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?
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?
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?
As of the writing of this blog post, there are some 70 draft (no pun intended) posts waiting to be finished. The methodology of the blog is to blame for this backlog. That, and the fact that I don’t read or write enough. Like the tripartite soul described by Plato in The Republic, this blog has three distinct and, occasionally, conflicting parts:
First is that which Plato calls the appetitive part, the desire for physical pleasure. In this blog, the appetitive part is the beer reviews. It is much easier and much more immediately satisfying to drink a beer than to read and digest any great literature or to write something even remotely thoughtful. The 70 unfinished drafts are almost all beer reviews, some of which are a couple of years old by now.
Second is that which Plato calls the thumos, the spirited part. Here, the thumos is in the body of the blog posts themselves. Mostly, I write because I am fired-up about something. For good or for ill, my writing is often driven by a passion rather than by reason.
Third is that which Plato calls the rational part, ideally the guiding principle of the soul. The readings make up this part of the blog. The established works of great minds that have come before me serve to guide my inquiries into the world around me. Choosing the readings and trying to really get something valuable out of them is, (or rather, ought to be,) the primary purpose of the blog.
Those blog posts are best in which these three parts are well ordered and complimentary. But it takes discipline and hard work to achieve such a balance. And usually I’d rather just sit around and drink.
Beer of the week: Genesee Beer – This is the third of three beers from Genesee that I have reviewed. Genesee beers cost about 50 cents a piece when purchased in a case of 30. For that price, Genny Cream is pretty good. Genesee Ice, however, is gross. Original Genesee Beer is the (un)happy medium. This is totally standard, boring, mass-produced adjunct lager. There is about no flavor or color or smell. It wouldn’t be difficult to drink a lot of these, but it wouldn’t be much fun either.
Reading of the week: The Republic by Plato – In this excerpt from Book IV, Socrates and Plato’s brother Gloucon determine that there must be more than one part to the soul since people sometimes want and do not want something at the same time. Because of the principle of non-contradiction, a unified soul could not be in conflict with itself.
Question of the week: Do you perceive in yourself discrete parts? Does the part of you that likes to drink come into conflict with your reason?
If there is one thing that people do constantly, it is search for meaning. I am not giving humanity more credit than it deserves when I say that. The fact that people look for meaning does not mean that they are engaged in deep philosophy. Very often, the search for meaning is badly misdirected. As discussed last week, people do not often consider the fact that when they ask why, they are asking an equivocal question that can be answered in a multitude of ways. And even when people are able to limit themselves to a fairly narrow question, they are often too ready confuse correlation and causation. Or they give the whole credit for something very complex to a single, superficial cause.
And where there is relatively little information, people will make up causes out of whole cloth. One such question that elicits a great deal of pure speculation and fancy is the question of why people die. In Poe’s poem Annabel Lee, the titular character dies of a chill. The narrator tells us that one of the efficient causes of Annabel’s death was a “wind [that] came out of the cloud by night.” Simple cause and effect. (I’ll leave aside the issue of germs for the time being.)
But a wind in the night is too senseless, too arbitrary. The narrator has to find another cause, so he attributes Annabel’s death to the envy of angels. “The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,” killed Annabel Lee for envy of the love between her and the narrator. What nonsense. And yet, what else could the narrator do? How could he stomach the idea that something so important to him was taken away by mere chance? There must be a greater meaning, “as all men know.”
Beer of the week: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – Sierra Nevada makes some darn good beer. Their flagship Pale Ale is a slightly sweet, well rounded ale. It has just a hint of apricot, and is pleasantly hoppy without being overly bitter. Excellent stuff.
Reading for the week: Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe – We may attribute the dubious angelology in this poem to poetic license. Whatever else might be said about Poe, Annabel Lee is a beautiful and powerful piece of work.
Question for the week: Does the search for meaning ever switch off entirely? Does a man ever see something and not, even subconsciously, attempt to understand its causes?
Descartes chose Latin as the language for his Meditations on First Philosophy, in which he famously strips philosophy bare and restarts with the single principle “I think, therefore I am.” He made that decision because he “thought it would not be expedient to illustrate [his philosophy] at greater length in French, and in a discourse that might be read by all, lest even the more feeble minds should believe that this path might be entered upon by them.” His fear, apparently, was that he may lead weaker men into error by giving them access to ideas they could not quite grasp and methods that they could not follow.
