To Be Prevailed Upon By One’s Friends

Earlier this year, I considered bringing this blog to a close. I even started drafting Post 300 as a farewell post. As much as I’ve loved writing this blog–over the past 8+ years and on three continents–it is work. And, more importantly at this stage in my life, it is time consuming.

But I got some vital feedback at just the right time to keep me going. In the first place, I learned about the Beer Appreciation course offered by Cornell University. Then a friend convinced me that my readers care enough about this blog to contribute actual money toward tuition for that course. Even more important than the money was the fact that people wanted to engage. Many of the readers who were willing to contribute money were also eager to recommend beers and readings, and become part of the blog process. (By the way, from very early on, I have encouraged readers to make suggestions through the “Make a Recommendation” page. I don’t think that form has been used once.)

Secondly, I got a very encouraging (and unsolicited) message at a critical time. Of this blog, a friend said: “I hope it never ends.” How could I quit after reading such a sentiment?

Friends, you’ve kept me going. Thank you all for your contributions, be they monetary or just kind words. Please always feel free to comment or reach out. For my part, I will keep writing this blog until you are sick to death of it.

Beer of the week: Licher Weizen – This German Hefeweizen seems like a good representative of the style. It is quite cloudy, with a big, fluffy head. (As I now know from the Cornell course, the high protein content of wheat contributes both to the cloudiness and the foaminess.) The aroma has notes of banana and clove. (Typical of the esters associated with wheat.) The flavor follows the smell closely, especially the banana. There is just enough hops to remind you that this is, in fact, a beer. I don’t know if this is the best Hefeweizen, but it is definitely everything the style should be.

Reading of the week: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – This excerpt is almost entirely dialogue, with the characters debating whether it is better “to yield readily—easily—to the persuasion of a friend” or to insist that the friend provide argument and reason. For, as one character argues, “to yield without conviction is no compliment to the understanding of either [friend].”

Question of the week: Is there any way that this blog could be more engaging? What features/subjects/beers/etc. would induce you to comment/suggest beers/etc.?


Real Men Write Poetry

If you are reading this, you have probably never been “in the fell clutches of circumstance.” You’ve likely never suffered “the bludgeonings of chance.” And odds are, you haven’t been engulfed by a metaphorical night as “black as the pit from pole to pole.”

If you have not been tested to the utmost, how can you know whether your soul is unconquerable? Or whether you really are the master of your own fate? And, more relevant for our present purposes, what good is the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley?

In his youth, Henley suffered from tuberculosis. He had a leg amputated when he was sixteen. Later, rather than submitting to the amputation of his remaining foot, Henley traveled to Scotland to be a patient of a doctor later to be known as “the father of modern surgery,” Joseph Lister. Lister’s antiseptic treatments saved Henley’s foot. During his three-year course of treatment, Henley wrote and published his famous “hospital poems,” including Invictus. Although he eventually lost the battle with tuberculosis, a disease that caused him constant pain and cost him his leg, Henley had spent his whole life with his head unbowed.

Invictus is also associated with Nelson Mandela and his time at the infamous Robben Island prison. Sentenced to life imprisonment, and consequently with no obvious hope of ever again being a free man, Mandela supposedly recited Invictus to fellow inmates. Even in a cage, Mandela remained the captain of his own soul. (As an aside, the CIA had a hand in Mandela’s arrest. So there’s your fun fact for the day.)

For men such as Henley and Mandela, Invictus appears to affirm their mettle. The poem’s value, however, is not as an affirmation, but as a bulwark. The poem is not a boast about one’s fortitude and strength of character, but a brace against the bludgeonings of chance. Just as The Quitter by Robert W. Service helped Douglas Mawson overcome the compounded difficulties of being sick and alone in the uncharted antarctic wilderness, Invictus has served as a source of inspiration for those in fell circumstances. It would behoove us all to study poems such as Invictus while we are relatively safe and comfortable, so that we can call them to mind if and when we must face true suffering.

Beer of the week: Official by Bell’s Brewery – This hazy wheat IPA pours with a white, rocky head. It has a very faint aroma, with a hint of grass. Notes of peach are followed by a dry finish and nice wheat notes.

