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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 How can society as a whole be better off when the upstanding knights-errant have been replaced by people soft, indulgent, and deceitful?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?

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Health Food

A concept that is very hard for some people to grasp is the idea that the value of money is governed by the same laws of supply and demand as everything else. One might assume that the demand for money is unlimited, and therefore pushes supply/demand analysis to its breaking point. But this is not so. If the demand were truly unlimited, no one would part with a dollar for any amount of goods or services. The reason that one is willing to spend money at all is that the purchaser’s demand for money is lower (at that time, and in that quantity) than his demand for the particular good or service bought. The “price” of a dollar is it’s purchasing power. And like the price of everything else, it is determined by supply and demand. Where money is scarce, each dollar is more dear. Where the supply of money is inflated, each dollar buys less.

Like money, it seems that intangible concepts such as health, time, and happiness are not subject to unlimited demand. If demand for health were truly unlimited, the demand for candy, cigarettes, and automobiles would plummet. Every potentially hazardous occupation or pastime would find absolutely no willing participants. But people “purchase” health with hours in the gym, the consumption of salubrious foods, abstention from tobacco, alcohol, sugar, gluten, red meat, carbohydrates, sunshine, and whatever else is both pleasant and currently perceived as deleterious. But most people are unwilling to spend all of their time and effort on attempts to improve or preserve their health. And with good reason. As with money, the effort to acquire the absolute maximum levels of health is a hefty amount to pay. Every hour at the gym is an hour not spent elsewhere. Every salad eaten is a pie eschewed. Every kale smoothie is a beer left behind.

To be sure, time at the gym can be enjoyable. Salads can be delicious. Smoothies are often tasty. But as Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock observed, “as long as you have the price of a hack and can hire other people to play baseball for you and run races and do gymnastics when you sit in the shade and smoke and watch them — great heavens, what more do you want?”

Beer of the week: Labatt Blue – This straw colored Canadian Pilsner is fairly bland. It pours with big, fluffy bubbles that fade very quickly. The smell is faint and what aroma is there is of cereal grains. The mouthfeel is quite light, as is the flavor. For a mass produced lager, Labatt Blue is very average.

Reading for the week: How to Live to be 200 by Stephen Leacock – A Canadian author for a Canadian beer. At one point, Leacock was one of the most popular English-language humorists in the world, but his training was in political science and economy. He studied at the University of Chicago under Thorstein Veblen.

Question for the week: It makes evolutionary sense that things that are healthful are also enjoyable, so is there anything that is truly salubrious that is also throughly unpleasant?


What was I thinking?

“What was I thinking?”

That rhetorical question is often used to express dismay at a lack of foresight e.g. “A while back, I passed on a chance to buy a Bitcoin at $400; what was I thinking?” Sometimes it goes to absentmindedness e.g. “I peeled a banana and accidentally threw away the banana and went to take a bite of the peel; what was I thinking?” But in both of these cases, the question is purely rhetorical because it is pretty easy to determine the thought process involved. In the Bitcoin example, the person presumably thought about the risks and advantages of buying a Bitcoin and determined that the potential upside was not worth the $400 risk. In the banana example, the person was clearly thinking about something totally unrelated to the task at hand, and mere distraction caused the errant movements.

There are times, however, when the question “what was I thinking?” is more than rhetorical, times when one honestly does not understand his own motivations. Every once in a while, we each do something that we are later unable to explain. It is occasionally impossible to determine what thought process or motivations led to the decisions made.

There appear to be multiple potential causes for such internal confusion. For one thing, not understanding one’s own motivation may be a simple failure to carefully self-evaluate. For another, there may be pre-rational motivations that get overlooked in the search for a rational explanation, such as instinct or something like it. But most likely, it seems, is the likelihood that the decision in question is the product of a great many thoughts and motivations, possibly even at odds with each other. The complicated interplay between our various desires, instincts, goals, etc. may simply be so convoluted that we are unable to untangle (or even recognize) them all.

In The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela, the motivations of the belligerents during the Mexican Revolution are explored.  A rebel leader called Demetrio tells about the time that he got drunk and spit in the face of a local political boss, Señor Monico. As a result, Monico brought “the whole God-damned Federal Government” down on Demetrio, who narrowly escaped into the hills. Demetrio asserts that all he wants is “to be let alone so [he] can go home.”

His interlocutor, however, sees more in Demetrio’s motivations than Demetrio sees himself:

“It is not true that you took up arms simply because of Señor Monico. You are under arms to protest against the evils of all the caciques who are overrunning the whole nation. We are the elements of a social movement which will not rest until it has enlarged the destinies of our motherland. We are the tools Destiny makes use of to reclaim the sacred rights of the people. We are not fighting to dethrone a miserable murderer, we are fighting against tyranny itself. What moves us is what men call ideals; our action is what men call fighting for a principle. A principle! That’s why Villa and Natera and Carranza are fighting; that’s why we, every man of us, are fighting.”

