Unknown Knowns

According to the Socratic Paradox, Socrates knew more than anybody else because he knew that he knew nothing. I would like to suggest that I personally have surpassed Socrates in that respect.

Since the age of Socrates, there has been an unthinkable increase in things that can be known. Among the newly knowable things are scientific facts that had been unknowable because the technology had not yet advanced sufficiently. But the universe of knowable things has also grown by production. Socrates could not have known any Shakespearean poetry, for example, because the English language did not yet exist. Similarly, Socrates could not know how to change a fuel filter on a 1987 Buick Regal. For me, however, the poetry of the Bard, and the basic maintenance of mid-sized American automobiles are well within the realm of knowable things. Socrates may know that he knows nothing, but the nothing that I know is even less!

I do know, however, six more poems than I did three months ago. In that time, as in the first three and second three months of this year, I memorized two poems per month:
Invictus by William Ernest Henley,
I taste a liquor never brewed by Emily Dickinson,
The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
To Althea, From Prison by Richard Lovelace, and
Hot and Cold by Roald Dahl.

As I typed that list, I could not recall the title of Hot and Cold for the life of me. Somehow I had a poem totally memorized and yet I could not think of it. I can’t really claim to know the sixth poem if I cannot think of it. I don’t even know the things that I know. Take that Socrates!

Beer of the week: Tuckerman’s Headwall Alt – This “German style brown ale” is a handsome red-brown, with a lovely head. The aroma is of dark bread. Dark bread notes dominate the flavor as well, with a pleasant smokey finish.

Reading of the week: I taste a liquor never brewed by Emily Dickinson – The flavor of “a liquor never brewed” is one of the many things that I do not know. But I know that this is a fun poem that draws on a lot of temperance imagery, including being an “inebriate of air” and “debauchee of dew.”

Question of the week: The sum total of human knowledge is much greater now than it was in antiquity. Consequently, each individual–even the most educated among us–knows a smaller portion of the total. So do we know more than the ancients or do we know less?

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.


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?

Work as Virtue

When Adam disobeyed the Lord in the garden, what was his punishment? He had to get a job. (To say nothing of the punishment of having to wear pants.) Until that first sin, there was no such thing in the world as labor. Actually having to work is the punishment that men endure because of original sin. No longer do all good things simply spring up from the ground, but bread must be earned “by the sweat of one’s brow.”

As an American, however, I was raised in the shadow of the “Puritan work ethic.” Labor has been transformed from a punishment to a solemn duty. According to Albert Jay Nock in his scathing Our Enemy the State, “this erection of labour into a Christian virtue per se, this investment of work with a special religious sanction, was an invention of Puritanism.” As England changed from Catholic feudalism to a Puritan merchant state, what is more natural than the emerging merchant class teaching the working class that God wants them to embrace labor? What better way to ensure a productive workforce than to tell them that hard work is a religious mandate?

As compelling as Nock is, I am unable to give up on hard work as a virtue. It seems to build character and, if viewed properly, teaches valuable lessons about patience, the value of time, and myriad other things. The sticking point for me is the idea that it is a religious virtue. I agree with Nock that “there is no hint that God would take it amiss if one preferred to do little work and put up with a poor living, for the sake of doing something else with one’s time.”

So work hard and enjoy the proceeds (both tangible or otherwise) of your labor. Or don’t work hard and enjoy that.

Beer of the Week: Dos Equis Amber Lager – Dos Equis Amber Lager has a dark cream head, almost tan, that hangs around for much longer than expected. The beer itself is surprisingly clear for how dark it is. The smell is dominated by bready malts. The taste is very much the same. There is not much hops to speak of, but a full, rich malt profile makes this beer a winner. There is a lingering sweetness that might be just a bit too much, but otherwise, this is a darn good beer. I am glad somebody worked hard to make it.

Reading of the week: Our Enemy The State by Albert Jay Nock – Nock has a very firm and critical grasp of history and his willingness to take on deeply seated beliefs and ideas is very impressive. This reading shows of both of these qualities. Nock writes that “the best witness to the essential character of the Puritan movement in England and America is the thoroughness with which its doctrine of work has pervaded both literatures, all the way from Cromwell’s letters to Carlyle’s panegyric and Longfellow’s verse.”

