) The earlier posts can be found here.

One of the hallmarks of Pyrrhonism is arguing equipollent claims. Pyrrhonic skeptics set up opposing philosophical accounts as proof that we are incapable of forming reasonable beliefs. They are always willing to take a contrary position, with the goal of showing that we cannot be firm in any opinion and should therefore suspend judgment. As Montaigne put it:

“If you propose that snow is black, they will argue on the other side that it is white. If you say it is neither one nor other, they will maintain it to be both. If by a certain judgement you say that you cannot tell, they will maintain that you can tell. Nay, if by an affirmative axiom you swear that you stand in some doubt, they will dispute that you doubt not of it, or that you cannot judge or maintain that you are in doubt. And by this extremity of doubt, which staggereth it self, they separate and divide themselves from many opinions, yea from those which divers ways have maintained both the doubt and the ignorance.”

Contrary accounts, with nothing to chose between them, leave us in a state of suspended belief, and therefore άταραξία.

But in The Apology of Raymond Sebond, Montaigne does not restrict himself to openly arguing both sides of any question. Even when he is not explicitly setting up equipollent claims, his overt claims are often undercut by the method of his argument.

At one point, Montaigne derides book learning and the search for knowledge. In part he relies on the quote from Ecclesiastes: “he that acquires knowledge acquires travail and torment.” In context, however, the overt argument against learning seems totally subverted by Montaigne’s delivery. The essay is (at least nominally) a defense of a book by a Catalan philosopher who claimed that man could learn all about God and religion by applying his reason to the world around him. A book that Montaigne had translated himself. And the essay is brimming with quotations from scripture and antiquity. Quotations which Montaigne had, no doubt, learned over a lifetime of diligent study. (And, in many cases, had inscribed on the ceiling of his impressive library.) So on the one hand, he argues that education is actually detrimental, and on the other hand, he relies very heavily on his excellent education to support that claim.

Likewise, Montaigne’s argument against the power of human reason has a strong undercurrent that subverts his overt claim. He sets out to show that man is no more intelligent than any other animal. And, because our faculties are not greater than that of the animals, we have no right to rely upon them. Humans, in short, are simply not that smart. But the next twenty pages are dedicated to showing how very intelligent animals are. (And for Montaigne, twenty pages is a decent chunk of writing; many of his essays are only a couple pages long.) So although his overall point appears to be that human reason is not reliable because it is no greater than that of the animals, the vast majority of his argument is spent on raising our opinion of the intelligence of animals. Again, there is a contradiction that may justify withholding our opinion.

It seems significant that Montaigne is constantly and consciously undercutting his own arguments. I think that it shows that even when he appears to be taking a position, he recognizes that there is always another argument or explanation. And because there is no reason to pick one explanation over the other, the better course is to withhold judgment altogether.

But, to quote Montaigne, “what do I know?”


Beer of the week: Four Star Pils – The name of this beer is a reference to the flag of Chicago, the birthplace of Goose Island Beer Co. Four Star is a pretty golden pilsner with a nice, foamy head. It is a bit if a departure from traditional pilsners, in that the hops are less aromatic and have a little more bite in the back of the throat. It tastes more like the hops of an American IPA (in variety, not quantity) than a Czech pilsner. But it is by no means too strongly hopped, with plenty of malt to balance the flavor. Quite an enjoyable beer.

Reading of the week: The Apology of Raymond Sebond by Michel de Montaigne – It seems that the only copyright free English version is over 400 years old. But it will do for our purposes. This reading describes why the skeptics “desire to be contradicted, thereby to engender doubt and suspence of judgement.” Montaigne maintains that the skeptics oppose dogma by being willing to argue the opposite of any position. But this section has curious subversive tones similar to the ones discussed above. The excerpt is about how the skeptics contend against dogma, which is often simply a product of upbringing and culture. The final lines, though, include an exhortation to “addresse and commit our selves to God.” That exhortation certainly seems to imply some dogmatic belief.

Question for the week: Is it true that everything admits of more than one plausible argument? Is there nothing that we can be sure of?


We, the people of the Confederate States

In Flashman and the Angel of the Lord, the titular hero asks Abraham Lincoln why was it right for the thirteen colonies to secede from the British Empire, but wrong for the Southern States to secede from the Union.
“I’m astonished that a man of your worldly experience can even ask such a question,” says he. “What has ‘right’ got to do with it? The Revolution of ’76 succeeded, the recent rebellion did not, and there, as the darkie said when he’d et the melon, is an end of it.”
Fictional Lincoln, it seems, is something of a cynic.

Some “small-government” and “states’ rights” proponents are less cynical, and even defend the failed Confederate States on the grounds that the CSA were motivated by self-determination, states’ rights, and principled politics. But do the historical documents bear that out?

