Rebel, Rebel

This is the thirty-fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXV: Chronicle and Romance, Froissart, Malory, Holinshead

Rebellions only occur under a particular set of conditions. The first prerequisite is that there must be some sort of oppression (at least perceived oppression) against which to rebel. In the case of the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, the commoners rebelled against the oppressive social order known as serfdom. Under serfdom, the nobility could force the common folk to work the nobles’ lands without pay. Naturally, this was resented by the commons.

As John Ball, one of the leaders of the rebellion expressed their cause:

“When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.”

Curiously, however, oppression is only one of the necessary conditions for revolt. Another condition is freedom. That is, some amount of freedom. As the chronicler Jean Froissart put it, the Peasants’ Revolt happened “because of the ease and riches that the common people were of.” It seems likely, or at least possible, that the peasants would not have revolted if they were slaves rather than serfs. It is one thing to be explicitly enslaved, it is quite another thing to be nominally free and still be forced to work like a slave.

To rebel, one must be oppressed enough to resent the yoke, but free enough to cast it off. One who is kept in abject constraint is no more likely to revolt than one who is totally at liberty; rebellion happens somewhere in the middle. The ruling class must always be aware of that balance. They must strive to keep the people so free that they are content or else so restrained that they are dispirited.


Beer of the week: Fist City – A beer from Revolution Brewing makes for a thoroughly apt pairing with this week’s reading. Fist City is a liquid homage to the City of Broad Shoulders. It is styled as a “Chicago Pale Ale,” and it pours clear and golden, with plenty of big-bubbled foam. The flavor and aroma seem to have hints of rosemary in a grove of pine, and the whole thing is rounded off nicely with wheat malt.

Reading of the week: Wat Tyler’s Rebellion by Jean Froissart – This excerpt from Froissarts Chronicles describes the beginnings of the Peasants’ Revolt in in 1381. Froissart attributes the rebellion primarily to the teachings of John Ball and discontent about social inequality. As a man thoroughly attached to the ruling class, Froissart shows little sympathy for the oppressed masses.

Question for the week: Is it possible for a society to slowly drift from relatively high freedom to abject oppression? Or must there be a tipping point somewhere along the way that requires either a rebellion or a sudden and violent descent to authoritarianism?


A Drink With A Shade

This is the twenty-seventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXII: English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay

This blog is more than seven years old, yet somehow, the ultimate “question for the week” has not been asked: if you could have a beer with any author, who would you chose? And, to take it to another level, what beer would you order for the two of you? A few answers suggest themselves to me.

Helen Keller – Keller wrote in her autobiography, “I remember the morning that I first asked the meaning of the word, ‘love.'” Because she only began to learn language at the age of 7, she had distinct memories of her first words and her first exploration of language as a method for abstract thought. It would be amazing to converse with her about the nature of language and how it shapes thought. Because she is from Alabama, I would pick a light and refreshing kölsch. Unfortunately, I’d be worried about our ability to actually communicate. Although she learned to speak, she never could speak clearly enough to be understood by most people. And as for her understanding me, she’d need a translator or to feel my mouth move as I talk. Either way, it seems like a bit much to manage while having a drink. (Also, check out this video of her talking; it’s pretty wild.)

H. L. Mencken – I would love to hear Mencken apply his caustic wit to all of our modern inanities. With our current political and social climate, he would have a near limitless supply of zingers. Moreover, his humor may be a guide to truths that I might otherwise have missed. “The final test of truth is ridicule,” he wrote. “Very few dogmas have ever faced it and survived. Huxley laughed the devils out of the Gadarene swine. Not the laws of the United States but the mother-in-law joke brought the Mormons to surrender. Not the horror of it but the absurdity of it killed the doctrine of infant damnation. But the razor edge of ridicule is turned by the tough hide of truth. How loudly the barber-surgeons laughed at Huxley—and how vainly! What clown ever brought down the house like Galileo? Or Columbus? Or Darwin?” Because Mencken was such Teutonophile, I would order a German-style dark lager. It is possible, of course, that he would be too caustic (or just too big a fan of Nietzche) to be good company.

Benvenuto Cellini – Cellini is definitely my wildcard pick. On the one hand, if his Autobiography is half true, I’d be in for a night to remember. On the other hand, if his Autobiography is half true, I’d stand more than a passing chance of getting stabbed by the end of the night. For Cellini, nothing but the strongest malt liquor would do. He’d tell great stories over a beer, but it is probably not worth the risk.

Francis Bacon – So many of the names that jump to mind in response to this question are people of whom I’d have a hundred questions. But I would want to drink with Bacon to hear what questions he has for me. Bacon revolutionized the way we think about inquiry in science and philosophy. I think I could learn a tremendous amount just hearing what he is curious about. (Also, I would try to suss out whether he was the real Shakespeare.) Because of Bacon’s interest in technology, I’d order something new and experimental. Perhaps a beer brewed with oysters or a beer “hopped” with cannabis.

Beer of the week: Brooklyn Naranjito – Like several beers from Brooklyn Brewery, Naranjito is only getting limited releases around the world. This is a very pale and slightly hazy beer with a nice head of small white bubbles. The aroma of citrusy hops and orange zest is backed by that same citrus bitterness in the flavor. By the end of the sip, the bitterness is balanced by the malt, so the bitterness doesn’t hang in the throat as much as with some other beers. Because it is brewed with orange peel rather than orange juice or flesh, Naranjito’s orange notes are not especially fruity or sweet. Overall, a very nice beer.

Reading of the week: Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen by William Hazlitt – Although this essay is somewhat longer than the usual weekly reading, it is certainly worth the time. Hazlitt’s good friend (and fellow literary luminary) Charles Lamb scoffed at Isaac Newton, John Locke, William Shakespeare and John Milton as possible answers to this week’s question. Newton and Locke, he opined, were not personally interesting beyond their written works. And he’d gotten enough of an impression of Milton and Shakespeare from their portraits. The other suggestions in the essay range from Voltaire to Genghis Khan.

Question for the week: Who would you share a beer with if you could pick anybody? Tell us in the comments below.

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?

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.


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.


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?


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?


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?