Render unto Caesar EVERYTHING

Once upon a time, a radical preacher inspired a new and rapidly growing religious sect. After the death of the preacher, the sect continued to expand. Eventually, the civil and religious authorities of the region came to perceive the sect as a threat to the established order. Agents were dispatched to suppress the sect, often with violence. One such agent came to infiltrate the sect and rise to a position of leadership. From that position, he was able to effectively rewrite the tenets of the newly formed religion in a way that made it much more amenable to rule by the civil authorities. And eventually, the state not only condoned the sect, but adopted it as the official state religion.

Most of you have already guessed that I did not make this story up. The preacher is Jesus Christ; the sect is Christianity; the State is Rome; and the agent is Saul of Tarsus, later known as St. Paul the Apostle. There is no way to be sure that Saul of Tarsus remained a government agent after his “conversion”, but it certainly makes for a compelling interpretation.

Before the conversion, Saul apparently had the governmental authority to execute and imprison Christians. (Although he asserts that his authority came from the Hebrew religious leaders, it is somewhat incredible that the Roman overlords would simply allow people to run around killing and imprisoning other individuals under the protection of Rome.) After the conversion, Paul became a prolific writer. In fact, his writings comprise the bulk of the New Testament, much more than the words of Jesus himself. And when compared with the teachings of Jesus, Paul’s writings are decidedly more “pro-state”.

While Jesus’ position on secular authority (and social hierarchies generally) are ambiguous at best, Paul is all-in on the authority of civil government. Jesus said “render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” At most, this is a bland endorsement of following the law. More likely, when read with the rest of Jesus’ statements about money, this is an indictment of wealth-seeking. “You should not care about having to pay your taxes because you should be concerned with Godly things rather than material things.”

Paul, on the other hand, states explicitly that the emperor has moral authority to rule, and that to disobey the state is to commit a sin against God. Because all power comes from God, every king is an instrument of God’s will. And this position is not limited to good or virtuous kings. Whoever happens to be in charge, be they ever so vile, must be obeyed because they are in power by God’s grace. Grotius explains that for Paul, “the kingly office, even under all circumstances, was appointed by God… [so] regal power would retain its indelible sanctity, though in the hands of an ungodly man.”

That sort of blind obedience is exactly the sort of tenet that a monarchical empire such as Rome would want it’s growing fringe religious group to have. When crimes against the state are punishable by both corporeal and spiritual means, the religion has become a very valuable tool for power.

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Beer of the week: Perla Honey – There has got to be some sort of lesson here about “too much of a good thing”.  I think that the components here are good, but in the wrong proportions. It definitely tastes like real honey, and the beer is smooth and seems good, but it is impossible to tell under the sheer quantity of honey. It is like taking a shot of honey. If the sweetness were dialed way down, I think this would be really good.

Reading of the week: On the Law of War and Peace by Hugo Grotius – This excerpt from Grotius’s treatise purports to refute arguments that Christian scripture proscribes war. He relies, predictably, on the writings of St. Paul.

Question for the week: If all kings, no matter how despicable, are ordained by God, it is clearly a sin to rebel. However, if a pretender to the throne is successful in overthrowing the king, he becomes the new king and all of his actions are sanctioned. The lesson appears to be that rebellion is only a sin if it is unsuccessful. Is there any way to salvage Grotius’ (or Paul’s) position on this matter without resulting in an absurdity?


Bitter Cold

When the weather turned cold on my last visit to the Czech Republic, I had many a glass of hot blackcurrant wine. But whether my winter warmer is mulled wine, hot rum, or high alcohol beer, I have a habit of thanking my drink with a line from Hamlet:

For this relief much thanks: ’tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.

To be sure, I am rarely actually sick at heart, but I often feel more morose in the winter. Cold is more oppressive than heat, in my opinion. According to Dante’s Inferno, hell is icy cold at its core. The reason for this is simple: humans are creatures of heat. We would much rather live in a world of fire than in a world without fire.

Our bodies function best at temperatures in excess of 98 degrees although most of us live in ambient temperatures that are far lower. To some extent, we must bundle ourselves against the cold even on temperate days. Our evolutionary roots are embedded in equatorial Africa. We are drawn to the fire and turn our backs to the cold and the dark.