This speech certainly works on Demetrio’s men, who emphatically embrace this noble characterization of their motivations despite the manifestly ignoble acts of plunder, rape, and murder in which they engage. But Demetrio’s reaction to this impassioned speech is more subdued; he orders more beer.

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Beer of the week: Corona Light – A Mexican reading deserves a Mexican beer. Corona Light is clear and pale and foamy. The aroma and flavor are pretty standard macro. There is a hint of lime in the aroma, and just a trace of nuttiness in the finish. A pinch of salt brings out the lime in the flavor, which is a big improvement. Still, Corona Light; what was I thinking?

Reading of the week: The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela – The title The Underdogs (Los de Abajo in the original Spanish) refers not to the rebels, but to the common folk of Mexico. Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that the people are always oppressed, no matter which faction has the ascendency.

Question of the week: Is it really the case that some motivations cannot be discovered through self-examination? Or is it possible that we are just too afraid to look deep enough?


List Your Blessings

A popular Thanksgiving tradition is to go around the table, listing the things for which those present are thankful. It can be a very powerful exercise to actually compose such a list. Lists create a sense of scale and the cumulative effect of each item listed tends to compound the others.

Take, for example, the catalog of ships in The Iliad. Several pages of that text are dedicated to listing all of the ships, along with the numbers of their fighting men, that came to the Trojan shores. The seemingly ceaseless recital of the Greeks emphasizes the scale of the conflict. During the battles, the narrative follows individuals as they engage in one-on-one combat. And this is why the catalogue of ships is so important. Without that list to establish the scale of the armies, one could be mislead into thinking of the war as a series of encounters between a handful of individuals rather than between mighty hosts. The knowledge that the Greek and Trojan armies are quite large gives a sense of scale to the dramatic face-offs between the individual heroes.

So this Thanksgiving, give some thought to the vast number of the world’s blessings and how that great list gives context to each individual blessing.

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Beer of the week: Saranac Pale Ale – Saranac, New York is about 300 miles from the site of the fabled first Thanksgiving. In American terms, that’s rather close enough to count as local. This beer has a solid malt body with just a bit of hops bitterness to back it up. Saranac Pale Ale makes for a really good beer for a casual drink.

Reading for the week: The Fourth Book by François Rabelais, Chapter 4.LIX – Some would argue that there is virtually no way to stay awake through the entire catalogue of ships, especially in the drowsy afterglow a large meal. This list is probably more appropriate for Thanksgiving. Rabelais was a master of writing lists, and this particular excerpt is the menu of the Gastrolaters, a people whose god is the stomach and whose religion is eating.

Question for the holiday: In certain cases, shorter lists arguably indicate greater importance. A short list of experts in a field may indicate a higher level of expertise. A short list of friends may indicate more intense or close friendship than a longer list. Are there certain sorts of blessings for which this is also true?


Resolution

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

RESOLUTION:  Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
– Franklin

Every decision forecloses other decisions. In a way, even the smallest of choices eliminates an infinite series of possible other choices. Every beer consumed is thousands and millions not consumed. (A serious problem when bars have extensive tap lists.)

To be sure, some decisions actually increase our future options. Education, for example, can pave the way to choices that would not have even been available if not for the decision to pursue education in the first place. But even decisions that open up new possibilities are made to the exclusion of others. Going to law school probably means not going to medical school.

So what do we do when faced with this reality? The main character in Kate Chopin’s Regret was forced to face the fact that her other life choices had foreclosed the possibility of having children. And what did she do? “She let her head fall down upon her bended arm, and began to cry. . . . Not softly, as women often do. She cried like a man, with sobs that seemed to tear her very soul.” Others hardly get this far. Long before they have even made a decision, they feel paralyzed. They are unwilling to make any choice for fear of missing out on something better.

The key to overcoming this paralyzing effect is resolution. On must to accept the reality that our current decisions shape our future choices and boldly resolve to make choices that will give us the best chance for success in the future. Once a course of action is taken, it should be pursued with vigor. Half-measures and indifferent efforts mean that the choices made are likely to be ineffectual, but do nothing to prevent other choices from being foreclosed. Rather than being caught in the middle for lack of resolve, one must charge ahead with no more than a passing wonder about what might have been.

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Beer of the week: Space Station Middle Finger – This cloudy, orangish beer comes from Three Floyds Brewing. The aroma is initially dominated by pineapple, but eventually yeasty undertones come through. It is a smooth and delicious brew, and one that I don’t regret drinking in the least. (Except for the fact that now it is gone, so I can’t drink it later. Luckily, they are sold by the six-pack.)

