When things go wrong…

The question “why do bad things happen to good people?” is a classic of philosophy and theology. But rather than address that question head on, perhaps it is better to pursue a more practical inquiry. Once we accept the premise that “bad things happen to good people”, the practical question is “how should one deal with bad things happening?”
Obviously, there is no shortage of literature and philosophy that could shed light on this question. The Book of Job, Augustine’s Confessions, Epictetus’s Handbook all spring to mind, and those are just among the writings that have already been featured here. But time is short and my beer is getting warm, so I’ll limit myself to three examples of how calamity may be met:

When the title character of Robinson Crusoe found himself stranded on a desert island his reaction seems somewhat undignified. He relates:

“After I had got to shore and escaped drowning, instead of being thankful to God for my deliverance, having first vomited, with the great quantity of saltwater which had got into my stomach, and recovering myself a little, I ran about the shore wringing my hands and beating my head and face, exclaiming at my misery, and crying out, ‘I was undone, undone!’ till, tired and faint, I was forced to lie down on the ground to repose, but durst not sleep for fear of being devoured.”

But eventually, Crusoe was able to turn his mind and energies toward practical work. He collected necessary goods from among the shipwreck, including books, paper, and ink. He also set about constructing a habitation complete with shelves and furniture. Only after he had taken care of the immediate bodily concerns of his predicament could he turn to contemplation and religion. It looks like dedicating one’s energy to the labor of surviving is the key to bridging the gap between despair and contemplation. One can’t properly reflect while still in a panic, so Crusoe must settle himself down by establishing his settlement.

But what happens when there is no labor to be performed? What if all work is already accomplished or if all work is futile? This is the condition of Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius was imprisoned by Theodoric the Great on a charge of treason. Realizing that his situation was inexorable, he fell to weeping. Like Crusoe, Boethius was initially consumed by despair. But unlike Crusoe, Boethius had no practical labor to turn his mind from his grief. But he did have a pen and ink. Even without the bridge of practical work, Boethius was able to direct his mind to philosophy. In a prison cell, sure that he would lose his life shortly, he produced what proved to be one of the most influential philosophical works the in world. Boethius was able to move directly from despair to contemplation, without needing some labor to take his mind off of his predicament.

And finally, for those who have neither the practical skills of Crusoe, nor the intellectual powers of Boethius, one can always take the Baudelaire approach to dealing with the inevitable calamities of life: Get Drunk.

Staropramen Nefiltrovany


Beer of the week: Staropramen Unfiltered (Nefiltrovaný) – This unfiltered wheat beer is quite a treat. Unlike many wheat beers, this one has a strong aroma of floral hops. The beer itself is very cloudy and the remaining yeast provides some extra texture and spice. Although it is sweet, with hints of fruit, the hops and coriander provide a finish that really balances the sweetness.

Reading for the week: The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, Book I, Sections 2 &3 – Last week’s claim that Chaucer was a profound thinker is somewhat bolstered by the fact that Chaucer translated The Consolation of Philosophy from Latin. It was, in Chaucer’s day, perhaps the single most popular philosophical work.

Question for the week: What do you do when bad things happen?

Profound Poop Jokes

There is no doubt that P.G. Wodehouse was a brainy fellow. Although he wrote the nincompoop exceedingly well (Bertie Wooster, for example), he also wrote convincingly bright characters (such as Bertie’s valet, Jeeves). Beyond the characters themselves, Wodehouse displayed his education in the form of humorous references to “the poet Burns“, and other literary giants. An excellent example is from his short story Rough-Hew Them How We Will. The title of the story, incidentally, is taken from a line in Hamlet.

About halfway though, Wodehouse makes this observation on the subject of Chaucer:

“It is pretty generally admitted that Geoffrey Chaucer, the eminent poet of the fourteenth century, though obsessed with an almost Rooseveltian passion for the new spelling, was there with the goods when it came to profundity of thought.”

