In these unprecedented times—in which every news report and fast food advertisement reminds us just how unprecedented these times are—it is virtually impossible to maintain proper perspective. Because of all of the unprecedented happenings, someone recently told me that “Plato can wait.” Instead of ancient philosophy, I should focus on the unprecedented now. But she was wrong; philosophy can’t wait.
In the first place, “unprecedented” times are nothing new. The Teacher writes, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” This sentiment is mirrored by Marcus Aurelius, who claims that once a man is forty years old, he has seen all that has been and all that will be.
To the extent that anything truly is unprecedented about these times, the unprecedented thing the nonstop stream of information (and disinformation) transmitted directly to our literal and figurative fingertips. But that fact surely militates in favor of studying philosophy, not against it. The instantaneous and insidious inundation of information leaves us unmoored, adrift in a sea of contextless statistics, bombastic claims, and poorly proofread tweets. We need philosophy to provide a framework for how to evaluate what we read, how (and when) to act, and how to relate to our fellow man in all times, unprecedented or otherwise.
Beer of the week: Sour Monkey – Victory Brewing Company’s Golden Monkey is their Belgian-Style Tripel. This is the wild yeast variant of that beer. It is pale gold with a rocky head. The aroma is very funky (in a good way). The flavor is tart with citrus rind notes and bitter finish. Very good.
Reading of the week: Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus by Mary Shelley – Of course, the study of philosophy is not limited to strictly “philosophical” works. In this excerpt from Frankenstein, the monster describes the content of his limited education: Goethe, Plutarch, and Milton. (Do you usually picture Frankenstein’s monster being so well-read?) These authors moved him emotionally, but also led him to ask several of the questions central to philosophy: “What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?”
Question for the week: Is anything in this world truly unprecedented?
An excellent way for an author to quickly give the reader a sense for his characters is to describe how and what they read. In Eugene Onegin, for example, Alexander Pushkin tells us that Tatyana Larina kept the romantic novels of Samuel Richardson under her pillow, and that Vladimir Lensky had his soul “fired by the flame” of Goethe and Schiller’s poetry. Those small details say volumes about the characters, so to speak.
The problem, of course, is that we readers can only understand the full import of the characters’ reading habits if we, ourselves, are well-read. Knowing that Lensky’s soul was refined by Goethe and Schiller is only helpful if we know anything about Goethe and Schiller’s writing. The more one reads, the more one needs to read.
Beer of the week: Framboise Rose Gose – This Anderson Valley brew is something else. It is not quite clear, pinkish-straw in color, and pours with a very quickly dissipating head. The aroma is very fruity and floral, with loads of berry. The flavor follows the aroma, with tart, slightly astringent raspberry doing all of the heavy lifting. The finish is relatively long, with floral notes hanging around in the back of the throat.
Reading of the week: Middlemarch by George Eliot – Pushkin, of course, is not the only author to have used the technique discussed above. In her description of the character Dorothea Brooke, Eliot mentions that “Dorothea knew many passages of Pascal’s Pensées and of Jeremy Taylor by heart.” Dorothea also “had strange whims of … sitting up at night to read old theological books!” Later in the book, Dorothea adopts the habit of “getting down learned books from the library and reading many things hastily” so that she might be better prepared for elevated conversation.
Question of the week: If somebody wanted to describe you in this way, what reading habit or favorite books of yours would they mention?