Read Widely

Eva Brann, for those who are not familiar, is the former dean and currently a tutor at St. John’s College. I recently read a speech given by Ms. Brann about the “great books” education. In it, she reminds her audience that reading nothing but the classics is untenable and undesirable:

I am not, incidentally, for a reading regimen of exclusive greatness. It is too rich, like a diet of “white soup,” the cholesterol-laden concoction served in Jane Austen’s well-off houses at dinner parties. I am for reading a lot of stuff: adventure, mystery, travel, cookbooks, westerns (my favorites), historical fiction, fantasy, space and science-fiction—from fine to terrible. They are all supplements to life, experiences I could not possibly live through but would dearly like to have—vicariously.

One might even make the argument that reading Twitter feeds has some value. Say what you will about social media, but you have to admit that people staring at their phones are at least reading. (Well, some of the time, anyway.)

Ms. Brann is not the first person to advocate reading widely in addition to reading the classics. It is no surprise, of course, that the very notion is practically one of the tenets of classical liberal education.

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel in verse, Aurora Leigh, the titular narrator describes her formal education under her aunt. It is a stifling mixture of pious theology, German, classical French “(Kept pure of Balzac and neologism)”, music, domestic arts, and “a dozen books on womanhood.” The “liberal education” of a lady is circumscribed to a few particular fields that would prepare her for a life of agreeing pleasantly with her husband when his conversation is not completely over her head.

On her own, however, Aurora engages in a private and personally guided course of study. She starts with the Greek of Theophrastus and the Latin of Aelian, but she eventually devours all manner of books. Bad books, good books, “some bad and good at once.” She reads moral books, genial books, merry books, melancholy books. She, like Ms. Brann, has a firm grounding in the classics, but is eager and able to see the value in all manner of writings.

Beer of the week: Semedorato Premium- In honor of the half-Italian protagonist of Aurora Leigh, this week’s beer is the 100% Italian Semedorato Premium. Semedorato is also brewed with 100% malt, rather than with adjunct grains. This lager is pretty much what I expect out of a Mediterranean beer. It is crystal clear and quite pale. The aroma is faint and slightly sweet. The flavor is understated, but pleasant. It is a very drinkable, if unremarkable beer.

Reading of the week: Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – This excerpt is from Book One of the nine-book poem. The orphaned title character has come to live in England with her aunt. Very much in spite of the aunt’s attempts to raise Aurora to be a proper lady, Aurora becomes obsessed with literature and decides that she wants to be an author.

Question for the week: Ms. Brann’s favorite “non-classics” are westerns. What is your favorite “non-classic” genre?

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I Don’t Know

When Fanny Price’s cousins in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park learned just how deficient her education had been, they were most unkind.

“Dear mama, only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together—or my cousin cannot tell the principal rivers in Russia—or, she never heard of Asia Minor—or she does not know the difference between water-colours and crayons!—How strange!—Did you ever hear anything so stupid?”

When compared to their own education, Fanny’s was woefully inferior.

“I cannot remember the time when I did not know a great deal that she has not the least notion of yet. How long ago it is, aunt, since we used to repeat the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns.” “Yes,” added the other; “and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the Heathen Mythology, and all the Metals, Semi-Metals, Planets, and distinguished philosophers.”

I would certainly have some trouble putting the map of Europe together. (Especially around the Balkans.) I also don’t know the principal rivers of Russia or the kings of England. Of the Roman emperors, I can only recount the first handful. But Fanny Price was only ten years old, and from a family of quite limited means; what’s my excuse? Indeed, there are a great many notable holes in my knowledge. Although I am somewhat embarrassed to admit these deficiencies, it is far better to admit them then to pretend that I have learned everything that I can or should. And so, I present a (quite incomplete) list of things that I do not know:

  • How many yards are in a rod, furlong, or mile.
  • The books of the Bible, in order.
  • The constellations and their seasons.
  • How to play a musical instrument.
  • The number and names of the bones of the human body.
  • The meaning of “transcendental”.
  • The presidents of the United States, their vice presidents, and their first ladies.
  • The difference between forfeiture and waiver.
  • A second language (very much in spite of my formal education.)
  • Virtually any modern philosophy.
  • Virtually any Asian or Arabic philosophy.
  • And, of course, there are a great many things that I do not know that I do not know.

Much as Dr. Watson was shocked to learn that Sherlock Holmes was ignorant of the heliocentric theory of the solar system, I imagine that my own ignorance on certain subjects must surely surprise others. I will, I hope, remedy at least a few of these deficiencies in time. If nothing else, I have at least one advantage over Fanny Price’s cousins: I know that I have not reached the end of my education.