It is understandable if some people associate Chaucer more with toilet humor than with “profundity of thought.” After all, in The Miller’s Tale, young Absalom is tricked into kissing an anus, and is then nearly blinded by a thunderous fart to the face. He gets his revenge by sticking a red-hot poker where the sun don’t shine. Profound, indeed.

As has been mentioned on this blog before, the works of Aristophanes, Rabelais and Swift are filled with serious thoughts as well as scatological humor. It is a testament to the authors’ skills that these universally regarded writers were able to marry the divine and the profane, the intellectual and the bodily, the profound and the downright childish in their works. This shows both range, and an understanding of the whole of the human condition.

Newcastle Brown Ale

Beer of the week: Newcastle Brown Ale – An English beer is a good pair for the Father of English literature. This attractive red-brown beer has long been a favorite of mine. There is sweet, caramel malt in the aroma. The flavor tracks the smell, with malt dominating. There is not a lot of hops to balance the malt out, though, so Newcastle can be a bit too sweet at times.

Reading of the week: The Parson’s Tale by Geoffery Chaucer – Although The Canterbury Tales was not completed, it is clear that this was meant to be the final tale. However, The Parson’s Tale is not a tale at all, but a sermon on sin and penance. Giving the parson the final word was evidently important for Chaucer’s project. This sermon shows a great familiarity with scripture and doctrine, quoting extensively from the Bible as well as Saints Augustine, Ambrose, Bernard, etc. This excerpt focuses on pride, and although the parson is extremely dry and grave, I find his discussion of current fashion very funny. (Particularly his suggestion that particolored hosery creates the impression that the wearer’s “privy members are corrupted by the fire of Saint Anthony, or by cancer, or by other such misfortune,” and the lamentation that tight hose and short jackets cause some people to “show the very boss of their penis and the horrible pushed-out testicles that look like the malady of hernia in the wrapping of their hose; and the buttocks of such persons look like the hinder parts of a she-ape in the full of the moon.”) The narrator is pretty clearly not trying to draw laughs with this section, but I am pretty sure that Chaucer is.

Question of the week: Who is your favorite potty-mouthed profound pontificator?

Perpetually Prolonged Pleasure

The night before Thanksgiving, I visited the Lutheran church where my friend’s father is the pastor. His sermon, as one might expect, was about giving thanks. Specifically, he argued that one of the principle advantages of giving thanks is to prolong enjoyment of the blessing. Taking the time to enunciate what one is thankful for effectively draws out the enjoyment of it. Giving thanks beforehand allows one to enjoy the anticipation. Giving thanks afterwards allows the enjoyment to linger. Giving thanks during forces one to focus on what is enjoyable. The sermon really rang true to me. Also, there was a pie social after the service.

The desire to extend enjoyment indefinitely is a constant factor in my day-to-day life. I have watched countless re-runs late into the night rather than go to bed and “give up” on the day. I also have looked for reasons to have another beer rather than stop drinking. The bulk of this blog post, in fact, was written late at night as an excuse to stay up and have another beer rather than go to bed and end my enjoyment of the day.

I not only attempt to drag out time; I am a great hoarder of consumable goods. Halloween candy lasted for months in my childhood because I was keenly interested in prolonging my enjoyment from it for as long as possible. When there is good beer in the house, I ration it carefully. As I mentioned in an earlier post, an elderly Australian man once mocked me for how slowly I consumed a glass of Coopers. He was not a beer drinker himself, so my efforts to explain the purpose of savoring a good beer were wasted on him.

Attempts at prolonged enjoyment are not always successful. I have also let things go to waste rather than accept the finality of their enjoyment. I have let my tea grow cold rather than finish it and accept that it is gone. When I was little, I had toys that I would hardly play with for fear that they would break and thus end my enjoyment. I grew out of nice clothes that I had barely worn since I did not want to risk staining or tearing them. When I was small, I would use my roller-skates only occasionally to minimize the chances that they would get scuffed or damaged. One day, they no longer fit. I had tried so hard to preserve them for future enjoyment that they had become no use to me at all.

