Skill and Judgment

This is the ninth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IX: Cicero, Pliny the Younger

“None but those who are skilled in painting, statuary, or the plastic art,” writes Pliny the Younger, “can form a right judgment of any performance in those respective modes of representation.”

This statement can be reduced to the universal statement that the ability to perform is a necessary prerequisite for the ability to judge a performance. To some extent, this claim seems intuitively true. But it is not necessarily so.

Roger Ebert was an extremely popular and well-respected film critic. But did his ability to judge acting and filmmaking come from his own skill as an actor and filmmaker? I think not. Clearly, a great deal of effort was put into studying the art of film, but not necessarily study of the practice of film.

Similarly, one could imagine a great student of the visual arts who, due to some physical disability, is unable to paint. Without ever putting brush to canvas, such a student could still know well every theory of color, composition, and aesthetics. What could keep such a person from being a great judge of paintings?

Even if it is not strictly necessary, at least some practice in any given art is helpful for truly appreciating all of the skill required to excel therein. Knowing first-hand how difficult it is to become competent may provide valuable perspective on what must go into works of real genius.

My single attempt at brewing beer was not exceptionally successful, though it was far from a failure. I would not claim to be skilled in brewing. Yet I consider myself competent to form a judgment about beers brewed by others. At the very least, I can form the most important judgment of all: do I like it enough to have another?

Beer of the week: Citradelic Tangerine IPA – The aroma of this New Belgium IPA is overwhelmingly of tangerine. The flavor is much the same, but with the lingering tingle of citrusy hops. It is enjoyable, but you have to really like tangerines.

Reading of the week: Letter to Attius Clemens by Pliny the Younger – This letter is primarily a glowing recommendation of a contemporary philosopher known as Euphrates the Stoic. Unfortunately, none of Euphrates’ work has survived.

Question for the week: Pliny’s statement about judging the arts assumes that there actually is “a right judgment” of art. Is that a valid assumption?


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?

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?


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.?


This is the twelfth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

TRANQUILLITY: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

As discussed in more than one earlier post, Epictetus is pretty much the go-to guru on not being disturbed by trifles. Did your favorite beer glass shatter when you dropped it? Hey, that’s what glass does; it breaks. You enjoyed it while you had it, but now it has just started it’s long and inevitable return to its constituent parts. Did you get splashed at the swimming pool? What did you expect? Water gets splashed around at the swimming pool, no big deal. Did your wife or child die? People are mortal; get over it.

Ok, so the death of a family member is more than a trifle. And when Epictetus compares the death of a child to the breaking of a cup, it just doesn’t ring true. Surely nobody is that stoic. At least no mentally healthy person is. (And, as I noted before, there is no reason to think that Epictetus was ever married or fathered any children. So he didn’t really know what it is like to lose a wife or child.)

Seneca, at least, admits that a certain amount of grief is appropriate in the face of death. “Let not the eyes be dry when we have lost a friend, nor let them overflow,” he writes. “We may weep, but we must not wail.” He admits that even this allowance seems harsh, but his reasoning is somewhat more compelling than that of Epictetus. To Seneca, pronounced grief is a false show of affection. Loud wailing is an outward attempt to prove one’s love. However, one can only keep up abject mourning for so long. So if the measure of one’s love for the departed is the extent of his wailing, then even the most bereaved must finally “be over” the loss. True friends, however, will measure their love, not in tears, but in happy memories. Because unlike lamentation, which must eventually exhaust itself, happy memories can go on indefinitely.

Beer of the week: Lagunitas IPA – This California/Chicago IPA is a lovely orange-gold with fluffy white foam. Although there is plenty of hops, it is not excessively bitter. This is a nice malty India pale ale with a hint of tartness in the finish.

Reading for the week: Letter LXIII to Lucilius from Seneca – Another problem that Seneca observes with abject lamentation is that it shows that the loved one was not appreciated enough during his life. It smacks of carelessness to wail over the time that one should have spent with the deceased. After all, shouldn’t we direct all of that emotion toward the friends that are still with us, lest we set up a cycle of waiting until death to give voice to our love?

Question for the week: Are you making the most of the limited time that you have with your friends and family? (Obviously not. Rather, how can you make better use of your time with your friends and family?)


This is the tenth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

MODERATION: Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
– Franklin

As I noted in an earlier post, Sydney winters never get cold enough for a proper polar bear plunge. As a result, those who want a real winter swim have to be creative. Members of the Bondi Icebergs Club take blocks of ice with them into their beautiful tidal swimming pool. Cold water swimming is meant to be both salubrious and invigorating.

