Natural Beauty

This is the thirty-seventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXVII: Locke, Berkeley, Hume

It is shockingly easy to forget just how amazing our surroundings are. Every so often, one needs to be reminded to look on the natural world with awe. Consider this your periodic reminder, care of George Berkeley:

“Look! are not the fields covered with a delightful verdure? Is there not something in the woods and groves, in the rivers and clear springs, that soothes, that delights, that transports the soul? At the prospect of the wide and deep ocean, or some huge mountain whose top is lost in the clouds, or of an old gloomy forest, are not our minds filled with a pleasing horror? Even in rocks and deserts is there not an agreeable wildness? How sincere a pleasure is it to behold the natural beauties of the earth! To preserve and renew our relish for them, is not the veil of night alternately drawn over her face, and doth she not change her dress with the seasons? How aptly are the elements disposed! What variety and use in the meanest productions of nature! What delicacy, what beauty, what contrivance, in animal and vegetable bodies! How exquisitely are all things suited, as well to their particular ends, as to constitute opposite parts of the whole!”

So go outside with a beer and gaze in wonder at how the trees have changed from just a few weeks ago, how the clouds undulate in the sky like foam on a freshly poured beer, or how a stream’s flow is both constant and ever-changing.

Beer of the week: Avalanche Amber Ale – An avalanche is a terrifying and devastating event, but it also has something of a Berkeley’s “pleasing horror.” Avalanche Amber Ale is not terrifying, but it is terrific. It pours with a fluffy tan head atop a dark amber beer. On the nose are bread and caramel. This ale has a surprisingly light mouthfeel and just enough hops to balance out the plentiful malt. Breckenridge seems to know what they are doing.

Reading of the week: Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous by George Berkeley – This short excerpt from the Second Dialogue comes at the end of Philonous’ argument that matter does not exist except in the perception. Just as Hylas has been wrangled into accepting the position that material has no existence independent of humans, Philonous pulls the rug out from under him and declares that material does exist because it is constantly perceived by God.

Question for the week: Where do you look for natural beauty?

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Le Début et la Fin du Monde

As the days get sunnier and warmer, I am reminded of a classic urban legend:

A woman went shopping for groceries. After she finished at the grocery store, she placed her purchases on the back seat of her car in the parking lot. She had a few more errands to run, so she left the groceries in the car while she went about her business. When she returned and entered the car, which had been warmed considerably by the midday sun, she heard a loud BANG and suffered a blow to the back of the head. She reached back to feel the point of impact and found find a gooey mass. Naturally she started to panic. With both hands she attempted to hold her brains in place and screamed for help. When other shoppers came to see what was wrong, she said that she had been shot in the head and that her brains were exposed. Upon closer examination, her brains were safely in place, but she was desperately pressing warm biscuit dough into her hair. Apparently, the heat in the car had caused a tube of biscuit dough to pop, splattering its contents on the woman. One of the “rescuers” told her, “Ma’am, you will be alright. You’ve been shot by the Pillsbury Doughboy.”

This story is a rather amusing little farce, but it says something important about sensory perception and the disconnect between our personal experience and external stimuli. The lady in the story felt warm dough on her head, but her senses did not convey to her mind the reality of the situation. The sense of touch, even when functioning properly, never totally captures the nature of the thing touched.

Descartes used a similar, although far less amusing story to make this very point. A soldier returning from the field feels a sharp pain in his side and thinks that he has suffered a wound that he did not notice in the heat of battle. Upon closer inspection, however, a strap on his armor simply became twisted, causing a buckle to dig into his side. If senses accurately and fully conveyed the nature of stimuli, then the soldier would have known immediately that the pain in his side was caused by the buckle.

To be fair, our senses are pretty trustworthy most of the time and we combine all sorts of additional context and sensory input to determine what is really going on. We are constantly and effortlessly making judgments based on our perceptions and that frees up our limited brainpower to work on more complicated questions. Questions such as what beer to drink.

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Beer of the week: Fin du Monde – French-Canadian brewery Unibroue makes some very well regarded beers. Fin du Monde is probably their best known brew, a Belgian-style tripel. It smells of yeast and cider. The body is remarkably smooth and the taste is outstanding. There are hints of pepper and the considerable alcohol content (9%) makes itself known at the end. The aftertaste is similar to that of a dry cider, encouraging sip after sip.

Reading of the week: Le Monde by Rene Descarts – Although Descartes apparently intended to write a complete philosophy of the world, his work was never completed. Instead the title Le Monde (“The World”) was attached after his death to the first part of that project, Treatise on Light.

Question of the week: Humans are extremely visual, and our trust in sight as a reliable source of information is evident in the idiom “seeing is believing.” But we have all experienced optical illusions, so we know that sight cannot always be trusted. Descartes writes that “Of all our senses, touch is the one considered least deceptive and the most secure.” Is he right? Which sense most reliably presents our mind with the reality of the outside world?


Scanning the Vault of Heaven

This is a very popular time of year for people to go on vacations. You can tell by all of the beach photos showing up on your facebook feed. So (aside from drinking beer) what is the best way to relax while on holiday?

