Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Thursday, May 21, 2015

SHAKESPEARE: King Lear (Act II: The Nature of Families)



In Act I of King Lear we meet Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester.  Edmund isn’t happy about his status.  By society’s standards he’s a bastard.  So he turns away from social norms and proclaims, “Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law my services are bound.”  He decides to follow the laws of Nature rather than conform to the artificial laws governing society and asks, “Wherefore should I stand in the plague of custom…”  This is the same question asked by generations of young men and women: why should I live under society’s rules?  Edmund will make his own rules and forge his own destiny.  He says, “I grow; I prosper.  Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”  Edmund isn’t the only one who has ever followed this path.  There are different interpretations of Nature and what is “natural” regarding family life.  Rousseau interprets Nature this way (The Social Contract, GB Series 1): “The most ancient of all societies, and the only natural one, is that of the family.  Yet children remain bound to the father only as long as they need him for self-preservation.  As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond dissolves.”  Apparently the family is not a part of Rousseau’s Social Contract and Edmund has chosen to dissolve the “natural bond” that binds him to his own father, Gloucester.  He will look after his own interests now.  He will be his own master.  The opposite view is expressed by another Edmund, Edmund Burke (The Revolution in France, GB Series 5): “unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors or of what is due to their posterity, (they) act as if they were the entire masters…destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society, hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of a habitation…”  For Burke destroying the bonds of family ties destroys the whole fabric of society and the State will soon fall apart.

In Act II we see the beginning of the dissolution of two families, King Lear’s and Gloucester’s.  This is also the beginning of the end of the kingdom Lear once governed.  Edmund isn’t the only child who wants to be out from under the influence of a father.  Regan is Lear’s legitimate daughter but she feels the same way Edmund does.  This is what she tells her father: “O, sir, you are old; Nature in you stands on the very verge of her confine.  You should be rul’d and led by some discretion that discerns your state better than you yourself.”  Edmund rejects Gloucester as a father because he’s an illegitimate son.  Regan’s argument is different.  She isn’t totally rejecting Lear as a father but she is rejecting his authority over her.  In Rousseau’s terms Regan no longer needs Lear for “self-preservation” so she’s dissolving the bond of daughter and father.  Or, if not actually dissolving it, she’s changing the terms of the contract.  Now that she has economic and political power she’ll be her own woman.  This has a modern ring to it and Regan makes her case for becoming a liberated woman.  Her argument also sounds modern because it’s both rational and utilitarian: I’m doing this for your own good.            

This is Regan’s public motivation.  But modern readers are interested in psychological motives and it’s interesting what Freud has to say regarding fathers (Civilization and Its Discontents, GB Series 1): “The derivation of religious needs from the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it seems to me incontrovertible, especially since the feeling is not simply prolonged from childhood days, but is permanently sustained by fear of the superior power of Fate.”  What is the Fate of children who reject their fathers?  Edmund and Regan are about to find out.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

SHAKESPEARE: King Lear (Act I: Being King Lear’s Daughter)



Recently there was a new film version of the old fairy tale Cinderella.  Many a young girl came to the movie dressed up like a princess.  Being a pretend princess is a wonderful daydream; but being a real princess involves real problems.  This is just one of several themes Shakespeare explores in King Lear.  Whether it’s good to be a princess depends a lot on who your father is.  Lear was no better at being a father than he was at being king.  Early in the play Lear does something fathers should never do.  He puts his children’s love to the test.  Its true God once put Abraham to the test (Genesis, GB Series 1 / The Knight of Faith, GB Series 2).  But Lear is not God.  Not by a long shot.  And he presents this unfair test to his three daughters: “Tell me, my daughters, since now we will divest us both of rule, interest of territory, cares of state; which of you shall we say doth love us most, that we our largest bounty may extend…”  Goneril goes first and says there are no words which can express the depth and breadth and height of her love for Daddy.  Regan goes next and says the same thing except her love is even stronger than Goneril’s.  Lear likes both of these responses.  They’re exactly the kind of thing he wants to hear.  Then it’s Cordelia’s turn.  How well can she play this royal rhetorical game of who lovest Daddy the mostest?  Lear encourages Cordelia by asking what she can add to this love fest.  Cordelia’s response surprises him: “Nothing my lord.”  Lear: “Nothing!”  Cordelia: “Nothing.”  Lear: “Nothing will come of nothing.  Speak again.”  Cordelia does speak again but this time her speech is worse than nothing.  She says what she really thinks.  Cordelia: “I love your Majesty according to my bond; no more nor less… You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me; I return those duties back as are right fit…” 

