“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.
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?
“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.
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?)
This is the last post in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
HUMILITY: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
When I first read Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger, it was paired with his Life of Julius Caesar. This juxtaposition seemed very favorable to Cato. Caesar, a second-rate Alexander and enemy of the Republic vs. Cato, virtue personified and defender of Rome. But a close look at Plutarch’s treatment of Cato makes it clear that the great biographer did not mean for Cato to be taken as the paragon of virtue.
The most pronounced inconsistency of virtue in Cato is his supposed humility. Plutarch shows that below this professed humility was a profound vanity. Cato repudiated his fellow senators for their ostentatious dress. But rather than wearing very plain and modest clothing, Cato wore a black toga that was calculated to stand out more than the even the most luxurious dress of his colleagues. He also made a point of not wearing underwear and sitting with his legs spread apart as if he did not already draw enough attention to himself.
Cato’s vanity is most visible in his visit to Antioch. He arrived to find “a great multitude of people outside the gates, ranged in order on either side the way; here the young men with long cloaks, there the children decently dressed; others wore garlands and white garments, who were the priests and magistrates.” Cato was incensed that the people should have such a grand ceremony in honor of his arrival. Of course, the extravagant greeting was not for him at all; the people were arranged to welcome a dignitary from Pompey. Cato himself, it seems, is the only person who had even thought of holding a parade in his honor. And this accidental admission gave the lie to his professed humility.
And finally, make sure that the audience sees what a hypocrite and poseur Cato was, Plutarch presents his suicide as a farce. Before the deed, Cato reads Phaedo twice. In that dialogue by Plato, Socrates calmly (some Roman philosophers would have argued “stoically”) accepted his fate and drank his poison. After reading this edifying tract on how to die with dignity, what did Cato do? He lost his temper and punched a slave in the mouth, badly injuring his own hand. When the time came to pull the proverbial trigger, Cato was unable to dispatch himself cleanly because he had trouble stabbing himself with his broken hand. He was forced, ultimately, to dig out his bowels with his bare hands. So much for imitating Socrates in his stoic and dignified death.
Beer of the week: Černá Hora Sklepní – This is Černá Hora’s “Cellar style” lager. It is an unfiltered, and therefore slightly cloudy, golden beer. The aroma is bready and the flavor follows closely. Because it is unfiltered, the beer has a bit more flavor than many Czech beers. There is a hint of spice and of apricot and there is just enough hops in the finish to round it out. Overall, this is a pretty good beer.
Reading for the week: The Life of Cato the Younger by Plutarch – A fitting reading would be the section about how Cato loved to drink wine all night and discourse about philosophy. But the suicide scene, presented here, is more on point.
Question for the week: It is probable that this post overstates Plutarch’s intent to show up Cato. For one thing, Plutarch explicitly states that the wearing of black was not out of vainglory. And he also says that Cato afterwards would laugh often at his misunderstanding at Antioch. But can the suicide scene be read any other way than as a farce?
This is the thirteenth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
CHASTITY: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
Like Temperance, Frugality, and Silence, Franklin’s version of Chastity could easily be viewed as a sub-virtue of moderation. He does not advocate sexual abstinence any more than he advocates absolute silence, parsimony, or teetotaling. Rather, Franklin’s advice is to limit sexual exertion to a healthy level. Sex is not bad; over-indulgence is bad, particularly if it leads to a damaged reputation.
This view of chastity and eros would have served Hippolytus well. The mythical Hippolytus worshipped Artemis, the chaste goddess of the hunt, to the exclusion of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. In Euripides’ version of the story, Hippolytus comes on the scene with a an offering for Artemis: a “woven wreath, culled from a virgin meadow, where nor shepherd dares to herd his flock nor ever scythe hath mown, but o’er the mead unshorn the bee doth wing its way in spring; and with the dew from rivers drawn purity that garden tends.” And he follows this carefully cultivated sacrifice with a total rebuff of Aphrodite. “No god, whose worship craves the night,” he says, “hath charms for me.”
