Tint in Translation

This is the sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume VI: Poems and Songs, Burns

One obvious observation about the Harvard Classics is the very heavy Anglo-American bias. This is evident even from the very first volume: Franklin, Woolman, Penn. None of those authors are indispensable in a set that purports to be a collection of essential readings for a basic liberal education, but all are Anglo-American. Whether Dr. Eliot’s reliance upon American and British authors is reasonable, it is at very least explainable.

The Harvard Classics was published for an American public, with the intent to provide the framework of a liberal education. As such, at least twa considerations favor American and British works over others.

In the first place, it makes sense that an American liberal education should focus on American thought and literature. If a similar project were undertaken in France, it would be shocking if more French authors and works were not included. The same would be true of Russia, or China, or any other nation or region. British authors similarly feature heavily in the Harvard Classics because the history of American thought and literature is inextricably linked with that of England. (William Penn is an instructive inclusion on this point; he is American in the sense that he is the founder and namesake of Pennsylvania, but he was an English gentleman his entire life.)

In the second place, the inclusion of American and British works avoids the serious problem of translation. The books, intended for an English-speaking public, must needs be in English. To the extent that Dr. Eliot was able to select works already in his native tongue, he was able to avoid the serious, and occasionally impossible, task of finding a good translation.

This consideration brings us to this week’s volume: the poems and songs of Robert Burns. On the one hand, Burns is an important part of the Anglo-American literary tradition. On the other hand, his most famous works were written in Scots. (The debate over whether Lowland Scots is a distinct language or merely a dialect must be put off for another day. For now, it is enough to note that it is has limited mutual intelligibility with English.) Although much of Burns’ Scots writing is clear enough for the average American Reader, his vocabulary often requires notes or a dictionary. For example, in The Twa Dogs, (the title of which, itself, is in Scots but is readily comprehensible,) some lines are practically straight English:

“Love blinks, Wit slaps, an’ social Mirth
Forgets there’s Care upo’ the earth.”

Some lines, however, are all but unintelligible without aide:

“At kirk or market, mill or smiddie,
Nae tawted tyke, tho’ e’er sae duddie,
But he wad stan’t, as glad to see him,
An’ stroan’t on stanes an’ hillocks wi’ him.”

And Burns is but one example of this sort of problem. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English can be a real struggle to understand. Even American authors who write in dialect can be a tough read. Consider this quotation from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:

“Oh, it’s de dad-blame’ witches, sah, en I wisht I was dead, I do. Dey’s awluz at it, sah, en dey do mos’ kill me, dey sk’yers me so. Please to don’t tell nobody ’bout it sah, er ole Mars Silas he’ll scole me; ‘kase he say dey AIN’T no witches. I jis’ wish to goodness he was heah now– DEN what would he say! I jis’ bet he couldn’ fine no way to git aroun’ it DIS time. But it’s awluz jis’ so; people dat’s SOT, stays sot; dey won’t look into noth’n’en fine it out f’r deyselves, en when YOU fine it out en tell um ’bout it, dey doan’ b’lieve you.”

Difficult to understand, perhaps, but fun.

Beer of the week: Magic Hat #9 – This Vermont beer is a very solid choice. It is clear and amber. The aroma is of malt and some sour, dark fruit. Apricot is certainly the star of the flavor, backed by bready malt. Even so, the beer is not overly sweet, just darn good. And I really dig that the 12 oz. bottle is labeled as “3/4 pint”.

Reading of the week: The Twa Dogs by Robert Burns – This poem is a great piece of satire by Burns. The dogs, one a farmers collie and the other a lord’s Newfoundland(?), discourse about how different the lives of the rich are from those of the poor.

Question for the week: Is it better to have copious notes, explaining even obvious words or analogies, or to have too few notes, requiring lots of guesswork?


Prime Examples

This is the fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume V: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a philosopher who held that the true philosophies of all great minds were intentionally hidden within their works. He posited that subtle references and hints in the works of Plato, Aristotle, etc. can guide careful readers to understand the real opinions of the authors, opinions that they had not dare explicitly express. There are some very fervent admirers of this philosophy. But others have called it a “philosophy of deception,” or “esotericism for the sake of esotericism.”

