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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 How can society as a whole be better off when the upstanding knights-errant have been replaced by people soft, indulgent, and deceitful?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.)

Gifts are for the Givers

Christmastime is the season of giving. It is the season of charity. It is the season of gifts. But it is not the season of “pure altruism.” That is because, like Santa Claus, pure altruism is not real.

In both charity and gift-giving, the giver always gives to get something in return. We know this because all human action is a choice between alternatives and every action, as Aristotle teaches, “is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” So no charitable act is committed for its own sake, but with an aim at some good.

Only a cynic would opine that the good aimed at by giving gifts is getting gifts in return. And that explanation could scarcely account for charity, especially anonymous charity. One could certainly argue that the good aimed at is the good of the recipient of the gift. But that does not appear to be a satisfactory answer. Economic principles are applicable to all human action, as has been shown by a number of philosophers. And no voluntary transaction is conducted at an absolute loss, because there would is no incentive to do so. (Of course, parties occasionally make a bad deal and lose. And occasionally parties will take a loss now in the hopes of gaining more later.)

As Ludwig von Mises points out, every action is a form of exchange. Barter between individuals is an exchange of the most obvious type, but there are also “autistic exchanges.” An “autistic exchange” is one that an individual makes with himself. For example, if I go to the gym, I exchange my time and energy for perceived health benefits. Gift-giving and charity are other examples of an autistic exchange. “Where there is no intentional mutuality, where an action is performed without any design of being benefited by a concomitant action of other men, there is no interpersonal exchange, but autistic exchange.” The value of the gift is exchanged for the good feelings that come from making other people happy.

Like all exchanges, the autistic exchanges are only undertaken where the participants perceive that the value received is commensurate with the value given. I go to the gym because I perceive that that time and effort is worth the health benefits. I smoke a cigar because I perceive the health hazards and cost are worth the pleasure. I give a gift because I perceive the pleasure of gift-giving (and, to the extent that I expect anything in return, the possibility of gratitude and/or reciprocation) to be commensurate with the thought and value of the gift. Gift-giving, like all other human action, is essentially selfish.

And that’s ok! This is not an indictment of giving or of charity. Quite the opposite. It is in our best interest to give generously. We rightfully perceive that we get value from giving, even when we do not expect a gift in return. Gifts are for the givers, so be a giver this Christmas!

Beer of the week: Fistmas Holiday Ale – This winter seasonal offering from Chicago’s Revolution Brewing Company is a real treat. This pretty amber brew has hints of ginger and cinnamon, without being over-spiced as many spiced winter beers are.

Reading of the week: The Errors of Santa Claus by Stephen Leacock – As noted last week, Leacock is one of the greatest gifts that Canada has given to the literary world. Whether he wrote for money or for his own pleasure makes no difference to us. (In the words of Mises, “a genius may perform his task for himself, not for the crowd; however, he is an outstanding benefactor of mankind.”) This cute little story shows another way in which gifts are given for the sake of the givers.

Question for the week: This economic analysis works for gift giving, but seems to fall apart at self-sacrifice, even to the point of death. Does such self-sacrifice revive the notion of altruism?

Lost in the Crowd

“Black Friday” is a particularly appropriate time to consider the nature of crowds. Every year there are reports of people being trampled and assaulted in the rush to be the ultimate consumer. To get the best deals on crap that they don’t really need, people will behave in the most uncivil ways. And the vast majority of these people would be utterly ashamed to behave like that if they were not part of a faceless crowd.

There is nothing particularly insightful about the statement that crowds often bring out the worst in people. Looting, lynching, and rioting are all examples of how people, when relieved of individual responsibility, can engage in behaviors that no individual amongst them would dare. In the words of Kierkegaard, this is because “a crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision.” And the temerity to loot or lynch or riot is not to be confused with courage. In fact, it is a symptom of a profound cowardice. “For every single individual who escapes into the crowd, and thus flees in cowardice from being a single individual… contributes his share of cowardice to “the cowardice,” which is: the crowd.”

But while the crowd seems to relieve individuals of responsibility, it can do no such thing. The fact is that the crowd is a mere abstraction. It has no hands to shove, no feet to trample, and no neck to hang.


Beer of the week: Laško Club – This Slovanian beer is a bit darker than gold with a very fluffy head. It’s aroma is typical of decent euro lagers, malty with that distinctive hops smell. I have been a bit disappointed by Eastern European beers in the past, but I rather like Laško Club.

Reading for the week: The Crowd is Untruth by Søren Kierkegaard – In this piece, Kierkegaard takes up the line from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, that “only one receives the prize.” He takes this to mean that the way to salvation is through an individual relationship with God rather than communion with others.

Question for the week: Is the crowd always more cowardly than the individuals in it? What about when a Gandhi or Dr. King inspires a group to noble ends? (I take it that Kierkegaard reply that the crowd cannot be inspired, only the individuals in it. But does that answer the question?)



This is the ninth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

JUSTICE: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
– Franklin

According to Herbert Spencer, there is one law from which all other laws spring: survival of the fittest. Every individual ought to benefit to the extent that he is well adapted to his conditions and suffer to the extent that he is ill adapted. Consequently, all behavior that is conducive to survival is just. But this seemingly selfish principle has a number of caveats.

In the first place, the survival of the species is paramount over the survival of the individual. Spencer comes to this conclusion by comparing the ultimate result of the failure to survive. If any given individual (or even a multitude) dies, the species may live on. But extinction of the species necessitates the death of every individual.

One consequence is that adults have an obligation to the children in their family-group. Although adults deserve benefits commensurate to their fitness, infants deserve benefits inversely to their fitness. “Within the family-group most must be given where least is deserved, if desert is measured by worth.” The adults, therefore, subordinate their own good for the good of the infants.

