Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness

This is the fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IV: The Complete Poems in English by John Milton

Samson, the Old Testament character of prodigious strength, is an odd sort of hero. Like a Hebrew Hercules, he performed tremendous feats, but the moral of his story not altogether simple. Samson was quick to anger, cruel to animals, indiscriminate in his violence, and, worst of all, he drank nothing but water.

Samson was a Nazirite, which means that he was consecrated to God and made specific vows: In the first place, Nazirites vow to drink no wine. The second vow is to leave one’s hair uncut.  And finally, Nazirites vow to avoid ritual uncleanliness by coming in contact with the dead, including funerals.

How did Samson fare in attempting to keep his vows? As to the injunction against drinking wine, he appears to have followed through. Maimonides taught that alcohol is not forbidden for Nazirites, so long as it is not derived from grapes. But Samson’s version of this vow seems to be one of total abstention. Most English translations seem to follow The King James Version, stating that Samson was to “drink no wine nor strong drink.” Some more modern translations say that he was to avoid “wine or any other alcoholic drink.” The Contemporary English Version specifically includes beer. In the words of Milton, Samson’s “drink was only from the liquid brook.”

As for cutting his hair, Samson famously kept this vow until he was deceived by a prostitute called Delilah. She, then, cut his hair in his sleep, rendering him powerless. Having followed through on this part of the Nazirite vow was the source of his strength, and without his hair he was as weak as any other mortal.

And as for avoiding corpses, I am inclined to think that he did a terrible job. The Bible does not tell us about him attending funerals or strolling through cemeteries, but he killed a bunch of guys. And it seems to me that when he beat a thousand men to death with the jawbone of an ass, he got in plenty of corpse touching. I have heard it argued that at the time that he touched the Philistines, they were not yet dead, and that they only became dead after he touched them. This argument elevates form over substance. And, at any rate, that doesn’t account for the time that he killed thirty innocent men and stripped the clothing from their bodies to give to the people who figured out his stupid riddle. Stripping the clothes from dead men is most certainly NOT in keeping with the Nazirite’s vows.

If the goal of life is righteousness, then I think that the Nazirite vows may actually be a stumbling block. There is no doubt that the discipline and dedication required to follow though with the vows can be a valuable tool for contemplation and self-improvement. But if one simply follows through with the strictest literal interpretation of the vows, he risks achieving ritual purity without achieving righteousness. That is, the Nazirite vows are not the end. Samson followed the vows, but did that justify tying foxes together by their tails and lighting them on fire? Did leaving his hair uncut make it ok for him to frequent brothels? Is it ok to murder thirty men over a riddle, so long as he can do so and not break his vows? (And, again, I think it is important to emphasize that the men who were killed were not the ones who tricked his wife into giving up the solution to the riddle. They were presumably unaware of Samson’s reason for murdering them.)

And the fact that Samson lost his strength when his hair was cut seems to further this form over substance problem. Samson did not break his vow. His hair was cut while he was asleep. And yet, Samson lost his power and his favor from God because of what somebody else did. The power, it seems, was not even in the obedient dedication to God, but in the show of dedication – the hair itself. Without his long hair, nobody can tell that he is a Nazirite just by looking at him; he loses his strength, not because he broke his vow, but because he looks like he broke his vow. The appearance of righteousness is more important for Samson than inward righteousness.

In short, wouldn’t it be better to drink wine, sport a buzz-cut, attend funerals, and not be a violent psychopath?

Beer of the week: Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (2017) – This is an uncommonly strong beer to go with a reading about an uncommonly strong man. Every year, Goose Island releases it’s limited edition Bourbon County Brand line of beers. These special brews are aged in used bourbon barrels. The 2017 Barleywine is an excellent beverage. It is 14% alcohol, and it shows. But it is so smooth that the alcohol is warm but not harsh. The aroma has notes of vanilla. In the flavor there is a hint of pepper (from the bourbon barrel, perhaps.) Dark cherry is a stand-out in a very rich flavor profile. What a treat!

