Characteristic Reading

An excellent way for an author to quickly give the reader a sense for his characters is to describe how and what they read. In Eugene Onegin, for example, Alexander Pushkin tells us that Tatyana Larina kept the romantic novels of Samuel Richardson under her pillow, and that Vladimir Lensky had his soul “fired by the flame” of Goethe and Schiller’s poetry. Those small details say volumes about the characters, so to speak.

The problem, of course, is that we readers can only understand the full import of the characters’ reading habits if we, ourselves, are well-read. Knowing that Lensky’s soul was refined by Goethe and Schiller is only helpful if we know anything about Goethe and Schiller’s writing. The more one reads, the more one needs to read.

Beer of the week: Framboise Rose Gose – This Anderson Valley brew is something else. It is not quite clear, pinkish-straw in color, and pours with a very quickly dissipating head. The aroma is very fruity and floral, with loads of berry. The flavor follows the aroma, with tart, slightly astringent raspberry doing all of the heavy lifting. The finish is relatively long, with floral notes hanging around in the back of the throat.

Reading of the week: Middlemarch by George Eliot – Pushkin, of course, is not the only author to have used the technique discussed above. In her description of the character Dorothea Brooke, Eliot mentions that “Dorothea knew many passages of Pascal’s Pensées and of Jeremy Taylor by heart.” Dorothea also “had strange whims of … sitting up at night to read old theological books!” Later in the book, Dorothea adopts the habit of “getting down learned books from the library and reading many things hastily” so that she might be better prepared for elevated conversation.

Question of the week: If somebody wanted to describe you in this way, what reading habit or favorite books of yours would they mention?

Best of All Possible Blog Posts

Aside from his work in mathematics–and lending his name to a brand of butter cookie–Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is best known for his philosophical optimism. He opined that ours is the best of all possible worlds. To oversimplify:
1. God, being good, chose to create the best world.
2. God, being omniscient, was able to evaluate all of the infinite facts and truths of all of the infinite possible universes to determine which is most perfect.
3. God, having determined to make the best possible world and having determined which world that would be, created this world.

Like God, people always act in pursuit of good. As Leibniz wrote in his Discourse on Metaphysics, God’s first decree on human nature “is that men should always do, although freely, that which appears to be the best.” This tracks with Aristotle’s claim at the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics that “every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good.”

Unlike God, however, people are not omniscient, and therefore cannot infallibly determine what is best. “Each soul knows the infinite, knows all, but confusedly. As in walking on the sea-shore and hearing the great noise that it makes, I hear the individual sounds of each wave, of which the total sound is composed, but without distinguishing them.” Consequently, although we always act in the way that appears best, we very often misjudge what is best and/or how to achieve our objective. Without perfect knowledge of what is best, we “must often be content with the simple twilight of probability.”

So what can we do to improve our probability of identifying what is best and most accurately aiming our actions toward it?

One possibility (not suggested by Leibniz, to my knowledge) is to conserve rational energy by minimizing unnecessary decision-making. Have you ever come home from a particularly difficult day at work and felt like you simply could not decide what to have for dinner? This all-too-common experience is the result of an important reality: decision-making takes energy. And rational energy is limited. If you spend all day making important business decisions or solving problems, it shouldn’t be surprising if, at the end of the day, you lack the energy to make even mundane choices such as what to eat.

By reducing the number of choices one must make in a day, one may conserve some of that precious decision-making energy. Supreme Court Justice David Souter famously ate the same lunch every day: yogurt and an apple. Steve Jobs’ constant turtleneck and jeans combination was part of a conscious effort to reduce decision fatigue. By eliminating trivial decisions, one frees up brain power for more important issues. Hopefully, by saving mental energy, we can make the best possible decisions in this best of all worlds.

Beer of the week: Alter Ego – Some people even drink the same beer all of the time. Once you know what you like, why not stick with it? No regular reader will be surprised to know that I enjoy the decision-making that goes into picking what beer to drink. So even though I have had various “go-to beers” over the years, I would never commit to a single brew for long. Alter Ego is a hazy, orangish IPA from Tree House Brewing Company. Its rocky head hangs around for quite a while. The aroma is quite fruity, and the flavor is of tropical fruit with a decent malt body.

