Strenuous Exercise

Back when P. Ballantine & Sons was one of the nation’s largest brewers–rather than just another classic brand in the Pabst portfolio–it ran a series of advertisements featuring prominent authors. Each ad asked the question “How would you put a glass of Ballantine Ale into words?” and each author wrote a letter in response. Among the spokesmen were John Steinbeck, James A. Michener, and C.S. Forester. But the biggest name in the ad campaign was Earnest Hemingway, who wrote:

“Bob Benchley first introduced me to Ballantine Ale. It has been a good companion ever since.

You have to work hard to deserve to drink it. But I would rather have a bottle of Ballantine Ale than any other drink after fighting a really big fish. When something has been taken out of you by strenuous exercise Ballantine puts it back in.

We keep it iced in the bait box with chunks of ice packed around it. And you ought to taste it on a hot day when you have worked a big marlin fast because there were sharks after him.

You are tired all the way through. The fish is landed untouched by sharks and you have a bottle of Ballantine cold in your hand and drink it cool, light, and full-bodied, so it tastes good long after you have swallowed it. That’s the test of an ale with me: whether it tastes as good afterwards as when it’s going down. Ballantine does.”

Earning a refreshing beer by “strenuous exercise” seems very on-brand for Hemingway. His story My Old Man begins with a description of a horse jockey’s exercise regimen, which consists of running and skipping rope in the hot Italian sun while wearing “a rubber shirt over a couple of jerseys and a big sweat shirt over that”. The narrator, his son, admires the hard work and dedication. We see the jockey’s physical training as virtue. As the story proceeds, however, he stops exercising and riding in favor of drinking whisky and betting on fixed races. He should have stuck to the honest, strenuous work of training and racing; that way, he might have earned a cold, refreshing Ballantine Ale. Instead, the story ends with the jockey “getting what’s coming to him.”

Beer of the week: Ballantine XXX Ale – I generally agree with Hemingway’s description of Ballantine Ale as “cool, light, and full-bodied, so it tastes good long after you have swallowed it.” It is clear gold, with a fine white head that leaves decent lacing. The aroma is of sweet malt and some grass. The flavor tastes of dinner rolls and just a bit of hops. Overall, it is like a slightly more flavorful macro lager. And, as Hemingway observed, the aftertaste is not bad at all.

Reading of the week: My Old Man by Earnest Hemingway – The jockey’s son tells us, “When I’d sit watching him working out in the hot sun I sure felt fond of him.” In large part, this story is about how a son sees his father, and how a son’s perception is changed–or not–when he learns of his father’s faults. It is definitely a good read for Fathers’ Day weekend.

Question for the week: Does Hemingway selling Ballantine make you think better of Ballantine or worse of Hemingway?


Go to the Fountain

One day, a razor found himself in the sunlight. He was struck by the brilliant reflection of the sun on his steel and the extreme keenness of his finely honed blade. He said to himself, “why should such a marvelous razor as I be employed in the menial task of shaving rustic peasants?” And so he hid himself away where the barber could not find him. When the razor was finally located and brought out into the sun again, he found that he had gone to rust. His luster and his edge were lost.

This fable comes from Leonardo di Vinci’s notebooks. Afterward, di Vinci writes that “the same thing happens to those minds which instead of exercise give themselves up to sloth. They are like the razor here spoken of, and lose the keenness of their edge, while the rust of ignorance spoils their form.” To keep myself from going to rust during lockdown, I recently helped install a kegerator conversion kit.

Readers of this blog might guess that I am more inclined toward brainwork than handiwork; that I am more cerebral than mechanical. But my education included practical experiments based on the works of Archimedes, Antoine Lavoisier, and Michael Faraday. So when the time came to apply theory to practice, I was ready.

To be sure, there were hiccups along the way. Did I scratch my hand with a drill bit? Yes. Did the refrigerator door stubbornly refuse to shut so that we were forced to tear the shelves apart with a power saw and pliers? Absolutely. But in the end, all was well and the beer, by virtue of a few principles of fluid dynamics, flowed like water.

Elsewhere in his notebooks, di Vinci wrote, “He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.” I prefer, “He who has beer on tap doesn’t buy six-packs.”

Beer of the week: Northern Haze IPA – This hazy IPA comes from True North Ale Company in Ipswich, Massachusetts. It is almost muddy in appearance, with lots of yellow sediment. The addition of wheat to the grain bill adds not only to the cloudiness but also to the robust head. The aroma is fruity, with peach and berry notes as well as some piney hops. The flavor follows the aroma, with fruit notes early and a lingering bitter finish. A very nice choice for the first keg.

