The Philosopher King of Serbia

“Since the philosophers are those who are capable of apprehending that which is eternal and unchanging . . . when men of this sort are perfected by education and maturity of age, would you not entrust the state solely to them?” Thus was born the philosopher king in Plato’s Republic.

The viability of Plato’s city in speech as a model for an actual city is debatable, but more than a few people have taken the idea seriously. If a totally enlightened philosopher could somehow become an absolute monarch, they reason, he could create the best possible society.

But, as Frédéric Bastiat wrote, “This idea — the fruit of classical education — has taken possession of all the intellectuals and famous writers of our country. To these intellectuals and writers, the relationship between persons and the legislator appears to be the same as the relationship between the clay and the potter.” People, however, are not clay, and no king can (or should attempt to) reshape his subjects. As Karl Popper observed, Karl Marx’s and Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s interpretations of Plato’s philosopher king paved the way for totalitarian dictators such as Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

Perhaps the problem with the philosopher king is not the idea itself, but the speific philosophy of the king. What if there were a philosopher king whose philosophy was one of freedom, individualism, and liberality? An interesting case study might be King Peter I of Serbia, also known as Peter the Liberator. It’s not clear that he was a philosopher per se, but in his youth he translated John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty into Serbian. His ascension to the throne ushered in the “golden age” of Serbian democracy. He enacted reforms to ensure political freedoms, including freedom of the press. Peter also shifted the political power away from his own office, and toward a more liberal, democratic parliamentary system.

Perhaps the philosopher king is desirable, not Plato’s (or Marx’s or Hegel’s) philosopher king, but Mill’s philosopher king.

Beer of the week: Zaječarsko Svetlo Pivo – Peter I is pretty impressive, but this Serbian lager is not. It is clear gold with a fluffy but quickly dissipating head. There is hardly any aroma to speak of. The flavor is thin and watery. There is some bland adjunct grain flavor a hint of hops bitterness, but this beer is basically forgettable.

Reading of the week: A Few Words on Non-Intervention by John Stuart Mill – I know that Peter I translated On Liberty, but I do not know whether he ever read A Few Words on Non-Intervention. Peter was a military man, through and through, having fought in the French Foreign Legion and as a guerilla against the Ottomans in the Balkans. This short essay by Mill would have been helpful for Peter as king, in determining how and when to employ his military against other nations. Mill writes, “To go to war for an idea, if the war is aggressive, not defensive, is as criminal as to go to war for territory or revenue; for it is as little justifiable to force our ideas on other people, as to compel them to submit to our will in any other respect.”

Question of the week: What would the best philosopher king look like? And how could such a person ever come to power?


Heads of Stone, Hearts of Lead

Four months ago, I published The Authoritative Quarantine Reading List™. By now, more diligent readers than I must be in need of new reading material. In recognition of society’s recent collective shift of attention, I present The Public Statue Reading List™.

The qualifications for the list:
– It must be available for free online; trips to the library are still out of the question for many people.
– It must deal with a public statues, with particular emphasis on the significance of public monuments.
– It must be relatively short; many of us have learned recently that an extraordinary amount of time at home does not mean an extraordinary amount of reading time.

The Book of Daniel, Chapter 2. Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon dreamed of a colossal statue whose “head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.” With God’s help, Daniel interprets the dream, explaining how the statue represents the rise and fall of successive empires.

Bibliotheca Historica by Diodorus Siculus, Book I, Chapters 45-47. According to Diodorus, the city of Thebes was “the most prosperous city, not only of Egypt, but of the whole world.” “For no city under the sun has ever been so adorned by votive offerings, made of silver and gold and ivory, in such number and of such size, by such a multitude of colossal statues, and, finally, by obelisks made of single blocks of stone.” Preeminent among the statues was that of Ozymandias (whom we know today as Ramesses II), which was not only gigantic, but “also marvelous by reason of its artistic quality and excellent because of the nature of the stone, since in a block of so great a size there is not a single crack or blemish to be seen.”

