“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?
We are told that there are certain individuals who subscribe to a notion known as “biblical literalism”. These people, allegedly, take the Bible as being quite literally true and accurate in all respects. But I doubt that anybody who has given the matter any thought actually holds such a belief. A very simple question based entirely on the first page of Genesis serves to disabuse anybody of the idea that the Bible can be read as literal fact rather than as allegory: in which order were plants, animals, and man created?
The first creation story, contained in the First Chapter of Genesis places the creation of plants in the third day. All sorts of plants sprouted all over the land and bore seeds according to their type. Animals came to be on the fifth day. Humans were created on day six.
1. Plants; 2. Animals; 3. Man.
In the second creation story, contained in the next chapter of Genesis, humans were created before any plants had sprouted. Only after the creation of man did God make trees for the garden of Eden. Then, after man was in the garden, God made all of the animals to keep him company.
1. Man; 2. Plants; 3. Animals.
If they are taken as literal accounts, these two creation stories are irreconcilable. Biblical literalism can go no further than the very first page of the very first book of the Bible. And because this initial contradiction is so evident and so immediate, it seems unlikely that anybody truly is a biblical literalist. This is actually helpful, because it immediately indicates that the purpose of the Bible is to teach something other than literal history. What is left open, however, is the question of what the Bible really means…
Beer of the week: Grapefruit Sculpin- Traditionally, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is represented as an apple. But who’s to say that it wasn’t a grapefruit? This beer is a grapefruit twist on Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA. The grapefruit aroma is evident as soon as the can is cracked. The beer pours with a fluffy head that hangs around. It has some of the bitterness of grapefruit rind and a smooth finish. Pretty good.
Reading of the week: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1 & 2 – In my younger days, I liked to engage street evangelists. On multiple occasions, I found them unaware that there are two distinct creation accounts. I suspect that they had simply not read much scripture, and had received their Biblical teaching second-hand.
Question for the week: The logical conclusion from the conflicting creation accounts is that they are allegorical, and that each is intended to teach a different lesson. Having abandoned these as literal accounts of creation, is there any reason that creationism remains in conflict with evolution, etc.?
A beer is for drinking. A sofa is for sitting. A poem is for… enjoyment? Edification? The imagination and expression of the indestructible order of the universe? Fart jokes?
According to Percy Shelley’s essay A Defense of Poetry, poetry “is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” Stated another way, the work of a poet is to “imagine and express [the world’s] indestructible order.” The problem with trying to create a definition based on these statements is that they are both over and under-inclusive for what we commonly think of as poetry. They are over-inclusive because Shelley means that any expression of eternal truth is poetry regardless of form; he includes the the essays of Francis Bacon and the histories of Herodotus, Plutarch, and Livy as poetry. The content, rather than the form defines the poem according to Shelley. The definitions are also under-inclusive because a dirty limerick, lacking any spark of eternal truth, appears to fall outside of the category of poetry. This sort of content based, distinction seems inappropriate for an art form that includes some very strict formal categories.
Although content based distinction between poetry and non-poetry may not be appropriate, content based criticism of poetry makes a lot of sense. Aristophanes makes a particularly appealing case study for this analysis for two reasons. In the first place, the content of Aristophanes’ plays is superficially very sophomoric; he peppers his work very liberally with scatological and sexual humor. Secondly, despite the ceaseless stream of crude jokes, Aristophanes clearly thinks that there are much bigger things at stake. In an earlier post, I noted that he used the chorus in The Wasps to chide the Athenian audience for not appreciating the good advice that he had provided the city in his plays.
In The Frogs, Aristophanes has the character of Euripides state that the most important trait of the poet is his ability to improve the audience through his wise counsels. This point is taken up by the character of Æschylus and seems very much in line with the tone of the chorus in The Wasps. In the play’s contest between Euripides and Æschylus for greatest all-time tragedian, Æschylus gets the win based not on the beauty of his verse, but on the superiority of his practical advice.
