Skill and Judgment

This is the ninth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IX: Cicero, Pliny the Younger

“None but those who are skilled in painting, statuary, or the plastic art,” writes Pliny the Younger, “can form a right judgment of any performance in those respective modes of representation.”

This statement can be reduced to the universal statement that the ability to perform is a necessary prerequisite for the ability to judge a performance. To some extent, this claim seems intuitively true. But it is not necessarily so.

Roger Ebert was an extremely popular and well-respected film critic. But did his ability to judge acting and filmmaking come from his own skill as an actor and filmmaker? I think not. Clearly, a great deal of effort was put into studying the art of film, but not necessarily study of the practice of film.

Similarly, one could imagine a great student of the visual arts who, due to some physical disability, is unable to paint. Without ever putting brush to canvas, such a student could still know well every theory of color, composition, and aesthetics. What could keep such a person from being a great judge of paintings?

Even if it is not strictly necessary, at least some practice in any given art is helpful for truly appreciating all of the skill required to excel therein. Knowing first-hand how difficult it is to become competent may provide valuable perspective on what must go into works of real genius.

My single attempt at brewing beer was not exceptionally successful, though it was far from a failure. I would not claim to be skilled in brewing. Yet I consider myself competent to form a judgment about beers brewed by others. At the very least, I can form the most important judgment of all: do I like it enough to have another?


Beer of the week: Citradelic Tangerine IPA – The aroma of this New Belgium IPA is overwhelmingly of tangerine. The flavor is much the same, but with the lingering tingle of citrusy hops. It is enjoyable, but you have to really like tangerines.

Reading of the week: Letter to Attius Clemens by Pliny the Younger – This letter is primarily a glowing recommendation of a contemporary philosopher known as Euphrates the Stoic. Unfortunately, none of Euphrates’ work has survived.

Question for the week: Pliny’s statement about judging the arts assumes that there actually is “a right judgment” of art. Is that a valid assumption?

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The Father of Invention

This is the eighth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume VIII: Nine Greek Dramas

Prometheus, the light-bearer, is known most for giving humanity the gift of fire. But in Æschylus’ version of the myth in Prometheus Bound, he taught a great many arts to man, including: brickwork and carpentry; astronomy; agriculture; calculation and writing; the domestication of animals; sailing; medicine; augury; and metallurgy.

What stands out the most about such an important catalogue of arts is the fact that all of these skills predate not only the play, but recorded history itself. As John Meynard Keynes put in his essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren:

“Almost everything which really matters and which the world possessed at the commencement of the modern age was already known to man at the dawn of history. Language, fire, the same domestic animals which we have to-day, wheat, barley, the vine and the olive, the plough, the wheel, the oar, the sail, leather, linen and cloth, bricks and pots, gold and silver, copper, tin, and lead -and iron was added to the list before 1000 B.C.- banking, statecraft, mathematics, astronomy, and religion. There is no record of when we first possessed these things.”

We may add to that list, of course, the brewing of beer. Indeed, some think that the discovery (or invention) of beer, like the other innovations listed above, was instrumental in the in the formation of civilization. Æschylus’ fire-bearer might just as well have been a Libation Bearer.

Beer of the week: Voodoo Ranger 8 Hop Pale Ale – New Belgium brews a number of varieties of its Voodoo Ranger line. The standard IPA was the beer of the week a fortnight ago. This version is slightly cloudy, with a nice hoppy aroma. The smell has notes of pineapple and apple. The 8 Hop Pale Ale is a nice beer, but there is something in the aftertaste that I cannot place and that I don’t care for. I like the other Voodoo Ranger varieties better.

Reading of the week: Prometheus Bound by Æschylus, Lines 435-567 – This excerpt of the play really does portray Prometheus as the greatest patron of humanity. “All arts, for mortals’ use, Prometheus gave.”

Question for the week: Is Keynes correct in his assertion that no innovation “that really matters” was discovered or invented “in the four thousand years which ended (say) in A. D. 1700”?


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?


We, the people of the Confederate States

In Flashman and the Angel of the Lord, the titular hero asks Abraham Lincoln why was it right for the thirteen colonies to secede from the British Empire, but wrong for the Southern States to secede from the Union.
“I’m astonished that a man of your worldly experience can even ask such a question,” says he. “What has ‘right’ got to do with it? The Revolution of ’76 succeeded, the recent rebellion did not, and there, as the darkie said when he’d et the melon, is an end of it.”
Fictional Lincoln, it seems, is something of a cynic.

Some “small-government” and “states’ rights” proponents are less cynical, and even defend the failed Confederate States on the grounds that the CSA were motivated by self-determination, states’ rights, and principled politics. But do the historical documents bear that out?

