I Don’t Know You

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?

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Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness

This is the fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IV: The Complete Poems in English by John Milton

Samson, the Old Testament character of prodigious strength, is an odd sort of hero. Like a Hebrew Hercules, he performed tremendous feats, but the moral of his story not altogether simple. Samson was quick to anger, cruel to animals, indiscriminate in his violence, and, worst of all, he drank nothing but water.

Samson was a Nazirite, which means that he was consecrated to God and made specific vows: In the first place, Nazirites vow to drink no wine. The second vow is to leave one’s hair uncut.  And finally, Nazirites vow to avoid ritual uncleanliness by coming in contact with the dead, including funerals.

How did Samson fare in attempting to keep his vows? As to the injunction against drinking wine, he appears to have followed through. Maimonides taught that alcohol is not forbidden for Nazirites, so long as it is not derived from grapes. But Samson’s version of this vow seems to be one of total abstention. Most English translations seem to follow The King James Version, stating that Samson was to “drink no wine nor strong drink.” Some more modern translations say that he was to avoid “wine or any other alcoholic drink.” The Contemporary English Version specifically includes beer. In the words of Milton, Samson’s “drink was only from the liquid brook.”

As for cutting his hair, Samson famously kept this vow until he was deceived by a prostitute called Delilah. She, then, cut his hair in his sleep, rendering him powerless. Having followed through on this part of the Nazirite vow was the source of his strength, and without his hair he was as weak as any other mortal.

And as for avoiding corpses, I am inclined to think that he did a terrible job. The Bible does not tell us about him attending funerals or strolling through cemeteries, but he killed a bunch of guys. And it seems to me that when he beat a thousand men to death with the jawbone of an ass, he got in plenty of corpse touching. I have heard it argued that at the time that he touched the Philistines, they were not yet dead, and that they only became dead after he touched them. This argument elevates form over substance. And, at any rate, that doesn’t account for the time that he killed thirty innocent men and stripped the clothing from their bodies to give to the people who figured out his stupid riddle. Stripping the clothes from dead men is most certainly NOT in keeping with the Nazirite’s vows.

If the goal of life is righteousness, then I think that the Nazirite vows may actually be a stumbling block. There is no doubt that the discipline and dedication required to follow though with the vows can be a valuable tool for contemplation and self-improvement. But if one simply follows through with the strictest literal interpretation of the vows, he risks achieving ritual purity without achieving righteousness. That is, the Nazirite vows are not the end. Samson followed the vows, but did that justify tying foxes together by their tails and lighting them on fire? Did leaving his hair uncut make it ok for him to frequent brothels? Is it ok to murder thirty men over a riddle, so long as he can do so and not break his vows? (And, again, I think it is important to emphasize that the men who were killed were not the ones who tricked his wife into giving up the solution to the riddle. They were presumably unaware of Samson’s reason for murdering them.)

And the fact that Samson lost his strength when his hair was cut seems to further this form over substance problem. Samson did not break his vow. His hair was cut while he was asleep. And yet, Samson lost his power and his favor from God because of what somebody else did. The power, it seems, was not even in the obedient dedication to God, but in the show of dedication – the hair itself. Without his long hair, nobody can tell that he is a Nazirite just by looking at him; he loses his strength, not because he broke his vow, but because he looks like he broke his vow. The appearance of righteousness is more important for Samson than inward righteousness.

In short, wouldn’t it be better to drink wine, sport a buzz-cut, attend funerals, and not be a violent psychopath?

Beer of the week: Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (2017) – This is an uncommonly strong beer to go with a reading about an uncommonly strong man. Every year, Goose Island releases it’s limited edition Bourbon County Brand line of beers. These special brews are aged in used bourbon barrels. The 2017 Barleywine is an excellent beverage. It is 14% alcohol, and it shows. But it is so smooth that the alcohol is warm but not harsh. The aroma has notes of vanilla. In the flavor there is a hint of pepper (from the bourbon barrel, perhaps.) Dark cherry is a stand-out in a very rich flavor profile. What a treat!

