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Withdrawn from our affairs, detached, afar: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)?


To Be Prevailed Upon By One’s Friends

Earlier this year, I considered bringing this blog to a close. I even started drafting Post 300 as a farewell post. As much as I’ve loved writing this blog–over the past 8+ years and on three continents–it is work. And, more importantly at this stage in my life, it is time consuming.

But I got some vital feedback at just the right time to keep me going. In the first place, I learned about the Beer Appreciation course offered by Cornell University. Then a friend convinced me that my readers care enough about this blog to contribute actual money toward tuition for that course. Even more important than the money was the fact that people wanted to engage. Many of the readers who were willing to contribute money were also eager to recommend beers and readings, and become part of the blog process. (By the way, from very early on, I have encouraged readers to make suggestions through the “Make a Recommendation” page. I don’t think that form has been used once.)

Secondly, I got a very encouraging (and unsolicited) message at a critical time. Of this blog, a friend said: “I hope it never ends.” How could I quit after reading such a sentiment?

Friends, you’ve kept me going. Thank you all for your contributions, be they monetary or just kind words. Please always feel free to comment or reach out. For my part, I will keep writing this blog until you are sick to death of it.

Beer of the week: Licher Weizen – This German Hefeweizen seems like a good representative of the style. It is quite cloudy, with a big, fluffy head. (As I now know from the Cornell course, the high protein content of wheat contributes both to the cloudiness and the foaminess.) The aroma has notes of banana and clove. (Typical of the esters associated with wheat.) The flavor follows the smell closely, especially the banana. There is just enough hops to remind you that this is, in fact, a beer. I don’t know if this is the best Hefeweizen, but it is definitely everything the style should be.

Reading of the week: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – This excerpt is almost entirely dialogue, with the characters debating whether it is better “to yield readily—easily—to the persuasion of a friend” or to insist that the friend provide argument and reason. For, as one character argues, “to yield without conviction is no compliment to the understanding of either [friend].”

Question of the week: Is there any way that this blog could be more engaging? What features/subjects/beers/etc. would induce you to comment/suggest beers/etc.?


Like a Frog in a Pot

Consider the following thought experiment (based, I believe, on work by the philosopher Warren Quinn):

A surgeon implants a dial into your bellybutton, with numbered settings ranging from 0 to 99. Each setting represents a level of permanent and irreversible discomfort, with 1 being scarcely noticeable and 99 being utterly agonizing. However, the difference between any two sequential settings is imperceptible. The dial can only be turned up, never down; once set to any given number, the discomfort will remain at that level for the rest of your life (unless you turn the dial up further.) The scientist who did this to you is not totally unkind, however. He offers a deal: you never have to turn the dial; it can just stay at 0 for your whole life. But if you do turn the dial, he will pay you $10,000 for each setting you reach. What do you do?

The crux of this question is that consecutive settings differ only imperceptibly. So once the dial is set to 1, there seems to be no reason not to turn it up to 2 and collect the additional money. And because the difference between 2 and 3 is imperceptible, why stop at 2? And so forth all the way up to the excruciating 99th setting. Eventually you may find yourself in constant and terrible pain, having crept to that point by imperceptible degrees.

Beer of the week: Devils Backbone Vienna Lager – Based on the reading of the week, one might have expected a beer from Sierra Nevada, but that’d be too obvious. Instead, I’ve chosen a beer named for a different mountain. This amber lager has a delicious, bready aroma. This Virginia beer is loaded with lots of toasted malt flavor with hints of caramel. It is a very nice brew.

Reading of the week: Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada by Clarence King – The theme of imperceptible gradual change is explored in this reading. King describes how the the forests of the Sierra Nevada mountains transition gradually from “a great, continuous grove, on whose sunny openings are innumerable brilliant parterres” to “a dismal thicket, a sort of gigantic canebrake, void of beauty, dark, impenetrable, save by the avenues of streams, where one may float for days between sombre walls of forest.”

Question of the week: Would you turn the dial? If you do, is there any way to keep yourself from eventually working your way to 99?


Has an octopus a soul?

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

In and around Korean seafood markets, there are often restaurants that will prepare fish that has just been purchased from the market by the customers. So one may make a purchase from a fish monger and then have that fish expertly cooked within minutes. Fresh as it gets.

