This is the thirty-ninth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXIX: Prefaces and Prologues
This Sunday marks the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War One. Even during the war, it was known as “the war to end war.” (An expression that may have been coined by H. G. Wells.) So high were the human and economic costs that it was almost inconceivable that humans could ever again resort to war.
It was not mere naïveté that led people to hope World War One would be the end of all war; such hopes have existed throughout human history. In the late fifteenth century, William Caxton wrote that even the ancient Trojan War “may be example to all men during the world how dreadful and jeopardous it is to begin a war and what harms, losses, and death followeth.” And occasionally, people have invented new weapons, such as the Gatling gun or the atomic bomb, that are so devastating that further wars appear unthinkably terrible.
But with a century of hindsight, we know well the World War One did not end all war. It was barely twenty years before a Second World War was underway. In fact, it was less than twenty years, if one takes into account the Japanese invasion of China.
Nearly every year since then, the United States, far and away the greatest military power of all time, has been at war. The most recent American war in Afghanistan is approaching the end of its second decade. (There are some who argue that the United States has not been at war since the Korean War because Congress has not made a declaration of war since then. This argument elevates form over substance. The actions of the United States in Vietnam, Iraq, Panama, etc. were unquestionably acts of war.) As far as I can tell, the most recent year that the United States was not at war was 2000. That means that by next year, there will be eligible voters who have lived their entire lives during wartime. Maybe they’ll somehow have the sense to vote for candidates who want peace. (If such a thing exists.)
Even with centuries and millennia of examples of how dreadful war is, it persists. But it is not unreasonable to hope, pray, and, most importantly, strive for peace. So this weekend, raise a glass and drink to peace in our time.
Beer of the week: Balashi Pilsner- Even the tiny island of Aruba has not been totally isolated from war. During World War Two, German and Italian submarines torpedoed oil tankers anchored there. Over 50 sailors lost their lives as the submarines sunk six tankers and damaged two others. There we’re a couple of German casualties as well, the result of a deck gun exploding due to user error. But for the most part, Aruba has been a peaceful place to have a beer. Balashi Pilsner has a faint but pleasantly malty aroma. Although it is a fairly light beer, it is well-balanced. Frankly, Balashi is better than one might expect from the tropics.
Reading of the week: William Caxton’s Prologue to Book I and Epilogues to Books II and III of The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy – Caxton, the first commercial printer in England, translated many of the books that he published. His own writings are primarily prefaces.
Question for the week: For all its myriad evils, some maintain that war has social value. (Including, perhaps, population control, technological advancement, or economic stimulus.) What is war’s most redeeming value?
“What was I thinking?”
That rhetorical question is often used to express dismay at a lack of foresight e.g. “A while back, I passed on a chance to buy a Bitcoin at $400; what was I thinking?” Sometimes it goes to absentmindedness e.g. “I peeled a banana and accidentally threw away the banana and went to take a bite of the peel; what was I thinking?” But in both of these cases, the question is purely rhetorical because it is pretty easy to determine the thought process involved. In the Bitcoin example, the person presumably thought about the risks and advantages of buying a Bitcoin and determined that the potential upside was not worth the $400 risk. In the banana example, the person was clearly thinking about something totally unrelated to the task at hand, and mere distraction caused the errant movements.
There are times, however, when the question “what was I thinking?” is more than rhetorical, times when one honestly does not understand his own motivations. Every once in a while, we each do something that we are later unable to explain. It is occasionally impossible to determine what thought process or motivations led to the decisions made.
There appear to be multiple potential causes for such internal confusion. For one thing, not understanding one’s own motivation may be a simple failure to carefully self-evaluate. For another, there may be pre-rational motivations that get overlooked in the search for a rational explanation, such as instinct or something like it. But most likely, it seems, is the likelihood that the decision in question is the product of a great many thoughts and motivations, possibly even at odds with each other. The complicated interplay between our various desires, instincts, goals, etc. may simply be so convoluted that we are unable to untangle (or even recognize) them all.
In The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela, the motivations of the belligerents during the Mexican Revolution are explored. A rebel leader called Demetrio tells about the time that he got drunk and spit in the face of a local political boss, Señor Monico. As a result, Monico brought “the whole God-damned Federal Government” down on Demetrio, who narrowly escaped into the hills. Demetrio asserts that all he wants is “to be let alone so [he] can go home.”
His interlocutor, however, sees more in Demetrio’s motivations than Demetrio sees himself:
“It is not true that you took up arms simply because of Señor Monico. You are under arms to protest against the evils of all the caciques who are overrunning the whole nation. We are the elements of a social movement which will not rest until it has enlarged the destinies of our motherland. We are the tools Destiny makes use of to reclaim the sacred rights of the people. We are not fighting to dethrone a miserable murderer, we are fighting against tyranny itself. What moves us is what men call ideals; our action is what men call fighting for a principle. A principle! That’s why Villa and Natera and Carranza are fighting; that’s why we, every man of us, are fighting.”