No pleasure can be extended indefinitely, but there is usually the option to prolong the enjoyment somewhat by patience and focus and thanksgiving. In the end, a fine touch is required. Neither let the beer grow warm and unpleasant, nor gulp it down without savoring.

Perpetual IPA

Beer of the week: Troegs Perpetual IPA – If only this beer could be enjoyed perpetually. Troegs Perpetual is a lovely golden IPA with a nice foamy head. The aroma is dominated by sweet floral hops, but the bitterness of the hops is very well balanced with nice malt body.

Reading for the week: Gorgias by Plato, lines 493d-495b – A crucial question that this post does not address is whether prolonging pleasure is actually a good thing. In the dialogue Gorgias, Socrates makes his interlocutors squirm by forcing them to address whether even the most base and immoral pleasure seeking can be considered good.

Question for the week: Are efforts to prolong pleasure at odds with an ideal of “taking life as it comes”?

Sins of the Author

The last time that I quoted Martin Luther online, I got a single response: “He was an anti-Semite.” Since I had somehow never heard that before, I decided to do a bit of research on the topic.

Apparently, in the early 1520’s Luther wrote that “we must receive [the Jews] cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either.” That sounds like an enlightened and reasonable position.

By the early 1540’s, however, Luther wrote that Synagogues and Hebrew schools should be burned to the ground and that rabbis should be executed if they insist on preaching. He also proposed that the Jews should have their writings and wealth confiscated by the state. That does not sound enlightened and reasonable. That sounds awful, really.

I have a hard time understanding how somebody could make such a dramatic shift, but by the end of his life, Luther was apparently a full-blown anti-Semite. This is a truly disturbing revelation. But the next question is a much harder one: why does it matter?

The response “he was an anti-Semite” is a simple ad hominem attack. Even if it is true, the statement does not reach the merits what Luther said. So what value is it? A man I know once saw an elderly Jean-Paul Sartre get off a bus in Paris. He told me that when he saw how old and ugly Sartre was, he immediately thought, “nothing he says can be right.” Obviously, how Sartre looked had no direct bearing on the quality and validity of his writing. Similarly, one could argue that whether or not Luther was an anti-Semite has no bearing on the validity of his writing.

On the other hand, if we agree that antisemitism is not only reprehensible but it shows a fundamental flaw in morals or logic, then Luther’s writings are necessarily suspect. If Luther makes a claim that it is moral and good to steal from or even kill others because of their religious beliefs, how can any of his moral writings be trusted?

Although compelling, that argument is inadequate. Writings should be judged with a critical eye no matter what we think we know about the author. The knowledge that the author has certain biases or prejudices may be helpful in discovering flaws in the writing, but they do not make an otherwise solid piece of writing not worth the reading. The hypocrisies or vices of the author are not necessarily imputed to the work itself. If so, what book would not be guilty of something?

Further, it seems clear that Luther changed his mind about the Jews at some point in his life. So does his antisemitism only taint everything after that change? Or does a late-in-life sin ruin everything that came before it?

As a final thought: Luther was a beer drinker. Does that mean that beer must be bad because it was favored by an anti-Semite? Or does his beer drinking do something to cancel out the prejudice?


Beer of the week: Wernesgrüner Pils – This German Pilsner is reasonably good. I think that it is quite comparable to Pilsner Urquell (which happens to be the beer that I paired with the last Luther reading on this blog.) The aroma is typical pils with a hint of grass. I would like a bit more malt in the body and some more bitterness from the hops, but overall Wernesgrüner is not bad at all.

