Proofs of Prophesy

It seems that primitive peoples had a god for practically every natural phenomenon. Even the culturally and academically advanced Greeks and Romans had a literal pantheon of gods to explain everything from the daily rising of the sun to the changes of the seasons. (To be sure, there were certainly ancient philosophers who did not believe in the literal existence of the Olympians. But one of the charges against Socrates was refusal to recognize the official gods of the city, so they still took that stuff seriously.) It may well be that the eventual predominance of monotheism in the western world was in part due to advances in natural philosophy.

As we humans came to understand the world better, fewer and fewer gods were needed to explain all of the individual aspects of our reality. The more we learn about the nature of our universe, the less we need myths to explain the world around us. Inevitably, some people take this line of thought to its logical limit: as human understanding increases, we find that there is no need for any theistic explanations at all.

A counter argument that has been advanced is that our growing understanding of the world is itself proof of God’s assistance. The eighth century theologian Abu Hatim al-Razi asserts that all of the great thinkers throughout time were actually prophets. Divine inspiration, he argues, is the only way to explain the genius that created Euclid’s geometry or Ptolemy’s astronomy. Knowing his own intellectual powers, he cannot believe that such tremendously insightful works can be the work of unaided humans. There is some serious appeal to that argument; I don’t see how I could ever produce something as great as Ptolemy’s Almagest.

Still, we are constantly learning more and coming to greater and greater understandings. Consequently, all great geniuses in natural philosophy are doomed to be overtaken. In the face of non-Euclidean geometry and modern astronomy, Euclid and Ptolemy look like poor prophets indeed. What good are is the prophets Newton or Darwin if their systems are sure to be found defective down the line? Can it really be divine inspiration if it invariably comes up short of later human understanding?

The final rejoinder must be that prophets never tell the whole truth or explain everything clearly. Each generation must have its own sages and prophets to build upon the divine revelations of their predecessors.  So who can say that Lobachevsky or Stephen Hawking are not also divinely inspired?

  

Beer of the Week: Odyssey Imperial IPA – Throughout Homer’s Odyssey, storms, shipwrecks, deaths, and other events are attributed to the wills of the gods. So a beer called Odyssey seems like a good choice for this post. This Imperial IPA from Sly Fox Brewing Company is delicious. The lighting in this photo is a bit off; the beer is actually more amber in color. It has a nice thick head that leaves plenty of lacing on the glass. Odyssey is quite bold, with strong, flavorful hops that totally dominate the flavor. And the hops has to be strong to cover the 8.4% alcohol. Anybody who drinks enough of this beer is surely in for an adventure.

Reading for the Week: The Madman by Friedrich Nietzsche – The famous quote “God is dead” comes from this reading. This parable(?) from The Gay Science hints at the problems of a post-religious society. The atheists in the story do not understand the ramifications of the death of God, hence the messenger of God’s death is called “the madman.”

Question for the week: Is there anything compelling about Abu Hatim al-Razi argument that all of our geniuses are divinely inspired? Or is he just moving the goalposts?


Women’s Studies

What an embarrassment! By my count, this is post #199 on this blog. And yet, there has not been a single weekly reading written by a woman. (I honestly thought that I had included a reading by Baroness Orczy, but it seems that I mixed up The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Prisoner of Zenda.) What can account for such a tremendous oversight? A number of factors probably play a part.

One fairly innocuous factor is that the women authors that I am familiar with wrote novels. It is much harder to find an appropriate reading for this blog from a long form book. Prefaces, essays, and the like are much easier to dip into for an excerpt. However, there are quite a few readings on this blog from novels, so that cannot account for much of the disparity.

Additionally, many of the readings on this blog come from so-called “great books” lists. In particular, the Harvard Classics (partially pictured below) has been the an excellent resource. However, a quick review of the index confirms that the editor of the Harvard Classics totally omitted any female authors. It seems that I’m neither the first nor the most prominent curator of readings to do so.

For similar reasons, my reliance on public domain and ancient works certainly skews this blog away from female authors. The vast majority of older works, particularly from antiquity, are by male authors. Aside from Sappho, I am not sure that I could name an ancient Greek woman, let alone an ancient Greek woman author. Although the balance shifts somewhat as we approach modernity, there are simply a lot more readily available works by men than by women.