Of course, not all seafood is cooked. Very fresh fish is often sliced and served raw. The fish markets usually also have live octopus. A popular way to serve octopus is a dish called 산낙지 or san-nakji. The octopus is killed, cut up and served while still wriggling. The pieces continue to squirm for some time. They also respond to stimuli, moving more actively when dipped in soy sauce, and grabbing onto the plate, chopsticks, even the eater’s teeth. In fact, it is widely believed (and quite plausibly) that several people choke to death on octopus every year because a sucker clings to the inside of the eater’s throat.

Why do the arms of the octopus continue to move after being severed from the brain? Or, put into provocative Latin-root terms, what animates the parts of the octopus? Is it the same animus (soul, psyche, life force) that lately animated the whole, live animal? And if it is the same, how did a single living being become a plateful of animated parts? How did the chef’s knife divide the animus?

A possible explanation for the active pieces may be that octopuses have less centralized nervous systems than mammals, with their neurons distributed throughout their bodies. As a result, cutting an arm off does not immediately rob the arm of all function. While we think of the brain as the sole seat for the soul, of an octopus soul exists, it is more dispersed throughout its body.

Additionally, experience teaches that dipping the meat into soy sauce increases its motion. A biochemical explanation is that electrolytes in the sauce facilitate or cause additional nerve cell activity.

But those explanations don’t get to the metaphorical heart of the metaphysical question: has an octopus a soul? I don’t know the answer, but I won’t be eating octopus any time soon.

Beer of the week: Skipjack – Skipjack tuna is also ever-present at Korean seafood markets. But Skipjack lager is brewed and canned by Union Craft Brewing on the other side of the world, in another seafood hub: Baltimore. This “true bohemian lager” (again, from Baltimore, not Bohemia) is brewed with Bohemian Pils malt. The aroma is led by bright hops. The beer is silky smooth and very malty but with Plenty of clinging hops in the finish

Reading of the week: Has a Frog a Soul, and of What Nature Is That Soul, Supposing It to Exist? by T. H. Huxley – This is a very engaging essay on the question of whether the soul (or whatever you want to call the thing that distinguishes living things from non-living things) is material or immaterial. The reading, however is not for everybody. Huxley describes in some detail his experiments on live frogs, and it gets downright unpleasant. But this sort of experimentation is crucial to understanding our world and our place in it. So while I personally would not enjoy chopping up live frogs and subjecting their severed limbs to various stimuli, I am glad that Huxley thought to do it.

Questions for the week: Has an octopus a soul? Would you eat a plate of wriggling octopus?


Sweet Crab Apples

One of the best known of Aesop’s fables is The Fox and the Grapes. The fable goes like this:

ONE hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.”

“IT IS EASY TO DESPISE WHAT YOU CANNOT GET.”

Naturally, The Fox and the Grapes is the origin of “sour grapes”, an expression that is endlessly useful. However, I am not aware of an expression that signifies the opposite of sour grapes. That is, if sour grapes refers to convincing yourself that something is bad simply because you cannot get it, there should be a turn of phrase for convincing yourself that something is good simply because that is all you can get.

People who can’t afford filet mignon might say, “SPAM is actually pretty flavorful.” Those to whom BMWs are beyond reach might claim, “my old Geo is actually a really smooth ride.”  While the fox focused on disparaging what he could not get, a more positive individual might extoll what he has (even if it really isn’t that great.)

I’d propose the expression “sweet crab apples” after the story Paper Pills by Sherwood Anderson. In that story, Anderson talks about the gnarled little apples that are left in the orchard after all of the “good” apples have been picked and sold. Despite their appearance, the narrator claims that these twisted apples are actually sweet and delicious. But I can’t help but wonder whether the people who eat the rejected apples are just deluding themselves.

The SPAM eater may genuinely enjoy canned meat product. The Geo driver might get a lot of joy out of his car. And Anderson may really love the gnarled leftover apples. But have they discovered genuine quality that everybody else overlooked? Or have they just convinced themselves to be happy with what they can get?

Beer of the week: Natural Light Naturdays – I’d be willing to bet that a substantial number of college students would claim that they genuinely like the taste of Natural Light. Whether this preference is genuine, or merely self-delusion based on what beer they can afford, we may never know. Naturdays is a “light lager with natural flavor” meant to approximate a shandy made with strawberry lemonade. Basically, it comes off as a strawberry alcopop. What little head it has dissipated before I could snap a photo. The color is so clear and pale that I would guess that nothing resembling a strawberry came within a mile of the brewery where this was canned. The aroma is like a strawberry candy, but with hints of beer. Honestly, Naturdays is actually pretty good for what it is. It has a nice lingering tartness, and only a little bit more sweetness than I think would be ideal. I suppose it could also have more beer flavor, but it’s refreshing and different.

