This is the fourteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XIV: Don Quixote, Cervantes
In the preface to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain does not profess to know the laws or customs of Arthurian England. However, he asserts that whatever the laws and customs were in the sixth century, they must necessarily have been worse than those that exist today. “One is quite justified in inferring that whatever one of these [modern] laws or customs was lacking in that remote time, its place was competently filled by a worse one.” Society, he seems to say, necessarily improves over time.
This idea is seconded by the title character Hank Morgan. Hank finds the people of sixth century England to be boorish, gullible, superstitious, and stupid. (Even, we must take it, when compared to the people of nineteenth century Connecticut.) He reports that among the knights of the round table, there were not enough brains to bait a fish-hook. Society must have come a long way indeed if the cream of medieval society were so much dumber than people today.
As to Twain’s apparent belief in the perpetual progress of society, Don Quixote de La Mancha would certainly disagree. Don Quixote perceived that society had declined since the time of Arthur rather than progressed. The time of knights-errant was an era of men who were brave and true, and faithful to their lovers and their God. Since that time, however, society generally descended cockering and excess. How can society as a whole be better off when the upstanding knights-errant have been replaced by people soft, indulgent, and deceitful?
And as to Hank Morgan’s claim that people are smarter now, he seems to confuse intelligence with knowledge. He thinks that because he knows the formula for gun powder and the dates of certain eclipses, he is more intelligent than those who lack that specific knowledge. But it is foolish to conflate the possession of certain facts with total intellectual capacity. (And it should not be taken for granted that memorizing the dates of celestial events at least back to the sixth century is a sign of intelligence rather than a sign of unhealthy fixation.) If Hank Morgan is smarter than King Arthur because he can build a lightning rod, is he also smarter than Newton, Galileo, or Aristotle for the same reason?
At any rate Twain hints that Hank himself is not as smart as he thinks. Hank fancies himself something of a connoisseur of chromolithographs, an popular form of colored print. But Hank is quite critical of a “new artist” called Raphael who did a number of well-circulated chromos, clearly unaware that the prints are copies of Raphael’s paintings and that the artist lived and died more than 300 years earlier.
Beer of the week: Supper Club – This lager from Wisconsin’s Capital Brewing Company is slightly hazy, with a nice malty flavor and aroma. It is not very hopped, just a pleasant, bready lager. There is something to be said for simple, grain-heavy midwestern fare.
Reading of the week: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – In this passage, our hero explains to some fellow travelers what it is to be a knight-errant. They, of course, perceive him to be insane. (As an interesting aside, this translation uses the archaic adjective “wood” meaning “insane.” Coincidently, near the beginning of A Connecticut Yankee, the narrator reads an old tale about Sir Lancelot in which a giant, terrified by the brave knight “ran away as he were wood.” Twain includes a note explaining that “wood” means “demented”.)
Question for the week: Does human society have a generally upward trajectory? Or generally downward? Or is there any discernible trend at all?
This is the eleventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XI: Origin of Species, Darwin
Beer used to be an extremely local product, made with local ingredients and techniques. As a result, each region had its own styles, but few people had access to a wide range of different beers. As more beers have gotten wider distribution, people have attempted systematic categorization of beers. Here is my taxonomy for the beer of the week:
Kingdom – Beverage
Phylum – Fermented drinks
Class – Beer
Order – Lager
Family – American Adjunct Lager
Genus – Malt Liquor
Species – Crazy Cowboy American Lager
Although “malt liquor” is not on the can, there is good reason to think this is a proper identification. For one thing, I have only seen it sold in individual 1.5 pint cans, rather than in more traditionally sized units or in six-packs. Also, the price was $0.99 (before tax) for 24 oz. And although the alcohol content does not appear on the label, Untappd has it listed as 5.6% abv. Super cheap, relatively high-alcohol beer? This one could probably have been categorized before the can was even opened. Once it was poured, no doubt remained.
Beer of the week: Crazy Cowboy American Lager – This is a clear gold beer with some slightly sour aroma. The flavor confirms the style; it tastes of cheap grain and little else, with a slightly metallic aftertaste. Not great, but it does remind me of some crazy times.
Reading of the week: The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin – This chapter tackles the question of where mere varieties end and distinct species begin. We take for granted a lot of the larger taxonomic distinctions, but as we get closer to the individual specimen, it becomes harder to draw firm lines.
Question for the week: Is there a principled distinction between a stout and a porter? And are different brewing technique or ingredient list more important in distinguishing styles?
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?
A large city is not the best place to experience springtime. Just like in the country, there are robins and other birds that reappear in the spring. However, the city’s pigeons and seagulls never leave, so a lot of excitement about the return of the songbirds is lost. Further, there are fewer plants to watch returning to life. There are flowerbeds here and there and trees line some streets, but in the main, spring in the city is not ideal.
Perhaps more important than the return of birds or the blossoming of trees is the familiarity of the seasonal changes. In the poem Home-thoughts, from Abroad, Robert Browning pines for his native England in April and May. I do not believe that springtime in England is much more attractive than it is in Italy. So why pine for England when he had a Mediterranean spring outside his window? Perhaps what Browning really longed for was not English spring per se, but the familiarity of it. The poem mentions specific trees and flowers and birds, not because the flora and fauna of his native land are necessarily superior to those of Italy, but because they are the specific things that he associates with spring.