Reading of the week: Invictus by William Ernest Henley – This poem also lent its name to the most successful rugby movie ever made. On the eve of the Rugby World Cup Final, it is worth a revisit. (By the way, this poem uses the adjective “fell”–meaning “terrible” or “ferocious”–to describe the “clutches of circumstance.” It is the only time I can think of where that adjective has been used to describe anything other than a “swoop.”)

Question for the week: In case of emergency, you may stock up physical needs such as canned foods, candles, and bottled water for disaster. But how do you prepare for your mental well-being?


A Poem of Fire and Ice

Back at in the beginning of April, I wrote a post about memorizing poetry. Over the first three months of this year, I memorized six poems. I am proud to report that I have kept up the pace, and memorized another six poems during Q2.

To celebrate the beginning of baseball season, I started with Casey at the Bat. Then, to go with the return of Game of Thrones, I memorized Fire and Ice by Robert Frost. For those not in the know, the book series that Game of Thrones is based on is known as A Song of Ice and Fire. Frost’s poem about the world ending in either fire or ice was an obvious poem to ponder as GOT wrapped up.

For Mothers’ Day, I memorized Morning Song by Sylvia Plath, a charming poem to her newborn baby. I finished May with We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks. I had been meaning to read more Brooks ever since I attended a lecture by the archivist who is painstakingly working through the poet’s extensive personal notebooks. (Among other things, Brooks recorded everything she ate every day.)

After some thought about what poets were most interesting to me as a child, I decided to memorize Shel Silverstein’s Sick in June. I have always loved humor, and the ability to tell a joke in verse is a tremendous skill. Harlem by Langston Hughes rounded out the first half of the year. And the beginning of summer seems as good a time as any to ponder “a raisin in the sun.”

Compared to the poems I memorized in the first three months of the year, these poems are generally more modern and are mostly shorter. (Casey at the Bat is by far the oldest and the longest of the six.) I certainly have a soft spot formal old poetry, but the structural variety of the poems from these past three months has been a very fun change of pace.

In the first quarter of this year, I memorized three British poems, one Mexican, one Canadian, and one Australian poem. The second quarter accidentally became a study of relatively modern American poetry. The first five poems of the quarter were only American by happenstance. But once I realized what had happened, I specifically chose Harlem as the sixth straight American poem to memorize.

Beer of the week: The Big O – This cloudy wheat beer is brewed by Wisconsin’s O’so Brewing Co. It is bready and delicious. The label made me expect more citrus flavor, but there is not much to speak of. The beer is neither especially sweet nor especially tart. Not that that is a problem; The Big O simply tastes like a very good wheat beer.

Reading of the week: Fire and Ice by Robert Frost – There are a lot of considerations that go into the choice of this poem for this week’s reading. As alluded to above, the end of Game of Thrones was culturally significant, even if you hated how it ended. The battles of ice versus fire and desire versus hatred are deeply embedded in the way we think of the world. Secondly, the weather is finally hot after a cold, wet spring; fire has finally asserted itself over the ice. Lastly, and most importantly, Fire and Ice is not under copyright. With the exception of Casey at the Bat, which was a reading of the week a couple months ago, none of the other poems that I memorized this quarter are in the public domain.

Question for the week: Who is your favorite American poet?


The World’s Longest and Least Funny Joke

Plato’s dialogues can be rather difficult. And of all the dialogues, Parmenides may be the most baffling. And within Parmenides, the second part, where Socrates has tapped out and Aristoteles acts as Parmenides’ primary interlocutor, is particularly confounding. And the conclusion of the second part is the most enigmatic passage of the lot. But none of that is going to stop me from telling the world just what I think about it, because that’s the kind of guy I am.

It is my position that the conclusion of Parmenides is a goof.* It is a joke at the expense of Parmenides and his followers, a parody of his overly formal, but ultimately meaningless philosophy. To see how I arrived at that conclusion, we need a bit of background.

The dialogue ends like this:

[Parmenides]: “Then let us say that, and we may add, as it appears, that whether the one is or is not, the one and the others in relation to themselves and to each other all in every way are and are not and appear and do not appear.”

