Mother of Mercy

This is the fourteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XIV: Æneid

DISCLAIMER: This blog post treats Greek and Roman mythology as interchangeable. There are, of course, reasons to differentiate between the two traditions. However, at least part of Virgil’s project was to co-opt Greek mythology for Roman purposes. So for the present blog post there is no need to differentiate between the Roman gods of his Æneid and the Greek gods of Homer.

Mothers are remarkable beings. Not least because even those who regard motherhood as primary to their identity are never merely mothers. Mothering requires a wide range of skills and tasks. Keeping a child alive (to say nothing of keeping it happy, healthy, well-fed, safe, etc.) is a tremendous feat which deserves special recognition.

The idea of mothers as multi-taskers is nothing new. Consider the goddess Venus. Venus is primarily thought of as a lover. But, like any mother who’s ever kissed a boo-boo, comforted a crying babe, or taken marriage vows, Venus is also a healer, a nurturer, and a wife. (And, like every mortal wife, she has not always been a perfect helpmate. But that is another post for another time.)

The Romans regarded the goddess as Venus Genetrix, “Venus the Mother.” Her son was the Trojan hero Aeneas. Aeneas escaped the fall of Ilium and led the remnants of his people to Italy. When the Trojans established themselves in that new land, the groundwork was laid for the eventual rise of Rome.

This great project, however, would not have succeeded without the love and attention of Aeneas’ mother. In his final battle against the native Italians, Aeneas is badly wounded. Although he has an arrowhead lodged deep in his flesh, Venus will not let his injury prevent him from fulfilling his destiny:

“But now the goddess mother, mov’d with grief,
And pierc’d with pity, hastens her relief.”

She goes to work healing him with herbal medicine and divine skill.

“Stanch’d is the blood, and in the bottom stands:
The steel, but scarcely touch’d with tender hands,
Moves up, and follows of its own accord,
And health and vigor are at once restor’d.”

Aeneas’ recovery allows him to return to the fray, slay the Italian foe, and establish the colony that is to become Rome.

And this is not the first time that Venus came to the aid of her beloved son. During the battle for Troy, Aeneas was nearly killed by Diomedes, son of Tydeus. Again the goddess came to his rescue.

“Aeneas sprang from his chariot armed with shield and spear, fearing lest the Achaeans should carry off the body. He bestrode it as a lion in the pride of strength, with shield and on spear before him and a cry of battle on his lips resolute to kill the first that should dare face him. But the son of Tydeus caught up a mighty stone, so huge and great that as men now are it would take two to lift it; nevertheless he bore it aloft with ease unaided, and with this he struck Aeneas on the groin where the hip turns in the joint that is called the “cup-bone.” The stone crushed this joint, and broke both the sinews, while its jagged edges tore away all the flesh. The hero fell on his knees, and propped himself with his hand resting on the ground till the darkness of night fell upon his eyes. And now Aeneas, king of men, would have perished then and there, had not his mother, Jove’s daughter Venus, who had conceived him by Anchises when he was herding cattle, been quick to mark, and thrown her two white arms about the body of her dear son. She protected him by covering him with a fold of her own fair garment, lest some Danaan should drive a spear into his breast and kill him.”

Although Venus is not a warrior like Minerva or Mars, she descended to the field of battle and was even wounded by Diomedes for the sake of her child. So great is the goddess’s love for her son. And to whom did Venus turn to heal her own wound? Her mother, of course.

“Venus flung herself on to the lap of her mother Dione, who threw her arms about her and caressed her.”

So cheers to the comforters, healers, lovers, and heroes whom we call “mother” for short.

Beer of the week: Two Hats Pineapple – To trot out a tired metaphor, mothers wear many hats. And so, this reading is paired with the new Two Hats beer. This is advertised as a “crisp light beer with natural pineapple flavor.” The marketing for Two Hats is aimed at young drinkers. The tag-line is “Good, cheap beer. Wait, what?” Advertising copy also includes “Quit wine-ing!” and “Beer for people who are ‘meh’ about beer.” Clearly, they are trying to recapture early twenty-somethings who have turned to wine and spirits over beer. And, although the name “Miller” does not appear on the can, this is a product of the MillerCoors family, brewed by the Plank Road Brewery division of Miller.