Even though I haven’t made a serious study of these notions, I do have a habit of looking somewhat askance at examples that are put forward in defense of an overt position. If, on closer examination, it turns out that an example does not really support the position, what then? Did the author simply pick a bad example out of laziness or mistake? Or, as these esoterically-minded thinkers would hold, are bad examples chosen deliberately to hint at an intent other than the explicit intent of the author?

Our questions may be explored with this quotation from Emerson:

“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.” – Emerson, The American Scholar

Seemingly, the examples of Cicero, Locke, and Bacon are wholly appropriate to support Emerson’s point that the young scholar must think for himself. For well over a thousand years, Cicero’s tracts had been mandatory educational reading, and had often been presented as if the student had a duty not only to learn from them, but to accept their views as his own. In fact, there is ancient graffiti from the city of Pompeii that reads, “you will like Cicero, or you will be whipped.”

These authors, however, are not actually good examples of “young men in libraries” who wrote books. Of Cicero’s writings, his early work is almost entirely in the form of speeches made as a legal advocate. His philosophical works were not written until near the end of his life. And although some of Locke’s early manuscripts were published posthumously, all of his major works were published after the age of fifty-five. Bacon’s Essays were first published when he was in his late thirties, and his New Organon (the most likely of his books for Emerson’s “meek young men” to pore over) was not published until he was nearly sixty.

Reading between the lines, what do these examples say about Emerson’s claim that the Western canon was written by “young men in libraries”?

Another trio of examples raises a similar question:

“[T]he highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought.” – Emerson, Self Reliance

Unless I am mistaken, this sentence is meant to convey that the highest merit in thought is to be original. In some respects, it is clear that Moses, Plato, and Milton were all highly original thinkers. The first five books of the Bible, including a large body of law that created a new and distinct society, are traditionally ascribed to Moses. Plato’s work, as I alluded to three weeks ago, has been fought over by philosophical schools seeking to claim his writings as their own foundation. And I recently heard an eminent scholar claim that Milton’s Paradise Lost is the nearest rival of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Still, these “original thinkers” are all have clearly identified outside sources. Moses, in particular, is striking as an example of originality. The writings attributed to Moses are traditionally viewed as divinely inspired. And this inspiration is not run-of-the-mill genius, but a direct transcription of the words of God. If what Moses wrote was essentially dictated to him by God, how are those ideas original to Moses? And how is it that Moses, of all people, “set at naught” tradition? Similarly, Plato’s corpus is composed primarily of dialogues that purport to express the philosophy of Socrates, not necessarily the philosophy of Plato himself. And although Milton certainly added a tremendous amount of material and emotion, his great poetic works are based on well-worn scriptural stories.

So why do we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton the highest merit, that of originality? Did they really set at naught books and traditions, and speak not what men but what they thought? Is Emerson trying to tell us something in code that he dare not tell us explicitly? Or is this a case of looking for esoteric meaning where there is none?

Beer of the week: Voodoo Ranger – New Belgium’s popular IPA has a lot going for it. It pours with a nice head that leaves decent lacing on the glass. The aroma is subtle, with citrusy hops. The beer is smooth, with a nice bitter bite at the end. And it is all balanced out with a hint of gingerbread.

Reading of the week: The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson – This section of the essay, originally given as a speech, is about the influence of books. Books are both the medium for “transmuting life into truth,” and a source of “grave mischief.” They must, therefore be read in a very particular way.

Question for the week: Is there really something hidden in Emerson’s choice of examples? Or, in looking for deeper meaning, do we just see what we want to see?

Lunar New Year’s Resolution

This is the first in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts will be available here. Volume I: Franklin, Woolman, Penn

Happy (Lunar) New Year! For those of us who are bad at planning ahead and/or following through on goals, Lunar New Year presents an excellent second chance at a meaningful resolution. Did you forget to pick a New Year’s resolution before midnight? Have you already thrown in the towel on your resolution a month and a half into 2018? Well Lunar New Year is here, so give that resolution another go.