Reading of the week: A Letter of Leibniz – In this excerpt, Leibniz uses two synchronized clocks as a metaphor for how one’s soul and body can be perfectly in sync, even though physical and non-physical bodies cannot act on each other. In typical Leibniz style, he ends the passage with the claim that he has more profound proofs, but the clock metaphor will suffice.

Question of the week: Were Leibniz and Aristotle correct in asserting that every human act is aimed at some good?

A Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Muriel toward the BeerAndTrembling education fund. Now that the campaign is no longer live, I encourage readers to participate by reaching out in the comments or through the “Make a Recommendation” page.

Mark Twain’s writing is always quotable, usually funny, and occasionally sublime. There are, of course, the odd missteps. For example, I find A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to be a very uneven mix of sunny humor and dark, cynical satire. And I was generally unimpressed when I recently cracked open Innocents Abroad. But tastes vary, and no body of work can be all chefs d’oeuvre.

Even Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not unalloyed genius. Earnest Hemingway advised readers of Huckleberry Finn to quit before the final chapters. But, at least in my opinion, almost everything before Hemingway’s recommended cutoff point is excellent. The book begins with a notice: “PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Despite this stern warning against looking for meaning in the book, it is impossible not to see something important in Chapter XXXI.

By that point in the book Huckleberry Finn and Jim have travelled a considerable distance down the Mississippi River together. Huck is running from his abusive father and Jim is running from slavery. Eventually, they fall in with two traveling grifters. These frauds try to earn quick money by giving dance lessons and lectures on temperance, “missionarying, and mesmerizing, and doctoring, and telling fortunes, and a little of everything.” They are, however, generally unsuccessful. Eventually, they decide on a more profitable scheme: they betray Jim and sell him back into slavery.

It is under these circumstances that Huck is faced with a moral crisis. He sees two options. One option is to contact Jim’s “rightful” owner, in the hopes that Jim may return to his previous slavery rather than the possibly harsher slavery with of his new masters. Or he can attempt to help Jim escape bondage yet again. It may seem easy, from the reader’s point of view, to see what the “right” thing to do is. The problem for Huck is that he has been taught that what is lawful is good, and what is unlawful is bad. And, according to the laws of man and God, Jim is meant to be a slave. To defy those laws is to become a social pariah and invite eternal damnation.

Huckleberry, as the narrator, describes his inner turmoil. He knows that helping a slave to get his freedom, according to society, is about the most wicked, low-down, rotten thing that he could do. He’d be positively ‘shamed to death to face his friends and neighbors after doing such a despicable thing. Moreover, he believes truly that “everlasting fire” is the reward for aiding Jim’s escape. He sincerely, desperately wants to be good. But being good means he must abandon his friend when he needs him the most. Huck tries to pray, but can’t because he cannot repent wanting to help Jim. And if he cannot repent, he cannot be saved. So he makes his choice:

“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell” …

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

Twain later wrote that Huck’s inner conflict was the collision of “a sound heart and a deformed conscience.” Society had played Huck a cruel trick by convincing him that virtue was evil and evil was virtuous. So while he believed honestly that he was irredeemably wicked, he was actually irrepressibly good. His sound heart overcame his deformed conscience.


Beer of the week: Bud Light Orange – Like some of Twain’s writing, this beer seems caught between being for children or adults. On the one hand, it smells and tastes like an orange lollipop. It occasionally even causes that peculiar pain you can get in the back of your jaw when eating citrus candies. On the other hand, it is beer. In fact, although it is too sweet, it is not quite candy-sweet. It actually tastes a bit like beer. But whoever Bud Light Orange is for, it ain’t me. (Although I honestly would try it as the base for a float with vanilla ice cream, because I am a kid at heart.)