[Aristoteles]: “Very true.”

[END]

Out of context, it is clear why I take that conclusion to be a joke. By itself, it is an incomprehensible mashing together of contradictory conditions. Read it again; it simply does not make sense.

But the context of the dialogue matters, and all this talk about the one and contradictions do not come out of nowhere. In the first half of the dialogue, the characters primarily focus on Socrates’s famous theory of forms. Parmenides points out several potential problems with the forms, ultimately concluding that Socrates has some work to do.

In the second half, things go a bit pear-shaped. Parmenides, now conversing with Aristoteles, goes through the process of analyzing his own theory of “the one”. His plan is to “consider not only the consequences which flow from [the hypothesis that all reality is one], but also the consequences which flow from denying the hypothesis.” The result of an exhaustive exchange, without the ornamentation typical of most Platonic dialogue, is the nonsense quoted above.

There are a few features of the dialogue that make the concluding line look less like an actual philosophical position held by Plato, and more like a jab at Parmenides’ own philosophy.

In the first place, interpreting Plato is always difficult because he never speaks with his own voice. He generally speaks through the character of Socrates, but that does not mean that everything the character Socrates says should be interpreted as Plato’s own belief. Indeed, Plato has Socrates say a number of things that are pretty clearly NOT what Plato believes, often with the intent of mocking or patronizing his interlocutors. Consider, for example, the end of Ion, where Socrates professes to believe that the rhapsode Ion is divinely inspired, second-hand, by the same muse who inspired Homer. Parmenides is especially obscure when attempting to attribute any ideas directly to Plato. The main narrator is Cephalus, but he was not present for the conversation between Parmenides, Zeno, Socrates, and Aristoteles. Cephalus hears about the conversation from Antiphon. But even Antiphon was not present for the conversation. Antiphon claims to have heard it from Pythodorus, in whose house the conversation supposedly took place. So that final line uttered by Parmenides reaches us fifth-hand. And, notably, Socrates is out of the conversation by that point, so it seems incredible that the line represents what Socrates actually thought, let alone what Plato thought. And if it is not what Plato actually thought, then Plato must have believed there was something wrong about it, if not laughably wrong.

In the second place, Plato is funny, and he meant to be. As mentioned above, Socrates clearly intends to mock some of his interlocutors, and the end of Ion is a great example of him toying with an unworthy interlocutor. And in the Apology, part of the charge leveled against Socrates was that the young men of Athens found the Socratic take-downs of prominent men so amusing. This undermined the youth’s respect for their elders, among other things. Although the character Socrates argues that he was only trying to help his interlocutors find out whether their ideas were built on philosophical bedrock, it seems clear that he occasionally took joy in making them look foolish. So making Parmenides look foolish does not seem out of character for Plato.

It may be argued that the ending of Parmenides is unlike Ion, etc., because in other dialogues, Socrates corners his interlocutors and confronts them with the absurd results of their logical missteps. In Parmenides, however, Socrates is not an active participant in the conversation by the end. He does not twist Parmenides into the absurd conclusion; Parmenides does that to himself. But that distinction could be explained by the age and experience of the character of Socrates. In dialogues with later dramatic dates, an older Socrates is willing to wield the interlocutors’ logical blunders like a slapstick, but the young Socrates, not yet confident in his own philosophy (as demonstrated in the first half of Parmenides,) and faced with the older and respected Parmenides and Zeno, simply observes the absurd conclusion without comment. That doesn’t mean that Plato didn’t chuckle to himself as he wrote that last line.

And finally, the conclusion is a philosophical dead end. There is simply nowhere to go from there. The theory of forms, as discussed in the first half of the dialogue, went on to become a great hallmark of Platonic philosophy, not the one and it’s implicit self-contradictions. So either the last line of Parmenides is an extremely complex but profound and valid philosophical conclusion that remains inexplicably absent from the rest of Plato’s work, or it actually is as silly and nonsensical as it appears on its face. And because I do not understand it, I choose to believe it is not serious.

Parmenides is a joke, bring on the next book.