Nearly two years ago, I received a set of The Harvard Classics as a gift. I have not, however, made much use of them since. To be sure, several readings on this blog have come from that set, but there are certainly volumes that I haven’t even cracked. So my (Lunar) resolution for the blog is to take a reading from each volume of The Harvard Classics for the rest of the year. Because a Lunar Year is just over 50 weeks, and The Harvard Classics has 51 volumes, I should finish just in time to pick a New New Year’s Resolution.

It just so happens that the first volume of The Harvard Classics has already provided readings for this blog: from William Penn’s Some Fruits of Solitude and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. The only other work in Volume I is The Journal of John Woolman, an excellent place to begin thinking about how to make the most of a new year. Woolman was obsessed (that just may be the best word for it) with the simplicity and cleanliness. As a Quaker, simplicity was not just a personal goal, but a tenant of his faith. He refused to eat or drink from silver vessels, a decision precipitated by a fever dream in which he saw slaves working in a mine, cursing the name of Christ and the greedy Christians who would enslave their fellow men and put them to such hard labor for the sake of something as unnecessary as gems or precious metals. He also eschewed dyed fabric, which he also regarded as a superfluity. Although that level of simplicity may seem a bit extreme, he reasoned that “if the value of dye-stuffs, and expense of dyeing, and the damage done to cloth, were all added together, and that cost applied to keeping all sweet and clean, how much more would real cleanliness prevail.” Why should we clutter our lives with unnecessary objects and expenses, when we could put our energies toward living a more tidy and ordered life?

So here’s to a simpler, cleaner New Year!

Beer of the week: Fat Alberta – Woolman would not have much good for a beer this complex.  This is an imperial stout from Throwback Brewery with peanuts and cocoa. With that in mind, I was expecting something more like a chocolate peanut butter cup. But peanut butter cup flavored it is not. Fat Alberta pours with big bubbles and lots of sticky head. On the nose is dark chocolate, but there is not a super strong aroma. The first sip is quite bitter, like eating baking cocoa. The dark malt flavors are very strong, which covers the 10% alcohol. After the initial shock of having a bitter rather than sweet beer, I noticed a bit of coffee and a hint of peanut (or was that the power of suggestion from the label?) The alcohol makes itself known in the end and the bitter cocoa hangs on the back of the throat.

Reading of the week: The Journal of John Woolman – This reading is actually the very last entry in Woolman’s journal, written just a month before his death of smallpox. He was, at the time, touring England, visiting Quaker meeting-houses throughout the country and preaching.

Question for the week: Now that you are aware of your second chance at a New Year’s Resolution, what do you resolve?

The Spiritual Tourist

I have been to Bongeunsa Buddhist temple in Seoul, Korea. I’ve toured the Spanish Synagogue in Prague, Czech Republic. I have visited two of the world’s nine Bahá’í Houses of Worship (in Ingleside, Australia and Willamette, Illinois.) I have been to the Great Mosque of Xian, China and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. I have toured St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and several other churches throughout Italy and Europe. All these and a great many more religious sites I have visited as a tourist rather than as a pilgrim.

For a non-pilgrim, sites of religious or spiritual significance pose a delicate dilemma:  how can a tourist take in a culturally valuable experience without degrading another’s holy place?

To some extent, this problem is solved by those in control of the venues. In Moulay Idriss, Morocco, all non-believers are denied access to the mosque and mausoleum of Idris I. In Rome, a small fee buys admission to the Capuchin crypts beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, without any question of faith. At various churches throughout the world, visitors are invited in, but photography is forbidden.

But no matter where, nor what creed is dominant, touring a religious site is always a peculiar event. The art, the architecture, and the history are often of extreme interest to people of all faiths. How does one balance basic human curiosity with the need to show adequate reverence?

In my experience, the best course is to take in all religious sites, regardless of denomination, with a sense of quiet awe and respect. It matters little whether the religion of the site is the same as that of the tourist. What matters is that the religious site is a monument to the faith of those who built and maintain it. Even those who hold other beliefs (or, indeed, no religious beliefs at all,) should be able to appreciate that the desire  to create such a sacred space comes from an important and fundamental part of human nature.