If that assessment is correct, that what makes spring beautiful is the return of familiarity, then the first sentence of this post is incorrect. A large city actually is the best place to experience springtime for those who intimately know the city and the particular changes that arrive with spring. Those who have lived in the city for a long time will know and expect all of the changes that the seasons bring with them. Still, I can hardly imagine ever thinking “O, to be in Chicago now that April’s there!”
Beer of the Week: Abita Strawberry Harvest – No matter what the thermometer says, springtime is here, and so are the spring seasonal beers. There is plenty of strawberry in this wheat lager. A close look reveals a fair bit of red particulate floating around in the beer. Strawberry and wheat dominate the aroma. The beer is very fizzy and it is also fruity and tangy without being very sweet. This combination reminds me of vitamin C powder packets. Although this beer did grow on me after a bit, I don’t think I’d buy it again.
Reading for the Week: Home-thoughts, from Abroad by Robert Browning – Although the poem starts in April, it goes on to extol the birds and blossoms of May. So this poem is still a beautiful choice for the first day of this month.
Question for the Week: Spring and autumn seem inherently transitional, while winter and summer seem more consistent. Does spring really bring with it more change than summer does, or do the changes of summer just not stand out as brightly as the first robin or the first green leaf?
In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it is illegal for bars offer special prices on alcohol. There are no “Happy Hours”. There are no “beer of the night” deals. Never can a patron purchase a wristband that entitles them to an indefinite number of drinks. Nominally, this statutory ban on non-uniform pricing is intended to reduce the incidence of drunk driving. In reality, however, it smacks of good old fashioned Puritanical objection to enjoyment.
The only effect that the law may reasonably be considered to have on drunk driving is that it may reduce drunkenness by making alcohol more expensive. The law does not mean that a patron may not drink 6 beers immediately after work; it only means that doing so must be as expensive as drinking 6 beers at any other time of the day. Likewise, the law does not prevent a bar from selling a beer at a very low price; it only requires that the same beer always be sold for that price. Since drunk driving was already illegal when Massachusetts passed this legislation in the mid 1980’s, it is clear that this law serves a different purpose. Keeping the price of alcohol artificially high (and therefore discouraging drinking) is not only the direct result of the law, but it is also the law’s true intent.
John Stuart Mill railed against this sort of “social rights” legislation. The right of society to be free of the dangers inherent in drunk driving is not a valid reason to prohibit bars from soliciting patronage by offering discounts. If the problem is drunk driving, penalize drunk driving; don’t penalize the admittedly free and unobjectionable choice of merchants and customers to agree to a bargain.
To be fair, Mill tip-toed around this particular sort of problem. He objected to blanket prohibition on purely individualistic grounds. He acknowledged that although the consumption of alcohol is a personal right, the sale of alcohol is a “social act” and therefore (implicitly) more rightly subjected to social regulation. However, this distinction carries little weight in the current context. In the first place, I contend that the freedom of contract is improperly interfered with in the instant case. The right of merchants to offer sale prices is an inherent extension of their property rights. The right to sell beer (to persons of age and subject to other regulation) includes the right to set a price. Additionally, the this law serves the exact purpose objected to by Mill: to limit the amount consumed by individuals. True, the law does not specifically prohibit excessive drinking, but that is the only practical effect that could be hoped for.
The law against happy hour pricing relies on an “unlimited right in the public not only to prohibit by law everything which it thinks wrong, but in order to get at what it thinks wrong, to prohibit any number of things which it admits to be innocent.” And that, as Mill would say, is a noxious philosophy.
Beer of the week: Samuel Adams Double Agent IPL – Among the beers that Bay Staters can never drink at a discount is this local brew. The idea behind Double Agent is apparently “what if a lager were hopped as strongly as an IPA?” The smell is much like most American IPAs. The hops aroma is strong and sweet and floral with strong citrus notes. The taste has just a hint of vanilla and plenty of floral hops and the bitterness of grapefruit rind. The beer may be a bit lighter and crisper than most IPAs, but I would never have guessed that this was actually a lager. It really is a delicious beer, but don’t expect anything but an IPA.
Reading of the week: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill – The fourth chapter of this essay is dedicated to the relationship between personal freedom and societal duty. “Though society is not founded on a contract, and though no good purpose is answered by inventing a contract in order to deduce social obligations from it, every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest.”
Question of the week: Mill starts this week’s reading with three questions: “WHAT, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself? Where does the authority of society begin? How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society?”
Thanks to innumerable news headlines, I know that Washington D.C. is a hotbed for corruption; that Silicon Valley is a hotbed for technology firms; that universities are a hotbed for political dissent. Hotbeds abound. But it was not until I read Politics and the English Language by George Orwell that I even realized that I didn’t know what a hotbed is! And I strongly suspect that most of the writers who use the word don’t know either.