There are lots of apologists out there who will argue that the Civil War was really not about slavery. That the Confederate States were more interested in states’ rights, and tariffs, and minimizing the use of federal money for local infrastructure. But a careful review of the Constitution of the Confederate States of America seems to show that the political goals of the CSA really started and ended with the institution of slavery.
The CSA Constitution differs from the USA Constitution in only a few substantial ways. The most obvious, and most important, is slavery. While the USA Constitution tip-toes around the issue of slavery, only mentioning it obliquely and euphemistically, the CSA Constitution makes repeated, explicit references to slavery, including a clause preventing Congress from passing any law that would impair the right to own slaves. Another clause allows slaveholders to take their slaves into and out of any state, effectively preventing any individual state from banning slavery within its own boarders. Not exactly a blow for states’ rights.
Perhaps the most next important thing about the CSA Constitution is what did not change. The CSA Constitution copies the vast majority of its content verbatim from the US Constitution. This embraces virtually all of the powers of Congress in Article I, Section 8, including the “Commerce Clause” and the “Necessary and Proper Clause”. Those two clauses, particularly when invoked in tandem, are widely regarded as the greatest threats to limited central government. Yet the CSA had no problem handing these same federal powers to their own Congress.
It is true that there are also non-slave related changes that add color to the claim that the interest of the CSA was in limiting federal power. The preamble was changed to include “each State acting in its sovereign and independent character.” Additionally, the states retained the rights to negotiate among themselves on the regulation of their shared waterways and to tax boats that use those waterways. Further, federal money was not to be used for infrastructure improvement. But these changes do not seem like enough to justify the claim that the primary purpose was self-determination. For one thing, the preamble adds the notion that the Confederacy is intended to be “a permanent federal government,” suggesting that any future secessions from the CSA might not be regarded as rightful. And in light of the focus on slavery and the general retention of the form and powers of the federal government, it seems pretty clear what the real intention was.
It is well worth questioning the “official” versions of history, but it is a mistake for modern conservatives and libertarians to pretend that the Confederacy was a beacon for limited government and self-determination. That ignores the plain fact that the Confederacy was created explicitly for the preservation of the despicable institution of slavery, and it alienates people who should be valuable allies for personal freedom.

Slow Ride

Beer of the week: Slow Ride Session IPA – To avoid (additional) needless controversy, I have paired this reading with a beer from a Colorado, which was not yet a state during the brief existence of the CSA. New Belgium’s session IPA is quite good. My 12-pack seems to have been over carbonated;  every can foamed over when opened. Otherwise, there is nothing to complain about. The beer is a hazy orange-yellow with lots of white foam. Some yeasty aroma makes it past the strong, citrusy hops smell. The flavor is not as strong as expected, but it is nicely balanced and refreshing with a nice citrus finish. One certainly could drink this beer over the course of a long session.

Reading of the week: The Constitution of the Confederate States of America – This is the kind of thing that every middle school student in the United States should be required to read in history class. It did not even occur to me that I should read it until I was in my late twenties. It is instructive as to the causes of the Civil War, but also a useful tool for evaluating the Constitution of the United States.

Question of the week: There are some other changes worth mentioning: the CSA president would have served for 6 years with no chance for reelection. Also, all bills passed by congress would have a single purpose (eliminating omnibus bills and unrelated riders.) Finally, the president would have the power to issue line item vetoes. Are any of the changes made by the Confederates worth considering as amendments to the Constitution of the USA?


Short and to the Point

“Brevity is the soul of wit” is a wonderful aphorism.* In no small part, that is because it encapsulates a lot of what makes aphorisms themselves so delightful. Whether they are called fragments, maxims, epigrams, proverbs, or pensées, aphorisms can be awful lot of fun to read. When done well, they are pithy, profound, and memorable. But for those very reasons, they can be somewhat difficult to approach as serious reading.

One short phrase can provide enough insight to sustain a very deep discussion. And yet, it is often easy to consume multiple aphorisms at a time, like so many kernels of popcorn. This seems particularly true when the author has put his thoughts into a particular order. There is plenty of value in being able to flip open a book of aphorisms and read one at random, but that seems to discount the value of the author/editor’s decisions in arranging them. Consequently, there is a tension between attempting to read aphorisms as stand-alone thoughts or as a composed collection.

For example, in his book of aphorisms, Vectors, James Richardson wonders: “Why shouldn’t you read this the way I wrote it, with days between the lines?” But that thought is number 369 out of 500. So is it really a serious suggestion on how he thinks the book should be read? An invitation to re-read Vectors with a new focus?

It seems unlikely that there is a “wrong way” to approach aphorisms, but it is worth giving some thought to the different ways in which they can be read. It is also probably important to remain aware of context; without context, a good aphorism may be no more than a cliché.

*Now is probably a good time to mention that the line “Brevity is the soul of wit” is spoken by a long-winded character in an extremely lengthy play. This irony is, perhaps, the best thing about it.

