Wisdom for sale!

In his biography of Charlemagne, Notker the Stammerer relates a story of two “Scotchmen [who] were unrivalled for their skill in sacred and secular learning.” These men would go into the market and call out, “Ho, everyone that desires wisdom, let him draw near and take it at our hands; for it is wisdom that we have for sale.” This claim drew in the crowds and, ultimately, the attention of the emperor.

The twist in the story, however, is that the Scotsmen really had no interest in marketing their learning to make a profit. They had simply come to realize that if they offered to teach for free, nobody would be interested. Because the price tag is the first signal that the market sees, things that are being given away for free or sold cheaply are assumed to have little worth. Likewise, some people put extremely high prices on their products (even if they intend ultimately to sell for a much lower price) in the hopes that the product will appear more desirable.

I was a tangential party to a real life example of how asking price affects perception. One of my side jobs in college was dealing cards for a promotional company that ran poker tournaments as fund-raisers. The tournaments were well organized and quite successful. However, the owner of the business quickly discovered that some prospective clients saw his very reasonable prices and decided that they wanted to go with a more up-scale competitor. His solution was to raise the prices without changing anything about the product. And it worked. New prospective clients assumed that the high price was a good indicator of the product’s high quality. Business actually increased after the price went up, precisely because the price went up. Like Notker’s Scotsmen, the owner of the promotional company learned that sometimes you have to ask for more than you need, just to get people’s attention.

Modelo Especial
Beer of the week: Modelo Especial – The head on this beer faded so quickly that I couldn’t get a good photo of it before it was gone. Modelo Especial is a clear, gold brew. It has little aroma or flavor to speak of, really. It’d be easy enough to drink a bunch of this stuff at a party Cinco de Mayo fiesta, but otherwise, why bother? And don’t get me started on the price!

Reading of the week: The Life of Charlemagne by Notker the Stammerer, Book I, 1-4 – Charlemagne filled his court with educated men, such as the aforementioned Scotsmen, and had them educate the children of his kingdom. He found that the highborn children did not take to their lessons as well as the commoners. The lesson, again, seems to be that certain assumptions about value need to be carefully scrutinized.

Question of the week: How much does the asking price affect your perception of a product’s value?


Vespa

So much of comedy is context. Things are often especially funny when they are incongruous with the background. For example, the behavior of the Blues Brothers in a fancy restaurant is much funnier because their vulgarity is especially out of place in a formal setting.

But in many ways not just the setting but also the history and cultural background is needed to “get” a joke. For example, when Aristophanes makes a joke about Cleonymus throwing away his shield, we have to know that shield throwing is shorthand for cowardice, and that Cleonymus had a reputation along those lines. Not knowing who that person is or what it means to throw down a shield, such a joke just can’t land.

Or to get a joke about Hercules at the dinner table one must know that the demigod’s insatiable appetite was something of a cliché in Aristophanes’ time.

Obviously, these are not great examples. A modern person who has never held a sword may still understand the implications of throwing down one’s shield. And even if Hercules is not a regular character in our comedic repertoire these days, gluttony is still readily understandable. But I am at a disadvantage in picking my examples; the best of them go right over my own head.

As a result of this need for background information, much ancient (or otherwise culturally remote) comedy is quite inaccessible. Certain people, customs, or places that form the butt of jokes might not be known, so the joke must fall flat.

Aristophanes is often accessible. In The Clouds, for example, a lizard defecates onto Socrates’s face. Classic. However, at other times, I just feel like I am not in on the joke. He lampoons people that I’ve never heard of, and makes all manner of social comments that are simply beyond me.

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Beer of the week: Pacifico Clara – This is yet another bland Mexican lager. There is not much else to say about it. It is a little sweet and a lot bland. Pacifico is not bad, but there is just not much to it.

Reading for the week: The Wasps by Aristophanes, Lines 986-1121 – In this part of the play, Aristophanes (through the chorus) lets us know that there is much more at stake than getting his jokes. He believes that there are bigger, more important things going on in his satire than getting laughs.

Question for the week: What about comedy is truly universal?


