Great Men Make Lousy Fathers

This is the second in a series of posts on family (and Sierra Nevada beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

The general and politician Themistocles laid the groundwork for Athens to become the greatest naval power in ancient Greece. He was also instrumental in repelling the second Persian invasion, leading the Greek fleet to victory in the Battle of Salamis. And yet, according to Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Meno, Themistocles’s son Cleophantus never approached his father’s greatness. Socrates says that the story is the same for Aristides and Pericles: great men with inferior sons.

The ultimate conclusion of the dialogue is that greatness cannot be taught. If it were possible, surely Themistocles et al. would have taught their sons to be great. But maybe they were simply too busy being great men to be great fathers. In an essay, Francis Bacon wrote that “the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men; which both in affection and means, have married and endowed the public.” In short, civic greatness and great parenting each require so much attention and effort that they are mutually exclusive; one may be a great man or a great father, but not both.

In the essay, Bacon does not explicitly advocate one choice over the other. For himself, he seems to have chosen greatness; rising to the position of Lord Chancellor and fathering no children. Mary Wollstonecraft, however, suggests that choosing parenthood over greatness may be the better decision for society. She agrees with Bacon that childless men were more likely to become great, “[b]ut the welfare of society is not built on extraordinary exertions; and were it more reasonably organized, there would be still less need of great abilities, or heroic virtues.” One can more reliably do more for the world by raising children well than by trying to be a hero.

Beer of the week: Torpedo Extra IPA – Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo is hazy amber, with a head of small, off-white bubbles that never seem to dissipate. The aroma is floral and piney. It is a very smooth beer considering how hoppy and alcoholic it is (7.2% ABV). The taste starts with some biscuit and caramel malt flavors, but the hops quickly take over and leave a lingering bitterness in the back of the throat. 

Reading of the week: A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft – This excerpt from Wollstonecraft’s most famous work is primarily about the distinction between reason and sensibility. Women, she opines, are raised with an excess of the latter and a dearth of the former.

Question for the week: Themistocles and Pericles (and Bacon) are but a few examples of great men without great offspring. Can you think of any good counter examples?


Home Schooling

This is the first in a series of posts on family (and Sierra Nevada beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

Very early in his Meditations, the philosopher and emperor Marcus Aurelius states that he learned “to speak well of teachers.” The first book of Meditations makes it abundantly clear that he learned that lesson well. The entire book is a list of his teachers–including professional tutors and rhetoricians such as Junius Rusticus and Alexander Peloplaton–from whom he learned important lessons. They taught him “to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book;” and “to refrain from fault-finding.” Marcus gives credit to others for nearly every good characteristic and habit he has.

As important as his professional tutors were, Marcus’s list begins and ends with his family. From his grandfather, Marcus “learned good morals and the government of [his] temper.” From his mother, he learned “piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts.” From his (adoptive) brother, he “received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed.”

For most of us, our family members are our first and most important teachers. From them, we learn everything from walking and language to ethics and societal norms. Apparently, that’s even true of Roman emperors.

Beer of the week: Sierra Nevada Coffee Stout – This very dark brown brew has a thin, tan head. The aroma is understated, with dark roast notes, including a hint of soy sauce. The beer is smooth and bittersweet, with flavors of chocolate, caramel, and (naturally) coffee.

Reading of the week: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – Marcus recognizes that all he is and all he has he owes to his family, his friends, and the gods. It would be so easy for somebody as powerful and accomplished as Marcus to take all the credit for his own success, but he was taught better.

Question for the week: Is there anything that you have entirely taught yourself?


Rewind, Play

Act II of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov begins with these lines by Charlotta: “I haven’t a real passport. I don’t know how old I am, and I think I’m young. When I was a little girl my father and mother used to go round fairs and give very good performances and I used to do the salto mortale and various little things. And when papa and mamma died a German lady took me to her and began to teach me. I liked it. I grew up and became a governess. And where I came from and who I am, I don’t know. . . . Who my parents were–perhaps they weren’t married–I don’t know. I don’t know anything.” Charlotta is a woman with an uncertain past.