Ponder this response for a moment.  Lear has three daughters, each one a princess.  What should a princess say?  How should a princess act?  What exactly does a princess do anyway?  In Henry Adams’ terms we might ask what kind of education does a princess need?  It’s an important question.  Goneril and Regan would answer: a princess needs royal rhetorical persuasion techniques.  This is the Machiavellian, Realpolitik approach to governing.  Say what you have to say to get your way.  Love is just one more material factor to be calculated into this worldview.  Cordelia thinks the most important quality for a princess is having a good heart.  This is the Aristotelian approach of governing by virtue.  Aristotle says (Politics, GB Series 2) “mankind always acts in order to obtain that which they think good.”  In Lear’s situation it’s interesting Aristotle also says, “the first thing to arise is the family… the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life.”  Here’s the problem.  The sisters don’t agree on the nature of the good life.  For Goneril and Regan power is the source of the good life.  Their line of thinking is this: you can’t do anything, either good or bad, unless you have power.  But for Cordelia the good life is based on virtue.  And Cordelia’s idea of virtue is Aristotelian.  She says she loves Lear as a daughter should love her father: “according to my bond; no more nor less…”  In her mind being a princess means doing her duty and “I return those duties back as are right fit…”  This kind of thinking comes straight out of Aristotle’s Ethics; moderation, nothing to excess, not even praise.  But philosophy is too hard for King Lear.  His question for Cordelia is: “So young, and so untender?”  Cordelia’s response is: “So young, my lord, and true.”  King Lear doesn’t know Cordelia is really the true (and good) princess.  Lear should have spent more time reading his Great Books, especially Aristotle. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

SHAKESPEARE: King Lear (Act I: Being King)



In our previous selection we read about Henry Adams never getting the education he believed he needed in order to have a successful life; in this selection we read about a king who never got the education he needed to be a successful ruler.  In The Education of Henry Adams we see a young man who doesn’t know any better; in King Lear we see an old man who should have known better.  King Lear never learned the things it’s vital every king should know.  In the very first scene of the play we see the seeds being planted for Lear’s downfall when he says: “Know that we have divided in three our kingdom; and ‘tis our fast intent to shake all cares and business from our age, conferring them on younger strengths, while we unburden’d crawl toward death.”  King Lear proposes to abdicate the throne and divide his kingdom among his three daughters.  This is a bad idea for at least two reasons.  First of all, he’s dividing his power instead of consolidating it.  He never learned the lessons of power: how to get it, how to hold on to it, how to use it wisely.  Lear would have been wise to read Machiavelli’s The Prince (GB Series 3) before abdicating.  Machiavelli says “there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to manage than to introduce a new system of things.”  Abdicating the throne definitely qualifies as a new system of things.  Lear will no longer be in charge, his daughters will.  This is dangerous.  Lear believes his daughters love him and maybe they do.  However, Machiavelli says “it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two must be lacking.”  This is a sad commentary on human nature but Machiavelli elaborates on this theme by noting “love is held by a link of obligation, which, since men are wretched creatures, is broken every time their own interests are involved; but fear is held by a dread of punishment which will never leave you.”  As a father Lear’s daughters may choose to love him or not.  As a king Lear’s daughters will at least fear him.  But as an old man without any power Lear’s daughters obviously won’t be afraid of him.  Lear should have learned how important it is to assess human character and discern the political motives lurking beneath the surface, even in one’s own family.  He would have known not to mistake enemies for friends and friends for enemies.  Machiavelli’s counsel was this: “the lion has no protection from traps, and the fox is defenseless against the wolves.  It is necessary, therefore, to be a fox in order to know the traps, and a lion to frighten the wolves.”  Lear was neither a fox nor a lion and two of his daughters turned out to be wolves laying traps.  Machiavelli would have advised Lear to keep the army under the command of the king because “if he has good armed forces he will always have good friends.”      

