Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness

This is the fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IV: The Complete Poems in English by John Milton

Samson, the Old Testament character of prodigious strength, is an odd sort of hero. Like a Hebrew Hercules, he performed tremendous feats, but the moral of his story not altogether simple. Samson was quick to anger, cruel to animals, indiscriminate in his violence, and, worst of all, he drank nothing but water.

Samson was a Nazirite, which means that he was consecrated to God and made specific vows: In the first place, Nazirites vow to drink no wine. The second vow is to leave one’s hair uncut.  And finally, Nazirites vow to avoid ritual uncleanliness by coming in contact with the dead, including funerals.

How did Samson fare in attempting to keep his vows? As to the injunction against drinking wine, he appears to have followed through. Maimonides taught that alcohol is not forbidden for Nazirites, so long as it is not derived from grapes. But Samson’s version of this vow seems to be one of total abstention. Most English translations seem to follow The King James Version, stating that Samson was to “drink no wine nor strong drink.” Some more modern translations say that he was to avoid “wine or any other alcoholic drink.” The Contemporary English Version specifically includes beer. In the words of Milton, Samson’s “drink was only from the liquid brook.”

As for cutting his hair, Samson famously kept this vow until he was deceived by a prostitute called Delilah. She, then, cut his hair in his sleep, rendering him powerless. Having followed through on this part of the Nazirite vow was the source of his strength, and without his hair he was as weak as any other mortal.

And as for avoiding corpses, I am inclined to think that he did a terrible job. The Bible does not tell us about him attending funerals or strolling through cemeteries, but he killed a bunch of guys. And it seems to me that when he beat a thousand men to death with the jawbone of an ass, he got in plenty of corpse touching. I have heard it argued that at the time that he touched the Philistines, they were not yet dead, and that they only became dead after he touched them. This argument elevates form over substance. And, at any rate, that doesn’t account for the time that he killed thirty innocent men and stripped the clothing from their bodies to give to the people who figured out his stupid riddle. Stripping the clothes from dead men is most certainly NOT in keeping with the Nazirite’s vows.

If the goal of life is righteousness, then I think that the Nazirite vows may actually be a stumbling block. There is no doubt that the discipline and dedication required to follow though with the vows can be a valuable tool for contemplation and self-improvement. But if one simply follows through with the strictest literal interpretation of the vows, he risks achieving ritual purity without achieving righteousness. That is, the Nazirite vows are not the end. Samson followed the vows, but did that justify tying foxes together by their tails and lighting them on fire? Did leaving his hair uncut make it ok for him to frequent brothels? Is it ok to murder thirty men over a riddle, so long as he can do so and not break his vows? (And, again, I think it is important to emphasize that the men who were killed were not the ones who tricked his wife into giving up the solution to the riddle. They were presumably unaware of Samson’s reason for murdering them.)

And the fact that Samson lost his strength when his hair was cut seems to further this form over substance problem. Samson did not break his vow. His hair was cut while he was asleep. And yet, Samson lost his power and his favor from God because of what somebody else did. The power, it seems, was not even in the obedient dedication to God, but in the show of dedication – the hair itself. Without his long hair, nobody can tell that he is a Nazirite just by looking at him; he loses his strength, not because he broke his vow, but because he looks like he broke his vow. The appearance of righteousness is more important for Samson than inward righteousness.

In short, wouldn’t it be better to drink wine, sport a buzz-cut, attend funerals, and not be a violent psychopath?

Beer of the week: Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (2017) – This is an uncommonly strong beer to go with a reading about an uncommonly strong man. Every year, Goose Island releases it’s limited edition Bourbon County Brand line of beers. These special brews are aged in used bourbon barrels. The 2017 Barleywine is an excellent beverage. It is 14% alcohol, and it shows. But it is so smooth that the alcohol is warm but not harsh. The aroma has notes of vanilla. In the flavor there is a hint of pepper (from the bourbon barrel, perhaps.) Dark cherry is a stand-out in a very rich flavor profile. What a treat!

Reading of the week: Samson Agonistes by John Milton – Milton’s version of Samson attributes his downfall to a lack of wisdom, and a weakness for women: “what is strength without a double share of wisdom?” In this section of the tragic poem, Samson is talking with his father Manoa about the proper course of action now that he is imprisoned and blind. Certain of Manoa’s exhortations are reminiscent of Crito’s appeal to Socrates: “Repent the sin, but if the punishment Thou canst avoid, self-preservation bids.”

