Nashville Great Books Discussion Group
A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
In last week’s reading of Rothschild’s Fiddle there’s a scene where Jacob takes Martha to see the doctor. Dr. Maxim examines her and concludes “Ah well, the old woman’s lived her life, praise the Lord. How old is she?” “Seventy come next year.” “Ah well, her life’s over. Time she was on her way.” Jacob’s not a trained physician but he’s not satisfied with that diagnosis and offers his own advice. “We ought to cup her, Dr. Maxim, sir,” he said in a low voice. “Haven’t the time, my good man. Take your old woman and be off with you. So long and all that.”
Adam Smith’s theory of the division of labor may help shed some light on that scene. Consider healthcare from Smith’s point of view. Who should make the final decision regarding medical treatment? Trained physicians? Patients (or family members acting on their behalf)? Insurance companies? Government? Smith says in a free market system there’s an “invisible hand” that guides the allocation of resources. He believes the “division of labor, from which so many advantages are derived… is the necessary… propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” In this case Jacob wants to exchange his money for Martha’s healthcare. What are the advantages of Smith’s theory here? Jacob is a coffin maker by trade. He doesn’t know much about taking care of sick people but he sells coffins and gets money in return so he can buy the things he needs. Dr. Maxim probably couldn’t make good coffins but he knows a lot about healthcare. Dr. Maxim is much better qualified to make decisions concerning the proper care for Martha. But in this case here’s the disadvantage of Smith’s theory. Jacob loves Martha (in his own kind of way); for Dr. Maxim she’s just another patient. He’s got a room full of them waiting for his services and there are only so many hours in a day. How do we determine the best allocation of resources (Dr. Maxim’s time) in this situation? And who’s best qualified to make this determination? These are questions we still wrestle with today.
Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is a vivid image but it’s open to different interpretations. How exactly does this invisible hand work? Supporters of a free market system see millions of people making daily decisions about how they spend their own money. For them this freedom to choose is by far the best way to determine how resources should be allocated. Let the customer decide; not just when they buy a bar of soap but also when they need healthcare or education. That’s the best way to insure maximum utilization of resources. Let people decide for themselves. Other folks don’t like Smith’s model. Healthcare and education are inherently different than buying a bar of soap. In Rothschild’s Fiddle Jacob illustrates the point when he says “he’d have cupped a rich man, but for a poor one he grudges even a single leech.” Rich people have more options than poor people. They can buy a better brand of soap. They can afford better healthcare. They have better educational opportunities. This isn’t fair. We don’t need an invisible hand. We need a plan. Adam Smith thinks these government “plans” just muck things up and tend to prevent the free flow of goods and services in the marketplace. He also believes governments “are themselves, and without exception, the greatest spendthrifts in society.” Plans cost money and politicians are always eager to spend other people’s money so they can put their own plans in place. But Smith was also a professor of moral philosophy and he understands how good and honest people (including politicians) can distrust free market results. Smith says “The difference in natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of… The difference between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education.” That’s why many people believe education (and healthcare) are too important to be left to chance by some mysterious “invisible hand.”
Thursday, August 20, 2015
CHEKHOV: Rothschild’s Fiddle (Psychology and Philosophy)
William James was a good solid American. His philosophy reflects American ideals and values. In our last reading (The Social Me) James talked a lot about the various “selves” we adopt just by living ordinary lives. For example, self-service is a phrase we commonly hear in America. We pump our own gas and hardware stores are filled with products for do-it-yourself projects. Self-improvement books are on many best seller lists. The Great Books is a good example of our fascination with self-improvement plans. And the latest innovation is taking a “selfie” photo for social media. Now we have a Russian author, Anton Chekhov, and his story called Rothschild’s Fiddle. What were Chekhov’s values? And what would William James think of the story and Chekhov's values?
William James was a psychologist and philosopher. The psychologist-self in James would be interested in getting at the concrete facts of the story. Here are the facts considered as a psychological case study. Jacob Ivanov married Martha when they were eighteen. They had a baby daughter when they were twenty but the girl died soon afterward. Jacob was in good physical health his whole life. His occupation was coffin maker. He thought about money constantly. He was ill-tempered, anti-Semitic, and did not have an affectionate relationship with his wife. He also had a cold personality. Music was his only emotional outlet. Using these facts we can now make a psychological assessment. Jacob Ivanov was a self-centered man. His world centered on his own feelings and he had little empathy for the feelings of other people. Until the final days of his life Jacob tightly suppressed the memory of his daughter, their only child. This was psychologically unhealthy but went on for fifty years. Then Jacob died.