Reading of the week: Fables On Lifeless Objects by Leonardo di Vinci – Di Vinci’s notebooks are probably most famous for his flying machines and other inventions, but they include extensive writings on art, anatomy, engineering, and hydraulics. I don’t think he anticipated the kegerator, but I’d have to do a deep dive to be sure. This excerpt from the notebooks is a collection of charming fables.

Question for the week: As we know, di Vinci’s famous flying machines were not actually functional inventions. What is the value of a purely intellectual exercise–such as designing a flying machine that will never be built? Or, put in terms of the fable: does such an exercise hone the razor or hide it way?


Natural Villains

Quis, asks Juvenal, custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guardians? (Or, as Lisa Simpson put it: “who will police the police?”) Answers to this famous question have been attempted, but few answers have been satisfactory. An equally famous quotation, if not equally ancient, may explain why some level of abuse is inevitable: “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (Lord Acton.)

But the context of Juvenal’s question may provide some insight for preventing police abuses today. Juvenal’s Satire VI is an invective against the perceived moral decay of Roman society. In particular, the custodes or guardians are introduced as a mechanism to prevent women from getting into trouble. But Juvenal laments that they will ultimately fail in that task. “I hear all this time the advice of my old friends: keep your women at home, and put them under lock and key. Yes, but who will guard the guardians? Wives are crafty and will begin with them.” The guardians cannot enforce morality on the women because they are susceptible to the very same vices.

The problem, in the modern context of policing, is that morality cannot be enforced by law. “Laws,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills.” And every law that attempts to enforce morality simply creates additional occasion for armed police to come into conflict with citizens. And more unnecessary interactions means more opportunity for abuse. After all, “the essential feature of government is the enforcing of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning.” (Ludwig von Mises.)

In 2014, Eric Garner was choked to death by New York City police officers. Those police were enforcing a “sin tax” on cigarettes. The city had decided that smoking was immoral, had enacted a tax to penalize it, and tasked its sizable police force with enforcing the tax. Garner was allegedly evading the cigarette tax by selling individual darts, so the police accosted and ultimately killed him. The city did not plan on killing people who evaded the cigarette tax, but it was always a possibility.

More recently, Breonna Taylor was shot to death in her bed by Louisville police officers. This was the tragic and all-too-predictable result of a police tactic known as a “no-knock raid.” The Supreme Court of the United States has concluded that the fourth amendment to the Constitution requires that police announce their presence and allow the people inside the building to open the door before the police can execute a search warrant. However, an exception exists when the police claim that the subject of the search might destroy evidence if the police are forced to announce themselves before rushing in. The classic destruction of evidence concern is flushing drugs down the toilet. Breaking this all down into steps: the legislature decides that drug use is immoral, so they criminalize possession and sale of drugs; courts decide that getting drug convictions is so important that they are willing to abrogate the constitutional requirement that police announce themselves before executing a search; police perform no-knock raids by breaking into people’s homes in the middle of the night; and anybody foolish enough to try to defend himself against these apparent armed home invaders gets shot at. Police broke into Taylor’s house in the night; her boyfriend (a licensed gun owner) acted in self-defense; the police shot Taylor dead. The raid was not intended to result in a homicide, but it was always a possibility.

If police were not tasked with enforcing morality in the form of victimless crimes, they would have fewer confrontations with citizens and the police would need less policing.

Beer of the week: Natural Villain – Is there any villain more natural than the over-reaching authority figure? I think not. This highly-carbonated, clear-gold adjunct lager comes from Goose Island Beer Company. The aroma has notes of bread, grass, and corn. Natural Villain is crisp and refreshing with just a bit of lingering hops bitterness. As a summer thirst quencher, it is a good choice.

Reading of the week: Satire VI by Juvenal – Juvenal blames the moral decay of Rome on a long period of prosparity and peace. These two apparent goods, he claims, have made the Romans soft and corrupt. In particular, he asserts that Roman women have become prodigal, impious, intemperate, and lustful. In case you can’t locate the famous line, this translation has “watch the warders” for custodiet ipsos custodes.

Question for the week: Most of my analysis above relies on the premise that morality cannot and should not be legislated. Is that claim accurate? Shouldn’t legislatures attempt to make their citizens virtuous by outlawing vice?


