Delicious Unity

A reader of this blog, if he were paying close attention, might have observed certain inconsistencies in the photographs. I have moved around quite a bit over the last few years, but the pictures (and the beer reviews that go with them) have lagged behind. For example, I mentioned recently that I was headed for Europe. Yet all of my subsequent posts have clearly included photographs from the same locations as before I left. What, you may wonder, is that all about?

For the most part, the issue is that it takes me much less time to drink a beer than to write something that I think is worth posting. Even more time consuming is finding and reading things worth writing about. As a result, there is almost never any temporal unity in one of these blog posts. The beer is usually consumed and reviewed weeks ahead of time and only later paired with a reading. For this post, however, the stars have aligned; I have just re-read the reading of the week while sipping the beer of the week. As I write, the level of the beer in the glass gets lower and lower.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that I write the beer reviews separately from the rest. These blog posts have a few distinct parts that are largely separable. Somebody told me that she enjoys the body of my blog posts, but doesn’t care about the beer reviews. Other people, if the search engine statistics can be trusted, come here primarily for information about the beers. Rarely, people will engage me in conversation focusing on the question of the week. And judging by the page hits, just about nobody looks at the weekly readings. But there is a certain unity about this blog.

Like all things, this blog is made of practically infinite parts. Each section, each picture, even each word has endless possible interpretations and meanings. I am not claiming that my writing is particularly deep. I mean only that language is so complex and so versatile, and that the mind is so flexible, that reading a sentence is like stepping into a river: it is never the same twice. But language (and this blog and everything else in the world) is at its best when all of the parts come together in such a way that the whole comes into view. A line of a poem is not just a series of individual words, it is a complete phrase. The Bengali author and artist Rabindranath Tagor observed that we don’t see the forces working to keep our planet in orbit, or the chemical bonds that make two hydrogen atoms join one oxygen atom, or the innumerable cells that make up a living being. What we see is “the dancing ring of seasons; the elusive play of lights and shadows, of wind and water; the many-coloured wings of erratic life flitting between birth and death.”

So what do I do? I drink delicious beer; I read amazing works of poetry and prose; I write down my thoughts and post them for the world to see. I think that all of these actions have their own value, but I see real beauty in the unity of them all. This blog is about beer and philosophy and conversation, and I have never felt more sure that those three things make a wonderful whole.

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Beer of the week: Yuengling Summer Wheat – I have personally failed in my mission to finish the summer beers before drinking autumn beers. A while ago I had a pumpkin beer from Harpoon Brewing Co. and just recently I had a Sam Adams Oktoberfest. But for the blog, there are still summer beers to be had. There is some dispute about whether Sam Adams (Boston Beer Company) or D. G. Yuengling is the largest American-owned brewery. However, Sam Adams brews sixty or so beers and Yuengling only makes about six. This Summer Wheat is the first seasonal beer I’ve had from Yuengling. It is not as cloudy as most unfiltered wheat beers. The aroma is of yeast and banana. There is a distinct flavor of banana bread in this beer, but it avoids the excessive sweetness that many wheat beers have. This is definitely good enough that I will be sure to try any other seasonals that Yuengling comes out with.

Reading of the week: Creative Unity by Rabindranath Tagore, Chapter One, Part I – Very reminiscent of Plato, Tagore explores the infinite and unity and applies the idea that unity is the only source of beauty. Illness, ugliness, and tragedy are simply what we perceive when unity is disrupted. Simply eating (and presumably drinking beer) is base because it is only filling a solitary need or desire, “but when brought under the ideal of social fellowship, it is regulated and made ornamental; it is changed into a daily festivity of life.”

Question of the week: Tagore claims that a water vessel as a water vessel has to justify its own existence by being well suited to its task. A beautiful water vessel as a work of art, however, doesn’t need to explain itself. Is he saying that utility is not a kind of beauty? Isn’t usefulness proof that the vessel has a place in the unity?

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Nobody wears his watch in a pocket these days.

In the dialogue Meno, Socrates is asked by the eponymous interlocutor whether virtue can be taught. Socrates, as per usual, plays dumb: “I don’t even know what virtue is; how can I tell you if it can be taught?” Meno then lists the virtues of various classes of people, all of which appear to be a form of practical efficiency. After a substantial digression, Socrates and Meno finally get to the business of addressing whether virtue can be taught by establishing a provisional definition of what virtue is: the wisdom or knowledge required to know how to act in a way that will be profitable. That is, prudence. For example, courage is a virtue. Without prudence, however, courage becomes folly. The same is true of every other individual virtue. Prudence is the overarching principle of all virtues.

Some two-thousand years later, Lord Chesterfield took up this interpretation of virtue. In a letter to his son, he used the word “judgement” in the place of “prudence” but expressed the same idea. Each virtue is only good if exercised with good judgement, otherwise it becomes a parallel vice. “Generosity often runs into profusion, economy into avarice, courage into rashness, caution into timidity, and so on.” Judgement (or prudence? or moderation?) is the heart of virtue, because without it all other virtues are vice. But Chesterfield went on to apply this to a field that might not be considered a virtue in itself: education.

“Great learning,” writes Chesterfield, “if not accompanied with sound judgment, frequently carries us into error, pride, and pedantry.” Those who are highly educated but not prudent do not give their contemporaries enough credit. Instead, they rely on the ancients, even upon ancient mad men. “We are really so prejudiced by our education, that, as the ancients deified their heroes, we deify their madmen; of which, with all due regard for antiquity, I take Leonidas and Curtius to have been two distinguished ones.” The study of the ancients is necessary and proper, but what really matters is what is going on today.

One may argue that since Chesterfield’s time, the pendulum has swung the quite other way. The products of today’s education scoff at the ancients as primitive and look only to modern science. A particular example of this is the modern opinion of faith. Any great thinker of the past who was avowedly religious is automatically discounted in the opinion of the modern pseudo-intellectual. Faith is no longer regarded as a virtue, but it is now held to be archaic and indicative of personal weakness. And as for Chesterfield’s admonition against mentioning that one is reading classics, there is surely little chance of that now. I read somewhere the observation that Americans used to learn Latin and Greek in high school. But now they learn remedial English in college. If not for the recent motion pictures about the Persian invasion of Greece, many college graduates would have no idea who Leonidas was at all.

Still, Chesterfield’s advice is well worth heeding. Especially for this blog. Works of greater or lesser antiquity are an obvious part of this project. Partially because of an ingrained deference for the ancients, partially because the readings reproduced here must be in the public domain. I think that I generally avoid fawning over the ancients unnecessarily and from trotting out my education just to let people know that I have one. After all, I freely admit that I am under-educated. I had to search Wikipedia just to learn who Curtius was.

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Beer of the Week: Lord Chesterfield Ale – This beer has a pleasant and refreshing hint of citrus. It is not as flavorful as I would hope, but it really is a bit better than the average mass-produced beer. Especially after drinking half a case. Also, it is named for a noted man of letters, which is an obvious point in its favor.

Reading for the Week: Letter XXX from Lord Chesterfield to his Son – The collected letters of Lord Chesterfield to his son are known as Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, so that’s awesome. The first time I read this letter, it almost felt like a rebuke for creating this blog. And I still haven’t quite shaken that impression.

Question for the Week: A number of Americans have made former presidents the objects of their deification. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and others are practically cult figures in various circles. In what way does this differ from an obsession with the ancients?