Like the analysis of Shelley, this seems to over-emphasize poetry’s content at the expense of its form. But it is important to note that Aristophanes couches all of this within a work of poetry rather than in a lecture or treatise. He is adamant that he has some very important things to say, but he does so within the structure of his verse. The key, it seems, is the proper balance between form and content. Even the most important and valuable content, if not presented beautifully will not be well received. And the most beautiful verse, without some substantial content, will ring hollow. If the characters in The Frogs are right that the true measure of quality of a poet is his ability to improve his audience, it is clear that the greatest effect on the audience will come from the most skillful combination of form and substance.
Beer of the week: Grolsh Lager – Grolsh is best known in the US for its iconic swing-top bottles. It is also available, it seems, in more standard long-necks. Aside from the bottle, this Dutch macro is unremarkable. It is clear, pale gold with lots of carbonation. Light aroma of toasted grain. Not much to it, but not bad at all.
Reading of the week: The Frogs by Aristophanes – A large part of the disagreement between Æschylus and Euripides in this play is whether characters should be realistic or idealized. Æschylus argues that idealized characters make for better role models, and are therefore better suited to improve the audience. Euripides, on the other hand, favors realistic characters because they are more relatable.
Question for the week: Does even the most shallow or juvenile poem deserve the title of “poetry” by virtue of its form alone?
This is the last post in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
HUMILITY: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
When I first read Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger, it was paired with his Life of Julius Caesar. This juxtaposition seemed very favorable to Cato. Caesar, a second-rate Alexander and enemy of the Republic vs. Cato, virtue personified and defender of Rome. But a close look at Plutarch’s treatment of Cato makes it clear that the great biographer did not mean for Cato to be taken as the paragon of virtue.
The most pronounced inconsistency of virtue in Cato is his supposed humility. Plutarch shows that below this professed humility was a profound vanity. Cato repudiated his fellow senators for their ostentatious dress. But rather than wearing very plain and modest clothing, Cato wore a black toga that was calculated to stand out more than the even the most luxurious dress of his colleagues. He also made a point of not wearing underwear and sitting with his legs spread apart as if he did not already draw enough attention to himself.
Cato’s vanity is most visible in his visit to Antioch. He arrived to find “a great multitude of people outside the gates, ranged in order on either side the way; here the young men with long cloaks, there the children decently dressed; others wore garlands and white garments, who were the priests and magistrates.” Cato was incensed that the people should have such a grand ceremony in honor of his arrival. Of course, the extravagant greeting was not for him at all; the people were arranged to welcome a dignitary from Pompey. Cato himself, it seems, is the only person who had even thought of holding a parade in his honor. And this accidental admission gave the lie to his professed humility.
And finally, make sure that the audience sees what a hypocrite and poseur Cato was, Plutarch presents his suicide as a farce. Before the deed, Cato reads Phaedo twice. In that dialogue by Plato, Socrates calmly (some Roman philosophers would have argued “stoically”) accepted his fate and drank his poison. After reading this edifying tract on how to die with dignity, what did Cato do? He lost his temper and punched a slave in the mouth, badly injuring his own hand. When the time came to pull the proverbial trigger, Cato was unable to dispatch himself cleanly because he had trouble stabbing himself with his broken hand. He was forced, ultimately, to dig out his bowels with his bare hands. So much for imitating Socrates in his stoic and dignified death.
Beer of the week: Černá Hora Sklepní – This is Černá Hora’s “Cellar style” lager. It is an unfiltered, and therefore slightly cloudy, golden beer. The aroma is bready and the flavor follows closely. Because it is unfiltered, the beer has a bit more flavor than many Czech beers. There is a hint of spice and of apricot and there is just enough hops in the finish to round it out. Overall, this is a pretty good beer.
Reading for the week: The Life of Cato the Younger by Plutarch – A fitting reading would be the section about how Cato loved to drink wine all night and discourse about philosophy. But the suicide scene, presented here, is more on point.