Beer of the week: Moat Mountain Czech Pilsner – This New Hampshire take on the classic Czech pilsner pours a nice, clear gold. It has a bit of malt aroma. But Moat’s Czech Pilsner does not have quite enough hops for my taste, either in the aroma or flavor. This is a good beer, but it comes up short of the best Czech beers.

Reading of the week: The Spirit of Russia by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk – Whose writings could be a more appropriate paring for a Czech pilsner than those of Masaryk? He was the first president of the independent state of Czechoslovakia, and a life-long advocate for a free Czech and Slovak people. This excerpt from his book on the peculiar culture of Russia includes an anecdote about a visit he made to a remote Russian monastery, not as a pilgrim, but as a “mere sightseer!”

Question for the week: Can a non-believer truly appreciate the value of a religious site?

Contemporaneous Living

A recent social media exchange reminded me of one of my favorite anthropological facts: human beings have been in Australia for some 50,000 years, but humans have been in New Zealand for less than 800 years. Just about a thousand miles of sea separate the two nations, but in dozens of millennia, it seems that nobody made the voyage across the Tasman Sea. In fact, when humans finally did arrive in New Zealand, they were Polynesians rather than Australians.

This fact does not tell us much about the cultures of the Maori people or the Aboriginal Australians, but it does help create a larger context for the settlement of New Zealand. A persistent problem in the study of history is the failure to appreciate “the big picture.” Maori settlement of New Zealand happened about the same time as the founding of the Ottoman Empire by Osman I. And although neither event had any effect on the other, knowledge of their coincidence can be interesting and helpful.

This sort of perspective is equally important (and striking) when thinking about historical figures. Many historical figures had famous relationships, such as Thomas More and Erasmus; Aristotle and Alexander the Great; Cicero and Julius Caesar; or Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes. But other sets of contemporaries are less obvious. I remember very distinctly my surprise when I realized that Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States at the same time Napoleon was Emperor of France. (I had always thought of the Napoleonic Wars as pre-dating the American Revolution.) Likewise, had never thought of Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein as contemporaries, but they exchanged letters on the subject of war.

But one of the oddest examples, in my opinion, is Mohandas K. Gandhi. He exchanged letters with Count Leo Tolstoy (whom I would have guessed was dead before Gandhi was even born.) But Gandhi also actually wrote letters to Adolph Hitler (who was only 20 years his junior, and whom Gandhi out-lived by less than three years.)  What makes it so easy to be surprised by these connections is the fact that the Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Hitler are all associated with very different countries and periods. But, evidently, their places and times were not as disparate as they may seem at a glance. In fact, the world is much more interconnected than we often appreciate.

Beer of the week: Breakfast Beast – This imperial stout from Clown Shoes is aged in bourbon barrels with cold brewed coffee. It is very strong, and oily dark. It is also extremely thick and smooth. It is practically a complete breakfast. Delicious.

Reading of the week: Correspondence between Mohandas K. Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy – For additional historical perspective, consider the following: Gandi was murdered 7 years ago next Tuesday. These letters exchanged between him and Tolstoy are pretty special. In his letters Gandhi, a professed admirer of Tolstoy’s writings on pacifism, seeks support for political movements in South Africa (at that time, the Transvaal) and India (then, British India.) Tolstoy replies that “Your work in the Transvaal, which to us seems to be at the end of the earth, is yet in the centre of our interest.”

Question for the week: What is your favorite surprising historical coincidence? Or, if you prefer, what is your favorite historical gap? (For example, the Great Pyramid of Giza was older to Cleopatra than Cleopatra is to us.)

Rediscovering Ibn Tufail

One of the great debates in the history of mathematics was that between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. Newton had invented (or discovered, if you please) calculus, but did not publish any works on the subject. Some time thereafter, Leibniz also invented calculus, but he had his work published. Newton accused Leibniz of having stolen his idea, while Leibniz maintained that he had reached his conclusions independently.