Hippolytus’ sage attendant understands the error of this attitude, and advises him to maintain at least “courteous affability” with all of the gods. Although he does not say so in so many words, this is because the gods of the Greek pantheon represent the many facets of humanity. It is fine, even proper, to have a favored god as a patron, but all of the gods must have their due. To deny any of the various gods entirely is to deny an entire aspect of human nature. And that is as true of Aphrodite as it is of the rest.
Beer of the week: Indio – When it comes to Mexican beers, darker is almost always better. This Mexican dark lager pours with big, sticky bubbles. The aroma is not much different than a Corona. The flavor is profile includes some rice and a slight hint of caramel that lingers. And, although it has more flavor than most pale lagers from south of the boarder, it is just about as refreshing.
Reading of the week: Hippolytus by Euripides – The play begins with Aphrodite spelling out exactly what her plan is to avenge herself upon Hippolytus. She is intent upon “bring to ruin all who vaunt themselves at” her.
Question for the week: Is rage particularly tied to love in a special way? Could Hephaestus, god of craftsmen, or Athena, goddess of wisdom, be as spiteful as Aphrodite?
This is the twelfth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
TRANQUILLITY: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
As discussed in more than one earlier post, Epictetus is pretty much the go-to guru on not being disturbed by trifles. Did your favorite beer glass shatter when you dropped it? Hey, that’s what glass does; it breaks. You enjoyed it while you had it, but now it has just started it’s long and inevitable return to its constituent parts. Did you get splashed at the swimming pool? What did you expect? Water gets splashed around at the swimming pool, no big deal. Did your wife or child die? People are mortal; get over it.
Ok, so the death of a family member is more than a trifle. And when Epictetus compares the death of a child to the breaking of a cup, it just doesn’t ring true. Surely nobody is that stoic. At least no mentally healthy person is. (And, as I noted before, there is no reason to think that Epictetus was ever married or fathered any children. So he didn’t really know what it is like to lose a wife or child.)
Seneca, at least, admits that a certain amount of grief is appropriate in the face of death. “Let not the eyes be dry when we have lost a friend, nor let them overflow,” he writes. “We may weep, but we must not wail.” He admits that even this allowance seems harsh, but his reasoning is somewhat more compelling than that of Epictetus. To Seneca, pronounced grief is a false show of affection. Loud wailing is an outward attempt to prove one’s love. However, one can only keep up abject mourning for so long. So if the measure of one’s love for the departed is the extent of his wailing, then even the most bereaved must finally “be over” the loss. True friends, however, will measure their love, not in tears, but in happy memories. Because unlike lamentation, which must eventually exhaust itself, happy memories can go on indefinitely.
Beer of the week: Lagunitas IPA – This California/Chicago IPA is a lovely orange-gold with fluffy white foam. Although there is plenty of hops, it is not excessively bitter. This is a nice malty India pale ale with a hint of tartness in the finish.
Reading for the week: Letter LXIII to Lucilius from Seneca – Another problem that Seneca observes with abject lamentation is that it shows that the loved one was not appreciated enough during his life. It smacks of carelessness to wail over the time that one should have spent with the deceased. After all, shouldn’t we direct all of that emotion toward the friends that are still with us, lest we set up a cycle of waiting until death to give voice to our love?
Question for the week: Are you making the most of the limited time that you have with your friends and family? (Obviously not. Rather, how can you make better use of your time with your friends and family?)
This is the tenth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
MODERATION: Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
As I noted in an earlier post, Sydney winters never get cold enough for a proper polar bear plunge. As a result, those who want a real winter swim have to be creative. Members of the Bondi Icebergs Club take blocks of ice with them into their beautiful tidal swimming pool. Cold water swimming is meant to be both salubrious and invigorating.