Question for the week: It is probable that this post overstates Plutarch’s intent to show up Cato. For one thing, Plutarch explicitly states that the wearing of black was not out of vainglory. And he also says that Cato afterwards would laugh often at his misunderstanding at Antioch. But can the suicide scene be read any other way than as a farce?
This is the eleventh in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
CLEANLINESS: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
By Moscow, I did not smell very good. That fact is not surprising. After all, I’d been without a shower since Vladivostok, some 5,752 miles away. Hell, I’d been without warm water all that time. But the fact is, the trans-Siberian railway is primarily for people traveling only a fraction of the line. Doing the long-haul is not for those who are overly scrupulous about cleanliness.
Even on less extreme journeys, travel is usually dirty. This is especially true when it is done right. I don’t mind the tiny handprints on my khakis from the macaques or the rust stains on my jeans from my ill-conceived trip across the Hangang. A certain amount of mess shows that one has been doing something interesting.
Perhaps the unavoidable (and enjoyable) filth of travel is the best argument for maintaining a clean house and observing excellent personal grooming when at home. The true interest of travel is the experience of the new and the different. So for the proverbial dusty trail to be enjoyed properly, it must be made to stand in contrast to the dust-free homestead.
Beer of the week: Zombie Dust – Would that the dust in my house were all Zombie Dust! It took a trip across state lines, a wedding, a slumber party, and a very gracious friend for me to get my hands on this coveted pale ale from 3 Floyds. (There are certainly cleaner and easier ways to get my hands on this beer, but that’d be way less fun.) Zombie Dust pours with a frothy head, and smells strongly of tropical fruit. Mango, pineapple, and citrus assault the nose. The beer is quite hoppy, tingling from the time it touches the tip of the tongue until the bitterness catches just a bit in the back of the throat. But as it warms, caramel notes start to emerge and the yeasty sediment makes itself known. Truly, this is an excellent beer.
Reading of the week: Fellow-Passengers by Robert Louis Stevenson – The Scottish author wrote of paddling across Belgium in a canoe, rambling through the French mountains with a donkey, crossing the oceans by steamer, and ultimately settling in Samoa. This chapter is from his book Across the Plains, in which he details his train travels from New York to California. According to Stevenson, the trains crossing this continent smelled “of pure menagerie, only a little sourer, as from men instead of monkeys.”
Question for the week: Franklin’s advice is to “tolerate no uncleanliness”, but such a stark prohibition seems at odds with the moderation advocated in the rest of his moral precepts. How can we reconcile these ideas, especially given the fact that an obsession with cleanliness is manifestly harmful?
This is the eighth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
SINCERITY: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
To some extent, many competitive sports rely on subterfuge and deception. Hockey has its deke moves, basketball its pump fakes, boxing its feints, rugby its dummy passes. Baseball, no less than any of these other sports, has it’s share of deceptive practices.
The president of Harvard (and editor of the Harvard Classics) William Eliot once said of the university’s baseball team, “…this year I’m told the team did well because one pitcher had a fine curve ball. I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard.” Eliot, however, is in the minority; most people appreciate and applaud a ball player who is especially adept at deception. It is part of the game, as they say.
Another sneaky part of the game is stealing signs. The catcher uses hand signals to communicate with the pitcher, and if an a base runner is able to intercept those signs, he may gain valuable information for his team. And it is generally accepted that there is nothing wrong with stealing signs.
However, a few weeks ago the Boston Red Sox got caught using an Apple Watch to communicate stolen signs, and that burned some people up. It’s fair enough to have a player steal signs from the base paths, but to use video cameras and electronic messaging is something else entirely. For one thing, a catcher may change his signs when an opponent is on base, making the signs themselves part of a game within the game. But what adaptive measures could the catcher use against video cameras and wireless messaging? It takes an aspect of the game away from the players and puts it in the hands of nameless support staff. For another thing, it converts a relatively rare advantage into a constant. Traditional sign stealing only happens when a runner is on second base, but the use of video makes it possible to steal signs on every single pitch.