Reading of the week: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – There is not much more to be said about this excerpt that I didn’t say above. But I really do find this to be one of the most moving pieces of writing I’ve ever read.

Question for the week: How can we avoid having our consciences deformed by a misguided society?

Where the Story of Christmas Begins

I don’t know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I’m telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it. It’s a thing you don’t want to go wrong over, because one false step and you’re sunk. I mean, if you fool about too long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you.

Get off the mark, on the other hand, like a scalded cat, and your public is at a loss. It simply raises its eyebrows, and can’t make out what you’re talking about.

P.G. Wodehouse

The Christmas story–the nativity of Jesus, not the beloved 1980’s movie with the BB gun–comes from the gospels. But each gospel writer took a different starting point for Jesus’ origin story.

Matthew starts the story 42 generations earlier, with Abraham fathering Isaac. The genealogy goes on through Jacob and Judah, Kings David and Solomon, and finally Joseph, husband of Mary. (Also in that bloodline are Jehoshaphat, Salmon, and Zerubbabel, whose names are curiously absent from most popular baby name lists.) Matthew goes into the annunciation (when an angel announced the holy pregnancy,) then the birth, and then the visit of the wisemen from the East.

Mark starts with a quotation from the prophet Isiah. He then skips Christmas altogether, and introduces John the Baptist and Jesus as adults.

Luke, not content to let the story speak for itself, starts with something of an author’s prologue. He addresses the gospel to someone called Theophilus (which, if my Greek is any good at all, must mean something like “God’s friend” or “God’s beloved” or “God-lover”.) Before getting into the classic Christmas stuff, Luke spends the better part of a chapter on the conception of John the Baptist, the annunciation, and John’s parents. It isn’t until chapter two that we get the birth, the manger, and the shepherds.

John famously starts his gospel “In the beginning…”, which seems reasonable enough. But the beginning that John identifies predates creation itself (if anything can be said to “predate” the very notion of time.) John covers the entirety of pre-creation through the birth of John the Baptist in about six verses. The birth of Jesus gets a single verse, and then jumps right into the exploits of adult Jesus.

As usual, a closer look raises more questions than answers. Why is the Christmas story relatively unimportant to most of the gospel writers? Why did the gospel writers start in such different ways? Who is Theophilus, anyway?

Beers of the week: Our Special Ale (2017 & 2019) – Our Special Ale is Anchor Brewing Company’s annual holiday beer. Having got my hands on a cellared bottle of the 2017 edition I decided to compare it with the 2019 version. (Although Anchor does not particularly recommend aging their holiday beers, they do claim that it will mellow with age.) The recipe changes from year to year, so differences between the two can’t be attributed solely to the aging.

The 2017 edition is very dark brown, with just a hint of red, and a tan, rocky head. Its aroma has notes of smoke and black licorice. The main flavors seem to come from dark-roasted malt, without much hops to speak of.

The 2019 is dark red-brown, with a lighter, more uniform head. The aroma has some bright hops. The flavor is nicely balanced, with some dark malt notes and a bit of bright hops and spice.

Between the two versions, I certainly prefer the 2019. It is brighter and more carbonated, probably because it wasn’t aged. And, whether it is attributable to the aging or not, the 2017 seems a bit flat and one-note.

Reading of the week: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, Prologue – As Wharton points out in her introduction to the second edition, “the climax, or rather the anti-climax, occurs a generation after the first acts of” Ethan Frome. As a result, she set the prologue of the book long after the principal action, introducing the title character as a fifty-two-year-old with a bad limp. The reader must cross many chapters and two decades to learn the limp’s cause.

Question for the week: Where would your story begin? At your birth? At the birth of your most distant known ancestor? Or, like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, would your story begin at your funeral?

Impostor Syndrome

This is the forty-eighth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLVIII: Thoughts, Letters & Minor Works by Blaise Pascal

The Galaxy Song by Monty Python contains the advice: “remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure, how amazingly unlikely is your birth.” Blaise Pascal put the concept slightly differently: “you find yourself in the world at all, only through an infinity of chances. Your birth depends on a marriage, or rather on the marriages of all those from whom you descend. But upon what do these marriages depend? A visit made by chance, an idle word, a thousand unforeseen occasions.”

