This is the third in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume III: Bacon, Milton, Browne
Imagine that you are in a debate, say, about politics or about who is the best third baseman of all-time. Then, a new interlocutor chimes in, and he is on your side! The problem, though, is that he is not very knowledgeable or articulate. As a result, he is doing you no favors by speaking up. In fact, he is setting your opponent up for easy points. If this guy would just shut up, you know that you could win this debate, but you are being forced to defend poorly thought-out and poorly expressed arguments rather than having the benefit of crafting your own.
This is not an unusual set of circumstances, especially in a world where such “discussions” take place in the form of nesting comments to an article or facebook post. But, of course, these circumstances are not new. Nearly 400 years ago, Sir Thomas Browne offered some advice on the subject that is still eminently applicable.
In the first place, chose whom you debate wisely: “Where we desire to be informed, ’tis good to contest with men above our selves; but to confirm and establish our opinions, ’tis best to argue with judgments below our own, that the frequent spoils and Victories over their reasons may settle in ourselves an esteem and confirmed Opinion of our own.”
Secondly, just because you are right doesn’t mean that you are equipped to defend your position: “Every man is not a proper Champion for Truth, nor fit to take up the Gauntlet in the cause of Verity: many from the ignorance of these Maximes, and an inconsiderate Zeal unto Truth, have too rashly charged the Troops of Error, and remain as Trophies unto the enemies of Truth. A man may be in as just possession of Truth as of a City, and yet be forced to surrender; ’tis therefore far better to enjoy her with peace, than to hazzard her on a battle.”
And finally, you may be firm in your opinions, but if you are intellectually honest, you should be willing to abandon those opinions entirely if presented with a better argument. And, as a consequence, you should not be upset with those who disagree with you (or those who agree with you, but for the wrong reasons): “I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion, or be angry with his judgment for not agreeing with me in that from which perhaps within a few days I should dissent my self.”
Beer of the week: Breckenridge Vanilla Porter – Breckenridge Brewery is a personal favorite, and this offering does not disappoint. A lovely porter with lots of, but not too much, vanilla. It pours with a nice tan head, and the beer has a decent amount of body. A very good beer.
Reading of the week: Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne – Like so many good books, this tract on religion was banned by the Catholic Church. In this selection, Browne endeavors to distinguish heresies from “bare Errors, and single Lapses of understanding.”
Question for the week: Browne advocates debating our intellectual superiors to learn, and debating our intellectual inferiors to solidify and gain confidence in our positions. Is it easy to distinguish when we are trying to learn and when we are trying to build confidence? Aren’t their elements of both in most debates?
“The most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously.”
That is just one expression of the law of noncontradiction. It can be put in a number of ways, but it always comes down to saying that mutually exclusive conditions cannot coexist.
This raises the first classic St. Patrick’s Day problem (the second classic St. Patrick’s Day problem is alcoholism): what is to be made of the Trinity? The trinitarian notion of God is that God is three persons in one being. The Father begot the Son, and the Holy Ghost proceeds from the two of them. Yet, the three are eternal and exist as a single God. This sure looks like a violation of the law of noncontradiction: nothing can be both one and many. Additionally, one cannot be primary and coextensive. That is, one thing cannot both precede another and be coeternal with it.
St. Patrick attempted to explain the mystery with a sprig of clover, known as a shamrock. A sprig of clover, Patrick observed, has three leaves that are all connected. Each leaf is independent and identifiable, yet they form a single shamrock. So the shamrock is both three and one. Just like the Trinity.
The shamrock example, however, is not very convincing. The leaves of the clover are separate and divisible from each other, and no one leaf is the whole clover itself. In effect, each leaf is just one part of the whole. And the mystery of the Trinity is not that simple (hence the term “mystery”.) The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are each believed both totally independent and totally united. An inescapable violation of the law of noncontradiction.