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Ozymandias by Horace Smith. Shelley and Smith wrote their sonnets as part of a friendly competition. Each poem uses the ruins of a great Egyptian statue as an allegory for the impermanence of the works of man. Even the greatest statue of the greatest king will eventually crumble and be forgotten.

The Bronze Horseman by Alexander Pushkin. This narrative poem follows its protagonist through St. Petersburg’s great flood of 1824. The protagonist loses everything in the calamity: his home, his fiancée, and his sanity. Later, in a moment of “painful clarity of thought,” he recognizes in the great equestrian statue of Peter the Great the ultimate source of his troubles.

The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde. The main characters of this children’s story are a statue and a swallow. Despite his title, the statue of the Happy Prince is quite sad and weeps for the poor of the city. From his pedestal, he has an unparalleled vantage of the citizens’ suffering. To ease their pain, the Happy Prince has the swallow pluck out his gems and peel off his gold leaf and distribute them to the needy. The town counsellors and the mayor, seeing the statue stripped of his ornamentation, tear it down and vote to enact government spending reform to alleviate the tax burden on the city’s poor. Just kidding, they fight over whose statue should replace the Happy Prince.

The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus. Lazarus wrote this sonnet as part of a drive to raise funds to build the pedastal for New York Harbor’s Statue of Liberty. The statue, of course, is of Liberty personified, and the poem describes Liberty as “the Mother of Exiles,” holding the torch of freedom for the whole world to see.

Oration on the Occasion of the Unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument by Fredrick Douglass. The Freedmen’s Monument, in Washington, D.C., portrays a benevolent Abraham Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation and standing over a crouching erstwhile slave in broken chains. In his speech at the monument’s unveiling, Douglass acknowledged that Lincoln was not principally interested in vindicating the rights of slaves. “[Lincoln] was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty,” if it meant peace for white Americans. Lincoln had even offered to preserve the institution of slavery if the Confederates would lay down their arms. Regardless of Lincoln’s primary intentions, however, Douglass believed that the monument was appropriate.

Each of the above readings provides a framework for considering the purpose and import of public statues. For those who actually followed through on the The Authoritative Quarantine Reading List™ (and anybody else who is interested,) I would also point to Book 6 of The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. There, Thucydides relates how, shortly after Athens recovered from the plague, many of the city’s statues had their faces mutilated in the night. History never stops repeating itself, does it?

Beer of the week: Dogfish Head Sixty One – This is meant to be the same beer as Dogfish Head’s flagship 60 Minute IPA, but brewed with Syrah grape must. As it pours out of the bottle, this beer looks like a sparkling rosé. In the glass, however, Sixty One is a very dark pink, nearing amber. The head is rocky and long-lasting. The aroma is definitely has plenty of red wine notes. This delicious beer is hard to pin down because the hops are somewhat muted compared to the earthy grape notes. I think that it is well-balanced, but hard to describe.

Reading of the week: The Story of Pygmalion and the Statue in Metamorphoses by Ovid – This is the perfect story for someone who really loves statues. However, I omitted the tale of Pygmalion from the reading list because it does not deal with a public statue; Pygmalion kept his ivory maiden in a private, ornately decorated room.

Question for the week: What is the best argument for spending tax money to erect and maintain statues–any statues?


Natural Villains

Quis, asks Juvenal, custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guardians? (Or, as Lisa Simpson put it: “who will police the police?”) Answers to this famous question have been attempted, but few answers have been satisfactory. An equally famous quotation, if not equally ancient, may explain why some level of abuse is inevitable: “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (Lord Acton.)

But the context of Juvenal’s question may provide some insight for preventing police abuses today. Juvenal’s Satire VI is an invective against the perceived moral decay of Roman society. In particular, the custodes or guardians are introduced as a mechanism to prevent women from getting into trouble. But Juvenal laments that they will ultimately fail in that task. “I hear all this time the advice of my old friends: keep your women at home, and put them under lock and key. Yes, but who will guard the guardians? Wives are crafty and will begin with them.” The guardians cannot enforce morality on the women because they are susceptible to the very same vices.