The Happy and The Wretched

“No man can know a happy man
From any passing wretch;
If Folly link with Elegance
No man knows which is which,”

William Butler Yeats, The Old Stone Cross

Four and a half years ago, one of these blog posts brought up the age-old question: when can a man be called “happy”? The reading for that week was from Herodotus, who related the story of Solon and Croesus. Solon enraged Croesus by refusing to call him happy. Happiness, Solon claimed, could only be determined after death. Sure, on any given day a man may seem happy. Or even for an extended period of time. But until a man has breathed his last, it is impossible to tell whether his life was happy or not. After all, “to many God shows but a glimpse of happiness and then plucks them up by the roots and overturns them.”

The above-quoted passage from Yeats looks like a similar claim: it is impossible for anybody to tell who is truly happy. But he goes even further; one cannot even tell happiness from wretchedness. He also says that it is impossible to tell folly from elegance. (An outsider’s view of fashion seems to confirm this notion. High-heeled shoes and all sorts of other fashionable attire appear to be equal parts folly and elegance.)

However, Yeats’s lines need more context. Solon apparently believed that it was never possible to say who was happy until after death. Yeats, however, qualified his claim. According to the man under the old stone cross, it is particular to our place and time that happiness cannot be discerned from wretchedness, nor folly from elegance. Such seemingly obvious distinctions cannot be made today “Because this age and the next age — Engender in the ditch”. Unlike Solon, Yeats seems to think that the happy should be easy to sort from the wretched. The reason that we cannot do so is the vulgar origins of our present society.

Society and Solitude #5

 

Beer of the week: Society and Solitude #5 – Alchemist Brewery may have all of the hype, but their neighbors at Hill Farmstead give them a real run for their money. This experimental imperial IPA pours cloudy and pale. The aroma has lots of mango and citrus. The beer is eminently smooth and there is hardly a hint of the high alcohol content. The hops are not overpowering, but they are perfectly balanced with the malt and the fruit notes. This is really a stellar beer.

Reading of the week: The Old Stone Cross by William Butler Yeats – Perhaps the driving factors in the degradation of society are modern politics and what passes for journalism. This poem starts with the statesman “who tells his lies by rote,” and the journalist who “makes up his lies.” This distrust for the political circus and the news media that foster it results in (what I consider) very sound advice from the poet: “stay at home’ and drink your beer — And let the neighbours’ vote”!

Question of the week: What would Solon say about the inability to distinguish folly from elegance?


Government Built to Last

In The Gettysburg Address Lincoln expressed the American “resolve… that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Much more revolutionary than the idea that a government can be “of the people, by the people, for the people” is the idea that such a government (or, indeed, any government) can exist in perpetuity. The historian Tacitus, who principally recorded the transition from the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, had reason to be skeptical on that point.

“All nations and cities are ruled by the people, the nobility, or by one man. A constitution, formed by selection out of these elements, it is easy to commend but not to produce; or, if it is produced, it cannot be lasting.” This does not sound good for the United States. The United States Constitution was indeed difficult to produce. If Tacitus is correct, then it cannot last. Despite his unequivocal language, the very fact that Tacitus bothered to write The Annals seems to show some optimism.

Tacitus did not write about the degradation of the Republic because he found it particularly interesting. In fact, he was “everywhere confronted by a wearisome monotony in [the] subject matter.” He wrote about political corruption under the first emperors because such a study is instructive “to distinguish right from wrong or what is sound from what is hurtful”. And if Tacitus really believed that his histories could be instructive, what else might he have hoped for? Perhaps he hoped that with adequate instruction, men might not only be able to produce a good governmental constitution, but they might actually succeed in making it last.

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Beer of the Week: NightTime Ale – Since winter decided to perform an encore, I am still drinking winter ales. NightTime is exceedingly dark and has a fluffy, light brown head. If poured aggressively there is even some cascading in the foam. Of course the cascading is not as impressive as with nitrogenated beers such as Guinness Draught., but it is still pretty neat. The aroma is of over-ripe guava, pineapple, and earthy hops. The beer is very, very smooth and it tastes strongly of piney hops. This is a very strong beer, both in alcohol content (7.9%) and in flavor. As the packaging says, this beer is “not for the lunch crowd.”

Reading for the Week: The Annals by Tacitus, Book 6, Paragraphs 33-35 – The first of these three paragraphs is a commentary on why the author has undertaken the work itself and of the importance of recording history. The other two paragraphs present the forced suicide of Cremutius, another Roman historian. Cremutius was accused of treason for the way he portrayed Caesar’s killers in his writings. As he left the Senate, he said, “To every man posterity gives his due honour, and, if a fatal sentence hangs over me, there will be those who will remember me as well as Cassius and Brutus.”

