Pabsts Is Pabsts

“I am not, incidentally, for a reading regimen of exclusive greatness. It is too rich, like a diet of “white soup,” the cholesterol-laden concoction served in Jane Austen’s well-off houses at dinner parties. I am for reading a lot of stuff: adventure, mystery, travel, cookbooks, westerns (my favorites), historical fiction, fantasy, space and science-fiction—from fine to terrible. They are all supplements to life, experiences I could not possibly live through but would dearly like to have—vicariously. And you never know when information that seemed simply amusing will prove to have some application.” – Eva Brann

Taking Ms. Brann’s statement to heart, I just read a hilarious short story called Pigs Is Pigs by Ellis Parker Butler. In case you have not read the story–or seen the classic Disney short based on it–it is about a dispute between a railway agent and a customer on the appropriate shipping rate for two guinea pigs. The customer argues that the guinea pigs are pets, and should be shipped at the rate for pets. The railway agent, however, declares that “pigs is pigs” and must be shipped at the higher livestock rate. “Guinea-pigs, or dago pigs or Irish pigs is all the same to the Interurban Express Company an’ to Mike Flannery. Th’ nationality of the pig creates no differentiality in the rate, Misther Morehouse! ‘Twould be the same was they Dutch pigs or Rooshun pigs.”

As silly as the premise is, Pigs Is Pigs touches on a lot of important subjects:

Semantics: Obviously, the primary theme of the story is semantics. What does the word “pigs” signify in the contexts of guinea pigs and railway regulations?

Bureaucracy: The story satirizes modern bureaucracy by showing letter after letter being sent across various departments to determine the answer to the rate issue, a difference of five cents per animal. It takes several months for the railway bureaucrats to come to an official resolution of the simple question. By the end, countless man hours, stamps, and telegraphs are wasted and the railway agent has spent thousands of times the rate difference in cabbage to feed the guinea pigs.

Taxonomy: The president of the railway company appeals to a professor of biology in the Andes of South America for an opinion on the question. The professor’s long awaited reply teaches that “the guinea-pig was the Cava aparoea while the common pig was the genius Sus of the family Suidae. He remarked that they were prolific and multiplied rapidly.”

Mathematics: The story also provides a demonstration of exponential growth. In the many months that the bureaucrats took to address the rate question, the two guinea pigs reproduced many times over. Shortly the two became 8. By the time the auditing department was involved, there were 160 animals. By the time the auditing department completed it’s review, the number had ballooned to 800. Before this discrepancy could be accounted for, there were 4,064. By the end of the story, the guinea pigs fill the warehouse at the main office.

Ms. Brann is right, I think, that we should not limit our reading specifically to “great books” or “great ideas”. But what we ought to do is look for the greatness and important ideas in what we do read.

“Beer” of the week: Pabst Blue Ribbon Hard Coffee – If pigs is pigs, then Pabsts is Pabsts. But this is not a Blue Ribbon Beer, it is a “flavored malt beverage.” It is apparently a combination of malt alcohol, coffee, milk, and “vanilla flavor”. It is, to a non-coffee drinker such as myself, surprisingly decent. It reminds me of a mudslide cocktail, or less-sweet coffee ice cream. It is creamy and a bit sweet, without much coffee bitterness. It’s as much like a PBR as a guinea pig is like a sow, but it probably has it’s place.

Reading of the week: Pigs Is Pigs by Ellis Parker Butler – What a story. It is a bit long for a weekly reading, but it is a light, fun read.

Question for the week: Where have you seen important themes in apparently frivolous works?

Characteristic Reading

An excellent way for an author to quickly give the reader a sense for his characters is to describe how and what they read. In Eugene Onegin, for example, Alexander Pushkin tells us that Tatyana Larina kept the romantic novels of Samuel Richardson under her pillow, and that Vladimir Lensky had his soul “fired by the flame” of Goethe and Schiller’s poetry. Those small details say volumes about the characters, so to speak.