Reading for the week: Regret by Kate Chopin – The title of this story is a serious spoiler. A childless, middle-aged woman has to babysit for the neighbors. At any rate, it’s beautifully written and very compelling.

Question for the week: What decision did you make today that will (especially) shape your tomorrow?


Silence

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

SILENCE: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
– Franklin

Julian I was bent on restoring the Roman Empire to it’s past glory. He was known later as Julian the Apostate, because he worshiped the old gods of Rome rather than the Christian God adopted by his grandfather Constantine. He was also a notable man of letters.

Among his extant writings is a satire entitled The Caesars. In it, a feast is held by the gods and all of the Roman emperors are invited. (Not all, however make it into the party. Some of the cruel or incompetent Caesars are turned away at the door, or even condemned to Tartarus.) Once the party is assembled, the gods have a contest to decide which emperor is the greatest.

Julius, Augustus, Trajan, Constantine, and Alexander the Great (invited especially by Hercules) all recount their military exploits, and argue about why their victories were more impressive than those of the others. Marcus Aurelius, however, “turned to Zeus and the other gods and said, ‘It seems to me, O Zeus and ye other gods, that I have no need to make a speech or compete. If you did not know all that concerns me it would indeed be fitting for me to inform you. But since you know it and nothing at all is hidden from you, do you of your own accord assign me such honour as I deserve.’ Thus Marcus showed that admirable as he was in other respects he was wise also beyond the rest, because he knew ‘When it is time to speak and when to be silent.'”

‘nough said.

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Beer of the week: Lomska Dark Lager – The lands that are now Bulgaria, of course, would have been ruled by Alexander the Great and later by the Romans. This Bulgarian lager is not especially good. It foams like a soda pop when poured, with big sticky bubbles. However, the head had faded entirely before I could snap a photo. By the first sip, the brew was all but flat. The aroma has some of the burnt, savory smell of grilled mushrooms. The flavor is a bit on the sweet side, with very little bitterness to help balance it out. Overall, I am not impressed.

Reading for the week: The Caesars by Julian I – The contest continues on for some time after this excerpt. Unsurprisingly, Marcus wins the day and Constantine gets punished for following Jesus rather than the gods of Rome.

Question for the week: Why is it so hard to hold one’s tongue on Facebook (and other online fora)?


So Much Duckweed

According to legend, the Chinese sage Liu Ling was at all times followed by a servant carrying a wine bottle and a shovel. The purpose of the wine is obvious; Liu Ling liked to drink. The shovel’s purpose was somewhat darker. Liu Ling thought of the whole world as his home. “The sun and moon [were] the windows of his house; the cardinal points [were] the boundaries of his domain.” Because he felt equally at home wherever he ranged, he had no sentimental desire for his mortal remains to be laid to rest in any particular place; no “bury me on the old farmstead” for him. More important than his detachment from any specific place, it seems that Lui Ling had no particular sentimental attachment to his own body. Consequently, he did not care where it was buried. And so Lui Ling’s servant carried a shovel, ready to inter his master’s corpse wherever he should happen to drop dead.

Many centuries later, Lui Ling’s thoughts on mortality (and on alcohol consumption) inspired Jack London. In his autobiographical novel John Barleycorn, London reminisces about “Liu Ling, a hard drinker, one of the group of bibulous poets who called themselves the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and who lived in China many an ancient century ago.” In particular, London seems to agree with Lui Ling’s statement “that to a drunken man the affairs of this world appear but as so much duckweed on a river.”

But why the do affairs of the world appear as duckweed? When alcohol reduces the drunken man’s problems to mere trivialities, is it because the alcohol blinds him to the true extent of his troubles? Or does it make him neglectful of things that actually matter? It seems more probable that the drunk man is actually seeing more clearly than before. The alcohol helps him to understand the transience and insignificance of human concerns, a realization that is perhaps difficult for a sober mind to bear. Like Liu Ling himself, the drunken man sees the whole world as his home and all eternity as but an instant.

Pearl River Beer
Beer of the week: Pearl River Beer – This Chinese brew pours clear and golden with little carbonation. The aroma is mostly of grass and rice. The flavor is rather plain with some lingering sweetness. It isn’t a particularly bad beer, especially considering its nation of origin. On the other hand, if it has to travel halfway around the world, it had better be pretty good.

Reading of the week: The Genius of Wine by Liu Ling – The translator tells us that the “old gentleman” of this story is Liu Ling himself. This very short passage gives a couple hints of Liu Ling’s philosophy, and relates how he withstood the intervention of “two respectable philanthropists” who tried to get him to quit drinking by berating and lecturing him.

Question for the week: Why are so many people so adamant about what should become of their mortal remains?