There are lots of apologists out there who will argue that the Civil War was really not about slavery. That the Confederate States were more interested in states’ rights, and tariffs, and minimizing the use of federal money for local infrastructure. But a careful review of the Constitution of the Confederate States of America seems to show that the political goals of the CSA really started and ended with the institution of slavery.
The CSA Constitution differs from the USA Constitution in only a few substantial ways. The most obvious, and most important, is slavery. While the USA Constitution tip-toes around the issue of slavery, only mentioning it obliquely and euphemistically, the CSA Constitution makes repeated, explicit references to slavery, including a clause preventing Congress from passing any law that would impair the right to own slaves. Another clause allows slaveholders to take their slaves into and out of any state, effectively preventing any individual state from banning slavery within its own boarders. Not exactly a blow for states’ rights.
Perhaps the most next important thing about the CSA Constitution is what did not change. The CSA Constitution copies the vast majority of its content verbatim from the US Constitution. This embraces virtually all of the powers of Congress in Article I, Section 8, including the “Commerce Clause” and the “Necessary and Proper Clause”. Those two clauses, particularly when invoked in tandem, are widely regarded as the greatest threats to limited central government. Yet the CSA had no problem handing these same federal powers to their own Congress.
It is true that there are also non-slave related changes that add color to the claim that the interest of the CSA was in limiting federal power. The preamble was changed to include “each State acting in its sovereign and independent character.” Additionally, the states retained the rights to negotiate among themselves on the regulation of their shared waterways and to tax boats that use those waterways. Further, federal money was not to be used for infrastructure improvement. But these changes do not seem like enough to justify the claim that the primary purpose was self-determination. For one thing, the preamble adds the notion that the Confederacy is intended to be “a permanent federal government,” suggesting that any future secessions from the CSA might not be regarded as rightful. And in light of the focus on slavery and the general retention of the form and powers of the federal government, it seems pretty clear what the real intention was.
It is well worth questioning the “official” versions of history, but it is a mistake for modern conservatives and libertarians to pretend that the Confederacy was a beacon for limited government and self-determination. That ignores the plain fact that the Confederacy was created explicitly for the preservation of the despicable institution of slavery, and it alienates people who should be valuable allies for personal freedom.

Slow Ride

Beer of the week: Slow Ride Session IPA – To avoid (additional) needless controversy, I have paired this reading with a beer from a Colorado, which was not yet a state during the brief existence of the CSA. New Belgium’s session IPA is quite good. My 12-pack seems to have been over carbonated;  every can foamed over when opened. Otherwise, there is nothing to complain about. The beer is a hazy orange-yellow with lots of white foam. Some yeasty aroma makes it past the strong, citrusy hops smell. The flavor is not as strong as expected, but it is nicely balanced and refreshing with a nice citrus finish. One certainly could drink this beer over the course of a long session.

Reading of the week: The Constitution of the Confederate States of America – This is the kind of thing that every middle school student in the United States should be required to read in history class. It did not even occur to me that I should read it until I was in my late twenties. It is instructive as to the causes of the Civil War, but also a useful tool for evaluating the Constitution of the United States.

Question of the week: There are some other changes worth mentioning: the CSA president would have served for 6 years with no chance for reelection. Also, all bills passed by congress would have a single purpose (eliminating omnibus bills and unrelated riders.) Finally, the president would have the power to issue line item vetoes. Are any of the changes made by the Confederates worth considering as amendments to the Constitution of the USA?


Short and to the Point

“Brevity is the soul of wit” is a wonderful aphorism.* In no small part, that is because it encapsulates a lot of what makes aphorisms themselves so delightful. Whether they are called fragments, maxims, epigrams, proverbs, or pensées, aphorisms can be awful lot of fun to read. When done well, they are pithy, profound, and memorable. But for those very reasons, they can be somewhat difficult to approach as serious reading.

One short phrase can provide enough insight to sustain a very deep discussion. And yet, it is often easy to consume multiple aphorisms at a time, like so many kernels of popcorn. This seems particularly true when the author has put his thoughts into a particular order. There is plenty of value in being able to flip open a book of aphorisms and read one at random, but that seems to discount the value of the author/editor’s decisions in arranging them. Consequently, there is a tension between attempting to read aphorisms as stand-alone thoughts or as a composed collection.

For example, in his book of aphorisms, Vectors, James Richardson wonders: “Why shouldn’t you read this the way I wrote it, with days between the lines?” But that thought is number 369 out of 500. So is it really a serious suggestion on how he thinks the book should be read? An invitation to re-read Vectors with a new focus?