Sins of the Father

This is the third in a series of posts on family (and Sierra Nevada beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

Oedipus’s family was dysfunctional, to say the least. Oedipus’s parents tried to kill him as an infant. When he had grown to be a man, Oedipus killed his father (although unaware of their relationship) and married his mother (likewise unknowingly.) His sons/brothers waged war against each other, vying for their father/brother’s throne. They ultimately killed each other on the field of battle. Oedipus’s uncle/brother-in-law Creon eventually sentenced Oedipus’s daughter/sister Antigone (whose fiancé happened to be her cousin, Creon’s son) to death for performing burial rites for one of her slain brothers. Not a great family situation all around.

Despite this profoundly messed up home life, Antigone somehow learned to put family first. After Oedipus blinded himself, she personally led and waited on him throughout his exile. When her brothers quarreled between themselves over the throne, Antigone pleaded with Polynices to make peace with Eteocles. And, when the corpse of Polynices lay in the open as a feast for birds and wild dogs, Antigone she defied the law to give him a proper burial.

In the face of misfortune, war, and an unjust government, Antigone steadfastly maintained her familial allegiance, even in a family most notable its members’ crimes against each other. So even if your family is pretty awful, Antigone can be a role model. 

Beer of the week: Sierraveza – This “easy-drinking lager” is in the style of a Mexican cerveza. It is quite carbonated, and pours clear gold with a bright, white head. The aroma is led by pale malts and has a slightly floral note. The beer is crisp, with just enough floral hops to leave a lingering bitterness. “Easy-drinking” indeed.

Reading of the week: Phoenissae by Seneca the Younger – Although Seneca is better known for his letters and works on stoic philosophy, he also wrote several tragedies. This partial retelling of the Oedipus myth begins with an eloquent speech by Antigone about her dedication to her father. The speech prompts Oedipus to ask how a sinner such as himself could have fathered such a dutiful daughter.

Question for the week: Do we, like the Greeks, consider patricide–and, consequently other crimes against family–to be worse than similar crimes against non-family members? Why or why not?


Best of All Possible Blog Posts

Aside from his work in mathematics–and lending his name to a brand of butter cookie–Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is best known for his philosophical optimism. He opined that ours is the best of all possible worlds. To oversimplify:
1. God, being good, chose to create the best world.
2. God, being omniscient, was able to evaluate all of the infinite facts and truths of all of the infinite possible universes to determine which is most perfect.
3. God, having determined to make the best possible world and having determined which world that would be, created this world.

Like God, people always act in pursuit of good. As Leibniz wrote in his Discourse on Metaphysics, God’s first decree on human nature “is that men should always do, although freely, that which appears to be the best.” This tracks with Aristotle’s claim at the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics that “every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good.”

Unlike God, however, people are not omniscient, and therefore cannot infallibly determine what is best. “Each soul knows the infinite, knows all, but confusedly. As in walking on the sea-shore and hearing the great noise that it makes, I hear the individual sounds of each wave, of which the total sound is composed, but without distinguishing them.” Consequently, although we always act in the way that appears best, we very often misjudge what is best and/or how to achieve our objective. Without perfect knowledge of what is best, we “must often be content with the simple twilight of probability.”

So what can we do to improve our probability of identifying what is best and most accurately aiming our actions toward it?

One possibility (not suggested by Leibniz, to my knowledge) is to conserve rational energy by minimizing unnecessary decision-making. Have you ever come home from a particularly difficult day at work and felt like you simply could not decide what to have for dinner? This all-too-common experience is the result of an important reality: decision-making takes energy. And rational energy is limited. If you spend all day making important business decisions or solving problems, it shouldn’t be surprising if, at the end of the day, you lack the energy to make even mundane choices such as what to eat.

By reducing the number of choices one must make in a day, one may conserve some of that precious decision-making energy. Supreme Court Justice David Souter famously ate the same lunch every day: yogurt and an apple. Steve Jobs’ constant turtleneck and jeans combination was part of a conscious effort to reduce decision fatigue. By eliminating trivial decisions, one frees up brain power for more important issues. Hopefully, by saving mental energy, we can make the best possible decisions in this best of all worlds.

Beer of the week: Alter Ego – Some people even drink the same beer all of the time. Once you know what you like, why not stick with it? No regular reader will be surprised to know that I enjoy the decision-making that goes into picking what beer to drink. So even though I have had various “go-to beers” over the years, I would never commit to a single brew for long. Alter Ego is a hazy, orangish IPA from Tree House Brewing Company. Its rocky head hangs around for quite a while. The aroma is quite fruity, and the flavor is of tropical fruit with a decent malt body.