And to the extent that we are attracted to cold things, the attraction is usually with reference to heat. Downhill skiing is best when there is a roaring fire and a cocktail waiting for us après ski. An ice-cold beer is best on a hot summer day.

We are children of warmth. Bundle up and drink something with a little fire in it!

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Beer of the week: Novopacké Třeskuté – Last week I admitted my ignorance of the Polish language. This week I admit my ignorance of Czech. I think that the name of this beer might be a pun. I looked up “třeskuté” and found that it means “bitter”. As in English, (I think,) this could refer to the taste of the beer or the severity of the winter cold. Another hint that the name is a pun is the fact that this dark winter lager is not actually very bitter tasting. It really tastes more like toasted crackers: somewhat sweet and somewhat burnt. At 6.3% alcohol, this is definitely a winter warmer, and I have only seen it in 1.5 liter bottles. If that much beer can’t warm you, no amount can.

Reading for the week: Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Act 1, Scene 1 – The tragedy of the melancholy Dane begins in the middle of a cold, dark night. This scene sets a tone for the entire drama.

Question for the week: What warms you?


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.

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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?


Yes!—that was the reason

If there is one thing that people do constantly, it is search for meaning. I am not giving humanity more credit than it deserves when I say that. The fact that people look for meaning does not mean that they are engaged in deep philosophy. Very often, the search for meaning is badly misdirected. As discussed last week, people do not often consider the fact that when they ask why, they are asking an equivocal question that can be answered in a multitude of ways. And even when people are able to limit themselves to a fairly narrow question, they are often too ready confuse correlation and causation. Or they give the whole credit for something very complex to a single, superficial cause.

And where there is relatively little information, people will make up causes out of whole cloth. One such question that elicits a great deal of pure speculation and fancy is the question of why people die. In Poe’s poem Annabel Lee, the titular character dies of a chill. The narrator tells us that one of the efficient causes of Annabel’s death was a “wind [that] came out of the cloud by night.” Simple cause and effect. (I’ll leave aside the issue of germs for the time being.)

But a wind in the night is too senseless, too arbitrary. The narrator has to find another cause, so he attributes Annabel’s death to the envy of angels. “The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,” killed Annabel Lee for envy of the love between her and the narrator. What nonsense. And yet, what else could the narrator do? How could he stomach the idea that something so important to him was taken away by mere chance? There must be a greater meaning, “as all men know.”

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Beer of the week: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – Sierra Nevada makes some darn good beer. Their flagship Pale Ale is a slightly sweet, well rounded ale. It has just a hint of apricot, and is pleasantly hoppy without being overly bitter. Excellent stuff.

Reading for the week: Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe – We may attribute the dubious angelology in this poem to poetic license. Whatever else might be said about Poe, Annabel Lee is a beautiful and powerful piece of work.

Question for the week: Does the search for meaning ever switch off entirely? Does a man ever see something and not, even subconsciously, attempt to understand its causes?


They who hesitates is lost.

In the English language, we have gendered pronouns. Masculine: he, him, his. Feminine: she, her, hers. When discussing unidentified individuals, the traditional approach has been to use masculine pronouns. For example: “He who hesitates is lost.”

Recently, in terms of the development of the English language, there has been a push to change this practice in an attempt to be more inclusive of women. After all, females make up about half of the population and she who hesitates is equally lost. One approach to this problem is the use of the “singular they”. This is particularly common in the possessive. For example: “whoever said that I am spiteful better watch their back.” However, there is a lot of push-back against using the plural pronoun as a neuter singular. For one thing, it sounds queer to many people because it does not make grammatical sense to simply substitute a plural word in place of a singular one. Another strategy is to simply use the feminine pronouns rather than the masculine. This is generally effective, but can seem affected. It seems particularly affected when the context would clearly apply to a man far more often than to a woman. For example: “the perpetrator of a brutal multiple homicide can be held liable for emotional injuries she causes to the families of her victims,” or “one should make sure that she has applied Just For Men™ hair dye evenly throughout her mustache.” (Note that a woman certainly could commit brutal homicides or dye her mustache, but these acts are more likely those of a man.)

