A concept that is very hard for some people to grasp is the idea that the value of money is governed by the same laws of supply and demand as everything else. One might assume that the demand for money is unlimited, and therefore pushes supply/demand analysis to its breaking point. But this is not so. If the demand were truly unlimited, no one would part with a dollar for any amount of goods or services. The reason that one is willing to spend money at all is that the purchaser’s demand for money is lower (at that time, and in that quantity) than his demand for the particular good or service bought. The “price” of a dollar is it’s purchasing power. And like the price of everything else, it is determined by supply and demand. Where money is scarce, each dollar is more dear. Where the supply of money is inflated, each dollar buys less.
Like money, it seems that intangible concepts such as health, time, and happiness are not subject to unlimited demand. If demand for health were truly unlimited, the demand for candy, cigarettes, and automobiles would plummet. Every potentially hazardous occupation or pastime would find absolutely no willing participants. But people “purchase” health with hours in the gym, the consumption of salubrious foods, abstention from tobacco, alcohol, sugar, gluten, red meat, carbohydrates, sunshine, and whatever else is both pleasant and currently perceived as deleterious. But most people are unwilling to spend all of their time and effort on attempts to improve or preserve their health. And with good reason. As with money, the effort to acquire the absolute maximum levels of health is a hefty amount to pay. Every hour at the gym is an hour not spent elsewhere. Every salad eaten is a pie eschewed. Every kale smoothie is a beer left behind.
To be sure, time at the gym can be enjoyable. Salads can be delicious. Smoothies are often tasty. But as Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock observed, “as long as you have the price of a hack and can hire other people to play baseball for you and run races and do gymnastics when you sit in the shade and smoke and watch them — great heavens, what more do you want?”
Beer of the week: Labatt Blue – This straw colored Canadian Pilsner is fairly bland. It pours with big, fluffy bubbles that fade very quickly. The smell is faint and what aroma is there is of cereal grains. The mouthfeel is quite light, as is the flavor. For a mass produced lager, Labatt Blue is very average.
Reading for the week: How to Live to be 200 by Stephen Leacock – A Canadian author for a Canadian beer. At one point, Leacock was one of the most popular English-language humorists in the world, but his training was in political science and economy. He studied at the University of Chicago under Thorstein Veblen.
Question for the week: It makes evolutionary sense that things that are healthful are also enjoyable, so is there anything that is truly salubrious that is also throughly unpleasant?
“What was I thinking?”
That rhetorical question is often used to express dismay at a lack of foresight e.g. “A while back, I passed on a chance to buy a Bitcoin at $400; what was I thinking?” Sometimes it goes to absentmindedness e.g. “I peeled a banana and accidentally threw away the banana and went to take a bite of the peel; what was I thinking?” But in both of these cases, the question is purely rhetorical because it is pretty easy to determine the thought process involved. In the Bitcoin example, the person presumably thought about the risks and advantages of buying a Bitcoin and determined that the potential upside was not worth the $400 risk. In the banana example, the person was clearly thinking about something totally unrelated to the task at hand, and mere distraction caused the errant movements.
There are times, however, when the question “what was I thinking?” is more than rhetorical, times when one honestly does not understand his own motivations. Every once in a while, we each do something that we are later unable to explain. It is occasionally impossible to determine what thought process or motivations led to the decisions made.
There appear to be multiple potential causes for such internal confusion. For one thing, not understanding one’s own motivation may be a simple failure to carefully self-evaluate. For another, there may be pre-rational motivations that get overlooked in the search for a rational explanation, such as instinct or something like it. But most likely, it seems, is the likelihood that the decision in question is the product of a great many thoughts and motivations, possibly even at odds with each other. The complicated interplay between our various desires, instincts, goals, etc. may simply be so convoluted that we are unable to untangle (or even recognize) them all.
In The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela, the motivations of the belligerents during the Mexican Revolution are explored. A rebel leader called Demetrio tells about the time that he got drunk and spit in the face of a local political boss, Señor Monico. As a result, Monico brought “the whole God-damned Federal Government” down on Demetrio, who narrowly escaped into the hills. Demetrio asserts that all he wants is “to be let alone so [he] can go home.”
His interlocutor, however, sees more in Demetrio’s motivations than Demetrio sees himself:
“It is not true that you took up arms simply because of Señor Monico. You are under arms to protest against the evils of all the caciques who are overrunning the whole nation. We are the elements of a social movement which will not rest until it has enlarged the destinies of our motherland. We are the tools Destiny makes use of to reclaim the sacred rights of the people. We are not fighting to dethrone a miserable murderer, we are fighting against tyranny itself. What moves us is what men call ideals; our action is what men call fighting for a principle. A principle! That’s why Villa and Natera and Carranza are fighting; that’s why we, every man of us, are fighting.”