The line between admirably clever and despicably devious is not always easy to spot, but when somebody steps well and truly over that line, he draws well deserved ire.
Beer of the week: Oval Beach Blonde – Summer is technically over, but a late heat wave has kept this summer blonde enjoyable. Oval Beach is a beautiful blonde brew from Saugatuck Brewing Company in Michigan. The beer is just a bit tangy, and has a nice malt body. A very refreshing choice.
Reading of the week: The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, Book I, Chapters X & XI – As in sport, military leaders are often praised for deception, but only up to a point. A well laid ambush is considered laudable, but if the ambush is baited with a false truce, it is considered villainous. This excerpt describes some of the acts of Robert Guiscard. Anna Komnene clearly thinks that Robert overstepped the bounds of decency, but history knows him as “Robert the Resourceful”.
Question for the week: Is there really a fair distinction between clever deception and devious deception? Or is all deception equally admirable/reprehensible? (Kant may suggest an answer.)
This is the seventh in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
INDUSTRY: Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
It is often discouraging to observe how much work has yet to be done. There are papers to write, dishes to wash, bridges to build. And the sheer quantity of work that will remain undone at the end of each day can make one despair of every really making a difference. This pessimism must be combated.
According to Helen Keller, Charles Darwin’s ill-health made it impossible for him to write for any more than half of an hour at a time; “yet in many diligent half-hours he laid anew the foundations of philosophy.” In fact, it seems that Keller vastly undersells Darwin’s illness. According to Wikipedia, “Darwin suffered intermittently from various combinations of symptoms such as: malaise, vertigo, dizziness, muscle spasms and tremors, vomiting, cramps and colics, bloating and nocturnal intestinal gas, headaches, alterations of vision, severe tiredness, nervous exhaustion, dyspnea, skin problems such as blisters all over the scalp and eczema, crying, anxiety, sensation of impending death and loss of consciousness, fainting tachycardia, insomnia, tinnitus, and depression.” Chronic vomiting is bad enough, but to have to find the puke bucket a bucket with blurred vision and vertigo must be a special kind of hellish. Yet somewhere between the cramps and sensation of impending death, Darwin was still able to change the world.
Helen Keller herself was no slouch in the overcoming adversity department. Unable to see or hear, she still learned to read, write, and speak(!) several languages. She also became a noted political advocate and lecturer. But international fame was not her primary ambition. “I long to accomplish a great and noble task;” she writes, “but it is my chief duty and joy to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. It is my service to think how I can best fulfill the demands that each day makes upon me, and to rejoice that others can do what I cannot.”
So when the mountain of work seems unclimbable, follow Franklin’s advice and waste as little time as possible. Remember Darwin and let nothing, even yourself, prevent you from achieving your goals. Be like Keller and take pride in even the most humble tasks. And heed the exhortation of Thomas Carlyle:
“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.”
Beer of the week: Sublime Ginger – This hazy, straw-colored offering from Forbidden Root is really good. The base is a dry wheat beer, with ginger, key lime, and botanicals. And those additions all make themselves known. The aroma is dominated by the ginger and citrus. The flavor is bright and limey. The ginger and herbs are also in the flavor, but without as much bite as one might expect. Overall, a nice refreshing drink.
Reading of the week: Optimism by Helen Keller, Part I – Keller’s optimism must be among the most sincere examples in history. For seven years, she lived in a totally isolated world of darkness and silence. Then she learned language, and the inertia of that “first leap out of the darkness” carried her forward for the rest of her life.
Question for the week: Recreation and relaxation are productive to a point; they improve our state of mind and reinvigorate our bodies and souls for the tasks ahead. But is there any clear line between relaxation and idleness?