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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?

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Three for One Deal

“The most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously.”

That is just one expression of the law of noncontradiction. It can be put in a number of ways, but it always comes down to saying that mutually exclusive conditions cannot coexist.

This raises the first classic St. Patrick’s Day problem (the second classic St. Patrick’s Day problem is alcoholism): what is to be made of the Trinity? The trinitarian notion of God is that God is three persons in one being. The Father begot the Son, and the Holy Ghost proceeds from the two of them. Yet, the three are eternal and exist as a single God. This sure looks like a violation of the law of noncontradiction: nothing can be both one and many. Additionally, one cannot be primary and coextensive. That is, one thing cannot both precede another and be coeternal with it.

St. Patrick attempted to explain the mystery with a sprig of clover, known as a shamrock. A sprig of clover, Patrick observed, has three leaves that are all connected. Each leaf is independent and identifiable, yet they form a single shamrock. So the shamrock is both three and one. Just like the Trinity.

The shamrock example, however, is not very convincing. The leaves of the clover are separate and divisible from each other, and no one leaf is the whole clover itself. In effect, each leaf is just one part of the whole. And the mystery of the Trinity is not that simple (hence the term “mystery”.) The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are each believed both totally independent and totally united. An inescapable violation of the law of noncontradiction.

Dante’s attempt at a visual depiction of the Trinity seems more appropriate than the shamrock. Rather than describing the three persons as simple thirds of the single being that is God, Dante describes God as “three circles, Of threefold colour and of one dimension.” Each circle is simultaneously the same circle and distinguishable. He then goes on to state that “all speech is feeble and falls short” of describing the Trinity.

I dare say that he is right.

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Beer of the Week: Primátor Stout – Guinness (both original and draught) has already been featured on this blog. So this St. Patrick’s Day beer is a stout from another part of Europe altogether. This Czech beer pours a very, very dark brown and has a head of large, tan bubbles. The mouthfeel of this surprisingly thin. As it warms, though, this beer really shows its rich malt flavor. Not bad at all.

Reading for the week: Paradiso, Canto XXXIII by Dante Alighieri – After a journey through hell and purgatory, the pilgrim Dante makes it to and through heaven to see the very face (or circles) of God. Not included in this reading is the 4th Sphere of Heaven, where the pilgrim Dante see Boethius. In a recent post on this blog, it was noted that Boethius was put to death by the order of King Theodoric the Great. Theodoric, as it turns out, was not a Trinitarian. He was a follower of Arianism, a heterodox view that Jesus, as “begotten God”, is not co-eternal with God the Father and the Holy Ghost.

Question for the week: Paradiso ends with the the pilgrim Dante’s “desire and will” being acted upon by “The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.” I take that “Love” with a capital “L” to be God Himself. Is it better, or merely oversimplifying to think of God as Love itself rather than as a Trinity?


Pilgrim’s Pride

There are some who would call a visit to the Hall Of Fame or trip to Munich for Oktoberfest a “pilgrimage.” For the most part, those statements would be made tongue-in-cheek. But in what way does such a journey differ from an “actual” pilgrimage?

Even traditional religious pilgrimages had an element of vacation about them. Before modern transportation, it would not have been uncommon for people to live their entire life in a small village. The journey for a peasant from a remote farmstead to a city with a cathedral would have to be more than a religious or spiritual experience. He would see products, buildings and even whole classes of people that were totally novel to him. For the more well-to-do pilgrim, the vacation aspect can become even more prominent. Mecca (which has become an absolute byword for a pilgrimage destination) has swanky hotels, fancy restaurants and high-end shopping to accommodate the pilgrim of means. For Catholics, the religious experience is still important, but a trip to the Sistine Chapel is about the art first and foremost.

What really separates the pilgrimage from vacation is the aspect of sacrifice. Sure it takes time, effort and money to go on any trip, but a trip to Graceland can’t really be “offered up” as penance. Especially for the poor or ill, the hardship of the journey is actually treated as a bargaining chip with God or the Saints. “They didn’t answer your prayers when you were praying at home? Make a pilgrimage and let them know you are serious!” There is no reason to expect that Mary’s power to intercede for the ill is limited to a small town in France, but by actually making the effort to travel to Lourdes, the faithful ill make a claim that their effort deserves Mary’s attention. (Attention she apparently isn’t in the habit of giving to homebodies.)

So my trip to England may not have technically been a pilgrimage, no matter how good the beer was.

Beer of the Week: Bishops Finger – According to the label, “Bishops Finger is named after an ancient Kentish signpost found on the pilgrims’ way pointing to Canterbury and the shrine of Thomas à Becket.” What a perfect beer for this post!

Also, there is some interesting background information about the beer regarding economics and politics. Bishops Finger was first brewed to celebrate the end of malt rationing after WWII. For well over a decade after the war, the government imposed rations on food items. Barley malt being a food item, the beer industry was greatly discouraged. (Although rationing was not as severe in the United States, some well known economic thinkers have speculated that the “great depression” was ended not by war-time government spending, but by war-time austerity. Not only did people spend less on discretionary items, they saved more in the form of war bonds. The result being that when the war ended, there was a good deal of private capital accumulated and ready to be invested. But that is another post.)

And now, Bishops Finger has been granted a “Protective Geographic Indicator” by the European Union. Have you ever heard pedants prattle on about Jack Daniels not being bourbon because it is not distilled in Kentucky? Or I about sparkling wines not all being from Champagne, France? Well now they can assert that Bishops Finger is the only real “Kentish strong ale.”

History, economics and protectionism not withstanding, this is a great beer. It is a beautiful copper color with a thick head that laces wonderfully. The smell has hints of caramel and sweet malt. It is full bodied and smooth and simply delicious.

Reading for the Week: The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffery Chaucer – This Prologue paints an amazing picture of society, with all of its strata, in Chaucer’s time. However, this excerpt is not about the pilgrims themselves, but the spring-time conditions that inspire travel.

Question for the week: Where would you go on a beer pilgrimage? Tell us in the comments.