The problem, in the modern context of policing, is that morality cannot be enforced by law. “Laws,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills.” And every law that attempts to enforce morality simply creates additional occasion for armed police to come into conflict with citizens. And more unnecessary interactions means more opportunity for abuse. After all, “the essential feature of government is the enforcing of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning.” (Ludwig von Mises.)

In 2014, Eric Garner was choked to death by New York City police officers. Those police were enforcing a “sin tax” on cigarettes. The city had decided that smoking was immoral, had enacted a tax to penalize it, and tasked its sizable police force with enforcing the tax. Garner was allegedly evading the cigarette tax by selling individual darts, so the police accosted and ultimately killed him. The city did not plan on killing people who evaded the cigarette tax, but it was always a possibility.

More recently, Breonna Taylor was shot to death in her bed by Louisville police officers. This was the tragic and all-too-predictable result of a police tactic known as a “no-knock raid.” The Supreme Court of the United States has concluded that the fourth amendment to the Constitution requires that police announce their presence and allow the people inside the building to open the door before the police can execute a search warrant. However, an exception exists when the police claim that the subject of the search might destroy evidence if the police are forced to announce themselves before rushing in. The classic destruction of evidence concern is flushing drugs down the toilet. Breaking this all down into steps: the legislature decides that drug use is immoral, so they criminalize possession and sale of drugs; courts decide that getting drug convictions is so important that they are willing to abrogate the constitutional requirement that police announce themselves before executing a search; police perform no-knock raids by breaking into people’s homes in the middle of the night; and anybody foolish enough to try to defend himself against these apparent armed home invaders gets shot at. Police broke into Taylor’s house in the night; her boyfriend (a licensed gun owner) acted in self-defense; the police shot Taylor dead. The raid was not intended to result in a homicide, but it was always a possibility.

If police were not tasked with enforcing morality in the form of victimless crimes, they would have fewer confrontations with citizens and the police would need less policing.

Beer of the week: Natural Villain – Is there any villain more natural than the over-reaching authority figure? I think not. This highly-carbonated, clear-gold adjunct lager comes from Goose Island Beer Company. The aroma has notes of bread, grass, and corn. Natural Villain is crisp and refreshing with just a bit of lingering hops bitterness. As a summer thirst quencher, it is a good choice.

Reading of the week: Satire VI by Juvenal – Juvenal blames the moral decay of Rome on a long period of prosparity and peace. These two apparent goods, he claims, have made the Romans soft and corrupt. In particular, he asserts that Roman women have become prodigal, impious, intemperate, and lustful. In case you can’t locate the famous line, this translation has “watch the warders” for custodiet ipsos custodes.

Question for the week: Most of my analysis above relies on the premise that morality cannot and should not be legislated. Is that claim accurate? Shouldn’t legislatures attempt to make their citizens virtuous by outlawing vice?


Great Men Make Lousy Fathers

This is the second in a series of posts on family (and Sierra Nevada beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

The general and politician Themistocles laid the groundwork for Athens to become the greatest naval power in ancient Greece. He was also instrumental in repelling the second Persian invasion, leading the Greek fleet to victory in the Battle of Salamis. And yet, according to Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Meno, Themistocles’s son Cleophantus never approached his father’s greatness. Socrates says that the story is the same for Aristides and Pericles: great men with inferior sons.

The ultimate conclusion of the dialogue is that greatness cannot be taught. If it were possible, surely Themistocles et al. would have taught their sons to be great. But maybe they were simply too busy being great men to be great fathers. In an essay, Francis Bacon wrote that “the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men; which both in affection and means, have married and endowed the public.” In short, civic greatness and great parenting each require so much attention and effort that they are mutually exclusive; one may be a great man or a great father, but not both.

In the essay, Bacon does not explicitly advocate one choice over the other. For himself, he seems to have chosen greatness; rising to the position of Lord Chancellor and fathering no children. Mary Wollstonecraft, however, suggests that choosing parenthood over greatness may be the better decision for society. She agrees with Bacon that childless men were more likely to become great, “[b]ut the welfare of society is not built on extraordinary exertions; and were it more reasonably organized, there would be still less need of great abilities, or heroic virtues.” One can more reliably do more for the world by raising children well than by trying to be a hero.

