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?

Rebel, Rebel

This is the thirty-fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXV: Chronicle and Romance, Froissart, Malory, Holinshead

Rebellions only occur under a particular set of conditions. The first prerequisite is that there must be some sort of oppression (at least perceived oppression) against which to rebel. In the case of the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, the commoners rebelled against the oppressive social order known as serfdom. Under serfdom, the nobility could force the common folk to work the nobles’ lands without pay. Naturally, this was resented by the commons.

As John Ball, one of the leaders of the rebellion expressed their cause:

“When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.”

Curiously, however, oppression is only one of the necessary conditions for revolt. Another condition is freedom. That is, some amount of freedom. As the chronicler Jean Froissart put it, the Peasants’ Revolt happened “because of the ease and riches that the common people were of.” It seems likely, or at least possible, that the peasants would not have revolted if they were slaves rather than serfs. It is one thing to be explicitly enslaved, it is quite another thing to be nominally free and still be forced to work like a slave.

To rebel, one must be oppressed enough to resent the yoke, but free enough to cast it off. One who is kept in abject constraint is no more likely to revolt than one who is totally at liberty; rebellion happens somewhere in the middle. The ruling class must always be aware of that balance. They must strive to keep the people so free that they are content or else so restrained that they are dispirited.


Beer of the week: Fist City – A beer from Revolution Brewing makes for a thoroughly apt pairing with this week’s reading. Fist City is a liquid homage to the City of Broad Shoulders. It is styled as a “Chicago Pale Ale,” and it pours clear and golden, with plenty of big-bubbled foam. The flavor and aroma seem to have hints of rosemary in a grove of pine, and the whole thing is rounded off nicely with wheat malt.

Reading of the week: Wat Tyler’s Rebellion by Jean Froissart – This excerpt from Froissarts Chronicles describes the beginnings of the Peasants’ Revolt in in 1381. Froissart attributes the rebellion primarily to the teachings of John Ball and discontent about social inequality. As a man thoroughly attached to the ruling class, Froissart shows little sympathy for the oppressed masses.

Question for the week: Is it possible for a society to slowly drift from relatively high freedom to abject oppression? Or must there be a tipping point somewhere along the way that requires either a rebellion or a sudden and violent descent to authoritarianism?

Trending Up

This is the fourteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XIV: Don Quixote, Cervantes

In the preface to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain does not profess to know the laws or customs of Arthurian England. However, he asserts that whatever the laws and customs were in the sixth century, they must necessarily have been worse than those that exist today. “One is quite justified in inferring that whatever one of these [modern] laws or customs was lacking in that remote time, its place was competently filled by a worse one.” Society, he seems to say, necessarily improves over time.

This idea is seconded by the title character Hank Morgan. Hank finds the people of sixth century England to be boorish, gullible, superstitious, and stupid. (Even, we must take it, when compared to the people of nineteenth century Connecticut.) He reports that among the knights of the round table, there were not enough brains to bait a fish-hook. Society must have come a long way indeed if the cream of medieval society were so much dumber than people today.

As to Twain’s apparent belief in the perpetual progress of society, Don Quixote de La Mancha would certainly disagree. Don Quixote perceived that society had declined since the time of Arthur rather than progressed. The time of knights-errant was an era of men who were brave and true, and faithful to their lovers and their God. Since that time, however, society generally descended cockering and excess. How can society as a whole be better off when the upstanding knights-errant have been replaced by people soft, indulgent, and deceitful?

And as to Hank Morgan’s claim that people are smarter now, he seems to confuse intelligence with knowledge. He thinks that because he knows the formula for gun powder and the dates of certain eclipses, he is more intelligent than those who lack that specific knowledge. But it is foolish to conflate the possession of certain facts with total intellectual capacity. (And it should not be taken for granted that memorizing the dates of celestial events at least back to the sixth century is a sign of intelligence rather than a sign of unhealthy fixation.) If Hank Morgan is smarter than King Arthur because he can build a lightning rod, is he also smarter than Newton, Galileo, or Aristotle for the same reason?