As much as I hate the advertising and transparent attempt to appeal to “millennials,” I think it is actually a decent alternative to flavored seltzer. Two Hats is very, very pale in color and smells of pineapple. The amount of pineapple flavor is actually about right, but the beer itself is too light. This tastes more like a flavored seltzer than a beer. There is a bit of malt in the finish, but not quite enough to balance out the pineapple. Basically, this comes across as an alcoholic La Croix, which is fine if you want alcoholic flavored seltzer rather than a beer.

Reading of the week: The Æneid by Virgil – At the end of this excerpt, Aeneas has a moment with his own son Ascanius. “Thou, when thy riper years shall send thee forth / To toils of war, be mindful of my worth;” / he tells him, “Assert thy birthright, and in arms be known, / For Hector’s nephew, and Æneas’ son.” Aeneas doesn’t bother to mention Ascanius’ mother or grandmother. Typical.

Question for the week: What have you done for your mother lately?

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Marginal Value

A reader recently asked me what price she should be willing to pay for cheap beer by the case. When buying beer at the liquor store (or “beer distributor” if I happen to be in Pennsylvania) I expect “sub-premium” beers (such as Hamm’sPBR, Miller High Life, Keystone, etc.) to be about $15.00 per 30 before tax. When buying slightly better beers, I regard it as a good deal if I can get beers at under $1.00 each. And, of course, one must be willing to pay more for better beers.

But it bears repeating that value is not intrinsic. So I repeat, in the words of Ludwig von Mises: “Value is not intrinsic, it is not in things. It is within us; it is the way in which man reacts to the conditions of his environment.” We may attempt to assign value to something, but those values mean nothing without human action. Either we buy at a given price or we do not. If we say “Pabst is not worth $25.00 per 30” but then still make that purchase, we are clearly mistaken. It is only the act of the sale that tells us anything concrete about value.

What’s more, values change relative to each other based on each individual’s hierarchy of wants. “If a man is faced with the alternative of giving up either one unit of his supply of a or one unit of his supply of b, he does not compare the total value of his total stock of a with the total value of his stock of b. He compares the marginal values both of a and of b. Although he may value the total supply of a higher than the total supply of b, the marginal value of b may be higher than the marginal value of a.” This helps shed light on the classic question of why gold is more prized than water, even though water is essential for human survival while gold is not. The answer lies in the fact that under most circumstances, the marginal value of a unit of water is less than the marginal value of a unit of gold. This is because water is generally plentiful enough to supply our basic needs. But it is equally true that in the severest drought, one would not part with a unit of water for any amount of gold; the marginal value of each has changed with the circumstances.

Beer of the week: Casablanca Premium Lager – Among the many conditions that factor into valuing beer is location. In Morocco one may expect to pay slightly more for a beer than one might expect given the prevailing exchange rates. The marginal value of the stock of beer is somewhat higher for its relative scarcity. (That is not to say that it is hard to get beer in Morocco; it is just a smaller market.) Casablanca, Morocco is one of the largest economic centers of Africa. It is also the source of this aptly named beer. Casablanca lager is clear and pale, with a very faint and dry aroma. It is a very standard micro, but plenty refreshing.

Reading of the week: Human Action by Ludwig von Mises – Later in this, his chef d’oeuvre, Mises writes: “The moralists’ and sermonizers’ critique of profits misses the point. It is not the fault of the entrepreneurs that the consumers–the people, the common man–prefer liquor to Bibles and detective stories to serious books, and that governments prefer guns to butter. The entrepreneur does not make greater profits in selling “bad” things than in selling “good” things. His profits are the greater the better he succeeds in providing the consumers with those things they ask for most intensely.”

Question for the week: Do the common people truly prefer liquor to Bibles and detective stories to serious books? Is it not simply true that the marginal value of a second Bible is quite low compared to the marginal value of a second drink?


War Horses

One hundred years ago today was the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign during The First World War. Over the course of 8 months, a whole lot of Australians and New Zealanders (as well as Englishmen, Irishmen, Indians, Canadians, Frenchmen, and Turks) died in this ill-fated and ultimately meaningless military campaign. Many years before, Banjo Paterson, Australia’s finest poet, had written a poem entitled El Mahdi to the Australian Troops that severely censured Australian military involvement on the other side of the globe. Why should these men leave their home, “fair Australia, freest of the free,” to kill and be killed in the name of the British Empire?

