“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?
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 eighth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
SINCERITY: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
To some extent, many competitive sports rely on subterfuge and deception. Hockey has its deke moves, basketball its pump fakes, boxing its feints, rugby its dummy passes. Baseball, no less than any of these other sports, has it’s share of deceptive practices.
The president of Harvard (and editor of the Harvard Classics) William Eliot once said of the university’s baseball team, “…this year I’m told the team did well because one pitcher had a fine curve ball. I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard.” Eliot, however, is in the minority; most people appreciate and applaud a ball player who is especially adept at deception. It is part of the game, as they say.
Another sneaky part of the game is stealing signs. The catcher uses hand signals to communicate with the pitcher, and if an a base runner is able to intercept those signs, he may gain valuable information for his team. And it is generally accepted that there is nothing wrong with stealing signs.
However, a few weeks ago the Boston Red Sox got caught using an Apple Watch to communicate stolen signs, and that burned some people up. It’s fair enough to have a player steal signs from the base paths, but to use video cameras and electronic messaging is something else entirely. For one thing, a catcher may change his signs when an opponent is on base, making the signs themselves part of a game within the game. But what adaptive measures could the catcher use against video cameras and wireless messaging? It takes an aspect of the game away from the players and puts it in the hands of nameless support staff. For another thing, it converts a relatively rare advantage into a constant. Traditional sign stealing only happens when a runner is on second base, but the use of video makes it possible to steal signs on every single pitch.
The line between admirably clever and despicably devious is not always easy to spot, but when somebody steps well and truly over that line, he draws well deserved ire.
Beer of the week: Oval Beach Blonde – Summer is technically over, but a late heat wave has kept this summer blonde enjoyable. Oval Beach is a beautiful blonde brew from Saugatuck Brewing Company in Michigan. The beer is just a bit tangy, and has a nice malt body. A very refreshing choice.
Reading of the week: The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, Book I, Chapters X & XI – As in sport, military leaders are often praised for deception, but only up to a point. A well laid ambush is considered laudable, but if the ambush is baited with a false truce, it is considered villainous. This excerpt describes some of the acts of Robert Guiscard. Anna Komnene clearly thinks that Robert overstepped the bounds of decency, but history knows him as “Robert the Resourceful”.
Question for the week: Is there really a fair distinction between clever deception and devious deception? Or is all deception equally admirable/reprehensible? (Kant may suggest an answer.)
This is the sixth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
FRUGALITY: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i. e., waste nothing.
“Every excellency, and every virtue,” writes Lord Chesterfield, “has its kindred vice or weakness; and if carried beyond certain bounds, sinks into one or the other. Generosity often runs into profusion, economy into avarice, . . . and so on.” Frugality (thrift, economy, etc.) is one of those virtues that seems most likely to slip into its kindred vice, parsimony (niggardliness, avarice, etc.) So how can one be careful without being cheap?
Thomas Hobbes would advise prioritizing frugality below ambition. “Frugality,” he writes in Leviathan, “though in poor men a virtue, maketh a man unapt to achieve such actions as require the strength of many men at once; for it weakeneth their endeavour, which is to be nourished and kept in vigour by reward.” To the extent that one’s frugality impedes one’s ambition, the ambition ought to be preferred because our happiness depends on our ability to continually advance.
Of course, this advice is qualified. For one thing, Hobbes concedes that people of limited means ought to practice frugality. It is not totally clear how Hobbes would define “poor men”, but it seems likely that the bulk of humanity falls into that class for purposes of his Leviathan. That particular section of the book starts with an explanation that felicity can only be obtained through constantly fulfilling an ceaseless series of desires. Aside from those at the very top of society, it seems unlikely that many have the resources to properly pursue that “perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.”
Still, even poor folk ought to weigh their goals and aspirations when deciding how to spend their money. Even when money is tight, there are some desires that are “worth it.” Those desires or goals that are likely to lead to long term gain (or, in Hobbes’s terms, are likely to assure the ability to satisfy future desires) are probably worth investing in, and those that are likely to lead to recurring expense (or diminish the likelihood of achieving future goals) should be pursued only cautiously. For example, a tightfisted farmer who purchases a low-quality, second hand plow is probably not doing himself any favors. He is not being frugal, but cheap. Likewise, a thousand dollars spent on a once-in-a-lifetime trip is probably a better choice than buying a thousand dollar snow-mobile (or any other toy) that will result in future expenses in the forms of storage, maintenance, and fuel. In the words of Francis Bacon, “a man ought warily to begin charges which once begun will continue; but in matters that return not he may be more magnificent.”
Beer of the week: DAB Dark Beer – Budgeting for beer is a balancing act where one must consider not only the price, but also the quantity and quality. For example, a six pack of .5L cans of DAB actually costs less than a sixer of 12 oz. bottles of Bud, but tastes much better. And this is not the first time that I have turned to Dortmunder Actien-Brauerei for relatively good beer on the cheap. For a while as a student in 2007, Dortmunder Hansa was my go-to brew. It came in half-liter bottles, and was a serious value for a reasonably good European lager. This dark lager is pretty good. It pours with plenty of tan foam and a decent bready aroma. It has some of the classic dark malt flavors, including an aftertaste of coffee, but without much of the bitterness that often accompanies dark roasted malt. I am a big fan of dark lagers are generally, and this one is no exception.