Shortly thereafter, Epikhodov speaks these lines: “I’m an educated man, I read various remarkable books, but I cannot understand the direction I myself want to go–whether to live or to shoot myself, as it were. So, in case, I always carry a revolver about with me. Here it is.” Epikhodov is a man with an uncertain future.

(Although Charlotta caries a hunting rifle in this scene and Epikhodov shows his revolver to the audience, neither gun goes off by the end of the play. This scene is the exception that proves the rule of “Chekhov’s gun”: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”)

Charlotta and Epikhodov present the audience with two questions that are central to the play: What is our past? and What is our future? These questions, although presented by two separate characters, are inseperable; our futures are intimately tied to our pasts.

This principle is easy enough to recognize. What is more difficult is determining just how much the past dictates the future. To over-emphasize the past is to abdicate one’s own volition and agency. (“I must do such-and-such because I am fated to do so.”) But to ignore the past is to give up our most valuable teacher, experience. As they say, those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

We must find a way to learn from the past without becoming slaves to it. And that sounds a lot easier than it is.

Beer of the week: Rewind Hefeweissbier- This brew comes from Chicago’s Around the Bend Beer Co. The name is a reference to the fact that Rewind is a classic German-style wheat beer. THe brewers at Around the Bend clearly intend to learn from the past. It is orange and cloudy, with a nice foamy head. The aroma is totally classic for the style, with very prominent banana notes. The flavor is packed with banana and spice, and finishes very smoothly.

Reading of the week: The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov – Chekhov called this play a comedy, but it is actually a sad story about the demise of a once-prominent family. At the end of the play, the bank forecloses its mortgage on the family’s estate–including the titular orchard. This week’s reading, from the end of Act II, is a very charged discussion of how the characters have to reckon with the legacy of Russian serfdom before they can move forward as members of an increasingly egalitarian world.

Question for the week: Are there times when it actually is best to completely forget or ignore the past?


Great Men, Bad Historiography

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Matt 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.

Americans are obsessed with their president, whoever he happens to be at any given time. In part, that is because the president’s powers are grossly out of proportion with the original intent for the office. The current influence of the president on the day-to-day lives of Americans would be utterly unthinkable to the American founders.

But another cause for the obsession with presidents is the way that many people have internalized the “great man theory” of history. As Thomas Carlyle, the philosopher most associated with the great man theory put it:

Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these.

I am inclined to believe that the great man theory is not only wrong; it is deleterious.

It is wrong because, as Aristotle observed, every human action is directed toward some good. Whether the act achieves its objective, or whether the actor has correctly identified a good are questions beyond our present scope, but I am inclined to believe that the aggregate of human action is net gain. As a result, human history and progress is really the story of innumerable actions by each member of the species, not merely the acts of “great men.”

And the theory is deleterious because people who believe it are inclined to support the rise of dictators. If you honestly believe that humanity is only advanced by exceptional leaders who take the reins of power and exert their will on the world, you are likely to seek out and support purported “great men” who happen to share your policy preferences. Carlyle’s philosophy is the philosophy of dictators. It is no surprise that Hitler was a fan, and that Carlyle has even been described as a “proto-fascist”.

Luckily, we commoners outnumber the great men. So long as we keep acting in our best interests–which are seldom truly at odds with the interests of others–and we work to limit the influence of great men–ideally through the implementation of limited constitutional government–the great march of history can continue in its generally positive direction.

And, just as we outnumber the great men, better thinkers outnumber Carlyle, at least on the subject of the great man theory. For example:

Herbert Spenser:

If it be a fact that the great man may modify his nation in its structure and actions, it is also a fact that there must have been those antecedent modifications constituting national progress before he could be evolved. Before he can re-make his society, his society must make him. So that all those changes of which he is the proximate initiator have their chief causes in the generations he descended from. If there is to be anything like a real explanation of these changes, it must be sought in that aggregate of conditions out of which both he and they have arisen.