I have a copy of Paterson’s complete works and used to read from it every night before bed. I read chronologically, and since he was extremely prolific, I never did make it as far as the First World War. Consequently, this ANZAC Day the Beer & Trembling reading is one that is unrelated to war and death and empire. This week’s reading is an adventure poem about wrangling wild horses: The Man from Snowy River.

I have never wrangled wild horses myself, but I have gotten pretty close to some. Years ago, I went camping on Assateague Island with some friends. Assateague is quite famous for its feral horse population. It is unclear whether the horses swam ashore from some ancient ship wreck, or whether colonists simply released horses on the island. Either way, now they run free and will occasionally walk right up to a camp fire in search of marshmallows. A horse did, in fact, walk right up to us at our campfire and we got yelled at by a park ranger who assumed that we had intentionally lured it to us.

Among our camping provisions, we packed lemonade and Miller High Life. During the day we mixed the two for a refreshing shandy. When evening fell, the lemonade was eschewed in favor of straight beer. A couple at the next campsite came over and introduced themselves. They seemed friendly enough, but then the man made the most insane critique of beer that I have ever heard:

“You guys are drinking High Life, huh? I’ll stick with Miller Lite; High Life has too much of a heavy lager flavor.”

I’d been drinking all day, so this fired me right up. High Life? Too much flavor? Really? After he returned to his own campsite, I was still incredulous; I had to be talked down. “Forget it, Jake. He’s just a Philistine.”

In the intervening years, I have come to regard that gentleman’s opinion as more and more valid. I do not mean to say that his opinion was correct, only that I have sort of mellowed to the idea that people can legitimately think whatever inane thing they want. I try to keep my mind ordered and live a rational, reasonable life. If others choose to believe inanities or hold absurd opinions, that only makes the world more interesting and puts my own intellectual flaws into perspective. There is no point in getting upset because somebody else is unsophisticated or believes something that I do not. 

Miller High Life

Beer of the Week: Miller High Life – “Heavy lager flavor,” huh? To be fair to our camp-out neighbor, the flavor of this beer (“heavy lager” or otherwise) is pretty bad. It smells of cheap grain and tastes, um, not good. However, there is one really interesting thing about High Life. If poured aggressively, this crystal-clear, straw colored beer has a thick, foamy head. It even leaves some substantial lacing on the glass. Given time, the lacing dries out and forms a delicate, solid, dry foam. I don’t know if this ever happens with other beers, but I have never seen it before. Interesting though it may be, I rather suspect that this actually shows something undesirable about the beer.

Reading of the Week: The Man from Snowy River by Banjo Paterson – As evidence of Banjo Paterson’s preeminence in Australian poetry, I submit the Australian $10 note. Pictured on the $10 note is a young Paterson as well as the entire text of this poem. Coincidentally, one of the characters in this poem appeared in an earlier Paterson poem that has already been a reading on this blog: Clancy of the Overflow.

Question of the Week: Among my favorite works by Paterson were his war correspondences from the Second Boer War in South Africa. I was quite impressed with his willingness to sympathize with the Boers and portray them positively even as they were engaged in killing Australians. Is war really sustainable if the enemy is regarded as fully human? Or, to put it another way, does supporting war require the dehumanization of enemy?


“Something Specific”

Today, I gave 31 cents to a beggar. He asked for 50 cents, but all I had was 31. He said that he intended to purchase a can of Miller Genuine Draft. “Sometimes” he informed me, “you just get a craving for something specific.”

I am not bragging about giving such a small amount of money toward an arguably questionable cause. But it reminded me of a brief interaction with a former teacher several years ago. When she asked what I was up to, I replied that I was engaged in “constant self-improvement.” The answer was only mostly a joke.

It is remarkably easy to be a better man tomorrow than I was today, if I put my mind to it. Today I gave 31 cents to a guy who was down on his luck and wanted a cold beer. Tomorrow, I could cut a check to a much less dubious charity such as 2 Seconds or Less, that works with African schools to build nutritional gardens for student lunches. Or something like that. But being better tomorrow than today doesn’t have to be in the form of charity.