Reading of the week: Samson Agonistes by John Milton – Milton’s version of Samson attributes his downfall to a lack of wisdom, and a weakness for women: “what is strength without a double share of wisdom?” In this section of the tragic poem, Samson is talking with his father Manoa about the proper course of action now that he is imprisoned and blind. Certain of Manoa’s exhortations are reminiscent of Crito’s appeal to Socrates: “Repent the sin, but if the punishment Thou canst avoid, self-preservation bids.”

Question for the week: Ultimately, I think that my reading of the story of Samson is not the intended reading. Samson is meant to be a hero, not a cautionary tale about elevating religious form over virtuous substance. How can his story be read more charitably?


Lunar New Year’s Resolution

This is the first in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts will be available here. Volume I: Franklin, Woolman, Penn

Happy (Lunar) New Year! For those of us who are bad at planning ahead and/or following through on goals, Lunar New Year presents an excellent second chance at a meaningful resolution. Did you forget to pick a New Year’s resolution before midnight? Have you already thrown in the towel on your resolution a month and a half into 2018? Well Lunar New Year is here, so give that resolution another go.

Nearly two years ago, I received a set of The Harvard Classics as a gift. I have not, however, made much use of them since. To be sure, several readings on this blog have come from that set, but there are certainly volumes that I haven’t even cracked. So my (Lunar) resolution for the blog is to take a reading from each volume of The Harvard Classics for the rest of the year. Because a Lunar Year is just over 50 weeks, and The Harvard Classics has 51 volumes, I should finish just in time to pick a New New Year’s Resolution.

It just so happens that the first volume of The Harvard Classics has already provided readings for this blog: from William Penn’s Some Fruits of Solitude and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. The only other work in Volume I is The Journal of John Woolman, an excellent place to begin thinking about how to make the most of a new year. Woolman was obsessed (that just may be the best word for it) with the simplicity and cleanliness. As a Quaker, simplicity was not just a personal goal, but a tenant of his faith. He refused to eat or drink from silver vessels, a decision precipitated by a fever dream in which he saw slaves working in a mine, cursing the name of Christ and the greedy Christians who would enslave their fellow men and put them to such hard labor for the sake of something as unnecessary as gems or precious metals. He also eschewed dyed fabric, which he also regarded as a superfluity. Although that level of simplicity may seem a bit extreme, he reasoned that “if the value of dye-stuffs, and expense of dyeing, and the damage done to cloth, were all added together, and that cost applied to keeping all sweet and clean, how much more would real cleanliness prevail.” Why should we clutter our lives with unnecessary objects and expenses, when we could put our energies toward living a more tidy and ordered life?

So here’s to a simpler, cleaner New Year!

Beer of the week: Fat Alberta – Woolman would not have much good for a beer this complex.  This is an imperial stout from Throwback Brewery with peanuts and cocoa. With that in mind, I was expecting something more like a chocolate peanut butter cup. But peanut butter cup flavored it is not. Fat Alberta pours with big bubbles and lots of sticky head. On the nose is dark chocolate, but there is not a super strong aroma. The first sip is quite bitter, like eating baking cocoa. The dark malt flavors are very strong, which covers the 10% alcohol. After the initial shock of having a bitter rather than sweet beer, I noticed a bit of coffee and a hint of peanut (or was that the power of suggestion from the label?) The alcohol makes itself known in the end and the bitter cocoa hangs on the back of the throat.

Reading of the week: The Journal of John Woolman – This reading is actually the very last entry in Woolman’s journal, written just a month before his death of smallpox. He was, at the time, touring England, visiting Quaker meeting-houses throughout the country and preaching.

Question for the week: Now that you are aware of your second chance at a New Year’s Resolution, what do you resolve?

The Spiritual Tourist

I have been to Bongeunsa Buddhist temple in Seoul, Korea. I’ve toured the Spanish Synagogue in Prague, Czech Republic. I have visited two of the world’s nine Bahá’í Houses of Worship (in Ingleside, Australia and Willamette, Illinois.) I have been to the Great Mosque of Xian, China and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. I have toured St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and several other churches throughout Italy and Europe. All these and a great many more religious sites I have visited as a tourist rather than as a pilgrim.

