This is the second in a series of posts on family (and Sierra Nevada beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.
The general and politician Themistocles laid the groundwork for Athens to become the greatest naval power in ancient Greece. He was also instrumental in repelling the second Persian invasion, leading the Greek fleet to victory in the Battle of Salamis. And yet, according to Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Meno, Themistocles’s son Cleophantus never approached his father’s greatness. Socrates says that the story is the same for Aristides and Pericles: great men with inferior sons.
The ultimate conclusion of the dialogue is that greatness cannot be taught. If it were possible, surely Themistocles et al. would have taught their sons to be great. But maybe they were simply too busy being great men to be great fathers. In an essay, Francis Bacon wrote that “the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men; which both in affection and means, have married and endowed the public.” In short, civic greatness and great parenting each require so much attention and effort that they are mutually exclusive; one may be a great man or a great father, but not both.
In the essay, Bacon does not explicitly advocate one choice over the other. For himself, he seems to have chosen greatness; rising to the position of Lord Chancellor and fathering no children. Mary Wollstonecraft, however, suggests that choosing parenthood over greatness may be the better decision for society. She agrees with Bacon that childless men were more likely to become great, “[b]ut the welfare of society is not built on extraordinary exertions; and were it more reasonably organized, there would be still less need of great abilities, or heroic virtues.” One can more reliably do more for the world by raising children well than by trying to be a hero.
Beer of the week: Torpedo Extra IPA – Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo is hazy amber, with a head of small, off-white bubbles that never seem to dissipate. The aroma is floral and piney. It is a very smooth beer considering how hoppy and alcoholic it is (7.2% ABV). The taste starts with some biscuit and caramel malt flavors, but the hops quickly take over and leave a lingering bitterness in the back of the throat.
Reading of the week: A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft – This excerpt from Wollstonecraft’s most famous work is primarily about the distinction between reason and sensibility. Women, she opines, are raised with an excess of the latter and a dearth of the former.
Question for the week: Themistocles and Pericles (and Bacon) are but a few examples of great men without great offspring. Can you think of any good counter examples?
This is the last in a series of four posts on Epicureanism (and South American beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.
Step 4: τὸ δὲ δεινὸν εὐκαρτέρητον – What is Terrible is Easy to Endure
Epicurus writes that “[c]ontinuous pain does not last long in the flesh; on the contrary, pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which barely outweighs pleasure in the flesh does not last for many days together. Illnesses of long duration even permit of an excess of pleasure over pain in the flesh.”
If, as Protagoras said, man is the measure of all things, then one man—Socrates—is the measure of all Greek philosophy. Would he agree with Epicurus’s statement about pain and endurance?
In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates muses on the odd pleasure he experiences upon having his chains removed: “How singular is the thing called pleasure, and how curiously related to pain, which might be thought to be the opposite of it; for they are never present to a man at the same instant, and yet he who pursues either is generally compelled to take the other; their bodies are two, but they are joined by a single head.” This curious connection between pain and pleasure may lend weight to Epicurus’s point of view. One can endure almost anything because even truly awful pain must have its related pleasure.
In Xenophon’s Apology, however, Socrates identifies a sort of suffering that is chronic and worth dying to avoid. In the face of capital charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, Socrates decided to commit suicide by jury. He reasoned that it would be better to die while still at the peak of his mental powers than face the possibility of a protracted physical and psychological decline in old age. “If my years are prolonged, I know that the frailties of old age will inevitably be realized,—that my vision must be less perfect and my hearing less keen, that I shall be slower to learn and more forgetful of what I have learned.” Old age, to Socrates, was both terrible and impossible to endure—the exception that proves Epicurus’s rule.
Beer of the week: Latitud Cero° Concordia – This Helles-style lager comes from La Paz Cerveceria in Ecuador. It’s straw-colored, with a slight haze. The aroma is of light toast, caramel and grass. The body is more substantial than I’d have guessed, which results in an uncommonly long finish for such a light lager.
Question of the week: Is suicide acceptable in the face of protracted suffering?
It has been said that cross-examination is the attorney’s opportunity to testify. That is because on cross-examination, lawyers are allowed to ask leading questions. So the lawyer shapes the testimony, and the witness is simply asked to confirm it. The witness doesn’t have a chance to explain himself or expand on his answers; he is simply expected to say “yes” or “no” on cue. And, as any Socratic interlocutor knows–or quickly learns–giving a series of yeses and noes can often lead to an indefensible position. On redirect examination, the other attorney may be able to get out any explanations or expansions needed to rehabilitate the witness, but it may be too late.
Once one recognizes the power that the questioner has, The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe becomes infuriating. The titular fowl answers gives the same one-word answer to every single question. The narrator recognizes almost immediately that the word “nevermore” is the raven’s “only stock and store.” And yet, the narrator still frames every single question to the raven in a way that is guaranteed to disappoint him! Instead of asking questions that call for negative answers, he continually seeks positive answers.
Here are a few places he could have greatly improved his interview with the raven:
Q: [Will I ever] forget the lost Lenore[?]
Q: Will I continue to be tormented by the loss of Lenore?
Q: Shall [my soul] clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore[?]
Q: Will I remain separated from Lenore?
See? Once the narrator knows the answer that is coming, all he has to do is arrange the question to suit that answer. Instead, things get worse and worse as he keeps asking the wrong questions. And when it is time to rid himself of the bird, he makes the same mistake.