The problem, of course, is that we readers can only understand the full import of the characters’ reading habits if we, ourselves, are well-read. Knowing that Lensky’s soul was refined by Goethe and Schiller is only helpful if we know anything about Goethe and Schiller’s writing. The more one reads, the more one needs to read.

Beer of the week: Framboise Rose Gose – This Anderson Valley brew is something else. It is not quite clear, pinkish-straw in color, and pours with a very quickly dissipating head. The aroma is very fruity and floral, with loads of berry. The flavor follows the aroma, with tart, slightly astringent raspberry doing all of the heavy lifting. The finish is relatively long, with floral notes hanging around in the back of the throat.

Reading of the week: Middlemarch by George Eliot – Pushkin, of course, is not the only author to have used the technique discussed above. In her description of the character Dorothea Brooke, Eliot mentions that “Dorothea knew many passages of Pascal’s Pensées and of Jeremy Taylor by heart.” Dorothea also “had strange whims of … sitting up at night to read old theological books!” Later in the book, Dorothea adopts the habit of “getting down learned books from the library and reading many things hastily” so that she might be better prepared for elevated conversation.

Question of the week: If somebody wanted to describe you in this way, what reading habit or favorite books of yours would they mention?

Some Fantastic

The top ten earning films of the 2010’s consisted of four Marvel superhero movies, three Star Wars movies, two animated Disney films (The Incredibles 2 and the “live action” Lion King remake,) and the fourth installment of the Jurassic Park franchise.

These films have a lot in common. For one thing, Disney and it’s subsidiaries produced and distributed nine out of the ten. Additionally, aside from the Lion King remake, each film was a sequel.* (Not to say that there is anything necessarily bad about remakes or sequels. The Wizard of Oz is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all-time, but the novel on which was based had been adapted for stage and screen several times before. And several of Shakespeare’s plays are sequels or retellings of old stories.)

The most interesting similarity to me, though, is the fact that the movies all have prominent fantastical elements. None of the films are about ordinary humans interacting with the world as we know it. Aside from Jurassic World and Lion King–which feature invisible dinosaurs and talking animals living in an interspecies hereditary kingdom, respectively–the movies all have space magic and/or superhumans. (There is probably a fair distinction to be made here between science fiction and fantasy, but I am not the person to make it. And, as Arthur C. Clark famously put it: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

At the risk of being predictable, I’d like to compare these blockbuster movies with a couple classics of Russian literature.

At a glance, Alexander Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is also fantastical. It has a vengeful ghost and a magical formula to make certain playing cards into guaranteed winners. However, only one character, Hermann, sees the ghost. Hermann is also the only one who attempts the winning trick or sees the titular playing card wink its eye. And before all of that happens, the narrator tells us of “the disordered condition of [Hermann’s] uncontrollable imagination.” At the end of the story, Hermann is committed to an insane asylum. The story is overtly fantastical, but it is possible that Hermann is simply insane, and that all of the supernatural elements of the story are the products of his disordered imagination. That ambiguity, in my opinion, makes the story more compelling.

Similarly, there is an overtly fantastical story embedded in Dostoyevski’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov tells his brother Alyosha a tale about Jesus returning to Earth during the Spanish Inquisition. Jesus heals the blind and raises a young girl from the dead before being imprisoned and interrogated by the Grand Inquisitor. Notably, Jesus is not mentioned by name, but is only referred to as “He” (spelled with a capital “H” in every English translation that I’ve seen.) At one point, Alyosha interrupts to ask whether this is all in the Grand Inquisitor’s imagination or whether he has somehow mistaken some ordinary person for Jesus. “Take it as the last,” replies Ivan, “if you are so corrupted by modern realism and can’t stand anything fantastic. If you like it to be a case of mistaken identity, let it be so.” Ivan goes on to explain that isn’t important whether the prisoner really is Jesus or merely “the delusion of an old man of ninety, over-excited by the auto da fe of a hundred heretics the day before.” What matters is that the appearance of Jesus (real or imagined) presents the character of the Grand Inquisitor the opportunity to give voice to his deepest thoughts.