Dante’s attempt at a visual depiction of the Trinity seems more appropriate than the shamrock. Rather than describing the three persons as simple thirds of the single being that is God, Dante describes God as “three circles, Of threefold colour and of one dimension.” Each circle is simultaneously the same circle and distinguishable. He then goes on to state that “all speech is feeble and falls short” of describing the Trinity.
I dare say that he is right.
Beer of the Week: Primátor Stout – Guinness (both original and draught) has already been featured on this blog. So this St. Patrick’s Day beer is a stout from another part of Europe altogether. This Czech beer pours a very, very dark brown and has a head of large, tan bubbles. The mouthfeel of this surprisingly thin. As it warms, though, this beer really shows its rich malt flavor. Not bad at all.
Reading for the week: Paradiso, Canto XXXIII by Dante Alighieri – After a journey through hell and purgatory, the pilgrim Dante makes it to and through heaven to see the very face (or circles) of God. Not included in this reading is the 4th Sphere of Heaven, where the pilgrim Dante see Boethius. In a recent post on this blog, it was noted that Boethius was put to death by the order of King Theodoric the Great. Theodoric, as it turns out, was not a Trinitarian. He was a follower of Arianism, a heterodox view that Jesus, as “begotten God”, is not co-eternal with God the Father and the Holy Ghost.
Question for the week: Paradiso ends with the the pilgrim Dante’s “desire and will” being acted upon by “The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.” I take that “Love” with a capital “L” to be God Himself. Is it better, or merely oversimplifying to think of God as Love itself rather than as a Trinity?
Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I own a few volumes of Great Books of the Western World from Encyclopædia Britannica. (And most of the volumes that I do not own I can get online for free curtesy of The University of Adelaide.) In fact, I suspect that at least half of the weekly readings on this blog can be found in that set.
Mortimer Adler, one of the minds behind the Great Books set, was very interested in the idea that liberal education was appropriate for everybody. Apparently, he kept up a correspondence with a plumber in Utah who had purchased his books. This man served as proof to Adler that an appreciation of and relationship with the Great Books is possible for anybody.
Adler was interested in his “philosophical plumber” because he showed that even in the average man there could be a philosophical soul. I have always enjoyed something of the opposite observation: that the lowly or crude can be found in the great works and their authors. From the schoolyard humor of Aristophanes, Swift, and Rabelais (all three of whom have works included in the Britannica set) to the scatological love notes of Joyce and Mozart. The real draw of these is how out of place and time they seem.
One of the real pleasures in life is finding something new and different where it is unexpected.
Beer of the week: Primátor 24% Double – One such surprise is finding a delicious double porter from a country that is known for its golden lagers. As far as I can tell, the percent symbol (%) on this label should actually be a degree symbol (°). The brewers at Pivovar Náchod apparently use a decent pile of malt to get the sugar content in this beer up to 24° Plato. So much sugar produces both a high alcohol content (10.5%) and a very sweet flavor. This double porter is a very dark brown with a creamy tan head that fades a bit too quickly for my liking. The high alcohol content is evident in the aroma. The flavor is predominantly sweet, almost like a fruit cake or a rum cake. It is a very rich, thick sweetness. Initially, this sweetness is nearly overpowering; I felt a pressing need to consume a salty snack to balance it out. After a while the alcohol content makes itself known by cutting through the sweetness and by imparting a pleasant flush to the face. The quality of this beer can’t be doubted, but it is hard to imagine when a beer this strong and sweet would be ideal.
Reading for the week: Cordas v. Peerless Transp. Co. decision by Judge Carlin – This 1941 court decision involves a mugging, a carjacking, and an entire family being hit by a taxicab with nobody behind the wheel. It is also very artfully written with many classical allusions and comical turns of phrase. It reminds one of a Wodehouse story. In the words of the Honorable Judge, the story is “a breath-bating drama with a denouement almost tragic.”
Question for the week: Why is it that things most catch our eye when they seem out of place?