This speech certainly works on Demetrio’s men, who emphatically embrace this noble characterization of their motivations despite the manifestly ignoble acts of plunder, rape, and murder in which they engage. But Demetrio’s reaction to this impassioned speech is more subdued; he orders more beer.
Beer of the week: Corona Light – A Mexican reading deserves a Mexican beer. Corona Light is clear and pale and foamy. The aroma and flavor are pretty standard macro. There is a hint of lime in the aroma, and just a trace of nuttiness in the finish. A pinch of salt brings out the lime in the flavor, which is a big improvement. Still, Corona Light; what was I thinking?
Reading of the week: The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela – The title The Underdogs (Los de Abajo in the original Spanish) refers not to the rebels, but to the common folk of Mexico. Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that the people are always oppressed, no matter which faction has the ascendency.
Question of the week: Is it really the case that some motivations cannot be discovered through self-examination? Or is it possible that we are just too afraid to look deep enough?
“Black Friday” is a particularly appropriate time to consider the nature of crowds. Every year there are reports of people being trampled and assaulted in the rush to be the ultimate consumer. To get the best deals on crap that they don’t really need, people will behave in the most uncivil ways. And the vast majority of these people would be utterly ashamed to behave like that if they were not part of a faceless crowd.
There is nothing particularly insightful about the statement that crowds often bring out the worst in people. Looting, lynching, and rioting are all examples of how people, when relieved of individual responsibility, can engage in behaviors that no individual amongst them would dare. In the words of Kierkegaard, this is because “a crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision.” And the temerity to loot or lynch or riot is not to be confused with courage. In fact, it is a symptom of a profound cowardice. “For every single individual who escapes into the crowd, and thus flees in cowardice from being a single individual… contributes his share of cowardice to “the cowardice,” which is: the crowd.”
But while the crowd seems to relieve individuals of responsibility, it can do no such thing. The fact is that the crowd is a mere abstraction. It has no hands to shove, no feet to trample, and no neck to hang.
Beer of the week: Laško Club – This Slovanian beer is a bit darker than gold with a very fluffy head. It’s aroma is typical of decent euro lagers, malty with that distinctive hops smell. I have been a bit disappointed by Eastern European beers in the past, but I rather like Laško Club.
Reading for the week: The Crowd is Untruth by Søren Kierkegaard – In this piece, Kierkegaard takes up the line from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, that “only one receives the prize.” He takes this to mean that the way to salvation is through an individual relationship with God rather than communion with others.
Question for the week: Is the crowd always more cowardly than the individuals in it? What about when a Gandhi or Dr. King inspires a group to noble ends? (I take it that Kierkegaard reply that the crowd cannot be inspired, only the individuals in it. But does that answer the question?)
This is the last post in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
HUMILITY: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
When I first read Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger, it was paired with his Life of Julius Caesar. This juxtaposition seemed very favorable to Cato. Caesar, a second-rate Alexander and enemy of the Republic vs. Cato, virtue personified and defender of Rome. But a close look at Plutarch’s treatment of Cato makes it clear that the great biographer did not mean for Cato to be taken as the paragon of virtue.
The most pronounced inconsistency of virtue in Cato is his supposed humility. Plutarch shows that below this professed humility was a profound vanity. Cato repudiated his fellow senators for their ostentatious dress. But rather than wearing very plain and modest clothing, Cato wore a black toga that was calculated to stand out more than the even the most luxurious dress of his colleagues. He also made a point of not wearing underwear and sitting with his legs spread apart as if he did not already draw enough attention to himself.
Cato’s vanity is most visible in his visit to Antioch. He arrived to find “a great multitude of people outside the gates, ranged in order on either side the way; here the young men with long cloaks, there the children decently dressed; others wore garlands and white garments, who were the priests and magistrates.” Cato was incensed that the people should have such a grand ceremony in honor of his arrival. Of course, the extravagant greeting was not for him at all; the people were arranged to welcome a dignitary from Pompey. Cato himself, it seems, is the only person who had even thought of holding a parade in his honor. And this accidental admission gave the lie to his professed humility.