This speech certainly works on Demetrio’s men, who emphatically embrace this noble characterization of their motivations despite the manifestly ignoble acts of plunder, rape, and murder in which they engage. But Demetrio’s reaction to this impassioned speech is more subdued; he orders more beer.
Beer of the week: Corona Light – A Mexican reading deserves a Mexican beer. Corona Light is clear and pale and foamy. The aroma and flavor are pretty standard macro. There is a hint of lime in the aroma, and just a trace of nuttiness in the finish. A pinch of salt brings out the lime in the flavor, which is a big improvement. Still, Corona Light; what was I thinking?
Reading of the week: The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela – The title The Underdogs (Los de Abajo in the original Spanish) refers not to the rebels, but to the common folk of Mexico. Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that the people are always oppressed, no matter which faction has the ascendency.
Question of the week: Is it really the case that some motivations cannot be discovered through self-examination? Or is it possible that we are just too afraid to look deep enough?
This is the eighth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
SINCERITY: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
To some extent, many competitive sports rely on subterfuge and deception. Hockey has its deke moves, basketball its pump fakes, boxing its feints, rugby its dummy passes. Baseball, no less than any of these other sports, has it’s share of deceptive practices.
The president of Harvard (and editor of the Harvard Classics) William Eliot once said of the university’s baseball team, “…this year I’m told the team did well because one pitcher had a fine curve ball. I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard.” Eliot, however, is in the minority; most people appreciate and applaud a ball player who is especially adept at deception. It is part of the game, as they say.
Another sneaky part of the game is stealing signs. The catcher uses hand signals to communicate with the pitcher, and if an a base runner is able to intercept those signs, he may gain valuable information for his team. And it is generally accepted that there is nothing wrong with stealing signs.
However, a few weeks ago the Boston Red Sox got caught using an Apple Watch to communicate stolen signs, and that burned some people up. It’s fair enough to have a player steal signs from the base paths, but to use video cameras and electronic messaging is something else entirely. For one thing, a catcher may change his signs when an opponent is on base, making the signs themselves part of a game within the game. But what adaptive measures could the catcher use against video cameras and wireless messaging? It takes an aspect of the game away from the players and puts it in the hands of nameless support staff. For another thing, it converts a relatively rare advantage into a constant. Traditional sign stealing only happens when a runner is on second base, but the use of video makes it possible to steal signs on every single pitch.
The line between admirably clever and despicably devious is not always easy to spot, but when somebody steps well and truly over that line, he draws well deserved ire.
Beer of the week: Oval Beach Blonde – Summer is technically over, but a late heat wave has kept this summer blonde enjoyable. Oval Beach is a beautiful blonde brew from Saugatuck Brewing Company in Michigan. The beer is just a bit tangy, and has a nice malt body. A very refreshing choice.
Reading of the week: The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, Book I, Chapters X & XI – As in sport, military leaders are often praised for deception, but only up to a point. A well laid ambush is considered laudable, but if the ambush is baited with a false truce, it is considered villainous. This excerpt describes some of the acts of Robert Guiscard. Anna Komnene clearly thinks that Robert overstepped the bounds of decency, but history knows him as “Robert the Resourceful”.
Question for the week: Is there really a fair distinction between clever deception and devious deception? Or is all deception equally admirable/reprehensible? (Kant may suggest an answer.)
It may be surprising to people with an American education to learn that at the very same time that the United States of America was at war with the Confederate States of America, a French army was pushing its way across Mexico. The Monroe Doctrine had been in place for nearly 40 years, so the thought of a full-on European invasion of Mexico seems rather shocking.
Shortly before the American Civil War, Mexico had its own, known as the Reform War. The immediate result was a fractured and bankrupt Mexican government. In 1861, the president of Mexico declared a moratorium on paying its debts, and the French were none too happy about that. Emperor Napoleon III, who had been elected as President Bonaparte but refused to leave when his term ended, decided that a Mexican regime change was in order. He sent a small army to “negotiate”. On the 5th of May, 1862, an outnumbered rag-tag Mexican army crushed the better trained and better equipped French invaders. Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated ever since.
It is always interesting to put historical events into context. While the Americans were being divided over the question of self-determination (and slavery), Mexicans were fighting for their own right to govern themselves. Their success at the Battle of Puebla was short lived, though. Just three years later, Maximilian I, born in Vienna into the powerful Hapsburg Dynasty, sat on his throne in Mexico City as Emperor.
As it turned out, Maximilian’s empire did not last long either. A successful republican revolt culminated in Maximilian’s execution by firing squad, just two years after the murder of Abraham Lincoln. Sic semper indeed.