Reading of the week: Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes – This excerpt is from a section of Leviathan called Of the Difference of Manners. But Hobbes makes it clear immediately that by “manners” he does not mean “how a man should wash his mouth, or pick his teeth before company, and such other points of the ‘small morals’.” What Hobbes is interested in is how one may live in society despite the fact that our happiness depends on our ability to constantly acquire power, presumably over, or at least to the exclusion of, others.
Question for the week: There are beers that fetch hundreds of dollars per bottle on the secondary market. Is it possible that one of those beers is actually hundreds of times better than a dollar beer? Is that even the right way to analyze the price?
Once upon a time, a radical preacher inspired a new and rapidly growing religious sect. After the death of the preacher, the sect continued to expand. Eventually, the civil and religious authorities of the region came to perceive the sect as a threat to the established order. Agents were dispatched to suppress the sect, often with violence. One such agent came to infiltrate the sect and rise to a position of leadership. From that position, he was able to effectively rewrite the tenets of the newly formed religion in a way that made it much more amenable to rule by the civil authorities. And eventually, the state not only condoned the sect, but adopted it as the official state religion.
Most of you have already guessed that I did not make this story up. The preacher is Jesus Christ; the sect is Christianity; the State is Rome; and the agent is Saul of Tarsus, later known as St. Paul the Apostle. There is no way to be sure that Saul of Tarsus remained a government agent after his “conversion”, but it certainly makes for a compelling interpretation.
Before the conversion, Saul apparently had the governmental authority to execute and imprison Christians. (Although he asserts that his authority came from the Hebrew religious leaders, it is somewhat incredible that the Roman overlords would simply allow people to run around killing and imprisoning other individuals under the protection of Rome.) After the conversion, Paul became a prolific writer. In fact, his writings comprise the bulk of the New Testament, much more than the words of Jesus himself. And when compared with the teachings of Jesus, Paul’s writings are decidedly more “pro-state”.
While Jesus’ position on secular authority (and social hierarchies generally) are ambiguous at best, Paul is all-in on the authority of civil government. Jesus said “render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” At most, this is a bland endorsement of following the law. More likely, when read with the rest of Jesus’ statements about money, this is an indictment of wealth-seeking. “You should not care about having to pay your taxes because you should be concerned with Godly things rather than material things.”
Paul, on the other hand, states explicitly that the emperor has moral authority to rule, and that to disobey the state is to commit a sin against God. Because all power comes from God, every king is an instrument of God’s will. And this position is not limited to good or virtuous kings. Whoever happens to be in charge, be they ever so vile, must be obeyed because they are in power by God’s grace. Grotius explains that for Paul, “the kingly office, even under all circumstances, was appointed by God… [so] regal power would retain its indelible sanctity, though in the hands of an ungodly man.”
That sort of blind obedience is exactly the sort of tenet that a monarchical empire such as Rome would want it’s growing fringe religious group to have. When crimes against the state are punishable by both corporeal and spiritual means, the religion has become a very valuable tool for power.
Beer of the week: Perla Honey – There has got to be some sort of lesson here about “too much of a good thing”. I think that the components here are good, but in the wrong proportions. It definitely tastes like real honey, and the beer is smooth and seems good, but it is impossible to tell under the sheer quantity of honey. It is like taking a shot of honey. If the sweetness were dialed way down, I think this would be really good.
Reading of the week: On the Law of War and Peace by Hugo Grotius – This excerpt from Grotius’s treatise purports to refute arguments that Christian scripture proscribes war. He relies, predictably, on the writings of St. Paul.
Question for the week: If all kings, no matter how despicable, are ordained by God, it is clearly a sin to rebel. However, if a pretender to the throne is successful in overthrowing the king, he becomes the new king and all of his actions are sanctioned. The lesson appears to be that rebellion is only a sin if it is unsuccessful. Is there any way to salvage Grotius’ (or Paul’s) position on this matter without resulting in an absurdity?
Some “small-government” and “states’ rights” proponents are less cynical, and even defend the failed Confederate States on the grounds that the CSA were motivated by self-determination, states’ rights, and principled politics. But do the historical documents bear that out?
Beer of the week: Slow Ride Session IPA – To avoid (additional) needless controversy, I have paired this reading with a beer from a Colorado, which was not yet a state during the brief existence of the CSA. New Belgium’s session IPA is quite good. My 12-pack seems to have been over carbonated; every can foamed over when opened. Otherwise, there is nothing to complain about. The beer is a hazy orange-yellow with lots of white foam. Some yeasty aroma makes it past the strong, citrusy hops smell. The flavor is not as strong as expected, but it is nicely balanced and refreshing with a nice citrus finish. One certainly could drink this beer over the course of a long session.
Reading of the week: The Constitution of the Confederate States of America – This is the kind of thing that every middle school student in the United States should be required to read in history class. It did not even occur to me that I should read it until I was in my late twenties. It is instructive as to the causes of the Civil War, but also a useful tool for evaluating the Constitution of the United States.
