Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

BIBLE: Genesis (Cain and Abel, Marx and Freud)

Even though they lived in the lush garden of Eden, Adam and Eve didn’t stay obedient to the Lord God.  As punishment for their disobedience God proclaimed that “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” and they were driven from the garden.  From that point on people have had to earn their bread by the sweat of the brow.  Years pass.  Adam and Eve become the parents of two boys.  We’re even told their occupations.  “Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.”  Human economics had a division of labor right from the start (see Adam Smith, The Division of Labor, GB2).  This is the kind of story that grabbed Marx’s attention.  Shepherds and farmers can, and often do, come into economic conflict.  It happened in the settling of the American West, for example.  Shepherds (cowboys) want open ranges where sheep (cows) can freely graze.  Farmers want fields (often fenced off) where they can plant crops.  For Marx economics in the form of labor is the primary source of human conflict.  Adam and Eve originally enjoyed work in the garden of Eden.  Cain and Abel worked because they had to.  They had to work in order to eat.  In that sense work is “alien” to Cain and Abel (and to us) in a way that wasn’t alien to Adam and Eve.  Marx poses this question: “If the product of my labor is alien to me and confronts me as an alien power, to whom does it belong?  If my own activity does not belong to me but is an alien, forced activity, to whom does it belong?  To a being other than myself.  And who is this being?  The gods?”  (Alienated Labor, GB1)  Genesis says actually yes, it does: “And in the process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord.  And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof.”  Marx was asking a rhetorical question.  He doesn’t believe there are any gods to sacrifice to.  Therefore, the product of our labor belongs to us alone.  Cain may have believed this too because Genesis says “the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.”  God rejects Cain offering the fruits of his labor.

How did Cain feel about that?  This is the kind of question that interested Freud.  Genesis says “Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.”  For Marx economic relationships are the primary motivation of human action.  For Freud it’s psychological relationships.  He says “An important feature of civilization is the manner in which the relationships of men to one another, their social relationships, are regulated.” (Civilization and Its Discontents, GB1)  We have to regulate social relationships because “Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness.”  In Genesis these regulations are absent and innate human aggressiveness reaches a lethal level: “And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.”  Cain was angry at God.  Then why did he kill Abel?  Because he couldn’t kill God.  So he struck Abel instead.  This doesn’t surprise Freud.  We often transfer anger from the primary cause to a weaker secondary object.  Nor is he surprised when Cain tries to cover up the murder.  “And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother?  And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Why did Cain feel guilty?  Freud describes “the origin of the sense of guilt… a person feels guilty (devout people would say “sinful”) when he has done something which he knows to be bad… How is this judgment arrived at?  We may reject the existence of an original, as it were natural, capacity to distinguish good from bad.”  The story of Cain and Abel puts this question on trial.  Freud rejects the idea that we have a “natural capacity to distinguish good from bad.”  Genesis says the opposite.  Cain knew what he was doing, knew it was bad, but did it anyway.  Just like mom and dad before him.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

BIBLE: Genesis (Adam and Eve, Freud and Marx)

Genesis deals with the creation of heaven and earth.  We’re told that “the Spirit of God moved” and everything in the universe came into existence.  How did it happen?  “God said, let there be light: and there was light.”  God didn’t think about light and then somehow it came into existence on its own.  He spoke it into existence.  Then an interesting thing happens.  “God saw the light, that it was good.”  God didn’t say light was good.  He saw that it was good.  Somehow this Spirit, which doesn’t have a mouth, can talk.  This same Spirit, which doesn’t have eyes, can see.  This is exactly the sort of thing Freud complains about when he says “the common man cannot imagine God otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father.” (Civilization and Its Discontents, GB1)  Freud thinks religion takes a human image and projects it outward onto some vague Cosmic Being with enormous power.  That’s the opposite of what Genesis says: “God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”  Freud says Man created “god” in our image.  Genesis says God created Man in his image.  Freud’s view is humanistic and thinks Man is the measure of all things.  Genesis is theistic and teaches God was at the beginning of creation and remains at the center of all things. 

