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?