Beer of the week: Torpedo Extra IPA – Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo is hazy amber, with a head of small, off-white bubbles that never seem to dissipate. The aroma is floral and piney. It is a very smooth beer considering how hoppy and alcoholic it is (7.2% ABV). The taste starts with some biscuit and caramel malt flavors, but the hops quickly take over and leave a lingering bitterness in the back of the throat. 

Reading of the week: A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft – This excerpt from Wollstonecraft’s most famous work is primarily about the distinction between reason and sensibility. Women, she opines, are raised with an excess of the latter and a dearth of the former.

Question for the week: Themistocles and Pericles (and Bacon) are but a few examples of great men without great offspring. Can you think of any good counter examples?


Great Men, Bad Historiography

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Matt 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.

Americans are obsessed with their president, whoever he happens to be at any given time. In part, that is because the president’s powers are grossly out of proportion with the original intent for the office. The current influence of the president on the day-to-day lives of Americans would be utterly unthinkable to the American founders.

But another cause for the obsession with presidents is the way that many people have internalized the “great man theory” of history. As Thomas Carlyle, the philosopher most associated with the great man theory put it:

Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these.

I am inclined to believe that the great man theory is not only wrong; it is deleterious.

It is wrong because, as Aristotle observed, every human action is directed toward some good. Whether the act achieves its objective, or whether the actor has correctly identified a good are questions beyond our present scope, but I am inclined to believe that the aggregate of human action is net gain. As a result, human history and progress is really the story of innumerable actions by each member of the species, not merely the acts of “great men.”

And the theory is deleterious because people who believe it are inclined to support the rise of dictators. If you honestly believe that humanity is only advanced by exceptional leaders who take the reins of power and exert their will on the world, you are likely to seek out and support purported “great men” who happen to share your policy preferences. Carlyle’s philosophy is the philosophy of dictators. It is no surprise that Hitler was a fan, and that Carlyle has even been described as a “proto-fascist”.

Luckily, we commoners outnumber the great men. So long as we keep acting in our best interests–which are seldom truly at odds with the interests of others–and we work to limit the influence of great men–ideally through the implementation of limited constitutional government–the great march of history can continue in its generally positive direction.

And, just as we outnumber the great men, better thinkers outnumber Carlyle, at least on the subject of the great man theory. For example:

Herbert Spenser:

If it be a fact that the great man may modify his nation in its structure and actions, it is also a fact that there must have been those antecedent modifications constituting national progress before he could be evolved. Before he can re-make his society, his society must make him. So that all those changes of which he is the proximate initiator have their chief causes in the generations he descended from. If there is to be anything like a real explanation of these changes, it must be sought in that aggregate of conditions out of which both he and they have arisen.

Ludwig von Mises:

Simplified accounts of history, adapted to the capacity of people slow of comprehension, have presented history as a product of the feats of great men. The older Hohenzollern made Prussia, Bismarck made the Second Reich, William II ruined it, Hitler made and ruined the Third Reich. No serious historian ever shared in such nonsense… Every man, whether great or small, lives and acts within the frame of his age’s historical circumstances. These circumstances are determined by all the ideas and events of the preceding ages as well as by those of his own age. The Titan may outweigh each of his contemporaries; he is no match for the united forces of the dwarfs.

Bastiat:

Actually, it is not strange that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the human race was regarded as inert matter, ready to receive everything—form, face, energy, movement, life—from a great prince or a great legislator or a great genius. These centuries were nourished on the study of antiquity. And antiquity presents everywhere—in Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome—the spectacle of a few men molding mankind according to their whims, thanks to the prestige of force and of fraud. But this does not prove that this situation is desirable. It proves only that since men and society are capable of improvement, it is naturally to be expected that error, ignorance, despotism, slavery, and superstition should be greatest towards the origins of history.