Reading of the week: A Letter of Leibniz – In this excerpt, Leibniz uses two synchronized clocks as a metaphor for how one’s soul and body can be perfectly in sync, even though physical and non-physical bodies cannot act on each other. In typical Leibniz style, he ends the passage with the claim that he has more profound proofs, but the clock metaphor will suffice.

Question of the week: Were Leibniz and Aristotle correct in asserting that every human act is aimed at some good?


Tetrapharmakos – Fourth Dose

This is the last in a series of four posts on Epicureanism (and South American beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

Step 4: τὸ δὲ δεινὸν εὐκαρτέρητον – What is Terrible is Easy to Endure

Epicurus writes that “[c]ontinuous pain does not last long in the flesh; on the contrary, pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which barely outweighs pleasure in the flesh does not last for many days together. Illnesses of long duration even permit of an excess of pleasure over pain in the flesh.”

If, as Protagoras said, man is the measure of all things, then one man—Socrates—is the measure of all Greek philosophy. Would he agree with Epicurus’s statement about pain and endurance?

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates muses on the odd pleasure he experiences upon having his chains removed: “How singular is the thing called pleasure, and how curiously related to pain, which might be thought to be the opposite of it; for they are never present to a man at the same instant, and yet he who pursues either is generally compelled to take the other; their bodies are two, but they are joined by a single head.” This curious connection between pain and pleasure may lend weight to Epicurus’s point of view. One can endure almost anything because even truly awful pain must have its related pleasure.

In Xenophon’s Apology, however, Socrates identifies a sort of suffering that is chronic and worth dying to avoid. In the face of capital charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, Socrates decided to commit suicide by jury. He reasoned that it would be better to die while still at the peak of his mental powers than face the possibility of a protracted physical and psychological decline in old age. “If my years are prolonged, I know that the frailties of old age will inevitably be realized,—that my vision must be less perfect and my hearing less keen, that I shall be slower to learn and more forgetful of what I have learned.” Old age, to Socrates, was both terrible and impossible to endure—the exception that proves Epicurus’s rule.

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Beer of the week: Latitud Cero° Concordia – This Helles-style lager comes from La Paz Cerveceria in Ecuador. It’s straw-colored, with a slight haze. The aroma is of light toast, caramel and grass. The body is more substantial than I’d have guessed, which results in an uncommonly long finish for such a light lager.

Reading of the week: The Apology of Socrates by Xenophon – Those familiar with Plato’s Apology may be surprised how different Xenophon’s version is.

Question of the week: Is suicide acceptable in the face of protracted suffering?


A Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Muriel toward the BeerAndTrembling education fund. Now that the campaign is no longer live, I encourage readers to participate by reaching out in the comments or through the “Make a Recommendation” page.

Mark Twain’s writing is always quotable, usually funny, and occasionally sublime. There are, of course, the odd missteps. For example, I find A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to be a very uneven mix of sunny humor and dark, cynical satire. And I was generally unimpressed when I recently cracked open Innocents Abroad. But tastes vary, and no body of work can be all chefs d’oeuvre.

Even Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not unalloyed genius. Earnest Hemingway advised readers of Huckleberry Finn to quit before the final chapters. But, at least in my opinion, almost everything before Hemingway’s recommended cutoff point is excellent. The book begins with a notice: “PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Despite this stern warning against looking for meaning in the book, it is impossible not to see something important in Chapter XXXI.

By that point in the book Huckleberry Finn and Jim have travelled a considerable distance down the Mississippi River together. Huck is running from his abusive father and Jim is running from slavery. Eventually, they fall in with two traveling grifters. These frauds try to earn quick money by giving dance lessons and lectures on temperance, “missionarying, and mesmerizing, and doctoring, and telling fortunes, and a little of everything.” They are, however, generally unsuccessful. Eventually, they decide on a more profitable scheme: they betray Jim and sell him back into slavery.

It is under these circumstances that Huck is faced with a moral crisis. He sees two options. One option is to contact Jim’s “rightful” owner, in the hopes that Jim may return to his previous slavery rather than the possibly harsher slavery with of his new masters. Or he can attempt to help Jim escape bondage yet again. It may seem easy, from the reader’s point of view, to see what the “right” thing to do is. The problem for Huck is that he has been taught that what is lawful is good, and what is unlawful is bad. And, according to the laws of man and God, Jim is meant to be a slave. To defy those laws is to become a social pariah and invite eternal damnation.

