Tint in Translation

This is the sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume VI: Poems and Songs, Burns

One obvious observation about the Harvard Classics is the very heavy Anglo-American bias. This is evident even from the very first volume: Franklin, Woolman, Penn. None of those authors are indispensable in a set that purports to be a collection of essential readings for a basic liberal education, but all are Anglo-American. Whether Dr. Eliot’s reliance upon American and British authors is reasonable, it is at very least explainable.

The Harvard Classics was published for an American public, with the intent to provide the framework of a liberal education. As such, at least twa considerations favor American and British works over others.

In the first place, it makes sense that an American liberal education should focus on American thought and literature. If a similar project were undertaken in France, it would be shocking if more French authors and works were not included. The same would be true of Russia, or China, or any other nation or region. British authors similarly feature heavily in the Harvard Classics because the history of American thought and literature is inextricably linked with that of England. (William Penn is an instructive inclusion on this point; he is American in the sense that he is the founder and namesake of Pennsylvania, but he was an English gentleman his entire life.)

In the second place, the inclusion of American and British works avoids the serious problem of translation. The books, intended for an English-speaking public, must needs be in English. To the extent that Dr. Eliot was able to select works already in his native tongue, he was able to avoid the serious, and occasionally impossible, task of finding a good translation.

This consideration brings us to this week’s volume: the poems and songs of Robert Burns. On the one hand, Burns is an important part of the Anglo-American literary tradition. On the other hand, his most famous works were written in Scots. (The debate over whether Lowland Scots is a distinct language or merely a dialect must be put off for another day. For now, it is enough to note that it is has limited mutual intelligibility with English.) Although much of Burns’ Scots writing is clear enough for the average American Reader, his vocabulary often requires notes or a dictionary. For example, in The Twa Dogs, (the title of which, itself, is in Scots but is readily comprehensible,) some lines are practically straight English:

“Love blinks, Wit slaps, an’ social Mirth
Forgets there’s Care upo’ the earth.”

Some lines, however, are all but unintelligible without aide:

“At kirk or market, mill or smiddie,
Nae tawted tyke, tho’ e’er sae duddie,
But he wad stan’t, as glad to see him,
An’ stroan’t on stanes an’ hillocks wi’ him.”

And Burns is but one example of this sort of problem. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English can be a real struggle to understand. Even American authors who write in dialect can be a tough read. Consider this quotation from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:

“Oh, it’s de dad-blame’ witches, sah, en I wisht I was dead, I do. Dey’s awluz at it, sah, en dey do mos’ kill me, dey sk’yers me so. Please to don’t tell nobody ’bout it sah, er ole Mars Silas he’ll scole me; ‘kase he say dey AIN’T no witches. I jis’ wish to goodness he was heah now– DEN what would he say! I jis’ bet he couldn’ fine no way to git aroun’ it DIS time. But it’s awluz jis’ so; people dat’s SOT, stays sot; dey won’t look into noth’n’en fine it out f’r deyselves, en when YOU fine it out en tell um ’bout it, dey doan’ b’lieve you.”

Difficult to understand, perhaps, but fun.


Beer of the week: Magic Hat #9 – This Vermont beer is a very solid choice. It is clear and amber. The aroma is of malt and some sour, dark fruit. Apricot is certainly the star of the flavor, backed by bready malt. Even so, the beer is not overly sweet, just darn good. And I really dig that the 12 oz. bottle is labeled as “3/4 pint”.

Reading of the week: The Twa Dogs by Robert Burns – This poem is a great piece of satire by Burns. The dogs, one a farmers collie and the other a lord’s Newfoundland(?), discourse about how different the lives of the rich are from those of the poor.

Question for the week: Is it better to have copious notes, explaining even obvious words or analogies, or to have too few notes, requiring lots of guesswork?

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There Oughtn’t to be a Law

If you’ve ever said to yourself, “there ought to be a law,” you should probably rethink that position.

In the first place, there probably is a law that governs whatever you are up in arms about. As I’ve noted before, there are literally so many federal criminal laws that nobody can even say for sure how many there are. And, because federal agencies have the authority to issue rules and regulations, there may be as many as 3,000 administrative regulations that carry criminal penalties. Then, of course, are the state laws. Traditionally, federal criminal law was limited to very particular sorts of crime inherently related to the federal government (counterfeiting, for example.) As a result, the vast majority of criminal laws were promulgated at the state level. The tremendous “federalization” of criminal law hardly did away with did any of the state laws (with rare exceptions of federal preemption), and so there are far more laws now than ever.

Secondly, and more importantly, even where there is not a statute that directly addresses a particular set of circumstances, existing common law still applies. Common law is court created law (or “court discovered law” if you are a serious believer in the natural law and the power of common law courts to divine the eternal precepts thereof.) Common law is developed over time by the courts relying and building upon past rulings. In the words of Montaigne, “in rolling on [laws] swell and grow greater and greater, as do our rivers.” So, for example, there may not be a statute that requires above-ground pool manufacturers to include warnings against diving, but case law almost certainly creates such a duty. Similarly, there may not be a statute or regulation preventing breakfast cereal manufacturers from putting a certain poison in their foods, but there doesn’t need to be; established negligence and products liability case law provides substantial protections for consumers.

And finally, law is quite often not the proper mechanism to achieve your (no doubt noble) aims. In the words of Jeremy Bentham, “Every act which promises to be pernicious upon the whole to the community (himself included) each individual ought to abstain from of him: but it is not every such act that the legislator ought to compel him to abstain from.” In part, law is not an adequate solution to many problems because it is always enforced by violence or the threat of violence, and that violence has its own costs.