The philosopher-self in James was more interested in getting at the deeper meaning of the story. Jacob played many roles in life. He was husband and (briefly) father, good coffin maker, good musician. He was also, surprisingly, something of a homespun philosopher. Jacob was not a happy man but he had some very good observations about life. He once said “every insect wants to live.” So when Martha was dying why did she seem glad? Jacob knew why. Her life with him had been miserable. This is the kind of insight that leads to wisdom. But it’s the kind of wisdom that comes with a high price. In the old Greek play by Sophocles (GB5) Oedipus had to confront his “true” self. In Chekhov’s story Jacob has to confront his true self too or, since he’s dying, who he was and what his life had been: “Life had flowed past without profit, without enjoyment; gone aimlessly, leaving nothing to show for it.” This is a melancholy philosophy but seems to reflect a dark Russian mood that counterbalances the bright optimism of William James and his American brand of philosophy. Jacob Ivanov and William James are both pragmatists. But Jacob tends to see the glass half empty and James to see it half full. These two views can also be seen in other Great Books readings. Jacob asks “Why do people always do the wrong things?” John Dewey (GB2 & 3), a fellow American and glass-is-half-full philosopher, answers it’s because we have the wrong kind of education. Fix public education and we fix the problem. St. Augustine (GB4) would reply that it’s not that simple. We live in a fallen world. We do wrong because our hearts are wrong. We can’t “fix the problem” without divine help. In Augustine’s view Jacob Ivanov doesn’t need a new kind of education or psychological counseling; he needs a whole change of heart. Jacob doesn’t care a fig about philosophy. Before he dies he just wants an answer to the one question that burned inside him: “Why are things so oddly arranged? You only live once, so why don’t you get anything out of it?” This is a very serious question right in the middle of a funny story that takes a sad turn. Jacob played the fiddle to ease his sadness about the human condition. Chekhov used stories to do the same thing.
Tuesday, August 18, 2015
The Illusion of Personal Identity
This week in Great Books, we are reading a brief excerpt from William James’ longer work entitled “Psychology: Briefer Course.” The excerpt is called “The Social Me.”
Americans love the idea of individualism which they regard as a positive inclination to make something of one's self, to compete in the great race for survival in the world and to triumph in victory. Teddy Roosevelt, among others, embodied this principle in American life. It is embedded in our idea of free market capitalism where competition is considered a healthy striving for the betterment of all. Over time, a cultural mythology has grown up around the idea of individuals striving against nature, of explorers going off to map the contours of a new republic, or settlers heading out west in Conestoga wagons to start a new life for themselves. Here, we can't help noticing that the virtues of individualism are generally associated with another idea which Americans love: the idea of freedom. So, in the minds of most Americans, individualism and freedom go hand in hand.
But William James, in "the Social Me," is going to talk about something else. He is interested in exploring the idea of the collective me, or to put it another way, the concept of "we" as compared with the concept of "me." Perhaps we should ask if it is even possible to combine the idea of “me” along with an idea of “we” and still retain a sense of individuality?
Most of us are familiar with a poem by John Donne called “No Man is an Island.” It goes like this:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Donne’s poem celebrates the idea of community. So when people speak of “the human family” they are using a metaphor derived from Donne’s vision of society. But there is a tension, almost a resistance, between these two ideas. It is like the polarity of two positively charged particles. Unless they are held together by an even stronger force, they will fly apart.
This is where James idea of the social me takes off. He believes that our concept of self worth is rooted in the admiration and approval of those around us. James is careful to separate the physical dimension of "self" from the metaphysical and the empirical. Obviously, the physical dimension is what comes from nature, from our DNA. This aspect has no social component. Likewise, the metaphysical or spiritual dimension extends beyond the limits of the social sphere. But James believes that the core meaning of one's self-- the social me-- is what really defines us, both in our sense of self-worth, and in the eyes (or reputation) of those around us. This idea of reputation being linked to self worth goes back to the Homeric Greek's ideal of honor and virtue. Historically, in the Christian narrative, pride cometh before a fall. But for the Greeks, pride was linked with virtue which implied a standard of behavior that was consistent with one's honor and sense of duty, especially to one's city. Shame is the fate of those without honor. To be shunned by one's community was always the worst of outcomes.
But there is a tension between one's idea of self-respect and one's idea of community that sometimes leads to what we might call alienation. What happens when your own beliefs collide with those of your neighbor? As often happens, the individual believes his own opinion is valid, and the opinions of other people are mistaken. In psychological terms, this disagreement can lead to a feeling of alienation, of being disconnected with one's neighbors or even with other members of your own family. But if your opinions or your behavior destabilizes the community around you, then you might find yourself ostracized or placed in an institution, such as a prison or a mental hospital. In extreme situations, when the normative rules of society are challenged, the result can be civil war. That is when the boundaries of what separates civil from uncivil society completely break down. When these boundaries belong to an individual (such as one's ability to distinguish right from wrong), this is what we call mental illness.