Turn of the century astronomer Simon Newcomb had a few thoughts on the subject. In his essay The Extent of the Universe, Newcomb writes that “Bodily rest may be obtained at any time by ceasing from our labors, and weary systems may find nerve rest at any summer resort;” but that is merely physical rest. To rest the mind and the soul he prescribes contemplation of the night sky:

“I know of no way in which complete rest can be obtained for the weary soul—in which the mind can be so entirely relieved of the burden of all human anxiety—as by the contemplation of the spectacle presented by the starry heavens.”

The movements of the heavenly bodies are regular, ordered and unchanging. (Well, not exactly unchanging, but Newcomb points out that the amount of change over the whole history of human existence has been all but imperceptible.) This is why the astronomer Ptolemy asserted that the study and contemplation of the skies instills the soul with “the sameness, good order, due proportion, and simple directness contemplated in divine things.”

So even if you don’t get a chance to go on a fancy vacation, pick a clear night when you can lie on your back with a beer in hand (be careful when trying to drink in that position) and marvel at the beauty and order of the heavens. “The thinking man who does this under circumstances most favorable for calm thought will form a new conception of the wonder of the universe.”

Beer of the week: 5,0 Original Export – Despite only 5.2% alcohol it does taste more strongly of alcohol than the 5.0% 5,0 Original Pils. The whole brand is about making beer as cheaply as possible, so it is hard to be disappointed. It isn’t very good, but is exactly what it aims to be: a drinkable, very cheap beer. (No surprise that it is a product of Oettinger.)

Reading of the week: The Extent of the Universe by Simon Newcomb, Excerpt – In the hundred or so years since Mr. Newcomb died, tremendous advances and discoveries have occurred in the field of astronomy, but that is no reason to stop reading his work. The philosophical truths about the contemplation of the heavens remain unchanged.

Question of the week: Why does Newcomb think that the contemplation of the heavens can relieve anxiety while Pascal claims that thinking about the vastness of space fills him with dread? Is the difference in how they are thinking about the subject? Or is it due to a fundamental difference in the men themselves?


Youth is Liberty

What is liberty? “I call liberty the flowers, the air, light, the stars, the happiness of going whithersoever the nervous limbs of twenty years of age may wish to carry you.” So says Aramis of The Three Musketeers. It is a strange definition of liberty, but it may stand up to some scrutiny.

Basically, the definition includes three parts: access to nature, movement, and age.

Prison is usually thought of as removal from society, but it is also removal from nature. Nature is a glorious whole, but Aramis refers to it by parts. “The flowers, the air, light, the stars,” are all important parts of nature, and all are denied to the prisoner. Their import is hard to overestimate. A recent post on this blog mentioned the pleasure derived from being able to gaze on the stars after a long period without seeing them. As for light, the modern world is positively flooded with it, but at the end of the 17th century, the dramatic date of The Musketeers saga, artificial light was a luxury and anybody without access to sunlight would not have seen very much light at all.

The freedom of movement makes perfect sense as the standard for liberty. Chains, the universal symbol of oppression, restrict liberty by restricting movement. Being held in place is a clear opposite of liberty.

The final part of Aramis’s statement is the most interesting though: age. Youth is liberty. I had a college professor who asserted that he was less free than his students because of his age. He could have attributed his comparative lack of liberty to his job, his wife, his children; because of his responsibilities he is not totally at liberty. There are things he must do as an employee, a husband, a father, and so forth.  But he did not point to his responsibilities, he pointed to his age. He no longer has the time or vitality of a man of twenty, and with each passing day his liberty is diminished accordingly.

So make good use of your liberty while you have it, one day you may find that you can no longer go whithersoever your limbs wish to carry you.

Walter

Beer of the Week: Bischoff Fritz Walter – There is a lot going on here. First, this beer seems to be named after Fritz Walter, legendary German soccer player. Germans love beer; Germans love soccer; nothing could be more natural. The label also includes the phrase “”einer für ALLE und ALLE für einer”: “one for ALL and ALL for one.” I am not sure if Walter was a big fan of Dumas, but who knows. As for the beer itself, I rather enjoyed it. My knowledge of the German language is quite limited, but I had a fair guess that “ungefiltert” meant exactly what it sounds like. When I inverted the bottle and saw sediment begin to swirl through the beer, my translational acumen was confirmed. Most surprising about this beer is that it seems to be an unfiltered European pilsner. I am so used to unfiltered beers being wheat beers, I was genuinely surprised to taste this crisp beer. I was reminded immediately of Pilsner Urquel, but after drinking a bit more, the sediment made itself felt in the form of a pleasant earthiness and spice that compliment the strong hops.

Reading for the Week: The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas – In this scene, Aramis acts as confessor for the book’s eponymous prisoner. The prisoner (in words very reminiscent of  Lovelace’s “stone walls” and “iron bars”) claims that he is content in prison and demonstrates how he is as free as anybody because he can still look out of his window.

Question for the week: Aramis regards the prisoner’s assertion that he is still free because he has his window as “that sinister philosophy which is the religion of the captive.” Is this an indictment of stoicism?