But perhaps the biggest reason is my own biases and flaws. I gravitate toward authors with whom I am familiar and with whom I perceive common interests and ideas. And those authors are almost exclusively men. (They are also predominantly American or Western European, but that is another bias for another day.) It is not that I don’t believe that women are capable of producing great works; Jane Austen and George Eliot would have wiped out that belief in me if I’d ever held it. But a combination of my experiences, resources, and my own narrow world view has resulted in a reproachable lack of appreciation for female authors. One that I hope to remedy.

To be clear, the solution is not inclusion for inclusion’s sake. Reading anything simply because it was written by a woman is patronizing. It does a disservice to the author by neglecting her merits in favor of her sex. And it does a disservice to the blog and its readers for the same reason. Our time is valuable, so what we read has to have its own worth independent of its author.

The solution, it seems, is to cast a wider net. To seek out new readings from other resources. Rather than relying on my past experience with authors or on their interactions with each other, I need to find a way to encounter a greater variety of writers of quality. I hope not to overlook any truly great books, regardless of who wrote them.

One valuable resource that I have found (at a thrift store for 69¢ per volume) is the Heath Anthology of American Literature. The Heath has the stated goal of publishing the under-appreciated works of women and minorities alongside the established literary canon to present a broader view of the development of American literature. An unsurprising inclusion in the Heath is Anne Bradstreet, the first New World poet of either sex to have her work published in England. Her poetry is clearly of the finest quality, and more than worth the reading. Bradstreet rightfully scoffed at those who would look down on a work because its author wore a dress:

“I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits.
A Poet’s Pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits.”

Writing, too, is women’s work. And a woman’s work is never done.

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Beer of the week: Dundee India Pale Ale – This New York IPA is pretty amber. The smell is of sweet biscuits and marshmallow. The malt is definitely dominant in the flavor. The beer is hoppy, but it is not overly bitter, and certainly not as strongly hopped as many American IPAs. Dundee makes quite a serviceable beer.

Reading for the week: In Reference to Her Children, 23 June 1659 by Anne Bradstreet – What could be a better reading for Mother’s Day Weekend than this touching poem about a mother’s dedication to her children? Bradstreet does well to portray the pride and joy of motherhood, as well as the bittersweet experience of watching her children grow up and start their own independent lives.

Question for the week: Who are other female authors that would be good readings for this blog? Comment below.


Reluctant Executive 

As a child, I had a small book about the presidents of the United States. Each page was dedicated to a single president, with a portrait, a short biography, and a representative quotation. I was most interested in the quotations.

Of course, some of the quotations were merely political sound bites:

Harry S. Truman: “The buck stops here.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Ronald Wilson Reagan: “Tear down this wall!”

However, many of the quotations (particularly those of early presidents) expressed a certain amount of dread about holding the office:

Thomas Jefferson: “No man will ever carry out of the presidency the reputation which carried him into it.”
Martin Van Buren: “As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”
James Knox Polk: “I am heartily rejoiced that my term is so near its close.”
William Howard Taft: “I am trying to do the best I can with this administration until the time shall come for me to turn it over to somebody else. ”

I was struck, even at a young age, by the way that many of the early presidents regarded the office as a terrible duty. Just by comparing the quotations, it seemed clear to me that the founders thought of the presidency as a personal sacrifice, while modern politicians sought office for personal advancement. I was, to be sure, a skeptical lad.

In my more mature reflections, however, I am still inclined to think that early presidential candidates had more pure motives than modern politicians. In part, that conclusion relies on the assessment that there is simply much more power in the oval office these days, and therefore more incentive for bad people to seek the office.

But perhaps the rhetoric has just changed, or perhaps I am just falling into nostalgia for a time that never really existed. At any rate, Presidents Day Weekend seems like a good time to give some thought to how the office of the president and the men who have held it have changed over time. So crack a beer and ponder why our society has given such immense power and influence to that office. An important question given Dwight David Eisenhower’s assessment that “any man who wants to be president is either an egomaniac or crazy.”

Hop Hog IPA

Beer of the week: Hop Hog IPA – Lancaster, Pennsylvania has some serious American political history cred. It was the national capital for one day in 1777, as Congress retreated from British occupied Philadelphia. Lancaster was home to president James Buchanan and congressman Thaddeus Stevens. It is also the national headquarters for the Constitution Party. But most relevant for our purposes, Lancaster is home to the Lancaster Brewing Company. Hop Hog is LBC’s orangish, slightly cloudy IPA. As the photo shows, Hop Hog’s fluffy head leaves very nice lacing on the glass. There are hints of fruit (pineapple, perhaps) in the aroma and aftertaste. This is one of my favorite IPAs.

