21 Things We Should Have Been Told At Graduation

The education that we receive barely prepares us for the challenges that lie ahead. This is what we should have been told at graduation instead of all the misplaced, self-congratulatory platitudes.

1. We strived to give you the best education. But what is the best education? The best education is not that which enables you to make a good living, nor even that which enables you to make a social contribution, but that which enables you on the path to freedom and individuation, and which, in the longer term, leads to the fullest living and the greatest social contribution.

2. Always ask for plenty of advice, but only from people whom you admire or seek to emulate. Best of all, seek advice from great works of literature and philosophy. Shakespeare and Plato are far wiser than anyone you will ever meet.

3. On the other hand, don’t dish out advice unless you are specifically asked.

4. Keep on asking silly questions. People may look at you funny, but at least you thought of the questions.

5. Be very sensitive to your feelings and intuitions. They are your unconscious made conscious. And they are almost always right.

6. Don’t be envious. Whenever you come across someone who is better or more successful than you are, you can react either with envy or with emulation. Envy is the pain that you feel because others have good things; emulation is the pain that you feel because you yourself do not have them. This is a subtle but critical difference. Unlike envy, which is useless at best and self-defeating at worst, emulation is a good thing because it makes us take steps towards securing good things.

7. Make friends with people who drag you up rather than drag you down. It is better to be taught than to teach, and better to be consoled than to console. In the long run, you become just like your friends. You are your friends.

8. Never get into a relationship because you are bored, lonely, or insecure, or because society expects you to. Things will go badly wrong.

9. The same also applies to having children.

10. Don’t expect to find perfect love, perfect virtue, or perfect wisdom in this world. These things simply do not exist in their idealized forms—or, at least, not outside our imagination.

11. Given the choice between laughing and crying, go with laughing. There is, sadly, no end of things to laugh about in this world.

12. All of the above requires a great deal of self-confidence. Try to cultivate it: it comes with habit. And it is divinely attractive.

13. The corollary here is: never be afraid. Or at least, never appear to be afraid. Danger and bad luck are attracted to fear.

14. If you don’t appear to want something, you are far more likely to get it. More importantly, when you do want something, be sure that it is worthy of you. And remember: we are rich not only by what we have, but also and especially by what we do not.

15. Never get angry. Just like fear, anger is a superfluous feeling that does far more harm than good. Most of a person’s actions and the neurological activity that they correspond to are determined by past events and the cumulative effects of those past events on that person’s patterns of thinking. It follows that the only person who can truly deserve your anger is the one who spited you freely, and therefore probably rightly! This does not mean that anger is not justified in other cases, as a display of anger—even if undeserved—can still serve a benevolent strategic purpose. But if all that is ever required is a strategic display of anger, then true anger than involves real pain is entirely superfluous.

16. Man is a product of the world which he inhabits. He seldom chooses to endure the things that he does. Simply being conscious of this fact can help to increase your degrees of freedom, and it only takes one free action to change the course of an entire lifetime.

17. Find whatever it is that you love doing and just do it, regardless of what others might think. It won’t feel like work. And chances are you will be very good at it.

18. Avoid working for other people or, worse, faceless corporations. It’s not psychologically healthy. And it’s not a game you’re ever going to win.

19. Think long term. The main difference between the rich and the poor is that the rich made a plan and stuck to it.

20. When you do find success, don’t expect anyone to be happy for you. In fact, many less successful people will actively resent you—even, sometimes, friends and family. Some people are small. Just accept it as collateral and move on.

21. Unless your work is your passion, you work so as to live and not vice versa. Spend at least half your waking hours simply reveling in the world around you. Never forget that our consciousness and its objects are the greatest of all miracles.

Aristotle on True Aristocracy

Is pride a virtue or a vice? Before deciding upon this question, it is important to define ‘pride’ and to distinguish it from other, related feelings.

According to the philosopher Aristotle, a person is proud if he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of great things. If he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of small things, he is not proud but temperate.

On the other hand, if a person thinks himself worthy of great things when he is unworthy of them, he is vain; and if he thinks himself worthy of less than he is worthy of, he is pusillanimous. Vanity and pusillanimity are vices, whereas pride and temperance are virtues because (by definition) they reflect the truth about a person’s state and potentials. In Aristotelian speak, whereas the proud person is an extreme in respect of the greatness of his claims, he is a mean in respect of their truthfulness, and so virtuous.

Aristotle goes on to paint a very flattering picture of the proud person. He says that a proud person is avid of his just deserts and particularly of honour, ‘the prize of virtue and the greatest of external goods’. A proud person is moderately pleased to accept great honours conferred by good people, but he utterly despises honours from casual people and on trifling grounds. As a person who deserves more is better, the truly proud person is good, and as he is good, he is also rare. In sum, says Aristotle, pride is a crown of the virtues; it is not found without them, and it makes them greater.

