Learn By Example

A friend of mine once told me that his favorite Bible verse was from Chapter 6 of the Book of Job:

“Oh that my grief were throughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together!
For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea: therefore my words are swallowed up. For the arrows of the Almighty are within me, the poison whereof drinketh up my spirit: the terrors of God do set themselves in array against me.”

What he liked about this verse is that it helped put his own troubles into perspective. The calamities that befell Job were so great that it makes our own pale in comparison.

A similar philosophy was espoused by Lucretius in On the Nature of Things when he stated that it is pleasant to watch a shipwreck from the safety of the shore. There is no misanthropic impulse behind that statement, just the recognition that people are subject to all sorts of misfortune and that we are fortunate when we are not getting the worst of it.

Polybius went even further. According to him, “the only method of learning how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune, is to recall the calamities of others.” Is it really the only method? This seems like a step to far. Religion and stoicism spring to mind as two possible ways to learn how to cope with disaster that may not require looking to examples of unfortunate others. To be sure, both of them rely on examples to some extent (e.g. Job, the saints, Socrates, etc.) But I am not sure that they need them to be effective.

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Beer of the week: Blue Moon Rounder – My past experience with Blue Moon didn’t prevent me from trying this beer. Perhaps it should have. This Belgian-style pale ale is not much to write home about. The photo shows how clear this beer is. This is a bit surprising since there actually is some wheat in the recipe. The smell is fairly bland and grainy. It tastes primarily of malt, but there is just a hint of spice in the finish. The name comes from the idea that one could drink several rounds of this beer. I suppose that this would be a fine beer to drink a half-dozen of in a sitting. There is something to be said for that.

Reading of the week: The Histories by Polybius – At the very beginning of his greatest work, Polybius announces that he does not need to commend the study of history because “all historians, one may say without exception, and in no half-hearted manner… have impressed on us that the soundest education and training for a life of active politics is the study of History.”

Question of the week: Is there any other method for learning to face disaster than to look to the examples of others?


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?


Art Head

“It must be great to be able to do things—artistic things, I mean, like composing.”

This sentiment, although not in my own words, is one that I’ve expressed time and again. What must it feel like to have some discernible artistic talent? To be able to reach out to others through a medium – be it paint or music or computer code – and communicate something on a level higher (or lower?) than the “merely” rational?

Art, like most things, appears to be cyclical. This blog started five years ago tomorrow, and we are right back to where we started. What is art? To quote Oscar Wilde (again), “art is quite useless.” So this blog might be art after all.

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Beer of the week: Gumballhead – The folks over at Three Floyds Brewing are certainly artists, and Gumballhead is their delightful wheat ale. It is a pretty, hazy, golden brew. The smell is dominated by aromatic hops. The body of the beer is very light and smooth. Overall, this is a really delicious beer. Like, really good.

Reading of the week: The Man Upstairs by P.G. Wodehouse – If such an impossible decision had to be made, I might conclude that Wodehouse is my very favorite author. Much of his writing is uproariously funny, and all of it is sharp. And all without being lewd or crude. (Not that I object to scatological or sexual humor, but the fact that Wodehouse can get along so well without it is very impressive.) This short story of a young composer and the painters who have studios in the same building reminds me somewhat of the work of Roald Dahl.

Question of the week: What is art, anyway?


A Curious Substitution

It is no secret that the philosophy of John Locke was a profound influence on the American Founding Fathers. After all, his concept of natural rights to life, liberty, and property was prominently displayed at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. But there was also a dramatic change in that document’s language: “property” was replaced with the “pursuit of happiness.”

First, let’s be clear on what Locke actually said: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” How “health” got dropped from popular discourse, I do not know. I suspect that health can easily be subsumed by life, liberty, or both. Health is an integral part of life since an ultimate failure of health results in death. It is also an integral part of liberty, since any failure of health impairs liberty to some extent and a serious failure of health (just short of death) totally prevents one from exercising his liberty. (Those in a coma, for example, can hardly be considered “free”.) So, with health out of the way, we are left with the common formulation of Locke’s natural rights: life, liberty, property.

But when it came time to draft the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for “property.” But why? I have done a little reading and asked a few professors, and gotten three answers:

1. That Jefferson, a land-owner, was appealing also to those who did not own land. Since he did not advocate a system where all men got an equal share of the land, he substituted the pursuit of happiness as something that everybody could achieve (even those destined to be tenants.)

This answer seems least likely to me. Of course the Declaration was a practical document, intended to rally support for the cause of independence, but it was also an exposition of Jefferson’s philosophy. Would he really substitute an entire third of his philosophy of natural rights for a relatively minor appeal to the lower class colonists? I am extremely reluctant to consider anything in the first part of the Declaration to be disingenuous. (Whether all of the complaints leveled at King George were all made in good faith is another question.)

Further, under Locke’s formulation, the right to property relies on the assumption that there is enough property to support everybody. The American continent was regarded as practically limitless in size at that time. Why would Jefferson object to the idea that anybody who did not then own land could just move west and acquire property by mingling his labor with the land? And if he did believe that, then why not present that as yet another reason why even landless Americans should support the cause of independence?