Beer of the week: Tecate – Cerveza Tecate is a standard Mexican adjunct lager. It is pale gold in color and quite fizzy. As far as aroma and flavor, there is not much to write. Cheap grain supplies the bulk of both. I could surely down more than a few of these on a hot day, but generally I would pick something more flavorful. Even the addition of lime and salt doesn’t do much for it.
Reading for the week: Memorabilia by Xenophon, Book I, Chapter 2, Sections 39-50 – Whether government is monarchical or democratic in form, it’s nature is always coercive. This reading by Xenophon includes a brief dialogue between Alcibiades and Pericles. In it, Alcibiades gets Pericles to define government coercion as “not law, but force.” The logical conclusion is that all conventional “laws”, from tyrants’ dictates to democratic legislation, are not law at all, but mere force.
Question for the week: When have you been surprised to learn that two historic events were much closer in time than your had realized?
The overwhelming majority of lawsuits settle before trial. By some estimates, fewer than 1 out of every 10 cases make it all the way to trial. And for the most part, settlement is the best option for both sides. Going to trial means more court fees, more attorneys’ fees, and, perhaps most importantly, the possibility of simply losing. A litigant who is able to accurately and rationally appraise the value of his case and the probability of success should be able to negotiate a settlement that minimizes his costs and risk. In that light, it seems that the biggest obstacle to settlement is the simple fact that people are not all that rational.
In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy presents a beautiful example of a man who rationally knows one thing, but nonetheless refuses to believe it:
The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius—man in the abstract—was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and will all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session as he did? “Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.”
The Stoics equate nature, god, and reason. The highest good for man, therefore, would be to achieve purely rational thought. The problem, as Tolstoy observes, is that human thought will always consist of an admixture of reason and emotion. In this particular example, self-love clouds the reasoning of Ivan Ilych. In other cases, including a great number of lawsuits, anger or other emotions interfere with one’s ability to think clearly. One simply cannot be purely rational. For the Stoics, self-love and emotions are to be overcome in the name of reason. For Tolstoy, however, a purely rational life would be no life at all. What makes us human is not our ability to reason alone, but all of our emotional and mental capacity.
Beer of the week: Nikšićko Pivo – Tolstoy lived through the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The culmination of that conflict was the Treaty of San Stefano, which granted the Principality of Montenegro official international recognition and expanded territory. Part of the new lands acquired included the city of Nikšić. And it is from Nikšić that this week’s beer comes. Frankly, I hoped for more from my first beer from Montenegro, and I really did not expect much. Despite the artificial coloring listed in the ingredients, the beer is still very pale. It pours with heaps of white foam. There is not much going on flavor-wise in Nikšićko, mostly just cheap grain and a slightly metallic aftertaste. Oh well.
Reading of the week: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy, Chapter VI – The above-quoted syllogism is somewhat novel to me. I had always heard it with Socrates rather than Caius. This reading really says a lot about the way that humans think, especially how they think about themselves in relation to the rest of the world.
Question for the week: How often do you persist in something out for emotional reasons when you know rationally that it is the wrong choice?
I am no fan of Woodrow Wilson.
He pushed for and then signed the Espionage Act and it’s extension known as the Sedition Act. Through these laws, countless individuals have been harassed, convicted, and sentenced to prison for political (primarily anti-war) speech.
Wilson also successfully campaigned for the presidency on a policy of neutrality in what became World War I. After attaining office, however, embarked on policy that was so unneutral that his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, resigned. He then pushed for the United States to join the otherwise deadlocked European war on the flimsy pretext that some Americans died when the Germans sunk the Lusitania, a ship carrying munitions for the British military. (To say nothing of the fact that the German government gave ample warning that they considered the Lusitania a warship and that Americans should not take passage on it.) It has been argued that had Wilson not joined the war, the United States would not have become the military-industrial nation that it is today, and the First World War would not have ended in the conditions that made Germany ripe for the rise of Adolph Hitler.
Sigmund Freud, in his psychological analysis of Wilson, concluded that the President was a dangerous fanatic whose belief in his own pre-ordained glory made him act with reckless abandon. Freud ultimately decided that the disastrous evil which inevitably resulted from Wilson’s actions made him impossible to sympathize with.
In the interest of keeping this blog post short, I will only mention further that Wilson is currently in the public eye due to calls from Princeton students to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs because of his well-known racism.
For all of the above reasons, it may seem reasonable to attempt to wipe Wilson’s legacy from the school and the country. But I side with Diodorus Siculus on the subject of erasing legacies. Rather than eliminating the memory of evil men, it is better to “publish [the] truth to the stain of their memory.” Let the school continue by the name of Wilson, so that for generations to come people will reflect on how his actions resulted in the death and oppression of countless souls.