The second reason Lear should not have abdicated is this.  He wants to retain the privileges of being a king without shouldering the burdens of kingship.  This is understandable.  Creon makes the same argument in Oedipus the King (GB Series 6) when he says: “I was not born with such a frantic desire to be a king; but to do what kings do… As it stands now, the prizes are all mine; and without fear.  But if I were the king myself…” things wouldn’t be so good.  Creon wants the same things King Lear wants: the privileges of being king without the responsibility of actually governing.  Governing is hard work and Lear is an old man.  If Lear just wanted to retire and live out his life in peace and quiet it wouldn’t be a problem.  But Lear wants to use old age as an excuse to quit working and party.  He wants to keep a hundred knights so they can hunt and drink and carouse all night.  No good can come of this.  Lear should have read his Great Books.

Monday, May 11, 2015

ADAMS: The Education of Henry Adams (Harvard: What Education?)



Henry Adams claims he learned very little during his school years and very little at Harvard College.  Question: then how did he come to know so much about so many things?  Consider what he had to say about Harvard: “Harvard College, as far as it educated at all, was a mild and liberal school, which sent young men into the world with all they needed to make respectable citizens, and something of what they wanted to make useful ones.  Leaders of men it never tried to make.  Its ideals were altogether different.  The Unitarian clergy had given to the College a character of moderation, balance, judgment, restraint…”  Only a well-educated person can write like that.  Henry Adams was obviously an educated man.  But he didn’t think so.  He thought he never got the answers he needed.  What is this education Henry Adams was seeking and never found? 

Long ago another young man asked the same questions Henry was asking.  The Preacher in Ecclesiastes (GB Series 5) said: “I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.  And I gave my heart to seek and search out wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven…”  And what did the Preacher find?  Pretty much the same thing Henry found: “all is vanity and vexation of spirit.  That which is crooked cannot be made straight.”  In other words we are what we are.  You can’t take a man born in a king’s palace (Solomon, the Preacher) and turn him into a peasant.  You can’t take a melancholy man like Henry Adams and turn him into an optimist.  This kind of thinking goes against the American grain.  Self-improvement is one of America’s great national pastimes and reading Great Books is an example of American confidence that personal effort leads to wisdom.  But even if that’s true and we do somehow become wise the Preacher points out “in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”  So why keep increasing knowledge by reading Great Books?  Do we really want wisdom under those conditions?  Henry Adams kept on learning throughout his life.  And the more he learned the more dissatisfied he became.  Is it worth it?  Yes, says John Stuart Mill (Utilitarianism, GB Series 4), “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”  No, says the Preacher, know when enough is enough: “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”  Henry Adams didn’t really know what he wanted or where he belonged so he just kept on going.  And the more he learned, the more confused he became.  For example, Henry says “Chemistry taught him a number of theories that befogged his mind for a life-time.”  But for the Preacher enough is enough.  He learned what he needed to know and made his decision: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”  The purpose of education for the Preacher was to accept our lot in life and make the best of it.  The purpose of education for Dante (Inferno, GB Series 5) was to keep out of hell.  The purpose of education for Burke was to pass down traditions from one generation to the next.  No wonder Henry Adams was confused.  The burning question was this: what was the purpose of education for Henry Adams?  He wanted to find his place in the world and, in a broader context, the universe.  What did he find?  Adams “like the rest of mankind who accepted a material universe remained always an insect, or something much lower; a man.”  Really?  That’s it?  The question facing each generation is this: what education?  What works for me?  Great Books offer many different options on education; so many options that Henry spent his whole life trying to make up his mind.     

Thursday, May 07, 2015

ADAMS: The Education of Henry Adams (Harvard: Henry and Roony)



For the past three weeks we’ve followed Henry Adams from Quincy to Boston and seen his adolescent memories of Mount Vernon, Virginia.  What effect did the rural life of Quincy, the commercial and political interests of Boston, and the genteel plantation life of Virginia have on young Henry Adams?  Very little effect at all, as it turned out.  From his earliest days Henry hated (what we would now call) elementary school. And it never got any better.  Reflecting on his college years Henry wrote, “Harvard College was a good school, but at bottom what the boy disliked most was any school at all.”  He didn’t have anything in particular against Harvard.  It was the idea behind American (and European) education that he despised.  Nothing in particular upset him.  It was just the whole concept of one generation handing down an “education” to the next generation like it was a suit of clothes.  A statement in his Preface is interesting on this point: “to become a manikin on which the toilet of education is to be draped in order to show the fit or misfit of the clothes.”  In his own experience Henry didn’t think education was adapted to the needs of the student.  In fact, it did the opposite.  It maimed the manikin (the student) and unfitted him for life.  In later years Henry wrote, “The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught. Sometimes in after life, Adams debated whether in fact it had not ruined him and most of his companions…”

