Gods and Devils

This is the forty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLVI: Elizabethan Drama 1

Part of the problem of deifying or vilifying political leaders is that each approach dehumanizes its subjects. History’s greatest and most powerful men were, after all, only human. None were gods; none were devils. To think of them as anything but human is misleading and dangerous.

The classic example is Hitler. He was a bad guy, to say the least. But to think of him as evil incarnate or some other non-human abstraction is particularly dangerous because it creates the false impression that such a man could not come to power again. By ignoring Hitler’s humanity, we lower our guard against the next Hitler, and perhaps inadvertently foster the conditions under which such a person may come to be.

For the same reasons, it is dangerous to deify leaders that we like. No matter who your favorite political figure is, that person is, underneath it all, an ordinary person. And like everybody else, that person is subject to passions, temptations, and personal flaws. And when a political hero is a living person, there is the dangerous temptation to grant them unlimited power on the assumption that they can and will wield it with superhuman competency and trustworthiness.

Beer of the week: Smithwicks Red Ale – When the nobles pressured Edward II of England to exile his favorite, Gaveston, he made him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. This red-brown ale comes from that very island. It has an aroma of toasted malt. The flavor is nicely balanced between that toasted malt and a bit of hops bitterness.

Reading of the week: Edward the Second by Christopher Marlowe – This scene shows Edward II of England as neither saint nor devil. He is misled by ambitious underlings and lets his affection for his favorites interfere with his decision-making. But that does not render him totally incompetent. The rebellion that ultimately leads to his downfall is a back-and-forth affair; at one point Edward captures and executes several of the leading nobles, nearly ending the revolt.

Question for the week: What is the best defense against the worst people coming to power?


Shakespeares Anonymous

This is the thirty-third in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXIII: Voyages and Travels

If you are looking to stir up a bit of controversy without recourse to politics or family secrets, casually opine that William Shakespeare was no more than an actor and frontman, and that the plays attributed to him were clearly the work of someone else. The Shakespeare authorship question provides plenty of grounds for argument. More likely than not, you’ll find that your interlocutors are firm believers that Shakespeare actually authored Shakespeare, but even if they are open to the possibility of a non-Stratfordian author, you can still disagree on who, exactly, did write Shakespeare.

The basics of the authorship question are as follows: The actor William Shakespeare’s education is quite suspect. His parents both signed with a mark instead of writing their names, suggesting that they were illiterate. (Keep in mind that literacy was not nearly so universal at the turn of the 17th century.) There is no record of his attending school, including a surprising lack of claims by his teachers or classmates. The 6 surviving authenticated signatures of Shakespeare are exhibit such poor penmanship that they do little to convince that he was a prolific writer.

While Shakespeare’s own background was fairly obscure, his plays dealt with a number of topics that would seemingly be beyond his ken. Many of the plays exhibit a familiarity with royal courts and exotic locales. William Shakespeare, however, would have no firsthand knowledge of either. The plays also contain accurate details of sailing and travel, though Shakespeare himself is not known to have left England. Similarly, he wrote with some familiarity on legal procedure and thought, although there is no evidence that he had any contact with any courts of law until a minor lawsuit late in life.

And if William Shakespeare was merely an actor and a frontman for an author who needed to remain anonymous, who actually wrote the plays? Many, many alternative authors have been proposed throughout the years. A few of them seem plausible.

The Oxfordian Theory:

Seemingly the most popular candidate is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Oxford was a patron of the theater and was known to be a poet and playwright. His time at court and in Italy provided him with the knowledge needed to write plays set in such locales; knowledge William Shakespeare would not have had. Oxford had to publish his plays under a pseudonym because it would be unseemly for somebody of his high birth to write for the common stage. Or, even better, he had an affair with Queen Elizabeth and for some reason that made it even more important that he not publish under his own name.

The Baconian Theory:

Bacon is the classic alternative to Shakespeare. Francis Bacon served as Lord Chancellor, the highest court official in England. He had the legal and political background to write competently and realistically about courts royal and legal. He also was familiar with codes and cyphers, which makes it extremely tempting to search for hidden meanings in everything he wrote.