True, the proud person is liable to disdain and to despise, but as he thinks rightly, he does so justly, whereas the many disdain and despise at random (or, I would say, mostly to meet their ego/emotional needs). Although the proud person is dignified towards the great and the good, he is unassuming towards the middle classes; for it is a difficult and lofty thing to be superior to the former, but easy to be so to the latter, and a lofty bearing over the former is no mark of ill-breeding, but among humble people is as vulgar as a display of strength against the weak.

Again, it is characteristic of the proud man not to aim at the things commonly held in honour, or the things in which others excel; to be sluggish and to hold back except where great honour or a great work is at stake, and to be a man of few deeds, but of great and notable ones. He must also be open in his hate and in his love (for to conceal one’s feelings, that is, to care less for truth than for what people will think, is a coward’s part), and must speak and act openly; for he is free of speech because he is contemptuous, and he is given to telling the truth, except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar. —Nicomachean Ethics, Bk IV

In short, be proud of your pride. Give it a free rein. Let it work for you. And if you must still think that pride is a vice, what you cannot deny is that Aristotle is an astute psychologist who, in discussing pride, also gave us our archetype of the aristocrat.

Styles of Port Wine

Port can be matured either oxidatively in wood or reductively in bottles. The four principal styles of reductive port are ruby, late bottled vintage (LBV), crusted, and vintage. Ruby is the most ubiquitous style of port. It is a blend of the most recent harvests matured for no more than 1-3 years. Before bottling, it is fined and cold filtered and so does not require decanting. It is deep red in colour (whence its name), fresh and fruit-driven with a medium body and lesser tannins than a vintage port. It is ready to drink immediately upon release and does not tend to improve with age. Port labelled with ‘Reserve’ is essentially premium ruby, sourced from better vineyards and matured for a longer period of 4-6 years. Compared to simple ruby, it is richer, denser, and more complex.

LBV is a single vintage port that is sourced from better vineyards and that spends 4-6 years in wood (considerably longer than vintage port, whence LBV). It used to be made only in non-vintage years from grapes that would otherwise have gone into the vintage port; today the main idea is to speed up the ageing of a quality port by exposing it to oxygen for several years longer than a vintage port. LBV is commonly fined and filtered prior to bottling, in which case it does not need decanting. However, the process of filtering does strip the wine of some of its substance, for which reason unfiltered LBVs benefit more from bottle age. These unfiltered, so-called Traditional LBV, ports tend to be made in better years and must spend a further 3 years in bottle prior to release. Rather than a stoppered cork, they are capped with a conventional cork that is more conducive to bottle ageing.

Though the standard-bearer for the Douro, vintage port accounts for no more than 2% of total port production. Needless to say, it must be made entirely from grapes of a declared vintage year. The decision to declare a year as a full vintage is made by each individual port house in the spring of the second year following the harvest. Historically, port houses have declared a full vintage about three times a decade. If a port house does not declare a year as a full vintage, it may still declare a top-quality single quinta. In many cases, a single quinta vintage port is only made in non-vintage years to prevent the grapes from the best vineyards from going into a lesser port. This is the case, for example, with Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos and Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas. Vintage port is matured in wood for up to two and a half years, and often requires another 10-30 years in bottle before being ready to drink (although it is drunk much younger in France and the USA). Old vintage port is extremely rich, balanced, and complex with aromas of cocoa, coffee, cedar and spice, and even—for example on the 1977 Graham’s—fennel and liquorice.

Crusted port is a blend of several recent vintages, with the date on the label referring to the year of bottling rather than to the year of the vintage. It spends at least 3 years in bottle and is ready to drink right from release, making it an affordable and undemanding alternative to vintage port. At the same time, it is also capable of improving further in bottle. As it has not been filtered, it deposits a great deal of sediment or ‘crust’ and needs careful decanting. It is, in effect, a super-premium unfiltered ruby port that resembles vintage port in both style and substance.

The three styles of oxidative port are tawny, colheita, and garrafeira. ‘Tawny’ refers to the oxidized, golden-brown hue that quality port acquires from long maturation in small casks with frequent racking. So as to accelerate the ageing process, some tawnies are aged in the baking hot Douro rather than in the more temperate climes of Vila Nova de Gaia. Inexpensive tawny port is a blend of lighter ruby port and white port, and tends to be pink rather than tawny in colour. Premium tawny port is made from high quality grapes not included in vintage and single quinta vintage ports. It may be sold either with an indicated age (10, 20, 30, or ‘more than 40’ years) or simply as ‘Old Tawny’ that is typically about 8 years old. Older tawnies in particular can be incredibly complex and balanced, dominated by aromas of burnt toast, nuts, dried fruit, coffee, and the ethyl ester and acetal products of esterification. Colheita is essentially tawny from a single vintage. Garrafeira, which is an uncommon style, is port from a single vintage that has been matured oxidatively in wood (for about 3-6 years) and then reductively in large glass demijohns (for at least a further 8 years).

