Prime Examples

This is the fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume V: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a philosopher who held that the true philosophies of all great minds were intentionally hidden within their works. He posited that subtle references and hints in the works of Plato, Aristotle, etc. can guide careful readers to understand the real opinions of the authors, opinions that they had not dare explicitly express. There are some very fervent admirers of this philosophy. But others have called it a “philosophy of deception,” or “esotericism for the sake of esotericism.”

Even though I haven’t made a serious study of these notions, I do have a habit of looking somewhat askance at examples that are put forward in defense of an overt position. If, on closer examination, it turns out that an example does not really support the position, what then? Did the author simply pick a bad example out of laziness or mistake? Or, as these esoterically-minded thinkers would hold, are bad examples chosen deliberately to hint at an intent other than the explicit intent of the author?

Our questions may be explored with this quotation from Emerson:

“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.” – Emerson, The American Scholar

Seemingly, the examples of Cicero, Locke, and Bacon are wholly appropriate to support Emerson’s point that the young scholar must think for himself. For well over a thousand years, Cicero’s tracts had been mandatory educational reading, and had often been presented as if the student had a duty not only to learn from them, but to accept their views as his own. In fact, there is ancient graffiti from the city of Pompeii that reads, “you will like Cicero, or you will be whipped.”

These authors, however, are not actually good examples of “young men in libraries” who wrote books. Of Cicero’s writings, his early work is almost entirely in the form of speeches made as a legal advocate. His philosophical works were not written until near the end of his life. And although some of Locke’s early manuscripts were published posthumously, all of his major works were published after the age of fifty-five. Bacon’s Essays were first published when he was in his late thirties, and his New Organon (the most likely of his books for Emerson’s “meek young men” to pore over) was not published until he was nearly sixty.

Reading between the lines, what do these examples say about Emerson’s claim that the Western canon was written by “young men in libraries”?

Another trio of examples raises a similar question:

“[T]he highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought.” – Emerson, Self Reliance

Unless I am mistaken, this sentence is meant to convey that the highest merit in thought is to be original. In some respects, it is clear that Moses, Plato, and Milton were all highly original thinkers. The first five books of the Bible, including a large body of law that created a new and distinct society, are traditionally ascribed to Moses. Plato’s work, as I alluded to three weeks ago, has been fought over by philosophical schools seeking to claim his writings as their own foundation. And I recently heard an eminent scholar claim that Milton’s Paradise Lost is the nearest rival of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Still, these “original thinkers” are all have clearly identified outside sources. Moses, in particular, is striking as an example of originality. The writings attributed to Moses are traditionally viewed as divinely inspired. And this inspiration is not run-of-the-mill genius, but a direct transcription of the words of God. If what Moses wrote was essentially dictated to him by God, how are those ideas original to Moses? And how is it that Moses, of all people, “set at naught” tradition? Similarly, Plato’s corpus is composed primarily of dialogues that purport to express the philosophy of Socrates, not necessarily the philosophy of Plato himself. And although Milton certainly added a tremendous amount of material and emotion, his great poetic works are based on well-worn scriptural stories.

So why do we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton the highest merit, that of originality? Did they really set at naught books and traditions, and speak not what men but what they thought? Is Emerson trying to tell us something in code that he dare not tell us explicitly? Or is this a case of looking for esoteric meaning where there is none?

Beer of the week: Voodoo Ranger – New Belgium’s popular IPA has a lot going for it. It pours with a nice head that leaves decent lacing on the glass. The aroma is subtle, with citrusy hops. The beer is smooth, with a nice bitter bite at the end. And it is all balanced out with a hint of gingerbread.

Reading of the week: The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson – This section of the essay, originally given as a speech, is about the influence of books. Books are both the medium for “transmuting life into truth,” and a source of “grave mischief.” They must, therefore be read in a very particular way.

Question for the week: Is there really something hidden in Emerson’s choice of examples? Or, in looking for deeper meaning, do we just see what we want to see?

Advertisements

Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness

This is the fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IV: The Complete Poems in English by John Milton

Samson, the Old Testament character of prodigious strength, is an odd sort of hero. Like a Hebrew Hercules, he performed tremendous feats, but the moral of his story not altogether simple. Samson was quick to anger, cruel to animals, indiscriminate in his violence, and, worst of all, he drank nothing but water.

Samson was a Nazirite, which means that he was consecrated to God and made specific vows: In the first place, Nazirites vow to drink no wine. The second vow is to leave one’s hair uncut.  And finally, Nazirites vow to avoid ritual uncleanliness by coming in contact with the dead, including funerals.