I am a bit of a traditionalist. I try to avoid the singular they entirely. I prefer the use of the masculine pronouns for unidentified individuals because it just sounds more natural to me. Of course, I will use the feminine where context clearly makes the individual more likely a woman. For example: “when choosing a brassiere, one should make sure that the elastic does not dig into her skin.” (Again, a man could purchase a bra for his own personal use, but the advice clearly applies more to women.)

The point of this post is not to engage in an argument about the changing role of women in society. I am not writing to claim that it is not important to encourage women to enter academic or professional fields that have traditionally been male dominated. Interest in mathematics, science, engineering, and all sorts of valuable studies should be fostered in all students who show an interest or talent in them, regardless of sex. My purpose in this post is simply to advise that choosing pronouns for the purpose of being inclusive should be secondary to choosing pronouns to make the author sound like he knows how the English language works.

I read a published court decision today that sacrificed clarity and general quality in an apparent attempt to be gender-inclusive. A federal judge, a person whose entire livelihood relies on his ability to clearly explain rules, reasoning, and conclusions, proposed this three-factor test to determine whether an attorney may disclose confidential information to prevent a future crime:

“First, how much information did the attorney possess suggesting that a crime was going to be committed before he disclosed? Relatedly, how much investigation did the attorney conduct to inform herself of the circumstances and resolve any doubts she may have had? Third, how convinced was the attorney that their client was going to commit a crime (for example, did he believe beyond a reasonable doubt?)?” (Emphasis added.)

In three sentences about a single hypothetical attorney whose conduct is being evaluated, the judge used two masculine pronouns, two feminine pronouns, and the singular they. These word choices did not change the meaning of the paragraph, but it did make the whole thing unnecessarily complex. The last sentence is particularly bad. It refers to “their client” and then asks what “he believe[d]”.  The judge is asking about what the attorney believed, but it appears that he is asking what the client believed. Clarity has been sacrificed for… what? What real value did the judge add to this paragraph by indiscriminately bouncing from pronoun to pronoun?

Perhaps there are some people who would not have been distracted or confused by the judge’s word choice. Maybe the fact that I don’t like the way he writes says more about me than it does about him. But his job is to write, and he could have conveyed his thoughts more clearly by picking a gender and sticking with it. This paragraph makes his work look sloppy. If his writing is sloppy, people might assume that his reasoning is sloppy as well. And for a judge, that consideration should easily outweigh any desire to make everybody feel included.

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Beer of the Week: Genesee Cream Ale – The first time I ever had this beer, I purchased it because it was the cheapest available option. If I recall correctly, before taxes it was less than 50¢ per can. Despite the name, “cream ales” do not contain any dairy products. (Unlike milk stouts, which are brewed with lactose for extra sweetness.) I actually find it to be very palatable. It does have a certain smoothness and nice body for a cheap, mass-produced beer, and at a price that is hard to beat.

Reading for the Week: At a Vacation Exercise in the College, Part Latin, Part English by John Milton – It is a significant understatement to say that Milton knew how to use language well. The excerpt of this address by he made while he was yet a student is a testament to the power of the English language in the right hands. After delivering an oration in Latin, Milton changes to English poetry and announces that it is the English language that is best equipped to attire the deepest and choicest thoughts.

Question for the Week: Do you think that the use of feminine pronouns when talking about unidentified individuals sounds affected? Is that a good enough reason not to do it?


Seriously, he looks like a cartoon vulture.

Happy Friday the 13th! Today I will focus on one of the spookiest, creepiest poets of all time: Charles Baudelaire. His poems are dark as Guinness stout and chilling as… a simile about cold beers.

When I first read the works of Charles Baudelaire, I was none too impressed. Had he been an American teen in the early years of this millennium, Baudelaire would have been a goth kid with whiny LiveJournal. Everything is corpses and skulls with that guy. “Nobody likes me,” his poems lament, “but that is because my soul is a that of a beautiful poet and everybody else is a dick.” (By the way, I am only half making this stuff up. His poem The Albatross compares the poet to a majestic bird that is mocked when it condescends to land among normal men.)