And finally, make sure that the audience sees what a hypocrite and poseur Cato was, Plutarch presents his suicide as a farce. Before the deed, Cato reads Phaedo twice. In that dialogue by Plato, Socrates calmly (some Roman philosophers would have argued “stoically”) accepted his fate and drank his poison. After reading this edifying tract on how to die with dignity, what did Cato do? He lost his temper and punched a slave in the mouth, badly injuring his own hand. When the time came to pull the proverbial trigger, Cato was unable to dispatch himself cleanly because he had trouble stabbing himself with his broken hand. He was forced, ultimately, to dig out his bowels with his bare hands. So much for imitating Socrates in his stoic and dignified death.
Beer of the week: Černá Hora Sklepní – This is Černá Hora’s “Cellar style” lager. It is an unfiltered, and therefore slightly cloudy, golden beer. The aroma is bready and the flavor follows closely. Because it is unfiltered, the beer has a bit more flavor than many Czech beers. There is a hint of spice and of apricot and there is just enough hops in the finish to round it out. Overall, this is a pretty good beer.
Reading for the week: The Life of Cato the Younger by Plutarch – A fitting reading would be the section about how Cato loved to drink wine all night and discourse about philosophy. But the suicide scene, presented here, is more on point.
Question for the week: It is probable that this post overstates Plutarch’s intent to show up Cato. For one thing, Plutarch explicitly states that the wearing of black was not out of vainglory. And he also says that Cato afterwards would laugh often at his misunderstanding at Antioch. But can the suicide scene be read any other way than as a farce?
This is the ninth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
JUSTICE: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
According to Herbert Spencer, there is one law from which all other laws spring: survival of the fittest. Every individual ought to benefit to the extent that he is well adapted to his conditions and suffer to the extent that he is ill adapted. Consequently, all behavior that is conducive to survival is just. But this seemingly selfish principle has a number of caveats.
In the first place, the survival of the species is paramount over the survival of the individual. Spencer comes to this conclusion by comparing the ultimate result of the failure to survive. If any given individual (or even a multitude) dies, the species may live on. But extinction of the species necessitates the death of every individual.
One consequence is that adults have an obligation to the children in their family-group. Although adults deserve benefits commensurate to their fitness, infants deserve benefits inversely to their fitness. “Within the family-group most must be given where least is deserved, if desert is measured by worth.” The adults, therefore, subordinate their own good for the good of the infants.
Likewise, in larger society, individuals subordinate their own good, to some extent, for the good of the group. In living together, each individual gains some additional security against evils and some benefits from cooperation. In exchange, individuals must accept a certain amount of restraint, giving up the freedom to act in particular ways that harm or endanger the group. And ultimately, some individuals may even be expected to die for the good of the group.
Although the sacrifice of some individuals appears to be the complete subjugation of the individual to the group, society remains reducible to the survival of the fittest individuals. After all, the species or group or family is merely an abstract aggregate of concrete individuals. As the overall mortality of the society improves with cooperation, individuals live longer. And the longer individuals live, the more time they have for their superior adaptation has to show itself. Each individual, is therefore in a better position than ever to benefit from his superior adaptation or suffer from his inferior adaptation. “And vaguely, if not definitely, this is seen to constitute what is called justice.”
Beer of the week: Strela Cabo Verde – Contract brewing is when a brewer outsources the production of his beer. Pabst, for example, does not actually brew any beer any more; all of their beer is contract brewed. This is also common with “foreign” beers. The Bass that I wrote about in an earlier post was brewed in New York.
Strela is a beer from Cape Verde, off the coast of Africa. However, this bottle was brewed under contract in Belgium. On one hand, I would like to try an actual African beer. On the other, I am skeptical about the quality of African beer and well acquainted with Belgian beers. Unfortunately, this is probably the worst beer I have ever had from Belgium. Strela is a very pale adjunct lager. It smells of corn and tastes… bad. I hope that the stuff that is actually brewed in Cape Verde is better than this.
Reading for the week: Justice by Herbert Spencer – The chapter preceding this selection applies the principles of justice to the animals. Like human society, animal society develops more pronounced justice as the society becomes more complex.
Question for the week: Spencer acknowledges that as societies become more organized, individuals gain more benefits, but individuals also also become more constrained. And in some instances, society may demand more from an individual than he gains by being a member. Is there an inevitable tipping point resulting of the growth of society? Must increased organization always tend to a point where constraint outweighs benefit?
This is the fourth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts will be available here.
ORDER: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
Order is the key to success at work. Like a finely tuned machine, an employee who is well organized will smoothly and comfortably move through each task as it comes. At leisure, however, order may be regarded as constraining. If one meticulously plans out his free time, is it free time in any real sense? So there you have it: order in work and disorder in leisure.