Marx has a similar complaint but with a slightly different emphasis.  In Genesis God says to Adam “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”  That’s not what the serpent says.  He tells Eve “Ye shall not surely die.  For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”  These are two very different messages.  Adam and Eve are given a choice between good and evil.  They choose wrong and their decision is called The Fall of Man because according to Genesis that’s how evil came into the world.  This is exactly the sort of thing Marx complains about when he says “theology explains the origin of evil by the fall of man, that is, it asserts as historical fact what it should explain.”  Marx wants rational explanations and rejects Genesis because he doesn’t think it is an “historical fact.”  Somewhat like Adam and Eve, readers are left to choose between a poetic story and Marx’s preference for rational analysis.      

Given two starkly different alternatives how should GB readers choose?  Compare notes.  The GB method is to consider alternatives by comparing what other GB authors have to say.  Aristotle wasn’t talking about Genesis but he had this to say: “if it is true that intelligence is divine in comparison with man, then a life guided by intelligence is divine in comparison with human life. We must not follow those who advise us to have human thoughts, since we are only human, and mortal thoughts, as mortals should.” (On Happiness, GB1)  This quote doesn’t suggest that Genesis was right or Freud was right or Marx was right.  Aristotle is merely emphasizing how important it is to use our intelligence wisely.  Reason is a powerful tool.  That’s why Marx thinks we should use it to explain things rationally.  Genesis agrees that Reason is powerful but for that very reason we should be careful how we use it.  Power can be intoxicating and lead us down the wrong path.  Genesis tells us Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise.”  Health, beauty and wisdom look like good things.  What rational person is against health, beauty and wisdom?  Marx and Freud both think Man is the measure of all things but Genesis says God’s way is best.  Augustine (City of God, GB4) says one path (Marx and Freud) leads us to the City of Man and the other (Genesis) leads to the City of God.  Which way is best and how can we be certain?  In the Great Books nothing is certain.  We can’t even be certain that nothing is certain.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

BIBLE: Genesis (Creation, Marx and Freud)

This week’s selection (Genesis) is taken from the Bible and sandwiched between readings by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.  What did they think of the Bible?  Let them speak in their own words.  Marx wrote that “the gods are fundamentally not the cause but the product of confusions of human reason.”  Freud said “The origin of the religious attitude can be traced back in clear outlines as far as the feeling of infantile helplessness… what the common man understands by his religion… assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life… the common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father.”  That’s a good sample of the way they think.  But how should “the common man” (i.e. Great Books readers) think about God and the universe?  What can we learn from reading Genesis? 

First we learn how time, space and matter came to be.  The Bible begins, literally, in the beginning.  “In the beginning (time) God created the heaven (space) and the earth (matter).”  That was the beginning of the universe.  It didn’t spring into existence by some random cosmic explosion caused by the blind forces of nature.  The universe was created, according to a set plan, by God; not by blind forces of nature, or by anthropomorphic gods (plural, polytheistic beings) but by one God (a single, monotheistic Being).  Before creation “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”  How can the human mind understand absolute nothingness?  Human experience is impossible without time, space and matter so there’s no way Genesis can penetrate the veil that covers what happened before “the beginning.”  But it does answer the question why is there something instead of nothing?

The second thing we learn is that there is order in the universe because, as Genesis puts it, “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”  Hovering over a dark and impenetrable nothingness (the face of the waters) there is an intelligence at work (the Spirit of God).  This “Spirit” moves throughout the cosmos and brings things into existence.  It brings order out of chaos.  It lays down laws with mathematical precision.  Genesis presents us with a universe more like a mind than a physical substance, more like an idea than a thing, more like a Word than anything else we know.  God breaks the eternal silence.  He speaks and things start happening.  That sounds too mystical or superstitious for some readers.  For Marx it’s just one more example of human confusion about the nature of “gods” and the universe we actually live in. 