Reading of the week: Samson Agonistes by John Milton – Milton’s version of Samson attributes his downfall to a lack of wisdom, and a weakness for women: “what is strength without a double share of wisdom?” In this section of the tragic poem, Samson is talking with his father Manoa about the proper course of action now that he is imprisoned and blind. Certain of Manoa’s exhortations are reminiscent of Crito’s appeal to Socrates: “Repent the sin, but if the punishment Thou canst avoid, self-preservation bids.”

Question for the week: Ultimately, I think that my reading of the story of Samson is not the intended reading. Samson is meant to be a hero, not a cautionary tale about elevating religious form over virtuous substance. How can his story be read more charitably?


NAP Time

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?


There Oughtn’t to be a Law

If you’ve ever said to yourself, “there ought to be a law,” you should probably rethink that position.

In the first place, there probably is a law that governs whatever you are up in arms about. As I’ve noted before, there are literally so many federal criminal laws that nobody can even say for sure how many there are. And, because federal agencies have the authority to issue rules and regulations, there may be as many as 3,000 administrative regulations that carry criminal penalties. Then, of course, are the state laws. Traditionally, federal criminal law was limited to very particular sorts of crime inherently related to the federal government (counterfeiting, for example.) As a result, the vast majority of criminal laws were promulgated at the state level. The tremendous “federalization” of criminal law hardly did away with did any of the state laws (with rare exceptions of federal preemption), and so there are far more laws now than ever.

Secondly, and more importantly, even where there is not a statute that directly addresses a particular set of circumstances, existing common law still applies. Common law is court created law (or “court discovered law” if you are a serious believer in the natural law and the power of common law courts to divine the eternal precepts thereof.) Common law is developed over time by the courts relying and building upon past rulings. In the words of Montaigne, “in rolling on [laws] swell and grow greater and greater, as do our rivers.” So, for example, there may not be a statute that requires above-ground pool manufacturers to include warnings against diving, but case law almost certainly creates such a duty. Similarly, there may not be a statute or regulation preventing breakfast cereal manufacturers from putting a certain poison in their foods, but there doesn’t need to be; established negligence and products liability case law provides substantial protections for consumers.

And finally, law is quite often not the proper mechanism to achieve your (no doubt noble) aims. In the words of Jeremy Bentham, “Every act which promises to be pernicious upon the whole to the community (himself included) each individual ought to abstain from of him: but it is not every such act that the legislator ought to compel him to abstain from.” In part, law is not an adequate solution to many problems because it is always enforced by violence or the threat of violence, and that violence has its own costs.

Next time somebody says “there ought to be a law,” ask whether they are certain that there is not some statute, regulation, or common law that does not already cover the subject matter. And, regardless of whether such a law exists, ask whether there is not some better, non-legal remedy for the perceived problem.

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Beer of the week: 12th of Never Ale – The idiom “on the 12th of Never” is used to express improbability. And, improbable as it may have seemed years ago, Lagunitas has been started putting their beer into cans. This, the first aluminum encased offering from Lagunitas, is a cloudy, straw-colored pale ale. There is lots of pineapplely hops, and a nicely rounded flavor. An excellent beer, even if it does come from a can.

Reading of the week: An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation by Jeremy Bentham, Chapter XVII§1, VIII-XV – In this excerpt, Bentham opines that drunkenness and fornication are among the pernicious behaviors that laws are ill-suited to preventing. “With what chance of success, for example, would a legislator go about to extirpate drunkenness and fornication by dint of legal punishment? Not all the tortures which ingenuity could invent would compass it: and, before he had made any progress worth regarding, such a mass of evil would be produced by the punishment, as would exceed, a thousandfold, the utmost possible mischief of the offence.”

Question for the week: If you could repeal any law, what would it be?


Gifts are for the Givers

Christmastime is the season of giving. It is the season of charity. It is the season of gifts. But it is not the season of “pure altruism.” That is because, like Santa Claus, pure altruism is not real.