The point (to Pascal, if not Python) is that we have no particular “right” to anything we have. Although it may be possible to earn things, we already won the existential lottery simply by being born. Consequently, our own merit accounts for relatively little of what we’ve “accomplished.”

As important as that understanding is, it is vital not to be overwhelmed by it. In the face of such a realization, one may be tempted to give up every effort and ambition on the grounds that an infinity of conditions beyond our control may crush us at any time. A more commendable reaction is to try harder to be the best that we can be. As Epictetus recognized, even though we are subject to an infinity of forces beyond our control, what we can control is our reactions to those forces.

Beer of the week: Creeker Double IPA – Through an infinity of chances, I happened to visit the Ithaca Beer Company recently. This IPA from that small brewery is hazy and yellowish, with plenty of head. The aroma is replete with citrus and tropical fruit notes. The flavor follows. And despite the fact that there is relatively little malt flavor, the beer does have a nice, full body. And at 9% alcohol by volume, it packs a punch.

Reading of the week: Discourses on the Condition of the Great by Blaise Pascal – In this essay, Pascal is particularly interested in the chance that makes one man an aristocrat and another man a commoner. Perhaps he should have focused on the when and where of people’s births; everybody who reads this post almost certainly has a higher standard of living than any of the nobility in Pascal’s day.

Question for the week: What is the biggest factor in an individual’s success: station of birth, education (if that can even be distinguished from station of birth), or something else?


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?

You Also!

This is the thirty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXVI: Machiavelli, More, Luther

It has been said there is no surer sign that an intellectual adversary is defeated than when he stops attacking your ideas and starts attacking you. Martin Luther writes in his Letter to Pope Leo X, “when we can repel the truth by no other pretence, we escape by attributing bitterness, impatience, intemperance, to our adversaries.”

Anybody who follows political news should be aware that this is the standard tactic of all of the most prominent politicians and pundits. (Obviously not the ones that you like and support. You are far to intelligent to fall for such an obvious logical fallacy. And your favorite politicians and talking heads are too upright to stoop to such petty tactics.) Rather than throughly rebutting and defending ideas, these people simply attack the ideas’ proponents. Consider this representative hypothetical:

A: “We should have a flat tax.”
B: “A is a philanderer.”

It is easy, in such a case, to identify the ad hominem and dismiss it as irrelevant. So what if A is a philanderer? That tells us nothing about whether his proposed tax policy is good bad or indifferent. B’s attack is totally unrelated to A’s proposal.

However, one of the most popular forms of ad hominem can be harder to spot. The appeal to hypocrisy (also known as tu quoque or whataboutism) often appears to be on point. For example:

A: “We should support traditional family values.”
B: “A is a philanderer.”

In this case, B’s statement seems relevant. The fact that A is a philanderer certainly appears to bear on the topic of family values. This appeal to hypocrisy is so attractive precisely because it has the semblance of logical refutation. But on closer inspection, the response does not actually refute A’s statement. Rather, it simply attacks A personally. It is totally possible that A’s statement about family values is right, no matter how bad of a spouse A is personally.

The biggest problem with analyzing ad hominem attacks is that if they are true, they may actually have some decision-making value. Whether A is a philanderer does not directly bear on the merits of his tax plan, but it does call into question whether he can be trusted to direct public funds. If his spouse cannot trust him, how can the voters?

(By the way, this example is particularly fertile ground ground for the appeal to hypocrisy. Politicians across the spectrum have bashed opponents for marital infidelity while defending members of their own ranks on the grounds that their personal lives do not effect their ability to govern. Whether they are right when they bash or right when they defend is not important for our purposes. At best, the very fact that they are inconsistent calls into question their motives. At worst it calls into question their reasoning powers. But in any event, it doesn’t really tell us anything about any substantive arguments, only about the people making them.)