Next time somebody says “there ought to be a law,” ask whether they are certain that there is not some statute, regulation, or common law that does not already cover the subject matter. And, regardless of whether such a law exists, ask whether there is not some better, non-legal remedy for the perceived problem.

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Beer of the week: 12th of Never Ale – The idiom “on the 12th of Never” is used to express improbability. And, improbable as it may have seemed years ago, Lagunitas has been started putting their beer into cans. This, the first aluminum encased offering from Lagunitas, is a cloudy, straw-colored pale ale. There is lots of pineapplely hops, and a nicely rounded flavor. An excellent beer, even if it does come from a can.

Reading of the week: An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation by Jeremy Bentham, Chapter XVII§1, VIII-XV – In this excerpt, Bentham opines that drunkenness and fornication are among the pernicious behaviors that laws are ill-suited to preventing. “With what chance of success, for example, would a legislator go about to extirpate drunkenness and fornication by dint of legal punishment? Not all the tortures which ingenuity could invent would compass it: and, before he had made any progress worth regarding, such a mass of evil would be produced by the punishment, as would exceed, a thousandfold, the utmost possible mischief of the offence.”

Question for the week: If you could repeal any law, what would it be?


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?


Cleanliness

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

CLEANLINESS: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation. 
– Franklin

By Moscow, I did not smell very good. That fact is not surprising. After all, I’d been without a shower since Vladivostok, some 5,752 miles away. Hell, I’d been without warm water all that time. But the fact is, the trans-Siberian railway is primarily for people traveling only a fraction of the line. Doing the long-haul is not for those who are overly scrupulous about cleanliness.

Even on less extreme journeys, travel is usually dirty. This is especially true when it is done right. I don’t mind the tiny handprints on my khakis from the macaques or the rust stains on my jeans from my ill-conceived trip across the Hangang. A certain amount of mess shows that one has been doing something interesting.

Perhaps the unavoidable (and enjoyable) filth of travel is the best argument for maintaining a clean house and observing excellent personal grooming when at home. The true interest of travel is the experience of the new and the different. So for the proverbial dusty trail to be enjoyed properly, it must be made to stand in contrast to the dust-free homestead.

Beer of the week: Zombie Dust – Would that the dust in my house were all Zombie Dust! It took a trip across state lines, a wedding, a slumber party, and a very gracious friend for me to get my hands on this coveted pale ale from 3 Floyds. (There are certainly cleaner and easier ways to get my hands on this beer, but that’d be way less fun.) Zombie Dust pours with a frothy head, and smells strongly of tropical fruit. Mango, pineapple, and citrus assault the nose. The beer is quite hoppy, tingling from the time it touches the tip of the tongue until the bitterness catches just a bit in the back of the throat. But as it warms, caramel notes start to emerge and the yeasty sediment makes itself known. Truly, this is an excellent beer.

Reading of the week: Fellow-Passengers by Robert Louis Stevenson – The Scottish author wrote of paddling across Belgium in a canoe, rambling through the French mountains with a donkey, crossing the oceans by steamer, and ultimately settling in Samoa. This chapter is from his book Across the Plains, in which he details his train travels from New York to California. According to Stevenson, the trains crossing this continent smelled “of pure menagerie, only a little sourer, as from men instead of monkeys.”

Question for the week: Franklin’s advice is to “tolerate no uncleanliness”, but such a stark prohibition seems at odds with the moderation advocated in the rest of his moral precepts. How can we reconcile these ideas, especially given the fact that an obsession with cleanliness is manifestly harmful?


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?


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.

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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?


Wisdom for sale!

In his biography of Charlemagne, Notker the Stammerer relates a story of two “Scotchmen [who] were unrivalled for their skill in sacred and secular learning.” These men would go into the market and call out, “Ho, everyone that desires wisdom, let him draw near and take it at our hands; for it is wisdom that we have for sale.” This claim drew in the crowds and, ultimately, the attention of the emperor.

The twist in the story, however, is that the Scotsmen really had no interest in marketing their learning to make a profit. They had simply come to realize that if they offered to teach for free, nobody would be interested. Because the price tag is the first signal that the market sees, things that are being given away for free or sold cheaply are assumed to have little worth. Likewise, some people put extremely high prices on their products (even if they intend ultimately to sell for a much lower price) in the hopes that the product will appear more desirable.

I was a tangential party to a real life example of how asking price affects perception. One of my side jobs in college was dealing cards for a promotional company that ran poker tournaments as fund-raisers. The tournaments were well organized and quite successful. However, the owner of the business quickly discovered that some prospective clients saw his very reasonable prices and decided that they wanted to go with a more up-scale competitor. His solution was to raise the prices without changing anything about the product. And it worked. New prospective clients assumed that the high price was a good indicator of the product’s high quality. Business actually increased after the price went up, precisely because the price went up. Like Notker’s Scotsmen, the owner of the promotional company learned that sometimes you have to ask for more than you need, just to get people’s attention.

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Beer of the week: Modelo Especial – The head on this beer faded so quickly that I couldn’t get a good photo of it before it was gone. Modelo Especial is a clear, gold brew. It has little aroma or flavor to speak of, really. It’d be easy enough to drink a bunch of this stuff at a party Cinco de Mayo fiesta, but otherwise, why bother? And don’t get me started on the price!

Reading of the week: The Life of Charlemagne by Notker the Stammerer, Book I, 1-4 – Charlemagne filled his court with educated men, such as the aforementioned Scotsmen, and had them educate the children of his kingdom. He found that the highborn children did not take to their lessons as well as the commoners. The lesson, again, seems to be that certain assumptions about value need to be carefully scrutinized.

Question of the week: How much does the asking price affect your perception of a product’s value?