This is the third in a series of four posts on Epicureanism (and South American beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.
Step 3: καὶ τἀγαθὸν μὲν εὔκτητον – What is Good is Easy to Get
According to Seneca, The Garden of Epicurus bore the following inscription: “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.” As a result of the Epicurean focus on pleasure, Epicureanism is often misunderstood as decadent and gluttonous. We associate Epicureanism with good food, good drink, and plenty of both. But that is not a fair characterization.
“By pleasure,” writes Epicurus to Menoeceus, “we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.” Good things are those that satisfy our basic needs. Striving for more than our minimum requirements actually decreases our pleasure because it makes us anxious. Because luxuries are hard to acquire, the effort to get them results in a net loss of pleasure. To say nothing of the unpleasant aftereffects of overindulgence.
As Montaigne put it, “If you found your pleasure upon drinking of the best [wine], you condemn yourself to the penance of drinking of the worst. Your taste must be more indifferent and free.” Why spoil your palate on expensive wine and deny yourself the pleasure of cheap wine? There is more pleasure in prudently settling for the basics than anxiously scrambling after the best.
Beer of the week: Chaski Porter – Given Montaigne’s dictum about settling for cheap wine, I suppose that I should have paired this week’s reading with a cheap beer. But I got this Peruvian porter from Barbarian Cerveceria Artesanal at a very good price, and by drinking only one at a time, I maximize the pleasure while minimizing anxiety over my beer budget. Chaski is very carbonated. It is dark brown with a rocky, tan head. The aroma has hints of soy sauce and chocolate. The beer is a bit thinner than expected, with coffee notes dominating. I am not a big porter drinker, but Chaski is pretty good.
Reading of the week: Of Drunkenness by Michel de Montaigne – The philosophy of Montaigne is difficult to pin down. It is not accurate to call him an Epicurean, but he was certainly influenced by Epicureanism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy relates that Montaigne’s Essays quote one verse out of every sixteen in Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things.
Question of the week: Is there not a certain pleasure in working toward and attaining something beyond our basic needs?
The Question of the Week from my last post was whether the advice from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If— was equally appropriate for men and women. He tells his son how to “be a man”, but would the same qualities (level-headedness, a stoic attitude toward adversity, and always giving one’s best effort) make his daughter a woman? I suspect that modern feminists would agree that all humans, regardless of sex, are made great or virtuous by the same virtues. Although this seems like a departure from traditional evaluation of the sexes, this view is in line with a much older philosophical tradition.
In his essay Upon Some Verses of Virgil Montaigne writes:
“I say that males and females are cast in the same mold, and that, education and usage excepted, the difference is not great. Plato indifferently invites both the one and the other to the society of all studies, exercises, and vocations, both military and civil, in his commonwealth; and the philosopher Antisthenes rejected all distinction between their virtue and ours. It is much more easy to accuse one sex than to excuse the other; ’tis according to the saying ‘The Pot and the Kettle.'”
So we see that from antiquity, certain philosophers recognized that men and women have the same virtues, capacities and inherent rights. (Even if political rights are not meted out equally.)
Montaigne, however, can be a tricky author to nail down. This statement of equality seems somewhat at odds with his glorification of the natives of Brazil, whose “ethics are comprised in these two articles, resolution in war, and affection to their wives.” These virtues are specifically masculine since in their culture war and wife taking are for men alone. The only real mention of women’s role in Of Cannibals is the preparation of the beverages. Personally, I think that sounds like the most noble of all occupations.
Beer of the Week: Xingu Black Beer – True story: the first words out of my mouth after I tasted this Brazilian dark lager were “Come on Brazil, get your act together!” Judging by the copious carbonation and the sticky, sweet taste, I suspect that there was a translation problem and what was meant to be a cola came out as a beer or vise versa. I am not sure which is worse, but this beer is that one. As a man of science, I always try a beer twice before writing up an official review. Upon trying it a second time, I did detect some of the familiar flavors one gets from a dark roasted malt, but I still didn’t finish my glass. I simply do not like this beer. According to their website, it is based in part on a drink brewed by the natives of Brazil. If the native women had served this to the men of the tribe, I suspect that they would have ended up being served as the next dish at the cannibal feast.
Reading for the Week: Of Cannibals by Montaigne – In this excerpt, Montaigne describes the daily lives and living situation of the Brazilian natives. He also (with the natives and the Scythians) comes down pretty hard on false prophets. He writes: “such as only meddle with things subject to the conduct of human capacity, are excusable in doing the best they can: but those other fellows that come to delude us with assurances of an extraordinary faculty, beyond our understanding, ought they not to be punished?”
Question for the week: “Love for your husband” is a straight-forward female analog for “love your wife.” Is there such an analog for “be resolute in war” if women are not warriors?
“Taken moderately, it is pleasant and useful; but… in the end it renders a man brutish and vicious.” This observation of Montaigne’s rings very true. How delightful is a little indulgence? And how often does one encounter somebody who has gone to far, somebody who’s has rendered himself incapable of reasonable interaction with other human beings? That is exactly what becomes of a man who reads too much Nietzsche.
After all, Montaigne was not writing about over-indulging in beer; he was writing about over-indulging in philosophy. Excessive pursuit of philosophy, he argues, carries with it the same negative effects as other excesses. “Excess,” he writes, “enslaves our natural freedom.” One loses his liberty when he gives himself over completely to philosophy (or to drinking, love, or anything else regardless of whether it is a good thing in smaller doses.)
Since we’ve just entered Lent it seems like a prudent time to address moderation. Many people give something up for Lent. This has many purposes and can be very useful. Giving up something for Lent can help one appreciate what is really important in life. It can also lead one to contemplation about the value of sacrifice (and direct one’s thoughts to The Sacrifice.) It can teach a lesson about self-control. But a gentle touch is required; giving up too much or focusing too much on the deprivation can be just as bad as over-indulging. One must always keep in mind that the deprivation itself is not the goal. “The archer that shoots over, misses as much as he that falls short.”
Beer of the Week: 333 Export – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: rice probably should not be an ingredient in beer. Rice is, however, a main ingredient in Budweiser and just about every Asian beer. In a general sort of way, rice beers can be pretty good, but not great. And 333 is not good enough to be the exception that proves the rule. The carbonation level seemed more appropriate for a soda pop than a beer and it had very little hoppy bitterness. What it did have was a tropical sweetness that I could not place. The aftertaste made me think of banana and clove, but neither really captures the familiar but illusive flavor in 333. Perhaps the brewers of 333 strongly advocate moderation, because (even though it is actually fairly decent) I could hardly imagine drinking more than one or two glasses of this sweet beer.
Reading for the Week: Excerpt from Of Moderation by Michel de Montaigne – As is somewhat typical of Montaigne’s essays, Of Moderation quickly jumps from thought to thought. This short and lively essay begins with the claim that even virtue can be made into vice by squeezing it too hard and ends with stories of human sacrifice by Native Americans.
Question for the Week: When people are asked if they would like some beer (or some cream in their coffee or syrup on their pancakes) they often reply with “yes, but not too much.” I’ve always hated that expression because “too much” is obviously more than they would want; otherwise, it would not be “too much.” But could it be that the expression isn’t as stupid as it seems at a glance? Might it actually reflect our innate desire for excesses and represent a sort of mastery over that desire? Perhaps “not too much” is actually short for “I know that I would over-indulge if I gave my desire its head, so although I would consume too much, this time I will be moderate.”