It is possible, of course, for separate individuals to discover or invent the same methods independently. (In nature, an analogous process exists called convergent evolution, and it is freaking awesome.) Perhaps the most important aspect about language is that it allows humans to advance technologically. Because Leibniz was able to write down his method for calculus and share it with others, every future mathematician is spared the effort of inventing calculus herself.

And this is true of more than just mathematics. How many times must the wheel have been invented, lost, and reinvented until it was effectively passed down to enough people that we will never again have to re-invent the wheel? Likewise, beer may have been independently invented at various times around the world, but if every new batch could only be brewed by re-discovering fermentation, how could we ever have achieved the tremendous selections of beers available today?

The fantasy of an individual human in the state of nature (totally outside of society) is a popular notion. It features prominently in the philosophical works of Locke, Rousseau, and others. It also appears in fictional works such as Kipling’s Jungle Book and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. A philosophical and fictional book that is an excellent example of the theme is Philosophus Autodidactus (or Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān) by Ibn Tufail. The main character of that book is a foundling that is nursed and raised by a female deer. Over time, this man outside of society is able to discover a great deal about the world. But while the story is meant to show the capacity of humans to learn from their surroundings, I think that it unreasonably downplays the greatest advantage that we have when it comes to learning: the ability to learn from others so that each individual does not have to re-discover everything that has previously been learned before he can go any further.


Beer of the week: Carta Blanca – Ibn Tufail’s writing is steeped in the epistemological concept of “tabula rasa”, a Latin phrase meaning “blank slate.” So it seems that Carta Blanca (Spanish for “white/blank card”) should be a good pairing. This Mexican beer is pretty good for what it is. It is a clear, refreshing lager. And, like so many Mexican beers, it really shines with some salt and lime. And home-made fish tacos.

Reading for the week: Philosophus Autodidactus by Ibn Tufail – Considering the fact that this book is about an entirely self-taught man, it is somewhat ironic how much of an influence it has been on so many important thinkers in the generations after it was first published in the early 12th century. In this excerpt, the title character learns about fire and performs crude experiments in biology.

Question for the week: Ibn Tufail’s character discovers not only a great deal in the field of natural philosophy, but he also discovers the precepts of natural religion. How far could an intelligent individual get if he had to start accumulating knowledge independently from the beginning?

Void Where Prohibited

In the 1860s, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the case of McGuire v. Commonwealth. Mr. McGuire was prosecuted and convicted for retail distribution of liquor in Massachusetts, where the so-called “temperance movement” had taken hold. Regardless of his federally issued license to sell liquor, Mr. McGuire was indicted and convicted of selling liquor in violation of state law. At the Supreme Court, his attorneys argued that the federal power to sell licenses for the wholesale of liquor preempted the power of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to effectively nullify those licenses by prosecuting those who attempted to use them. If the states could do so, they would essentially hold the power to excuse themselves from the authority of Congress on any taxation and licensing issue. Their arguments were not availing.

Although the heart of the legal issue was the relationship between federal and state power, Messrs. Cushing and Richardson, the attorneys, were at their best in arguing against temperance laws on their own merits. They argued persuasively (especially to those of us with the benefit of hindsight) against prohibition. Many of their points are worth consideration for how prescient they were and how applicable they remain.

1. It is not true, as alleged, that wines, fermented liquors, or even distilled spirits, are poisons of themselves, otherwise than that everything we eat or drink may be deleterious if used in excess.

It is always striking how the word “temperance” is always used to mean “abstinence”, while the word itself surely implies “moderation.” And not only is alcohol not an evil in itself, it has health benefits as will be seen later.

2. In view of the example and injunctions of our Saviour and his Apostles, in this respect, it cannot be true that the use of wine is immoral of itself.

Rumor has it that there are actually certain Christian sects that claim that when Jesus turned water into wine that it was non-alcoholic because it did not have time to ferment. As if Jesus’s power was limited to changing water into grape juice and was insufficient for turning sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

3. It is not true, as pretended, that it is our duty to abstain utterly from any object of health or enjoyment because others may abuse it. The effect of this doctrine would be to deprive us of everything desirable, even the dearest of all human relations; since nothing exists for the use of man which some men will not abuse.

