Moral Perfection

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

In response to Socrates’s professed ignorance of virtue, Meno lists the different virtues of men and women, children and the elderly, freedmen and slaves. And Socrates, ever the jerk, replies, “I seem to be in a most lucky way, Meno; for in seeking one virtue I have discovered a whole swarm of virtues there in your keeping!”

The clear disconnect is that Socrates and Meno have different objectives. Socrates is interested in the metaphysical question of what virtue is. Meno is interested in the practical question of how virtue is obtained. Over two thousand years later, Ben Franklin takes Meno’s side.

In His Autobiography, Franklin describes how he “conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” And rather than start from a professed position of ignorance as Socrates does, he starts with a practical division of virtue into several virtues for each occasion. In the end, he settles on 13 moral virtues, acknowledging that various writers have combined or divided different virtues in a number of ways. For example, it could easily be argued that moderation could be an umbrella term that would include temperance, silence, and chastity as Franklin defines them. But this is a practical project, and Franklin finds it more advantageous to use “more names, with fewer ideas annex’d to each, than a few names with more ideas.”

And rather than attempt to simply adopt all of the virtues at once, an unreasonably difficult task, Franklin plans to work his way though them, one-by-one, dedicating a week to temperance, a week to silence, a week to order, etc. By the end of each week, he hopes to have habituated himself to practicing that week’s virtue, so that by the end of 13 weeks, he will have developed the habit of moral perfection.

It is a very ambitious program, but well worth the effort. Over the next 13 weeks, you are invited to join this blog in progressing through Franklin’s program, with readings and reflections on each of his moral virtues. By the end, we will probably not be able to say what virtue is, but we may well be able to say that we have gotten closer to moral perfection.

And, at the very least, we’ll have had some good beer and read some good books. Next week: 1. Temperance.


Beer of the week: Šenkovní 10 – This is a fairly standard Czech lager from Pivovar Jihlava (Hedgehog Brewery.) It is very pale and very carbonated. There is not a lot of aroma or flavor. There is a hint of honey to this beer and just enough hops in the finish to lift this brew to the level of “serviceable”. I would certainly drink it again. By the way, the “10” in the name of this beer is the specific gravity, measured in Plato units. Beers in most of central Europe have to have their specific gravity on the label. The specific gravity is the density of the wort (the mixture of water and barley malt that gets fermented into beer.) The higher the specific gravity, the more malt. More malt means more flavor and more alcohol.

Reading for the week: His Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin – As promised, excerpt is where Franklin describes his program of moral improvement. Although it was conceived as a 13 week regimen, Franklin periodically revisited this program over the years to stay on top of his moral game.

Question for the week: Must one be able to define morality in the abstract to make any concrete progress in moral improvement?


This is the fourth and final post in a series on skepticism (and Goose Island beers.) The earlier posts can be found here.

One of the hallmarks of Pyrrhonism is arguing equipollent claims. Pyrrhonic skeptics set up opposing philosophical accounts as proof that we are incapable of forming reasonable beliefs. They are always willing to take a contrary position, with the goal of showing that we cannot be firm in any opinion and should therefore suspend judgment. As Montaigne put it:

“If you propose that snow is black, they will argue on the other side that it is white. If you say it is neither one nor other, they will maintain it to be both. If by a certain judgement you say that you cannot tell, they will maintain that you can tell. Nay, if by an affirmative axiom you swear that you stand in some doubt, they will dispute that you doubt not of it, or that you cannot judge or maintain that you are in doubt. And by this extremity of doubt, which staggereth it self, they separate and divide themselves from many opinions, yea from those which divers ways have maintained both the doubt and the ignorance.”

Contrary accounts, with nothing to chose between them, leave us in a state of suspended belief, and therefore άταραξία.

But in The Apology of Raymond Sebond, Montaigne does not restrict himself to openly arguing both sides of any question. Even when he is not explicitly setting up equipollent claims, his overt claims are often undercut by the method of his argument.

At one point, Montaigne derides book learning and the search for knowledge. In part he relies on the quote from Ecclesiastes: “he that acquires knowledge acquires travail and torment.” In context, however, the overt argument against learning seems totally subverted by Montaigne’s delivery. The essay is (at least nominally) a defense of a book by a Catalan philosopher who claimed that man could learn all about God and religion by applying his reason to the world around him. A book that Montaigne had translated himself. And the essay is brimming with quotations from scripture and antiquity. Quotations which Montaigne had, no doubt, learned over a lifetime of diligent study. (And, in many cases, had inscribed on the ceiling of his impressive library.) So on the one hand, he argues that education is actually detrimental, and on the other hand, he relies very heavily on his excellent education to support that claim.

Likewise, Montaigne’s argument against the power of human reason has a strong undercurrent that subverts his overt claim. He sets out to show that man is no more intelligent than any other animal. And, because our faculties are not greater than that of the animals, we have no right to rely upon them. Humans, in short, are simply not that smart. But the next twenty pages are dedicated to showing how very intelligent animals are. (And for Montaigne, twenty pages is a decent chunk of writing; many of his essays are only a couple pages long.) So although his overall point appears to be that human reason is not reliable because it is no greater than that of the animals, the vast majority of his argument is spent on raising our opinion of the intelligence of animals. Again, there is a contradiction that may justify withholding our opinion.