Reading of the week: Letter to Jerome Weller from Martin Luther – Written in 1530, this letter gives a little insight into the mind of Luther after he wrote the pro-Jewish passage quoted above but before he started advocating arson. This letter is an acknowledgement that nobody is perfect and that obsession over small transgressions is counter-productive to living a good life. Luther advises that when the devil has you worried that all of your little sins will damn you, “drink somewhat more liberally, jest and play some jolly prank, or do anything exhilarating.” Show the devil that you have faith that your sins can’t destroy you.

Question of the week: Could an author do anything so bad that you determined never to read any of his work, regardless of its quality?

Intemperate Minds

Freedom is an oft recurring theme on this blog. Often the subject is freedom from economic restrictions or government imposition. But there are other forces out there that restrict one’s freedom. For some people alcohol is one of those forces. As the members of Alcoholics Anonymous put it, “we are powerless over alcohol [and]… our lives have become unmanageable.” The bondage of addiction hints at an important questions about liberty.

Edmund Burk wrote that “men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” To be governed by ones passions or addictions is to be a slave. As a consequence, there are those who argue that certain substances and actions should be banned in an otherwise free society. Liberty must be preserved by prohibition. Although paradoxical, the logic is this:

The decision to give up one’s freedom is inconsistent with being a member of a free society.
Therefore, one may not choose to be a slave.
Freedom to consume alcohol is the freedom to become an alcoholic.
But to be an alcoholic is to be a slave to alcohol.
Therefore, a free man may not consume alcohol.

Of course there are other arguments put forward by prohibitionists, but this rationale is the most interesting to me: freedom to drink (or use drugs, or buy sex, or smoke cigars) is false freedom since it leads to intemperance. And intemperance, as Burke said is slavery. So to prevent people from becoming slaves to their passions, they must be denied the freedom to drink (or use drugs, or buy sex, or smoke cigars).

One might argue that the word slavery is being thrown about a little too freely here. It may be a mistake to conflate slavery to addiction with chattel slavery. However, there are certainly those who believe that slavery to alcohol is as bad as actual slavery. As Frederick Douglass wrote “we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum.” Both an escaped slave and a teetotaler, Douglass looks at the issue from an interesting perspective.

Although I have never been an addict or a slave, I do not think that slavery to alcohol is really comparable to chattel slavery. Further, I do not buy the argument that the only way to ensure freedom is to prohibit things that might lead to dissipation. In fact, I think that it is quite the opposite.

But this is not a new debate. After all, the first prohibition was on eating apples. So why did God put the tree in the garden if he knew that to eat from it was to die? Because, as the serpent pointed out, if there is no choice then there is no liberty.


Beer of the week: King Cobra Premium Malt Liquor – The serpent convinced Eve to eat of the fruit, so it can probably convince somebody to drink malt liquor. Malt liquor, as it turns out, is the sort of thing that alcoholics (and poor ones at that) would drink. As noted before, the designation of “malt liquor” in the United States basically just means “cheap, high alcohol beer”. A six pack of King Cobra is about 15¢ more that a sixer of Big Flats Light, but at 6% alcohol, this is the obvious choice for the drunk on a budget. That is until it is poured (although I think that it is more standard to consume King Cobra straight fro the can or 40 oz. bottle). This beer is very pale and very carbonated. Though the head fades very quickly, it is snow white and made of big bubbles, like a soda pop. It smells of cheap grain. The flavor is not as aggressively bad as expected. It has hints of apple juice and the strong carbonation leaves a pleasant fizzy tingle on the tongue. 

Reading of the week: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass – Just last week I wrote about how unreliable autobiographies can be. But I never said that they are not worth reading. In this passage, Douglass describes how slaves are given excessive amounts of alcohol to convince them that they are better off as slaves than they would be if they had to make their own choices. “Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labelled with the name of liberty.”

Question of the week: Does the above rationale for prohibition make sense despite its paradoxical nature? Are there other, more valid reasons to support prohibition?

A Pointillist Theology

A high school religion teacher once remarked to me that the only proof of God’s existence that she needed was to look out the window. “How could anybody look upon the wonder of creation,” she wondered incredulously, “and not believe in God?” I was not convinced.