There are too many “great” men in the world—legislators, organizers, do-gooders, leaders of the people, fathers of nations, and so on, and so on. Too many persons place themselves above mankind; they make a career of organizing it, patronizing it, and ruling it.

Beer of the week: Alter Ego – Tree House Brewing Company is known for it’s IPAs, and Alter Ego is a good one. This is a very hazy, orangish American IPA. It pours with a rocky head that hangs around for quite a while. The aroma is loaded with fruity hops, and the flavor has excellent tropical fruit notes. A decent malt body rounds out this delicious brew.

Reading of the week: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Second Epilogue – Tolstoy had strong opinions about the great man theory himself. In this excerpt, Tolstoy writes: “So long as histories are written of separate individuals, whether Caesars, Alexanders, Luthers, or Voltaires, and not the histories of all, absolutely all those who take part in an event, it is quite impossible to describe the movement of humanity without the conception of a force compelling men to direct their activity toward a certain end. And the only such conception known to historians is that of power.”

Question for the week: How can you–presumably not a “great man”–shape history?


Play-Fighting

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

Natural affinities exist between dogs and men. We love them, they love us. They are our companions, our pets, and–as in the case of sheepdogs or bird dogs–our colleagues. But what about dogs makes them our friends?

Spiritedness, according to psychotherapist (and dog-lover) Gary Borjesson, is central to friendship. In his book Willing Dogs & Reluctant Masters, Borjesson writes that our spiritedness, the “feisty, domineering part of our souls… makes us friendly.” It is, he claims, the spiritedness of dogs and their owners that links the two in friendship. But I wonder if Borjesson’s insight is as universal as it seems. He relies heavily on Aristotle, Socrates, and his own experience, resources that are exclusively and unapologetically masculine. It makes sense that male-male friendships (like friendships with dogs) are characterized by spiritedness–and the play-fighting and competition it engenders. But is that also the case in friendships with and between women?

Little boys seem to exemplify friendship through spiritedness. They are forever going on small adventures, fighting mock battles, and inventing new games. Their spiritedness leads them to compete, and their competition breeds friendship.

All of my closest male-male friendships from childhood through college were characterized by competition and play-fighting. At college, my friends and I played every intramural sport on offer, stared at video game screens until our eyes were dry and strained, and even tried to “keep score” in our classes.

(Very rarely, we also played drinking games. More often than not, we simply drank while discussing great books and great ideas. Arguably, such conversations were more competitive than any drinking game.)

Every male-female friendship of mine, however, has lacked any prevailing sense of competitiveness. And it is my sense that spiritedness is not at the heart of female friendship the way it is for men. It is widely acknowledged that girls are generally more cooperative and less competitive than boys. And while boys who dislike competition often have a hard time making friends, I never observed that that about girls. Tug-of-war and such mindless competition may be enough to cement friendship with a boy or a dog, but I get the sense that friendship with girls is more nuanced. Perhaps something less aggressive than spiritedness is at the heart of girls’ friendships.

Spiritedness is not a uniquely masculine trait; don’t get me wrong. As Kipling famously recognized, “the female of the species is more dangerous than the male.” I’ve known and admired many very spirited girls and women. It merely appears to me that the friendship of women is less spirited (though no less ardent) than the friendship of men. But, like Aristotle, Plato, and Borjesson, I am out of my depth in opining what makes women’s friendships tick.

Reading of the week: Eulogy of the Dog by George G. Vest – This famous oration was actually part of Vest’s closing arguments at the end of a jury trial. His client was suing the man who killed his hunting dog. The argument was evidently persuasive; the jury returned a verdict in favor of Vest’s client. Borjesson, “with all due respect to” Vest, claims that if dogs were truly as Vest described them, they would be “too undiscriminating, too foolish and lacking in self respect to be friends.”

Beers of the week: Castaway IPA – Kona may have started as a Hawaiian Brewery, but this particular bottle was brewed in New Hampshire. Castaway is one of Kona’s delicious IPAs. It pours with a creamy head, and smells of bready malts and prominent, but not overpowering hops. Very well balanced, very delicious.

Question for the week: Is spiritedness the lynchpin of friendship?