Question for the Week: Can anything created by man endure forever? Let alone a particular government.


Nobody wears his watch in a pocket these days.

In the dialogue Meno, Socrates is asked by the eponymous interlocutor whether virtue can be taught. Socrates, as per usual, plays dumb: “I don’t even know what virtue is; how can I tell you if it can be taught?” Meno then lists the virtues of various classes of people, all of which appear to be a form of practical efficiency. After a substantial digression, Socrates and Meno finally get to the business of addressing whether virtue can be taught by establishing a provisional definition of what virtue is: the wisdom or knowledge required to know how to act in a way that will be profitable. That is, prudence. For example, courage is a virtue. Without prudence, however, courage becomes folly. The same is true of every other individual virtue. Prudence is the overarching principle of all virtues.

Some two-thousand years later, Lord Chesterfield took up this interpretation of virtue. In a letter to his son, he used the word “judgement” in the place of “prudence” but expressed the same idea. Each virtue is only good if exercised with good judgement, otherwise it becomes a parallel vice. “Generosity often runs into profusion, economy into avarice, courage into rashness, caution into timidity, and so on.” Judgement (or prudence? or moderation?) is the heart of virtue, because without it all other virtues are vice. But Chesterfield went on to apply this to a field that might not be considered a virtue in itself: education.

“Great learning,” writes Chesterfield, “if not accompanied with sound judgment, frequently carries us into error, pride, and pedantry.” Those who are highly educated but not prudent do not give their contemporaries enough credit. Instead, they rely on the ancients, even upon ancient mad men. “We are really so prejudiced by our education, that, as the ancients deified their heroes, we deify their madmen; of which, with all due regard for antiquity, I take Leonidas and Curtius to have been two distinguished ones.” The study of the ancients is necessary and proper, but what really matters is what is going on today.

One may argue that since Chesterfield’s time, the pendulum has swung the quite other way. The products of today’s education scoff at the ancients as primitive and look only to modern science. A particular example of this is the modern opinion of faith. Any great thinker of the past who was avowedly religious is automatically discounted in the opinion of the modern pseudo-intellectual. Faith is no longer regarded as a virtue, but it is now held to be archaic and indicative of personal weakness. And as for Chesterfield’s admonition against mentioning that one is reading classics, there is surely little chance of that now. I read somewhere the observation that Americans used to learn Latin and Greek in high school. But now they learn remedial English in college. If not for the recent motion pictures about the Persian invasion of Greece, many college graduates would have no idea who Leonidas was at all.

Still, Chesterfield’s advice is well worth heeding. Especially for this blog. Works of greater or lesser antiquity are an obvious part of this project. Partially because of an ingrained deference for the ancients, partially because the readings reproduced here must be in the public domain. I think that I generally avoid fawning over the ancients unnecessarily and from trotting out my education just to let people know that I have one. After all, I freely admit that I am under-educated. I had to search Wikipedia just to learn who Curtius was.

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Beer of the Week: Lord Chesterfield Ale – This beer has a pleasant and refreshing hint of citrus. It is not as flavorful as I would hope, but it really is a bit better than the average mass-produced beer. Especially after drinking half a case. Also, it is named for a noted man of letters, which is an obvious point in its favor.

Reading for the Week: Letter XXX from Lord Chesterfield to his Son – The collected letters of Lord Chesterfield to his son are known as Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, so that’s awesome. The first time I read this letter, it almost felt like a rebuke for creating this blog. And I still haven’t quite shaken that impression.

Question for the Week: A number of Americans have made former presidents the objects of their deification. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and others are practically cult figures in various circles. In what way does this differ from an obsession with the ancients?


Seven Score and Ten Years Ago

This week was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the single bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. The battle had a tremendous number of lasting effects. For one, much of the land in and around the town of Gettysburg is now property of the federal government. As a child, I would run and play among the boulders of a section of the battlefield park known as Devil’s Den. I probably did not give adequate reflection to the fact that many young men fought and died among those rocks. But I was six; give me a break.

Perhaps the most notable offshoot of the battle was the inspiration for the single most celebrated piece of American propaganda ever written: The Gettysburg Address. It is almost universally praised as a brilliant piece of oration. In some circles, however, Lincoln has been accused of blatant hypocrisy in the Address. The principal point of the speech is that the Union troops who fought and died fought in defense of the principle of self-determination. In actual fact, the Confederate soldiers were the ones fighting for self-determination. The elected legislatures of their states had, by democratic vote, decided to secede from the United States. Secession was a radical but not unprecedented course of action. If it was more radical than the American Revolution, it was only more radical because as states they had more government input than they had had as colonies.