I didn’t make the bed today. I didn’t wash the dishes immediately after lunch. There are hundreds and thousands of ways that I could have lived today better. The key is recognizing these shortcomings and making the effort to be a better man tomorrow. So tomorrow I will make the bed and I will do the dishes as soon as I finish my meals. And if a man asks me for change so that he can by a can of beer, I will offer to buy him a pint myself. Something better than MGD. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Beer of the week: Miller Fortune – Well this is no MGD, that’s for sure. Supposedly, Miller designed this beer to try to capture some market share back from liquor companies that have been targeting “millennials”. Hence the higher than usual alcohol (6.9%) and the suggestion that the beer to be served in a rocks glass. The overall idea is to make a classier beer. If I were in charge, I’d have made “taste” a priority, but what do I know? Fortune comes in a fancy black glass bottle and pours a pretty, crystal clear, amber color. After that, things go down hill. The smell is unpleasant and reminds me of ice beer, which may be related to the higher alcohol content. Aside from the taste of corn, I am also reminded of cheap malt liquor. (I suppose that “cheap malt liquor” is redundant.) It certainly has more flavor than I would usually expect from anything marketed under the Miller name, but in this case I don’t think that is a good thing. There is a very slight upside; the use of the rocks glass supposedly lets the beer warm in the drinker’s hand. As the beer warms, there appears a slight hint of caramel at the end of each sip. It doesn’t make the beer to good by any means, but it does show some complexity. At least they deserve some credit for trying, right?

Reading of the week: Some Fruits of Solitude: Censoriousness by William Penn – A problem with self-improvement is that it can be difficult to see one’s own faults for what they are. “And nothing shews our Weakness more than to be so sharp-sighted at spying other Men’s Faults, and so purblind about our own.” Penn suggests being more charitable is a good place to start self-improvement because it gives us a more sympathetic view of the faults of others.

Question of the week: How can you be better today than you were yesterday?


Tom and Drugs

As I mentioned last week, I am on drugs that are not to be mixed with alcohol. Luckily, however, I have a small back-log of beer reviews that I need only attach to a reading. So the blog goes on…

Speaking of medicine, one of my favorite literary scenes of all time is about patent medicine. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain lists the remedies that Aunt Polly inflicted upon our titular hero. Tom was depressed because the girl he liked was ill, so Aunt Polly applied all sorts of treatments to him to bring back a healthy disposition. When she settled on pain-killer (although Tom did not have any physical pain,) she certainly got a reaction, but not quite the reaction that she was looking for.

Rather than take the medicine himself, Tom took to “mending the health of a crack in the sitting-room floor with it.” Eventually, Peter the cat got a dose and his reaction was both hilarious and alarming. Aunt Polly was not amused, but learned a valuable lesson. Tom had given the cat a spoonful of the pain-killer with good intentions, just as Aunt Polly had done with him. But “what was cruelty to a cat might be cruelty to a boy, too.”

What we see from this story is that there are no real cure-alls and good intentions are not enough. There must be solid reasoning behind our actions if the results are to be positive. No matter how much we care, it is not caring that solves problems, it is reason.

Beer of the Week: Miller Lite – For better or worse, “light beer” is every bit as American as Mark Twain. Miller Lite was originally known as “Gablinger’s Diet Beer.” Of course, a low-calorie beer is almost inevitably a low-flavor beer. Ironically, diet beer took off not because of the lower calories, but because it is easier to binge drink large quantities. In fact, the bottle doesn’t even advertise the calorie content, it only asserts that the beer is “less filling.” They leave it up to the customer to figure out that “less filling” means you can drink more. The beer itself is as clear as water and just a bit more yellow. If poured aggressively, it produces a decent but quickly fading white head that actually does leave a fair bit of lacing. The smell and taste are both extremely weak, but it sure goes down smooth. After about the 6th or 7th beer I finally understood what the appeal is.

Reading of the week: The Cat and the Pain-Killer from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – Not only is Aunt Polly a great example of the way that people can get caught up in fads and popular trends, the description of the cat’s reaction to being dosed with pain-killer is one of the funniest scenes ever written.

Question of the week: How often do you rely on medicines (or beer) to solve problems that are emotional in nature?