This is the fifteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XV: Pilgrim’s Progress, Donne & Herbert, Bunyan, Walton
In his youth, the poet John Donne had a motto: “How much shall I be changed, before I am changed!” Of course, he was right. As the ancient saying goes, change is the only constant, and humans prove no exception to that rule. Even how we react to change changes over time.
“Variable, and therfore miserable condition of Man;” Donne writes in his Meditation I. He goes on to lament that despite our rigorous efforts to maintain our health, “a Sicknes unprevented for all our diligence, unsuspected for all our curiositie; nay, undeserved, if we consider only disorder, summons us, seizes us, possesses us, destroyes us in an instant.”
Yet, when Donne faced his terminal illness, he embraced the final change. Rather than the careful study of health by means of deliberation “upon [his] meats, and drink, and ayre, and exercises,” as described in Meditation I, Donne more or less abandoned such attempts to remain healthy and alive. He followed through on about half of the regimen prescribed by his doctor, but only did that much for the doctor’s sake. He swore that he would take no more medicine, even “upon the best moral assurance of having twenty years added to his life.”
But it is not very surprising to see a change from fearing death to embracing it. Especially in a man who experienced at various times deep depressions and religious ecstasies. One who went from being a penniless love poet to being a prominent Anglican preacher. How much he changed before he changed!
Beer of the week: Staropramen Premium- Some things do not seem to change. The Staropramen brand has been registered for over a hundred years, and brewing in what is now the Czech Republic has been going on for ten times that long. This is a classic Czech pilsner. It is clear and golden. The aroma is a bit of bread with a bit of those traditional hops. Like the smell, the taste is very well balanced between the malt and hops. This is, simply, an exemplar of the style.
Reading for the week: The Life of Dr. Donne by Izaak Walton – Izaak Walton is best known for The Compleat Angler, a meditation on the art of fishing. He also wrote some biography, primarily of fellow anglers, including his friend John Donne. This excerpt describes Donne’s preparation for his final change.
Question for the week: Like everything else, tastes change. How has your taste for beer changed since your first brew?
The question “why do bad things happen to good people?” is a classic of philosophy and theology. But rather than address that question head on, perhaps it is better to pursue a more practical inquiry. Once we accept the premise that “bad things happen to good people”, the practical question is “how should one deal with bad things happening?”
Obviously, there is no shortage of literature and philosophy that could shed light on this question. The Book of Job, Augustine’s Confessions, Epictetus’s Handbook all spring to mind, and those are just among the writings that have already been featured here. But time is short and my beer is getting warm, so I’ll limit myself to three examples of how calamity may be met:
When the title character of Robinson Crusoe found himself stranded on a desert island his reaction seems somewhat undignified. He relates:
“After I had got to shore and escaped drowning, instead of being thankful to God for my deliverance, having first vomited, with the great quantity of saltwater which had got into my stomach, and recovering myself a little, I ran about the shore wringing my hands and beating my head and face, exclaiming at my misery, and crying out, ‘I was undone, undone!’ till, tired and faint, I was forced to lie down on the ground to repose, but durst not sleep for fear of being devoured.”
But eventually, Crusoe was able to turn his mind and energies toward practical work. He collected necessary goods from among the shipwreck, including books, paper, and ink. He also set about constructing a habitation complete with shelves and furniture. Only after he had taken care of the immediate bodily concerns of his predicament could he turn to contemplation and religion. It looks like dedicating one’s energy to the labor of surviving is the key to bridging the gap between despair and contemplation. One can’t properly reflect while still in a panic, so Crusoe must settle himself down by establishing his settlement.
But what happens when there is no labor to be performed? What if all work is already accomplished or if all work is futile? This is the condition of Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius was imprisoned by Theodoric the Great on a charge of treason. Realizing that his situation was inexorable, he fell to weeping. Like Crusoe, Boethius was initially consumed by despair. But unlike Crusoe, Boethius had no practical labor to turn his mind from his grief. But he did have a pen and ink. Even without the bridge of practical work, Boethius was able to direct his mind to philosophy. In a prison cell, sure that he would lose his life shortly, he produced what proved to be one of the most influential philosophical works the in world. Boethius was able to move directly from despair to contemplation, without needing some labor to take his mind off of his predicament.
And finally, for those who have neither the practical skills of Crusoe, nor the intellectual powers of Boethius, one can always take the Baudelaire approach to dealing with the inevitable calamities of life: Get Drunk.
Beer of the week: Staropramen Unfiltered (Nefiltrovaný) – This unfiltered wheat beer is quite a treat. Unlike many wheat beers, this one has a strong aroma of floral hops. The beer itself is very cloudy and the remaining yeast provides some extra texture and spice. Although it is sweet, with hints of fruit, the hops and coriander provide a finish that really balances the sweetness.
Reading for the week: The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, Book I, Sections 2 &3 – Last week’s claim that Chaucer was a profound thinker is somewhat bolstered by the fact that Chaucer translated The Consolation of Philosophy from Latin. It was, in Chaucer’s day, perhaps the single most popular philosophical work.
Question for the week: What do you do when bad things happen?