Are not the awe-inspiring beauty and order the universe even more awe-inspiring if they are organic rather than miraculous? That is to say, isn’t nature more impressive than creation? Creation could have been anything that God chose, but nature had to be the way it is. Rather than focusing on the single miracle of creation, why not focus on the ever-accumulating individual discoveries of the world around us? If God created the butterfly instantly and miraculously, that would not make it any more beautiful. But the fact that the butterfly evolved over millions of years and is the distant progeny of the first spark of life, that is beautiful and awe-inspiring.

Nietzsche would say that my teacher had an “old fashioned eye” that preferred “beautiful, decorative, intoxicating and perhaps beatific” myths to “simple truths, ascertained by scientific method.” But reason and scientifically discovered truths are every bit as beautiful as the old world views and aesthetics. In fact, they are even more beautiful. This is because the old views are static and limiting, but the “the richness of inner, rational beauty always spreads and deepens.”
Fiddlehead Kölsch

Beer of the week: Fiddlehead Kölsch – Fiddlehead ferns are a neat example of naturally occurring logarithmic spirals. Their geometric (near) perfection can be viewed as proof of an ordered universe. The quality beers from Fiddlehead Brewing Company are also proof of an ordered universe. This pale, cloudy ale has a soft, round bouquet with hints of pineapple. Although it is not overly hoppy, it is surprisingly bitter for its style and aroma. This is certainly a good beer, but for my taste the hops leave the mouth feeling a bit too dry in the end.

Reading of the week: Human, All Too Human, Appreciation of Simple Truths by Friedrich Nietzsche – Reading leads to reading. Reading Emerson led me to read Greenough and Landor. Reading Mencken led me to read Nietzsche. And reading Nietzsche led me to read more Nietzsche. This paragraph of Human, All Too Human directly follows the reading from two weeks ago.

Question of the week: Are the ideas of creation and evolution truly opposed?

Measure Of All Things

Last week’s question included an uncited quotation from H. L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy. Mencken mocked “Rousseau’s noble savage, in smock and jerkin, brought out of the tropical wilds to shame the lords and masters of the civilized lands.” How silly it seems to attribute such modern notions to man in a “state of nature.” (To be fair to Rousseau, he did not describe his “noble savage” as wearing anachronistic clothing, but his behavior and very nature were anachronistic.)

It is not likely to be a coincidence that Mencken’s delightfully caustic writing on the subject mirrors some ideas expressed in harsher terms by Friedrich Nietzsche. Mencken was a great admirer and translator of the mustachioed Saxon.

Nietzsche identified the traditional error of philosophers as the tendency to base a complete philosophical system on contemporary man. The problem is that contemporary man is a very small sample of all humanity. Since Rousseau had no way of knowing what primitive man was like, he simply attributed to primitive man the qualities of contemporary man. But man has been evolving for far longer than the few thousands of years of which we have written accounts. And, perhaps more importantly, man continues to evolve, even as we observe him. So what can we learn about constant, universal truths by first misattributing consistency to ever-evolving man?

Protagoras announced that “man is the measure of all things”, but what good is a measurement if the scale keeps changing?

Beer of the week: Ciuc Pils – This Romanian pilsner is very pale and very bubbly. The aroma is of sweet, cheap grain. There is not a whole lot to be said for the flavor. It is inoffensive, but not particularly good. It is always fun to try a beer from different countries, but there is probably a reason why Romanian beer is not more popular.

Reading for the week: Human, All Too Human, The Traditional Error of Philosophers by Friedrich Nietzsche – This paragraph, describing how philosophers err in assuming that there is something eternal about man, is part of the foundation of a book in which (to quote Mencken yet again) Nietzsche “showed that moral ideas were not divine, but human, and that, like all things human, they were subject to change.”

Question for the week: Does Nietzsche go too far? Is there nothing about humanity that is fixed and eternal?