Well, maybe. Pliny the Younger seems to think that such a view is backwards. According to Pliny, “a little confusion and disarrangement is all well enough” in one’s work, but leisure time “should be composed and uniform.”
Disarrangement is a necessary component of work. Changes in what the boss or client requires, unforeseen difficulties, market reversals, and so on make business a more or less constant battle against disorder. And, although the result is often stressful, the disorder of work is also the impetus for advancement and discovery. Each new problem represents a new opportunity to improve one’s methods or streamline one’s processes. So if one is able to remain perfectly ordered in his employment, he is probably under-performing.
On the other hand, leisure is best when there is no disorder. And to avoid disorder, one must plan. It is a rare person indeed who has never felt like a vacation or weekend was wasted simply by not having a plan. That is not to say that one must be constantly active in one’s leisure, only that to make the best use of leisure, one must be orderly with one’s time. Lying in bed all weekend or binge-watching a television show may be a good use of free time, but only if one has actually chosen that course of action rather than fallen into it for lack of a better plan. Naps, detours, impulsive decisions, can all be part of an orderly free time. The key is to be conscious of the limited time available, and to make decisions that maximize enjoyment of that time.
Beer of the week: Firestone Pils – This pilsner comes from Firestone Walker in California. There is not much aroma to speak of, just a hint of lemony hops. The flavor is rather simple, just a bit of malt and more of the hops from the smell. It is refreshing and tasty, if a bit simple.
Reading of the week: Letter to Calvisius by Pliny the Younger: In this letter, Pliny describes the lifestyle of Titus Vestricius Spurinna. At the time, Spurinna was retired from government and the military, and had settled into a comfortable and highly regular home routine. Spurinna made time each day for exercise, socializing, writing, and relaxation. And because he made the most of his retirement, Pliny wrote, “there is no man whom I would sooner choose for my model, for nothing can be more perfect in arrangement than his mode of life.”
Question of the week: Which is most important: well organized time, well organized possessions, or well organized thoughts?
This is the second in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts will be available here.
TEMPERANCE: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
As applied to food, the notion of “all things in moderation” is sorely abused. There are certainly some foods that one can healthily do without entirely. Indeed, there are foods that one ought to live without. So recommending that all foods be consumed in moderation is not quite right.
For example, one can eat candy from time to time without any serious threat of injury. But it would be absurd to recommend consumption of a moderate amount of candy. A better recommendation would be the total avoidance of candy, and if one does eat candy, to keep it at a minimum.
Because of this distinction, it is important to be able to tell between those foods that should be avoided, but may be consumed in small quantities, and those foods that are salubrious, but should be consumed moderately.
In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the character Gluttony describes his lineage: “My grandfather was a Gammon of Bacon, my grandmother a Hogshead of Claret-wine; my godfathers were these, Peter Pickleherring, and Martin Martlemas-beef.” And Gluttony’s godmother was Mistress Margery Marchbeer. The choice of food and drink associated with Gluttony is quite interesting: cured pork, pickled fish, and dried beef, together with red wine and märzen beer. (To say nothing of the fact that the meat is masculine and the drink is feminine.)
Because the play is from the late 16th century, it goes without saying that there was no refrigeration. So during much of the year, preservation of meat through curing, pickling, or drying was essential if one was to have meat at all. Additionally, beer and wine both served as valuable dietary supplements, and were recommended for a great number of health benefits. So to Marlowe, gluttony is about the over-consumption of healthful foods, not the consumption of foods that are inherently bad for you.
Then again, Marlowe could hardly have imagined the concoctions that pass for food these days.
Beer of the week: Flag Spéciale – This Moroccan beer is brewed in Fez, and is ultimately uninspiring. It is pretty darn bland. On the plus side, the only ingredients are water, malt, and hops; no refined sugars, or anything that should be avoided altogether. Boring though it may be, it is refreshing. And when combined with a bit of atmosphere on a hot day, it is even delightful. And because it comes in a 24 cl bottle, there is little chance of “drinking to elevation.”
Reading of the week: The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, Scene VI – In this scene, Lucifer introduces Dr. Faustus to the Seven Deadly Sins. Faustus says to Lucifer that seeing the Sins in their true form “will be as pleasing unto [him], As Paradise was to Adam the first day Of his creation.”
Question for the week: The proposed distinction between foods that are salubrious and foods that should be avoided entirely is clearly problematic. For example, vegans say all meat should be avoided. Teetotalers say all alcohol should be avoided. Are their any truly clear divisions than can be made?