Since the beer is “Two X’s” and Nock specifically mentions Longfellow, I include:

Bonus reading: The Village Blacksmith by H. W. Longfellow – This poem is a perfect illustration of what Nock wrote about Longfellow and the Puritan work doctrine. The smith loves his family and is a godly man, but his paramount virtue is his labor. He is a hero because he works hard “Week in, week out, from morn till night” and like Adam, the smithy’s “brow is wet with honest sweat.”

Question of the week: I feel a strong resistance to Nock, but I cannot put it into words. Is that because there actually is something wrong with Nock’s characterization of work ethic, or is it because I have been thoroughly indoctrinated?

Getting High

In a recent post, I discussed the possibility of their being virtue in Don Quixote’s impossible goals. There may be something really valuable about attempting the patently impossible as long as it is for the right reason. But what would we say if Don Quixote had been killed by the windmill? Could we still reasonably glorify taking on the impossible if it meant ones own distruction?

Take, for example, the protagonist in Excelsior by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (If you require a refresher on the poem, read it here before you continue. While you’re up, grab yourself a beer; I’ll wait.)

Unlike with Don Quixote, we are given no background on the mission of the unnamed youth of Excelsior. All we know about his plan was that it involved crossing a certain mountain pass and that it happened during less than ideal conditions. Our biggest hint as to why is his oft repeated slogan: “Excelsior!” Which means something like “ever higher.” Perhaps he is some sort of thrill junkie?

Unlike Don Quixote’s quests as a knight errant, the youth’s desire to get “ever higher” is not single-minded. Don Quixote does not doubt or lament is calling, but the youth groans and sighs and even sheds a tear at the offer to renounce or even just delay his climb. But this isn’t inconsistent with an addiction to thrill seeking. Plenty of addicts of all descriptions recognize the destructive nature of their addictions and suffer immense inner turmoil because of it. There are people who genuinely want to quit but cannot. And in the end, the youth wanted to stop climbing the mountain but couldn’t, and his addiction killed him.

The poem is really a downer if it is about addiction. However, the poem does not really sound like it is about addiction. But if it is not addiction, what is it? Why did the youth not act more judiciously? He was warned against proceeding and his sigh and groan and tear all show that he wanted to stop but could not. What compelled him to go on? And, since he died because of it, can whatever drove him on be a good thing? If he were a martyr and he walked to his death for the glory of God or to promote a cause, that would be something. But the only cause he espoused was “Excelsior.”

Perhaps “Excelsior” really is a cause. The youth realized that progress really is everything. If he had stopped to rest in the Alpine village, he would not only have stopped making progress, he would have been going backwards. And what gives this interpretation more weight than the addiction hypothesis is the way the poem ends. Unlike an addict who is disfigured by his vice, the youth is “lifeless, but beautiful”. We even get to hear his final thought (maybe.) It is not one of lamentation and regret, bitter about his poor choices and his inability to overcome his addiction; instead, it is “serene”. The last thought is noble, even triumphant, “like a falling star”.

Still, the youth is dead. What does he or the world have to show for his decision to go ever higher?

Beer of the Week: Nepal Ice – Nothing makes a beer more appealing than freezing to death on a mountain. Ask the nice people of Nepal. This does not appear to be an “ice beer.” It is also not very impressive. With an aggressive pour, a lot of head will develop, but the large bubbles dissipate quickly. The smell is barely noticeable. As far as the taste, a sort of unpleasant sweetness from the adjucts pervades, only to be followed by a sort of wet mouth-feel as though one somehow failed to swallow it all on the first attempt. The old man from Excelsior should have said “Try not this beer.” However, like the hero of the poem, I would not have heeded the advice anyway. The bottom of my glass is inclines ever higher.

Reading of the week: Excelsior by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – The basic plot of the poem is a man traveling about on foot on a fairly treacherous mountain pass. Despite good advice to rest the night in an alpine village (and potentially get to second base with a buxom lass,) he continues on his way, driven on by his mantra: “Excelsior.” Then he succumbs to hypothermia and dies.

Question of the week: The offer to “rest [his] weary head upon [the maiden’s] breast” brings a tear to the young man’s eye. Although this indicates his inner desire to stay, he carries on. Why?