“If you are ever so forward and clever yourselves, you should always be modest; for, much as you know already, there is a great deal more for you to learn.”
“Yes, I know there is, till I am seventeen.”

Beer of the week: Sarajevsko Premium – Although I could not positively point it out on a map, Sarajevo is the origin of this Euro lager. The brewery is creatively named Sarajevska Pivara. The beer is very pale, and just a little cloudy. The aroma is like that of most Czech lagers that I’ve had, a bit hoppy and a bit malty. I am always surprised how different European beers taste and smell when compared to similar American beers. Sarajevsko is a fine beer, but could be better. More hops would help, for one thing. And it has a slightly sticky mouthfeel rather than a good, crisp finish.

Reading of the week: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – Without giving too much away, Fanny Price ultimately gets the better of her unkind cousins. And as much as this scene demonstrates Fanny’s rusticities and awkwardness, it shows the thoughtlessness and vanity of her cousins and aunt even more.

Question for the week: What do you not know, even though you know that you should?


Parallelomania

This is the forty-fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLV: Sacred Writings 2

It is the time of the year when we celebrate the birth of a god in human form who would later overcome death. The god-man’s was a virgin birth, foretold by angels and prophets. The birth occurred en route to his earthly parent’s familial home. I refer, of course, to the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, Buddha. Or Jesus Christ. Or both.

Aside from the similarities alluded to above, there is a great deal in common between Christianity and Buddhism. But is that because they share a common source, one religion influenced the other, or mere coincidence?

One of the core beliefs of the Baha’i faith is that all of the world’s major religions, including Christianity and Buddhism, were divinely inspired for their specific places and times. Consequently, the similarities between these religions are no mere coincidence. Each religion is revealed and shares in the universal and essential points. Those issues upon which the religions differ are simply minor details to adapt the one true religion to various times and places.

The Baha’i point of view, of course, has never amounted to a majority, let alone a consensus. Generally, it appears that similarities between Christianity and Buddhism are mere coincidences for the most part, and generally more superficial than they may seem. In fact, the term “parallelomania” was coined specifically to give a name to authors taking such apparent similarities between religions too far.

Still, it is certainly worth considering what leads disparate people to arrive at similar religious tenants. “In their later developments Buddhist and Christian ceremonies show an extraordinary resemblance due in my opinion chiefly to convergence,” wrote Sir Charles Eliot, a British diplomat to the Far East. (Not to be confused with Dr. Charles Eliot, president of Harvard and editor of the Harvard Classics.) “[T]hough I do not entirely exclude mutual influence.”

Perhaps, rather than some direct or indirect interaction between Christians and Buddhists, that “mutual influence” is some deeply embedded aspect of the human psyche. Something about Christmas (and Buddha’s Birthday, and countless other religious beliefs and observances) strikes a chord within us all.

Beer of the week: Chang Classic – Aside from China, Thailand has the largest Buddhist population in the world. This Thai lager has some nice herbal hops in the aroma. It pours a clear, pale gold, with lots of big bubbles that fade fast. The flavor is a bit sweet, dominated by adjunct grain. It could do with a bit more hops, but it is a light and refreshing beer.

Reading of the week: The Birth of Buddha – This story is translated from the Jātaka tales. These stories describe some of Buddha’s many births, in both human and animal form.

Question for the week: Is there some important aspect shared by all religion?


The Gentle and the Vulgar

This is the forty-fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLIV: Sacred Writings 1

The structure of the Analects, or Sayings of Confucius, is not entirely clear to me. Some chapters apparently deal with more or less specific themes. For example, Chapter X is a description of Confucius’s character and habits. Other chapters, such as Chapter XV, seem to be mere collections of thoughts and precepts without any particular organizing principle. As such, it is rather difficult to know how much the order of the sayings matters. However, it as only fair to assume that somebody thought that the structure was important, otherwise, why should the sayings be in the order that they are?

Assuming, then, that the sayings were purposefully ordered, two adjacent lines in Chapter XV stand out to me:

15.19
The Master said: “A gentleman fears lest his name should die when life is done.”

15.20
The Master said: ‘A gentleman looks within: the vulgar look unto others.”

I gather that “gentleman” here is “junzi” or “prince”. However, unlike the original meaning of “prince” as the hereditary heir to the throne, the word is used throughout the Analects to signify an ideal moral actor. Confucius appears to have favored a system of meritocracy, where morally superior men of any birth-status could rise to prominence. One goal — perhaps the primary goal — of the Analects is to instruct readers on how to be junzi.