Adherents of the Baconian theory included Friedrich Nietzsche and Mark Twain. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche wrote, “to make a confession; I feel instinctively certain and convinced that Lord Bacon is the originator, the self-torturer, of this most sinister kind of literature (Hamlet)… We do not know half enough about Lord Bacon—the first realist in all the highest acceptation of this word—to be sure of everything he did, everything he willed, and everything he experienced in his inmost soul…. Let the critics go to hell! Suppose I had christened my Zarathustra with a name not my own,—let us say with Richard Wagner’s name,—the acumen of two thousand years would not have sufficed to guess that the author of Human, all-too-Human was the visionary of Zarathustra.” Mark Twain was less certain than Nietzsche: “I only believed Bacon wrote Shakespeare, whereas I knew Shakespeare didn’t.” Percy Shelley, perhaps unintentionally, lends some weight to the conclusion that Bacon was the Bard. In Shelley’s opinion, Bacon was the most sublime writer since Plato. “Lord Bacon was a poet,” Shelley wrote in his Defense of Poetry. “His language has a sweet and majestic rhythm, which satisfies the sense, no less than the almost superhuman wisdom of his philosophy satisfies the intellect; it is a strain which distends, and then bursts the circumference of the reader’s mind, and pours itself forth together with it into the universal element with which it has perpetual sympathy.”

The Marlovian Theory

Christopher “Kit” Marlow was a successful poet and playwright, born only two months before Shakespeare. But he was also allegedly an athiest. At the height of his powers, and soon to face capital charges of heresy, Marlow allegedly died on May 30, 1593. Within a fortnight, Shakespeare’s first publication, Venus and Adonis, went on sale. What if Marlow faked his death and had Shakespeare publish his works under his own name? By faking is death, Marlow was able to avoid the headsman and continue writing.

The Group Theories

One of the problems with most of the theories is timing. For example, the Earl of Oxford died several years before the last Shakespeare plays were published. And although Walter Raleigh was born before and died after William Shakespeare, he spent so much time traveling, fighting, and imprisoned that it is hard to make sense of a timeline where he also wrote all of Shakespeare’s corpus. Enter the group theories. By attributing Shakespeare to a group or cabal, one eliminates the timing problems, accounts for some of the unevenness of quality in Shakespeare’s writing, explains the tremendous vocabulary in the plays, and responds to the objection that no one author could produce so much excellent work.

Nobody knows for sure who wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare. The academic consensus is clearly in favor of William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. But that explanation is boring. It is more fun to think of Shakespeare as a centuries-old mystery, and to stay on the lookout for clues and messages hidden in “his” work.

Beer of the week: Corona Familiar – When Homer Simpson visited the Duff brewery he learned that Duff, Duff Lite, and Duff Dry were all bottled from the same line. For a while, it was rumored that that joke was a reality for the makers of Corona. Allegedly, Corona Familiar was simply Corona Extra in a 32 oz. bottle. However, as Constellation Brands has rolled out Corona Familiar in more markets and in new 12 oz. bottles, it is now clear that it is a different beer than Corona Extra. It is clear gold, and plenty carbonated. There is some malt in the aroma and the flavor is a bit fuller in both hops and malt than Corona Extra. Familiar is a serviceable but unremarkable lager.

Reading of the week: The Discovery of Guiana by Sir Walter Raleigh – As mentioned above, Raleigh is one of the proposed authors of some or all of Shakespeare. This prose account of the discovery of the mythical city of El Dorado does little to confirm that claim. It is an interesting story, including an account of natives covering themselves with gold dust “from the foot to the head” and then drinking for a week straight, but it does not have any of the irrepressible beauty that Shelley saw in Bacon.

Question for the week: What is your favorite controversial/heterodox position?


Origin Story

One of my most vocal critics recently commented about this blog, “It’s not like you write anything original; you just rehash the ideas of classical authors.” For the most part, I agree. Even the original poetry that I’ve posted here is absolutely packed with classical references.

But my critic’s observation is, itself, unoriginal. Virtually nothing is wholly original.

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” – Issac Newton

“A thought is often original, though you have uttered it a hundred times.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

“When Shakespeare is charged with debts to his authors, Landor replies, ‘Yet he was more original than his originals. He breathed upon dead bodies and brought them into life.'” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoting Walter Savage Landor, discussing William Shakespeare

“As the ancients
Say wisely, have a care o’ th’ main chance,
And look before you ere you leap;
For as you sow, ye are like to reap.” – Samuel Butler, paraphrasing John Lyly, John Heywood, and St. Paul

“[The] borrowing and refurbishing of shop-worn goods, as a matter of fact, is the invariable habit of traders in ideas, at all times and everywhere. . . .  At the moment of the contemporary metaphysician’s loftiest flight, when he is most gratefully warmed by the feeling that he is far above all the  ordinary airlanes and has absolutely novel concept by the tail, he is suddenly pulled up by the discovery that what is entertaining him is simply the ghost of some ancient idea that his school-master forced into him in 1887, or the mouldering corpse of a doctrine that was made official in his country during the late war, or a sort of fermentation-product, to mix the figure, of a banal heresy launched upon him recently by his wife.” – H. L. Mencken

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Beer of the week: Bavaria Premium – This beer is fairly unoriginal. The name clearly meant to evoke thoughts of the great beer-producing region of Southeast Germany, despite the fact that this beer is from Holland. Similarities in the packaging and price of this beer led me to speculate that Bavaria is a product of the same brewery that gave us Hollandia. A quick search indicates that my hunch was correct. Bavaria is a golden pils with little head retention or aroma. There is a malty sweetness that has a hint of honey. For the price, it is not a bad choice, though I prefer a bit more hops in my lagers.

