The Spiritual Tourist

I have been to Bongeunsa Buddhist temple in Seoul, Korea. I’ve toured the Spanish Synagogue in Prague, Czech Republic. I have visited two of the world’s nine Bahá’í Houses of Worship (in Ingleside, Australia and Willamette, Illinois.) I have been to the Great Mosque of Xian, China and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. I have toured St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and several other churches throughout Italy and Europe. All these and a great many more religious sites I have visited as a tourist rather than as a pilgrim.

For a non-pilgrim, sites of religious or spiritual significance pose a delicate dilemma:  how can a tourist take in a culturally valuable experience without degrading another’s holy place?

To some extent, this problem is solved by those in control of the venues. In Moulay Idriss, Morocco, all non-believers are denied access to the mosque and mausoleum of Idris I. In Rome, a small fee buys admission to the Capuchin crypts beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, without any question of faith. At various churches throughout the world, visitors are invited in, but photography is forbidden.

But no matter where, nor what creed is dominant, touring a religious site is always a peculiar event. The art, the architecture, and the history are often of extreme interest to people of all faiths. How does one balance basic human curiosity with the need to show adequate reverence?

In my experience, the best course is to take in all religious sites, regardless of denomination, with a sense of quiet awe and respect. It matters little whether the religion of the site is the same as that of the tourist. What matters is that the religious site is a monument to the faith of those who built and maintain it. Even those who hold other beliefs (or, indeed, no religious beliefs at all,) should be able to appreciate that the desire  to create such a sacred space comes from an important and fundamental part of human nature.

Beer of the week: Moat Mountain Czech Pilsner – This New Hampshire take on the classic Czech pilsner pours a nice, clear gold. It has a bit of malt aroma. But Moat’s Czech Pilsner does not have quite enough hops for my taste, either in the aroma or flavor. This is a good beer, but it comes up short of the best Czech beers.

Reading of the week: The Spirit of Russia by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk – Whose writings could be a more appropriate paring for a Czech pilsner than those of Masaryk? He was the first president of the independent state of Czechoslovakia, and a life-long advocate for a free Czech and Slovak people. This excerpt from his book on the peculiar culture of Russia includes an anecdote about a visit he made to a remote Russian monastery, not as a pilgrim, but as a “mere sightseer!”

Question for the week: Can a non-believer truly appreciate the value of a religious site?


Rediscovering Ibn Tufail

One of the great debates in the history of mathematics was that between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. Newton had invented (or discovered, if you please) calculus, but did not publish any works on the subject. Some time thereafter, Leibniz also invented calculus, but he had his work published. Newton accused Leibniz of having stolen his idea, while Leibniz maintained that he had reached his conclusions independently.

It is possible, of course, for separate individuals to discover or invent the same methods independently. (In nature, an analogous process exists called convergent evolution, and it is freaking awesome.) Perhaps the most important aspect about language is that it allows humans to advance technologically. Because Leibniz was able to write down his method for calculus and share it with others, every future mathematician is spared the effort of inventing calculus herself.

And this is true of more than just mathematics. How many times must the wheel have been invented, lost, and reinvented until it was effectively passed down to enough people that we will never again have to re-invent the wheel? Likewise, beer may have been independently invented at various times around the world, but if every new batch could only be brewed by re-discovering fermentation, how could we ever have achieved the tremendous selections of beers available today?

The fantasy of an individual human in the state of nature (totally outside of society) is a popular notion. It features prominently in the philosophical works of Locke, Rousseau, and others. It also appears in fictional works such as Kipling’s Jungle Book and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. A philosophical and fictional book that is an excellent example of the theme is Philosophus Autodidactus (or Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān) by Ibn Tufail. The main character of that book is a foundling that is nursed and raised by a female deer. Over time, this man outside of society is able to discover a great deal about the world. But while the story is meant to show the capacity of humans to learn from their surroundings, I think that it unreasonably downplays the greatest advantage that we have when it comes to learning: the ability to learn from others so that each individual does not have to re-discover everything that has previously been learned before he can go any further.


Beer of the week: Carta Blanca – Ibn Tufail’s writing is steeped in the epistemological concept of “tabula rasa”, a Latin phrase meaning “blank slate.” So it seems that Carta Blanca (Spanish for “white/blank card”) should be a good pairing. This Mexican beer is pretty good for what it is. It is a clear, refreshing lager. And, like so many Mexican beers, it really shines with some salt and lime. And home-made fish tacos.

Reading for the week: Philosophus Autodidactus by Ibn Tufail – Considering the fact that this book is about an entirely self-taught man, it is somewhat ironic how much of an influence it has been on so many important thinkers in the generations after it was first published in the early 12th century. In this excerpt, the title character learns about fire and performs crude experiments in biology.

Question for the week: Ibn Tufail’s character discovers not only a great deal in the field of natural philosophy, but he also discovers the precepts of natural religion. How far could an intelligent individual get if he had to start accumulating knowledge independently from the beginning?

Marginal Value

A reader recently asked me what price she should be willing to pay for cheap beer by the case. When buying beer at the liquor store (or “beer distributor” if I happen to be in Pennsylvania) I expect “sub-premium” beers (such as Hamm’sPBR, Miller High Life, Keystone, etc.) to be about $15.00 per 30 before tax. When buying slightly better beers, I regard it as a good deal if I can get beers at under $1.00 each. And, of course, one must be willing to pay more for better beers.

