Fitting the Crime

This is the twenty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXVI: Continental Drama

What do John Wilkes Booth, Marcus Junius Brutus, and William Tell have in common? That question would hardly need answering if not for the fact that so many people only remember William Tell for shooting an apple off of his son’s head. Aside from that spectacular display of marksmanship, Tell’s truly remarkable act was the assassination Hermann Gessler, the Austrian governor in Switzerland. And like every other political assassin, Tell had his reasons.

In Friedrich Schiller’s dramatization of the Tell legend, Gessler is a cruel despot. The law that drives the plot of the story is one which makes it a capital offense not to kneel before Gessler’s hat, hung upon a pole. It is the enforcement of this draconian rule that brings Gessler and Tell into conflict.

By the way, the word “draconian”, like so many other words, enjoys popular usage without its origin being generally well-known. Draco was a legislator, but not a tyrant. Just about 2,600 years ago, he promulgated the first written legal code for the city of Athens. And the Draconian Code was a doozy.

According to Plutarch, “Draco’s laws… were too severe, and the punishment[s] too great; for death was appointed for almost all offences, insomuch that those that were convicted of idleness were to die, and those that stole a cabbage or an apple to suffer even as villains that committed sacrilege or murder. So that Demades, in after time, was thought to have said very happily, that Draco’s laws were written not with ink but blood; and he himself, being once asked why be made death the punishment of most offences, replied, ‘Small ones deserve that, and I have no higher for the greater crimes.'”

Anyway, Gessler was cruel, particularly in his treatment of fathers. For failing to kneel to a hat, Tell was forced to choose between execution and shooting an apple off of his son’s head. Another father was blinded for not informing on his son. It’s clear that to Schiller and the Swiss who regard Tell as a hero, one’s allegiance to family is far more important than one’s allegiance to civil authority. A hierarchy of values that Gessler, like most civil authorities, resented.

Beer of the week: Wolters Pilsner – Tell was Swiss and his son was called Walter. This beer is German and is called Wolters. Close enough? I want to like Wolters more. The brand was acquired by the international beer behemoth InBev a while back, but has since become independent once again. Unfortunately they make a pretty average German pils. It is pale gold, with a quickly fading head of large bubbles. The aroma is faint, and primarily of malt. Nothing special. Also, it’s been a while since I complained about the “German Purity Law” as a marketing gimmick, but this beer is another offender. “Hops extract” was almost certainly not invented yet when the Reinheitsgrebot was enacted, yet it is an ingredient in this beer that is purportedly “brewed in strict accordance to the German Purity Law.” (Which, by the way, is not draconian, because it is not enforced at all.)

Reading of the week: William Tell by Friedrich Schiller, Act One, Scene One – Although Gessler is clearly the villain of the play, the Swiss may have driven him to his cruelty. The first act of defiance by Tell is helping the murderer of a government official escape justice. (To be fair, we learn that the murder was committed in response to “unseemly overtures” the official had made to the killers wife, which lends further support to the reading that the real moral of the play is to prioritize familial loyalty over obedience to civil authority.) But everybody that the murderer encounters in this scene approves of the killing and is willing to aid him in making his escape. Gessler must rule with an iron fist if the people will not even consent to the prosecution of an axe murderer. (Did I mention that the murder was committed by cleaving the official’s skull with an axe?)

Question of the week: Criminal penalties generally serve four purposes: rehabilitation, retaliation, prevention (preventing the offender from offending again by being incarcerated, incapacitated, or dead), deterrence (setting an example to deter others from offending.) How does one even begin to balance those objectives?

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Who’s The Best?

This is the twelfth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XII: Plutarch’s Lives

For this blog, I have reviewed beers from around the globe. I’ve reviewed brews from the traditional European powerhouses of Germany, Czech Republic, and Belgium. I’ve had my share of beers from the far-eastern nations of South Korea, Japan, China, and Taiwan. From the western hemisphere, I’ve reviewed beers from Chile, Brazil, and Peru in the south and from the Great White North.

And when somebody asks me what I think the best beer nation is, I answer without hesitation: the US of A. Some other nations have more illustrious brewing histories. Others consume more beer per capita. But nobody produces a greater variety of quality beers than the US.

Once, I attended an “international food festival” in Seoul, Korea. A local friend of mine, on seeing the wide range of options said, “Of course there’s no American tent.” Har, har, har. American’s don’t have any national cuisine, and if they did, it’d be bad. “No,” I replied, “but in America, we don’t need to have an international food festival to have diverse options. In the States, you can get all of these cuisines all year round.”

The same is true of our beer. Even without considering the handful of distinctly American styles, it is worth noting that brewers across the country are constantly working on their versions of Belgian Doubles, Russian Imperials, and India Pale Ales. And with a country with such a wide range of climates and geographies, it is not surprising at all that some American grains and hops should be every bit as good as those grown anywhere else in the world.

Sure, the most popular American beers by volume are bland swill from huge international conglomerates. But some of the beer brewed by the big guys is actually rather good. And the sheer quantity of quality options available from smaller brewers is staggering. There are bad American beers and there are excellent American beers. The same is true of almost every nation. Ultimately, what matters far more than a beer’s origin is its quality.

Beer of the week: Presidente Pilsener – This beer is a product of Cervecería Nacional Dominicana in the Dominican Republic; country 41 by my count. It pours gold with white, sticky foam. It has a standard adjunct aroma. The flavor is mostly of cheap grain, with plenty of carbonation. Presidente is refreshing, but not exceptional. It is a basic macro lager.