Huckleberry, as the narrator, describes his inner turmoil. He knows that helping a slave to get his freedom, according to society, is about the most wicked, low-down, rotten thing that he could do. He’d be positively ‘shamed to death to face his friends and neighbors after doing such a despicable thing. Moreover, he believes truly that “everlasting fire” is the reward for aiding Jim’s escape. He sincerely, desperately wants to be good. But being good means he must abandon his friend when he needs him the most. Huck tries to pray, but can’t because he cannot repent wanting to help Jim. And if he cannot repent, he cannot be saved. So he makes his choice:

“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell” …

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

Twain later wrote that Huck’s inner conflict was the collision of “a sound heart and a deformed conscience.” Society had played Huck a cruel trick by convincing him that virtue was evil and evil was virtuous. So while he believed honestly that he was irredeemably wicked, he was actually irrepressibly good. His sound heart overcame his deformed conscience.

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Beer of the week: Bud Light Orange – Like some of Twain’s writing, this beer seems caught between being for children or adults. On the one hand, it smells and tastes like an orange lollipop. It occasionally even causes that peculiar pain you can get in the back of your jaw when eating citrus candies. On the other hand, it is beer. In fact, although it is too sweet, it is not quite candy-sweet. It actually tastes a bit like beer. But whoever Bud Light Orange is for, it ain’t me. (Although I honestly would try it as the base for a float with vanilla ice cream, because I am a kid at heart.)

Reading of the week: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – There is not much more to be said about this excerpt that I didn’t say above. But I really do find this to be one of the most moving pieces of writing I’ve ever read.

Question for the week: How can we avoid having our consciences deformed by a misguided society?


Tetrapharmakos – Third Dose

This is the third in a series of four posts on Epicureanism (and South American beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

Step 3: καὶ τἀγαθὸν μὲν εὔκτητον – What is Good is Easy to Get

According to Seneca, The Garden of Epicurus bore the following inscription: “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.” As a result of the Epicurean focus on pleasure, Epicureanism is often misunderstood as decadent and gluttonous. We associate Epicureanism with good food, good drink, and plenty of both. But that is not a fair characterization.

“By pleasure,” writes Epicurus to Menoeceus, “we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.” Good things are those that satisfy our basic needs. Striving for more than our minimum requirements actually decreases our pleasure because it makes us anxious. Because luxuries are hard to acquire, the effort to get them results in a net loss of pleasure. To say nothing of the unpleasant aftereffects of overindulgence.

As Montaigne put it, “If you found your pleasure upon drinking of the best [wine], you condemn yourself to the penance of drinking of the worst. Your taste must be more indifferent and free.” Why spoil your palate on expensive wine and deny yourself the pleasure of cheap wine? There is more pleasure in prudently settling for the basics than anxiously scrambling after the best.

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Beer of the week: Chaski Porter – Given Montaigne’s dictum about settling for cheap wine, I suppose that I should have paired this week’s reading with a cheap beer. But I got this Peruvian porter from Barbarian Cerveceria Artesanal at a very good price, and by drinking only one at a time, I maximize the pleasure while minimizing anxiety over my beer budget. Chaski is very carbonated. It is dark brown with a rocky, tan head. The aroma has hints of soy sauce and chocolate. The beer is a bit thinner than expected, with coffee notes dominating. I am not a big porter drinker, but Chaski is pretty good.

Reading of the week: Of Drunkenness by Michel de Montaigne – The philosophy of Montaigne is difficult to pin down. It is not accurate to call him an Epicurean, but he was certainly influenced by Epicureanism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy relates that Montaigne’s Essays quote one verse out of every sixteen in Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things.

Question of the week: Is there not a certain pleasure in working toward and attaining something beyond our basic needs?


Tetrapharmakos – Second Dose

This is the second in a series of four posts on Epicureanism (and South American beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

Step 2: Ἄνύποπτον ὁ θάνατος – Don’t worry about death

Many Roman gravestones bear the epitaph: Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo – I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care. This sentiment is a natural consequence of Epicurean materialism. To Epicurus, each living person is simply a particular assemblage of atoms. Before we existed, our atoms were parts of other combinations. After death, our atoms will separate and form new combinations. When there is no more life, there is no more person. All that remains is the atoms. Death means nothing to dead people because there are no dead people, only decaying bodies.

But what about the living? The dead may not care about death, but why shouldn’t we? “Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation,” Epicurus writes. “Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”

And this principle is not just about how we should approach death, it informs how we should approach life. Once we appreciate that our existence is utterly fleeting, we are free to live wholly for the present, without fear of what is to come afterward.