A hotbed, I am informed, is a piece of earth that is heated by the introduction of decaying manure or compost for the purposes of encouraging germination. Presumably, a long time ago, some clever individual decided to speak about a certain locale or community as a hotbed, one particularly conducive to the growth of a certain ideology rather than seeds. It is a very vivid and apt metaphor. Or, rather, it was a very vivid metaphor. It has been so overused that the word no longer evokes any imagery at all. Hotbed is now just an ordinary word, used by writers who are too lazy to think of their own phrases to convey an image.
In search of another example, I typed “roughshod” into a google news search and found nearly 2,000 recent articles that included the word. Politicians ride roughshod over the Bill of Rights, greedy developers ride roughshod over our communities, football teams run roughshod over their opponents. Ironically, the football examples are almost accidentally accurate. A roughshod horse is one that has special spiked horseshoes for handling icy conditions. Football players wear spiked shoes as well and, on occasion, literally run over their opponents. Still, when writers use the word roughshod, they almost certainly do not expect their readers to picture the equestrian equivalent of tire chains. Like hotbed, roughshod is a dead metaphor and its use is simply lazy writing.
As much as I hate to call out Herman Melville, I suspect that George Orwell would have ripped into him for this sort of writing. Just after I read Politics and the English Language, I reread Benito Cereno and finished Billy Budd, Sailor. While reading, I was constantly distracted by lines that would have drawn hefty rebukes from Orwell. At one point in Billy Budd, Melville provided a doubly questionable phrase by both mixing metaphors and using a metaphor apparently without knowing (or caring) what it actually means: “these words so fatherly in tone, doubtless touch[ed] Billy’s heart to the quick.”
Let us break this down, shall we? “To touch one’s heart” is a metaphor as old language itself (probably.) It is hardly objectionable on that count, though; the heart is still the symbolic center of emotion and there is perhaps no better way to say that words inspire emotion than to say that they touch the heart. “[Cut] to the quick”, however, is an expression that occasionally gets used without any real understanding. The quick is the living flesh under one’s finger or toenails. When one trims his nails, he must be careful not to “cut to the quick”, lest he experience a sharp pain. If somebody else cuts one to the quick, the injury is multiplied because of the intimate nature of the injury. The person doing the cutting is no passing stranger and certainly not an avowed enemy; he is somebody who has been trusted to aid in one’s personal toilet. So when I read that words touched Billy’s heart to the quick, I pictured an anthropomorphic heart having his fingernails clipped. Surely that is not the image that Melville wanted to convey, but that is what his words seem to imply. How can a heart be touched to the quick? According to Orwell, such a mixing of metaphors is “a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.” If Melville did not stop to think what his words really conveyed, why should any reader care either?
Beer of the Week: Samuel Smith Pure Brewed Organic Lager Beer – This beer is a bit better and a bit maltier than an average mass-produced lager. However, it simply does not finish strong. There is neither enough malt or hops to really make this beer work. It doesn’t taste bad, but it really should have more flavor. I wanted to like this more.
Reading for the Week: Politics and the English Language by George Orwell – “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Politicians like when language deteriorates and gives way to meaningless platitudes and dead metaphors because it is much safer for them to say things without substance than to actually put forward a clear and concise thought.
Question for the week: While some of the phrases that Orwell objects to are still in common usage, such as Achilles’ heal, axe to grind, others have gone the way of Betamax, such as ring the changes on, jackboot, and take up the cudgel. What more recent phrases have become so overused that they are now devoid of meaning?
A friend of mine has a refrigerator full of imported beer, a loving wife and a good job. Naturally, one feels inclined to call him happy. For that matter, many would call him happy even if he didn’t have the wife and job. Some would go ever further and suggest that having a wife and job actually detract from the happiness. But does such a man deserve the title: happy?
Herodotus reports that Croesus, a king so rich that he has become a byword for wealth, asked the Athenian statesman Solon whom he considered to be the happiest of all men. And when Solon named virtuous (and deceased) private citizens above Croesus, Croesus did not was none too pleased. But Solon explained himself.
If a man lives 70 years, how absurd would it be to call a man happy based on his condition on any one of those 26,000 days? Sure, a man can be fortunate on any given day, or any given week, or any decade. But nobody can really judge a man’s life until he has lived it all. As Solon said, you may think that a man is happy, but “for to many God shows but a glimpse of happiness and then plucks them up by the roots and overturns them.”
Beer of the Week: Gambrinus Premium – If Croesus is the king of wealth, Gambrinus is the king of beer. It is not totally clear that he was a real person, but he is credited with inventing modern beer. He has lent his name to beers around the world, including one of the Czech Republic’s most popular beers. It pours a beautiful dark gold with a white, fluffy head. The smell is malty with a delicious sour hint. The flavor matches the smell, malty with very little hops present in the finish. Overall, a very enjoyable beer of which it would be way too easy to drink way too much.
Reading of the Week: Histories by Herodotus, Book I, Paragraphs 30 & 32 – Chapter 31, which I have omitted for the sake of keeping the reading under one beer in length is the tale of two brothers whose filial piety earned them “the highest honor to which morals can attain.” Namely, death.
Question of the Week: Since all we can see are the externals, how realistic is it for someone to ever judge the happiness of another?