2. That the right to property is merely a subset of the right to pursue happiness.

What could that really mean? Even if we allow that acquisition and possession of property is but a single possible path to happiness, what else falls in that category? What else is included in the right to pursue happiness that is not already included in liberty? And how are these other subsets of the right to pursue happiness related to the right to property?

I have heard that the pursuit of happiness can be divided into pursuit of earthly happiness (i.e. through the acquisition of property,) or heavenly happiness. This makes this language a nod to freedom of religion.

It is worth noting that later in 1776, but also in Philadelphia, another important document was drafted: the first Constitution of Pennsylvania. In its Declaration of Rights, the drafters asserted “That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Here, the pursuit of happiness is separate from the right to acquire, possess and protect property. It appears that at least the Pennsylvanian Founders did not consider property rights to be a mere subset of the pursuit of happiness. Religious freedom was also provided for by the Constitution of Pennsylvania, undermining the earthly/heavenly distinction suggested above. If property and religion are the two parts of the pursuit of happiness, why name all three separately?

3. That Jefferson did not believe that property rights were natural rights; that property rights are derived entirely from society.

This is a very interesting answer to the question of why property is replaced by the pursuit of happiness. I first saw this hypothesis in an article by Albert Alschuler of the University of Chicago. Alschuler claims that Jefferson’s departure from Locke on the point of property is the result of Jefferson siding with Scottish Enlightenment thinkers (including Lord Kames, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and David Hume) on the issue. The Scots apparently diverged from Locke on the question of whether property rights were natural or wholly societal in origin.

Of course, this could explain why the right to property is not listed in the Declaration, but it does not explain what the pursuit of happiness is. I’d better do some more reading and have a beer…

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Beer of the week: Philadelphia Pale Ale – From the same city that brought us the Declaration of Independence, the Pennsylvania Constitution, and the United States Constitution comes this pale ale. Yards Brewing Company produces this very light-colored beer. It is very crisp and refreshing despite a decent malt body. Although it is an ale, it drinks more like a pilsner. I think that this beer is quite good.

Reading of the week: Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, Declaration of Rights – The rights to life, liberty, and property are accounted for by this document, but there are a great number of more particular rights besides. Among the rights provided for are procedural protections for criminal defendants, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right of the people to modify or abolish the State government if they deem it best to do so. And, since the state was founded by Quaker pacifists, the right of a conscientious objector to refuse military duty is also guaranteed (provided he pays for a replacement).

Question of the week: What is the pursuit of happiness?


Forget Fear

The fear of forgetting is exceedingly common. More than a few people have nightmares about forgetting to study for an exam or forgetting to prepare for a presentation or speech. And it is not difficult to see why the fear of forgetting is so serious; the consequences can be dire. Forgetting an anniversary can result in marital discord. Forgetting to turn off the stove can result in a house fire. Forgetting about a project can result in a lost job. Forgetting is scary.

But forgetting is not only scary because of it’s consequences; it can also be scary because of it’s causes. Have you waken up after a night of drinking and not remembered how you got home? That is really scary. Since you don’t remember getting home, you have no way of knowing how close you may have come to doing something extremely dangerous. It may be the merest accident that you did not get seriously hurt or die, but you have no way to know because you drank so much that you can’t remember. Isn’t that terrifying?

To me, the most terrifying thing about forgetting is the fear of deteriorating mental health. I do not have any reason to think that I personally am losing any of my mental powers, but everybody who reaches old age has reason to fear that their body will outlive their reason, and that prospect is truly horrifying. I plan on living for many more years, but I extremely anxious about the prospect of living past the point where I can remember how to feed myself or recognize my loved ones’ faces.

Forgetting, however, is not always scary or bad. In fact, sometimes remembering is even worse. There is a reason that people talk of “being haunted” by memories. Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem The Raven is about memory and the terrifying possibility of never being able to forget. The poem starts with the narrator reading a book of “forgotten lore.” And why is he reading forgotten lore? In the hopes that he can forget his lost love. He is trying to drive out his memories and replace them with something else that has already been forgotten.

The poem’s titular character, the raven, is the embodiment of the narrator’s inability to forget. Try as he might, the narrator will never rid himself of the bird just as he will never rid himself of the memory of “the rare and radiant maiden” whom he has lost. Even when he feels that he is on the verge of forgetting, when he gets distracted by other thoughts, he is brutally and unexpectedly forced to remember by the ominous fowl. And the worst thing about the raven is the knowledge that the narrator will be able to forget nevermore.

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Beer of the week: Ghost Ship White IPA – With Halloween just around the corner, a beer that is advertized as “scary good” seems appropriate. This cloudy orange brew comes from Capital Brewery in Wisconsin. It pours with a sticky white head. The aroma is of strong hops with a hit of grapefruit. The smell, however, is a bit misleading; the body of the beer is lighter and the flavor is less hoppy than I expected based on the aroma. Although the flavor is surprisingly slight, the finish has a pleasant spice and a bit of a tingle from the citrusy hops.