Reading for the week: Grover Cleveland’s Second Inaugural Address – Inaugural addresses are a window into the political history of our nation. From James Buchanan’s discussion on slavery in the territories, to Barack Obama’s reaction to the late financial crisis, inaugural addresses highlight the political questions of the day and the campaign promises that propelled the candidates into the White House. In Cleveland’s second address, his conservative and pro-business positions sound familiar even today, but his stance on Native Americans seems badly dated.

Question for the week: Is Presidents Day really about all of the past presidents, or is it actually just for Washington and Lincoln, whose birthdays fall near it?


You are free to do as I please.

Imagine that you live in Vermont and want to be a beer brewer. You don’t only want to be a brewer, you need to be a brewer. It is your calling. You find that there are a lot of options. You could apply for work at The Alchemist Brewing Company. You could apply for work at Hill Farmstead. Or Fiddlehead Brewing Company. Or Long Trail. You could seek work at any of the dozens of breweries in the state. Or you could start your own. To be sure, there are legal and logistical hurdles to starting a brewery. There are some licensing and regulatory issues. But in a state with more breweries per capita than any other, it can’t be too hard.

Now imagine that you live in Taiwan in the 1990’s and you want to be a beer brewer. You don’t only want to be a brewer, you need to be a brewer. You could apply for work at the Monopoly Bureau of the Taiwan Governor’s Office, makers of Taiwan’s only beer: the cleverly named “Taiwan Beer.” And if you did not get the job, you have to give up on your dream. Opening your own brewery is not an option. As the name clearly states: there is a state monopoly on beer production in Taiwan.

These two contrasting scenarios illustrate a necessary defect in centralized economies. Vermont, which is a relatively free market, produces some of the very best beers in the world and provides entrepreneurs with the opportunity to follow their dreams. The result is an excellent environment for both brewers and consumers. Taiwan, on the other hand, produces decidedly mediocre beer. And until 2002, the state run brewery was the only game in town. The result was a stifling of creativity for brewers and a lack of choice for consumers.

Dedicated socialist H. G. Wells wrote in his New World Order that collectivism requires a declaration of human rights. “The more socialisation proceeds and the more directive authority is concentrated, the more necessary is an efficient protection of individuals from the impatience of well-meaning or narrow-minded or ruthless officials and indeed from all the possible abuses of advantage that are inevitable under such circumstances to our still childishly wicked breed.” And he is certainly right that the more power the government has, the more dangerous it is to individuals. (Although his solution of “compose a declaration of rights” is, in my opinion, a poor second to the solution of “just don’t give that much power to the government.”)

Wells’ proposed declaration of rights includes economic freedom. “That he [anyone] may engage freely in any lawful occupation, earning such pay as the need for his work and the increment it makes to the common welfare may justify. That he is entitled to paid employment and to a free choice whenever there is any variety of employment open to him. He may suggest employment for himself and have his claim publicly considered, accepted or dismissed.”

But the Taiwan example shows how hollow this freedom is. In a totally centralized economy, there really is no space for the individual to suggest his own employment. The question of which occupations are “lawful” and “open to” the individual is totally loaded. It is the government itself that decides whether the occupations are lawful or open to any given person. Wells may as well have written “he may engage freely in any occupation that the government gives him permission to.” As long as the power is given to the government to make all economic decisions, there is no freedom at all.

Sip of Sunshine

Beer of the week: Sip of Sunshine IPA – Lawson’s Finest Liquids is yet another wonderful Vermont brewery. And Sip of Sunshine sure is a treat. This beer is honey-colored and has a decent head. The aroma is bright and fruity. The taste has lots of tropical fruit and citrus notes from the hops and the sweetness of the malt balances it all very nicely. There is a reason that this beer is very sought after; it is delicious.

Reading of the week: The New World Order by H.G. Wells, Chapter: 10 Declaration of the Rights of Men – I think that the above criticism of Wells is valid, if not original. However, this reading does include a number of very good ideas that cannot be as easily discounted.

Question of the week: Is there anywhere in the world that is better for beer right now than Vermont?