Beer of the week: Colbitzer Weizen – This hefeweizen comes from Germany’s Hofbrauhaus Wolters. It pours with a big sticky head. The aroma has the classic yeasty notes of the style. The flavor is pleasant, with hints of bread, banana and clove. I would like more of a spice bite at the end, but this is a pretty good beer at a really good price.

Reading of the week: Parmenides by Plato, 126a-128e: As a final bit of support for my theory that the dialogue is a satire of Parmenides’ philosophy, this week’s reading includes the part where Zeno explicitly states that people “jeer at [Parmenides] and assert that if the all is one many absurd results follow which contradict his theory.” Before the philosophical substance of the dialogue begins, Plato primes us for the idea that Parmenides’ ideas are laughable.

Question for the week: Sometimes, satire is so on-point that it is difficult to identify as satire. (See also Poe’s Law.) Is that good satire because it is so close to what it is mocking, or is it bad satire because it does not serve its purpose if people can’t tell whether it is earnest?

*My claim is a big one, and somewhat unusual for this blog. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, which explains the length and depth of this post. To the rest of my analysis above, I would also like to add the weight of an appeal to authority. (Whatever value that may be.) In the book Plato’s Parmenides Reconsidered, Mehmet Tabak apparently argues that Parmenides does not have an important philosophical message, but is primarily a satirical criticism of Plato’s philosophical opponents. I learned of Dr. Tabak’s book near the end of drafting this blog post, so although I have not actually read it, I am more than willing to assume that Dr. Tabak makes all the same points that I do, and that he supports my conclusion entirely.


Joy In Mudville

My current job forces me to think of the year in terms of quarters. I am glad to report that Q1, which ended this past week, was very productive. Not at work, necessarily, but in the ways that matter.

For one thing, the Major League Baseball regular season started during Q1. This year was the earliest opening day yet. (To be honest, I still believe that March baseball should be played in either Florida or Arizona. I shouldn’t be able to watch a regular season ballgame and then have to shake snow flurries from my hair the same night.)

More importantly, I have stuck with my new year’s resolution though the first three months of the year. This year, I resolved to memorize two poems a month. It has been an enriching and very pleasurable experience. And, because I have made a habit of reciting the poems to myself as I walk to and from the train during my work commute, the project has not been a drain on my time.

January, I memorized Ozymandias by Percy Shelley and Clancy of the Overflow by Banjo Paterson. In the 2018 film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, there is a character who performs dramatic recitations of Ozymandias. I’m not sure that is why I chose to start with that poem, but it seems possible. I chose Clancy because Banjo Paterson has been a favorite poet of mine for a long time.

In February, I memorized Dos Cuerpos by Octavio Paz and The Mouse’s Petition by Anna Laetitia Barbauld. After January went so well, I wanted to stretch myself a bit by memorizing a poem in Spanish. I consulted with a bilingual friend of mine who studied poetry in college. My requirements were that the poem be good, short, and have a manageable vocabulary. (After all, it is well over a decade since my last high school Spanish test.) Dos Cuerpos fit the bill. I read The Mouse’s Petition for the first time last year, and was very taken with it. Aside from the obvious merits of the poem itself, I have been very interested in Joseph Priestly and his experiments since my freshman chemistry classes.

To end the first quarter of the year, I memorized If— by Rudyard Kipling and The Quitter by Robert W. Service. If— is probably my favorite poem of all-time. And as a new father, it has taken on additional significance to me. (Also, The Simpsons did it!) The Quitter was chosen as a follow-up to If— because it is very similar in both tone and message. In fact, if I were to call Robert Service “the poor man’s Kipling,” I would probably not be the first.

Overall, I am very pleased with myself and my choices. I cannot help but believe that memorizing poetry is good for the mind and the soul (if those are different things.) I like to think that I have made a good start on a habit that I will keep for years to come. Maybe next year I will memorize famous speeches. But there is no need to get ahead of myself now; I’ve still got three quarters of 2019 to go.