And of course, this is true of most ad hominem attacks. Calling somebody a hypocrite, racist, or misogynist is not a refutation of any of their particular ideas or positions; it is merely a personal attack. But if the allegation of hypocrisy, racism, or misogyny is true, it (quite reasonably) makes us question their motives, reliability, and capacity.

The key, as I see it, is to readily identify ad hominem attacks, and give them the weight that they deserve. In the context of a debate of actual issues, that weight extremely low. When possible, ideas should be assessed on their own merits, not on those of their proponents.

Beer of the week: Julius Echter Hefe-Weissbier – This wheat beer from Würzburger Hofbräu is named for Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn, a leader of the Counter-Reformation, who used his power as Prince-Bishop of Würzburg to combat Lutheranism. I doubt he’d like me pairing this beer with a reading in which Luther writes that the Catholic Church “stinks in the nostrils of the world.”

As for the beer, it is hazy and orangish. The foam consists of large, quickly dissipating bubbles. The aroma has some of the classic banana notes of a German hefeweizen. Ultimately, the flavor is a bit underwhelming. This beer is pretty good, but not great.

Reading of the week: Martin Luther to Pope Leo X – It is no mere coincidence that this post was inspired by a Luther reading. Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post addressing a particular ad hominem criticism of Luther. In this letter, he follows up his statement about ad hominem attacks with several paragraphs of blatant ad hominem criticisms, ending with calling the Catholic Church “the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death, and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness.” What a hypocrite!

Question for the week: Do you know of any politicians or pundits who consistently stick to the issues and avoid the ad hominem tactic?

Corruption in Times of Corruption

This is the twenty-first in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXI: I Promessi Sposi, Manzoni

Positions in civil government, from national presidency to homeowners’ association board seats, can be magnets for those who would take advantage of their neighbors. An excellent example of this corruption can be found in I Promessi Sposi, (most often translated as The Betrothed,) by Alessandro Manzoni. When the plague struck Milan in 1629, vicious and rapacious men saw an opportunity. The tumult caused by the plague made it easy for these bad actors to operate without consequence. Indeed, many of them found it expedient to take official government posts, the better to steal and blackmail. “The villains, whom the pestilence spared and did not terrify, found in the common confusion, and in the relaxation of all public authority, a new opportunity of activity, together with new assurances of impunity; nay, the administration of public authority itself came, in a great measure, to be lodged in the hands of the worst among them. Generally speaking, none devoted themselves to the offices of monatti and apparitori but men over whom the attractions of rapine and license had more influence than the terror of contagion, or any natural object of horror.” And once it was clear how much profit was to be made as a government-employed extortionist and robber, these men worked to perpetuate the plague, and thereby perpetuate their power. They would “purposely let fall from their carts infected clothes, in order to propagate and keep up the pestilence, which had become to them a means of living, a kingdom, a festival.” It is remarkable what those in power are capable of doing to maintain their position.

But, as rare as they may be, there actually are examples of political leaders who come into power for noble reasons and maintain their virtue despite that power. Manzoni relates the story of Father Felice Casati, a Capuchin friar who became a sort of minor autocrat during the plague. As the pestilence spread through Milan and the surrounding area, the population of the Lazaretto of Milan swelled. The Lazaretto was a huge quarantine building that became a city unto itself. Although people were dying at a prodigious rate, the population of the Lazaretto exploded as more and more people contracted the plague. At one point, as many as 16,000 people filled the Lazaretto. With so many sick and desperate people, good governance was needed to keep the Lazaretto from becoming pandemonium. The Board of Health decided to install Father Felice as governor of the Lazaretto. Although not a glamorous appointment, the governor was granted “primary and ultimate authority” within the Lazaretto. With this power Father Felice “animated and regulated every duty, pacified tumults, settled disputes, threatened, punished, reproved, comforted, dried and shed tears.” He was absolute dictator within the confines of his quarantine kingdom, but neither that power nor the plague corrupted him.