Ludwig von Mises:

Simplified accounts of history, adapted to the capacity of people slow of comprehension, have presented history as a product of the feats of great men. The older Hohenzollern made Prussia, Bismarck made the Second Reich, William II ruined it, Hitler made and ruined the Third Reich. No serious historian ever shared in such nonsense… Every man, whether great or small, lives and acts within the frame of his age’s historical circumstances. These circumstances are determined by all the ideas and events of the preceding ages as well as by those of his own age. The Titan may outweigh each of his contemporaries; he is no match for the united forces of the dwarfs.

Bastiat:

Actually, it is not strange that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the human race was regarded as inert matter, ready to receive everything—form, face, energy, movement, life—from a great prince or a great legislator or a great genius. These centuries were nourished on the study of antiquity. And antiquity presents everywhere—in Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome—the spectacle of a few men molding mankind according to their whims, thanks to the prestige of force and of fraud. But this does not prove that this situation is desirable. It proves only that since men and society are capable of improvement, it is naturally to be expected that error, ignorance, despotism, slavery, and superstition should be greatest towards the origins of history.

There are too many “great” men in the world—legislators, organizers, do-gooders, leaders of the people, fathers of nations, and so on, and so on. Too many persons place themselves above mankind; they make a career of organizing it, patronizing it, and ruling it.

Beer of the week: Alter Ego – Tree House Brewing Company is known for it’s IPAs, and Alter Ego is a good one. This is a very hazy, orangish American IPA. It pours with a rocky head that hangs around for quite a while. The aroma is loaded with fruity hops, and the flavor has excellent tropical fruit notes. A decent malt body rounds out this delicious brew.

Reading of the week: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Second Epilogue – Tolstoy had strong opinions about the great man theory himself. In this excerpt, Tolstoy writes: “So long as histories are written of separate individuals, whether Caesars, Alexanders, Luthers, or Voltaires, and not the histories of all, absolutely all those who take part in an event, it is quite impossible to describe the movement of humanity without the conception of a force compelling men to direct their activity toward a certain end. And the only such conception known to historians is that of power.”

Question for the week: How can you–presumably not a “great man”–shape history?


Love of Learning

You like to read? As a slave, Booker T.’s earliest remembered desire was “an intense longing to learn to read.”

You love books? Booker T.’s first book was a spelling book from which he taught himself the alphabet. He had to teach himself, because none of the black people he knew could read, and he was too timid to ask a white person for help. Even after a school for black children opened, Booker could not attend because he was employed full-time at a salt furnace.

You enjoy studying? As a child, Booker T. put in a full day of work at the salt furnace before spending the evening studying to keep up with the children who were allowed to go to school. And as he got older, he continued to work full-time while studying. As a coal-miner, house-keeper, janitor…

You may think you love learning, but do you love learning like Booker T. Washington loved learning?

Beer of the week: Optimator – This dopplebock from Spaten in Munich pours a dark red-brown with a tan head. The beer is malty and boozy. It’s “only” 7.6% alcohol by volume, but the alcohol is very noticeable in the aftertaste along with hints of dark fruit and bitter chocolate.

Reading of the week: Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington – In this excerpt from his autobiography, Booker T. describes the beginning of his formal education. After this excerpt, he explains, “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”

Question of the week: How can you fit more learning into your schedule? (If a ten-year-old salt mine employee can do it…)


A Cheeky Pint From the Bottle-O

A popular trend in American brewing is packaging beer in 19.2 ounce cans, known as stovepipes. Naturally, the first time that I saw that size, I was somewhat perplexed. And no intuitive explanation for the 19.2 figure presented itself to me.

Of course, the internet had the answer for me: 19.2 American fluid ounces is (approximately) equal to one imperial pint. Because an imperial pint is about one-fifth larger than an American pint, stovepipe cans are popular at sporting events, concerts, and the like, where patrons are keen to minimize time in the beer line.