Port is not invariably red. White port is made from white grapes, and ranges in style from dry to very sweet. White port darkens with age, such that a very old white port can be difficult if not impossible to distinguish from a very old red port.

I find it difficult if not impossible to write about port without having some. Saude!

Neel Burton runs the Oxford Summer School on the Appreciation of Fine Wine.

Keep on Asking Silly Questions

When I was younger, the world did not make very much sense to me. I asked many silly questions, but would seldom receive any adequate answers or even an honest ‘I don’t know’. This made me feel very inadequate, as though there was some fundamental truth that I was just not getting. Then I thought, alright, they don’t know, but they’re OK about it because they know that there is at least someone who knows. The people in charge must know.

As I grew older and older and met more and more people, it became increasingly clear that no one knew all that much and that the proverbial emperor had no clothes. It took many years for me to fully come to terms with this and to rediscover the self-confidence to ask silly questions.

More broadly, as a young man I expected to find such things as perfect wisdom, perfect virtue, or perfect love in the world. But these things simply do not exist in their perfect, absolute, and ideal forms—or, at least, not outside our unique and very peculiar imagination.

A Brief History of Port Wine

Port is a fortified, typically red and sweet, wine that comes in a number of styles. It is produced in a demarcated region in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal, inland from the eponymous city of Porto.

Non-fortified wine has been made in the Douro Valley since Roman times, and became an important export following the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal in 1143. The 1386 Treaty of Windsor established close trading and diplomatic links between England and Portugal, with many English merchants settling in Portugal and exporting wines back to England from Viana do Castelo on the broad estuary of the Lima River. These light and astringent wines came from the nearby Minho region, and compared poorly to the more expensive wines of Bordeaux.

In 1667, Colbert, first minister to Louis XIV, restricted the import of English goods into France, provoking Charles II to prohibit the import of French wines. The English merchants at Viana do Castelo stepped in to fill the supply gap. To satisfy English tastes, they began sourcing more robust, full-bodied wines from the then remote upper Douro Valley. These wines could not be transported over land to Viana do Castelo, compelling the merchants to relocate a few miles south to Oporto near the mouth of the Douro River.

The trade in the wines of Oporto or ‘port wines’ received a further fillip from the Methuen Treaty of 1703, which led, amongst others, to a fall in the duty on Portuguese wines exported to England. Port wines soon became a victim of their own success, with some producers and shippers adding sugar or elderberry in a bid to improve their often thin, overstretched offerings. In 1756 (just one year after the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake) these problems together with a resulting fall in demand impelled the then prime minister of Portugal the Marquês de Pombal to regulate production. This led to the demarcation of the Douro vineyard area by 335 stone pillars or marcos pombalinos, and, in the following year, to the classification of the vineyards according to quality.

Shippers sometimes added a small amount of brandy or grape spirit to stabilize the wine on its voyage to England. Over time, it became common practice to add the brandy before the wine had finished fermenting since this resulted in a fresher, sweeter, and more appealing wine. And it soon became apparent that these fortified wines also had a vastly superior ageing potential. As bottles became progressively more elongated in shape, it became possible to store them on their side and thus to cellar single vintage wines. 1820 produced such an exceptional vintage that subsequent vintages had to be fortified to even hold comparison, and by 1850 the practice of fortification had become near universal.

During the occupation of Oporto by Napoleon’s army from 1809 to 1811 the port trade came to virtual standstill. Trading also suffered in the 1820s and early 1830s from political turmoil culminating in the Portuguese Civil War over the royal succession and the 1832 siege of Oporto. Having withstood these early setbacks, the port trade flourished in the latter part of the 19th century, and it is in this period that it became customary to ‘declare’ the finest vintages. These Halcyon days came to an abrupt end in 1868 with the arrival of the Phylloxera louse from North America via the Southern Rhone, which resulted in such severe damage as to ruin several long established producers. The port trade did not fully recover until the 1890s, by which time the majority of vines had been grafted onto Phylloxera-resistant American rootstock.

Until well into the 20th century, port was carried downriver to the cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia (just across the river from Porto) on flat-bottomed vessels called barcos rabelos. So as to best navigate through treacherous rapids, the barcos rabelos were equipped with a long steering oar operated from the top of a raised platform. A broad sail enabled them to make the return journey upriver, although in certain parts they required further assistance from oxen straining on a towpath. Until the end of the 18th century, a waterfall in a narrow gorge had obstructed passage into the remote Upper Douro (Douro Superior). The opening of this gorge to river traffic in the 1780s greatly facilitated the emergence of some of today’s finest Douro estates. The Duoro of today has been dammed and is comparatively easy to navigate, but port is sent to the sea by road and rail rather than by the river. The last commercial voyage of a barco rabelo took place in about 1961.

Barcos rabelos