Beer of the week: Latitud Cero° Apachita – This Belgian-style wheat ale comes from Ecuador’s La Paz Cervecería. The Latitud Cero° line of beers is named for the fact that the beer is brewed on (or at least very near) the equator. Apachita is a slightly hazy golden beer. It’s got notes of banana in the aroma, and tastes a bit of banana taffy. Apachita is smooth and delicious, if a bit sweeter than I’d like.

Reading of the week: Letter to Menoeceus by Epicurus – Epicurus was an extremely prolific writer, but very little of his ouvre has survived. Three letters were preserved by Diogenes Laërtius. His letters to Pythocles and Herodotus (not that Herodotus) describe his physics and metaphysics. This letter describes his ethics.

Question for the week: It is actually reassuring to believe that there is nothing after death? Or is it distressing?


Tetrapharmakos – First Dose

This is the first in a series of four posts on Epicureanism (and South American beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

In his Life of Epicurus, Diogenes Laërtius relates forty Principal Doctrines of the Epicurean school. The first four of these doctrines came to be known as the Tetrapharmakos: the four-part cure. The Tetrapharmakos is a prescription for living a good life.

Step 1: Ἄφοβον ὁ θεός – Don’t Fear God

There are a number of ways to arrive at this maxim. The traditional Epicurean way is rather pious. Epicurus and his followers believe in God. Well, the gods. And for the Epicureans, God is perfect. But, a perfect being could have no cause to act at all, let alone act in a response to the thoughts or deeds of an infinitesimally insignificant such as man. Diogenes Laërtius put it this way: “A blessed and eternal being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; hence he is exempt from movements of anger and partiality, for every such movement implies weakness.”

Lucretius, the poet laureate of Epicureanism, expressed this belief in verse:

For all the gods must of themselves enjoy
Immortal aeons and supreme repose,
Withdrawn from our affairs, detached, afar:
Immune from peril and immune from pain,
Themselves abounding in riches of their own,
Needing not us, they are not touched by wrath
They are not taken by service or by gift.

God is simply too perfect–hence perfectly content–to be moved to either anger or love by humans.

Another (significantly less pious) way to arrive at the maxim may seem obvious to us: atheism. If there is no God, then there is clearly no need to fear God. Lucretius certainly does not entertain that line of thought directly, but gets within spitting distance. He writes:

Likewise, thou canst ne’er
Believe the sacred seats of gods are here
In any regions of this mundane world;
Indeed, the nature of the gods, so subtle,
So far removed from these our senses, scarce
Is seen even by intelligence of mind.
And since they’ve ever eluded touch and thrust
Of human hands, they cannot reach to grasp
Aught tangible to us. For what may not
Itself be touched in turn can never touch.

So the nature of God is so subtle that it is utterly beyond our senses, and only very faintly perceptible by our reason. But if we can’t perceive God, and we cannot affect or be affected by God, then it really makes no difference whether God exists at all, right? So although Epicurus and Lucretius were clearly not atheists, their philosophy seems open to those who are.

So much for why the faithful and why atheists should not fear God. But what about those who doubt God’s perfection and consequent aloofness? What if God is active in the world? In that case, God must be unpredictable because we cannot know what will move God to wrath or good humor. Such a God is not worth fearing because no amount of worry or supplication can assure us of ending up on the right side of an unpredictable and capricious God.

So, whether you are a believer or an atheist, take the first dose of the Tetrapharmakos and don’t fear God. For best results, take with beer.

Beer of the week: Chicha Tu Mare – This Peruvian sour ale is brewed with corn, quinoa, and honey. It is a hazy, orangish brew with big, quickly-dissipating bubbles. Sour fruit notes dominate the aroma. The beer is both sour and astringent. The astringency makes one’s mouth feel dry, then the sourness activates the salivary glands. The honey is very subtle, mostly in the aftertaste. I suppose that a light body is typical of sour beers generally, but I think I’d like this beer to be a bit heavier.

Reading of the week: Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, Epicurus – As mentioned above, the Tetrapharmakos only refers to the first four of forty total Epicurean Principal Doctrines. This reading consists of is the whole list, including number 34: the controversial position that acting unjustly is an evil only so far as it creates a fear of being caught and punished.

Question for the week: Can the maxim “don’t fear God” be squared with religious revelation? Or does it really only work for those who have reasoned the existence of a perfect God (or reasoned the non-existence of any God)?