It seems significant that Montaigne is constantly and consciously undercutting his own arguments. I think that it shows that even when he appears to be taking a position, he recognizes that there is always another argument or explanation. And because there is no reason to pick one explanation over the other, the better course is to withhold judgment altogether.

But, to quote Montaigne, “what do I know?”

Beer of the week: Four Star Pils – The name of this beer is a reference to the flag of Chicago, the birthplace of Goose Island Beer Co. Four Star is a pretty golden pilsner with a nice, foamy head. It is a bit if a departure from traditional pilsners, in that the hops are less aromatic and have a little more bite in the back of the throat. It tastes more like the hops of an American IPA (in variety, not quantity) than a Czech pilsner. But it is by no means too strongly hopped, with plenty of malt to balance the flavor. Quite an enjoyable beer.

Reading of the week: The Apology of Raymond Sebond by Michel de Montaigne – It seems that the only copyright free English version is over 400 years old. But it will do for our purposes. This reading describes why the skeptics “desire to be contradicted, thereby to engender doubt and suspence of judgement.” Montaigne maintains that the skeptics oppose dogma by being willing to argue the opposite of any position. But this section has curious subversive tones similar to the ones discussed above. The excerpt is about how the skeptics contend against dogma, which is often simply a product of upbringing and culture. The final lines, though, include an exhortation to “addresse and commit our selves to God.” That exhortation certainly seems to imply some dogmatic belief.

Question for the week: Is it true that everything admits of more than one plausible argument? Is there nothing that we can be sure of?

The Road to Ataraxia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goose IPA


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

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

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

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?

You can never drink the same beer twice.

There is an undeniable appeal to the statement by Heraclitus that “you cannot step twice into the same stream.” Impermanence is perceived everywhere we look. People who spend any time along the banks of a river or the seashore know that change is constant. Waters rise and recede; sandbars form and wash away. And this is true about everything else around us. We are always in the midst of growth and decay. We see organic growth and decay in plants and animals, but we also see mechanical growth and decay in buildings, cities, and technology. And, although we are incapable of perceiving it at any instant (because it is constant rather than instantaneous,) we recognize change in ourselves and our loved ones.

But the mere observation that change is constant does not do justice to Heraclitus. What makes the stream metaphor really interesting is the fact that it is paradoxical. Yes, the stream is different from one moment to the next, but we still recognize it as the same stream. How can we know that the river is always changing, but at the same time recognize that it is the same river?

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness begins with a reflection on the history of the River Thames. The characters observe that it is the same river that Roman soldiers navigated as they pushed the dark and dangerous boundaries of the Roman Empire. Likewise, it was the same Thames down which Francis Drake and other “knights–errant of the sea” sailed as they carried the torch of the English Empire to dark new lands. But while holding on to this recognition of consistency, they also acknowledge that the river’s “tidal current runs to and fro” unceasingly and that that the shoreline and the people have all changed.

Although the bulk of the main story takes place in Africa, Heart of Darkness begins on a pleasure yacht in London, as a conversation among ex-seamen. To sailors, we are told, “One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same.” But even us landsmen know that there are high seas and calm seas, and that the conditions at sea are actually very changeable. Again, it appears that Conrad is hinting at the paradox that Heraclitus was interested in: in spite of all its vicissitudes, there is something constant about the sea. And, for that matter, the entire world.


Beer of the week: Negra Modelo – A Heart of Darkness reading deserves either a dark beer or a tropical beer. Negra Modelo is something of a compromise in both respects. Although “negra” means “black”, this beer is actually more of an amber color. And although Groupo Modelo is based in Mexico City, (and therefore technically tropical,) this bottle was probably brewed north of the tropics in Piedras Negras. (This is due to a complicated anti-trust settlement that I do not fully understand.) As to the beer itself, it is a bit thinner and less flavorful than might be hoped. There are some good dark-roasted malt notes throughout, but this beer is mostly uninspiring.

Reading of the week: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – This novella is an excellent read, and raises a lot of interesting questions about empire, individuals, and the nature of human society. Conrad apparently based some of the book on his own experiences as captain of a steamboat on the Congo River.

Question of the week: Rivers, like all things, change with time. But civil engineers literally reversed the course of the Chicago River. We may say that the River Thames of today is same river as when the Romans first explored it, but is the Chicago River of today the same river as before it was reversed?

Measure Of All Things

Last week’s question included an uncited quotation from H. L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy. Mencken mocked “Rousseau’s noble savage, in smock and jerkin, brought out of the tropical wilds to shame the lords and masters of the civilized lands.” How silly it seems to attribute such modern notions to man in a “state of nature.” (To be fair to Rousseau, he did not describe his “noble savage” as wearing anachronistic clothing, but his behavior and very nature were anachronistic.)

It is not likely to be a coincidence that Mencken’s delightfully caustic writing on the subject mirrors some ideas expressed in harsher terms by Friedrich Nietzsche. Mencken was a great admirer and translator of the mustachioed Saxon.

