Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 3)

One of the themes running through this novel is the relationship between city life and country life.  The main characters in the story are wealthy enough to alternate between urban and rural society.  This way readers get to see how both sides live.  But we also get to view city and country life through the eyes of the characters; what they think and how they feel.  Here’s a good example from the beginning of part 3: “To Konstantin Levin the country was the background of life, that is of pleasures, endeavors, labor.  To Sergey Ivanovitch the country meant on one hand rest from work, on the other a valuable antidote to the corrupt influences of town.”  What are “the corrupt influences of town” that Sergey is talking about?  For one thing, money.  It takes money, lots of money, to live comfortably in Moscow or Petersburg. 

How can people afford to live in style in cities like Moscow and Petersburg?  One strategy is to cut expenses.  Dolly would take her children and spend summers in the country at the old family farm in Ergushovo, where the cost of living was cheaper.  Dolly “used to stay in the country as a child, and the impression she had retained of it was that the country was a refuge from all the unpleasantness of town, that life there, though not luxurious, was cheap and comfortable; that there was plenty of everything, everything could be got, and children were happy.”  This was also Sergey’s view of country life.  The problem is, it’s not true.  Dolly’s childhood memories are pleasant because as a small girl her parents had the responsibility of providing for the needs and comfort of the family.  “But now coming to the country as the head of a family herself, she perceived that it was all utterly unlike what she had fancied.”  Living comfortably in the country takes work; hard work.  This was Levin’s view of country life, and probably Tolstoy’s too.

Another strategy for living luxuriously in the city is this; borrow money.  That was Vronsky’s strategy.  In calculating his financial affairs he “found that his debts amounted to a little over 17,000 rubles.  Reckoning up his money and his bank-book, he found that he had left 1800 rubles, and nothing coming in before the New Year… He needed at least 6000 rubles for current expenses, and he only had 1800.”  To fully participate in cosmopolitan culture Vronsky had been living beyond his means.  And he wasn’t the only one.  Oblonsky had “taken all the available cash from home… meanwhile Dolly and the children had moved into the country to cut down expenses as much as possible.”  Even people with plenty of money don’t seem to find happiness in cosmopolitan culture.  Liza Merkalova has lots of money and enjoys all the amenities of the highest Petersburg social set.  But she’s still bored.  Anna can’t believe it.  “How can you be bored?  Why, you live in the liveliest set in Petersburg.”  Liza is not impressed.  “Possibly the people who are not of our set are even more bored; but we (I certainly) are not happy, but awfully, awfully bored.”  This is all part of the “corruption” Sergey wanted to get away from.

However, Tolstoy is not proposing that living in the country will cure all of life’s problems.  City life bad, country life good is not Tolstoy’s point.  Folks living in the country have their own problems and have to work out their own solutions.  Many of these problems revolve around, get this, money.  Life in the country may be cheaper but people still have to live.  The simple peasants have simple needs and want just enough money to satisfy those needs.  So they work just enough for wages to cover their expenses; preferably easy work and in ways they’ve always been accustomed to do it.  The landowners who hire these peasants have to come up with enough money to pay them wages.  And there’s much debate amongst the landowners about the best way to do this.  Maybe like the English do it?  What works in England won’t work in Russia.  We’re Russians.  We think like Russians and work like Russians.  That’s closer to Tolstoy’s theme.    

Saturday, January 28, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 2)

In Part 2 of this novel Tolstoy shows readers why no man is an island.  The attraction between Anna and Vronsky is a hopeless affair from the outset but their passions soon overwhelm them.  Anna is a respectable wife and the mother of a young son.  Vronsky is a confirmed bachelor and in his social set the notion of deeply romantic love is laughable.  Yet even with the deck stacked so heavily against them (and maybe because the deck is stacked so heavily against them) Anna and Vronsky can’t resist their passions.  All they want is to be free to show their love for one another.  How can anything that feels so right be wrong?  Both characters try to justify their desires.  In Vronsky’s case his family is worried about him.  Not because he’s having an affair with a married woman.  That’s understandable in fashionable Russian society.   They’re concerned that he has fallen seriously in love.  Vronsky defends himself by this line of thought: “Why do they worry me so?  Just because they see that this is something they can’t understand.  If it were a common, vulgar, worldly intrigue, they would have left me alone.  They feel that this is something different, that this is not a mere pastime, that this woman is dearer to me than life.  And this is incomprehensible, and that’s why it annoys them.”  Anna has her own way of justifying adultery.  She projects her guilt upon her husband; specifically, she points to (in her mind) the worse vice of hypocritical ambition.  “All these ways of his she knew, and all were hateful to her.  Nothing but ambition, nothing but the desire to get on, that’s all there is in his soul, she thought: as for these lofty ideals, love of culture, religion, they are only so many tools for getting on.”  This was the way Anna eased her own conscience.  Adultery may be bad but her husband’s vulgar ambition is worse.  At least her affair with Vronsky had love as its foundation.  Her husband’s ambition had a foundation built on hypocrisy.  Very subtle reasoning.  This is the same kind of reasoning Satan used with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

But, alas, no man (or woman) is an island.  Anna and Vronsky had to live in a world with a web of interconnections and relations to other people.  This is an unpleasant truth for them.  We can see this when we read that Vronsky “suddenly remembered what he always forgot, and what caused the most torturing side of his relations with Anna, her son with his questioning (hostile, as he fancied) eyes.  This boy was more often than anyone else a check upon their freedom.”  Anna has a son and her son’s name is Seryozha.  He’s not an abstract concept but a living, breathing flesh and blood boy with thoughts of his own.  And this is what Seryozha thinks about Vronsky: “What does it mean?  Who is he?  How ought I to love him?  If I don’t know, it’s my fault; either I’m stupid or a naughty boy.”  Seryozha will be permanently scarred by the relationship between his mother and Vronsky.  Vronsky should have known this.  He himself had been scarred by his own mother’s relationships.  Anna did know it on some level because “Vronsky could not understand how she, with her strong and truthful nature, could endure this state of deceit, and not long to get out of it.  But he did not suspect that the chief cause of it was the word (son) which she could not bring herself to pronounce.  When she thought of her son, and his future attitude to his mother, who had abandoned his father, she felt such a terror at what she had done, that she could not face it.”  She couldn’t face it and neither could her husband.  Karenin “did not want to think at all about his wife’s behavior, and he actually succeeded in not thinking about it at all… He did not want to see, and did not see, that many people in society cast dubious glances on his wife… in the bottom of his heart he knew beyond all doubt that he was a deceived husband, and he was profoundly miserable about it.”  He was miserable.  Seryozha was miserable.  Anna was miserable.  And Vronsky was angry at the world.  “He was angry with all of them for their interference just because he felt in his soul that they, all these people, were right.”

Friday, January 13, 2017

Anna Karenina Reading Schedule 2017


January 3


1 to 17

1 to 60
January 10
18 to 34
61 to 115
January 17
1 to 19
117 to 177
January 24
20 to 35
177 to 236
January 31
1 to 16
237 to 294
February 7
17 to 32
294 to 352
February 14
1 to 19
353 to 423
February 21
20 to 23
424 to 435

1 to 16
437 to 489
February 28
17 to 33
489 to 549
March 7
1 to 20
551 to 624
March 14
21 to 32
625 to 669

1 to 8
671 to 694
March 21
9 to 31
694 to 768
March 28
1 to 19
769 to 817

Thursday, January 05, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 1)

This novel begins with the famous line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  That sounds good; but is it true?  Does it make just as much sense if we said: Unhappy families are all alike; every happy family is happy in its own way?  Maybe.  But not in Tolstoy’s novel.  It’s kind of like accepting one of the Postulates in Euclid’s Elements of geometry.  For example, Euclid starts off by asking the reader to accept (for the sake of argument) that we can “draw a straight line from any point to any point.”  Tolstoy asks the reader of Anna Karenina to accept as fact that happy families are alike but unhappy families are unhappy in their own unique ways.  From that starting point Tolstoy creates a work of art.    

The novel begins with an unhappy family.  A husband and wife are quarreling.  The wife (Dolly) has just found out that her husband (Stepan) has been having an affair with their governess.  “What’s this? this? she asked, pointing to the letter.”  Of course Stepan is upset because he’s made Dolly upset and wants to smooth things over.  Adultery is bad no doubt and having an affair with the governess is rather tacky but really, deep down, “All he repented of was that he had not succeeded better in hiding it from his wife.”  To make matters worse, Dolly has money and “the most unpleasant thing of all was that his pecuniary interests should in this way enter into the question of reconciliation with his wife.”  The Arkadyevitch family (Stepan, Dolly, their children and the servants) are one unhappy family.  Sex and money are classic problems for all married couples but in the Arkadyevitch family it produces its own unique brand of unhappiness.     

A little further on in the novel we meet Dolly’s parents.  They’re quarreling too but they’re unhappy for a different reason.  The old prince (Dolly’s father) hasn’t been unfaithful.  Their quarrel springs from a different source, the kids.  Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty, has come of marrying age.  Two young bachelors are vying for Kitty’s attentions; Levin and Count Vronsky.  “The prince was on Levin’s side and he wished for nothing better for Kitty.”  The old prince thinks Levin is unpretentious and would make a fine husband for his youngest daughter.  But “in the mother’s eyes there could be no comparison between Vronsky and Levin.  She disliked in Levin his strange and uncompromising opinions and his shyness in society, founded, as she supposed, on his pride and his queer sort of life, as she considered it, absorbed in cattle and peasants.”  On the other hand “Vronsky satisfied all the mother’s desires.  Very wealthy, clever, of aristocratic family, on the highroad to a brilliant career in the army and at court, and a fascinating man.  Nothing better could be wished for.”

Meanwhile this Vronsky fellow is emerging from an unhappy family life himself.  “Vronsky had never had a real home-life.  His mother had been in her youth a brilliant society woman who had had during her married life, and still more afterwards, many love-affairs notorious in the whole fashionable world.”  Of course all mom’s affairs left their mark on the young man.  He liked flirting with women but that was all.  “It never even entered his head that there could be any harm in his relations with Kitty.”  Kitty, and especially Kitty’s mom, think Vronsky intends to marry her.  They don’t realize the truth.  “Marriage had never presented itself to him as a possibility.  He not only disliked family life, but a family, and especially a husband was, in accordance with the views general in the bachelor world in which he lived, conceived as something alien, repellent, and, above all, ridiculous.”  So much for Vronsky. 

Tolstoy has proved his point.  In this novel families really are unhappy in their own unique ways.

Monday, December 19, 2016

PLATO: Meno (Knowledge and Virtue)

Meno begins this dialog by asking Socrates if virtue is something which can be taught or, if not, if there’s some other method of acquiring it.  Socrates gives the somewhat surprising answer that he doesn’t even know what virtue is, much less if it can be taught.  This is the classic path of the Socratic dialog; begin by doubting that we know very much about a subject and then proceed from there to explore our options.  In the case of virtue Socrates says “it is not from any sureness in myself that I cause others to doubt: it is from being in more doubt than anyone else that I cause doubt in others. So now, for my part, I have no idea what virtue is, whilst you, though perhaps you may have known before you came in touch with me, are now as good as ignorant of it also. But none the less I am willing to join you in examining it and inquiring into its nature.”  This is an invitation to enter into the spirit of philosophic inquiry.  Meno thought he knew what virtue was until he began talking with Socrates.  Socrates shows Meno that he doesn’t know much about virtue at all.  But Meno is an intelligent man and quickly picks up the thread of the argument.  He asks “on what lines will you look, Socrates, for a thing of whose nature you know nothing at all? Pray, what sort of thing, amongst those that you know not, will you treat us to as the object of your search? Or even supposing, at the best, that you hit upon it, how will you know it is the thing you did not know?”  His point is this.  If we don’t know what virtue is, then how do we go about searching for it?  And even if we found it, if we don’t know what it is to begin with, then how can we be sure we’ve found the thing we’ve been looking for?

In a very short time the focus has shifted from (1) can virtue be taught, to (2) what is virtue, to (3) what is the relationship between virtue and knowledge?  Before we can answer the first question we have to be able to answer the second one.  But before we can answer the second one we have to determine the relationship between virtue and knowledge.  And before we can determine the relationship between virtue and knowledge we have to take up a fourth question: what is knowledge?  So many questions.  Meno was right to wonder where we could even start looking for answers.  How can we get a handle on this multi-faceted philosophical problem of teaching virtue and gaining knowledge?  Socrates has a suggestion.  He proposes we start with a rather strange interpretation of knowledge: “They say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time comes to an end, which is called dying, and at another is born again, but never perishes. Consequently one ought to live all one's life in the utmost holiness… Seeing then that the soul is immortal and has been born many times, and has beheld all things both in this world and in the nether realms, she has acquired knowledge of all and everything; so that it is no wonder that she should be able to recollect all that she knew before about virtue and other things.”  Somehow the soul has already acquired knowledge of “virtue and other things.”  Knowledge, including the knowledge of virtue, is already within the student.  The teacher’s job is not so much to “teach” the student what virtue is; the teacher’s job is to draw out what the student already knows within the soul.  Socrates demonstrates this to Meno by asking a series of questions to one of Meno’s uneducated servant boys.  Even though the boy “knows” nothing of geometry and mathematics, Socrates leads him through a series of questions to resolve a difficult geometrical problem.  See, Socrates says, I didn’t teach him anything he didn’t already know.  “Without anyone having taught him, and only through questions put to him, he will understand, recovering the knowledge out of himself.”  In other words, we can’t “teach” people about virtue.  But we can help them recover the knowledge of virtue that already slumbers within them.  Awakening this knowledge (of virtue or anything else) is the ultimate goal of philosophy.  Socrates wants to lead us to wisdom and knowing that we don’t know something is just the first step on that path. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

PLATO: Meno (What is Virtue?)

The question seems simple enough.  Do we get virtue from teaching or do we get it by practice or do we get it using some other method?  It’s an important question.  The way we answer will have a profound effect not only on our educational system but on the whole structure of society.  So we need to dig deeper and get below the surface of the original question.  Meno rephrases it a little and asks whether virtue is a natural quality or is it an artificial quality?  If it’s natural then we’re born with it; all we really need to do is nourish it and otherwise just let it grow on its own.  But if virtue is an artificial quality then it’s something we need to develop just like we develop any technology.  This is the kind of problem philosophy is uniquely equipped to deal with.

Gorgias is a philosopher.  He was living in Thessaly at that time.  Remember Thessaly?  It was the place Crito proposed for Socrates to escape to as a kind of sanctuary city.  Socrates declines the invitation.  In this dialog Socrates says Gorgias speaks the language of “those who know.”  This is an ironic, back-handed compliment.  In Socrates’ opinion philosophy, as practiced in Thessaly, was practiced on a very crude level.  That was one of the reasons he didn’t want his sons to grow up there.  The Athenians, on the other hand, were very sophisticated when it came to philosophy; some would say too sophisticated.  If you asked a Thessalian whether virtue comes from nature or from human invention, you would likely get a very polished answer in the mode of “those who know” (or, as Socrates would jest, of those who think they know).  Ask an Athenian the same question and you’re likely to get a much humbler answer: I don’t know if virtue comes from nature or from art.  In fact, I don’t even know what virtue is.  Now the stage is set to get down to some serious philosophy, Athenian style.  And Socrates is a true Athenian.  He claims he doesn’t even know what virtue is, much less how it can be obtained.  Meno feels confident that he does know.  Meno thinks there’s a different virtue corresponding to the different conditions of life.  There’s one virtue for a man, a different one for a woman, one for a child, another for an elderly person, etc.  Socrates seems impressed with Meno’s wisdom.  “I ask for one virtue and you give me a whole swarm of them.”  But what Socrates really wants to know is this: what is the nature of virtue?  What are the qualities that makes virtue what it is?  Take an example from the natural world.  What makes a bee a bee?  A honey bee looks different from a bumblebee but they’re both still bees.  What is it that they have in common so we can recognize them both as bees?  Similarly, all “virtues” must have something in common with other virtues in order to be called “virtue.”  What is it?

Socrates is answering the question of how can we get virtue with the more fundamental question of what is virtue.  To understand virtue we have to find the common thread that runs through every quality we call virtue.  Health, for example, means the same thing whether we’re talking about a man or a woman, a child or an elderly person.  People can be evaluated by a standard we call good health.  What standard can we use to evaluate virtue?  Socrates suggests temperance and justice as examples.  But we’re not done.  Temperance and justice are general notions and Socrates says “we are landed in particulars.”  We haven’t found the common qualities between temperance and justice, much less their relationship to virtue.  This is confusing but Socrates tries to make it clearer by talking about “particulars” rather than generalizations.  “Round” and “straight” are terms we use to describe figures.  Round is not more “figure” than straight is.  So temperance isn’t more of a virtue than justice is.  See.  Does that help?  Let’s let Meno answer: “Socrates, even now I am not able to follow you in the attempt to get at one common notion of virtue as of other things.”  Simple questions aren’t that simple and Socrates is just getting started.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

PLATO: Crito (The Obligation to Disobey Unjust Laws)

In last week’s reading Sophocles showed us why we sometimes have an obligation to disobey unjust laws. (Antigone, GB1)  Antigone chose to disobey a law she believed was unjust in order to obey a higher law.  This week we find Socrates arguing the opposite point of view in Plato’s dialog on Crito.  Socrates (via Plato) says we should normally obey the laws, even if we think some of them are unjust.  Of course there are crucial differences between Sophocles’ Antigone and Plato’s Socrates.  Antigone was a young woman; Socrates was an old man.  Not all young women think we should disobey laws we don’t like.  Not all old men think we should obey them anyway, even if many people think the conviction was unjust in the first place and even if we’re sentenced to death.  But Socrates thinks “it would scarcely be appropriate in a man of my age to be distressed if he now had to die.”  He’s not too concerned about getting the death penalty.  He says “If it so pleases the gods, let it be so.”  Not all old men are that wise or that calm in the face of death.  King Lear (GB5) is a good example.  Shakespeare shows his tragic downfall and by the end of the play Lear laments: “Pray, do not mock me: I am a very foolish fond old man, Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less; And, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”  There’s nothing wrong with Socrates’ mind.  Because of his long apprenticeship in philosophy he seems sharper at seventy than he was in his prime and Socrates ultimately decides to reject Crito’s advice to escape.  He decides to stay in prison and take his medicine (the hemlock poison which was the Greek form of capital punishment at that time).

Crito tries to persuade Socrates that it’s perfectly reasonable to disobey an unjust law and makes three good arguments for him to escape from prison.  He knows Socrates can’t be swayed by emotional pleas.  We’ve already seen that in Socrates’ trial in the Apology (GB1).  Only the truth will persuade Socrates.  So Crito points out three major obligations Socrates should consider.  Obligation 1: the obligation to one’s self.  Underneath Crito’s argument lies one foundational belief: the trial was a sham.  Everyone knows it, even those who voted to convict Socrates.  No one would be surprised if Socrates walked away from the injustice of a false conviction.  That way he could continue his philosophical speculations in the safety of, say, Thessaly.  Since that argument didn’t work Crito goes to plan B.  Obligation 2: your friends.  Rather than appealing to Socrates’ own self-interest Crito asks him to consider his friends.  Crito says, in effect, think about us: “People won’t believe that you refused to escape even though we were eager to help.”  The truth is, people will think that we abandoned you when we should have stood by you.  Antigone didn’t abandon her brother, even in death, and we don’t want people to think we abandoned you.  Socrates doesn’t buy this argument.  He replies: “Why should we be concerned about what people will think?  Those worth considering will believe that things happened as they did.”  Crito tries one more argument, kind of a philosophical Hail Mary attempt.  He tells Socrates “You betray yourself when you could be saved” and you won’t escape for the benefit of us, your friends so consider Obligation 3: your family: “… in addition, I think you’re betraying your sons… Either a man shouldn’t have children, or he should accept the burden of raising and educating them.”  Crito’s main point is this.  Socrates has put the interests of philosophy ahead of everything else; his family, his friends, his own best interests.  Crito is asking Socrates to consider being a little more pragmatic.  Don’t be so stubborn and dogmatic about abstract philosophical principles.  Compromise.  Live to fight another day.  By staying and facing execution you’re only justifying the actions of “the many” and you yourself said “they cannot make a man wise or foolish.  They only act at random.”  Why let a random act of violence stop your pursuit of wisdom?  Your obligation right now is to fight injustice by disobeying bad laws.