Reading of the week: Paper Pills by Sherwood Anderson – I actually think that Anderson is serious in his claim that the gnarled, rejected apples actually are delicious. However, in the story, a young woman has bad luck with suitors and ends up marrying an eccentric doctor. Her appreciation for this third-choice mate is likened to an appreciation for the rejected apples.

Question for the week: Does the world need a phrase like “sweet crab apples”?


10,000 Hours of Drinking

Occasionally, upon witnessing some great athletic performance, hearing some beautiful music, or viewing some astounding work of art, I think to myself, “wouldn’t it be great to have some discernible talent?”

Of course pure, raw talent is exceptionally rare. For the most part, any remarkable performance is the culmination of an immense amount of work. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the the 10,000 Hour Rule, the idea that greatness (in performing arts, computer programming, or whatever) requires 10,000 of practice.

But 10,000 hours of practice is not simply 10,000 hours of practice. It is also 10,000 of not doing something else. Every hour in the gym, the library, or the studio is an hour not spent with family, or relaxing, or anything else. The sacrifices made to achieve greatness are more than the 10,000 hours of practice, they are also the 10,000 not not practicing. We can see the hours of training, but what we can’t see may be more important in the long run.

Beer of the week: Green – The brewers at Tree House Brewing Company must have put in their 10,000 hours because Tree House is one of the hottest names in beer. Green is one of their many renowned IPAs. Green is cloudy, practically muddy, and pours with a big, rocky head. The aroma is hop-forward with some tropical fruit notes. The beer is smooth and creamy with hints of citrus and pineapple and a lingering taste of orange. Green is an excellent IPA.

Reading of the week: First Sorrow by Franz Kafka – I almost wrote that this very short story is about a trapeze artist, but I am never sure what Kafka stories are really about. The main character of the story is a trapeze artist who “never came down from his trapeze by night or day . . . from a desire to perfect his skill.” That’s one way to rack up 10,000 hours quickly.

Question for the week: Can greatness coexist with balance? Or must the great (in any field) have some off-setting deficiency, such as in family life?


Finally Free

Many years ago, I found myself in an off-campus student apartment late at night. The evening had started with cheap keg beer, had proceeded to cheap Canadian whiskey, and, eventually, dumpster-dived Trader Joe’s orange juice. (The OJ was excellent and expiration dates are a lie.)

Anyway, I was in an unfamiliar apartment, with a few people whom I had only just met. I was sitting in a lounge chair. It’s owner, for some reason, decided that the time was right to inform me that his mother had died in that very chair. I was not horrified by the information, but I was fairly rattled by the next sentence:

“My father looked at me and said, ‘We’re finally free.’ ”

In the moment, the idea of a loved one’s death as liberating did not make any sense to me. This appeared to me to be the “monstrous joy” in Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour; the perverse realization that another’s death can brighten our own prospect for happiness. And the joy is all the more monstrous because it is so plausible. One simply must deny that there can be any joy in the passing of a loved one, yet there are so many ways in which such an event may be liberating.

But all these years later, I see how little I understood of the situation. I finally appreciate that the statement “we’re finally free” is not the same as “I am glad she’s dead.” I also understand that the “we” in the father’s statement may have included the mother. If she had suffered from a long and painful illness, she may have been freed by the “sweet release of death.”

My own shock on hearing the story was in large part because I have been so lucky with respect to the health of my loved ones. I had not witnessed a long, slow deterioration of health, or even been affected by any untimely deaths. I do not know now how I will react to any given loved one’s death, but I hope that I will not judge myself harshly for my own response. Whether I weep for days or laugh at all of the fun times we had, grief (like death itself) is not something to be planned.

Beer of the week: Zipline Copper Alt – This dark amber altbier comes from Nebraska’s Zipline Brewing Company. It has a nice, rocky head that fades quickly but leaves some noticeable lacing. The aroma has sourdough hints. The label says to look for chocolate and hazelnut notes, but I only get the hazelnut. This beer is a good find.

Reading of the week: The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin – I don’t want to spoil this excellent story here, so I will only quote from the first line: “Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.”

Question for the week: Is there a “wrong” way to grieve?