Beer of the week: Kalnapils Bock – One of the many unintended consequences of the First World War was the declaration of Lithuania as a sovereign nation. This is the first Lithuanian beer that I have had and, unfortunately, it is not very good. Initially, I was surprised to see how pale this beer is for a “bock”. It pours with a fluffy head that fades quickly. The aroma is reminiscent of cheap malt liquor: cheap grain, some alcohol. The aftertaste is decidedly metallic. Step up your game, Lithuania.
Reading for the week: Bibliotheca Historica, by Diodorus Siculus – In the preface to Book XIV of his “universal history”, Diodorus points out that men of high standing are subject to greater censure for their faults. “Let this therefore startle wicked men to consider, that they leave behind them an ugly representation of themselves, to the view of posterity for ever.”
Question for the week: Is it better to totally annihilate the memory of a bad man or to preserve his infamy as a warning to future generations?
*This post was accidentally published prematurely last week. So if you saw it then and couldn’t find it later, that’s why.
In 2003, a large statue of Saddam Hussain was toppled in Firdos Square, Bagdad. Video of the destruction was something of a media sensation. (Whether the event was staged or spontaneous is still unclear, but it sure seems like a brilliant photo-op.) For the most part, the destruction was met with approbation.
In 2015, members of ISIS destroyed priceless statues and reliefs at the 2,900 year old palace of King Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria. Video of militants destroying similar relics throughout the region resulted in international outrage.
So what is the difference?
The obvious answer is time. The fall of Saddam’s regime was not yet complete when an armored vehicle pulled down his statue, but Ashurnasirpal had been gone nearly three millennia when a bulldozer crashed through his palace. But isn’t the time difference superficial? Had the Saddam statue been allowed to stand, it too could have become an ancient and priceless relic. And, had the statue stood for 3,000 years, wouldn’t it’s destruction have elicited the same sort of outrage as the destruction of Ashurnasirpal’s palace?
Another insufficient answer is the brutality and general badness of the late Dictator of Iraq. Saddam invaded neighboring countries and maintained a repressive regime. One might argue that allowing a statue of such a man stand is an insult to all of the Iraqis, Kurds, and Kuwaitis who were killed, tortured, or otherwise hard done-by. But Ashurnasirpal (like most kings) was no tower of virtue himself. Not only did he invade numerous neighboring lands, he was unthinkably brutal. His own account of an insurrection that he put down brags that “Of some [prisoners] I cut off their feet and hands; of others I cut off the ears noses and lips; of the young men’s ears I made a heap; of the old men’s heads I made a minaret. I exposed their heads as a trophy in front of their city. The male children and the female children I burned in flames; the city I destroyed, and consumed with fire”. Surely this man was every bit as bad as Saddam. So why is the destruction of his monuments so appalling while the destruction of Saddam’s is so lauded?
Neither is the comparative “art value” of the two a good explanation. To compare the artistic merits of the separate monuments is beyond my ability and training, but I would argue that neither Saddam’s nor Ashurnasirpal’s likeness derived much of their scorn or value respectively from the technical ability of the artists who sculpted them. I strongly suspect that even if the Saddam statue were a masterwork, the response would have been the same.
What appears to make the difference is the symbolism of the two acts. The toppling of the Saddam statue was partially a warning to other Middle East leaders. Further, since Saddam himself was not captured until several months later, the statue destruction also served as a psychological strike against him and whatever loyal forces he still had. And, like the destruction of all Hitler era monuments in Germany, the toppling of the statue may have had an element of eliminating a potential future rallying point. The destruction of Ashurnasirpal’s palace, however, sends a different message. ISIS has made clear that they intend to destroy everything that is not part of their version of Islam. Whether priceless art, ancient artifacts, or fellow human beings, ISIS is dedicated to the annihilation of anything and everything that does not fit into their worldview. A very disconcerting position for those of us who are part of that “anything and everything”.
Beer of the week: Magic Hat Snow Roller – After spending Christmas in a t-shirt and the first week of the year in the rain, the last couple weeks have finally provided cold weather sufficient to justify drinking some winter seasonals. This pretty brown ale smells of toasted grain and a bit of hops. Hints of burnt toast also lead the flavor. It is really in the aftertaste that this beer comes together. There is some lingering sweetness, but that is offset by tingling hops and alcoholic sharpness (6.2%). This is a good beer, but a bit more bitter and alcoholic-tasting than I would prefer.
Readings for the week: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Ozymandias by Horace Smith – The poets (and close personal friends) Shelley and Smith each wrote a sonnet on the same subject: the shattered remains of an ancient statue of the Pharaoh Ozymandias, which had been meant to preserve the glory of its subject for all time.
Question for the week: Is the video footage of Saddam’s statue being pulled down now a sort of “digital monument” to George Bush II?