Did education ruin Henry Adams?  Did it ruin his companions?  An interesting case study is his Harvard classmate, Roony Lee.  They had a lot in common.  Henry Adams had an illustrious family history but so did Roony.  Roony’s father was Robert E. Lee and he was distantly related to George Washington and even Charles II.  In addition to Roony’s family background, Henry noted “Lee was a gentleman of the old school…”  Henry wanted to be a gentleman of the old school too.  So they had a lot in common but Henry tells us “For a year, at least, Lee was the most popular and prominent young man in his class, but then seemed slowly to drop into the background.  The habit of command was not enough, and the Virginian had little else.”  We don’t know what Roony’s assessment of Henry was but it would probably sound something like this: Henry lacked self-confidence and constantly second guessed everything.  He didn’t seem to know what he wanted and always saw a half empty glass.  Is this an accurate description of Henry’s character?  It’s hard to say.  What we do know is Henry wrote in a sort of melancholy tone at the end of a life he considered to be a mild failure.  His believed his “education” had ruined him.  Henry never made any fatal mistakes but he never made any bold moves either.  For example, instead of heading out west where the action was (as Theodore Roosevelt did) Henry pretty much stayed home (within his own psychological comfort zone) and settled into a nice safe career at (surprise!) Harvard.  In some ways he did accomplish a lot.  “He wrote two novels…taught medieval history at Harvard and wrote a nine-volume History of the United States of America.”  That’s not too shabby.  What about Roony?  What happened to him?  After Harvard Roony became a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army.  He later rose to the rank of Major General (second highest in the chain of command) of the Confederate Cavalry.  During the war he was wounded, captured by Union soldiers, and later released in a prisoner exchange.  After the war he ran two plantations, was elected to the Virginia Senate, and served as a Congressman in Washington until his death in 1891.  Which man had a better life: Henry or Roony?  It’s too bad we don’t have another perspective in a book called The Education of Roony Lee.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Road Less Traveled

What is education? The word comes from the Latin root "educatio" which is derived from "ducere"-- to lead. So to be educated is in some sense to be led from one place (or state of mind) to another. But as any teacher knows, education cannot occur without a willing suspension of disbelief. Every student must, in some sense, participate in his own transformation from a state of ignorance to some higher level of perception. For Plato, education was the journey we take when we abandon the cave of shadows and move towards the light of the sun. Thus, the shadows of ignorance are replaced by illumination. But the quest for knowledge is always difficult and requires a strong heart, for you are required to abandon all your assumptions and the ideas that are familiar to you, for the sake of obtaining that which is yet unknown, and move toward the undiscovered country of "things as they are," rather than as you imagined them to be.

This is the journey that Henry Adams is on. He is searching for truth (or education) but he is doing it his own way. He does not much care for the traditional path to knowledge represented by institutions like Harvard College. He prefers what some might describe as "the school of hard knocks" or personal experience.  Theory and the abstractions of philosophy don't impress Henry Adams. He is more influenced by the example of people he admires, such as his father or Charles Sumner. For young Adams, facts are a slippery slope toward moral confusion. But some people, like George Washington, rise above the political turmoil of their day. Their values and their honor are unshakeable and resist all the winds of social change. the young Adams is on a kind of personal journey to try and figure out what is worth knowing and who is deserving of his trust.

In his own mind, he has already decided that Boston is a lost cause, for it is rampant with intrigue and politics. Quincy is more to his liking. On his journey to Mount Vernon, which is George Washington's estate, the young Adams finds the Elysian Fields of his mind, filled with tranquility and grace. Although, he objects to the idea of slavery, he understands the economic role it plays in the embedded culture of the south.  What he can't separate in his mind is the life of tranquility represented by Mount Vernon, with the abhorrent practice of slavery:

 "the boy might ignore, as a mere historical puzzle, the question how to deduce George Washington from the sum of all wickedness, but he had himself helped to deduce Charles Sumner from the sum of political corruption. On that line too, education could go no further."