"A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind."
For James, the social self is a kind of identity; it is how other people recognize us, not just in a physical sense, but what they think about us. So our social identity changes from group to group, both in our reputation and our sense of self worth. But our sense of honor does not change from group to group, or moment to moment. So it is not clear to me how James balances the concept of honor with a social identity based on reputation. A reputation can fluctuate with the times or circumstance of the moment. But honor is not capricious. It does not change from moment to moment. This is why a person's honor is believed to define his character. James believes that a social self constitutes a mere glimpse of a person's behavior. You act one way in front of some people, and another way in front of others. Your social status fluctuates from one encounter to another, or from one group of people to another group. So, of the many social identities we carry, which one is the authentic us? Who are we, really? Are we just a bundle of sensations (Hume), or are we something more?
Monday, August 17, 2015
WILLIAM JAMES: The Social Me and the Animal Me
Not many Americans were selected for the Great Books readings. That shouldn’t be too surprising. America is still a relatively young country. But this week’s reading selection is unusual in a different kind of way. The introduction says “William James, the distinguished American psychologist and philosopher, was the elder brother of novelist Henry James.” Henry James is also included in the Great Books readings (GB3 The Beast in the Jungle). (This is the only case where two members from the same family are represented in the Great Books.) So we’re fortunate this time to have a fellow American and English-speaking author on the schedule. We can rest assured that nothing gets lost in translation because he’s writing in our own native language. And we’re also fortunate that he’s both psychologist and philosopher. Maybe he can help shed some light on what Sigmund Freud (a psychiatrist) had to say a couple of weeks ago in our reading Why War? Freud wrote that “conflicts of interest between men are settled by the use of violence. This is true of the whole animal kingdom, from which men have no business to exclude themselves.” Would William James agree with that assessment?
James begins his essay by defining his terms: “a man’s social me is the recognition which he gets from his mates.” Then he goes on to say we’re “gregarious animals.” This one statement seems to confirm Freud’s assessment that Men are animals. But in the context of the rest of his essay it’s not that simple to determine if James believes Man is, in fact, just a complicated social animal or if he’s really a creature of a whole different order. James believes “a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him.” This raises a couple of philosophical questions. (Do animals ponder philosophical questions in their quiet moments?) Is my personal worth defined by the opinion of the community or by my own private standard? A second question relates to the first: can other people give a more accurate evaluation of me than I can give myself? Do animals ever worry about these things? James also observes that “we do not show ourselves to our children as to our club companions, to our customers as to the laborers we employ, to our own masters and employers as to our intimate friends.” Do animals do this? They can certainly act tenderly toward their offspring. And without a doubt they act differently with their own species than they act with predators. Is this proof animals have separate “selves” the same way humans do? And then there’s the question of love. James goes on to say “the most peculiar social self which one is apt to have is in the mind of the person one is in love with.” Do animals fall in love? They can be very affectionate to one another. Is this love?
Another area James explores in his essay is the idea of honor. He says “a man’s fame, good or bad, and his honor or dishonor are names for one of his social selves.” Thucydides dealt with this very issue in last week’s reading. The Melians had to decide whether they would pay tribute to the Athenians in what amounted to extortion. The Melians had to determine which they valued most; their safety or their honor. Is the word “honor” worth fighting for? Is it worth dying for? People can honestly disagree. The Athenians and Melians did. Many people today still do. It shouldn’t be surprising then for people to disagree on the basic question of Man’s place in the universe. Are human beings just highly developed animals? Ever since Darwin (GB1 Man and the Lower Animals) people have debated this issue and come to different conclusions. Obviously we eat, sleep, reproduce and fight just as all “lower animals” do. But it’s also true we make up stories and plays, ponder philosophy, study history, learn mathematics and science and create fine works of art. What “lower animal” can do any of these things? Next week Chekhov explores what it means to be human in his short story Rothschild’s Fiddle.
Saturday, August 08, 2015
THUCYDIDES: The Melian Dialogue
The Introduction to Great Books says “Reading what Thucydides has to say about the relationship between great powers and their satellites…we may not agree…but it is unlikely that we will ever again think about foreign policy in quite the same way.” It also says “great writers …require us to think about what it means to live in the world and about what we are and what we hope to become.” Thucydides is a great writer. He wrote history about ancient Greece but he still has much to say to Americans about what it means to live in the modern world. Who are we? What kind of a country do we hope to become? And what kind of foreign policy is needed for a superpower to achieve its goals? The Melian Dialogue helps put these questions into perspective. Thucydides can’t tell us what to do but he can show us the major issues we face.