How did Samson fare in attempting to keep his vows? As to the injunction against drinking wine, he appears to have followed through. Maimonides taught that alcohol is not forbidden for Nazirites, so long as it is not derived from grapes. But Samson’s version of this vow seems to be one of total abstention. Most English translations seem to follow The King James Version, stating that Samson was to “drink no wine nor strong drink.” Some more modern translations say that he was to avoid “wine or any other alcoholic drink.” The Contemporary English Version specifically includes beer. In the words of Milton, Samson’s “drink was only from the liquid brook.”

As for cutting his hair, Samson famously kept this vow until he was deceived by a prostitute called Delilah. She, then, cut his hair in his sleep, rendering him powerless. Having followed through on this part of the Nazirite vow was the source of his strength, and without his hair he was as weak as any other mortal.

And as for avoiding corpses, I am inclined to think that he did a terrible job. The Bible does not tell us about him attending funerals or strolling through cemeteries, but he killed a bunch of guys. And it seems to me that when he beat a thousand men to death with the jawbone of an ass, he got in plenty of corpse touching. I have heard it argued that at the time that he touched the Philistines, they were not yet dead, and that they only became dead after he touched them. This argument elevates form over substance. And, at any rate, that doesn’t account for the time that he killed thirty innocent men and stripped the clothing from their bodies to give to the people who figured out his stupid riddle. Stripping the clothes from dead men is most certainly NOT in keeping with the Nazirite’s vows.

If the goal of life is righteousness, then I think that the Nazirite vows may actually be a stumbling block. There is no doubt that the discipline and dedication required to follow though with the vows can be a valuable tool for contemplation and self-improvement. But if one simply follows through with the strictest literal interpretation of the vows, he risks achieving ritual purity without achieving righteousness. That is, the Nazirite vows are not the end. Samson followed the vows, but did that justify tying foxes together by their tails and lighting them on fire? Did leaving his hair uncut make it ok for him to frequent brothels? Is it ok to murder thirty men over a riddle, so long as he can do so and not break his vows? (And, again, I think it is important to emphasize that the men who were killed were not the ones who tricked his wife into giving up the solution to the riddle. They were presumably unaware of Samson’s reason for murdering them.)

And the fact that Samson lost his strength when his hair was cut seems to further this form over substance problem. Samson did not break his vow. His hair was cut while he was asleep. And yet, Samson lost his power and his favor from God because of what somebody else did. The power, it seems, was not even in the obedient dedication to God, but in the show of dedication – the hair itself. Without his long hair, nobody can tell that he is a Nazirite just by looking at him; he loses his strength, not because he broke his vow, but because he looks like he broke his vow. The appearance of righteousness is more important for Samson than inward righteousness.

In short, wouldn’t it be better to drink wine, sport a buzz-cut, attend funerals, and not be a violent psychopath?

Beer of the week: Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (2017) – This is an uncommonly strong beer to go with a reading about an uncommonly strong man. Every year, Goose Island releases it’s limited edition Bourbon County Brand line of beers. These special brews are aged in used bourbon barrels. The 2017 Barleywine is an excellent beverage. It is 14% alcohol, and it shows. But it is so smooth that the alcohol is warm but not harsh. The aroma has notes of vanilla. In the flavor there is a hint of pepper (from the bourbon barrel, perhaps.) Dark cherry is a stand-out in a very rich flavor profile. What a treat!

Reading of the week: Samson Agonistes by John Milton – Milton’s version of Samson attributes his downfall to a lack of wisdom, and a weakness for women: “what is strength without a double share of wisdom?” In this section of the tragic poem, Samson is talking with his father Manoa about the proper course of action now that he is imprisoned and blind. Certain of Manoa’s exhortations are reminiscent of Crito’s appeal to Socrates: “Repent the sin, but if the punishment Thou canst avoid, self-preservation bids.”

Question for the week: Ultimately, I think that my reading of the story of Samson is not the intended reading. Samson is meant to be a hero, not a cautionary tale about elevating religious form over virtuous substance. How can his story be read more charitably?


Champions for Truth

This is the third in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume III: Bacon, Milton, Browne

Imagine that you are in a debate, say, about politics or about who is the best third baseman of all-time. Then, a new interlocutor chimes in, and he is on your side! The problem, though, is that he is not very knowledgeable or articulate. As a result, he is doing you no favors by speaking up. In fact, he is setting your opponent up for easy points. If this guy would just shut up, you know that you could win this debate, but you are being forced to defend poorly thought-out and poorly expressed arguments rather than having the benefit of crafting your own.