Reading of the week: The Life of Demosthenes by Plutarch – Plutarch tells us that he was from a small town and saw that as no obstacle to happiness or greatness. At least no obstacle to greatness of character. While it is difficult for those from obscure origins to attain substantial wealth or honor, virtue may well thrive in such places.

Question for the week: What nations would you rank as the 5 best beer nations?


Humility

This is the last post in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

HUMILITY:  Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
-Franklin

When I first read Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger, it was paired with his Life of Julius Caesar. This juxtaposition seemed very favorable to Cato. Caesar, a second-rate Alexander and enemy of the Republic vs. Cato, virtue personified and defender of Rome. But a close look at Plutarch’s treatment of Cato makes it clear that the great biographer did not mean for Cato to be taken as the paragon of virtue.

The most pronounced inconsistency of virtue in Cato is his supposed humility. Plutarch shows that below this professed humility was a profound vanity. Cato repudiated his fellow senators for their ostentatious dress. But rather than wearing very plain and modest clothing, Cato wore a black toga that was calculated to stand out more than the even the most luxurious dress of his colleagues. He also made a point of not wearing underwear and sitting with his legs spread apart as if he did not already draw enough attention to himself.

Cato’s vanity is most visible in his visit to Antioch. He arrived to find “a great multitude of people outside the gates, ranged in order on either side the way; here the young men with long cloaks, there the children decently dressed; others wore garlands and white garments, who were the priests and magistrates.” Cato was incensed that the people should have such a grand ceremony in honor of his arrival. Of course, the extravagant greeting was not for him at all; the people were arranged to welcome a dignitary from Pompey. Cato himself, it seems, is the only person who had even thought of holding a parade in his honor. And this accidental admission gave the lie to his professed humility.

And finally, make sure that the audience sees what a hypocrite and poseur Cato was, Plutarch presents his suicide as a farce. Before the deed, Cato reads Phaedo twice. In that dialogue by Plato, Socrates calmly (some Roman philosophers would have argued “stoically”) accepted his fate and drank his poison. After reading this edifying tract on how to die with dignity, what did Cato do? He lost his temper and punched a slave in the mouth, badly injuring his own hand. When the time came to pull the proverbial trigger, Cato was unable to dispatch himself cleanly because he had trouble stabbing himself with his broken hand. He was forced, ultimately, to dig out his bowels with his bare hands. So much for imitating Socrates in his stoic and dignified death.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beer of the week: Černá Hora Sklepní – This is Černá Hora’s “Cellar style” lager. It is an unfiltered, and therefore slightly cloudy, golden beer. The aroma is bready and the flavor follows closely. Because it is unfiltered, the beer has a bit more flavor than many Czech beers. There is a hint of spice and of apricot and there is just enough hops in the finish to round it out. Overall, this is a pretty good beer.

Reading for the week: The Life of Cato the Younger by Plutarch – A fitting reading would be the section about how Cato loved to drink wine all night and discourse about philosophy. But the suicide scene, presented here, is more on point.

Question for the week: It is probable that this post overstates Plutarch’s intent to show up Cato. For one thing, Plutarch explicitly states that the wearing of black was not out of vainglory. And he also says that Cato afterwards would laugh often at his misunderstanding at Antioch. But can the suicide scene be read any other way than as a farce?


An Excellent Piper

Can you sprint through the first several levels of Super Mario Bros.? Can you throw a ping pong ball behind your back and into a cup at the far end of a table? Can you play “Tom Sawyer” on Rock Band without looking at the screen? Can you… play a real musical instrument?

Some skills that require a significant amount of practice seem pretty worthless in the long-run. Some of them may be even worse than worthless since every hour spent playing video games or sports or music is an hour not spent on something more valuable.

“He who busies himself in mean occupations produces, in the very pains he takes about things of little or no use, an evidence against himself of his negligence and indisposition to what is really good.” What Plutarch means is that we have a duty to ourselves to direct our energy toward those activities that are truly improving.

It is important, however, not to be too dismissive. Plutarch suggests that the dedicated study of music, for example, is frivolous. He tells us that an excellent pipe player must be “but a wretched human being, otherwise he would not have been an excellent piper.” I disagree.

Music is a valuable and even essential component of a well-rounded education. And beyond a casual acquaintance with the principles of music and a passing familiarity with some of the greatest composers, the actual playing of music does a great deal of good. Practicing music improves discipline, requires focus and determination, and helps instill an appreciation for order and harmony that transcends music itself. It is true that an excellent piper may be a wretched human being, but it is certainly not a foregone conclusion.

Less obviously, other seemingly frivolous pursuits may likewise have value beyond their evident scope. Video games improve coordination and problem solving skills. Sports improve physical health and social relations. The key, it seems, is not to disregard these pursuits entirely, but to remember always that they are not undertaken for their own sake. Everything we do should be done with an eye toward self-improvement. And if we are improved by something that we enjoy, all the better.

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Beer of the Week: Bernard Černý – Becoming an excellent brewer, for example, is clearly not a “mean occupation”. Bernard is a family-owned Czech brewery. Their dark lager has an exceptionally full flavor. The dark roasted malt gives this beer hints of chocolate covered espresso beans. The smooth brew ends with a pleasant bitterness that really rounds out the flavor nicely. This is one of the best Czech beers I have had.

Reading for the Week: The Life of Pericles by Plutarch – Plutarch starts this book with a story about Caesar rebuking people for fawning over puppies and baby monkeys. It would be much better if that sort of affection were shown to other human beings, rather than being wasted on beasts.

Question for the Week: It is easy to spend too much time on video games or even music and neglect other improving studies. Is their any pursuit for which any time spent is too much?