The same is true of The Queen of Spades. Whether Hermann saw the ghost because he was insane or went insane only later is not really important. What matters is that the appearance of the ghost gave Hermann the opportunity to yield completely to his avarice and advance the plot of the story.

Who knows, maybe the fantastical elements of blockbuster films are also intentionally ambiguous devices that ultimately reveal the souls of the characters.

Beer of the week: Smittytown ESB – This fantastic Extra Special Bitter comes from Temperance Beer Company in Evanston, Illinois. It is dark gold in color, with a slight haze. The beer is very effervescent, with an aroma of caramel malt. The caramel malt leads the flavor as well, and is followed by a nice hops kick in the back of the throat. Smittytown is a great, well-balanced brew.

Reading of the week: The Grand Inquisitor from The Brother Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevski – This excerpt is from the beginning of Ivan’s tale, when Jesus first appears in Seville and performs miracles. (Note that I do not hesitate to call the visitor Jesus. This is because 1) the story makes it clear that everybody can tell who He is just by looking at Him, and 2) Ivan says that it doesn’t matter if it is really Jesus or not, so it isn’t worth any effort to avoid using His name.)

Question for the week: Why are fantastical stories occasionally thought of as juvenile and lowbrow? After all, many bonafide classics are highly fantastical, such as Gulliver’s Travels, The Divine Comedy, and several of Shakespeare’s comedies.

*A couple of the movies are not generally referred to as sequels, such as Rogue One and Black Panther. But the fact that they are stories that take place in the same universes as earlier movies makes the distinction pretty tenuous.

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.


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?

Epic Triple Peal

Somebody recently told me that this blog is too esoteric. This post is probably the extreme limit in that respect. But this week’s reading and beer were specially requested by Micah after he made a generous contribution toward the BeerAndTrembling education fund, so if you don’t like it, take it up with him. 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.

[The following excerpt was lately discovered in the archives of the United States Classics Academy (USCA). It is evidently post-Homeric in origin, but there is no consensus as to its ultimate origin.]

Sing in me, O Muse, of the triple peals of thunder that echoed through Ilium as cunning Ulysses and Teukros, son of Telamon, breached the gates of Troy.

One night, seven years into the Daanan’s siege, Ulysses devised a plan for a two-man raid with stealthy Teukros, to the very heart of the walled city, to leave their marks on the castle’s central column. To do so, the two Argives would need to pass through several gates, and evade watchmen of uncommon military prowess.

But Artemis, goddess of the hunt, was displeased with Teukros. She had blessed many and more of his arrows on hunts beyond number, but before this daring raid, he had made her no offering. Therefore, she shrouded the moon with clouds and obscured the ground with fog, so that Teukros and cunning Ulysses could not tell which of Ilium’s twelve gates they approached, whether it was one of the six front gates or the six back.

[There is a large lacuna in the text at this point. It appears from later summaries that Ulysses had the better of the early exchanges with the Trojan guards, eventually setting up Teukros for an attack on the final gates. However, a remarkably accurate spear throw by Rhesus of Thrace scattered the Greeks. Rhesus then ran the Greeks all around the city before finally returning to a strategic defensive position.]

As was the old standard positioning in those days, godlike Lycophontes and Rhesus stood together near the third back gate, in the southeast corner of the city. Teukros, drew his mighty bow and reignited the stalled raid with an incredible, partly-obstructed shot at Rhesus. The shaft glanced harmlessly off of his shining armor, but accomplished its goal of unsettling the defenders.

[Another lengthy lacuna during which Teukros evidently led the attack, with the skirmish again circling most of the way around Troy.]