In both charity and gift-giving, the giver always gives to get something in return. We know this because all human action is a choice between alternatives and every action, as Aristotle teaches, “is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” So no charitable act is committed for its own sake, but with an aim at some good.

Only a cynic would opine that the good aimed at by giving gifts is getting gifts in return. And that explanation could scarcely account for charity, especially anonymous charity. One could certainly argue that the good aimed at is the good of the recipient of the gift. But that does not appear to be a satisfactory answer. Economic principles are applicable to all human action, as has been shown by a number of philosophers. And no voluntary transaction is conducted at an absolute loss, because there would is no incentive to do so. (Of course, parties occasionally make a bad deal and lose. And occasionally parties will take a loss now in the hopes of gaining more later.)

As Ludwig von Mises points out, every action is a form of exchange. Barter between individuals is an exchange of the most obvious type, but there are also “autistic exchanges.” An “autistic exchange” is one that an individual makes with himself. For example, if I go to the gym, I exchange my time and energy for perceived health benefits. Gift-giving and charity are other examples of an autistic exchange. “Where there is no intentional mutuality, where an action is performed without any design of being benefited by a concomitant action of other men, there is no interpersonal exchange, but autistic exchange.” The value of the gift is exchanged for the good feelings that come from making other people happy.

Like all exchanges, the autistic exchanges are only undertaken where the participants perceive that the value received is commensurate with the value given. I go to the gym because I perceive that that time and effort is worth the health benefits. I smoke a cigar because I perceive the health hazards and cost are worth the pleasure. I give a gift because I perceive the pleasure of gift-giving (and, to the extent that I expect anything in return, the possibility of gratitude and/or reciprocation) to be commensurate with the thought and value of the gift. Gift-giving, like all other human action, is essentially selfish.

And that’s ok! This is not an indictment of giving or of charity. Quite the opposite. It is in our best interest to give generously. We rightfully perceive that we get value from giving, even when we do not expect a gift in return. Gifts are for the givers, so be a giver this Christmas!
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Beer of the week: Fistmas Holiday Ale – This winter seasonal offering from Chicago’s Revolution Brewing Company is a real treat. This pretty amber brew has hints of ginger and cinnamon, without being over-spiced as many spiced winter beers are.

Reading of the week: The Errors of Santa Claus by Stephen Leacock – As noted last week, Leacock is one of the greatest gifts that Canada has given to the literary world. Whether he wrote for money or for his own pleasure makes no difference to us. (In the words of Mises, “a genius may perform his task for himself, not for the crowd; however, he is an outstanding benefactor of mankind.”) This cute little story shows another way in which gifts are given for the sake of the givers.

Question for the week: This economic analysis works for gift giving, but seems to fall apart at self-sacrifice, even to the point of death. Does such self-sacrifice revive the notion of altruism?


What was I thinking?

“What was I thinking?”

That rhetorical question is often used to express dismay at a lack of foresight e.g. “A while back, I passed on a chance to buy a Bitcoin at $400; what was I thinking?” Sometimes it goes to absentmindedness e.g. “I peeled a banana and accidentally threw away the banana and went to take a bite of the peel; what was I thinking?” But in both of these cases, the question is purely rhetorical because it is pretty easy to determine the thought process involved. In the Bitcoin example, the person presumably thought about the risks and advantages of buying a Bitcoin and determined that the potential upside was not worth the $400 risk. In the banana example, the person was clearly thinking about something totally unrelated to the task at hand, and mere distraction caused the errant movements.

There are times, however, when the question “what was I thinking?” is more than rhetorical, times when one honestly does not understand his own motivations. Every once in a while, we each do something that we are later unable to explain. It is occasionally impossible to determine what thought process or motivations led to the decisions made.

There appear to be multiple potential causes for such internal confusion. For one thing, not understanding one’s own motivation may be a simple failure to carefully self-evaluate. For another, there may be pre-rational motivations that get overlooked in the search for a rational explanation, such as instinct or something like it. But most likely, it seems, is the likelihood that the decision in question is the product of a great many thoughts and motivations, possibly even at odds with each other. The complicated interplay between our various desires, instincts, goals, etc. may simply be so convoluted that we are unable to untangle (or even recognize) them all.