This is not an unusual set of circumstances, especially in a world where such “discussions” take place in the form of nesting comments to an article or facebook post. But, of course, these circumstances are not new. Nearly 400 years ago, Sir Thomas Browne offered some advice on the subject that is still eminently applicable.

In the first place, chose whom you debate wisely: “Where we desire to be informed, ’tis good to contest with men above our selves; but to confirm and establish our opinions, ’tis best to argue with judgments below our own, that the frequent spoils and Victories over their reasons may settle in ourselves an esteem and confirmed Opinion of our own.”

Secondly, just because you are right doesn’t mean that you are equipped to defend your position: “Every man is not a proper Champion for Truth, nor fit to take up the Gauntlet in the cause of Verity: many from the ignorance of these Maximes, and an inconsiderate Zeal unto Truth, have too rashly charged the Troops of Error, and remain as Trophies unto the enemies of Truth. A man may be in as just possession of Truth as of a City, and yet be forced to surrender; ’tis therefore far better to enjoy her with peace, than to hazzard her on a battle.”

And finally, you may be firm in your opinions, but if you are intellectually honest, you should be willing to abandon those opinions entirely if presented with a better argument. And, as a consequence, you should not be upset with those who disagree with you (or those who agree with you, but for the wrong reasons): “I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion, or be angry with his judgment for not agreeing with me in that from which perhaps within a few days I should dissent my self.”

BBVanilla

Beer of the week: Breckenridge Vanilla Porter – Breckenridge Brewery is a personal favorite, and this offering does not disappoint. A lovely porter with lots of, but not too much, vanilla. It pours with a nice tan head, and the beer has a decent amount of body. A very good beer.

Reading of the week: Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne – Like so many good books, this tract on religion was banned by the Catholic Church. In this selection, Browne endeavors to distinguish heresies from “bare Errors, and single Lapses of understanding.”

Question for the week: Browne advocates debating our intellectual superiors to learn, and debating our intellectual inferiors to solidify and gain confidence in our positions. Is it easy to distinguish when we are trying to learn and when we are trying to build confidence? Aren’t their elements of both in most debates?


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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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?


The Living Word

Books are alive! Not literally. In fact, their figurative life is more like the life in the germ of a seed. Not active in itself, but full of potential. As John Milton wrote in Areopagitica, books “are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.”

And the potential of books is unlimited. The books themselves are finite, consisting of only so many words on so many pages, but in those words and pages they “contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are.” Books may express simple, straightforward ideas or complex esoteric concepts; but either way, their impacts on the world go beyond themselves in the form of inspiration. Sometimes, they inspire ideas or actions that are at odds with the powers that be.

Areopagitica is not just an essay on the value of books; it is a vibrant defense of freedom of press. Milton was fighting against a law that would require state approval of all printed material. The form of his defense is that books are potent and active in themselves. Of course, this is exactly the reason that the state would censor books in the first place. It is a strange argument that the state should not engage in censorship because books are productive and active since the state necessarily fears productive and active thought. Any novel thought, particularly in the form of political or social organizing, is a threat to the establishment.

But Milton appeals to the members of Parliament as individuals, as men who “esteem it to imitate the old and elegant humanity of Greece.” He does this because although the state itself must always fear that new ideas will upset their established power, true humanitarians acknowledge that the intellectual progress of the human race should not be impeded for the sake of “the party line.” An attempt to censor a book is an attempt to kill truth itself; and “revolutions of ages do not oft recover the loss of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole nations fare the worse.”

Beer of the week: 5,0 Original Lager – An online program generated this translation of the label to this supermarket brew: “Just a simple black and white box! Gold imprinting, with no effort! Only a simple design! No expensive TV advertising! This savings goes to you! We saved as much as for everything! Except on the quality of the beer! 5.0 is an original lager, brewed to the German purity law! Ingredients: water, barley malt, hops and extract! Put your money better one! You pay less now for a good Pils without frills!”

I am not sure that I’d call this a “good Pils”, but it certainly is without frills. It is a simple mass produced beer. Not much on the nose, very basic flavor. Almost a savory aftertaste which surprised me (even though it is actually very slight.) If the price is right, this could easily be had in large quantities.

Reading of the week: Areopagitica by John Milton, Excerpt – One of the most eloquent defenses of free-speech I’ve ever read. I enjoyed this more than I enjoyed his poetry.

Question of the week: Can freedom of speech ever mean anything less than total freedom of speech? Does even the slightest restriction amount to a total lack of freedom?