But Baudelaire was more than just a whinging kid with macabre tastes. Perhaps his greatest contribution to literature was his translation of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. (Which sheds some additional light on his morbid sensibilities.) It seems that Poe was more or less forgotten in the United States in the generation after his death. Luckily, Baudelaire translated Poe into French and popularized his works. The so-called Decadent Movement spread across Europe, to England, and across the Atlantic, and it brought Poe back into vogue with it.

Of course, Baudelaire’s own work is not without value. I particularly like his poem Get Drunk. The ceaseless crushing gears of time are unbearable unless one gets drunk. “Get drunk! Stay Drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue, on whatever you want.” Find something that intoxicates you, something that alters your perception of time. And if you should wake up with a hang-over on the steps of a palace or in the grass of a ditch, ask the world what time it is. And the answer will be: time to get drunk!

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Beer of the week: 5 Vulture Oaxacan-Style Dark Ale – Find a photo of Baudelaire and tell me that he doesn’t look like a cartoon vulture. Which, given his dark style, seems totally appropriate. 5 Vulture Ale is brewed by 5 Rabbit Cervecería, a Latin American inspired brewery near Chicago. This dark ale is brewed with ancho chili peppers. The color is dark amber and the head is tan. The aroma is distinctive and sweet. The taste has hints of dark chocolate and a subtle fruit presence that I can’t quite pin down. The ancho chilies used in the brewing give a pleasant tingle at the end, though I’d actually prefer a bit more spice. It also feels thinner than one would expect from such a dark, flavorful beer. It is so different that I really don’t know what to think about it.

Reading of the week: Get Drunk by Charles Baudelaire – The first version of this poem that I read was an English translation that included the word “beer”. When I checked the French, I was disappointed (though not surprised) to find that the word used was “vin”. Beer would have been better, but wine will do.

Question of the week: I am sure that I understand being drunk on wine. I think that I understand being drunk on poetry. But I can’t quite get my head around being drunk on virtue. What can that mean?


Prefaces

My daily commute has recently increased from 5 minutes to 50 minutes. As a result, I have added a new category of reading to my routine: train reading.

The law library has some “popular reading”, but I have no interest in the works of John Grisham and the selection consists of little else. I was pleased to find, however, that there is also a complete set of the Harvard Classics. I picked up Volume 39, Prefaces and Prologues. The table of contents included a list of authors who all either are or ought to be among those I have written about on this blog: Calvin, Copernicus, Bacon, Newton, Goethe, and more. But it was after reading the introductory note by William Allan Neilson that I was totally set on making this volume my commute reading.

According to Neilson, a preface is where “the author descends from his platform, and speaks with his reader as man to man.” Whatever the character of his narrative voice in the final work, the preface is his own; “a personality which has been veiled by a formal method throughout many chapters, is suddenly seen face to face in the Preface.” In short, the preface is the closest thing to getting to chat with the author about his work, and that conversational aspect appeals to me greatly.

The very first reading on this blog was a preface: Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Since then, I have used prefaces from Bede, Kant, Descartes, Machiavelli, Huygens, and Rabelais. If the preface really is the way to interact with authors “man to man” as Neilson put it, I could hardly think of a group of men I would rather get to know.

So I attempted to check out Volume 39 and was informed that the library does not allow books that are part of a set to circulate. I suppose that the idea is that if I were to steal the book or lose it, it would ruin the set. There are plenty of copies of the Harvard Classics out there, but replacing a given volume from a specific printing might prove difficult or even impossible. Still, I would be willing to wager that I am the only patron who has picked up that particular book since it was placed on the shelf. I may even be the only person to have opened it since a rubber stamp was used to mark it as library property. Under these circumstances, it seems pretty stupid to keep the books from being checked-out by the one person with any interest in them.

Since unthinking bureaucracy crushed my reading plans, I checked out a book of Kafka short stories instead. It seemed only appropriate.