Nietzsche identified the traditional error of philosophers as the tendency to base a complete philosophical system on contemporary man. The problem is that contemporary man is a very small sample of all humanity. Since Rousseau had no way of knowing what primitive man was like, he simply attributed to primitive man the qualities of contemporary man. But man has been evolving for far longer than the few thousands of years of which we have written accounts. And, perhaps more importantly, man continues to evolve, even as we observe him. So what can we learn about constant, universal truths by first misattributing consistency to ever-evolving man?

Protagoras announced that “man is the measure of all things”, but what good is a measurement if the scale keeps changing?

Beer of the week: Ciuc Pils – This Romanian pilsner is very pale and very bubbly. The aroma is of sweet, cheap grain. There is not a whole lot to be said for the flavor. It is inoffensive, but not particularly good. It is always fun to try a beer from different countries, but there is probably a reason why Romanian beer is not more popular.

Reading for the week: Human, All Too Human, The Traditional Error of Philosophers by Friedrich Nietzsche – This paragraph, describing how philosophers err in assuming that there is something eternal about man, is part of the foundation of a book in which (to quote Mencken yet again) Nietzsche “showed that moral ideas were not divine, but human, and that, like all things human, they were subject to change.”

Question for the week: Does Nietzsche go too far? Is there nothing about humanity that is fixed and eternal?

Spencer Clark, you jerk!

While in the post office recently, I was struck by a poster advertising a postage stamp that I had not seen before, although it has been in use for quite a while. The stamp in question features a film frame of fictional character Harry Potter. Or is it of actor Daniel Radcliffe?

Aware that living persons are not allowed to be on American money or stamps, I immediately questioned whether such a stamp is permissible. I did a little research into the legal history of the ban on living persons on stamps. A very informative article from Numismatic News filled me in on the law and its background. In brief, living people were featured on American and Confederate money throughout the Civil War and in the years thereafter. But in 1866, the Department of the Treasury ordered a run of 5¢ notes (roughly the equivalent of a $0.75 bill in 2015) with an engraving of “Clark”, presumably meaning William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. Spencer Clark, the bureaucrat in charge of the printing office, intentionally misinterpreted the order and had his own portrait featured on the bills.

Congressman Russell Thayer was vehemently opposed.  Rallying the House of Representatives to ban the inclusion of living persons on American currency, Thayler declared, “I hold in my hand a 5-cent note of this fractional currency of the United States. If you ask me, whose image and superscription is this? I am obliged to answer, not that of George Washington, which used to adorn it, but the likeness of the person who superintends the printing of these notes… I would like any man to tell me why his face should be on the money of the United States…and I trust the House will support me in the cry which I raise of Off With Their Heads!”

Representative James Brooks supported the ban, echoing Solon’s advice to Croesus: “No man should be immortalized upon the public money of the country until the verdict of posterity has been pronounced upon his name, and it can go down upon that record sanctioned by the voices of men of all parties, of all politics, and all religions.” After all, a living person may yet do something horrific, rendering bills or stamps with his likeness a shameful collectible.

Thayler and Brooks won the day, despite opposition from Senator Fessenden (who was himself featured on the 50¢ note.) Now, by law, “no portrait or likeness of any living person shall be engraved or placed upon any of the bonds, securities, notes, or postal currency of the United States.”

So what do we make of the Harry Potter stamps? Fictional characters are certainly not banned by the law; Lady Liberty still appears on the obverse of the presidential dollar coin and postage stamps have included fictional characters from Batman to Tom Sawyer. Additionally, unidentified models are apparently acceptable when not being portrayed as themselves; since there are no known portraits of Sacajawea, a model was chosen for the design of her dollar coin. The US postal service has also previously allowed fictional characters portrayed by living actors; Star Wars stamps included several human characters. The difference between the Star Wars and Harry Potter stamps, however, is that the stamps were not film frames of the actors, but drawings. This distinction may seem minor, but it shows a conscious effort in the Star Wars stamps to ensure that it is the characters being portrayed, not the actors. The Harry Potter stamps are not idealized versions of the characters, but actual movie stills of the actors while portraying the characters.

For whatever it is worth, the Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee was unanimously opposed to the Harry Potter stamps. But I suspect that their beef with the stamps had more to do with the blatant commercialization and British actors.


Beer of the week: Snapshot Wheat Beer – From film frames to Snapshots. A cloudy yellow beer with a bright white head, this offering from New Belgium is pretty tasty. The wheat dominates the aroma. The taste, however, includes notes of sour fruit that linger afterward. Overall, this is a good thirst-quenching drink. It isn’t exceptional, but it is plenty good.

Reading for the week: Metaphysics by Aristotle, Book IV – The Harry Potter stamp may be said to both be and not be of Daniel Radcliffe. Although this seems to be a violation of the principle of noncontradiction, Aristotle makes it clear that when things appear to both be and not be, it is because they are not being viewed in the same respect at the same time. The stamp is of Daniel Radcliffe in the sense that he is the actor portraying the character Harry Potter. The stamp is not of Daniel Radcliffe in the sense that the subject matter of the stamp is the character, not the actor himself.

Question for the week: Should stamps and money depict living people?