As part of its foreign policy the great power of Athens wanted to dominate the small Greek island of Melos. The Melians were no match for the Athenians and both sides knew it. So the Athenians set up a meeting to try and persuade the Melians they should submit without going to war. “The meeting dealt with the issue of whether a great power should be swayed by anything except self-interest in dealing with a smaller power.” Here’s one issue for us today: should American foreign policy be based strictly on American interests? The Athenians thought so. They said “you know and we know, as practical men, that the question of justice arises only between parties equal in strength, and that the strong do what they can, and the weak submit.” We’re right back to Plato’s question in The Republic: what is justice? Plato was dealing with a philosophical theory of justice; Thucydides is dealing with justice in the real world. Is justice the same thing in both theory and practice? The Athenians haven’t come to the Melians for a philosophical debate. No fancy words. They just get right to the point: “we have come in the interest of our empire… we wish you to become our subjects with least trouble to ourselves.”
Plato (Socrates) would have responded with something along the lines of: let’s talk about what the true interests of your empire are. The Melians tried that tactic and it didn’t work. The Athenians only responded by saying “we believe that Heaven, and we know that men, by a natural law, always rule where they are stronger. We did not make that law nor were we the first to act on it; we found it existing, and it will exist forever, after we are gone; and we know that you and anyone else as strong as we are would do as we do.” This little speech presents three major issues for American foreign policy today. (1) Is there really a kind of “natural law” that the nations with the greatest military and economic power make the rules? (2) Was that concept true in the ancient world but not true in today’s world? (3) Do modern countries still use military and economic power, as far as they can, to achieve their own national interests?
For the Athenians using raw power was like doing a mathematical equation. We may not like the results but we can’t argue that it works. We might make the argument that people are human beings, not numbers. Instead of resorting to raw power human beings can be persuaded to take a more honorable path. But the Athenians already have a response for that argument. “Surely you will not fall back on the idea of honor, which has been the ruin of so many when danger and disgrace were staring them in the face… If you are wise, you will avoid that fate.” Does “honor” still have a place in the modern world? The Intro to GB says “As we make an effort to understand great writers, we find ourselves seeing further, as Isaac Newton put it, ‘by standing upon the shoulders of giants’ and by standing on Thucydides’ shoulders we can see the world beyond our own backyard.
Saturday, August 01, 2015
FREUD: Why War?
“Then we must cut off a piece of our neighbor’s land if we are going to have sufficient room for pasture and tillage, and they in turn from ours, if they let themselves go to the unlimited acquisition of money, overstepping the boundary of the necessary …Won’t we go to war as a consequence… and let’s not say whether war works evil or good, but only this much, that we have found the origin of war; in those things whose presence in cities most of all produces evils both public and private.” -Socrates (Plato’s Republic GB5)
The oldest books in the Great Books Series (Genesis, Exodus, the Iliad) talk a lot about violence and war. In 1932 Albert Einstein asked Sigmund Freud “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?” That’s a long time for such a destructive menace to go unresolved. What’s the problem? We’ve sent men to the moon, invented the Internet, figured out how to put peanut butter and jelly into the same jar. Why can’t we figure out how to stop war? In our last reading (Plato’s Republic GB5) Socrates wanted to enlarge the concept of justice and look at city-states instead of individual people. He thought it might be easier for us to see a bigger picture. In this week’s reading Freud does just the opposite. He wants to narrow the scope of war and look at the problem through individual people instead of through whole nations. His basic idea is simple. A nation goes to war because its citizens are at war within themselves. Inside every person there’s both an erotic instinct and a death instinct. The erotic instinct wants to preserve and unite. The death instinct wants to destroy and kill. Freud says this is “the universally familiar opposition between Love and Hate.” Every single person has the capacity to love and also the capacity to hate. Thus the seeds of war are planted in every human heart. That’s why Freud thinks war is not just “a concern for statesmen.” Each one of us must confront the reality of the old saying: you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you. Whether we like it or not, war is a fact of life. That’s the problem that bothers Einstein. He wants to know if there’s a way out of this mess. Freud’s answer is not optimistic. He asks “why do you and I and so many other people rebel so violently against war? Why do we not accept it as another of the many painful calamities of life? After all, it seems to be quite a natural thing.” War may or may not be “a natural thing.” But Freud gives good reasons why we rebel so violently against it. Everyone wants to live. War kills people. It brings us into horrific situations. It forces us to murder. It destroys in a flash cities that took years to build. So why do we do it? Freud says “it is my opinion that the main reason why we rebel against war is that we cannot help doing so.” Something in human nature recoils against the ravages of war. But something in human nature is also attracted to war like a magnet. In the quote above Socrates conjectures that the origin of war is because people want more than they need. If people’s material needs were met maybe we could stop war. Freud doesn’t think that’s the problem. He points out that “The Russian Communists hope to be able to cause human aggressiveness to disappear by guaranteeing the satisfaction of all material needs and by establishing equality in other respects among all the members of the community. That, in my opinion, is an illusion.” It turns out Freud was correct. Russian Communism failed. The question is whether these kinds of political experiments are always doomed to failure or whether we can create some sort of social and economic arrangement that will curtail human aggressiveness. Again Freud is not optimistic. He says “there is no use in trying to get rid of men’s aggressive inclinations.” But we may be able to curb them. “If willingness to engage in war is an effect of the destructive instinct, the most obvious plan will be to bring Eros, its antagonist, into play against it.” Make love, not war? It’s not a great plan but it may be the only hope we have.
Monday, July 27, 2015
Thoughts on Justice
Are happiness and justice incompatible? Well, that depends a lot on how you define "happiness" and what kind of "justice" you have in mind. For most Americans, our ideas about justice are rooted in the Old Testament in which every injury or personal insult must be avenged. The idea of revenge was originally tied to the community's belief in divine law. The law which bound the community together came directly from the authority of God. Thus, justice, which is rooted in divine law, required that law breakers be punished. Over time, tribal laws became linked with a conception of justice derived from a belief in natural law. It was natural because it applied to every person in the world which itself was created by God.
In this way, the laws of the city are derived from the laws of the tribe, which were derived, in turn, from God whose laws governed all human behavior. Yet, prior to the growth of cities, the moral code of human behavior was known as the "eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" school of punishment. Thus, morality became linked to personal injury along with the need for revenge. Over time, the human desire for revenge became indistinguishable from our idea of justice, which in turn became linked with one's idea of honor. Honor (or respect) is historically a form of public esteem., while the opposite of honor is shame. Shame is analogous to ridicule or loss of social status. Thus, when Job loses all his possessions and children, he becomes a man without honor. Yet his honor is restored when God favors him with new wealth. But a blinded Oedipus is compelled to leave Thebes and live out his days in disgrace.
In almost all ancient societies, cowardice was considered dishonorable, and so was lying and thievery. A man's word was his bond. For the Greeks in Homer, the idea of honor was directly linked to the idea of respect. Honor in battle required that a man be willing to die for his king (or his country). Honor also requires that personal insults be revenged. Otherwise, one would lose respect. Honor requires that Hector fight Achilles, even though he knows he cannot win. Respect and honor are thus intertwined on the battlefield. In normal life, respect generally takes two forms: self-respect, and public (or social) respect. The difference between self-respect and public honor is tied to the idea of reputation. When Aaron Burr kills Alexander Hamilton in a duel, their conflict is over a perceived insult to Burr's honor. Any public display of disrespect will always be perceived as a loss of reputation. This is what justifies revenge, and revenge is the most common means by which one's reputation is restored. Honor compels Orestes to murder Clytemnestra in revenge for his father's death. His duty to his father compels him to act. Yet his revenge against his mother invokes a kind of divine retribution. The Furies descend upon Orestes to avenge his mother's death. So where is justice in this chain of murder and revenge?
At some point in the development of cities, it becomes necessary to ban public dueling. The idea of honor is now subordinate to the idea of public safety. And so the criminal justice system, with its courts and juries, becomes the arbiter of all personal disputes.
However, when it comes to disputes between nations, war remains the most frequent means of settling these disputes. It is not until the establishment of the United Nations will there be any other means of resolving these kinds of disagreements. After all, diplomacy is a rational enterprise and men rarely act rationally when honor is at stake. Patriotism, which is the form national honor takes, remains a vestige of the classical idea of honor.
With the Nuremberg trials of 1945, the principle of crimes against humanity becomes the moral equivalent to crimes against the state, and the violation of the immutable laws of God. The principles of justice on which the Nuremberg trials were conducted bring us back to the ancient principles which guided men in a tribal culture. Once again, natural law becomes the foundation for our contemporary understanding of justice. This is what Socrates, in his inquiry into the principles of justice, is trying to establish-- a rational ground for the belief in the idea (and the possibility) of something which lies beyond our reach (what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." In other words, bringing the immutable law of a divine order down to the level of ordinary fallible human beings.