In The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela, the motivations of the belligerents during the Mexican Revolution are explored.  A rebel leader called Demetrio tells about the time that he got drunk and spit in the face of a local political boss, Señor Monico. As a result, Monico brought “the whole God-damned Federal Government” down on Demetrio, who narrowly escaped into the hills. Demetrio asserts that all he wants is “to be let alone so [he] can go home.”

His interlocutor, however, sees more in Demetrio’s motivations than Demetrio sees himself:

“It is not true that you took up arms simply because of Señor Monico. You are under arms to protest against the evils of all the caciques who are overrunning the whole nation. We are the elements of a social movement which will not rest until it has enlarged the destinies of our motherland. We are the tools Destiny makes use of to reclaim the sacred rights of the people. We are not fighting to dethrone a miserable murderer, we are fighting against tyranny itself. What moves us is what men call ideals; our action is what men call fighting for a principle. A principle! That’s why Villa and Natera and Carranza are fighting; that’s why we, every man of us, are fighting.”

This speech certainly works on Demetrio’s men, who emphatically embrace this noble characterization of their motivations despite the manifestly ignoble acts of plunder, rape, and murder in which they engage. But Demetrio’s reaction to this impassioned speech is more subdued; he orders more beer.

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Beer of the week: Corona Light – A Mexican reading deserves a Mexican beer. Corona Light is clear and pale and foamy. The aroma and flavor are pretty standard macro. There is a hint of lime in the aroma, and just a trace of nuttiness in the finish. A pinch of salt brings out the lime in the flavor, which is a big improvement. Still, Corona Light; what was I thinking?

Reading of the week: The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela – The title The Underdogs (Los de Abajo in the original Spanish) refers not to the rebels, but to the common folk of Mexico. Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that the people are always oppressed, no matter which faction has the ascendency.

Question of the week: Is it really the case that some motivations cannot be discovered through self-examination? Or is it possible that we are just too afraid to look deep enough?


Lost in the Crowd

“Black Friday” is a particularly appropriate time to consider the nature of crowds. Every year there are reports of people being trampled and assaulted in the rush to be the ultimate consumer. To get the best deals on crap that they don’t really need, people will behave in the most uncivil ways. And the vast majority of these people would be utterly ashamed to behave like that if they were not part of a faceless crowd.

There is nothing particularly insightful about the statement that crowds often bring out the worst in people. Looting, lynching, and rioting are all examples of how people, when relieved of individual responsibility, can engage in behaviors that no individual amongst them would dare. In the words of Kierkegaard, this is because “a crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision.” And the temerity to loot or lynch or riot is not to be confused with courage. In fact, it is a symptom of a profound cowardice. “For every single individual who escapes into the crowd, and thus flees in cowardice from being a single individual… contributes his share of cowardice to “the cowardice,” which is: the crowd.”

But while the crowd seems to relieve individuals of responsibility, it can do no such thing. The fact is that the crowd is a mere abstraction. It has no hands to shove, no feet to trample, and no neck to hang.

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Beer of the week: Laško Club – This Slovanian beer is a bit darker than gold with a very fluffy head. It’s aroma is typical of decent euro lagers, malty with that distinctive hops smell. I have been a bit disappointed by Eastern European beers in the past, but I rather like Laško Club.

Reading for the week: The Crowd is Untruth by Søren Kierkegaard – In this piece, Kierkegaard takes up the line from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, that “only one receives the prize.” He takes this to mean that the way to salvation is through an individual relationship with God rather than communion with others.

Question for the week: Is the crowd always more cowardly than the individuals in it? What about when a Gandhi or Dr. King inspires a group to noble ends? (I take it that Kierkegaard reply that the crowd cannot be inspired, only the individuals in it. But does that answer the question?)