Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, March 30, 2015

BURKE: Reflections on the Revolution (Justice and Freedom)



We have examined Burke’s idea of freedom: “I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty.”  Now let’s look how his theory of justice works.  What’s the relationship between justice and freedom?  Burke prefers the devil we know to the one we don’t know.  He says, “By a constitutional policy, working after the pattern of nature, we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our privileges in the same manner in which we enjoy our property and our lives.”  His English way of life didn’t just plop down out of the sky arbitrarily.  English folkways developed slowly over time after many generations and after much trial and error.  They learned from their mistakes and kept slowly building a fallible people into a sturdy nation.  Burke thinks it’s wise to dance with the one that brung you and beware of change that may bring the whole state crashing down upon you. 

Burke has a cultivated disinclination for change.  He believes “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views.  People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”  Change should only come with the broader view of history in mind; not only the history of our own nation but also the general successes and catastrophic failures of other nations.  With this view of history “…our liberty becomes a noble freedom.  It carries an imposing and majestic aspect.  It has a pedigree and illustrating ancestors… nature teaches us to revere individual men: on account of their age and on account of those from whom they are descended.”  For Burke freedom that is not “noble” is not worth having.  We need to know where we came from.  We need to acknowledge and revere the sacrifices of earlier heroes who made our own freedom possible.  Then we, in our turn, should sacrifice our own “right” to comfort in order to pass the same freedom along to our children and grandchildren.  This is justice.  And this is what Burke means by a “manly freedom… the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for… our rights and privileges.”  England and America weren’t built with some vague philosophical theory of Man.  They were built with blood, sweat and tears.

That’s why Burke believed France’s political experiment would fail.  It was unjust.  They tried to jump-start a brand new government from vague theories created by deluded philosophers.  The French overthrew a lawful sitting government and tried to erase their past.  In Burke’s opinion this was national suicide.  He wrote to his friend in Paris: “You began ill because you began by despising everything that belonged to you.”  If the French wanted change they should have proceeded more slowly and taken the history of France into account.  That way, “Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves.”  It did not surprise Burke that the revolution soon turned into a blood bath; we “have seen the French rebel against a mild and lawful monarch with fury, outrage and insult… this was unnatural.  The rest is in order.  They have found their punishment… were all these dreadful things necessary?”  Freedom without justice is a dreadful thing.  This revolution wasn’t natural, it was artificial.  Was it worth it?  Burke says “…no artificial institution whatsoever can make the men of whom any system of authority is composed any other than God, and nature, and education, and their habits of life have made them.  Capabilities beyond these the people have not to give.  Virtue and wisdom may be the objects of their choice, but their choice confers neither the one nor the other…”  Unjust government can never give citizens virtue, wisdom or freedom.  

Saturday, March 28, 2015

BURKE: Reflections on the Revolution (Freedom and Justice)



Consider three past readings in the Great Books.  One of the lessons we learned from Dante was this: people who abuse their freedoms end up losing them.  In an earlier reading Rousseau stated that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”  And in America’s own Declaration of Independence we claim that citizens have certain rights that can never be taken away.  Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The Federalist Papers were written to preserve these basic rights.  Those were three great lessons concerning freedom.  Now consider a headline from a recent article in an Ivy League school newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, “Justice Trumps Freedom.”  Freedom is good.  Justice is good.  But what happens when two “goods” come into conflict?

That’s one of the questions Edmund Burke explores in his reflection on political theory.  The GB footnote says “Burke is writing to a friend in Paris who has requested his views concerning the recent revolution in France.”  Burke assures his friend that “I do most heartily wish that France may be animated by a spirit of rational liberty” but goes on to say “it is my misfortune to entertain great doubts.”  Why does Burke have doubts?  Freedom is a good thing and the French people have just thrown off the tyranny of monarchy for the freedom of the people.  What’s wrong with that?  Isn’t that the same thing that happened in the American colonies?  No, it’s not, says Burke.  Those two revolutions took place under different circumstances and Burked believes “circumstances (which some gentleman pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect.”  When James Madison and Alexander Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers there was one set of circumstances in America.  When Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in France there was a different set of circumstances.