It seems unlikely that there is a “wrong way” to approach aphorisms, but it is worth giving some thought to the different ways in which they can be read. It is also probably important to remain aware of context; without context, a good aphorism may be no more than a cliché.

*Now is probably a good time to mention that the line “Brevity is the soul of wit” is spoken by a long-winded character in an extremely lengthy play. This irony is, perhaps, the best thing about it.

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Beer of the week: Fat Tire Amber Ale – This is a tasty little ale from New Belgium Brewing Company. It starts with light, flowery hops on the nose, but the taste is a nice balance between the hops and malt. It gets better as it warms slightly in the glass and the bready malt starts to shine through. Pretty darn good.

Reading for the week: Maximes and Moral Reflections by François de La Rochefoucauld – These dozen selected aphorisms seem fairly representative of La Rochefoucauld’s work. And although each could stand on its own, together they exhibit a distinct line of thought. A couple suggestions on how to read La Rochefoucauld: the author himself suggests that “the best approach for the reader to take would be to put in his mind right from the start that none of these maxims apply to himself in particular, and that he is the sole exception, even though they appear to be generalities.” Lord Chesterfield recommends that one should “read in the morning some of La Rochefoucault’s [sic] Maxims; consider them, examine them well, and compare them with the real characters you meet in the evening.”

Question for the week: How do you like to read aphorisms?


Women’s Studies

What an embarrassment! By my count, this is post #199 on this blog. And yet, there has not been a single weekly reading written by a woman. (I honestly thought that I had included a reading by Baroness Orczy, but it seems that I mixed up The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Prisoner of Zenda.) What can account for such a tremendous oversight? A number of factors probably play a part.

One fairly innocuous factor is that the women authors that I am familiar with wrote novels. It is much harder to find an appropriate reading for this blog from a long form book. Prefaces, essays, and the like are much easier to dip into for an excerpt. However, there are quite a few readings on this blog from novels, so that cannot account for much of the disparity.

Additionally, many of the readings on this blog come from so-called “great books” lists. In particular, the Harvard Classics (partially pictured below) has been the an excellent resource. However, a quick review of the index confirms that the editor of the Harvard Classics totally omitted any female authors. It seems that I’m neither the first nor the most prominent curator of readings to do so.

For similar reasons, my reliance on public domain and ancient works certainly skews this blog away from female authors. The vast majority of older works, particularly from antiquity, are by male authors. Aside from Sappho, I am not sure that I could name an ancient Greek woman, let alone an ancient Greek woman author. Although the balance shifts somewhat as we approach modernity, there are simply a lot more readily available works by men than by women.

But perhaps the biggest reason is my own biases and flaws. I gravitate toward authors with whom I am familiar and with whom I perceive common interests and ideas. And those authors are almost exclusively men. (They are also predominantly American or Western European, but that is another bias for another day.) It is not that I don’t believe that women are capable of producing great works; Jane Austen and George Eliot would have wiped out that belief in me if I’d ever held it. But a combination of my experiences, resources, and my own narrow world view has resulted in a reproachable lack of appreciation for female authors. One that I hope to remedy.

To be clear, the solution is not inclusion for inclusion’s sake. Reading anything simply because it was written by a woman is patronizing. It does a disservice to the author by neglecting her merits in favor of her sex. And it does a disservice to the blog and its readers for the same reason. Our time is valuable, so what we read has to have its own worth independent of its author.

The solution, it seems, is to cast a wider net. To seek out new readings from other resources. Rather than relying on my past experience with authors or on their interactions with each other, I need to find a way to encounter a greater variety of writers of quality. I hope not to overlook any truly great books, regardless of who wrote them.

One valuable resource that I have found (at a thrift store for 69¢ per volume) is the Heath Anthology of American Literature. The Heath has the stated goal of publishing the under-appreciated works of women and minorities alongside the established literary canon to present a broader view of the development of American literature. An unsurprising inclusion in the Heath is Anne Bradstreet, the first New World poet of either sex to have her work published in England. Her poetry is clearly of the finest quality, and more than worth the reading. Bradstreet rightfully scoffed at those who would look down on a work because its author wore a dress:

“I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits.
A Poet’s Pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits.”

Writing, too, is women’s work. And a woman’s work is never done.

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Beer of the week: Dundee India Pale Ale – This New York IPA is pretty amber. The smell is of sweet biscuits and marshmallow. The malt is definitely dominant in the flavor. The beer is hoppy, but it is not overly bitter, and certainly not as strongly hopped as many American IPAs. Dundee makes quite a serviceable beer.

Reading for the week: In Reference to Her Children, 23 June 1659 by Anne Bradstreet – What could be a better reading for Mother’s Day Weekend than this touching poem about a mother’s dedication to her children? Bradstreet does well to portray the pride and joy of motherhood, as well as the bittersweet experience of watching her children grow up and start their own independent lives.