Q: Take thy beak from out my heart and take thy form from off my door!
Q: Do you plan on staying here long?
It’s almost like the narrator didn’t really want to forget Lenore and be rid of the avian manifestation of his grief.
Beer of the week: Sorachi Ace – This farmhouse ale from The Brooklyn Brewery is brewed with the somewhat unusual Japanese hybrid hops variety of the same name. The beer is quite light in color and slightly hazy, with a foamy white head that dissipates quickly. The aroma is yeasty and lemony. The beer is crisp and bright, and finishes with a bit of spice and a lingering tartness that hangs in the back of the throat.
Reading of the week: Apology by Plato – Expected The Raven, didn’t you? Well that poem has already been used as a weekly reading, so although it is certainly worth rereading (which can be done here,) I picked Socrates’s cross-examination of Meletus for this week. Nearly two and a half millennia later, this portion of the Apology remains a masterclass in cross-examination.
Question for the week: In what contexts do you carefully frame questions to your advantage?
In my experience, people tend toward one of two extremes when analyzing the writings of the ancients (and, to varying degrees, those of other bygone eras.) The one extreme is to assume that the authors, as products of a primitive time, have nothing to offer. We are so much more enlightened now; all of the ancients must be regarded as quite ignorant. The other extreme is to ignore the faults of the ancients, or, if they cannot be ignored, to make every possible contortion to explain them away. The ancients could not err when it came to thinking because, as Homer’s heroes could single-handedly lift boulders that a dozen modern men could hardly budge, the philosophers of old possessed intellectual powers far beyond those of any modern genius.
Take, for example, the treatment of women by Aristotle and Plato. Our modern understanding of the differences between men and women is very much at odds with the apparent opinions of Aristotle and Socrates on the subject. What do we do in the face of these problematic ancient texts?
One approach is to throw out Aristotle and Plato entirely. Sexism is so embedded in their thought, some opine, that their writing can have no value in our modern world. Even as early as the 15th century, William Caxton wrote that “if [Plato] had made fault in writing of women, he ought not, ne should not, be believed in his other dictes and sayings.”* (As we will see shortly, Caxton does not actually find fault with Plato’s treatment of women.) Likewise, Aristotle was extremely wrong about the role of the female in sexual reproduction, so his philosophy on humans generally can’t be trusted. These “dead white men” are so out of touch with our modern knowledge and sensibilities that they can hardly be considered authoritative on any philosophical question.
(I pause to note that the bland dismissal of these thinkers as “dead white men” always amuses me. The ad hominem attack itself adopts the language of racism, implying that the value of the authors is somehow related to their skin color. At the same time, it ignores the fact that classifying Aristotle and Plato as “white” should certainly raise a few eyebrows.)
On the other side, there are those who would wave away the apparent sexism of the ancients. The easiest way to do that is to simply call them a product of their times and move on. But some offer more convoluted explanations in an effort to keep the ancients from ever being “wrong”. Caxton wrote, “I cannot think that so true a man and so noble a philosopher as [Plato] was should write otherwise than truth.” And because Plato must have been right, Caxton was forced to come up with a way to reconcile the apparently sexist writings of Plato with the more enlightened views of his own day. He did so by concluding that if Plato ever said anything derogatory about women, he was only speaking of Greek women. “For I wot well, of whatsoever condition women be in Greece, the women of [England] be right good, wise, pleasant, humble, discreet, sober, chaste, obedient to their husbands, true, secret, steadfast, ever busy, and never idle, attemperate in speaking, and virtuous in all their works—or at least should be so.” So if Plato says, for example, that teaching a woman to write is multiplying evil upon evil, that may true of ancient Greek women, not of modern English women.
A more modern defense of that same type is to find esoteric meanings that are different from the ancients’ explicit meanings. So when Aristotle, in Book I of his Politics, says that “silence is a woman’s ornament,” he actually means nothing of the sort. The line is actually a quotation from Sophocles’s play Ajax. In the play, Ajax has gone insane by the time he utters the line. Obviously, Aristotle would have been familiar both with the play and the context of the quotation. So when Aristotle says “silence is a woman’s ornament,” he is slyly hinting that only a mad man would actually believe what he is saying. See? Aristotle was never sexist in the first place!
As usual, I favor the course of moderation. We should neither discard the ancients (or any author, really) out of hand, nor should we engage in mental gymnastics to defend the position that any author is always right. There is untold value in studying our intellectual predecessors, but nothing is gained by accepting their writings uncritically.
Beer of the week: Furious IPA – This aggressively-hopped ale from Minnesota’s Surly Brewing Company pours with a nice fluffy head. The piney hops certainly dominate, but there is a good balance with caramel malt notes. The label says that this beer defies categorization, but the IPA label seems right to me.
Reading of the week: Hymn To Aphrodite by Sappho – Here’s a crazy idea: if you want to know the ancients’ views on women, how about reading the poetry of an ancient woman? This is the only complete poem that has survived from Greece’s greatest poetess.
Question for the week: Is there any extant writing older than, say, 1,000 years that is actually not worth studying? Is it possible that anything has survived that long without some serious merit?
*Caxton actually discusses the sayings of Socrates as if Socrates himself was the author of the Socratic dialogues. I have substituted Plato into the quotations to give Caxton the benefit of the doubt; surely he meant to discuss what Socrates said and what Plato wrote.
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?