On the other temperature extreme (and on the other side of the world) are the Finns, who take great pride in their scorching hot saunas. There are even competitions (some of which end quite badly) where contestants attempt to sit in the hottest temperature for the longest period. Aside from the dangers associated with doing it competitively, the use of saunas is regarded as healthful and rejuvenating.
How does one reconcile these practices with the general proposition that extremes are harmful? The conclusion, I think, must be that extremes are not dangerous in themselves. A certain amount of extremity pushes the body (or the mind), very much in the way that physical exercise does. What is dangerous about extremes is when they cease to be extreme. Extremes are extraordinary conditions to be endured, and they should not be allowed to become ordinary.
Beer of the week: Pop-Up IPA – A “session” IPA is a tribute to moderation. It is a drink for those who want the flavor of an IPA without the extreme hopping or alcohol level. Unfortunately, I think that Boulevard dialed this beer back a little too much. To be sure, it is a fine beer, but the flavor is not quite as full as I would like. Pop-Up is a cloudy session IPA with a thick, sticky head. The beer’s aroma is dominated by grassy, floral hops. The aftertaste has a hint of pepper.
Reading for the week: Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite by Molière, Act I, Scene VI – “Men,” says one character in this scene, “for the most part, are strange creatures, truly! You never find them keep the golden mean; The limits of good sense, too narrow for them, Must always be passed by, in each direction; They often spoil the noblest things, because They go too far, and push them to extremes.”
Question for the week: Are occasional extremes really good for us, or is that just a justification for indulging in extremes that ought to be avoided.
This is the eighth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
SINCERITY: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
To some extent, many competitive sports rely on subterfuge and deception. Hockey has its deke moves, basketball its pump fakes, boxing its feints, rugby its dummy passes. Baseball, no less than any of these other sports, has it’s share of deceptive practices.
The president of Harvard (and editor of the Harvard Classics) William Eliot once said of the university’s baseball team, “…this year I’m told the team did well because one pitcher had a fine curve ball. I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard.” Eliot, however, is in the minority; most people appreciate and applaud a ball player who is especially adept at deception. It is part of the game, as they say.
Another sneaky part of the game is stealing signs. The catcher uses hand signals to communicate with the pitcher, and if an a base runner is able to intercept those signs, he may gain valuable information for his team. And it is generally accepted that there is nothing wrong with stealing signs.
However, a few weeks ago the Boston Red Sox got caught using an Apple Watch to communicate stolen signs, and that burned some people up. It’s fair enough to have a player steal signs from the base paths, but to use video cameras and electronic messaging is something else entirely. For one thing, a catcher may change his signs when an opponent is on base, making the signs themselves part of a game within the game. But what adaptive measures could the catcher use against video cameras and wireless messaging? It takes an aspect of the game away from the players and puts it in the hands of nameless support staff. For another thing, it converts a relatively rare advantage into a constant. Traditional sign stealing only happens when a runner is on second base, but the use of video makes it possible to steal signs on every single pitch.
The line between admirably clever and despicably devious is not always easy to spot, but when somebody steps well and truly over that line, he draws well deserved ire.
Beer of the week: Oval Beach Blonde – Summer is technically over, but a late heat wave has kept this summer blonde enjoyable. Oval Beach is a beautiful blonde brew from Saugatuck Brewing Company in Michigan. The beer is just a bit tangy, and has a nice malt body. A very refreshing choice.
Reading of the week: The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, Book I, Chapters X & XI – As in sport, military leaders are often praised for deception, but only up to a point. A well laid ambush is considered laudable, but if the ambush is baited with a false truce, it is considered villainous. This excerpt describes some of the acts of Robert Guiscard. Anna Komnene clearly thinks that Robert overstepped the bounds of decency, but history knows him as “Robert the Resourceful”.
Question for the week: Is there really a fair distinction between clever deception and devious deception? Or is all deception equally admirable/reprehensible? (Kant may suggest an answer.)