Teukros urged cunning Ulysses through the fourth back gate, and crossed through himself. As if to show his approval of the heroes’ bold feat, Zeus loosed a tremendous peal of thunder.

[Another lacuna.]

Teukros rushed mighty Ulysses onward, and through the penultimate gate before the castle’s central column. Rhesus, stationed by the gate, provided little obstacle for the Argive raiders. Teukros struck him a blow more deft than powerful, and sent him reeling. Teukros, with bow drawn to prevent any attacks from the rear, backed through the gate as Zeus again made the very ground quake with a mighty peal of thunder.

[Another lacuna.]

Within the city Rhesus, great Eioneus’ son, and godlike Lycophontes were divided. Brave Lycophontes was now the only one standing between the Argives and their objective, but was utterly incapable of stoping the Greeks as they rushed toward the last gate before the center of the castle. Out of deference for his elder, Teukros gave way for Ulysses to cross the final threshold first, and as he followed, a third and far the loudest peal of thunder enveloped the night.

Ulysses struck the castle’s central column with his sword to make his mark on the very heart of Troy. Teukros, to show his skill a final time, drew his bow again and loosed a shaft at the column. So straight was his shot that the arrowhead buried itself in a masonry joint and the feathered shaft stuck out from the column for all to see.

As victors, though victors only of a small game in the scheme of the monumental war, Ulysses and Teukros returned to their black-prowed ships for a well-earned bowl of wine. While they were out raiding, however, Telemonian Ajax had consumed all of their wine. Ulysses and Teukros would have to settle for beer.


Beer of the week: Red Stripe – When I drank this Jamaican lager regularly, the bottles were twelve ounces and had painted labels. Now the bottles are 11.2 ounces and the labels are plastic stickers. In those days, I also thought the beer was better. It is a very pale and clear lager, with an aroma primarily of adjunct grains. The flavor follows: adjunct grains with little hops to speak of, and a slightly sticky finish. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Reading of the week: Expert Croquet Tactics by Keith F. Wylie, Article 2. The First Break – In this book, probably the most authoritative text on croquet tactics ever written, Wylie “leave[s] behind the world of everyday croquet, with its missed roquets and blobbed hoops” to explore what the very best croquet players should do under ideal conditions. This particular section may explain some of what happened during the lacunae in the story above.

Question for the week: What was the final score in the game of Ulysses and Teukros v. Rhesus and Lycophontes?


Random Enough

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Mimi and Gavin 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.

I take for granted that the law of cause and effect are inexorable. Even in very complicated circumstances, it seems obvious that an effect is dictated by its cause(s). Imagine flipping a coin. If we knew the starting position of the coin, the force of the toss, the angular momentum, the air resistance, and dozens of other factors, we could accurately calculate the result every time. The way the coin lands is not random. Quite the opposite; it is inevitable.

This premise is taken to its extreme by the warrior monks of The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker:

What comes before determines what comes after. Dünyain monks spent their lives immersed in the study of this principle, illuminating the intangible mesh of cause and effect that determined every happenstance and minimizing all that was wild and unpredictable. Because of this, events always unfolded with granitic certainty in Ishual. More often than not, one knew the skittering course a leaf would take through the terrace groves. More often than not, one knew what another would say before he spoke. To grasp what came before was to know what would come after. And to know what would come after was the beauty that stilled, the hallowed communion of intellect and circumstance—the gift of the Logos.

We are inclined to call coin tosses or the movement of falling leaves “random”, but they move in ways that would be completely predictable if we only knew all of the inputs. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “if we know the cause, we do not call it chance; but if we do not know it, we say it was produced by chance.” The path of a falling leaf would be knowable if we only knew all of the forces at work: the directions and speeds of the breezes as they swirled about the tree, the weight distribution of the leaf, and hundreds of other considerations. The forces at work dictate with certainty the leaf’s path.