B&T Goes to Cornell

I am pleased to announce that I have signed up for a course in beer tasting from Cornell University. Although I practically minored in beer drinking as an undergrad, this is an actual class from an Ivy League school. The course focuses on the differences in the myriad styles of beer, and how to apply a consistent set of criteria to evaluate and review them.

Shocking as it may be, however, Cornell is not free. And so, I have decided to crowdfund my tuition. I struggled with this decision because it feels frivolous and conceited to ask people to put their hard-earned money toward my hobby. But after a lot of consideration, I decided that there are good reasons to start a crowdfunding campaign.

For one thing this blog is not just my hobby. There are people out there who genuinely enjoy BeerAndTrembling. And I know for a fact that some people are actually excited to support this blog and contribute toward a class that will improve it.

Moreover, the crowdfunding campaign is not solely about the money. Hopefully, the crowdfunding platform will introduce BeerAndTrembling to a new audience. It may also inspire readers, old and new, to become involved in the blog through various “perks”, including the right to choose readings or beers to be featured in future blog posts. Plus, I am going to share my notes with everybody who donates, so that everybody who is interested can have access to Cornell’s expertise without Cornell’s price tag.

So check out the crowdfunding campaign here: BeerAndTrembling’s IndieGoGo Campaign

Make a donation, share the campaign, go read some good books, and cheers!

EDIT: Now that the campaign is no longer live, I have removed the links. I still encourage readers to participate by reaching out in the comments or through the “Make a Recommendation” page.

Beer of the week: Pinch of Grace – This beer is a perfect example of why I need this class. I feel completely incapable of writing competently about this beer. Pinch of Grace is an IPA with citrus peels and vanilla from Two Brothers Brewing Company in Illinois. Based on that description, I didn’t know whether to expect a creamsicle flavor or a hoppy IPA.  But I got neither. It was neither as sweet nor as hoppy as I expected. As it warmed, the vanilla opened up a bit, but I don’t think I would have guessed that vanilla was an ingredient. I rather enjoyed Pinch of Grace, but it sure tastes unusual.

Reading of the week: The Man with the Twisted Lip by Arthur Conan Doyle – Not only did I struggle with whether to start a crowdfunding campaign, I also struggled with this reading. The excerpt that I picked for reading of the week totally spoils the story, and spoiling a detective story seems especially gauche. On the other hand, the story is over a century-and-a-quarter old and just seemed perfect to pair with this blog post. So just consider this your spoiler warning.

Question for the week: Are there any additional “perks” you would that you think would get donations?


In Defense of Idleness

Just think of all the things that you could accomplish if you made the most of your time. What if you replaced every television episode that you watch with a lesson in a foreign language? What if instead of checking Facebook, you did a mini workout? So many hours, and days, and years are wasted by each and every one of us. But is making the most of your time the same as making the best use of your time?

It is well-established that taking breaks improves production. Periodic breaks, whether to stretch your legs or just to think about something other than work, are not a waste at all. Rather, they are part of staying healthy and productive.

Even more extended “time-wasting” can have value. Reading a trashy novel, watching sitcom reruns, or playing a cell phone game are all defensible uses of time. For one thing, if you are actually enjoying the book, TV show, or video game, it is certainly not a total waste. The Teacher commends the enjoyment of life and says that there is nothing better for man to do than to be merry. So if you get more enjoyment from reading Twitter feeds than you would from more “productive” pursuits, that’s not so bad.

And as impressive as it would be to “relax” by taking a deep dive into metaphysical philosophy or intense language study, that is simply not realistic for most people. One cannot give maximum effort every waking hour.

Of course, this is not to say that one ought to be totally idle. Television, social media, and the like often are dangerous time-wasters. The point is to be conscious and conscientious about how your time is spent. All too often we lose track of how much time we have spent. We suddenly realized that we have watched an entire television series in one sitting, or that we spent an hour on a cellphone game that we started playing for no particular reason. The biggest waste of time is letting it slip by unnoticed. So watch your favorite show, read some chuckle-headed beer blog, leisurely sip a beer while doing nothing at all productive. But do those things with the goal of enjoyment. Be mindful; do not merely waste time.