Reading of the week: In Defense of Women by H.L. Mencken –  The introduction to this book is typical Mencken: plenty of wit and cynicism, and, ultimately, a good deal of sense. “If I knew what was true, I’d probably be willing to sweat and strive for it, and maybe even to die for it to the tune of bugle-blasts. But so far I have not found it.”

Question of the week: Many argue that the word “unique” does not admit of degrees; something either is or is not unique. Is the same true of “original”? Can something be “slightly” or “very” original?


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?


Useless Joy

In his Shah Nameh (The Book of Kings), the great Persian poet Ferdowsi starts the tragedy of the mighty paladin Rustem and his son Sohráb with a warning against reveling in youth:

“O ye, who dwell in Youth’s inviting bowers,
Waste not, in useless joy, your fleeting hours,
But rather let the tears of sorrow roll,
And sad reflection fill the conscious soul.
For many a jocund spring has passed away,
And many a flower has blossomed, to decay;
And human life, still hastening to a close,
Finds in the worthless dust its last repose.”

This sentiment is reminiscent of several of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It seems that Shakespeare often went on about the end of youth and the ravages of time. Sonnet #12 comes to mind, where Shakespeare writes:

“Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;”

Although it is important to confront our mortality it is equally important to carry on with the business of living. Ferdowsi says “Waste not, in useless joy, your fleeting hours.” But can that be serious advice? Is joy ever truly useless? And if joy is occasionally useless, isn’t youth the most appropriate time for such useless joy? It seems likely that “tears of sorrow” and “sad reflection” are much more useless than joy, especially if we are quickly returning to “worthless dust.” There is time enough for sadness when we are dying or dead; joy in our youth ought to be encouraged.

Sir Dunkle

Beer of the week: Berghoff Sir Dunkle – This is a Munich-style dark lager that pours a deep red-brown. The aroma is of dark, ripe fruit. The flavor is mostly dark bread, with a surprisingly full body for a lager. Overall, a very good beer.

Reading of the week: Shah Nameh by Ferdowsi – At the end of Sonnet #12 Shakespeare suggests procreation as a remedy against mortality. But for Ferdowsi, even procreation is futile in the grand scheme. Of course, that might have something to do with the subject matter of the story he is telling. This reading is the beginning of a a tragic tale in which a man unwittingly kills his own son.

Question of the week: How can one strike the proper balance between joy and sad reflection?


Selective Reading

I have heard, and it is almost certainly true, that more new books are published every year than one could conceivably read in an entire lifetime. The same is probably true of blog posts. So cheers to you for spending some of your limited reading time on this blog. It is downright humbling to think about.

“Classics” make up the bulk of my (and consequently, this blog’s) reading. This is in no small part because the status of a work helps to single it out from the ever-growing piles of books out there. To be sure, there are some books that are regarded as classics but are not to my taste. But at least it’s a starting point. Because time is limited and the number of things to read never stops growing, we need help in deciding what to read.

Reader’s Digest has a bad reputation among many well-read folks, but I am not sure that it is well deserved. Obviously, it is somewhat unfair to an artist to publish his work abridged. We must presume that every word in a book was chosen with care, and any alteration changes the whole work. But as discussed above, there simply is not enough time in the day to read everything. So if a skillful editor can present us with a great book cut down to a manageable length, it may certainly be better than not reading any of it. Of course, it has to be done well, but that is why it is fair to say that editing is its own art. Like a translator, the editor is tasked with modifying the original work to make it accessible to his audience. In general, that probably means changing as little as possible. But it takes a very delicate touch to maintain the artist’s vision while still making the work manageable for the reader.

In his essay Of Studies, Francis Bacon writes that “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others…” So there is a time and place for reading extracts or abridgments, just as there is a time and place for deep and thorough study.