To my ear, this sounds awfully close to the sentiment of those famous lines from Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

In other words, education has its limits. There are boundaries to our mind's reach. Surely, contradictions and ambiguities exist in the world of men that cannot be avoided or explained by any metaphysics taught in any book. But one is tempted to respond that slavery or injustice is not a metaphysical problem. It is a social problem that will be solved by men deciding what kind of society they want for themselves. All social values are chosen; not discovered. One doesn't have to read the definition of honor in order to bear witness to its worth. Part of what Adams means by education is simply the metamorphosis that every human being undergoes in his personal journey from being a boy to being a man. That is not something that Harvard's curriculum can fix. And that is why Henry Adams has chosen a different path to follow than his more famous kin.

Monday, May 04, 2015

ADAMS: The Education of Henry Adams (Washington: North and South)



Henry Adams wanted a broader kind of education than the one he found in school.  He wanted to find out about love for example.  And violence was also a subject a young man needed to know.  But there were other things beyond the range of his youthful experience.  Except for love and violence Henry didn’t know what subjects he needed to know.  One of these subjects was the difference between his Northern way of life and the Southern way of life.  Henry had never been down South and his first journey to Virginia was an eye-opener for an idealistic young man.  Adams wrote, “Mount Vernon (George Washington’s homeplace)… gave him a complete Virginia education.”  Virginia was not Massachusetts.  And Mount Vernon was not Quincy.  And the further south Henry went the further he got out of his comfort zone.  His Virginia education began by traveling through Maryland.  Henry noted “the town of Quincy was far from being a vision of neatness… (but) Maryland was raggedness of a new kind.  The railway rambled through unfenced fields and woods, or through village streets, among a haphazard variety of pigs, cows, and negro babies.”  He wasn’t used to raggedness, unfenced fields, a haphazard life, “negro” babies, or for that matter any real black people at all. 

What was Henry’s reaction to all these new sensations?  At first he was horrified.  “The more he was educated, the less he understood.  Slavery struck him in the face; it was a nightmare.”  Virginia had bad roads and “bad roads meant bad morals.”  His attitude was probably not much different from a modern American suburbanite travelling through a bad neighborhood and thinking: bad neighborhoods mean bad morals.  Henry came to this conclusion: “The moral of this Virginia road was clear… Slavery was wicked, and slavery was the cause of this road’s badness…”  The modern suburbanite might come to the same conclusion that crime is wicked and crime is the cause of this neighborhood’s badness.  Or poverty is wicked and poverty is the cause of this neighborhood’s badness.  But Henry paused to ponder this question.  Is there really a cause and effect to social conditions?  Or are human beings just trying to get along the best they can using the tools handed down to them by parents and grandparents?  Here was the problem.  “Slave States were dirty, unkempt, poverty-stricken, ignorant, vicious!…yet the picture had another side…the thickness of the foliage and the heavy smells, the sense of atmosphere…the brooding indolence of a warm climate and a negro population hung in the atmosphere heavier than the catalpas.  The impression was not simple, but the boy liked it.”  Henry came to the strange conclusion that “Mount Vernon was only Quincy in a southern setting.”  This was heresy to an Adams.  And yet it was a valuable part of his education. When Henry first headed down South “Life was not yet complicated.  Every problem had a solution…”  This was an article of faith for a boy from Boston.  But somehow “before he was fifteen years old, he had managed to get himself into a state of moral confusion from which he never escaped.”  Henry was confused because his New England ideals clashed with a world that is ragged and dirty and offers no easy solutions.  Henry became morally confused; probably similar to the moral confusion many modern Americans feel about problems in the Middle East.  Is education simply the process of getting ourselves out of this state of moral confusion?  Henry didn’t know.  All he knew was “he felt himself shut out of Boston… Always he felt himself somewhere else; perhaps in Washington with its social ease, perhaps in Europe…”  Perhaps even in Virginia.  This was heresy.  Henry’s education wasn’t complete.  It was just beginning.