Line 15.19 makes it appear that reputation matters to the gentleman, even after death. However, given the idea of the gentleman as an ideal moral actor, he would not merely want to be remembered, but to leave a legacy of being righteous. He would not want to be remembered for any act or characteristic that is inconsistent with the well-deserved status as “junzi.”

However, 15.19 seems to be at odds with 15.20.

In 15.20, Confucius contrasts the gentleman with “the vulgar.” It appears that Chinese word can also be rendered as “the small man” or “the petty man”. Throughout the Analects, the small man is given as a counterexample to the gentleman. Unlike the ideal morality of the gentleman, the small man’s ethical vision is narrow and self-serving. While the gentleman is inclusive, the small man is partisan. While the the gentleman seeks the good, the small man seeks profit. And so on.

It could be that 15.20 merely extols self-sufficiency; the gentleman is self-sufficent, while the small man relies on — or even leeches off of — others. However, read in conjunction with 15.19, it seems that the gentleman “looks within” for validation of his own worth. That is, he judges himself based on his own (proper) ethical standards, while the small man requires the validation of others. The problem, of course, is that the “others” to whom the small man looks are most likely vulgar themselves. In short, a gentleman takes little stock in public opinion of him because he holds himself to a different (and better) standard. The small man, desirous of public approval, is willing to debase himself for the sake of popularity. This reading is similar to the argument in Plato’s Republic that it is better to be good-but-reviled than to be lauded as good but actually not be. Though all the world think ill of you, it is better to know that you are good in your own heart than to succumb to the wrong public opinion of what is good.

But if that reading of 15.20 is correct, what sort of legacy can the gentleman hope to leave behind in 15.19? Who will remember the gentleman if he has has taken no particular stock of his public reputation? It seems possible that, worse than not being remembered at all, the gentleman will be remembered poorly by the vulgar masses because they lack the capacity to properly judge his virtue.

One way to reconcile the apparent contradiction between these sayings is that the gentleman ought to take stock of the opinions of other gentlemen. The gentleman in 15.19 is anxious to be remembered, not by the masses, but by other righteous men. And the small man’s error in 15.20 is seeking the approval of the vulgar, rather than the approval of his betters. That reconciliation is somewhat unsatisfying because it makes 15.20 appear to be an incomplete thought. Although the gentleman should “look within”, he should also be conscious and sensitive to the opinions of other gentlemen. Although the approval of others should not drive his actions, it may be a useful tool in determining whether his own opinion of himself is accurate.

Beer of the week: Busch Beer – This extremely pale macro lager is a bit of a surprise. It has the classic cheap beer smell and taste, but without much or any of the bad off notes. There is a bit of corn in the flavor, but none of the stickiness or sharp tastes that often come with that. For what it is, Busch Beer is a totally serviceable brew.

Reading of the week: The Sayings of Confucius, Chapter XV – This chapter also includes such gems as “A gentleman does not raise a man for his words, nor scorn what is said for the speaker,” and “Do not do unto others what thou wouldst not they should do unto thee.”

Question for the week: How important is it to leave a legacy?


Homecoming

This is the forty-first in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLI: English Poetry 2 Collins to Fitzgerald

For many Americans, the Thanksgiving holiday serves as a homecoming. The night before Thanksgiving may well be the single busiest bar night of the year. This surge in business is largely attributable to the the young adults returning to their childhood homes and reconnecting with their high school friends.

But as many people age, the Thanksgiving homecoming takes on far more meaning than just the chance to experience the hometown bar scene. What had been “home” becomes “grandma’s house.” The participants in the holiday traditions change as family members are born, or pass away, or move off and start their own traditions. Sooner or later, the site of the festivities changes; whether the patriarch passes away, grandma downsizes to a smaller home, or the family outgrows the old house, the building that sheltered Thanksgivings past eventually becomes just another holiday memory.

Even if the old home really was too small to accommodate a growing family, or had leaks and creaks and faults, the fact that it was home often covers or even idealizes those imperfections. In the song Old Apartment by Barenaked Ladies, the singer is upset to find that the new tenants of his old home have painted the walls, cleaned the floors, and plastered over the hole he punched in the door. The flaws that he remembers, in his mind, are part of what made the apartment home.

The homecoming aspect of Thanksgiving is, of course, bittersweet. Nothing – not the people around the table, nor even the house in which they sit – will ever be the same as it was.

Beer of the week: Old Milwaukee American Lager – Like so many low-end brands, Old Milwaukee is owned by the Pabst Brewing Company. It was previously owned by Stroh and Schlitz. For many, those brand names elicit nostalgic memories of celebrations past. This classic American macro pours pale gold with loads of carbonation. At first, I thought I detected some nice, nutty flavor if not much else. But then I got the off notes and cheap grain. Not surprising for one of the cheapest beers in the cooler.