Beer of the week: Budweiser Copper Lager – Barrel aged beers are very hot right now.  Budweiser his trying to cash in on this popularity by offering this lager, “aged on real Jim Beam barrel staves.” The best thing about it is it’s lovely red-brown color. The head, of rather large bubbles, dissipates very quickly. The aroma is somewhat malty, and the beer actually starts off with some warm bready malt flavor. But the beer does not finish especially well. I fancy that I get hints of whiskey, and a bit of smokiness in the end, but that might be the power of suggestion. Either way, it is a middle-of-the-road beer for a bottom-of-the-road (how’s that for a figure of speech?) price.

Reading of the week: Transcendental Wild Oats by Louisa May Alcott – This is an excerpt from a wonderful short story in which Alcott relates the history of Fruitlands, the utopian commune co-founded by her father. According to Alcott, her mother did all of the domestic work while the men of the group sat around the fire and built castles in the sky. The men regarded “being” as more important than “doing,” so nothing got done. Naturally, the whole project lasted barely half a year.

Question for the week: I have recently taken to memorizing poetry. What other relaxing pastime could one adopt that would be both enriching and relaxing?


Woman’s Ornament

In my experience, people tend toward one of two extremes when analyzing the writings of the ancients (and, to varying degrees, those of other bygone eras.) The one extreme is to assume that the authors, as products of a primitive time, have nothing to offer. We are so much more enlightened now; all of the ancients must be regarded as quite ignorant. The other extreme is to ignore the faults of the ancients, or, if they cannot be ignored, to make every possible contortion to explain them away. The ancients could not err when it came to thinking because, as Homer’s heroes could single-handedly lift boulders that a dozen modern men could hardly budge, the philosophers of old possessed intellectual powers far beyond those of any modern genius.

Take, for example, the treatment of women by Aristotle and Plato. Our modern understanding of the differences between men and women is very much at odds with the apparent opinions of Aristotle and Socrates on the subject. What do we do in the face of these problematic ancient texts?

One approach is to throw out Aristotle and Plato entirely. Sexism is so embedded in their thought, some opine, that their writing can have no value in our modern world. Even as early as the 15th century, William Caxton wrote that “if [Plato] had made fault in writing of women, he ought not, ne should not, be believed in his other dictes and sayings.”* (As we will see shortly, Caxton does not actually find fault with Plato’s treatment of women.) Likewise, Aristotle was extremely wrong about the role of the female in sexual reproduction, so his philosophy on humans generally can’t be trusted. These “dead white men” are so out of touch with our modern knowledge and sensibilities that they can hardly be considered authoritative on any philosophical question.

(I pause to note that the bland dismissal of these thinkers as “dead white men” always amuses me. The ad hominem attack itself adopts the language of racism, implying that the value of the authors is somehow related to their skin color. At the same time, it ignores the fact that classifying Aristotle and Plato as “white” should certainly raise a few eyebrows.)

On the other side, there are those who would wave away the apparent sexism of the ancients. The easiest way to do that is to simply call them a product of their times and move on. But some offer more convoluted explanations in an effort to keep the ancients from ever being “wrong”. Caxton wrote, “I cannot think that so true a man and so noble a philosopher as [Plato] was should write otherwise than truth.” And because Plato must have been right, Caxton was forced to come up with a way to reconcile the apparently sexist writings of Plato with the more enlightened views of his own day. He did so by concluding that if Plato ever said anything derogatory about women, he was only speaking of Greek women. “For I wot well, of whatsoever condition women be in Greece, the women of [England] be right good, wise, pleasant, humble, discreet, sober, chaste, obedient to their husbands, true, secret, steadfast, ever busy, and never idle, attemperate in speaking, and virtuous in all their works—or at least should be so.” So if Plato says, for example, that teaching a woman to write is multiplying evil upon evil, that may true of ancient Greek women, not of modern English women.