Other readers think Genesis is too simplistic, especially verses like “God said, Let there be light; and there was light.  And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”  We’re shown how God works.  How he brings order out of chaos; not by uniting things that already exist (that would be transformation, not creation).  God brings new things into the light of creation out of primordial darkness and proclaims light is good.  So is the sky and the birds, the sun and the moon, stars, the earth and all plants and animals, the sea and fish of all kinds.  We’re surrounded by good things.  For Freud this is all nonsense, just one more example of “infantile helplessness” when encountering a cold universe that’s indifferent to human suffering.  But some Great Books authors (Augustine, Dante, and Kierkegaard, for example) don’t see Genesis as a misguided book for childish readers.  They see it as a guide for wisdom.  They fear most what Marx and Freud both preach, a universe without God.  They fear a return to the primordial chaos before creation.  Another Great Books author (Job, GB4) describes what that would look like: “A land of darkness, as darkness itself; and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is as darkness.”  That’s what a universe without God looks like.  

Saturday, June 04, 2016

MARX: Alienated Labor (A Theology of Work)

Alienated Labor would be found in the Economics section on the shelves of your local public library.  This makes a lot of sense because Karl Marx begins his essay by stating that “Wages are determined by the bitter struggle between capitalist and worker.”  Wages certainly sounds like a topic for economics.  In Marx’s opinion “the normal wage is the lowest which is compatible with common humanity, that is, with a bestial existence.”  A bestial existence?  It’s here that Marx starts veering off from a discussion strictly about economics.  He has a deeper subject in mind and it disturbs him deeply.  What really troubles Marx is the human condition; specifically, how work degrades the human condition of the worker.  He says “Rising wages awake in the worker the same desire for enrichment as in the capitalist, but he can only satisfy it by the sacrifice of his body and spirit.”  Most human beings have to work for a living.  They want a better life but since they have to work for wages they sacrifice “body and spirit” in order to get ahead.  Marx’s point is this.  They don’t get ahead.  They only become more degraded “Since the worker has been reduced to a machine, the machine can compete with him.”

Workers can be replaced by machines and lose even those wages necessary for a bestial existence.  How could this happen?  Marx says “Let us not begin our explanation, as does the economist, from a legendary primordial condition.  Such a primordial condition does not explain anything; it merely removes the question into a grey and nebulous distance.  It asserts as a fact or event what it should deduce, namely, the necessary relation between two things.  For example, between the division of labor and exchange.  In the same way theology explains the origin of evil by the fall of man; that is, it asserts as a historical fact what it should explain.”  Marx has moved from economics to his real target, theology.  Why are things the way they are?  Why do we work so hard and get back so little?  The Fall of Man is no answer for Marx.  It infuriates him.  He thinks religion is “the spontaneous activity of human fantasy, of the human brain and heart” and all these stories about “alien activity of gods or devils upon the individual” are in reality just a psychological trick to keep wages low and workers subservient.  Marx rejects religious answers concerning the cause of our problems because “the gods are fundamentally not the cause but the product of confusion of human reason.”  Marx is on a quest to dispel that confusion.

The counterargument for Marx’s theology isn’t Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (GB2) but Max Weber’s The Spirit of Capitalism (GB4).  Weber speaks for those who believe religion does have answers about why we work and what we work for.  He says “Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs… it expresses a type of feeling which is closely connected with certain religious ideas.”  How is work connected with religious ideas?  Weber explains.  “For the saints everlasting rest is in the next world; on earth man must, to be certain of his state of grace, “do the works of Him who sent him, as long as it is yet day.”  Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God, according to the definite manifestations of His will.  Waste of time is thus the first and in principle the deadliest of sins… every hour lost is lost to labor for the glory of God.”  Weber goes on to say “The differentiation of men into the classes and occupations established through historical development became for Luther a direct result of the divine will.  The perseverance of the individual in the place and within the limits which God had assigned to him was a religious duty.”  This is exactly the kind of talk that infuriates Marx.  He can’t understand why workers willingly give up leisure and become reconciled to boring occupations because of some grey and nebulous “divine will.”  Our next reading (Genesis) gives the other side of the story.

