Kind Nepenthe

This is the twenty-second in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXII: The Odyssey, Homer

Everyone has a memory or two that he’d rather not. But, as the saying goes, “some things cannot be unseen.” We are blessed and cursed with our powers of memory, but what would result from the ability to chose what memories we retain or erase?

On the tv show Arrested Development, there is a character who takes pills that he calls “forget-me-nows”. The pills are, in fact, Rohypnol: commonly known as roofies. He drugs himself to forget decisions that he regrets. Predictably, by wiping out his memories, he dooms himself to make the same mistakes again, unable to learn and grow from them.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Helen prepares a draught of nepenthe to help Menelaus and others forget their sorrow over comrades lost during and after the Trojan War, particularly the then-missing Odysseus. Nepenthe literally means “anti-sorrow”, but Homer tells us that it worked by bringing forgetfulness. The characters continue to reminisce, however, and ultimately resort to sleep to ease their sorrow. “But come,” says Telemachus, “bid us to bed, that forthwith we may take our joy of rest beneath the spell of sleep.” Perhaps the drug induced the sleep, and in sleep the heroes could forget their melancholy, but it is not clear at all that the nepenthe delivered on its promise of forgetfulness.

Nepenthe is also mentioned Poe’s The Raven. The narrator exhorts himself, “Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget the lost Lenore.” The raven predictably replies, “nevermore.” The narrator has no literal nepenthe, and, as is clear from the raven’s reply, none exists. He is doomed to remember his lost love. There is no nepenthe to forget sorrow and no balm in Gilead to cure a broken heart.

Whether we learn from our memories as GOB fails to in Arrested Development, or we put our memory aside only while we sleep as the characters of The Odyssey do, or whether our memories drive us mad as in The Raven, we cannot really cannot chose to forget. Our only real option is to turn our memories to our advantage, lest they destroy us.

Beer of the week: Tell Tale Heart IPA – Happy Friday the 13th! By all rights, this beer should be paired with Poe’s story The Tell Tale Heart. But that Poe is not included in the Harvard Classics, and I had no interest in sitting on this review for a year until I am through with this Harvard series. So here it is. RavenBeer makes a whole line of Poe-themed brews. This is an orangish IPA with a nice, creamy head. There are nice floral hops in the aroma and a well-balanced combo of malt and hops. Tell Tale Heart is a good East Coast IPA.

Reading of the week: The Odyssey by Homer, Book IV, lines 184 – 314 – After Helen has poured the nepenthe, she tells the company how Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, once sneaked into the besieged city of Troy.

Question for the week: What would you forget if you could?


Corruption in Times of Corruption

This is the twenty-first in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXI: I Promessi Sposi, Manzoni

Positions in civil government, from national presidency to homeowners’ association board seats, can be magnets for those who would take advantage of their neighbors. An excellent example of this corruption can be found in I Promessi Sposi, (most often translated as The Betrothed,) by Alessandro Manzoni. When the plague struck Milan in 1629, vicious and rapacious men saw an opportunity. The tumult caused by the plague made it easy for these bad actors to operate without consequence. Indeed, many of them found it expedient to take official government posts, the better to steal and blackmail. “The villains, whom the pestilence spared and did not terrify, found in the common confusion, and in the relaxation of all public authority, a new opportunity of activity, together with new assurances of impunity; nay, the administration of public authority itself came, in a great measure, to be lodged in the hands of the worst among them. Generally speaking, none devoted themselves to the offices of monatti and apparitori but men over whom the attractions of rapine and license had more influence than the terror of contagion, or any natural object of horror.” And once it was clear how much profit was to be made as a government-employed extortionist and robber, these men worked to perpetuate the plague, and thereby perpetuate their power. They would “purposely let fall from their carts infected clothes, in order to propagate and keep up the pestilence, which had become to them a means of living, a kingdom, a festival.” It is remarkable what those in power are capable of doing to maintain their position.

But, as rare as they may be, there actually are examples of political leaders who come into power for noble reasons and maintain their virtue despite that power. Manzoni relates the story of Father Felice Casati, a Capuchin friar who became a sort of minor autocrat during the plague. As the pestilence spread through Milan and the surrounding area, the population of the Lazaretto of Milan swelled. The Lazaretto was a huge quarantine building that became a city unto itself. Although people were dying at a prodigious rate, the population of the Lazaretto exploded as more and more people contracted the plague. At one point, as many as 16,000 people filled the Lazaretto. With so many sick and desperate people, good governance was needed to keep the Lazaretto from becoming pandemonium. The Board of Health decided to install Father Felice as governor of the Lazaretto. Although not a glamorous appointment, the governor was granted “primary and ultimate authority” within the Lazaretto. With this power Father Felice “animated and regulated every duty, pacified tumults, settled disputes, threatened, punished, reproved, comforted, dried and shed tears.” He was absolute dictator within the confines of his quarantine kingdom, but neither that power nor the plague corrupted him.

In at least this once instance, there was an exception to Lord Acton’s axiom that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But to rely on every (or virtually any) politician being another Father Felice is probably a mistake. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken: cleaning up politics by electing righteous people makes no more sense than cleaning up a brothel by filling it with virgins; they either lose their virtue or jump out the window.

Beer of the week: 98 Problems IPA – This hazy orange India Pale Ale is a product of Michigan’s Perrin Brewing Company. The aroma is dominated by pineappley and floral hops. The hops also dominate the flavor, with crisp bitterness both up front and lingering in the aftertaste. Despite the name, there’s not much wrong with 98 Problems.

Reading of the week: I Promessi Sposi by Alessandro Manzoni – Although I Promessi Sposi is a work of fiction, the author tells us that his account of the plague is historically accurate. This excerpt tells how members of the Milanese public attacked doctors, accusing them of fabricating the claims about the plague for personal gain. It is an excellent study in how people will reject the truth and accuse its bearers of evil motivations if the truth is adverse enough to their interests.

Question for the week: What is the best mechanism for curbing political corruption?

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?)