A more modern defense of that same type is to find esoteric meanings that are different from the ancients’ explicit meanings. So when Aristotle, in Book I of his Politics, says that “silence is a woman’s ornament,” he actually means nothing of the sort. The line is actually a quotation from Sophocles’s play Ajax. In the play, Ajax has gone insane by the time he utters the line. Obviously, Aristotle would have been familiar both with the play and the context of the quotation. So when Aristotle says “silence is a woman’s ornament,” he is slyly hinting that only a mad man would actually believe what he is saying. See? Aristotle was never sexist in the first place!

As usual, I favor the course of moderation. We should neither discard the ancients (or any author, really) out of hand, nor should we engage in mental gymnastics to defend the position that any author is always right. There is untold value in studying our intellectual predecessors, but nothing is gained by accepting their writings uncritically.

Beer of the week: Furious IPA – This aggressively-hopped ale from Minnesota’s Surly Brewing Company pours with a nice fluffy head. The piney hops certainly dominate, but there is a good balance with caramel malt notes. The label says that this beer defies categorization, but the IPA label seems right to me.

Reading of the week: Hymn To Aphrodite by Sappho – Here’s a crazy idea: if you want to know the ancients’ views on women, how about reading the poetry of an ancient woman? This is the only complete poem that has survived from Greece’s greatest poetess.

Question for the week: Is there any extant writing older than, say, 1,000 years that is actually not worth studying? Is it possible that anything has survived that long without some serious merit?

*Caxton actually discusses the sayings of Socrates as if Socrates himself was the author of the Socratic dialogues. I have substituted Plato into the quotations to give Caxton the benefit of the doubt; surely he meant to discuss what Socrates said and what Plato wrote.


Roland in the Deep

This is the forty-ninth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLIX: Epic and Saga

If you need help, ask for it. Help is out there. To be sure, there is plenty of value to doing things for oneself. Self-sufficiency is a tremendous virtue. But so much unnecessary struggle and pain comes from people not asking for help when they really should. And it often comes down to pride.

In the epic poem The Song of Roland, the titular hero refuses to ask for help. With the great Saracen army bearing down on his position, Roland’s wise adviser Oliver repeatedly exhorts him to blow his horn and call for reinforcements. Roland, out of a sense of pride, declines time and again. Oliver, in an effort to respond in kind, responds, “I deem of neither reproach nor stain” to ask for help. Of course, that appeal is of no avail.

The worst part of people refusing to ask for help is how often others get hurt because of it. If Roland wants to make a heroic, suicidal last stand, that is well and good. But why should he subject his men to unnecessary danger and hardship? After Oliver fails to convince Roland on a point of pride, he points out the harm to his men. “Were the king but here we were spared this woe… Where standeth our doomed rear-guard the while; They will do their last brave feat this day, No more to mingle in mortal fray.” Predictably, Roland’s response is to call Oliver a coward. All Roland has to do is swallow his pride and blow his horn. To do so would not only improve the odds of victory, but would a probably also reduce the number of casualties. Instead, he insists on satisfying his pride, even at the cost of his men’s lives.

Relatively few people are put in the position of Roland, but everybody needs a little help from time to time. And refusing that help can hurt more than just oneself. So take care of yourself, and ask for help if you need it. For everybody’s sake.

Beer of the week: Krankshaft – “Kölsch” is a protected geographical indicator, meaning that beers brewed more than 50 km from Cologne, Germany may not use that term. (Enough has been said already about protected geographical indicators.) Hence, this brew from Chicago’s Metropolitan Brewing is called “Kölsch Style Beer”. Whatever it is called, it is smooth and malty. It is pale in color with a fluffy head. The yeast imparts a some nice sour notes to this very enjoyable beer.

Reading of the week: The Song of Roland – This excerpt is from the prelude to the battle, and ends just before the fighting begins. You will be glad to know that Roland does eventually blow his horn to summon Charlemagne and his men. However, he does so only after it is too late for the reinforcements to reach him. And, for good measure, he blows the horn so hard that he ruptures his own temples. What an ass!

Question for the week: Is there an important distinction between refusing help when offered and not asking for help? Is one worse?