On the other temperature extreme (and on the other side of the world) are the Finns, who take great pride in their scorching hot saunas. There are even competitions (some of which end quite badly) where contestants attempt to sit in the hottest temperature for the longest period. Aside from the dangers associated with doing it competitively, the use of saunas is regarded as healthful and rejuvenating.

How does one reconcile these practices with the general proposition that extremes are harmful? The conclusion, I think, must be that extremes are not dangerous in themselves. A certain amount of extremity pushes the body (or the mind), very much in the way that physical exercise does. What is dangerous about extremes is when they cease to be extreme. Extremes are extraordinary conditions to be endured, and they should not be allowed to become ordinary.

Pop-Up IPA

Beer of the week: Pop-Up IPA – A “session” IPA is a tribute to moderation. It is a drink for those who want the flavor of an IPA without the extreme hopping or alcohol level. Unfortunately, I think that Boulevard dialed this beer back a little too much. To be sure, it is a fine beer, but the flavor is not quite as full as I would like.  Pop-Up is a cloudy session IPA with a thick, sticky head. The beer’s aroma is dominated by grassy, floral hops. The aftertaste has a hint of pepper.

Reading for the week: Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite by Molière, Act I, Scene VI – “Men,” says one character in this scene, “for the most part, are strange creatures, truly! You never find them keep the golden mean; The limits of good sense, too narrow for them, Must always be passed by, in each direction; They often spoil the noblest things, because They go too far, and push them to extremes.”

Question for the week: Are occasional extremes really good for us, or is that just a justification for indulging in extremes that ought to be avoided.

The Road to Ataraxia

This post is the first in a series of posts on skepticism (and Goose Island beer.) The rest of the posts will be available here.

There are a great number of philosophies and religions in the world. And many, if not most of them promise peace of mind for their adherents. It is a fair assumption, however, that they cannot all be right. As a result, there are those who go through life, trying on a number of different beliefs, hoping to find the one that will deliver on this promise of άταραξία – peace or tranquility.

According to Diogenes Laërtius, Pyrrho was one such intellectual searcher. He travelled extensively with the philosopher Anaxarchus. With him, he visited the Gymnosophists (“naked wise men”) of India and the Magi (holy men) of Persia. But in the end, he settled on a philosophy of skepticism. Rather than finding something to believe in, Pyrrho found peace in withholding belief in anything.

According to Sextus Empericus, the search for άταραξία is only resolved when one gives up on finding the belief that will provide it. “For that which is related of Apelles the painter happened to the Sceptic. It is said that as he was once painting a horse he wished to represent the foam of his mouth in the picture, but he could not succeed in doing so, and he gave it up and threw the sponge at the picture with which he had wiped the colors from the painting. As soon, however, as it touched the picture it produced a good copy of the foam. The Sceptics likewise hoped to gain άταραξία by forming judgments in regard to the anomaly between phenomena and the things of thought, but they were unable to do this, and so they suspended their judgment; and while their judgment was in suspension άταραξία followed, as if by chance, as the shadow follows a body.”

When one has affirmative beliefs about what is good and what is bad, he is caught in an unpleasant trap. On the one hand, he is unhappy because he is aware of all of the “good” things that he does not possess. On the other hand, he is constantly afraid of losing his “goods” and being subjected to “bad” things. Whereas the skeptic does not suffer from these envies or fears.

Perhaps the most relatable application of this philosophy is the refusal to opine as to whether death is good or bad. Most people fear death because they perceive it as a loss of the good things that they have, or as a bad in itself. Some people welcome or hope for death because they believe that death (perhaps coupled with some afterlife) is a good in itself, or a relief from the evils of life. The skeptic, unwilling to judge whether death is good or bad is ambivalent. He is at peace, precisely because he is willing to withhold his judgment about whether his station is good or bad.

The road to άταραξία, in part, is the refusal to opine about which road is best.

Goose IPA


Beer of the week: Goose IPA – Goose Island, although regarded by some as a macro-brew sell-out, does produce some pretty tasty beers. This IPA has a pretty, dark gold pour. The aroma is slightly musty with yeast and malt. It smells like the inside of a brewery. This beer is exceptionally smooth. It is also very well balanced. Goose IPA is not overly hopped and has plenty of malt flavor. It is a very enjoyable beer.

Reading of the week: Pyrrhonic Sketches by Sextus Empericus – Unfortunately, Pyrrho did not leave any writings behind. What we know of his philosophy comes primarily from these Pyrrhonic Sketches (more often translated as Outlines of Pyrrhonism.)

Question of the week: The idea that we cannot be sure of what is good and what is bad, particularly with regards to death, sounds an awful lot like stoicism. What are the principle distinctions between skepticism and stoicism?