Donne and Done

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?


When things go wrong…

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.

Staropramen Nefiltrovany


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?

On Esoterism

Descartes chose Latin as the language for his Meditations on First Philosophy, in which he famously strips philosophy bare and restarts with the single principle “I think, therefore I am.” He made that decision because he “thought it would not be expedient to illustrate [his philosophy] at greater length in French, and in a discourse that might be read by all, lest even the more feeble minds should believe that this path might be entered upon by them.” His fear, apparently, was that he may lead weaker men into error by giving them access to ideas they could not quite grasp and methods that they could not follow.

This is somewhat reminiscent of Romans 14Paul makes it clear that there is no food that is “spiritually unclean”. But he also exhorts believers not to flaunt that knowledge in front of people who are weaker spiritually, lest they should misunderstand and stumble in their faith. Like Descartes, Paul seems to think that some people are more likely to be led into error than to a higher truth, so it is best to hide certain ideas from them. In a way, this seems terribly patronizing. If it is correct, however, it is extremely prescient and even charitable.

A more skeptical interpretation of Descartes’ decision not to make his work widely available might be to suggest that he was interested in protecting himself rather than protecting “feeble minds”. If his work were read in a certain way, he may have greatly offended the powers that be (either by upsetting individuals of status or by earning the disdain of the masses.) There are certainly times when it is dangerous to speak the truth, and the truth is often more dangerous to the speaker than to the people at large.

Luckily, I am not in the same position since I am sure that my readers are far from feeble-minded.

Beer of the Week: Staropramen – This Czech pilsner begins with spicy aromatic hops that are so typical of the style. There is a bit of bready malt in the flavor, but in general it is the hops that dominate. That is not to say that it is very bitter, it is actually very well rounded. Overall, this beer is very nice.

Reading of the week: Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes, Preface to the Reader – For as well known as the principle “I think, therefore I am” is, it is often forgotten that the next step of Descartes’ philosophy is to demonstrate that God also exists. Not, perhaps, the God that we are used to, but a “Deity… incomprehensible and infinite.”

Question of the week: Do you often refrain from saying what you really think? If so, do you do it for your own sake or for the sake of others?