But unlike the Dünyain monks of Bakker’s fantasy world, we ordinary humans can never calculate the result of a coin toss or the path of a leaf in the breeze. We can get better at predicting certain things based on experience, but the vast majority of the springs and gears that control the movements of our world are beyond our ken. So even if the monks are correct in their determinism, even if the result of every coin toss is set in stone from the instant the coin is released, our own limited knowledge of what comes before makes it impossible to know what will come after. The world may not be truly random, but it is random enough for our purposes.

Beer of the week: Coors Light – This week, we are pairing The Darkness That Comes Before with “the (Coors) Light I drank during.” The can’s famous blue-when-cold mountains (as seen in the above image) may officially represent the Rockies, but to me they will forever be the Yimaleti Mountains of Northwest Eärwa. (Is it me, or is “Yimaleti” a pretty obvious play on “Himalaya”?) Coors Light is very carbonated and crystal clear. It’s aroma is faint, but not the least bit surprising. The beer is smooth and crisp, with just a hint of lingering stickiness. It is refreshing, drinkable, and (more than any coin toss) predictable.

Reading of the week:  Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, Democritus – Democritus believed that all matter was made up of atoms, and that these atoms, once set in motion by the vortex of the universe, impassively and inexorably collided to create all of matters varying forms. He believed that matter would decay just as inevitably, as the atoms continued to be moved and move each other in turn, in the eternal cycle of causes and effects. Diogenes makes Democritus sound almost like a Dünyain monk himself. Democritus (presumably by accurately perceiving causes and effects overlooked by others) “foretold certain future events” and made what appeared to be impossibly accurate observations.

By the way, The Darkness That Comes Before is not the reading of the week because it is over 500 pages long and is still under copyright. However, I recommend that any fan of fantasy go check it out from the local library. Bakker engages in some very ambitious world-building, and is not shy about throwing the reader right into the deep end. I think some things are a bit too clearly based on real events, religions, etc., but the whole product is quite entertaining.

Question for the week: “The skittering course a leaf would take through the terrace groves” is one thing, but to “kn[o]w what another would say before he spoke” is much more complicated. While the leaf is only subject to simple physics, it seems that the mind is subject to much more complex and varied inputs. Even so, are our thoughts determined by cause and effect just surely as physical phenomena are?

Read Widely

Eva Brann, for those who are not familiar, is the former dean and currently a tutor at St. John’s College. I recently read a speech given by Ms. Brann about the “great books” education. In it, she reminds her audience that reading nothing but the classics is untenable and undesirable:

I am not, incidentally, for a reading regimen of exclusive greatness. It is too rich, like a diet of “white soup,” the cholesterol-laden concoction served in Jane Austen’s well-off houses at dinner parties. I am for reading a lot of stuff: adventure, mystery, travel, cookbooks, westerns (my favorites), historical fiction, fantasy, space and science-fiction—from fine to terrible. They are all supplements to life, experiences I could not possibly live through but would dearly like to have—vicariously.

One might even make the argument that reading Twitter feeds has some value. Say what you will about social media, but you have to admit that people staring at their phones are at least reading. (Well, some of the time, anyway.)

Ms. Brann is not the first person to advocate reading widely in addition to reading the classics. It is no surprise, of course, that the very notion is practically one of the tenets of classical liberal education.

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel in verse, Aurora Leigh, the titular narrator describes her formal education under her aunt. It is a stifling mixture of pious theology, German, classical French “(Kept pure of Balzac and neologism)”, music, domestic arts, and “a dozen books on womanhood.” The “liberal education” of a lady is circumscribed to a few particular fields that would prepare her for a life of agreeing pleasantly with her husband when his conversation is not completely over her head.

On her own, however, Aurora engages in a private and personally guided course of study. She starts with the Greek of Theophrastus and the Latin of Aelian, but she eventually devours all manner of books. Bad books, good books, “some bad and good at once.” She reads moral books, genial books, merry books, melancholy books. She, like Ms. Brann, has a firm grounding in the classics, but is eager and able to see the value in all manner of writings.