For a non-pilgrim, sites of religious or spiritual significance pose a delicate dilemma:  how can a tourist take in a culturally valuable experience without degrading another’s holy place?

To some extent, this problem is solved by those in control of the venues. In Moulay Idriss, Morocco, all non-believers are denied access to the mosque and mausoleum of Idris I. In Rome, a small fee buys admission to the Capuchin crypts beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, without any question of faith. At various churches throughout the world, visitors are invited in, but photography is forbidden.

But no matter where, nor what creed is dominant, touring a religious site is always a peculiar event. The art, the architecture, and the history are often of extreme interest to people of all faiths. How does one balance basic human curiosity with the need to show adequate reverence?

In my experience, the best course is to take in all religious sites, regardless of denomination, with a sense of quiet awe and respect. It matters little whether the religion of the site is the same as that of the tourist. What matters is that the religious site is a monument to the faith of those who built and maintain it. Even those who hold other beliefs (or, indeed, no religious beliefs at all,) should be able to appreciate that the desire  to create such a sacred space comes from an important and fundamental part of human nature.

Beer of the week: Moat Mountain Czech Pilsner – This New Hampshire take on the classic Czech pilsner pours a nice, clear gold. It has a bit of malt aroma. But Moat’s Czech Pilsner does not have quite enough hops for my taste, either in the aroma or flavor. This is a good beer, but it comes up short of the best Czech beers.

Reading of the week: The Spirit of Russia by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk – Whose writings could be a more appropriate paring for a Czech pilsner than those of Masaryk? He was the first president of the independent state of Czechoslovakia, and a life-long advocate for a free Czech and Slovak people. This excerpt from his book on the peculiar culture of Russia includes an anecdote about a visit he made to a remote Russian monastery, not as a pilgrim, but as a “mere sightseer!”

Question for the week: Can a non-believer truly appreciate the value of a religious site?


We are told that there are certain individuals who subscribe to a notion known as “biblical literalism”. These people, allegedly, take the Bible as being quite literally true and accurate in all respects. But I doubt that anybody who has given the matter any thought actually holds such a belief. A very simple question based entirely on the first page of Genesis serves to disabuse anybody of the idea that the Bible can be read as literal fact rather than as allegory: in which order were plants, animals, and man created?

The first creation story, contained in the First Chapter of Genesis places the creation of plants in the third day. All sorts of plants sprouted all over the land and bore seeds according to their type. Animals came to be on the fifth day. Humans were created on day six.

1. Plants; 2. Animals; 3. Man.

In the second creation story, contained in the next chapter of Genesis, humans were created before any plants had sprouted. Only after the creation of man did God make trees for the garden of Eden. Then, after man was in the garden, God made all of the animals to keep him company.

1. Man; 2. Plants; 3. Animals.

If they are taken as literal accounts, these two creation stories are irreconcilable. Biblical literalism can go no further than the very first page of the very first book of the Bible. And because this initial contradiction is so evident and so immediate, it seems unlikely that anybody truly is a biblical literalist. This is actually helpful, because it immediately indicates that the purpose of the Bible is to teach something other than literal history. What is left open, however, is the question of what the Bible really means…

Beer of the week: Grapefruit Sculpin- Traditionally, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is represented as an apple. But who’s to say that it wasn’t a grapefruit? This beer is a grapefruit twist on Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA. The grapefruit aroma is evident as soon as the can is cracked. The beer pours with a fluffy head that hangs around. It has some of the bitterness of grapefruit rind and a smooth finish. Pretty good.

Reading of the week: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1 & 2 – In my younger days, I liked to engage street evangelists. On multiple occasions, I found them unaware that there are two distinct creation accounts. I suspect that they had simply not read much scripture, and had received their Biblical teaching second-hand.

Question for the week: The logical conclusion from the conflicting creation accounts is that they are allegorical, and that each is intended to teach a different lesson. Having abandoned these as literal accounts of creation, is there any reason that creationism remains in conflict with evolution, etc.?