Question for the week: Who are other female authors that would be good readings for this blog? Comment below.


Wisdom for sale!

In his biography of Charlemagne, Notker the Stammerer relates a story of two “Scotchmen [who] were unrivalled for their skill in sacred and secular learning.” These men would go into the market and call out, “Ho, everyone that desires wisdom, let him draw near and take it at our hands; for it is wisdom that we have for sale.” This claim drew in the crowds and, ultimately, the attention of the emperor.

The twist in the story, however, is that the Scotsmen really had no interest in marketing their learning to make a profit. They had simply come to realize that if they offered to teach for free, nobody would be interested. Because the price tag is the first signal that the market sees, things that are being given away for free or sold cheaply are assumed to have little worth. Likewise, some people put extremely high prices on their products (even if they intend ultimately to sell for a much lower price) in the hopes that the product will appear more desirable.

I was a tangential party to a real life example of how asking price affects perception. One of my side jobs in college was dealing cards for a promotional company that ran poker tournaments as fund-raisers. The tournaments were well organized and quite successful. However, the owner of the business quickly discovered that some prospective clients saw his very reasonable prices and decided that they wanted to go with a more up-scale competitor. His solution was to raise the prices without changing anything about the product. And it worked. New prospective clients assumed that the high price was a good indicator of the product’s high quality. Business actually increased after the price went up, precisely because the price went up. Like Notker’s Scotsmen, the owner of the promotional company learned that sometimes you have to ask for more than you need, just to get people’s attention.

Modelo Especial
Beer of the week: Modelo Especial – The head on this beer faded so quickly that I couldn’t get a good photo of it before it was gone. Modelo Especial is a clear, gold brew. It has little aroma or flavor to speak of, really. It’d be easy enough to drink a bunch of this stuff at a party Cinco de Mayo fiesta, but otherwise, why bother? And don’t get me started on the price!

Reading of the week: The Life of Charlemagne by Notker the Stammerer, Book I, 1-4 – Charlemagne filled his court with educated men, such as the aforementioned Scotsmen, and had them educate the children of his kingdom. He found that the highborn children did not take to their lessons as well as the commoners. The lesson, again, seems to be that certain assumptions about value need to be carefully scrutinized.

Question of the week: How much does the asking price affect your perception of a product’s value?


Harvesting Discoveries

Ken M., one of the world’s finest internet trolls once complained that “today’s archeologists seem hellbent on making discoveries at any cost, leaving nothing for future generations.” He followed that statement up with the opinion that “they should at least plant new discoveries to replace the ones they harvested.”

It is a bizarre joke, but I think that it is hilarious. The funniest party is that people take him seriously despite his ludicrous statements. What makes the position so ridiculous is the implicit position that there may one day be nothing left to learn; that someday soon, man might reach the end of knowledge. But as Seneca wrote in his Natural Questions, “the world is a poor affair if it do not contain matter for investigation for the whole world in every age.”

What would it even mean for humans to reach the end of knowledge? Is it even conceivable for there to be nothing left to discover? On the sci-fi cartoon Futurama, alien beings got close to obtaining all knowledge, but they were then forced to destroy the universe before any new information was created. The world is always changing, so there is always more to learn.

And even in situations where immense quantities of raw information are known, that does not amount to knowledge. It is still necessary to interpret and synthesize the data. So do not give in to Ken M.’s fear that discoveries will run out. Seek boldly to learn everything that you can, knowing that there are plenty of mysteries left for the rest of us.

Prairie Path Ale

Beer of the week: Two Brothers Prairie Path – Speaking of new discoveries, somebody has discovered how to use enzymes to break down gluten. When I first got this beer, I did not notice that it is “Crafted To Remove Gluten”. Rather than brew the beer with gluten-free grains such as rice and sorghum, Two Brothers brews this beer with malt and then treats it with an enzyme that breaks down the gluten. Prairie Path is a pale, orange-gold color. The head fades very quickly. The aroma is vaguely of citrus and rice. The beer itself is a bit citrusy but feels very thin. It is a perfectly acceptable, easy-drinking beer. But I feel bad for those who are gluten intolerant if this is the most flavor they can get in a gluten-reduced beer.

Reading of the week: Natural Questions by Seneca, XXX & XXXI – After discussing the slow advance of knowledge from generation to generation, Seneca goes on to chide his countrymen for giving up the vigorous pursuit of knowledge and virtue in favor of indecency and vice. Among other things, he accuses others of “[d]issolute effeminacy and corruption”.

Question of the week: Is there any field in which humans have genuinely learned all there is to know?


Selective Reading

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.

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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?