Prime Examples

This is the fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume V: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a philosopher who held that the true philosophies of all great minds were intentionally hidden within their works. He posited that subtle references and hints in the works of Plato, Aristotle, etc. can guide careful readers to understand the real opinions of the authors, opinions that they had not dare explicitly express. There are some very fervent admirers of this philosophy. But others have called it a “philosophy of deception,” or “esotericism for the sake of esotericism.”

Even though I haven’t made a serious study of these notions, I do have a habit of looking somewhat askance at examples that are put forward in defense of an overt position. If, on closer examination, it turns out that an example does not really support the position, what then? Did the author simply pick a bad example out of laziness or mistake? Or, as these esoterically-minded thinkers would hold, are bad examples chosen deliberately to hint at an intent other than the explicit intent of the author?

Our questions may be explored with this quotation from Emerson:

“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.” – Emerson, The American Scholar

Seemingly, the examples of Cicero, Locke, and Bacon are wholly appropriate to support Emerson’s point that the young scholar must think for himself. For well over a thousand years, Cicero’s tracts had been mandatory educational reading, and had often been presented as if the student had a duty not only to learn from them, but to accept their views as his own. In fact, there is ancient graffiti from the city of Pompeii that reads, “you will like Cicero, or you will be whipped.”

These authors, however, are not actually good examples of “young men in libraries” who wrote books. Of Cicero’s writings, his early work is almost entirely in the form of speeches made as a legal advocate. His philosophical works were not written until near the end of his life. And although some of Locke’s early manuscripts were published posthumously, all of his major works were published after the age of fifty-five. Bacon’s Essays were first published when he was in his late thirties, and his New Organon (the most likely of his books for Emerson’s “meek young men” to pore over) was not published until he was nearly sixty.

Reading between the lines, what do these examples say about Emerson’s claim that the Western canon was written by “young men in libraries”?

Another trio of examples raises a similar question:

“[T]he highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought.” – Emerson, Self Reliance

Unless I am mistaken, this sentence is meant to convey that the highest merit in thought is to be original. In some respects, it is clear that Moses, Plato, and Milton were all highly original thinkers. The first five books of the Bible, including a large body of law that created a new and distinct society, are traditionally ascribed to Moses. Plato’s work, as I alluded to three weeks ago, has been fought over by philosophical schools seeking to claim his writings as their own foundation. And I recently heard an eminent scholar claim that Milton’s Paradise Lost is the nearest rival of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Still, these “original thinkers” are all have clearly identified outside sources. Moses, in particular, is striking as an example of originality. The writings attributed to Moses are traditionally viewed as divinely inspired. And this inspiration is not run-of-the-mill genius, but a direct transcription of the words of God. If what Moses wrote was essentially dictated to him by God, how are those ideas original to Moses? And how is it that Moses, of all people, “set at naught” tradition? Similarly, Plato’s corpus is composed primarily of dialogues that purport to express the philosophy of Socrates, not necessarily the philosophy of Plato himself. And although Milton certainly added a tremendous amount of material and emotion, his great poetic works are based on well-worn scriptural stories.

So why do we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton the highest merit, that of originality? Did they really set at naught books and traditions, and speak not what men but what they thought? Is Emerson trying to tell us something in code that he dare not tell us explicitly? Or is this a case of looking for esoteric meaning where there is none?

Beer of the week: Voodoo Ranger – New Belgium’s popular IPA has a lot going for it. It pours with a nice head that leaves decent lacing on the glass. The aroma is subtle, with citrusy hops. The beer is smooth, with a nice bitter bite at the end. And it is all balanced out with a hint of gingerbread.

Reading of the week: The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson – This section of the essay, originally given as a speech, is about the influence of books. Books are both the medium for “transmuting life into truth,” and a source of “grave mischief.” They must, therefore be read in a very particular way.

Question for the week: Is there really something hidden in Emerson’s choice of examples? Or, in looking for deeper meaning, do we just see what we want to see?


Rediscovering Ibn Tufail

One of the great debates in the history of mathematics was that between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. Newton had invented (or discovered, if you please) calculus, but did not publish any works on the subject. Some time thereafter, Leibniz also invented calculus, but he had his work published. Newton accused Leibniz of having stolen his idea, while Leibniz maintained that he had reached his conclusions independently.

It is possible, of course, for separate individuals to discover or invent the same methods independently. (In nature, an analogous process exists called convergent evolution, and it is freaking awesome.) Perhaps the most important aspect about language is that it allows humans to advance technologically. Because Leibniz was able to write down his method for calculus and share it with others, every future mathematician is spared the effort of inventing calculus herself.