Question of the week: There are some other changes worth mentioning: the CSA president would have served for 6 years with no chance for reelection. Also, all bills passed by congress would have a single purpose (eliminating omnibus bills and unrelated riders.) Finally, the president would have the power to issue line item vetoes. Are any of the changes made by the Confederates worth considering as amendments to the Constitution of the USA?
“The American of today, in fact, probably enjoys less personal liberty than any other man of Christendom, and even his political liberty is fast succumbing to the new dogma that certain theories of government are virtuous and lawful, and others abhorrent and felonious. Laws limiting the radius of his free activity multiply year by year: It is now practically impossible for him to exhibit anything describable as genuine individuality, either in action or in thought, without running afoul of some harsh and unintelligible penalty. It would surprise no impartial observer if the motto “In God we trust” were one day expunged from the coins of the republic by the Junkers at Washington, and the far more appropriate word, “verboten,” substituted. Nor would it astound any save the most romantic if, at the same time, the goddess of liberty were taken off the silver dollars to make room for a bas-relief of a policeman in a spiked helmet. Moreover, this gradual (and, of late, rapidly progressive) decay of freedom goes almost without challenge; the American has grown so accustomed to the denial of his constitutional rights and to the minute regulation of his conduct by swarms of spies, letter-openers, informers and agents provocateurs that he no longer makes any serious protest.” – The American Credo (1920)
In the nearly 90 years since George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken published The American Credo, the country has changed quite considerably. It seems worthwhile to make note of some of the ways that their predictions have turned out:
- “[T]he dogma that certain theories of government are virtuous and lawful, and others abhorrent and felonious” has been a staple of American foreign policy since the book was published. The whole of the Cold War was dedicated to the proposition that American-style “democracy” is morally superior to Soviet-style “communism”. Our latest military adventures have likewise been sold as “spreading democracy” to countries that have “bad” governments. (Even as the United States has actively participated in propping up violent dictators, so long as they were adequately pro-American, if not pro-democratic.)
- It is more true than ever that virtually all actions violate some law or other. Federal laws alone are now so numerous that literally nobody can say how many there actually are. Additionally, many federal regulatory bodies have the power to enact rules and regulations that carry criminal penalties. So while there may be as many as 4,500 federal criminal laws, there may also be as many as 300,000 federal regulations with criminal penalties. Consequently, it remains nearly impossible to do anything “without running afoul of some harsh and unintelligible penalty.”
- “In God we trust” is subject to more or less constant attacks, but so far without any success.
- The goddess of liberty has been removed from our dollar coins. Her first replacement was Dwight Eisenhower, former general and chief executive. Not quite a “policeman in a spiked helmet,” but not too different either. Eisenhower gave way to more peaceful images of Susan B. Anthony and then Sacagawea. Now we are back to the presidents, although the mint now has such an insane supply that they have stopped releasing new presidential dollar coins into circulation. More important than the image on the coins, however, is the fact that in the middle of the 1960’s the United States officially reneged on the promise to pay silver on demand for its notes, paving the way for unprecedented manipulations of the supply of money.
- The “swarms of spies, letter-openers, informants and agents provocateurs” are still at work in this country, but with more power than ever. Whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden have helped to highlight just how vast and pervasive American government spying is. And, true to Mencken’s observations, the vast majority of Americans do not put up any real protest.
The more things change, so they say, the more they stay the same. But it is hard to believe that even Mencken and Nathan could have been so cynical as to foresee the world as it is today. Surely the constant, and actually accelerating, decay of freedom must have a breaking point. How vast our freedom must have been if we are able to have lost so much.
Beer of the Week: Zlatý Bažant (Golden Pheasant) – Although I have been aware of this Slovakian beer for quite a while, I never tried it until now. When I saw Golden Pheasant for sale in the past, it was always brewed under contract in the Czech Republic. This bottle, however, is the real deal from Hurbanovo, Slovak Republic. The beer is pretty and golden, with a nice white head that leaves decent lacing. It seems very much like any Czech lager, but there is something about it that seems a bit off, particularly in the aftertaste. It really is an ok beer, but there is just something about the Golden Pheasant that I don’t care for.
Reading of the week: The Spy by Svetozár Hurban-Vajanský – Hurbanovo, Slovakia, as it turns out, is named for Jozef Miloslav Hurban, a prominent Slovak freedom-fighter against the oppressive Hungarian regime. His son Svetozár Hurban-Vajanský was a poet and also a prominent Slovak nationalist. So a Hurban-Vajanský poem seems like a good pairing for Golden Pheasant. — The extensive use of spies and secret police against citizens is a sure sign of trouble for all freedom-loving peoples. It has been repeated through history, and the rulers who use those tactics number among the most notorious names in the annals of human society. This poem is a parody of the creation of man from Genesis. The devil forms a body of clay (and spit) and breathes life into it. And the result is not an ordinary man, but something far more evil: a spy.
Question of the week: There is an expression, the origin of which I cannot locate: “agent provocateur is a job so despicable that there is no word for it in the English language.” Do you know who said that? And is the agent provocateur really the worst sort of spy?