Beer of the week: Semedorato Premium- In honor of the half-Italian protagonist of Aurora Leigh, this week’s beer is the 100% Italian Semedorato Premium. Semedorato is also brewed with 100% malt, rather than with adjunct grains. This lager is pretty much what I expect out of a Mediterranean beer. It is crystal clear and quite pale. The aroma is faint and slightly sweet. The flavor is understated, but pleasant. It is a very drinkable, if unremarkable beer.

Reading of the week: Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – This excerpt is from Book One of the nine-book poem. The orphaned title character has come to live in England with her aunt. Very much in spite of the aunt’s attempts to raise Aurora to be a proper lady, Aurora becomes obsessed with literature and decides that she wants to be an author.

Question for the week: Ms. Brann’s favorite “non-classics” are westerns. What is your favorite “non-classic” genre?

I Don’t Know

When Fanny Price’s cousins in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park learned just how deficient her education had been, they were most unkind.

“Dear mama, only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together—or my cousin cannot tell the principal rivers in Russia—or, she never heard of Asia Minor—or she does not know the difference between water-colours and crayons!—How strange!—Did you ever hear anything so stupid?”

When compared to their own education, Fanny’s was woefully inferior.

“I cannot remember the time when I did not know a great deal that she has not the least notion of yet. How long ago it is, aunt, since we used to repeat the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns.” “Yes,” added the other; “and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the Heathen Mythology, and all the Metals, Semi-Metals, Planets, and distinguished philosophers.”

I would certainly have some trouble putting the map of Europe together. (Especially around the Balkans.) I also don’t know the principal rivers of Russia or the kings of England. Of the Roman emperors, I can only recount the first handful. But Fanny Price was only ten years old, and from a family of quite limited means; what’s my excuse? Indeed, there are a great many notable holes in my knowledge. Although I am somewhat embarrassed to admit these deficiencies, it is far better to admit them then to pretend that I have learned everything that I can or should. And so, I present a (quite incomplete) list of things that I do not know:

  • How many yards are in a rod, furlong, or mile.
  • The books of the Bible, in order.
  • The constellations and their seasons.
  • How to play a musical instrument.
  • The number and names of the bones of the human body.
  • The meaning of “transcendental”.
  • The presidents of the United States, their vice presidents, and their first ladies.
  • The difference between forfeiture and waiver.
  • A second language (very much in spite of my formal education.)
  • Virtually any modern philosophy.
  • Virtually any Asian or Arabic philosophy.
  • And, of course, there are a great many things that I do not know that I do not know.

Much as Dr. Watson was shocked to learn that Sherlock Holmes was ignorant of the heliocentric theory of the solar system, I imagine that my own ignorance on certain subjects must surely surprise others. I will, I hope, remedy at least a few of these deficiencies in time. If nothing else, I have at least one advantage over Fanny Price’s cousins: I know that I have not reached the end of my education.

“If you are ever so forward and clever yourselves, you should always be modest; for, much as you know already, there is a great deal more for you to learn.”
“Yes, I know there is, till I am seventeen.”


Beer of the week: Sarajevsko Premium – Although I could not positively point it out on a map, Sarajevo is the origin of this Euro lager. The brewery is creatively named Sarajevska Pivara. The beer is very pale, and just a little cloudy. The aroma is like that of most Czech lagers that I’ve had, a bit hoppy and a bit malty. I am always surprised how different European beers taste and smell when compared to similar American beers. Sarajevsko is a fine beer, but could be better. More hops would help, for one thing. And it has a slightly sticky mouthfeel rather than a good, crisp finish.

Reading of the week: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – Without giving too much away, Fanny Price ultimately gets the better of her unkind cousins. And as much as this scene demonstrates Fanny’s rusticities and awkwardness, it shows the thoughtlessness and vanity of her cousins and aunt even more.