In at least this once instance, there was an exception to Lord Acton’s axiom that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But to rely on every (or virtually any) politician being another Father Felice is probably a mistake. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken: cleaning up politics by electing righteous people makes no more sense than cleaning up a brothel by filling it with virgins; they either lose their virtue or jump out the window.

Beer of the week: 98 Problems IPA – This hazy orange India Pale Ale is a product of Michigan’s Perrin Brewing Company. The aroma is dominated by pineappley and floral hops. The hops also dominate the flavor, with crisp bitterness both up front and lingering in the aftertaste. Despite the name, there’s not much wrong with 98 Problems.

Reading of the week: I Promessi Sposi by Alessandro Manzoni – Although I Promessi Sposi is a work of fiction, the author tells us that his account of the plague is historically accurate. This excerpt tells how members of the Milanese public attacked doctors, accusing them of fabricating the claims about the plague for personal gain. It is an excellent study in how people will reject the truth and accuse its bearers of evil motivations if the truth is adverse enough to their interests.

Question for the week: What is the best mechanism for curbing political corruption?

What Hope

This is the twentieth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XX: The Divine Comedy, Dante

Having descended to the very pit of hell, and climbed the mountain of purgatory, Dante the pilgrim at last ascends into the celestial spheres of paradise. As was the case through Inferno and Purgatorio, Dante meets many souls in Paradiso. Among them, James son of Zebedee. St. James poses three questions about hope.

In context, the questions clearly refer to hope as a theological virtue. In the previous canto, St. Peter inquires about faith. In the next, St. John tests Dante on charity. Canto XXV is about the sister of those two virtues: hope. But how do Dante’s answers square with the common definition of hope rather than the theological?

What is hope?

Dante says that hope is the sure expectance of a joy to come. This oversteps the usual meaning of hope. It is possible to hope for a joy that never does come. (As when I hope that my favorite baseball team will win.) On the other hand, if one is absolutely certain that a joy is forthcoming, we might not call that hope at all. Such certainty would preclude mere hope.

Rather than Dante’s formulation, it seems more likely that commonplace hope is the present experience of a joy to come. Hope allows us to experience now some portion of a possible future joy. For example, I hope one day to visit Munich for Oktoberfest. That present hope of a potential future occurrence allows me to experience some joy today in the planning and dreaming. Even though I am not certain that I will ever make it back to Germany, I hope that I will. I am therefore able to take present joy in the hoping.

How does it flourish in you?

Dante does not answer this question for himself. Rather, Beatrice vouches for his hope. She tells St. James that not a single member of the church has more hope than he.

Taking the mundane meaning of hope, we may see that people are always possessed of some hope. Humans are always forward thinking. To be sure, sometimes we do not think very far ahead, but we always think ahead somewhat. Even as we reach for the beer mug, we look forward to the pleasure of taking a sip. Is the expected joy more than a moment away? No. But is it in the future relative to when we start to reach for the glass? Absolutely. Because the first motions toward any objective are aimed at the completion of that objective, there really is no such thing as “instant gratification”. Rather, every single decision is made with an eye to a future good. The only truly instant gratification that exists is hope. Even before we begin to move toward the future good, we experience some joy of it through hope.

What is its source?

Dante, still discussing the theological virtue of hope, says that its source is scripture. He singles out the Book of Isaiah, John’s Gospel, and the Epistle of St. James. (What an apple-polisher!)

Surely scripture can be a source of commonplace hope, but we need not set our sights so high. In fact, it is the smallest things that may be the greatest sources of hope. As discussed above, every action is performed with the hope of achieving some goal. The smallest actions are the most likely to succeed. I flip the light switch in hopes of lighting the room; I go to the bar hoping to get a beer; I cross the street hoping to get to the other side. In all of these things, my chance of success is so high, that I am entitled to hope for the best. Cynical as it may sound, I have virtually no hope of becoming an astronaut at this late stage in my life. So, although the potential future joy is very great, the present “hope value” is quite low. And although the joy of trying a new beer is relatively low compared to visiting the moon, the odds that I will like the beer of the week are quite high. As a result, the present hope value (to coin a term) is quiet high.