The Happy and The Wretched

“No man can know a happy man
From any passing wretch;
If Folly link with Elegance
No man knows which is which,”

William Butler Yeats, The Old Stone Cross

Four and a half years ago, one of these blog posts brought up the age-old question: when can a man be called “happy”? The reading for that week was from Herodotus, who related the story of Solon and Croesus. Solon enraged Croesus by refusing to call him happy. Happiness, Solon claimed, could only be determined after death. Sure, on any given day a man may seem happy. Or even for an extended period of time. But until a man has breathed his last, it is impossible to tell whether his life was happy or not. After all, “to many God shows but a glimpse of happiness and then plucks them up by the roots and overturns them.”

The above-quoted passage from Yeats looks like a similar claim: it is impossible for anybody to tell who is truly happy. But he goes even further; one cannot even tell happiness from wretchedness. He also says that it is impossible to tell folly from elegance. (An outsider’s view of fashion seems to confirm this notion. High-heeled shoes and all sorts of other fashionable attire appear to be equal parts folly and elegance.)

However, Yeats’s lines need more context. Solon apparently believed that it was never possible to say who was happy until after death. Yeats, however, qualified his claim. According to the man under the old stone cross, it is particular to our place and time that happiness cannot be discerned from wretchedness, nor folly from elegance. Such seemingly obvious distinctions cannot be made today “Because this age and the next age — Engender in the ditch”. Unlike Solon, Yeats seems to think that the happy should be easy to sort from the wretched. The reason that we cannot do so is the vulgar origins of our present society.

Society and Solitude #5

 

Beer of the week: Society and Solitude #5 – Alchemist Brewery may have all of the hype, but their neighbors at Hill Farmstead give them a real run for their money. This experimental imperial IPA pours cloudy and pale. The aroma has lots of mango and citrus. The beer is eminently smooth and there is hardly a hint of the high alcohol content. The hops are not overpowering, but they are perfectly balanced with the malt and the fruit notes. This is really a stellar beer.

Reading of the week: The Old Stone Cross by William Butler Yeats – Perhaps the driving factors in the degradation of society are modern politics and what passes for journalism. This poem starts with the statesman “who tells his lies by rote,” and the journalist who “makes up his lies.” This distrust for the political circus and the news media that foster it results in (what I consider) very sound advice from the poet: “stay at home’ and drink your beer — And let the neighbours’ vote”!

Question of the week: What would Solon say about the inability to distinguish folly from elegance?


The Silent Supreme

The death of Justice Antonin Scalia last week revealed yet again the terrible state of political discourse in our country. One clear problem involves the call by Senate Republicans to block any and all Obama nominations. This certainly looks like a dereliction of duty, and has been called an “impeachable offense.” (Of course, the most vocal critics of this behavior, ignore the attempted filibuster by Senators Kerry, Clinton, and Obama upon the nomination of Justice Alito.) But what I think is more telling is the personal vitriol toward members of the Court.

All of the biggest political actors had the tact to express their condolences at the death of Justice Scalia, but plenty of casual tweeters expressed their joy. Even worse than the schadenfreude over the death of a Supreme Court Justice were the attacks on (the still very much alive) Justice Thomas. Thomas became a “trending topic” on Twitter because there were so many people wishing that he would be the next member of the Court to die. Two particular themes came to the surface though these Tweets: the perception that Thomas was a mere puppet who always followed Scalia, and the racially charged claims that Thomas was either a slave or a traitor to his people.

I will ignore the racial statements. Those who made them deserve our scorn, but the statements themselves are not worth addressing. They are beneath the dignity of the Court and they are beneath me. The idea that Thomas was a puppet for Scalia, however, is worth evaluating.

According to SCOTUSBlog, Scalia and Thomas agreed in 78% of cases. This is lower than the percentage of cases where Thomas agreed with Alito (81%) and lower than the percentage of cases where Scalia agreed with Chief Justice Roberts (84%). But perhaps more tellingly, that number is positively dwarfed by the percentage of cases where the liberal justices agree. That same source tells us that Justice Breyer agrees with each Justice Ginsburg, Justice Kagan, and Justice Sotomayor a full 94% of the time. The lowest agreement rate among the liberal justices is 91%. Any claim that one or more of the Supreme Court Justices are mere puppets who vote the way they are told is probably nonsense. But if there is any legitimacy to the idea, the statistics indicate that we should be looking at somebody other than Thomas.

There are plenty of areas where I disagree with Justice Thomas, but it is simply ignorant to claim that he is not an independent thinker. He is a prolific dissenting voice on the court, and perhaps that alone is worthy of admiration. It would have been so much easier for him to “just go along” with Scalia, but Thomas was and is his own man.