Secession has been derided as “unconstitutional”, but it may even have been less radical than the creation of the Constitution itself. The Constitutional Convention was brought together to revise the Articles of Confederation, not to throw them out and invent a new government. And the proposed changes were to be approved by Congress and by the states, but the framers specifically included instructions for the ratification of their own new document. These instructions totally bypassed Congress (from whom the Convention originally received the authority in the first place) and also determined that the new Constitution would be effective even without the consent of every state. As it turns out, consent of the governed may not be the great American guiding principle that Lincoln and so many others claim it is.

Beer of the Week: Spitfire Kentish Ale – The Spitfire fighter plane was an instrumental tool of the British military in the Battle of Britain. If either side had a few Spitfires at the Battle of Gettysburg, history would remember the battle quite differently. Mainly it would be remembered as “the battle where some insane time-travelers showed up with weapons that would not be designed for another hundred years and wreaked havoc.”

Spitfire Kentish Ale, however is not a weapon. It is a beer is brewed by Shepherd Neame, brewers of Bishops Finger. As such, Spitfire is also protected by a “Protective Geographic Indicator” by the European Union. Heaven forfend that another beer should be marketed as “Kentish Ale”. Anyway, Spitfire sure is a pretty amber beer. The smell is tangy and sweet and a bit grassy. The full malt body is balanced nicely with slightly spicy hops. It is pretty darn tasty.

Reading for the Week: The Gettysburg Address – This blog post certainly seems to come down on one side of the whole issue. It is important to note that the Confederate States made their decision to secede based on the argument about the spread and maintenance of the institution of slavery. Lincoln was right to start his Address with “the proposition that all men are created equal.” Early drafts of The Declaration of Independence, to which Lincoln refers, included an indictment of the slave trade; it was only a matter of time before the philosophical values of the Declaration came into direct conflict with the awful institution of slavery.

Question for the week: The Gettysburg Address includes the line “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Did Lincoln really not think that this speech would be remembered? If so, was it because he thought that it really wasn’t all that good?


Support Our Troops

It is a ridiculous position to be in, but I find very often that I have to defend a statement that seems self-evident: war is bad. It is obviously bad for the people who die and for the people who are wounded physically and psychologically. But it is also bad for the people who pay for it with their taxes and for the economies that suffer because capital that could be invested in products that improve quality of life is instead invested in devices that blow things up.

As Leo Tolstoy wrote, “in all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious even when successful.” The heads of government (and their cronies) are the sole beneficiaries of war.

As a response to my beliefs on this subject, one night I was accused of not “supporting our troops.” I had been drinking heavily and decided that my antagonist was correct; I have not done enough to support the troops. It is easy to forget that although it is politicians, the companies that pay for their campaigns, and career military men who are the cause and driving force of war, it is honest young men and women who suffer and die.

Then and there, I made a commitment to do something to support the troops: I wrote to my congressmen and senators, insisting that they introduce or support legislation that would bring home our troops stationed abroad. Of course, I have little faith in the efficacy of writing letters to politicians, but it was the best way I could think of to support the troops. If we really care about these young men and women (which I do), then the loving and compassionate thing to do is to bring them home, take the guns out of their hands, and pour them a nice, cold beer.

Beer of the Week: Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale – It surprised me when I learned that Ireland remained neutral during the Second World War. They certainly had their priorities straight by choosing beers over bombs. Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale is an Irish nitrogen widget beer.  As I stated in the review of Guinness Draught, I am not sure that I understand how it works. Notwithstanding, the results are the same in this beer. The head is creamy, lasts forever and pours with some very attractive cascading. The aroma is of sweet roasted malts and the flavor is no different. The ruby brown beer is sweet and smooth and quite enjoyable.

Reading of the week: On Patriotism by Leo Tolstoy – “Patriotism,” writes Tolstoy, “[is] the abdication of human dignity, reason, and conscience… Patriotism is slavery.” For Tolstoy, patriotism is not a love of one’s land and people, but a “slavish enthralment to those in power.”

Question of the week: Is there a valid and meaningful distinction between “patriotism” and “nationalism”?