Anyway, I hope you liked this post.


Beer of the week: Mississippi Mud Black & Tan – From the celestial spheres to the Mississippi Mud. Pre-bottled black & tan misses out on the very best feature of the classic mixed beer: the layering. Layering is not only visually appealing, it allows the drinker to experience the two beers as they mix, so no two sips are ever quite the same. Even so, pre-mixed black & tan is usually delicious. This is a very tasty combination of porter and pilsner. It is deep amber in color with a creamy tan head. The aroma is of fresh sourdough and cocoa. The flavor is full without being heavy, with some nice dark cherry notes in the finish. Good thing it is sold by the quart; one glass might not be enough. Oh, and the name is a lie; Mississippi Mud is brewed in upstate New York.

Reading of the week: Paradiso by Dante Alighieri, Canto XXV – This canto is pretty well outlined above.

Question for the week: Is Dante’s definition of hope (the sure expectance of a joy to come) or my definition (the present experience of a potential future joy) better? Is there a better definition still?

Spanish Haarlem

This is the nineteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IXX: Faust Egmont, Etc., Goethe, Doctor Faustus, Marlow

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In that one sentence, the framers memorialized several of the “inalienable rights” central to the premise of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the nation. Yet, despite how concise the amendment is, people seem constantly to misapprehend its significance. Here are a couple of critical points where people are often mistaken.

1. The amendment only applies to government action. People constantly confuse their right to free speech with a right to be free from the private consequences of that speech. A speech code by a company or private school is not subject to First Amendment analysis. Likewise, a private club may have religious requirements that a government actor may not.

2. That doesn’t mean that other laws do not matter. Some people on the internet hold the idea that “the First Amendment stops the government from infringing on your free speech, but it doesn’t stop me from punching you in the mouth.” Although that statement is technically accurate, punching somebody in the mouth violates laws independent of the First Amendment. Additionally, civil rights laws, government licensing requirements, and so forth may create obligations for private individuals or companies not to discriminate based on the exercise of certain First Amendment rights.

3. The amendment applies to all government action, not just the federal government. The plain of the first amendment states that “Congress shall pass no law…”; it does not mention state governments.  However, a long series of Supreme Court cases has established that the First Amendment (and most of the rest of the Bill of Rights) applies to state action through the “incorporation doctrine”. Even so, the First Amendment is probably redundant in most cases. Each state has its own constitution, and each state constitution includes free speech clause. The New York Court of Appeals, for example, has held that the free speech clause of the New York Constitution provides a greater level of protection than the First Amendment.

4. “Speech” consists of a lot more than just talking. Supreme Court cases have held that the First Amendment’s speech clause protects “expressive conduct.” That can mean a wide range of actions, including burning the American flag, nude dancing, remaining silent, or cross burning.

5. The amendment is especially important because it protects those without political clout. As a practical matter, no government would ever need to be restrained from punishing pro-government speech. Likewise, statements that everybody agrees with are under no threat of suppression. It is the provocative, the unpopular, the revolutionary that needs to be protected. Minority religious groups and others who are heterodox in the myriad ways that people may stray from conventional norms are the people who have the most to fear from popular government, and the most need for an amendment that protects, above all, the freedom of the mind.

Beer of the week: Primus – This week’s reading is set in what is now Belgium, with the principle action taking place in Brussels. So despite the constant references to “Netherlands” and “Netherlanders”, the play is best paired with Belgian beer.  Primus is a “premium lager” from Haacht Brewery in Flanders, Belgium. It is a standard European lager; it looks good, smells good, and tastes good. It is a well-balanced, if unexceptional, beer.

Reading of the week: Egmont by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – In this scene, we learn that the Spanish governor of the Netherlands, the Duke of Alba, “published a decree, by which two or three, found conversing together in the streets, are without trial, declared guilty of high treason.” He also prohibited discussion on affairs of state and made criticism of the government a capital offense.

Question for the week: How many rights are in the First Amendment?