Beer of the week: Son of a Peach – This unfiltered wheat beer from South Carolina’s RJ Rockers Brewing Company is brewed with Carolina peaches. It is peachy, but not overly sweet. The wheat and a hint of vanilla in the finish reminds me of peaches & cream oatmeal. I rather enjoy this beer.

Reading of the week: Casey at the Bat by Ernest Thayer – Now that baseball season is upon us, I’ve decided to memorize Casey at the Bat. It is undoubtedly the best poem ever written about baseball, and arguably the greatest piece of American comic verse ever written.

Question for the week: Excluding song lyrics, what is the longest written work you have ever memorized?


When I’m Gone

This is the forty-second in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLII: English Poetry 3 Tennyson to Whitman

A great deal of the action in the Iliad is driven by the desire to perform appropriate funeral rites. The Greeks and Trojans fight over corpses, to either recover and bury them or to strip them and leave them as carrion for birds and dogs.

Although this sort of conflict appears numerous times throughout the Iliad, the two most important corpses are those of Patroclus and Hector. The fate of each tells us something different about the motivations behind mourning.

The fight for the body of Patroclus is a back-and-forth affair featuring many of the main characters from each side. And when the Greeks finally recover the corpse, it is the spirit of Patroclus himself who explains the purpose of funereal rites: “Bury me with all speed, that I pass within the gates of Hades. Afar do the spirits keep me aloof, the phantoms of men that have done with toils, neither suffer they me to join myself to them beyond the River, but vainly I wander through the wide-gated house of Hades. And give me thy hand, I pitifully entreat thee, for never more again shall I come back from out of Hades, when once ye have given me my due of fire.”

A proper burial, according to Patroclus, is performed for the sake of the deceased’s soul. The soul survives after death and is aided on its way by the funeral. An entire book of the Iliad is then dedicated to Patroclus’s funeral and attendant games.

Perhaps Cicero had this scene in mind when he wrote, “I do not agree with those who have recently begun to discuss these things, when they say that minds die with bodies and that everything is destroyed by death; I am more swayed by the dictum of the ancients, both of our ancestors, who assigned such reverant laws to the dead, which they would not have done if they judged that nothing affected them.”

The treatment of Hector’s corpse is markedly different. Achilles defiles Hector’s body by dragging it around the city behind his chariot. Ultimately, he returns Hector’s corpse for burial, but not for the sake of Hector’s soul. Hector’s father, Priam, begs Achilles to return the body: “Have thou awe of the gods, Achilles, and take pity on me, remembering thine own father. Lo, I am more piteous far than he, and have endured what no other mortal on the face of earth hath yet endured, to reach forth my hand to the face of him that hath slain my sons.”

Achilles is moved by Priam’s plea, returns the corpse, and arranges a truce for the funeral. The funeral is brief compared to that of Patroclus, and the narrative is dominated by the mourning of Hector’s widow, mother, and sister-in-law. Hector’s funeral shows that the burial rites are for the sake of the living as well as – or rather than – for the sake of the dead. Hector’s family seemingly gets more from the funeral than Hector does himself.

Christina Georgina Rossetti explores the value of mourning in her poems Song and Remember. In Remember, she writes, “Better by far you should forget and smile / Than that you should remember and be sad.” She seems to mean that the dead do not need to be remembered or venerated; memory is only valuable to the extent that it is pleasant to the living person doing the remembering. This idea is taken further in Song, in which she says that she wants no songs or flowers when she is gone, because she will not be there to hear the music or see the flowers.

What she seems to miss in Song that seems so right about Remember is the value for the survivor. It may be true that the deceased cannot hear songs or see flowers, but perhaps singing and making wreaths has value for the person mourning. When Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen wept for Hector, they did not do it for his sake, they did it for their own.

Beer of the week: Agave Wheat – This is an unfiltered beer from Breckenridge Brewery. It pours pale orange and hazy with plenty of white foam. The aroma is a bit sweet, with hint of yeasty sourness. Agave Wheat has a light body with a bit of sweetness and hints of bread. This is a good warm weather brew.

Reading of the week: Song and Remember by Christina Georgina Rossetti – Rossetti does not go as far as those philosophers alluded to by Cicero, who do not believe in an immortal soul. She appears more agnostic on the point, writing that after death, “Haply I may remember, / And haply may forget.”