And this is true of more than just mathematics. How many times must the wheel have been invented, lost, and reinvented until it was effectively passed down to enough people that we will never again have to re-invent the wheel? Likewise, beer may have been independently invented at various times around the world, but if every new batch could only be brewed by re-discovering fermentation, how could we ever have achieved the tremendous selections of beers available today?

The fantasy of an individual human in the state of nature (totally outside of society) is a popular notion. It features prominently in the philosophical works of Locke, Rousseau, and others. It also appears in fictional works such as Kipling’s Jungle Book and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. A philosophical and fictional book that is an excellent example of the theme is Philosophus Autodidactus (or Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān) by Ibn Tufail. The main character of that book is a foundling that is nursed and raised by a female deer. Over time, this man outside of society is able to discover a great deal about the world. But while the story is meant to show the capacity of humans to learn from their surroundings, I think that it unreasonably downplays the greatest advantage that we have when it comes to learning: the ability to learn from others so that each individual does not have to re-discover everything that has previously been learned before he can go any further.


Beer of the week: Carta Blanca – Ibn Tufail’s writing is steeped in the epistemological concept of “tabula rasa”, a Latin phrase meaning “blank slate.” So it seems that Carta Blanca (Spanish for “white/blank card”) should be a good pairing. This Mexican beer is pretty good for what it is. It is a clear, refreshing lager. And, like so many Mexican beers, it really shines with some salt and lime. And home-made fish tacos.

Reading for the week: Philosophus Autodidactus by Ibn Tufail – Considering the fact that this book is about an entirely self-taught man, it is somewhat ironic how much of an influence it has been on so many important thinkers in the generations after it was first published in the early 12th century. In this excerpt, the title character learns about fire and performs crude experiments in biology.

Question for the week: Ibn Tufail’s character discovers not only a great deal in the field of natural philosophy, but he also discovers the precepts of natural religion. How far could an intelligent individual get if he had to start accumulating knowledge independently from the beginning?

Proofs of Prophesy

It seems that primitive peoples had a god for practically every natural phenomenon. Even the culturally and academically advanced Greeks and Romans had a literal pantheon of gods to explain everything from the daily rising of the sun to the changes of the seasons. (To be sure, there were certainly ancient philosophers who did not believe in the literal existence of the Olympians. But one of the charges against Socrates was refusal to recognize the official gods of the city, so they still took that stuff seriously.) It may well be that the eventual predominance of monotheism in the western world was in part due to advances in natural philosophy.

As we humans came to understand the world better, fewer and fewer gods were needed to explain all of the individual aspects of our reality. The more we learn about the nature of our universe, the less we need myths to explain the world around us. Inevitably, some people take this line of thought to its logical limit: as human understanding increases, we find that there is no need for any theistic explanations at all.

A counter argument that has been advanced is that our growing understanding of the world is itself proof of God’s assistance. The eighth century theologian Abu Hatim al-Razi asserts that all of the great thinkers throughout time were actually prophets. Divine inspiration, he argues, is the only way to explain the genius that created Euclid’s geometry or Ptolemy’s astronomy. Knowing his own intellectual powers, he cannot believe that such tremendously insightful works can be the work of unaided humans. There is some serious appeal to that argument; I don’t see how I could ever produce something as great as Ptolemy’s Almagest.

Still, we are constantly learning more and coming to greater and greater understandings. Consequently, all great geniuses in natural philosophy are doomed to be overtaken. In the face of non-Euclidean geometry and modern astronomy, Euclid and Ptolemy look like poor prophets indeed. What good are is the prophets Newton or Darwin if their systems are sure to be found defective down the line? Can it really be divine inspiration if it invariably comes up short of later human understanding?

The final rejoinder must be that prophets never tell the whole truth or explain everything clearly. Each generation must have its own sages and prophets to build upon the divine revelations of their predecessors.  So who can say that Lobachevsky or Stephen Hawking are not also divinely inspired?


Beer of the Week: Odyssey Imperial IPA – Throughout Homer’s Odyssey, storms, shipwrecks, deaths, and other events are attributed to the wills of the gods. So a beer called Odyssey seems like a good choice for this post. This Imperial IPA from Sly Fox Brewing Company is delicious. The lighting in this photo is a bit off; the beer is actually more amber in color. It has a nice thick head that leaves plenty of lacing on the glass. Odyssey is quite bold, with strong, flavorful hops that totally dominate the flavor. And the hops has to be strong to cover the 8.4% alcohol. Anybody who drinks enough of this beer is surely in for an adventure.