Question for the week: What do you not know, even though you know that you should?

Where have all the philosophers gone?

This is the thirty-fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXIV: French and English Philosophers

It has always seemed odd to me to refer to a living person as a philosopher. I am aware of a number of living people who may be considered philosophers, but I think of them variously as authors or professors. Or I consider them in the context of their specific fields: economists, psychologists, anthropologists, and the like.

Clearly, part of the distinction that I draw comes from the increasingly specialized nature of study. Aristotle and Bacon did not specialize; their interests and writings are wide-ranging. Even the relatively recent Darwin was more than a biologist; he was also a historian, geologist, and anthropologist. In short, he was a natural philosopher. Likewise, Maimonides was more than just a theologian and an astronomer, he was a physician at a time when the fields of endocrinology, dermatology, and oncology were still centuries from being particularized. Perhaps the lack of specialization and differentiation was key to his ability to think more universally, to be a philosopher.

That is not to put down specialists. As human knowledge becomes both broader and deeper, any given individual must focus more narrowly to make any new headway. But can a philosopher be a specialist? Isn’t universality at the heart of philosophy?

The word philosophy means “love of wisdom.” I think that it is clear that the wisdom in the word is quite distinct from knowledge. Specialization forces people to look at discrete and minute facts, perhaps prioritizing particular knowledge over universal truth.

The love part of philosophy also seems problematic today. The love of wisdom is a different sort of motivation than I perceive in most people. To pursue wisdom for its own sake is not the same sort of thing that I see in professional academics and authors. I assume that most people, even thinkers that I respect greatly have a profession rather than a passion. Perhaps I see living people as sociologists, legal theorists, or historians rather than philosophers because I can hardly conceive of them working out of a love for wisdom rather than financial and professional necessity. Even “popular philosophers” seem to be doing a job rather than philosophizing as I understand it.

J. J. Rousseau similarly questioned the motivations of purported philosophers: “But were the philosophers in a situation to discover the truth, which of them would be interested in so doing? Each knows very well that his system is no better founded that the systems of others; he defends it, nevertheless, because it is his own. There is not one of them, who, really knowing truth from falsehood, would not prefer the latter, if of his own invention, to the former, discovered by any one else. Where is the philosopher who would not readily deceive mankind, to increase his own reputation? Where is he who secretly proposes any other object than that of distinguishing himself from the rest of mankind? Provided he raises himself above the vulgar, and carries away the prize of fame from his competitors, what doth he require more? The most essential point is to think differently from the rest of the world. Among believers he is an atheist, and among atheists he affects to be a believer.”

Obviously, nobody who would prefer preeminence to truth is a philosopher under our provisional understanding of the word. And if Rousseau is right that all philosophers love their reputation more than they love wisdom, then there are no philosophers at all. I hope that he is wrong, but I wouldn’t even call myself a philosopher. And at least with me,  I have the advantage of knowing my own motivations. I think.

Beer of the week: Sea Quench Ale – This sour beer from Dogfish Head is like licking the rim of a margarita glass. It is yellow and cloudy with a slight green tinge. It smells of lime and the flavor has lots of citrus sourness and a bit of lime rind bitterness. It is really good, but so limey that it is unlike other beers, even other sours.

Reading of the week: Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar by Jean Jacques Rousseau – Rousseau claimed that this section of his Emile was not necessarily an explication of his own philosophy, but simply an example of how to properly reason with a pupil. This excerpt starts near the beginning of the Vicar’s personal investigation, beginning with his Cartesian doubt of anything that he cannot reason from first principles.

Question for the week: Who is your favorite living philosopher?

Mermaid Blood

This is the Seventeenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XVII: Folklore and Fable, Aesop, Grimm, Andersen

SPOILER ALERT: This posts contains spoilers for centuries-old fairytales.