Reading of the week: The Auld House by Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne – Like Barenaked Ladies Old Apartment, this poem is a nostalgic ode to the home the author outgrew. “There ne’er can be a new house / Will seem sae fair to me.”

Question for the week: Do people who have lived in many places feel less nostalgia for old homes, or do they just feel nostalgia for more old homes?


To End War

This is the thirty-ninth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXIX: Prefaces and Prologues

This Sunday marks the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War One. Even during the war, it was known as “the war to end war.” (An expression that may have been coined by H. G. Wells.) So high were the human and economic costs that it was almost inconceivable that humans could ever again resort to war.

It was not mere naïveté that led people to hope World War One would be the end of all war; such hopes have existed throughout human history. In the late fifteenth century, William Caxton wrote that even the ancient Trojan War “may be example to all men during the world how dreadful and jeopardous it is to begin a war and what harms, losses, and death followeth.” And occasionally, people have invented new weapons, such as the Gatling gun or the atomic bomb, that are so devastating that further wars appear unthinkably terrible.

But with a century of hindsight, we know well the World War One did not end all war. It was barely twenty years before a Second World War was underway. In fact, it was less than twenty years, if one takes into account the Japanese invasion of China.

Nearly every year since then, the United States, far and away the greatest military power of all time, has been at war. The most recent American war in Afghanistan is approaching the end of its second decade. (There are some who argue that the United States has not been at war since the Korean War because Congress has not made a declaration of war since then. This argument elevates form over substance. The actions of the United States in Vietnam, Iraq, Panama, etc. were unquestionably acts of war.) As far as I can tell, the most recent year that the United States was not at war was 2000. That means that by next year, there will be eligible voters who have lived their entire lives during wartime. Maybe they’ll somehow have the sense to vote for candidates who want peace. (If such a thing exists.)

Even with centuries and millennia of examples of how dreadful war is, it persists. But it is not unreasonable to hope, pray, and, most importantly, strive for peace. So this weekend, raise a glass and drink to peace in our time.

Beer of the week: Balashi Pilsner- Even the tiny island of Aruba has not been totally isolated from war. During World War Two, German and Italian submarines torpedoed oil tankers anchored there. Over 50 sailors lost their lives as the submarines sunk six tankers and damaged two others. There we’re a couple of German casualties as well, the result of a deck gun exploding due to user error. But for the most part, Aruba has been a peaceful place to have a beer. Balashi Pilsner has a faint but pleasantly malty aroma. Although it is a fairly light beer, it is well-balanced. Frankly, Balashi is better than one might expect from the tropics.

Reading of the week: William Caxton’s Prologue to Book I and Epilogues to Books II and III of The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy – Caxton, the first commercial printer in England, translated many of the books that he published. His own writings are primarily prefaces.

Question for the week: For all its myriad evils, some maintain that war has social value. (Including, perhaps, population control, technological advancement, or economic stimulus.) What is war’s most redeeming value?


Shakespeares Anonymous

This is the thirty-third in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXIII: Voyages and Travels

If you are looking to stir up a bit of controversy without recourse to politics or family secrets, casually opine that William Shakespeare was no more than an actor and frontman, and that the plays attributed to him were clearly the work of someone else. The Shakespeare authorship question provides plenty of grounds for argument. More likely than not, you’ll find that your interlocutors are firm believers that Shakespeare actually authored Shakespeare, but even if they are open to the possibility of a non-Stratfordian author, you can still disagree on who, exactly, did write Shakespeare.

The basics of the authorship question are as follows: The actor William Shakespeare’s education is quite suspect. His parents both signed with a mark instead of writing their names, suggesting that they were illiterate. (Keep in mind that literacy was not nearly so universal at the turn of the 17th century.) There is no record of his attending school, including a surprising lack of claims by his teachers or classmates. The 6 surviving authenticated signatures of Shakespeare are exhibit such poor penmanship that they do little to convince that he was a prolific writer.

While Shakespeare’s own background was fairly obscure, his plays dealt with a number of topics that would seemingly be beyond his ken. Many of the plays exhibit a familiarity with royal courts and exotic locales. William Shakespeare, however, would have no firsthand knowledge of either. The plays also contain accurate details of sailing and travel, though Shakespeare himself is not known to have left England. Similarly, he wrote with some familiarity on legal procedure and thought, although there is no evidence that he had any contact with any courts of law until a minor lawsuit late in life.