Question for the week: Ultimately, I think that my reading of the story of Samson is not the intended reading. Samson is meant to be a hero, not a cautionary tale about elevating religious form over virtuous substance. How can his story be read more charitably?

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Don’t be like them!

Peer pressure is an interesting and familiar phenomenon. It can also be very dangerous, particularly when alcohol is involved. The classic form of peer pressure is “to be one of us, you must do x“. If “x” is drinking, smoking, stealing, etc., this can be very problematic indeed. But peer pressure can also be used to encourage more positive behaviors or to enforce less dubious social mores. (“If you want to be one of us, you have to be respectful.”) So peer pressure is not bad per se.

One particular form of peer pressure that deserves a closer look is when there is a very specific non-peer group used as a counter example. In this sort of peer pressure, the form is “do NOT do x, lest you become one of them.” There remains the implicit pressure to conform to one’s own peer group, but the pressure is compounded by vilifying another group.

The Laws of the Old Testament are full of this sort of admonition. A several acts are proscribed specifically because they are perceived as gentile behaviors. And even when certain things are prohibited for reasons other than to keep the Jews separate from the rest of the world, there is still a hint that being different from the gentiles is the real goal. Moses Maimonides explained that the prohibition on eating pork was for sanitary reasons. Even so, he made a point of bad mouthing the (Christian) French while he was at it. “[W]ere it allowed to eat swine’s flesh, the streets and houses would be more dirty than any cesspool, as may be seen at present in the country of the Franks.” Don’t eat pork, or you will be like the French.

Likewise, in A Counterblaste to Tobacco, King James I of England railed against the use of tobacco, arguing in part that it is unbecoming of Englishmen to take on the habits of “beastly Indians.” For good measure, he even points out that the English disdain the habits of the French and Spanish. If they refuse to adopt the customs of their near neighbors, how much worse is it to imitate New World savages?

Of course, the French were not only on the receiving end of this type of negative peer pressure; they practiced it as well. After invading Egypt, the use of hashish among the French became popular. Napoleon supposedly banned the consumption of hashish, not because of it’s deleterious effects, but because he did not want to see Frenchmen adopting the habits of lower-class Egyptians.

On this side of the Atlantic, the same thing can be observed. In addition to banning tobacco and alcohol, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith forbade his followers from drinking tea and coffee. One of his supposed revelations from God was that “hot drinks are not for the body or belly.” Frankly, I do not know if the prohibition on tea and coffee was specifically for the purpose of further separating Mormons from the rest of American society. But it is worth noting that something like 90 percent of American adults consume caffeine daily, making it the single most popular drug in the country. If the goal is to separate themselves from the rest of society, a rule against coffee seems like a good starting place.

About a century ago, the Department of Agriculture relied partly on the vilification of the others in advocating the prohibition of cannabis. In a report by R. F. Smith, the Department concluded that, “[t]he sale of the drug [marijuana] is not confined to Mexicans. American soldiers, negroes, prostitutes, pimps, and a criminal class of whites in general are numbered among the users of this weed.”

There you have it, don’t eat pork, lest your cities stink like France. Don’t smoke tobacco, lest you take on the habits of savages. Don’t take hashish, lest you be like lowly Egyptians. Don’t drink beer, wine, coffee, or tea, lest you fall in with non-Mormon Americans. And don’t smoke hemp, lest you be like Mexicans, negros, pimps, and the criminal class in general. You don’t want to be like any of them, do you?

Beer of the week: Dundee English-Style Ale – There may well be legitimate reasons to avoid pork, coffee, tobacco, alcohol, hashish, and cannabis. (Legality and health concerns spring to mind in particular cases.) But the fact that some group of “other” people consume them is not a legitimate reason. So I am going to smoke the occasional shisha (tobacco) and cigar. And drink this beer. Dundee English-Style Ale is a dark brass-colored ale has a foamy white head that leaves good lacing down the glass. The aroma is slightly sour and malty, like sourdough. The body is malty with hints of sour and spice. Overall, very nice beer. Dundee proves to be a good value yet again.

Reading of the week: A Counterblaste to Tobacco by King James I of England – Jeremy Bentham wrote of this pamphlet, “as the circumstances of the times did not afford the same facility of burning tobacco-smokers as for burning Anabaptists, [King James] was forced to content himself with writing a flaming book against it.”

Question of the week: Have you seen peer pressure used for good?