Reading of the week: The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe – Surely this is one of the most famous American poems ever written. In The Raven, Poe does not mention beer, but he does mention nepenthe. Nepenthe is an ancient Greek potion to induce forgetfulness and chase away sorrow. Sounds like beer to me.

Question of the week: What fear is worse: forgetting something important, or the inability to forget something devastating?


In Australia, they are called “thongs”.

One of the most common criticisms one sees of politicians is that they “flip-flop”. A politician who changes his position on issues is regarded as untrustworthy. What faith can be put in a man who contradicts himself. But, in the words of Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

In the case of the elected politician, he not only contains multitudes, he represents multitudes. Should not a democratically elected representative be willing to change his stance on an issue if he finds that his constituency has changed its stance? Some might argue that the politician’s primary duty is to reflect the current opinion of the electorate. If he flip-flops, that is only because the people vacillate.

And even if the politician does think for himself rather than repeat to the crowd whatever it wants to hear, individuals change their ideas and opinions all the time. Hopefully, they do not bounce back and forth between belief systems or ideologies willy-nilly, but even the most important beliefs and ideas are subject to change. As William Harvey wrote, good and true men do not “think it unworthy of them to change their opinion if truth and undoubted demonstration require them to do so.” It is much more admirable and sound to change one’s opinion than to stubbornly hold onto an opinion that has been proved to be wrong.

But still, the flip-flopper is reviled. And often, rightly so. The idea that a politician should simply mirror the opinion of his constituency is very problematic. In that case, the best politician has no virtue or integrity of his own. This precludes any man of principle from being elected. And as far as being willing to be convinced of the truth and to abandon old opinions in the light of new information, that is so rarely the case that such a person would not even be called a flip-flopper; he would be called something much worse.

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Beer of the week: Kinroo Blue – Kinroo Blue is basically a store-brand Blue Moon, so I did not expect much. On one hand, this Belgian white ale has the edge on Blue Moon simply because it is actually from Belgium. On the other hand, I have had other beers from Brouwerij Martens NV, some of which were not particularly good. But we must judge the beer on it’s own merits, regardless of its origins. This cloudy, straw colored ale has lots of orange peel and clove on the nose. It is also quite fizzy, with lots of white foam. The flavor is sweet and citrusy, and fairly good for what it is. This is certainly not a great beer, but it is refreshing and reasonably priced.

Reading of the week: On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals by William Harvey – In the Dedication to this ground-breaking work on the circulation of blood, Harvey really lays into those who cling to the natural philosophy of the ancients despite mounting scientific evidence.

Question of the week: Does the elected politician have a duty to his constituency to vote against his own conscience if the majority is large enough?


He who has given takes away

The only time I was ever in an ambulance was when I suffered a broken nose and several fractures to my upper maxilla. As a consequence of those injuries, I had my jaw wired shut for quite a while. To add insult to injury, I found that when the wires were finally removed my jaw muscles had become so tight that I still could not open my mouth. I was so looking forward to solid food, but would have to wait another week.

My disappointment at that time stands in stark contrast to my state of mind while sitting in the ambulance. I had just been reading Epictetus shortly before the injuries occurred, so I had an idea fresh in my head: “If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed.” So I thought to myself (no fooling, I actually thought this,) “if your face gets broken, you shouldn’t be disturbed. Faces occasionally break, but that is beyond your control.”

I now suspect that I was simply in shock. Once I was at the emergency room, I was miserable. Not very stoic at all. I am not sure that Epictetus would have been more possessed than I was, but he certainly talks a big game. After saying that you shouldn’t be upset if your cup breaks, he says that the same is true of your wife and children. “If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.” Brutal.

Since Epictetus was a crippled ex-slave who never married, it is impossible to say how he would actually react to losing a wife or child. Job, however, presents an interesting look at the way a Stoic responds to such a loss. To be sure, Job is a very difficult book to understand and it is arguable that Job’s reliance on faith is somehow opposed to the stoic’s reliance on reason. However, Job certainly starts out sounding like Epictetus.

Epictetus: He who has given takes away… [You say,] “I would have my little children with me and my wife.” What, are they yours? do they not belong to the Giver, and to Him who made you? then will you not give up what belongs to others?

Job (upon learning of the death of his children): The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

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Beer of the week: Blue Moon Belgian White – Incidentally, the same year that I took that ambulance ride, I also stole a few Blue Moons from some friends while playing a prank on them. I sincerely doubt that there was any karmic relationship between the two events. Blue Moon is meant to be a Belgian-style wheat ale. The aroma is sweet and yeasty, with just a hint of fruit. Typical of the style, this unfiltered beer is pale and very hazy. Overall, Blue Moon is rather bland. There is a distinct wheat flavor, but it is similar to that of a water cracker. There is a tiny bit of spice on the back end, but not enough to salvage this beer.

Reading of the week: The Book of Job, Chapter 6 – Job may come across as a stoic at first, but I could hardly imagine Epictetus saying “Oh that my grief were throughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together! For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea!” On a bad day, this chapter is great for putting life into perspective.

Question of the week: Is it really possible to suffer a significant loss and not be disturbed? If somebody important to you died, could you simply shrug it off as Epictetus suggests, or would you curse your lot as Job did?