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Beer of the week: Fat Tire Amber Ale – This is a tasty little ale from New Belgium Brewing Company. It starts with light, flowery hops on the nose, but the taste is a nice balance between the hops and malt. It gets better as it warms slightly in the glass and the bready malt starts to shine through. Pretty darn good.

Reading for the week: Maximes and Moral Reflections by François de La Rochefoucauld – These dozen selected aphorisms seem fairly representative of La Rochefoucauld’s work. And although each could stand on its own, together they exhibit a distinct line of thought. A couple suggestions on how to read La Rochefoucauld: the author himself suggests that “the best approach for the reader to take would be to put in his mind right from the start that none of these maxims apply to himself in particular, and that he is the sole exception, even though they appear to be generalities.” Lord Chesterfield recommends that one should “read in the morning some of La Rochefoucault’s [sic] Maxims; consider them, examine them well, and compare them with the real characters you meet in the evening.”

Question for the week: How do you like to read aphorisms?


Spencer Clark, you jerk!

While in the post office recently, I was struck by a poster advertising a postage stamp that I had not seen before, although it has been in use for quite a while. The stamp in question features a film frame of fictional character Harry Potter. Or is it of actor Daniel Radcliffe?

Aware that living persons are not allowed to be on American money or stamps, I immediately questioned whether such a stamp is permissible. I did a little research into the legal history of the ban on living persons on stamps. A very informative article from Numismatic News filled me in on the law and its background. In brief, living people were featured on American and Confederate money throughout the Civil War and in the years thereafter. But in 1866, the Department of the Treasury ordered a run of 5¢ notes (roughly the equivalent of a $0.75 bill in 2015) with an engraving of “Clark”, presumably meaning William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. Spencer Clark, the bureaucrat in charge of the printing office, intentionally misinterpreted the order and had his own portrait featured on the bills.

Congressman Russell Thayer was vehemently opposed.  Rallying the House of Representatives to ban the inclusion of living persons on American currency, Thayler declared, “I hold in my hand a 5-cent note of this fractional currency of the United States. If you ask me, whose image and superscription is this? I am obliged to answer, not that of George Washington, which used to adorn it, but the likeness of the person who superintends the printing of these notes… I would like any man to tell me why his face should be on the money of the United States…and I trust the House will support me in the cry which I raise of Off With Their Heads!”

Representative James Brooks supported the ban, echoing Solon’s advice to Croesus: “No man should be immortalized upon the public money of the country until the verdict of posterity has been pronounced upon his name, and it can go down upon that record sanctioned by the voices of men of all parties, of all politics, and all religions.” After all, a living person may yet do something horrific, rendering bills or stamps with his likeness a shameful collectible.

Thayler and Brooks won the day, despite opposition from Senator Fessenden (who was himself featured on the 50¢ note.) Now, by law, “no portrait or likeness of any living person shall be engraved or placed upon any of the bonds, securities, notes, or postal currency of the United States.”

So what do we make of the Harry Potter stamps? Fictional characters are certainly not banned by the law; Lady Liberty still appears on the obverse of the presidential dollar coin and postage stamps have included fictional characters from Batman to Tom Sawyer. Additionally, unidentified models are apparently acceptable when not being portrayed as themselves; since there are no known portraits of Sacajawea, a model was chosen for the design of her dollar coin. The US postal service has also previously allowed fictional characters portrayed by living actors; Star Wars stamps included several human characters. The difference between the Star Wars and Harry Potter stamps, however, is that the stamps were not film frames of the actors, but drawings. This distinction may seem minor, but it shows a conscious effort in the Star Wars stamps to ensure that it is the characters being portrayed, not the actors. The Harry Potter stamps are not idealized versions of the characters, but actual movie stills of the actors while portraying the characters.

For whatever it is worth, the Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee was unanimously opposed to the Harry Potter stamps. But I suspect that their beef with the stamps had more to do with the blatant commercialization and British actors.

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Beer of the week: Snapshot Wheat Beer – From film frames to Snapshots. A cloudy yellow beer with a bright white head, this offering from New Belgium is pretty tasty. The wheat dominates the aroma. The taste, however, includes notes of sour fruit that linger afterward. Overall, this is a good thirst-quenching drink. It isn’t exceptional, but it is plenty good.

Reading for the week: Metaphysics by Aristotle, Book IV – The Harry Potter stamp may be said to both be and not be of Daniel Radcliffe. Although this seems to be a violation of the principle of noncontradiction, Aristotle makes it clear that when things appear to both be and not be, it is because they are not being viewed in the same respect at the same time. The stamp is of Daniel Radcliffe in the sense that he is the actor portraying the character Harry Potter. The stamp is not of Daniel Radcliffe in the sense that the subject matter of the stamp is the character, not the actor himself.

Question for the week: Should stamps and money depict living people?