Yankee Buzzard IPA

Beer of the week: Yankee Buzzard IPA – This IPA from Wisconsin Brewing Company is also known as beer #002. Yankee Buzzard is hazy and has a pleasant, hoppy aroma. Hops certainly dominates, but unlike in many IPAs, here they are balanced nicely with the malty body. This is a very good IPA, especially for somebody who does not favor over-the-top bitterness.

Reading for the week: Kelo v. New London, Dissenting Opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas – The City of New London used eminent domain to kick several of its citizens out of their homes and turn the land over to the drug company Pfizer. The Supreme Court ruled that the city did not violate the Constitution by doing so. Justice Thomas, predictably, dissented. In part, I chose this reading because the public response to this case was so negative; most states now have laws that prevent this kind of eminent domain action. But mostly, this reading shows the way that Justice Thomas works. His appeals to original texts are especially interesting to me. (In case the Readings page of this blog left any doubt on that point.)

Question for the week: Do the Justices of the Supreme Court venture too far into the world of practical politics (as Justice Thomas believes), or does the Supreme Court have a right (or duty) to effectuate policy?


A 5-Star Review of Bacon

Since this blog is partially devoted to writing beer reviews, the following statement may seem hypocritical: I have very little interest in reading reviews. I have no great love for critics. The very first post on this blog acknowledges that criticism is an art form unto itself, but I don’t have a whole lot of interest in reading what somebody else thinks of a movie or book. I will occasionally let a metacritic score dissuade me from watching a film. I do read beer reviews from time to time, mostly to help me identify subtle flavors that I can’t quite put my finger on. But when choosing a book, I usually rely on personal suggestions or the status of the book as a “classic”.

Recently, however, I read a couple pieces of criticism that are classics in their own right, so I am tempted to give them particular weight. The first is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay A Defence of Poetry and the second is Ben Jonson’s On Bacon. What links these writings is the fact that each heaps praises on Francis Bacon as not only a great thinker, but as a great writer.

Shelley writes of Bacon: “His language has a sweet and majestic rhythm, which satisfies the sense, no less than the almost superhuman wisdom of his philosophy satisfies the intellect; it is a strain which distends, and then bursts the circumference of the reader’s mind, and pours itself forth together with it into the universal element with which it has perpetual sympathy.” In so many words, Bacon’s writing and philosophy are both mind-blowingly good.

Jonson writes that “No man ever spake more neatly, more presly, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness, in what he uttered.” Bacon chose every word perfectly to convey his grand and significant ideas; “His hearers could not cough, or look aside from him, without loss.”

I have never seen Bacon as a poet, although I have read a fair bit of his writing. In fact, two of his essays have been readings on this blog. Perhaps I was so engrossed in Bacon’s ideas that I paid little attention to his writing style. That two of the most influential English poets of all time regard Bacon as a master of the language makes me think that I really should revisit his writing.

Heady Topper

 

Beer of the week: Heady Topper Double IPA – Speaking of rave reviews, Heady Topper may be the highest rated beer in the world. And it’s reputation is nearly matched by its rarity. The Alchemist Brewing Company has limited distribution to a small area around the brewery in Vermont, so this beer is impossible to get unless you visit that area, buy illegally second-hand, or have a Vermonter friend. (Thanks, Ben!) Additionally, it is worth noting that the can has “DRINK FROM THE CAN!” printed across the top. The brewers have determined that this beer is best when consumed straight from the can because the essential hops oils do not have a chance to dissipate. I defer to their expertise on the subject and eschew glassware.

The smell is restricted by the can, but notes of orange and plenty of herby hops come through the opening. The hops do not hit the tongue right away, but their flavor unfolds slowly and leaves a delicious tingle on the tongue. Whether this (or any) beer can possibly live up to all the hype surrounding Heady Topper, this beer certainly is great.

Reading of the week: On Bacon by Ben Jonson – Jonson’s appraisal of Bacon as “the acme of our language” is perhaps more interesting than Shelley’s since Jonson and Bacon were contemporary. In fact, they were more than that; they were friends. Johnson helped Bacon with translations and Bacon supposedly called Jonson “my man, John.”

Question of the week: I acknowledge that I am often at fault for making appeals to authority. But is there not reason to think that most works that have survived through the ages have done so (at least in part) because of their quality?