Question for the week: Would you mind if nobody attended your funeral?


You Also!

This is the thirty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXVI: Machiavelli, More, Luther

It has been said there is no surer sign that an intellectual adversary is defeated than when he stops attacking your ideas and starts attacking you. Martin Luther writes in his Letter to Pope Leo X, “when we can repel the truth by no other pretence, we escape by attributing bitterness, impatience, intemperance, to our adversaries.”

Anybody who follows political news should be aware that this is the standard tactic of all of the most prominent politicians and pundits. (Obviously not the ones that you like and support. You are far to intelligent to fall for such an obvious logical fallacy. And your favorite politicians and talking heads are too upright to stoop to such petty tactics.) Rather than throughly rebutting and defending ideas, these people simply attack the ideas’ proponents. Consider this representative hypothetical:

A: “We should have a flat tax.”
B: “A is a philanderer.”

It is easy, in such a case, to identify the ad hominem and dismiss it as irrelevant. So what if A is a philanderer? That tells us nothing about whether his proposed tax policy is good bad or indifferent. B’s attack is totally unrelated to A’s proposal.

However, one of the most popular forms of ad hominem can be harder to spot. The appeal to hypocrisy (also known as tu quoque or whataboutism) often appears to be on point. For example:

A: “We should support traditional family values.”
B: “A is a philanderer.”

In this case, B’s statement seems relevant. The fact that A is a philanderer certainly appears to bear on the topic of family values. This appeal to hypocrisy is so attractive precisely because it has the semblance of logical refutation. But on closer inspection, the response does not actually refute A’s statement. Rather, it simply attacks A personally. It is totally possible that A’s statement about family values is right, no matter how bad of a spouse A is personally.

The biggest problem with analyzing ad hominem attacks is that if they are true, they may actually have some decision-making value. Whether A is a philanderer does not directly bear on the merits of his tax plan, but it does call into question whether he can be trusted to direct public funds. If his spouse cannot trust him, how can the voters?

(By the way, this example is particularly fertile ground ground for the appeal to hypocrisy. Politicians across the spectrum have bashed opponents for marital infidelity while defending members of their own ranks on the grounds that their personal lives do not effect their ability to govern. Whether they are right when they bash or right when they defend is not important for our purposes. At best, the very fact that they are inconsistent calls into question their motives. At worst it calls into question their reasoning powers. But in any event, it doesn’t really tell us anything about any substantive arguments, only about the people making them.)

And of course, this is true of most ad hominem attacks. Calling somebody a hypocrite, racist, or misogynist is not a refutation of any of their particular ideas or positions; it is merely a personal attack. But if the allegation of hypocrisy, racism, or misogyny is true, it (quite reasonably) makes us question their motives, reliability, and capacity.

The key, as I see it, is to readily identify ad hominem attacks, and give them the weight that they deserve. In the context of a debate of actual issues, that weight extremely low. When possible, ideas should be assessed on their own merits, not on those of their proponents.

Beer of the week: Julius Echter Hefe-Weissbier – This wheat beer from Würzburger Hofbräu is named for Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn, a leader of the Counter-Reformation, who used his power as Prince-Bishop of Würzburg to combat Lutheranism. I doubt he’d like me pairing this beer with a reading in which Luther writes that the Catholic Church “stinks in the nostrils of the world.”

As for the beer, it is hazy and orangish. The foam consists of large, quickly dissipating bubbles. The aroma has some of the classic banana notes of a German hefeweizen. Ultimately, the flavor is a bit underwhelming. This beer is pretty good, but not great.

Reading of the week: Martin Luther to Pope Leo X – It is no mere coincidence that this post was inspired by a Luther reading. Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post addressing a particular ad hominem criticism of Luther. In this letter, he follows up his statement about ad hominem attacks with several paragraphs of blatant ad hominem criticisms, ending with calling the Catholic Church “the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death, and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness.” What a hypocrite!

Question for the week: Do you know of any politicians or pundits who consistently stick to the issues and avoid the ad hominem tactic?