When I learned that stovepipe cans are actually imperial pints, I had two distinct revelations. First, a scene from George Orwell’s 1984 suddenly made sense to me. Second, Australian drinking habits began to seem (slightly) reasonable.

First, in 1984, there is a scene at a bar in which an old man is perturbed that beer only comes in liter or half-liter glasses. He repeatedly orders a pint, only to be told that the barman–raised after the adoption of the metric system–has never heard of pints, quarts, or gallons. The old man complains that  “a ‘alf litre ain’t enough. It don’t satisfy. And a ‘ole litre’s too much. It starts my bladder running. Let alone the price.” This struck me as odd when I read it long ago. To me, half of a liter has always been more than a pint, not less. In America, a liter is just a bit over two pints. But a liter is somewhat less than two imperial pints; each imperial pint is 0.57 liters or thereabouts. So the old man seems to have a legitimate complaint about his beers being more than two imperial ounces smaller than they used to be.

Second, when I was staying in Australia, I found that bar patrons generally did not buy draft beer by the pint. Rather, they drank rounds of smaller beers. The explanation offered to me was that a pint is a just a bit too large a unit. Being familiar only with American pints, I found this odd. Now that I know the Australian pint is about 19.2 American fluid ounces, the explanation for the smaller beers seems more plausible. (Of course, the people I drank with never had just one round, so ordering smaller beers generally smacked of inefficiency.)

My bemusement on this point was multiplied by the puzzling names for the variously sized smaller beer glasses; Australian glass sizes make Orwell’s Newspeak seem comparably reasonable. All of the sizes are officially in milliliters, but are clearly intended to approximate imperial ounce units (for example, beers of about 7, 10, or 15 fluid ounces are common.) But nobody calls the glasses by their actual (metric) or approximate (imperial) volumes. Rather, Australians employ names such as schooner, pot, or middy. And these names also vary from place to place, making it extra hard to know how much beer one may receive at any given bar across the land. For example, a South Australian in Brisbane may be pleasantly surprised when he orders a schooner, and gets 1.5 times as much beer as he expected. And virtually any traveller to Adelaide would be distressed to order a pint and receive only 15 imperial fluid ounces–five fluid ounces less than an imperial pint and some 1.5 American fluid ounces less than an American pint. Anybody planning on visiting Australian public houses should consult Wikipedia’s helpful chart on the subject.

Finally, although not in the nature of a realization, I wonder why the brewers stopped at 19.2 ounces and didn’t push right up to twenty. The 19.2 figure seems somewhat affected when compared to 20. Twenty is such a fine, round number. And 20 ounce beers are already popular at bars and taprooms across the United States, many of which offer 20 ounce pours.

To recap:

A 19.2 ounce can of beer in America is appreciably more than a half liter and significantly short of a liter. It is also the same as a pint in Australia (with the exception of Adelaide.) It is equal to two pots of beer (in Brisbane or Melbourne) and is larger than a schooner by one-third. And finally, it is (to nobody’s great surprise) 3.2 ounces more than an American pint, and .8 ounces shy of a 20 ounce draft.

Beer of the week: Dragons Milk – This popular bourbon-barrel-aged stout comes from New Holland Brewing Company in a bomber bottle, a popular size for craft beer bottles. At 22 fl. oz., bombers are a fair bit more voluminous than stovepipe cans. But it’s not just size that counts. Dragon’s Milk is 11% alcohol by volume, and the alcohol is clearly noticeable in the taste and aroma. There are also notes of coffee and caramel. Dragon’s Milk is extremely smooth. The whole experience is like a not-too-sweet malted milkshake. It is so rich and boozy that I wouldn’t recommend having much more than one 22 oz. bomber (or a couple American pints or a brace of schooners or a half liter or a few pots…) in one sitting.

Reading of the week: An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language by John Wilkins – The principle purpose of this essay is to propose a universal second language. However, this excerpt discusses the related notion of a universal and rational system of measurement. Although he suggests specific existing units, Wilkins greatly modifies the units so that they are all tenths of the next largest units. He also suggests, but does not press, the notion that we should abandon decimals for octals, because an octal number system is particularly well suited to the mathematical process of bipartition.