Monday, May 30, 2016

KANT: Conscience (Kurtz: A Case Study)

In our last reading (Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, GB1) we learned that “Kurtz was a remarkable man.  He had something to say.  He said it… He had summed up; he had judged. ‘The horror!’”  Kurtz was dying and “the horror” were the last words Marlow heard him say.  It’s up for debate what Kurtz was talking about.  Did the darkness of the world horrify him?  Or was “horror” a term used to describe the state of Kurtz’s own soul when he knew he was dying?  If it’s his own soul, was he sorry for what he had done?  Immanuel Kant would say no.  Even if Kurtz was sorry, it wouldn’t have done him any good because Kant thinks “repentance which manifests itself for the first time on the death-bed has no moral worth.  Its motive is the nearness of death.  If the approach of death were not feared there would probably be no repentance.” 

Marlow said Kurtz “had summed up; he had judged.”  This falls in line with Kant’s definition of conscience.  He says “conscience is an instinct to pass judgment upon ourselves in accordance with moral laws.”  Under Kant’s theory Kurtz had been overwhelmed in the end by the sheer weight of the judgment of his own conscience.  He had passed judgment upon himself.  Up to that point Kurtz had been dictator and even demigod of the whole region.  He did whatever he wanted to do and was able to justify killing his opponents and sticking their heads on poles because these men were rebels and this is what happens to rebels.  It was meant to serve as a warning to others and enforce obedience from the surrounding tribes.  But was it the right thing to do?  Was it “in accordance with moral laws” as Kant says?  Far away from civilization Kurtz didn’t have to answer that question.  He wasn’t answerable to anyone but himself.  Kurtz may have thought it necessary to set himself up as a terrible tyrant to support his claim as ruler and he may have believed what he was doing was proof of his strength of character as a leader.  But Kant says “the capacity to dismiss the accusation of a remorseful conscience is not evidence of strength of character, but rather of wickedness and religious impenitence.”

Kurtz dismissed the instinct of his conscience and followed another instinct instead, the instinct to power.  We learn more about this instinct to power in Freud (GB1) and Nietzsche (GB5).  In his soul Kurtz was wrestling with two powerful instincts, conscience and power.  This may have been what Marlow was talking about when he said, “Oh, he struggled!  He struggled!  The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images; images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression.”  One side of Kurtz wanted power, wealth and fame while his conscience wanted him to be noble and lofty.  This was his struggle, to choose between them.  There were no police stations around and no courtrooms to provide external checks on his lust for power. There was only the inner voice of his own conscience summoning him to stay within the boundaries of the universal moral law of humanity.  Kant says “This law, which is based on reason and not on sentiment, is incorruptible and incontestably just and pure; it is the moral law, established as the holy and inviolable law of humanity.”  Kurtz left police stations and courtrooms far behind him when he went deep down the Congo River.  But he couldn’t leave his conscience behind because, as Kant put it, “Conscience is the representative within us of the divine judgement-seat.  It weighs our dispositions and actions in the scales of a law which is holy and pure.  We cannot deceive it, and, lastly, we cannot escape it because, like the divine omnipresence it is always with us.”  Kurtz could neither deceive nor escape his conscience.  It followed him all the way to his grave.  He was a cultivated man but Kant warns that “a cultivated mind need not be followed by a cultivated conscience.”  Kurtz spent a great deal of time and effort cultivating power.  Kant thinks he should have been cultivating his conscience.    

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Conrad's Heart of Darkness

What makes us the way we are? Is it society with all of its rules and customs, or is it DNA, something primeval in the blood? There is a tendency among civilized people to think that philosophy, religion, or education will provide  answers to all those troubling questions about justice, fate, or good and evil. On the contrary, Joseph Conrad seems to believe that we, ourselves, are nothing more than a product of nature, with all those animal instincts still dormant within our soul. Can education make us better? Perhaps. But the idea that moral progress is a steady climb upwards from the mud and filth and brutal indifference of nature is not very reassuring. For every good impulse we have needs to be ratified daily, and blessed with the knowledge that we are still just one small step from the darkness composing our primal birth. Wisdom is the recognition that no society can ever banish completely the origin of our species. We must live with the knowledge of that inner demon and do what we can to contain it. Otherwise, like Kurtz, we will surely succumb to that primeval call which ends only in darkness.