Reading for the Week: The Madman by Friedrich Nietzsche – The famous quote “God is dead” comes from this reading. This parable(?) from The Gay Science hints at the problems of a post-religious society. The atheists in the story do not understand the ramifications of the death of God, hence the messenger of God’s death is called “the madman.”

Question for the week: Is there anything compelling about Abu Hatim al-Razi argument that all of our geniuses are divinely inspired? Or is he just moving the goalposts?

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?

Tomato, Fruit or Vegetable?

Identify the correct statement:

A. Tomatoes are fruits.
B. Tomatoes are vegetables.
C. Tomatoes are berries.
D. All of the above.

The key to this question is the key to most questions: first agree on definitions. If the terms are not adequately defined, then there is no real hope of reaching a consensus on the right answer.

So what is a fruit? In the botanical sense, a fruit is the structure that bears the seeds of a flowering plant. In the culinary sense, a fruit is a sweet plant part. Culinary fruits are usually botanical fruits, but it is not always true that botanical fruits are culinary fruits. For example, apples, cucumbers, acorns, and pumpkins contain the seeds of their respective plants, and are therefore botanical fruits. But of those, only apples are usually considered to be culinary fruits because they are sweet and fleshy. Likewise, tomatoes have seeds, so they are botanical fruits. However, they are not considered culinary fruits because they are generally not prepared the way that sweet fruits are. So answer A. is correct, so long as the broader definition is used.

What is a vegetable? Again, there are broader and narrower definitions. A vegetable may be any edible part of a plant. Or it may be a culinary vegetable: leaves, stems, roots, or some of the less sweet botanical fruits. Nuts, for example, clearly fit into the first definition, but may not fit into the second. The same can be said of grains. So tomatoes are definitely vegetables under the broader definition, and also under the culinary definition.

What is a berry? You’ve guessed it, there are multiple definitions. The colloquial definition is a small, fleshy fruit that is usually sweet. This includes strawberries, blackberries, mulberries, and cherries. But none of those fruits fit within the botanical definition of a berry. Botanically speaking, berries are fleshy fruits that do not have stones that are produced from the single ovary of a single flower. So blueberries, elderberries and grapes are botanical fruits. But so are pumpkins, bananas and, indeed, tomatoes. So although they are not berries in the common sense of the word, C. is a correct answer if the question is about the botanical definition.

Ultimately, the question is more “what definitions are being used?” than “what is a tomato?” People often argue at length about things that are no less trivial than the categorization of tomatoes. And frequently the source of their disagreements are at the definitional level. One of the great flaws of language is that no matter how many words we have, they are all but poor representations of ideas. Try to focus on agreeing on definitions before jumping into an argument where you are likely to be talking right past each other.


Beer of the week: Shiner Ruby Redbird – Grapefruit is considered a “modified berry” because, unlike most berries, it has a tough skin and internal segments. Ginger is either a spice or a vegetable, depending on what definition is used. And both are ingredients in this beer. Ruby Redbird was originally a summer seasonal. However, it is now available year-round. It pours with a fluffy head that fades quickly. Ginger dominates the smell and the aftertaste. There is a hint of citrus at first, but the ginger is so strong that everything else is really secondary. That’s not a bad thing, mind. As long as you are ok with ginger flavored beer, this is a very tasty and refreshing option.

Reading of the week: How I Edited an Agricultural Paper by Mark Twain – Like the narrator of this great short story, I don’t really know much about agriculture. (But at least I know that turnips don’t grow on trees.) This story is very funny, but it also ends with a great critique of newspaper editors that is equally applicable in a digital age where everybody, no matter how ill-informed, can spread his opinion to the masses.

Question of the week: Is baseball a sport? Or, more accurately, is there any reasonable definition of “sport” that excludes baseball?

“I’ve given the Muse the day off.”

Writer’s block has proved to be a very fruitful topic for a number of authors. When heeded, the classic advice “write what you know” leads to an awful lot of writers writing about writing and writing’s attendant struggles. The film Barton Fink, for example, is a film about a screenwriter who can’t seem to get any words on paper. It is no mere coincidence that the Coen brothers wrote and produced that film while taking a hiatus from writing and producing Miller’s Crossing. Unable to find the right way to finish the first film, they turned to writing about writer’s block. (Unsurprisingly, Barton Fink features many of the same cast members as Miller’s Crossing. But that might have more to do with the fact that the Coen’s work with the same actors repeatedly.)

A quick google search turns up innumerable pieces of advice on how to overcome writer’s block. From a change of scenery, to a change of diet, there are heaps of “sure-fire ways to get your creative juices flowing.” But nobody seems to ask the question: should the person be writing at all?