At any rate Twain hints that Hank himself is not as smart as he thinks. Hank fancies himself something of a connoisseur of chromolithographs, an popular form of colored print. But Hank is quite critical of a “new artist” called Raphael who did a number of well-circulated chromos, clearly unaware that the prints are copies of Raphael’s paintings and that the artist lived and died more than 300 years earlier.

Beer of the week: Supper Club – This lager from Wisconsin’s Capital Brewing Company is slightly hazy, with a nice malty flavor and aroma. It is not very hopped, just a pleasant, bready lager. There is something to be said for simple, grain-heavy midwestern fare.

Reading of the week: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – In this passage, our hero explains to some fellow travelers what it is to be a knight-errant. They, of course, perceive him to be insane. (As an interesting aside, this translation uses the archaic adjective “wood” meaning “insane.” Coincidently, near the beginning of A Connecticut Yankee, the narrator reads an old tale about Sir Lancelot in which a giant, terrified by the brave knight “ran away as he were wood.” Twain includes a note explaining that “wood” means “demented”.)

Question for the week: Does human society have a generally upward trajectory? Or generally downward? Or is there any discernible trend at all?

Champions for Truth

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?

Contemporaneous Living

A recent social media exchange reminded me of one of my favorite anthropological facts: human beings have been in Australia for some 50,000 years, but humans have been in New Zealand for less than 800 years. Just about a thousand miles of sea separate the two nations, but in dozens of millennia, it seems that nobody made the voyage across the Tasman Sea. In fact, when humans finally did arrive in New Zealand, they were Polynesians rather than Australians.

This fact does not tell us much about the cultures of the Maori people or the Aboriginal Australians, but it does help create a larger context for the settlement of New Zealand. A persistent problem in the study of history is the failure to appreciate “the big picture.” Maori settlement of New Zealand happened about the same time as the founding of the Ottoman Empire by Osman I. And although neither event had any effect on the other, knowledge of their coincidence can be interesting and helpful.

This sort of perspective is equally important (and striking) when thinking about historical figures. Many historical figures had famous relationships, such as Thomas More and Erasmus; Aristotle and Alexander the Great; Cicero and Julius Caesar; or Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes. But other sets of contemporaries are less obvious. I remember very distinctly my surprise when I realized that Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States at the same time Napoleon was Emperor of France. (I had always thought of the Napoleonic Wars as pre-dating the American Revolution.) Likewise, had never thought of Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein as contemporaries, but they exchanged letters on the subject of war.

But one of the oddest examples, in my opinion, is Mohandas K. Gandhi. He exchanged letters with Count Leo Tolstoy (whom I would have guessed was dead before Gandhi was even born.) But Gandhi also actually wrote letters to Adolph Hitler (who was only 20 years his junior, and whom Gandhi out-lived by less than three years.)  What makes it so easy to be surprised by these connections is the fact that the Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Hitler are all associated with very different countries and periods. But, evidently, their places and times were not as disparate as they may seem at a glance. In fact, the world is much more interconnected than we often appreciate.

Beer of the week: Breakfast Beast – This imperial stout from Clown Shoes is aged in bourbon barrels with cold brewed coffee. It is very strong, and oily dark. It is also extremely thick and smooth. It is practically a complete breakfast. Delicious.

Reading of the week: Correspondence between Mohandas K. Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy – For additional historical perspective, consider the following: Gandi was murdered 7 years ago next Tuesday. These letters exchanged between him and Tolstoy are pretty special. In his letters Gandhi, a professed admirer of Tolstoy’s writings on pacifism, seeks support for political movements in South Africa (at that time, the Transvaal) and India (then, British India.) Tolstoy replies that “Your work in the Transvaal, which to us seems to be at the end of the earth, is yet in the centre of our interest.”

Question for the week: What is your favorite surprising historical coincidence? Or, if you prefer, what is your favorite historical gap? (For example, the Great Pyramid of Giza was older to Cleopatra than Cleopatra is to us.)