Monday, May 23, 2016

CONRAD 3: Heart of Darkness (Literature and Darkness)

Heart of Darkness is a story and it’s a good story.  Herodotus tells a good story too in his Persian Wars (GB2) but that’s history, not literature.  Nietzsche also tells a good story in Thus Spake Zarathustra (GB5) but that’s philosophy, not literature.  Conrad’s main goal is not to tell us about the past or to analyze ideas.  His goal is to create a work of art that moves the reader on a different level.  How well he succeeds depends entirely on his ability to create a world in the mind of the reader; how well he can conjure up images and form meaningful scenes made out of nothing but words.  How well did Conrad succeed in doing this in his story, Heart of Darkness?        

In Chapter 3 the scene has Kurtz on a riverboat heading back down the river, back to civilization.  He’s very sick, in more ways than one.  Marlow says “his intelligence was perfectly clear; concentrated, it is true, upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear… But his soul was mad.  Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.”  Marlow thought Kurtz was insane.  The runaway Russian sailor-adventurer disagreed.  He told Marlow “You can’t judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man.”  Why not?  The Declaration of Independence (IGB2) says “all men are created equal” and should be judged by the same laws.  Why use a different standard for Kurtz?  Conrad doesn’t say.  This isn’t a book about political philosophy and Conrad isn’t writing a treatise on equality.  He’s telling a story that focuses on one extraordinary man dying on a riverboat in a dark land far from home.

Death is the ultimate heart of darkness.  History chronicles plenty of deaths.  In Herodotus lots of people die in battle, by drowning, and by disease.  Philosophy also has a lot to say on the subject of death.  In Plato’s Apology (GB1) Socrates thinks death is one of two things: total oblivion or else a place where good people go to be rewarded and bad people go to be punished.  The German philosopher Schopenhauer (GB3) thinks death is a release from the burden of living.  In Rothschild’s Fiddle (GB1) Martha seems to agree.  She’s glad to be leaving her mean-spirited husband Jacob and her impoverished existence in their miserable Russian hut.  Toward the end of his own life Jacob reflects on how empty his life had been.  In that way he’s similar to Kurtz.  The result was a song of sadness that touched the hearts of everyone who heard it.  That’s what art can do.  Thousands upon thousands of people died in Herodotus’ history.  What were any of them thinking about in the last few minutes of life?  We don’t know.  Conrad doesn’t show us what death is like in abstract terms but how it confronts one individual person on an intensely personal level.  For Kurtz it was a dark confrontation.  Marlow heard him mumble “I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.”  Marlow didn’t see oblivion reflected on Kurtz’s face; or reward, or punishment either.  Just “an intense and hopeless despair.”  The last words Marlow heard him say were “The horror! The horror!”  Kurtz faced death the same way he faced life.  That’s what impressed Marlow.  “He had summed up; he had judged.  The horror!  He was a remarkable man.”  Kurtz was remarkable because he told the truth.  Death is horrible.  What was so horrible for Kurtz?  Leaving behind all his unfinished plans?  Facing darkness alone?  The knowledge that his life had been wasted on greed, lust and power?  We don’t know for sure but we all go down that same dark road eventually.  And we travel alone, like Kurtz.  Marlow says death “is the most unexciting contest you can imagine… without spectators, without clamour, without glory.”  All of Kurtz’s ambitious plans, all his ivory and power and glory, all his learning, his “intended” and everything else were of no help to him in the end.  Everyone goes down that same dark road and everyone ends up in the same dark place; in the grave, the real heart of darkness.  Conrad’s bleak vision is a remarkably dark literary achievement.