This is somewhat reminiscent of Romans 14. Paul makes it clear that there is no food that is “spiritually unclean”. But he also exhorts believers not to flaunt that knowledge in front of people who are weaker spiritually, lest they should misunderstand and stumble in their faith. Like Descartes, Paul seems to think that some people are more likely to be led into error than to a higher truth, so it is best to hide certain ideas from them. In a way, this seems terribly patronizing. If it is correct, however, it is extremely prescient and even charitable.
A more skeptical interpretation of Descartes’ decision not to make his work widely available might be to suggest that he was interested in protecting himself rather than protecting “feeble minds”. If his work were read in a certain way, he may have greatly offended the powers that be (either by upsetting individuals of status or by earning the disdain of the masses.) There are certainly times when it is dangerous to speak the truth, and the truth is often more dangerous to the speaker than to the people at large.
Luckily, I am not in the same position since I am sure that my readers are far from feeble-minded.
Beer of the Week: Staropramen – This Czech pilsner begins with spicy aromatic hops that are so typical of the style. There is a bit of bready malt in the flavor, but in general it is the hops that dominate. That is not to say that it is very bitter, it is actually very well rounded. Overall, this beer is very nice.
Reading of the week: Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes, Preface to the Reader – For as well known as the principle “I think, therefore I am” is, it is often forgotten that the next step of Descartes’ philosophy is to demonstrate that God also exists. Not, perhaps, the God that we are used to, but a “Deity… incomprehensible and infinite.”
Question of the week: Do you often refrain from saying what you really think? If so, do you do it for your own sake or for the sake of others?
I have become something of a linguistic anarchist. The way I see it, the English language does not have rules. Moreover, it does not need rules. As a matter of fact, the most popular “rule book” for English writing is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, the very title of which indicates that it is not a book of rules but a stylistic guide. One is not “wrong” if he does not follow Strunk and White, he is simply “unfashionable.”
That said, children ought to be taught “proper spelling” and “proper grammar.” Before one can be a free thinker and an innovator, one must have a firm grasp of what they are rebelling against. This opinion of mine extends to the fine arts as well. I have a deep-seated distrust of extremely novel painters and musicians who did not first demonstrate their ability to master more conventional forms. Dali and Picasso are both extremely interesting to me and they are made much more so by the fact that they established themselves as traditionally talented before their work became more heterodox. It shows that their art is not simple novelty, but innovation.
As it turns out, the same principles may apply to mathematics. Euclid’s geometry is every bit as artificial as any attempt to construct an “English grammar.” Whereas the concepts of number seem inherent (eg. the number 2 can correspond with two “real” objects,) The principles of Euclidean geometry do not correspond with anything other than definitions and axioms. As Einstein writes in his book Relativity, “The concept “true” does not tally with the assertions of pure geometry, because by the word “true” we are eventually in the habit of designating always the correspondence with a “real” object;” there are no tangible “straight lines” or “points” or “circles” as defined by Euclid.
And yet, it is essential that an education in geometry start with these “artificial” constructs in the same way that an education in English should start with grammar and spelling, or an education in music should start with scales. Eventually, the most gifted mathematical minds can move beyond Euclid, but it is impossible to make any serious headway as an innovator without knowing what one’s jumping off point is.
Beer of the Week: Viru – This beer comes in an octagonal pyramid bottle. Not a “true” octagonal pyramid, but pretty cool none the less. I have no reason to think that I had ever seen or touched anything from Estonia before purchasing this beer. In fact, the extent of my knowledge about Estonia consists of being able to identify the flag (it is black, blue and white) and the knowledge that they are often grouped with Latvia and Lithuania. Now I know one more thing: their beer is of a rather middling quality. It is very, very pale and exhibits no extraordinary features. It is nothing but a standard macro-brew in a very silly bottle. It is hard not to judge a country by the quality of their beer, but I’ll give Estonia a pass since they were under Soviet rule for so long… I think.
Reading for the Week: Relativity by Albert Einstein, Section 1 – The beginning of this book is a great teaser for what is to come. Einstein refers to Euclid as “the magnificent structure, on the lofty staircase of which you were chased about for uncounted hours by conscientious teachers.” And then he questions the “truth” of that edifice and indicates that by the time he is done, “we shall see that this “truth” is limited, and we shall consider the extent of its limitation.”
Question for the week: Do you believe that English has rules? Maybe Steven Fry can help free you from that: