Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Thursday, November 19, 2015

CHEKHOV: In Exile (Freedom and Happiness)

In Plato’s Apology (GB1) Socrates is convicted by a jury of Athenian citizens.  Then he’s given a choice between being exiled from Athens or receiving the death penalty.  “Would it not be possible for you to live in exile, Socrates, if you were silent and kept quiet?”  Socrates says no.  He will not accept exile and silence because “the unexamined life is not for man worth living.”  Is exile such a terrible punishment?  Chekhov’s short story In Exile gives flesh and blood to that question.  A Tartar recently exiled to Siberia sums it up best when he says “Bad!  Bad!  Surveying the landscape with dismay.”  “You’ll get used to it,” responds the old-timer Semyon.  “This is no paradise, of course.  You can see for yourself; water, bare banks, nothing but clay wherever you look…but the time will come when you’ll say to yourself: may God give everyone such a life.”  It may be significant that Semyon’s nickname is “Preacher.”  In Ecclesiastes (GB5) King Solomon is also called The Preacher.  And the wisdom taught by The Preacher is to find out from personal experience that “all is vanity (worthless, pointless).”  Is that true? 

In Siberia this is not just an abstract question.  Put another way: what makes life worth living, even in Siberia?  Semyon doesn’t have a problem with it.  He bluntly says “even in Siberia people can live.”  Maybe people can live there (although survive might be a more appropriate term).  But what the Tartar wants to know is, can people be happy there?  Aristotle answers this question quite nicely in his essay On Happiness (GB1).  The short answer is, no.  Semyon the Preacher says “I want nothing!  No father, no mother, no wife, no freedom, no house nor home!”  That may be good Stoic philosophy but it’s not Aristotle’s philosophy.  For Aristotle the key to happiness is not to want nothing, it’s to want the right things in the right way.  And he would call Semyon a “tribeless, lawless, hearthless one.”  This is no way to live, much less live the good life Aristotle has in mind.  On the other hand, Semyon may have a point.  They’re out in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do and plenty of time to do it in.  They’re barely one step above the raw state of nature described by Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke.  To get any meaning out of life these exiles must pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  One gentleman named Vasily Sergeich put it this way, “I want to live by my own labor, in the sweat of my brow, because I’m no longer a gentleman, but an exile.”  Ironically The Preacher in Ecclesiastes sums up his long quest for wisdom with this homely advice: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”  There doesn’t seem to be any work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in Siberia.  And what Semyon said may be true.  Siberia is no paradise.  But that doesn’t prevent Sergeich from trying to improve his life.  Sergeich’s response to the harsh Siberian exile is this: “Yes, Semyon, even in Siberia people can live.  Even in Siberia there is happiness.  Look, see what a daughter I’ve got!”  Semyon agrees she’s a fine young lady “But I think to myself…she withered and withered and wasted away, fell ill; and now she’s completely worn out.  Consumption.  That’s your Siberian happiness for you.  That’s how people can live in Siberia!”

Chekhov’s story uses the theme of Siberian exile to present two stark approaches to freedom.  John Locke said we give up freedom in a state of nature for the more restricted, but more secure, freedom of living in a political community.  Chekhov presents the opposite situation.  Semyon and Sergeich are driven out of their political community back into the state of nature in Siberia.  The only freedom they have left is the freedom to choose how they face adversity.  Semyon chooses resignation; to want nothing.  Sergeich tries to rebuild his family as a small community in the wilderness.  In Chekhov’s world freedom and happiness are both in short supply.      

Friday, November 13, 2015

LOCKE: Of Civil Government (Freedom and Equality)

Reading William Faulkner’s Barn Burning makes some readers stop and ponder.  Why do we prefer living in civilized society with other people under organized governments instead of just roaming around the world on our own, similar to Abner Scopes, free to do as we please?  Aristotle said we have a natural instinct to form families.  These family bonds then extend outward to form villages of like-minded families.  Only by establishing social relationships can we go on to develop those larger communities called cities which make the good life possible.  Hobbes disagreed.  He said governments are formed primarily out of fear.  We band together for protection against those who would do us harm.  By combining our forces we can defend ourselves against those most cunning and dangerous of predators, other human beings.             

In this week’s reading John Locke brings a different perspective to the discussion.  His insight is that “the great and chief end of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.”  For Locke the desire to get and hold on to personal possessions is a uniquely human quality.  Many animals hoard food.  But only human beings want things like books and dining room tables and fancy clothes.  We not only want these things, we want to own them for ourselves.  And we don’t want other people taking them away from us.  In Gogol’s short story The Overcoat (GB4) a poor office clerk scrimps and saves for months to buy a luxurious new coat; only to have it stolen from him by thieves.  According to Locke this is the reason we have governments.  When thieves can steal someone else’s property we return to a state of nature.  When a man can burn down another man’s barn without being punished we return to a state of nature.  What is this state of nature?  Locke believes the state of nature is “a state of perfect freedom…a state also of equality.”  This sounds easy enough.  Until we start digging into the details.  What does Locke mean by freedom?  What does he mean by equality?  And these seemingly simply questions lead to more complex ones.  Does personal freedom ultimately result in social and economic inequalities?  Does the liberty guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution ultimately result in men like Major de Spain and Abner Snopes?

Locke helps us sort through this complex problem.  What does Locke mean by freedom?  He says the “state of liberty…is not a state of license.”  Men are free to “dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit” but they’re not free to do anything they please.  Why not?  Because “the state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law…”  Rational man lives by rational law and Locke says “it is not without reason that he seeks out and is willing to join in society with others.”  A civilized society has “an established, settled, known law, received and allowed by common consent to be the standard of right and wrong…”  That’s why Abner Snopes would only burn barns in the dead of the night.  He knew the common consent of the community.  Burning another man’s barn was wrong.  Snopes may have argued that it wasn’t fair for de Spain to have a home as big as a courthouse while the Snopes family has to share a two room shack.  Snopes doesn’t think this is equality and wants to help level the playing field.  So what does Locke have to say about this version of equality?  He thinks there’s political equality when “all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.”  Power and jurisdiction are the key terms.  Government will use the power of the law to protect Snopes two room shack just as much as it protects de Spain’s mansion.  In that sense they are equal.  Karl Marx (GB1) protests that this theory of government protects the rich and property should be redistributed for true equality.  In 19th century Russia that kind of thinking could land you in Siberia.  And that’s where our next reading takes place.

Justice and Civility

The Faulkner story poses some troubling issues for us as we try and get a handle on what is the meaning of justice. I think Hobbes would say that people like Snopes need to obey the law or be punished. Most of us would agree. But what happens when a large number of people start acting like Abner Snopes? That’s a violation of the social contract. Every man’s property needs to be respected and left alone. But Snope operates according to his own set of rules. That’s why we have prisons. He belongs in jail, but the legal system was incapable of dealing with him. That’s what leads to individuals taking the law into their own hands. Society breaks down when the law is incapable of controlling people who do not believe in or care about the principle of justice.

Snopes is a miscreant. He doesn’t really have a political philosophy. He just goes around doing whatever he pleases. He ought to be hanged, or at the very least be sent into exile. The principle of justice, the way it is interpreted by law, is limited to the definition of right and wrong as spelled out in the criminal code. That includes a proper observance of the rules for introducing evidence at trial. For a lawyer, justice only extends as far as the courtroom. Outside the court room, justice is only an abstract idea. But we are bound to stay within the limits of this flawed system. Otherwise, we fall back to the state of nature, where right and wrong are decided by power and strength alone.

What’s the moral of the story? True justice exists only in our minds. It is an abstract idea. Real justice is limited by our collective desire (and will) to minimize harm, which implies a measure of self-denial. We might feel better if we just said the heck with evidence, and just hanged Snopes from the nearest tree. But what happens when an innocent man is wrongly put to death? So we err on the side of compassion, or if not compassion, mere prudence. To avoid the greater harm, we accept the lesser evil.

What are the ingredients for a healthy community? Having a common set of values is a good place to start. Unless everyone buys into the same idea of civility, society cannot function, or it cannot function with any semblance of virtue. What is most disturbing to me about this story is that it reminds us that the many (in society) are always held hostage to the few (those without honor). No society can function well if Snopes are running around loose. Is that the price of freedom? To tolerate evil? What is more important? To have a good society, with all its restrictions, or to have a diverse society which tolerates all kinds of weird ideas and personalities. The good society might become boring, but it would be peaceful. The diverse (or “open”) society would never be boring, but it sure as hell would never be secure.

Actually, in a state of nature Snopes would be killed off fairly soon. Because Snopes can only victimize the innocent. In a raw state of nature (“red in tooth and claw”), no one is innocent. The innocent get killed off right away. What remain are the strong and the clever. Snopes is neither strong nor clever. He’s just a bully. Like all bullies, he terrorizes those weaker than himself. But in a state of nature, where strength overcomes compassion. there would be plenty of bullies stronger than Snopes.

Unfortunately, in a state of nature, the innocent are forever at the mercy of the strong. So, unless the strong are feeling merciful, then the innocent have no chance. The innocent have no one but the virtuous to help them. But in a state of nature, does virtue even exist? For me, that is the real question. By renouncing violence and cruelty, society transforms human nature (with all its capacity for sin) into virtue. Something tells me that Saint Augustine would say yes. But only if society itself is transformed into a Kingdom of Grace. And as far as I can tell, we are nowhere close to being a Kingdom of Grace. In the mean time, the best that we can achieve is to construct a republic based on law and civility.

But that still leaves a question about law itself. Can any law, in any republic, ever be better than the people who make that law? Can we rise above the limits of human nature? Isn't that the question which Plato asked in the Republic? Can human society ever be virtuous, or are we bound to repeat the mistakes of the past? Hobbes tells us that without a strong sovereign to lead us, we all become like Snopes. So we need to yield a little of our freedom in exchange for the promise of safety and a hope for a better world. But the laws we create can never guarantee our future happiness. They simply insulate us from the disease of solipsism, so that we do not become exiled into the same realm of darkness which clearly enveloped Snopes.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

FAULKNER: Barn Burning (Abner Snopes and Justice)

We’ve been considering a couple of theories about the origin of political communities.  Aristotle thinks governments were formed as a natural extension of family units.  Hobbes thinks governments were formed as a contract between all the members of society.  William Faulkner’s short story about barn burning poses a dilemma for both theories.  Aristotle and Hobbes presented their cases as the ideal situation.  But real life is less than ideal.  Faulkner’s story makes us pause to consider what happens when people don’t live according to theories.  Abner Snopes is not a good father and he’s not a good neighbor.  He refuses to acknowledge any family connection to or social contract with the larger community.  He makes up his own rules and lives by his own theories.  What should society do with a man like that?

The story begins with a Justice of the Peace trying to sort out a personal feud between Mr. Snopes and his neighbor Mr. Harris.  The judge asks “what proof have you, Mr. Harris?”  Mr. Harris tells a story about Snopes’ hog getting into his corn and one thing leads to another until finally someone brings Harris a message from Snopes that “wood and hay kin burn.”  Mr. Harris continues by telling the judge “that night my barn burned.  I got the stock out but I lost the barn.”  The judge is sympathetic but rules “that’s not proof.  Don’t you see that’s not proof?”  There’s little doubt Snopes burned Mr. Harris’s barn.  But there’s nothing the judge can do about it.  So he presents his final judgment.  “This case is closed.  I can’t find against you, Snopes, but I can give you advice.  Leave this county and don’t come back… Take your wagon and get out of this county before dark.  Case dismissed.”  The judge did what judges are supposed to do.  He followed the rule of law handed down to him by society.  His role (the “contract” he had with his community) was to enforce that law, not make up his own mind about what was fair.  This scene brings up once more a fundamental question raised in many Great Books readings: what is justice?  Is the primary purpose of justice to protect the innocent and punish the guilty?  Or is justice the process of protecting the rights of all parties, no matter if they’re innocent or guilty?  The ideal answer would be: both.  But real life is less than ideal.  So we’re still stuck with the same question.  What should society do with a man like Snopes?

Philosophers and legal scholars can debate theories of justice.  But ordinary Americans have to live with “neighbors” like Abner Scopes.  Do we count on police and the court system to protect family and property?  Or do we take our own precautions to protect ourselves from the Abner Scopes of the world?  What should we do?  The question is more practical than philosophical.  One thing we can do is turn to Great Books for advice.  Aristotle’s advice would be to concentrate on family life.  He thinks the family is the basic building block of the community.  Good fathers build good families.  Dysfunctional families result in dysfunctional communities.  Abner Scopes is like a disease in the body politic and the Snopes children need better role models or the cycle will continue.  Public policy should focus (much like a physician) on growing healthy communities.  Hobbes would advise us instead to look for strong rulers and strong judges who will protect the community from men like Abner Snopes.  The judge in this story merely punted the problem over to the next county and another judge.  If we don’t take firm action against men like Snopes then life in our own community will become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Hobbes thinks Aristotle’s family therapy plan simply will not work.  Snopes is a tyrant to his own family and demands unquestioning obedience but shows nothing but contempt for other families.  Faulkner’s Barn Burning story doesn’t solve the problem of justice but Abner Snopes rivals Dostoevsky’s Underground Man as literature’s Anti-social Man.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

HOBBES: Of Commonwealth (Of Bees and Men)

Our last reading was about politics.  Aristotle said the origin of government is a natural instinct common among men.  In this week’s reading Thomas Hobbes takes up the same theme but disagrees with Aristotle on key points.  Hobbes says “bees and ants live sociably with one another, which are therefore by Aristotle numbered amongst political creatures… some man may perhaps desire to know why mankind cannot do the same.”  This is a good question.  Other “political creatures” (bees for example) live in harmony with one another.  Why can’t people do the same?  Especially if Aristotle is right and government is a natural instinct common to all political creatures?  Hobbes lists several objections but basically rejects the whole idea that human government is in fact a natural instinct.  Hobbes believes human government is an artificial institution and begins when “men agree amongst themselves to submit to some man, or assembly of men, voluntarily, on confidence to be protected by him against all others.  This may be called a political commonwealth, or commonwealth by institution.”  Bees may live peaceably with their fellow bees by following their natural instincts but “men are continually in competition for honor and dignity which these creatures are not.”  We saw this clearly in The Iliad (GB3) when Achilles wanted personal glory and honor more than he wanted a Greek victory over the Trojans.  His pride was inflamed when Agamemnon took away his war prize.  In Achilles’ mind his war prize was his personal possession, his own private property, and Agamemnon was stealing it from him.  And to add insult to injury, Agamemnon wasn’t doing it for the benefit of the common good of the Greeks.  He was doing it because of their personal feud.  Hobbes makes the observation that “amongst bees the common good differeth not from the private.”  Karl Marx (GB1) and Adam Smith (GB2) both had strong opinions about the effects of private property on human society.  Is private property the source of conflict (as Marx says) or is it the source of communal prosperity (as Smith says)?  And it’s worth pondering how much the common good is affected by what political leaders do in their private lives.  Do private activities affect the public good?  Americans don’t agree on these points and neither do philosophers.  Why?  Hobbes says bees “having not (as man) the use of reason, do not see, nor think they see, any fault in the administration of their common business.”  Bees never worry about how they can improve the hive.  They just do what bees do.  They go about their business of patiently making honey and more bees.  They never steal, break into open rebellion or propose changes in administrative policy.  But men do all these things.  Why?

This takes us back to the original disagreement between Aristotle and Hobbes: “the agreement of bees is natural (Aristotle’s view); that of men is by covenant only, which is artificial” (Hobbes’ view).  So a seemingly abstract philosophical question (what is the origin of the state?) winds up being crucial in actually deciding practical questions.  What does it matter if the state is natural or artificial?  If the state is artificial (as Hobbes believes) then we might agree with Rousseau in The Social Contract (GB1) when he says: “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.”  Under this theory families stay together only so long as it serves their own best interests.  Once children can fend for themselves the family continues only as a voluntary and artificial institution.  Thus, the political community under Rousseau’s theory is more like a contract.  Edmund Burke takes Aristotle’s side and disagrees with Hobbes and Rousseau.  In The Revolution in France (GB5) Burke says “Society is indeed a contract… but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement...”  He believes social bonds run deeper than any legal contract.  For Burke and Aristotle society is a natural organic whole and not the artificial institution described by Rousseau and Hobbes.  But this much they all agree on: men don’t live like bees.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Aristotle and Nature

Aristotle is interesting. But he raises questions about the nature of man which are not really addressed by his ideas on politics. I think Aristotle believes that man is a political animal, whose nature is to live within society and formulate laws by which rational men choose to live. That is all well and good. But he skips over the whole problem of what is really "natural" and how man fits into a scheme of nature while remaining apart from it. Because we know from political theory (Hobbes, for example), that man in a state of nature is not significantly more than an upright beast. We know that at some point in history, one portion of humanity decided to remove itself from the insecurity of nature (the so-called wilderness), and live instead within an enclosed space which we call a city. Without walls, no city can offer much protection from either bandits or beasts. So, it became "natural" for cities to establish boundaries which extended as far as the walls reached.

Early in the history of civilization, there arose two kinds of people: those who roamed over the face of the earth searching for something to eat (or steal); and those who lived within cities. People who lived in cities soon figured out how to grow things so they developed agriculture. People who were constantly on the move (nomads, vagabonds, gypsies, etc.), figured out how to ride horses and made a living for themselves by stealing other people's food and taking whatever they wanted. They were basically hunters.

Aristotle seems to believe that only people who live in cities are "natural." Therefore, all other people must be unnatural. But this is silly. Insofar as people share a common origin, they are all natural.  As Rousseau would point out, what we have in common is the undisputed fact that human beings started out living in trees and eating fruit. Then, just like other monkeys, we climbed down out of the trees and figured out how to find food by walking from one place to another. Somewhere along the way, we got tired of just eating nuts and berries, and we developed a taste for meat. So, we figured out how to make spears and tools to help us kill other animals so we didn't have to rely on berries. At this point in time, I guess Aristotle would say that man was not yet civilized.  But he was very much a product of nature.  So, when and where did man begin to lose his connection with nature?  It seems to me that the first stage was our transition from climbing trees to walking about on the ground.  The next stage was when some men decided that living in cities was preferable to wandering around looking for food. So, the development of agriculture made living in cities possible, which also made it possible for man to separate himself from nature.

Once you have cities, you find out pretty soon that you need some form of government. Over time, customs evolve and laws are instituted.  The idea of a "good life" becomes associated with living in a city with all its rules and bureaucracy. But throughout history, there have always been people who feel suffocated by fences, rules, ordinances, laws and all the elements of bureaucracy. They prefer to live outside cities on their own. It wasn't just Genghis Khan who objected to living inside a walled city. The average American farmer used to prefer the open country to living inside metropolitan areas. What about all those people who were explorers and wanderers? The American cowboy living out in the wide open prairie. Many people (like Thoreau or Davy Crockett) would consider living inside a city as something less than natural. So, when Aristotle says that the "good life" is only possible within a republic or a city, he is really talking about a particular kind of good life.

The designation of what is "natural" versus artificial is quite arbitrary. Aristotle has a particular idea of nature but it is not the only possible version. Rousseau would argue that living behind city walls is about as unnatural as you can get. All man made laws are made out of convenience. The notion that man is "by nature" a taxpayer is pretty ludicrous. There is nothing natural about taxes. Nietzsche would say that only the weak man, who is incapable of feeding himself in the wilderness, would conceive of an arrangement whereby some men voluntarily give up a portion of their wealth (or as Adam Smith would say, their "produce") to a government agency to distribute funds (or social welfare) to their neighbor. What a strange idea!

All of these laws and institutions for justice are justified in the larger scheme or desire for the so-called "good life." Modern psychology would say that the concept of a "good life" is nothing more than our childish desire for things that we are not able to obtain with our own power. On the other hand, it is certainly true that most Americans have a much higher standard of living than people in Somalia or Afghanistan. You can only desire something if you believe that it exists.  If you are born into poverty and slavery, and everyone around you is in the same condition, its hard to believe that such a thing as freedom even exists. And yet, the idea of freedom persists even when the reality is gone. But is it natural to believe in freedom, or is it an idea that came into existence only when the practice of slavery was introduced? In other words, do our ideas and beliefs depend on some memory of an earlier condition in nature? Animals don't enslave one another. They eat one another for food. But only people believe in ideas like civilization, freedom, and good versus evil. Nevertheless, many people in the world today continue to oppose the idea of freedom; they embrace an ideology of slavery (or obedience) as being a natural condition for other people to bear. Aristotle himself defended the practice of slavery as being consistent with the natural order of things. So, it is not clear to me that Aristotle is a reliable authority for us on what is truly desirable or "natural" in life.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

ARISTOTLE: Politics (Taxes and Education)

In our last reading Ortega pointed out that “man by himself would never be a student, just as man by himself would never be a taxpayer.  He must pay taxes, he has to study, but he is by nature neither a taxpayer nor a student.”  Aristotle has a different opinion.  He thinks man is, by nature, a taxpayer.  And a student.  And many other things besides.  Paying taxes and studying may not grow naturally like an arm or a leg; but they are activities that develop within us as we grow and find our place in society.  Aristotle follows biology and believes in the principle that “what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature.”  For him government is not simply some abstract theory created by man.  Instead he says “the state is a creation of nature and man is by nature a political animal.”  A man may not particularly enjoy paying taxes or studying history but that’s the price we pay to live in civilized society with other people.  It’s not the only way to live.  A man may choose to live apart from society and become a pirate, for example.  But Aristotle thinks living in civilized society is the only place where a man can live a good life. 

Why is this?  Why can’t a pirate live a full and satisfying life?  According to Aristotle a pirate has his priorities wrong because “mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think is good.”  A pirate wants money, which is all well and good.  However, he wants to get it by robbing people, which is not good.  It may be good for him.  But it’s not good for everyone else.  That’s why we have government.  Aristotle admits that “governments differ in kind” and States come in various forms: monarchies or aristocracies or democracies.  But in Aristotle’s view they all have this much in common: “the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life.”  Everyone needs the basic necessities of life.  Beyond that we often disagree on what “the good life” consists of.  Some say this, some say that, and in this sense the Great Books program is one long discussion about what it means to live the good life.  But again Aristotle thinks we need to get our priorities right.  He says “The state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual.”  Does Aristotle mean the state is more important than me or my family?  Apparently so.  Using a biological example we can think of it this way.  The body can survive the loss of an arm.  But an arm can’t survive apart from the body.  The state can survive the loss of me or my family.  But we wouldn’t survive very long apart from the state. 

Think of Conrad’s “An Outpost of Progress” (IGB 1-15).  Kayerts and Carlier, like most of us, couldn’t make it on their own.  Nor, in Aristotle’s opinion, were we meant to.  Following the dictates of biology he believes “the final cause and end of a thing is best.”  That’s why a pirate can’t live a full and satisfying life.  The “final cause and end” of man is to live in a civilized political society.  A pirate doesn’t pay taxes or study or do any of those things which make us full participants in a political community.  A pirate, in Homer’s words, is a “tribeless, lawless, hearthless one.”  Man’s natural state is to live among neighbors, obey the laws of his country, and enjoy peace in his own home.  A pirate has no neighbor, follows no law, has no home.  Both Aristotle and Ortega agree that this is not the way to live a good life.  Modern Americans may have different views than an ancient Greek and a modern Spaniard.  But we face the same questions they faced: what is the good life?  What kind of education do our children need in order to live the good life?  And how much are we willing to pay for it?  These are tough questions which must ultimately be settled in the political arena.  They’re tough problems but not beyond our powers.  They’re precisely the kinds of questions Ortega thinks we should be asking.  And they’re precisely the kinds of questions Aristotle thinks we were born to answer.