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Beer of the Week: Hamm’s Premium – The can still says that Hamm’s is “from the land of sky blue waters,” but it is no longer brewed in Minnesota, but in Milwaukee by MillerCoors. (See also National Bohemian beer, from “the land of pleasant living” and also brewed under contract far from the original brewery.) Even after taxes, I paid less than 50¢ per can for this beer, so expectations were low. So low, in fact, that I was pleasantly surprised. Don’t get me wrong, it is not good; it is about as bland as mass produced beers get. It is, however, not bad. I could drink a lot of this stuff on a hot day and not complain.

Reading for the Week: Harvard Classics Vol. 39 by William Allan Neilson – When Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard, suggested that a liberal education could be obtained by reading 15 minutes daily from five feet of shelf space, publishers asked him to prove it. And so, the Harvard Classics “Five Foot Shelf” was born. Eliot selected the works to be included and enlisted William Neilson to choose the editions and write the introductions.

Question for the Week: What work would you most like to discuss with its author?


Dark November

Sad or depressed people will often sit in the dark. They may watch sad or depressing films or listen to sad music. What they want is for their surroundings to mirror their feelings. And this is no new thing. The narrator of Lord Byron’s poem My Soul is Dark requests that sad music be played for him. Music as dark as his soul.

But it is not just our controlled environment (lights, music, etc.) that we like to match our state of mind. In My November Guest, Robert Frost says that “dark days of autumn rain” are beautiful. They are even more beautiful, though, when he is sad. When he has sorrow in his heart, that sorrow rejoices to see the world as bleak and cold and barren.

So on this autumn day think dark thoughts, drink dark beer, and ponder how much more beautiful the world can be when it matches the way you feel.

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Beer of the Week: Lancaster Brewing Company Milk Stout – Apparently, yeast can’t ferment lactose. That fact makes lactose an interesting ingredient in beer, since it can increase sweetness without any fear of the sugar being converted into more alcohol. In this case, it results in a smooth and slightly sweet stout. There is not much hops to speak of. The dark malt provides some body to the flavor, but doesn’t impart any rough or smokey taste. Over-all, it is a satisfying and easy drinking beer, but it is pretty filling and not very flavorful.

Reading for the Week: My November Guest by Robert Frost – In this short poem, Frost doesn’t say that one must be sad to appreciate a cold, wet autumn day. But he does say that sorrow makes them all the better.

Question for the week: Some people suffer “Seasonal Affective Dissorder”, depression that comes and goes with the seasons. Did Frost really have a preference for November when he was depressed, or did the bleak weather cause his depression in the first place?


R.I.P. Summer 2014

Well, it is October already. I fought the end of summer all through September, but there is just no way around it; autumn is definitely upon us. School is well under way for those of us who measure years from September to May than from January to January. The air is decidedly colder than it was just days ago. And the weather is looking more and more frightful.

Of course there are upsides to autumn. There are beautiful leaves and fresh apples. There are brisk walks in the cool breeze. And of course, there are seasonal beers.

Cooler weather also gives us an excuse to stay in all day and read. Autumn is made for devouring books (and pumpkin pie.) So put on a sweater, crack open a beer and a book, and just be glad it is not winter yet!

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Beer of the week: Southern Tier Harvest Ale – This beautiful beer has a fluffy white head that leaves some very nice lacing on the glass. The aroma has slight hints of toffee under the strong smell of hops. The flavor is definitely rich and malty, but it is also very strongly hopped. This beer is not as bitter as most American IPAs, but it still has some bite to it. It also is 6.7% alcohol, which probably contributes to that. This beer is sheer quality; very good stuff.

Reading of the week: The Rape of the Lock, by Alexander Pope – The title seems a bit dark for such a light-hearted fantasy. In this canto, Pope describes flirtation as a battle in the style of Homer or Virgil. “As bold Sir Plume had drawn Clarissa down, Chloe stept in, and kill’d him with a Frown; She smil’d to see the doughty Hero slain, But at her Smile, the Beau reviv’d again.” And all this over a stolen lock of hair!

Question of the week: With harvest ales, pumpkin beers, and Oktoberfest beers, is autumn not the very best season for beer?