And if William Shakespeare was merely an actor and a frontman for an author who needed to remain anonymous, who actually wrote the plays? Many, many alternative authors have been proposed throughout the years. A few of them seem plausible.

The Oxfordian Theory:

Seemingly the most popular candidate is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Oxford was a patron of the theater and was known to be a poet and playwright. His time at court and in Italy provided him with the knowledge needed to write plays set in such locales; knowledge William Shakespeare would not have had. Oxford had to publish his plays under a pseudonym because it would be unseemly for somebody of his high birth to write for the common stage. Or, even better, he had an affair with Queen Elizabeth and for some reason that made it even more important that he not publish under his own name.

The Baconian Theory:

Bacon is the classic alternative to Shakespeare. Francis Bacon served as Lord Chancellor, the highest court official in England. He had the legal and political background to write competently and realistically about courts royal and legal. He also was familiar with codes and cyphers, which makes it extremely tempting to search for hidden meanings in everything he wrote.

Adherents of the Baconian theory included Friedrich Nietzsche and Mark Twain. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche wrote, “to make a confession; I feel instinctively certain and convinced that Lord Bacon is the originator, the self-torturer, of this most sinister kind of literature (Hamlet)… We do not know half enough about Lord Bacon—the first realist in all the highest acceptation of this word—to be sure of everything he did, everything he willed, and everything he experienced in his inmost soul…. Let the critics go to hell! Suppose I had christened my Zarathustra with a name not my own,—let us say with Richard Wagner’s name,—the acumen of two thousand years would not have sufficed to guess that the author of Human, all-too-Human was the visionary of Zarathustra.” Mark Twain was less certain than Nietzsche: “I only believed Bacon wrote Shakespeare, whereas I knew Shakespeare didn’t.” Percy Shelley, perhaps unintentionally, lends some weight to the conclusion that Bacon was the Bard. In Shelley’s opinion, Bacon was the most sublime writer since Plato. “Lord Bacon was a poet,” Shelley wrote in his Defense of Poetry. “His language has a sweet and majestic rhythm, which satisfies the sense, no less than the almost superhuman wisdom of his philosophy satisfies the intellect; it is a strain which distends, and then bursts the circumference of the reader’s mind, and pours itself forth together with it into the universal element with which it has perpetual sympathy.”

The Marlovian Theory

Christopher “Kit” Marlow was a successful poet and playwright, born only two months before Shakespeare. But he was also allegedly an athiest. At the height of his powers, and soon to face capital charges of heresy, Marlow allegedly died on May 30, 1593. Within a fortnight, Shakespeare’s first publication, Venus and Adonis, went on sale. What if Marlow faked his death and had Shakespeare publish his works under his own name? By faking is death, Marlow was able to avoid the headsman and continue writing.

The Group Theories

One of the problems with most of the theories is timing. For example, the Earl of Oxford died several years before the last Shakespeare plays were published. And although Walter Raleigh was born before and died after William Shakespeare, he spent so much time traveling, fighting, and imprisoned that it is hard to make sense of a timeline where he also wrote all of Shakespeare’s corpus. Enter the group theories. By attributing Shakespeare to a group or cabal, one eliminates the timing problems, accounts for some of the unevenness of quality in Shakespeare’s writing, explains the tremendous vocabulary in the plays, and responds to the objection that no one author could produce so much excellent work.

Nobody knows for sure who wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare. The academic consensus is clearly in favor of William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. But that explanation is boring. It is more fun to think of Shakespeare as a centuries-old mystery, and to stay on the lookout for clues and messages hidden in “his” work.

Beer of the week: Corona Familiar – When Homer Simpson visited the Duff brewery he learned that Duff, Duff Lite, and Duff Dry were all bottled from the same line. For a while, it was rumored that that joke was a reality for the makers of Corona. Allegedly, Corona Familiar was simply Corona Extra in a 32 oz. bottle. However, as Constellation Brands has rolled out Corona Familiar in more markets and in new 12 oz. bottles, it is now clear that it is a different beer than Corona Extra. It is clear gold, and plenty carbonated. There is some malt in the aroma and the flavor is a bit fuller in both hops and malt than Corona Extra. Familiar is a serviceable but unremarkable lager.

Reading of the week: The Discovery of Guiana by Sir Walter Raleigh – As mentioned above, Raleigh is one of the proposed authors of some or all of Shakespeare. This prose account of the discovery of the mythical city of El Dorado does little to confirm that claim. It is an interesting story, including an account of natives covering themselves with gold dust “from the foot to the head” and then drinking for a week straight, but it does not have any of the irrepressible beauty that Shelley saw in Bacon.

Question for the week: What is your favorite controversial/heterodox position?