The weekly reading on this blog is usually a small section of a longer work, taken out of context. There is usually a link to the complete text, but the advanced webpage statistics indicate that almost nobody clicks on those. Still, I think that this is a necessary way to get across certain ideas. Surely it is better to read a scene from a Shakespeare play or a canto by Pope than none at all. So I acknowledge that this blog does some harm to the original works by presenting only excerpts. But I think that consideration is far outweighed by the value of having short, curated samples available for people with limited time. At least that’s the hope.

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Beer of the week: Kozel Černý – Kozel is a very prominent Czech brand. This offering is their dark Munich-style lager. The head is foamy and quick to dissipate. The aroma is of sweet, dark roasted malt. Notes of caramel dominate the flavor. I would like a bit more hops to balance the sweetness. Nevertheless, Kozel Černý would be my go-to Czech beer.

Reading for the week: New Atlantis by Francis Bacon – Although Of Studies is cited above, that (entire) essay has already been a reading on this blog. A selection from New Atlantis seemed more appropriate, since it would be an excerpt from an unfinished work.

Question for the week: The quotation from Of Studies seems to indicate that each book in itself is worthy of close study, skimming, etc. But my conclusion is that how a book should be read has more to do with the time and interest of the reader than about the book itself. Which is more accurate?


My Kingdom for a King

As repugnant as many Americans find the idea of monarchy, there are some arguments to be made in favor that particular form of government:

  1. A monarch has a vested interest in the continuing stability of his country. If he may be on the throne for several decades and then pass the crown to his son, there is a lot of incentive for a king to plan for the long-term. Compare this to an elected politician, who is either subject to term-limits or must always have an eye on the polls for the next election. Once he reaches his term-limit, he is at liberty to steal as much as he can and let the next office-holder take the blame. If there is no term-limit or if he has not yet reached it, the elected politician has a lot of incentive to prioritize short-term results lest he be ousted at the next election. Fiscal responsibility, therefore, seems much more likely to exist in a monarchy than in a republic.
  2. A monarch may act as a very effective check on popular government. Because he has no fear of being removed when the people go to the polls, a king may safely attempt to stand in the way of a popular faction that would inappropriately impose itself on others. Emperor Franz Joseph supposedly claimed that his role as monarch was “to protect my peoples from their governments.” Alcohol prohibition in America is a great example of how a dedicated faction can overrun all official opposition with the threat of the ballot box. The result is often gross incursions of the government into private affairs.
  3. A monarch also serves as a unifying principle. Like the flag, the crown is a non-partisan symbol of national unity. To be sure, not every monarch is universally loved. But it is possible for an American president to be elected by a relatively small fraction of the population. (Bush the Second got some 50 million votes in 2000, and the total population of the USA at that time was well over 280 million.) And elections are almost always very decisive. As a result, it is uncommon for Americans generally to “rally behind” their elected officials the same way royal subjects may rally behind their king.

These arguments are certainly somewhat compelling. In particular, the independence of the monarch from popular whims and contentious factions is an attractive feature of the system. History, however, tells us that people are not always better off under a king than under a republic, (or under a rightful king rather than a usurper.) The customary means by which one ascends to the throne is birthright, but not every child of a king is fit to wear the crown. In Meno, Socrates antagonizes Anytus, one of the men who would eventually accused him of corrupting the youth of Athens, by listing great men who had inferior progeny; if Themistocles, Pericles, or Thucydides did not have sons who lived up to their fathers’ reputations, why should we expect great kings to fare any better? And if the notion of birthright is abandoned on these grounds, what is left of monarchy?

Beer of the week: Arthur – Speaking of progeny, Arthur has a family connection. This farmhouse ale is not named for King Arthur, but for one of the brewers’ uncles who grew up on the farm that gives Hill Farmstead Brewery its name. It pours a cloudy straw color with lots of big, white bubbles. The aroma is of yeast and tart grapes or white wine. The finish is more sour than expected, with lots of lemon, white grape, and earthy yeast flavor. I really enjoyed this Vermont treat.

Reading of the week: The Tragedy of Richard II by William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene 2 – When King Richard returns from Ireland, he finds that some of his supporters are fled, others dead, but most have gone over to the usurper, Henry of Bolingbroke. Richard flashes from hope to despair and back (and back again) in this scene. Two of his speeches are of particular interest to me. In the first, Richard enlists nature itself to preserve his monarchy by setting spiders and vipers and toads in Bolingbroke’s way. In his later speech, however, he acknowledges that there is nothing about the nature of kings that separates them from other men: “For you have but mistook me all this while: I live with bread like you, feel want, Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, How can you say to me, I am a king?”

Question of the week: Are the above arguments for monarchy really compelling? And if so, how can the problem of unfit heirs be remedied adequately to justify a monarchy?