In Phaedrus, Socrates relates a myth about the god called Theuth. Theuth was a great inventor, who devised mathematics and astronomy as well as “draughts and dice”. His greatest invention, however was writing. Theuth congratulated himself on giving such a great gift to humanity. But as it turned out, his gift was not as beneficial as he had expected.

People now do not have to remember anything, since they can always just reread anything they don’t recall. As a consequence, apparent knowledge is everywhere, but actual knowledge is seldom seen. Likewise, writing does not make people more wise. One does not become wise by reading, but by internalizing and understanding. Particularly where there is a very large amount of available writing (for example, a library or the internet,) one is apt to read more but understand less.

As a result of these contemplations, I have elected not to write a blog post this week. Kindly disregard the foregoing. (I wrote the beer review beforehand, so you might as well read it.)

Dundee Stout

Beer of the week: Dundee Stout – After declaring that I was done with winter beers last week, the weather forced me to reconsider. It snowed the next day, as well as several subsequent days including this morning. I suppose that one more hearty stout is in order. This very dark brown brew pours with a pretty tan head that fades just a bit too quickly. There are hints of ripe, dark fruit in the aroma. Although stout is not my favorite type of beer, I really enjoy this one. The dark roasted malt gives a sort of chocolate-covered espresso bean flavor to this beer. I did not expect much of Dundee (brewed by the the same company as Genesse,) but I think they might actually be one of the best values in American beer.

Reading of the week: Phaedrus by Plato, 274c – 275e – Phaedrus intended to impress Socrates by reading to him a beautiful speech. Socrates, in typical fashion, totally derailed his interlocutor’s desired course of conversation. Instead, the couple discuss at length the art of rhetoric.

Question of the week: What do you do when you feel creatively stifled?

Le Début et la Fin du Monde

As the days get sunnier and warmer, I am reminded of a classic urban legend:

A woman went shopping for groceries. After she finished at the grocery store, she placed her purchases on the back seat of her car in the parking lot. She had a few more errands to run, so she left the groceries in the car while she went about her business. When she returned and entered the car, which had been warmed considerably by the midday sun, she heard a loud BANG and suffered a blow to the back of the head. She reached back to feel the point of impact and found find a gooey mass. Naturally she started to panic. With both hands she attempted to hold her brains in place and screamed for help. When other shoppers came to see what was wrong, she said that she had been shot in the head and that her brains were exposed. Upon closer examination, her brains were safely in place, but she was desperately pressing warm biscuit dough into her hair. Apparently, the heat in the car had caused a tube of biscuit dough to pop, splattering its contents on the woman. One of the “rescuers” told her, “Ma’am, you will be alright. You’ve been shot by the Pillsbury Doughboy.”

This story is a rather amusing little farce, but it says something important about sensory perception and the disconnect between our personal experience and external stimuli. The lady in the story felt warm dough on her head, but her senses did not convey to her mind the reality of the situation. The sense of touch, even when functioning properly, never totally captures the nature of the thing touched.

Descartes used a similar, although far less amusing story to make this very point. A soldier returning from the field feels a sharp pain in his side and thinks that he has suffered a wound that he did not notice in the heat of battle. Upon closer inspection, however, a strap on his armor simply became twisted, causing a buckle to dig into his side. If senses accurately and fully conveyed the nature of stimuli, then the soldier would have known immediately that the pain in his side was caused by the buckle.

To be fair, our senses are pretty trustworthy most of the time and we combine all sorts of additional context and sensory input to determine what is really going on. We are constantly and effortlessly making judgments based on our perceptions and that frees up our limited brainpower to work on more complicated questions. Questions such as what beer to drink.


Beer of the week: Fin du Monde – French-Canadian brewery Unibroue makes some very well regarded beers. Fin du Monde is probably their best known brew, a Belgian-style tripel. It smells of yeast and cider. The body is remarkably smooth and the taste is outstanding. There are hints of pepper and the considerable alcohol content (9%) makes itself known at the end. The aftertaste is similar to that of a dry cider, encouraging sip after sip.

Reading of the week: Le Monde by Rene Descarts – Although Descartes apparently intended to write a complete philosophy of the world, his work was never completed. Instead the title Le Monde (“The World”) was attached after his death to the first part of that project, Treatise on Light.

Question of the week: Humans are extremely visual, and our trust in sight as a reliable source of information is evident in the idiom “seeing is believing.” But we have all experienced optical illusions, so we know that sight cannot always be trusted. Descartes writes that “Of all our senses, touch is the one considered least deceptive and the most secure.” Is he right? Which sense most reliably presents our mind with the reality of the outside world?