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

CHASTITY: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

Like Temperance, Frugality, and Silence, Franklin’s version of Chastity could easily be viewed as a sub-virtue of moderation. He does not advocate sexual abstinence any more than he advocates absolute silence, parsimony, or teetotaling. Rather, Franklin’s advice is to limit sexual exertion to a healthy level. Sex is not bad; over-indulgence is bad, particularly if it leads to a damaged reputation.

This view of chastity and eros would have served Hippolytus well. The mythical Hippolytus worshipped Artemis, the chaste goddess of the hunt, to the exclusion of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. In Euripides’ version of the story, Hippolytus comes on the scene with a an offering for Artemis: a “woven wreath, culled from a virgin meadow, where nor shepherd dares to herd his flock nor ever scythe hath mown, but o’er the mead unshorn the bee doth wing its way in spring; and with the dew from rivers drawn purity that garden tends.” And he follows this carefully cultivated sacrifice with a total rebuff of Aphrodite. “No god, whose worship craves the night,” he says, “hath charms for me.”

Hippolytus’ sage attendant understands the error of this attitude, and advises him to maintain at least “courteous affability” with all of the gods. Although he does not say so in so many words, this is because the gods of the Greek pantheon represent the many facets of humanity. It is fine, even proper, to have a favored god as a patron, but all of the gods must have their due. To deny any of the various gods entirely is to deny an entire aspect of human nature. And that is as true of Aphrodite as it is of the rest.

Beer of the week: Indio – When it comes to Mexican beers, darker is almost always better. This Mexican dark lager pours with big, sticky bubbles. The aroma is not much different than a Corona. The flavor is profile includes some rice and a slight hint of caramel that lingers. And, although it has more flavor than most pale lagers from south of the boarder, it is just about as refreshing.

Reading of the week: Hippolytus by Euripides – The play begins with Aphrodite spelling out exactly what her plan is to avenge herself upon Hippolytus. She is intent upon “bring to ruin all who vaunt themselves at” her.

Question for the week: Is rage particularly tied to love in a special way? Could Hephaestus, god of craftsmen, or Athena, goddess of wisdom, be as spiteful as Aphrodite?


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

SILENCE: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
– Franklin

Julian I was bent on restoring the Roman Empire to it’s past glory. He was known later as Julian the Apostate, because he worshiped the old gods of Rome rather than the Christian God adopted by his grandfather Constantine. He was also a notable man of letters.

Among his extant writings is a satire entitled The Caesars. In it, a feast is held by the gods and all of the Roman emperors are invited. (Not all, however make it into the party. Some of the cruel or incompetent Caesars are turned away at the door, or even condemned to Tartarus.) Once the party is assembled, the gods have a contest to decide which emperor is the greatest.

Julius, Augustus, Trajan, Constantine, and Alexander the Great (invited especially by Hercules) all recount their military exploits, and argue about why their victories were more impressive than those of the others. Marcus Aurelius, however, “turned to Zeus and the other gods and said, ‘It seems to me, O Zeus and ye other gods, that I have no need to make a speech or compete. If you did not know all that concerns me it would indeed be fitting for me to inform you. But since you know it and nothing at all is hidden from you, do you of your own accord assign me such honour as I deserve.’ Thus Marcus showed that admirable as he was in other respects he was wise also beyond the rest, because he knew ‘When it is time to speak and when to be silent.'”

‘nough said.


Beer of the week: Lomska Dark Lager – The lands that are now Bulgaria, of course, would have been ruled by Alexander the Great and later by the Romans. This Bulgarian lager is not especially good. It foams like a soda pop when poured, with big sticky bubbles. However, the head had faded entirely before I could snap a photo. By the first sip, the brew was all but flat. The aroma has some of the burnt, savory smell of grilled mushrooms. The flavor is a bit on the sweet side, with very little bitterness to help balance it out. Overall, I am not impressed.

Reading for the week: The Caesars by Julian I – The contest continues on for some time after this excerpt. Unsurprisingly, Marcus wins the day and Constantine gets punished for following Jesus rather than the gods of Rome.

Question for the week: Why is it so hard to hold one’s tongue on Facebook (and other online fora)?