Likewise, in larger society, individuals subordinate their own good, to some extent, for the good of the group. In living together, each individual gains some additional security against evils and some benefits from cooperation. In exchange, individuals must accept a certain amount of restraint, giving up the freedom to act in particular ways that harm or endanger the group. And ultimately, some individuals may even be expected to die for the good of the group.

Although the sacrifice of some individuals appears to be the complete subjugation of the individual to the group, society remains reducible to the survival of the fittest individuals. After all, the species or group or family is merely an abstract aggregate of concrete individuals. As the overall mortality of the society improves with cooperation, individuals live longer. And the longer individuals live, the more time they have for their superior adaptation has to show itself. Each individual, is therefore in a better position than ever to benefit from his superior adaptation or suffer from his inferior adaptation. “And vaguely, if not definitely, this is seen to constitute what is called justice.”



Beer of the week: Strela Cabo Verde – Contract brewing is when a brewer outsources the production of his beer. Pabst, for example, does not actually brew any beer any more; all of their beer is contract brewed. This is also common with “foreign” beers. The Bass that I wrote about in an earlier post was brewed in New York.

Strela is a beer from Cape Verde, off the coast of Africa. However, this bottle was brewed under contract in Belgium. On one hand, I would like to try an actual African beer. On the other, I am skeptical about the quality of African beer and well acquainted with Belgian beers. Unfortunately, this is probably the worst beer I have ever had from Belgium. Strela is a very pale adjunct lager. It smells of corn and tastes… bad. I hope that the stuff that is actually brewed in Cape Verde is better than this.

Reading for the week: Justice by Herbert Spencer – The chapter preceding this selection applies the principles of justice to the animals. Like human society, animal society develops more pronounced justice as the society becomes more complex.

Question for the week: Spencer acknowledges that as societies become more organized, individuals gain more benefits, but individuals also also become more constrained. And in some instances, society may demand more from an individual than he gains by being a member. Is there an inevitable tipping point resulting of the growth of society? Must increased organization always tend to a point where constraint outweighs benefit?


This is the sixth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

FRUGALITY: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i. e., waste nothing.
– Franklin

“Every excellency, and every virtue,” writes Lord Chesterfield, “has its kindred vice or weakness; and if carried beyond certain bounds, sinks into one or the other. Generosity often runs into profusion, economy into avarice, . . . and so on.” Frugality (thrift, economy, etc.) is one of those virtues that seems most likely to slip into its kindred vice, parsimony (niggardliness, avarice, etc.) So how can one be careful without being cheap?

Thomas Hobbes would advise prioritizing frugality below ambition. “Frugality,” he writes in Leviathan, “though in poor men a virtue, maketh a man unapt to achieve such actions as require the strength of many men at once; for it weakeneth their endeavour, which is to be nourished and kept in vigour by reward.” To the extent that one’s frugality impedes one’s ambition, the ambition ought to be preferred because our happiness depends on our ability to continually advance.

Of course, this advice is qualified. For one thing, Hobbes concedes that people of limited means ought to practice frugality. It is not totally clear how Hobbes would define “poor men”, but it seems likely that the bulk of humanity falls into that class for purposes of his Leviathan. That particular section of the book starts with an explanation that felicity can only be obtained through constantly fulfilling an ceaseless series of desires. Aside from those at the very top of society, it seems unlikely that many have the resources to properly pursue that “perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.”

Still, even poor folk ought to weigh their goals and aspirations when deciding how to spend their money. Even when money is tight, there are some desires that are “worth it.” Those desires or goals that are likely to lead to long term gain (or, in Hobbes’s terms, are likely to assure the ability to satisfy future desires) are probably worth investing in, and those that are likely to lead to recurring expense (or diminish the likelihood of achieving future goals) should be pursued only cautiously. For example, a tightfisted farmer who purchases a low-quality, second hand plow is probably not doing himself any favors. He is not being frugal, but cheap. Likewise, a thousand dollars spent on a once-in-a-lifetime trip is probably a better choice than buying a thousand dollar snow-mobile (or any other toy) that will result in future expenses in the forms of storage, maintenance, and fuel. In the words of Francis Bacon, “a man ought warily to begin charges which once begun will continue; but in matters that return not he may be more magnificent.”

Beer of the week: DAB Dark Beer – Budgeting for beer is a balancing act where one must consider not only the price, but also the quantity and quality. For example, a six pack of .5L cans of DAB actually costs less than a sixer of 12 oz. bottles of Bud, but tastes much better. And this is not the first time that I have turned to Dortmunder Actien-Brauerei for relatively good beer on the cheap. For a while as a student in 2007, Dortmunder Hansa was my go-to brew. It came in half-liter bottles, and was a serious value for a reasonably good European lager. This dark lager is pretty good. It pours with plenty of tan foam and a decent bready aroma. It has some of the classic dark malt flavors, including an aftertaste of coffee, but without much of the bitterness that often accompanies dark roasted malt. I am a big fan of dark lagers are generally, and this one is no exception.

Reading of the week: Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes – This excerpt is from a section of Leviathan called Of the Difference of Manners. But Hobbes makes it clear immediately that by “manners” he does not mean “how a man should wash his mouth, or pick his teeth before company, and such other points of the ‘small morals’.” What Hobbes is interested in is how one may live in society despite the fact that our happiness depends on our ability to constantly acquire power, presumably over, or at least to the exclusion of, others.

Question for the week: There are beers that fetch hundreds of dollars per bottle on the secondary market. Is it possible that one of those beers is actually hundreds of times better than a dollar beer? Is that even the right way to analyze the price?