Question for the week: What is the best size for a beer?


Post 300!

Three hundred is a significant number. It is the score of a perfect game of ten-pin bowling. It is the number of Israelites who followed Gideon to war against the Midianites. 300 is also the sum of ten consecutive primes (13 + 17 + 19 + 23 + 29 + 31 + 37 + 41 + 43 + 47). Also, as of now, it is the number posts on this blog. And it only took a shade under eight and a half years!

The original plan for this post was to run down a series of statistics:
What nation provided the second most beers of the week? (USA is undoubtedly #1.)
What style of beer was most commonly reviewed? (Pale lager is a good bet.)
What subject tag (history, economics, poetry, etc.) was most used?

But for all the time that I have spent on this site, I never did figure out how to capture and use any of that data. And 300 posts is too daunting a figure for me to manually tally those figures. Either some dedicated fan with more time or more computer knowhow than I have will find those answers, or (more likely) nobody cares enough to pursue them.

What I was able to do, however, is list the authors who wrote at least three of the blog’s readings of the week. Let’s have a look:

Fourteen authors have provided three readings of the week:
Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Frédéric Bastiat, Robert Burns, Homer, Rudyard Kipling, Martin Luther, J.S. Mill, John Milton, Michel de Montaigne, Banjo Paterson, Pliny the Younger, Plutarch, Mark Twain

Notably, all three Mill readings came from On Liberty, the only single work to provide that many readings.

Three authors provided four readings:
Thomas Jefferson, Fred Nietzche, Edgar A. Poe

Jefferson gets credit for the Declaration of Independence. As I recall, the particular excerpt made it through Congress pretty much in its original form.

Two sources provided five weekly readings:
Count Leo Tolstoy, The Bible

I am not really sure how fair it is to count Bible readings. For one thing, the five Bible readings are split three-to-two in favor of the Old Testament.

A single man authored six readings of the week:
Plato

Post number 299 gave Plato second place outright.

And, with a total of seven readings of the week, a single author stands above the rest:
William Shakespeare

Despite the fact that many works have provided more than one reading, (such as On Liberty, as noted above,) each Shakespeare, Plato, and Tolstoy reading came from a different work.

What will I do with this information? Not much, I expect. I will probably avoid Shakespeare readings for a while. I will also continue to diversify the pool of authors, particularly by featuring more women and more (relatively) modern thinkers. But mostly I will keep doing what I’ve been doing for the last 300 posts. It’s worked well enough so far.

Here’s to another 300! Although at the current pace, it sure looks like it’ll be more than eight and a half years before I reach post 600.

Beer of the week: King Sue Double IPA – This double IPA comes from Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. in Iowa, a brewery that is very hot right now. Last I checked, BeerAdvocate lists five Toppling Goliath brews in it’s top 50, including the top rated beer overall. On the secondary market, certain Toppling Goliath beers have asking prices approaching four figures.

King Sue, once identified by Business Insider as one of the most highly sought-after beers in the country, is currently ranked forty-ninth on BeerAdvocate. And the hype is not misplaced. King Sue is a very murky pale gold beer, with a huge aroma of mango and pineapple. The flavor also has those tropical fruit notes, together with plenty of malt to round everything out. A special beer for a special occasion.

Reading of the week: Bibliotheca Historica by Diodorus Siculus – In popular culture, the number 300 probably most associated with the Spartans who made the famous last stand against the Persian king Xerxes at Thermopylae. What mostly gets forgotten is the many thousands of other Greeks who fought alongside the Spartans. But “The 300 Spartans, 1,000 additional Lacedaemonians, 3,000 other Peloponnesians, 1,000 Malians, 400 Thebans, 1,000 Phocians, and 1,000 Opuntian Locrians” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. In the face of “not less than one million soldiers” under the command of the invading Persian king, however, what’s a few thousand give or take?

Question for the week: Excepting small primes, what number has the most cultural significance?