The Cloudy Medium

As I mentioned before, I am something of a linguistic anarchist. The English language does not have rules in the way that geometry or French does; there are only stylistic choices. Don’t misunderstand me, some choices make the speaker sound uneducated or even stupid. I positively bristle at people saying “Bill and I” when they mean “Bill and me”. But I suspect that the source of this problem is actually pedantic and ill-informed educators who brow-beat children for ever saying “Bill and me”, even when that is the more appropriate expression.

But English is not unique in this regard. Even languages that have strict rules are still subject to different interpretations because all language is equivocal. In The Federalist No. 37, James Madison wrote that “no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas.” Even if English is more unique than other languages, questions of style are found in every one.

Did you notice my use of “more unique”? Did you scoff at my word choice? I picked that word because it is a pet of pedants. Time and again pedants point out that the word “unique” means “one of a kind”, so it cannot admit of degrees. Either something is unique or not; there is no more or less uniqueness. I contend, however, that the word unique is just as equivocal as any other word and that it may very well admit of degrees.

Take, for example, a six-pack of beer. For the sake of convenience, we will imagine 8 ounce cans of Coors Light. (Such a thing exists, I’m told.) There are no visible markings to tell one from the other. It would be absolutely reasonable to say that not one of these beers is unique. They are not one of a kind; each is just like the others. They are probably even just like thousands or tens of thousands or more. Each beer is not unique.

That is, until we look closer. In 8 ounces of water, there about 7.5×10^24 molecules. That number is mind-bendingly large. Of course, there is no mechanism capable of measuring water to the molecule, so any measure of 8 ounces is bound to vary in total molecules. The odds of any two of our hypothetical beers having exactly the same number of molecules is practically zero. Furthermore, beer is not pure water (mercifully.) Beer also contains alcohol, dissolved carbon-dioxide, yeast, unfermented sugars, minerals, and so forth. Each beer is certain to have slightly different amounts of each of these. Even if the difference is immeasurable with common tools, we know that such variation must exist. Oh, and the cans themselves are different. Sure, they all look the same, but there is no way that the aluminium is totally free from impurities. Each can surely has slight, even unobservable differences. When viewed this way, each beer is unique.

So each beer is not unique and each beer is unique. We haven’t violated the law of non-contradiction, the word unique is simply equivocal. The fact is that we do not always mean the same thing when we say that something is unique. As a result, we totally understand the idea that something can be more or less unique. If we swap one of our hypothetical Silver Bullets with a can of Miller Lite, it makes perfect sense to us to say that the Miller is very unique with respect to the others cans. We could also say that because most people couldn’t tell a Miller Lite from a Coors light if it were not for the branding, the Miller Lite is not unique among the 5 Coors Light cans. It’s all about perspective.

All that said, I don’t use the word unique with comparatives. I prefer the common understanding that the word does not admit of degrees. That doesn’t mean that the use of comparative uniqueness is wrong, only that I think that it sounds bad. It is a question of style, and saying “very unique” is the linguistic equivalent of wearing socks with sandals; one person may find it comfortable, but others may be justified in assuming that he is an idiot.

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Beer of the Week: Whitewater Wheat IPA – For a long time, I avoided beers in the Samuel Adams line. The Boston Beer Company makes so many different beers (over a hundred according to BeerAdvocate) that I’ve always thought they spread themselves a bit too thin. I like trying new things, but sometimes it is best to just focus on what you are good at. However, when I reviewed their flagship beer I was reminded of how they got so big in the first place, so I’ve decided to try some of Sam Adams’ more experimental stuff. This beer is a wheat IPA, a style that I’ve never been impressed with. It is cloudy and light with a foamy head, like a wheat beer ought to be, but has an aroma of piney hops. It is actually pretty refreshing despite being quite flavorful. The hops and traditional wheat beer spices leave a pleasant lingering tingle on the back of the tongue. This isn’t my new favorite, but it is promising enough that I’ll keep trying different Sam Adams beers.

Reading for the Week: The Federalist No. 37 (Excerpt) – Madison, recognizing that language is necessarily equivocal and imperfect, wrote that “When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.” Samuel Adams may have been an Antifederalist, but his cloudy beer nicely reflects that cloudy nature of human language.

Question for the week: Do you have an English language “rule” that you would like to defend? Or a common (mis)usage that you’d like to rail against? Feel free to comment.