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?

I Don’t Know You

This is the sixteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XVI: The Thousand and One Nights

Self-awareness is an invaluable trait. To be virtuous generally is undoubtedly good, but to be so without recognizing and understanding one’s own virtues and failings is stunting. How can one ever hope to improve, or even maintain one’s virtue, without first being aware of oneself?

Consider, for example, the barber of Bagdad from The Thousand and One Nights. The barber, in his own narrative about himself, tells the Caliph that that he is known as “the silent sheik” because, despite his immense learning, he is sparse of speech. He then, with little prompting from the Caliph, volunteers to tell six stories, one about each of his six brothers.

By the end of his lengthy recitations, everybody who’d heard him is “convinced of his impertinence and loquacity.” Although the barber claims to be reserved in speech and action, it proves not to be so.

That misapprehension about his own qualities distracts from the reality that he is actually excellent at what he does. As a “barber surgeon”, he is shown to be quite competent. The barber’s tale appears in the midst of a series of stories about a hunchback who has choked on a fishbone and is thought to be dead by everybody who comes across his body. But the barber, talented as he is, skillfully uses ointments and tools to save the hunchback’s life.

If he had a better sense of his own virtues and failings, the barber would be a better man, precisely because he would know better in what ways he could improve. Instead of coming away as a hero for saving the hunchback’s life, we see the barber is a fool for not understanding himself.

Beer of the week: Lech Premium – This Polish lager is pale gold, with minimal white foam. There is something distinctly different between European macrobrews and American macros. The seem more malty and rounded. Although this particular beer is not especially good, it is certainly serviceable. And, in my opinion, better than equivalent American beers.

Reading of the week: The Barber’s Tale of Himself from The Thousand and One Nights – Within the overall frame story of Shahrazad telling tales to keep the king from killing her, there are several stories within other stories. The barber of Bagdad appears in, and then narrates sub-stories to, the story of the hunchback. This is the part where he introduces himself and sets up his brother’s tales.

Questions for the week: Is it possible to be aware of one’s own lack of self-awareness? Or is that a paradox? In what field or characteristic have you badly misjudged your own capacity?

What was I thinking?

“What was I thinking?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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?

List Your Blessings

A popular Thanksgiving tradition is to go around the table, listing the things for which those present are thankful. It can be a very powerful exercise to actually compose such a list. Lists create a sense of scale and the cumulative effect of each item listed tends to compound the others.

Take, for example, the catalog of ships in The Iliad. Several pages of that text are dedicated to listing all of the ships, along with the numbers of their fighting men, that came to the Trojan shores. The seemingly ceaseless recital of the Greeks emphasizes the scale of the conflict. During the battles, the narrative follows individuals as they engage in one-on-one combat. And this is why the catalogue of ships is so important. Without that list to establish the scale of the armies, one could be mislead into thinking of the war as a series of encounters between a handful of individuals rather than between mighty hosts. The knowledge that the Greek and Trojan armies are quite large gives a sense of scale to the dramatic face-offs between the individual heroes.

So this Thanksgiving, give some thought to the vast number of the world’s blessings and how that great list gives context to each individual blessing.


Beer of the week: Saranac Pale Ale – Saranac, New York is about 300 miles from the site of the fabled first Thanksgiving. In American terms, that’s rather close enough to count as local. This beer has a solid malt body with just a bit of hops bitterness to back it up. Saranac Pale Ale makes for a really good beer for a casual drink.

Reading for the week: The Fourth Book by François Rabelais, Chapter 4.LIX – Some would argue that there is virtually no way to stay awake through the entire catalogue of ships, especially in the drowsy afterglow a large meal. This list is probably more appropriate for Thanksgiving. Rabelais was a master of writing lists, and this particular excerpt is the menu of the Gastrolaters, a people whose god is the stomach and whose religion is eating.

Question for the holiday: In certain cases, shorter lists arguably indicate greater importance. A short list of experts in a field may indicate a higher level of expertise. A short list of friends may indicate more intense or close friendship than a longer list. Are there certain sorts of blessings for which this is also true?