This is a very similar argument to the one made in an earlier post on this blog about prohibitions on gambling. Viz. the fact that some people are unreasonable is not a sufficient reason to ban reasonable people from X.

4. It avails nothing to make war on the sale of distilled spirits; for spirits may be distilled in every man’s kitchen, by means as cheap, as accessible, and as manageable as the preparation of a cup of tea or coffee; and if it were not so, other anaesthetic agents exist, which the law cannot reach, such as opium and bang, the familiar means of intoxication used by more than half of the human race, to say nothing of the professed anaesthetic medicaments.

There are two arguments here, both of which are commonly advanced regarding the prohibition on hemp. 1. Despite the insane amount of money spent on the “war on drugs”, hemp is still easy to grow or otherwise obtain, and 2. cracking down on any given drug drives people to other drugs, often more dangerous ones. Many people have observed that if hemp were more available and accepted, that would be a tremendous step toward overcoming the current opioid crisis.

5. The universal prevalence of the use of one or another object of this nature, in all ages, all countries, and all states of society, serves to show that they satisfy a physical exigency of man’s organization as imperative as that of food, and of course laws cannot eradicate, although they may regulate, such use.

Ah yes, the biological imperative to get impaired. People have always self-medicated for depression, anxiety, and all of the other conditions for which we have only lately had names. Wine may not be the best medicine for these maladies, but it is also far from the worst.

6. It shocks the sense of mankind, to prohibit absolutely by law the use of wines, fermented liquors, and distilled spirits as a healthful beverage in moderation of use; and the effect of such laws, if rigidly enforced, would only be to introduce by the side of the vice of drunkenness, the worse one of universal hypocrisy.

Again, the parallels with arguments over legalized hemp are stunning. Several states have decriminalized hemp specifically for medicinal use. Those who would impose a total ban on hemp “for the public health” are surely hypocrites in this regard.

7. It confounds all distinction of right and wrong, in the acts of instructed men, and in the conscience of the less instructed, to seek to elevate the use of wine to the dignity of an illegal and immoral thing, for the suppression of which all the energies of society should be tempestuously exerted.

There is a lot going on here. In the first place, there is an important misrepresentation of the law. The laws of prohibition (be they alcohol, hemp, opium, etc.) traditionally do not criminalize the use of the product. It is not illegal to consume hemp, it is illegal to have hemp. This distinction is important because laws properly curtail actions rather than things. One should always remember that when a law purports to ban a thing, it is actually banning you from doing something. All bans are essentially limits on personal freedom.

Secondly, they touch on the amount of government effort that would be required to actually suppress the consumption of alcohol. The combined effect of alcohol prohibition and the “war on drugs” set back society immeasurably, if only because of the tremendous waste of money and manpower on the (attempted) enforcement of these laws.

The so-called temperance agitation has effected no abatement, in the whole, of the use or abuse of intoxicating drinks, and in the end will probably produce, by recoil, a state of things worse than that which existed before the agitation. No superiority then over the nation is due to those legislators of Massachusetts, who pretend to be “more powerful than Nature, wiser than Truth, better than God.”

Hear, hear!

Beer of the week: Lakefront IPA – It is a new year, but not a new beer. I’ve had this Milwaukee brew several times, and occasionally on-site at the Lakefront Brewery. The head leaves plenty of good lacing on the glass. The flavor is quite balanced, with a solid malt body layered with plenty of juicy hops. Lakefront are certainly doing good work.

Reading of the week: McGuire v. The Commonwealth, 70 U.S. 3 Wall 387 (1866) – There are some people who think that government regulation is the solution to every societal problem. But positive law is extremely limited in what it can accomplish. As the learned counsellors argue: “English and American society has been floundering along from one folly to another in the paths of false theory and unphilosophical legislation, under the influence of the idea that statute law is the all-sufficient remedy of every sort of human infirmity; an idea which is itself the special human infirmity of the well-intentioned people of New England.”

Question for the week: The temperance movement was led by Christians. What is the strongest scriptural basis for a policy of teetotaling?