But it bears repeating that value is not intrinsic. So I repeat, in the words of Ludwig von Mises: “Value is not intrinsic, it is not in things. It is within us; it is the way in which man reacts to the conditions of his environment.” We may attempt to assign value to something, but those values mean nothing without human action. Either we buy at a given price or we do not. If we say “Pabst is not worth $25.00 per 30” but then still make that purchase, we are clearly mistaken. It is only the act of the sale that tells us anything concrete about value.

What’s more, values change relative to each other based on each individual’s hierarchy of wants. “If a man is faced with the alternative of giving up either one unit of his supply of a or one unit of his supply of b, he does not compare the total value of his total stock of a with the total value of his stock of b. He compares the marginal values both of a and of b. Although he may value the total supply of a higher than the total supply of b, the marginal value of b may be higher than the marginal value of a.” This helps shed light on the classic question of why gold is more prized than water, even though water is essential for human survival while gold is not. The answer lies in the fact that under most circumstances, the marginal value of a unit of water is less than the marginal value of a unit of gold. This is because water is generally plentiful enough to supply our basic needs. But it is equally true that in the severest drought, one would not part with a unit of water for any amount of gold; the marginal value of each has changed with the circumstances.

Beer of the week: Casablanca Premium Lager – Among the many conditions that factor into valuing beer is location. In Morocco one may expect to pay slightly more for a beer than one might expect given the prevailing exchange rates. The marginal value of the stock of beer is somewhat higher for its relative scarcity. (That is not to say that it is hard to get beer in Morocco; it is just a smaller market.) Casablanca, Morocco is one of the largest economic centers of Africa. It is also the source of this aptly named beer. Casablanca lager is clear and pale, with a very faint and dry aroma. It is a very standard micro, but plenty refreshing.

Reading of the week: Human Action by Ludwig von Mises – Later in this, his chef d’oeuvre, Mises writes: “The moralists’ and sermonizers’ critique of profits misses the point. It is not the fault of the entrepreneurs that the consumers–the people, the common man–prefer liquor to Bibles and detective stories to serious books, and that governments prefer guns to butter. The entrepreneur does not make greater profits in selling “bad” things than in selling “good” things. His profits are the greater the better he succeeds in providing the consumers with those things they ask for most intensely.”

Question for the week: Do the common people truly prefer liquor to Bibles and detective stories to serious books? Is it not simply true that the marginal value of a second Bible is quite low compared to the marginal value of a second drink?

Origin Story

One of my most vocal critics recently commented about this blog, “It’s not like you write anything original; you just rehash the ideas of classical authors.” For the most part, I agree. Even the original poetry that I’ve posted here is absolutely packed with classical references.

But my critic’s observation is, itself, unoriginal. Virtually nothing is wholly original.

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” – Issac Newton

“A thought is often original, though you have uttered it a hundred times.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

“When Shakespeare is charged with debts to his authors, Landor replies, ‘Yet he was more original than his originals. He breathed upon dead bodies and brought them into life.'” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoting Walter Savage Landor, discussing William Shakespeare

“As the ancients
Say wisely, have a care o’ th’ main chance,
And look before you ere you leap;
For as you sow, ye are like to reap.” – Samuel Butler, paraphrasing John Lyly, John Heywood, and St. Paul

“[The] borrowing and refurbishing of shop-worn goods, as a matter of fact, is the invariable habit of traders in ideas, at all times and everywhere. . . .  At the moment of the contemporary metaphysician’s loftiest flight, when he is most gratefully warmed by the feeling that he is far above all the  ordinary airlanes and has absolutely novel concept by the tail, he is suddenly pulled up by the discovery that what is entertaining him is simply the ghost of some ancient idea that his school-master forced into him in 1887, or the mouldering corpse of a doctrine that was made official in his country during the late war, or a sort of fermentation-product, to mix the figure, of a banal heresy launched upon him recently by his wife.” – H. L. Mencken


Beer of the week: Bavaria Premium – This beer is fairly unoriginal. The name clearly meant to evoke thoughts of the great beer-producing region of Southeast Germany, despite the fact that this beer is from Holland. Similarities in the packaging and price of this beer led me to speculate that Bavaria is a product of the same brewery that gave us Hollandia. A quick search indicates that my hunch was correct. Bavaria is a golden pils with little head retention or aroma. There is a malty sweetness that has a hint of honey. For the price, it is not a bad choice, though I prefer a bit more hops in my lagers.

Reading of the week: In Defense of Women by H.L. Mencken –  The introduction to this book is typical Mencken: plenty of wit and cynicism, and, ultimately, a good deal of sense. “If I knew what was true, I’d probably be willing to sweat and strive for it, and maybe even to die for it to the tune of bugle-blasts. But so far I have not found it.”

Question of the week: Many argue that the word “unique” does not admit of degrees; something either is or is not unique. Is the same true of “original”? Can something be “slightly” or “very” original?

Health Food

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?

“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?

Lost in the Crowd

“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?)