Those raised on Disney films and picture books are likely to be shocked by the original versions of the fairytales that they learned growing up. The basic formula for so many of these stories are 1) witch causes magical transformation, 2) protagonist finds true love, 3) kiss breaks the spell, and 4) they live happily ever after. In the older versions, however, there is often another important plot point: brutal violence.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Sea-Maid, there is plenty of violence that got left out of the Disney version. In the first place, the transformation from mermaid to human is extremely painful, as if she were being run through with a sword. And her new feet bleed constantly, so that every step that she takes feels “as if [she] trod upon sharp knives.” This is compounded by the fact that the prince loves to see her dance, so, for his entertainment, “she danced again and again, although every time she touched the earth it seemed as if she were treading upon sharp knives.” But at least that wins his heart, leading to the kiss that would make her transformation complete, right? Wrong.

See, in Andersen’s version, the prince falls in love with a princess and marries her instead of the mermaid. The irony is that he thinks the princess, rather than the mermaid, saved him from his shipwreck. After the prince and princess marry, the mermaid takes a magical knife and prepares to stab the prince right in the heart. The plan is for his heart’s blood to fall on her feet and cause them to “grow together again into a fish-tail” so that she she can return to the sea. But she cannot bring herself to murder the prince (although she does get so far as to stand over the prince and his bride as they sleep, knife in hand.) Rather, she jumps back into the ocean and dissolves into sea-foam. There is, however, a sort of happily ever after for the little mermaid. She is given the chance to earn an immoral soul through good deeds. In a way, this is a much more positive message than the idea that being loved by the prince is the key to lasting happiness; her destiny is in her own hands rather than in his.

The Disney version of Cinderella is less markedly different from the source material, but there is still a good bit of violence left out. In the Bros. Grimm version, when the prince goes out looking for the owner of the lost slipper, the step-sisters go to terrible lengths to try to make it fit. The first sister cuts off her big toe and the second cuts a chunk off of her heel. The prince, evidently not one of the smartest characters in literature, is fooled by each in turn. Each time, talking birds save the day by telling the prince to look down at all of the blood that is positively streaming from the slipper. After he finds Cinderella and marries her, those same birds go and peck out the eyes of the step-sisters to punish them for their dishonesty, as if having mutilated feet is not bad enough.

It is constantly bemoaned how violent popular media has become, so how does one account for the softening of these violent stories? In part, it may be that the intended audience for Andersen and Grimm are not young children. Or at least not young children exclusively. Also, the violence serves the purpose of hammering home a moral lesson. The last line of Grimm’s Cinderella is not about the prince and Cinderella living happily ever after; it is about the step-sisters: “for their wickedness and falsehood they were punished with blindness as long as they lived.”

Next time you are shocked by how violent a movie is, remember the sea-maid hiking up a mountain as her shoes fill with blood, or the step-sisters being blinded by pigeons who are also total snitches.

Beer of the week: Blood of the Unicorn Hoppy Red Ale – Now, to transition from step-sister and mermaid blood to Blood of the Unicorn. Chicago’s Pipeworks Brewing Company makes this fantastic(al) red ale. In truth, the beer is dark brown with just a hint of red, which becomes more pronounced when the sediment is swirled from the bottom of the can and poured out. It comes with lots of smooth soft foam (not sea foam) and an aroma of herbal hops. Although it is plenty hoppy it also has some sourdough yeastiness and a bit of burnt caramel. Blood of the Unicorn is a very smooth, very deliciously brew.

Reading of the week: The Frog-King, or Iron Henry by The Bros. Grimm – Young king gets transformed into a frog, he finds a princess to break the spell, her kiss frees him. Right? Not quite. In this version, the princess finds the frog to be so odious that she “took him up and threw him with all her might against the wall.” Hurling a frog against a castle wall cannot be described as anything other than attempted amphibicide. Yet, somehow, that act of disgust and rage breaks the spell.

Question for the week: Why have fairytales been watered down and sweetened?