So where exactly does Burke come down on the dilemma posed by the Harvard Crimson? Is justice more important than freedom?  Burke believes we frame the question the wrong way when we pit justice and freedom against one another.  We have to consider the circumstances of the situation.  He begins by stating his own opinion of freedom: “I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman.”  (Here’s an interesting side question: how many Harvard students today would even want the kind of freedom Burke describes as “manly, moral, and regulated?”)  Liberty is indeed a blessing but Burke says “I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really received one.”  Burke approved of the American Revolution.  But now the bottom line is whether the French people are better off after their revolution than they were before.  The circumstances in France are different than in the American colonies.  Freedom can be a good thing but Burke warns “The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulation.”  The question for Burke is simple.  The French people are “free” from government by a king.  Now what will they do with their freedom under a new form of government?  Burke believes “Liberties (are) an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity…”  The French have thrown off the inheritance of their forefathers; now what kind of country will they hand on to their children?  And if Burke walked onto Harvard’s campus today he might ask: you have your freedom.  But before I congratulate you and count it as a blessing, I must ask you this, what are you going to do with it?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 31-34, Summary)



When we come to the final stages of the Inferno Dante is forced to stretch the limits of human language.  Describing these lower chambers of Hell is no easy task.  Dante puts it this way: “to talk about the bottom of the universe the way it truly is, is no child’s play, no task for tongues that gurgle baby-talk.”  Hell is no place for children or for grown ups who still think like children.  How can we, for example, understand a man like Nimrod?  Virgil says, “He is Nimrod… he can no more understand our words than anyone can understand his language.”  Who’s Nimrod?   Wikipedia says, “Nimrod, king of Shinar, was, according to the Book of Genesis…the son of Cush and great-grandson of Noah. He is depicted in the Bible as a mighty one in the earth and a mighty hunter. Extra-biblical traditions associate him with the Tower of Babel and led to his reputation as a king who was rebellious against God.”  Apparently in Hebrew “marad” means “to rebel” and adding an “n” before the name makes Nimrod = “The Rebel.”  Obviously Dante hasn’t just plucked characters at random and placed them in Hell on his own whims.  He has his reasons.  Nimrod is in rebellion against God and was probably a “mighty hunter” of men.

Nature did well to throw away the mold for making more men like Nimrod.  But Nature kept on making ordinary men and to Dante that’s just as bad.  Here’s a great irony in the Great Books.  It’s hard to think of two authors more different than Dante and Freud.  But here’s a quote from Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents” (GB Series 1): “Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and kill him. Homo homini lupus (Man is a wolf to man).”  This sounds a lot like the characters we’ve met in the Inferno.

Men sometimes do terrible things and have terrible things done to them.  In Canto 33 Count Ugolino is nailed up in a tower with his young sons so they will all starve to death. We read in the Gospel of Mark (GB Series 3) where Judas betrays Jesus to the authorities and causes Jesus to suffer a painful death by crucifixion.  For that reason in Canto 34 “That soul up there who suffers most of all, my guide (Virgil) explained, is Judas Iscariot.”  What a gruesome image.  Satan is stuck up to his waist in ice gnawing on the head of Judas.  The Inferno notes “If once he (Satan) was as fair as now he’s foul and dared to raise his brows against his Maker, it is fitting that all grief should spring from him.”  In the Inferno there’s enough grief to go around all the circles of Hell.  And it all goes back to the fallen angel who first rebelled against God.  Reading through these levels of pain is not a leisurely way to spend a cozy evening in front of the fire.  But Dante’s Inferno can be instructive if we read it the right way.  The old Greek tragedy plays taught us that wisdom comes through suffering.  And Aristotle (“On Tragedy” GB Series 5) says tragedy provides “incidents arousing pity and fear, whereby to provide an outlet for such emotions.”  The Inferno is the “tragedy” section of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  We should pity those who suffer.  Those who cause others to suffer should fear the wrath of God.  This is the tragic wisdom of Dante’s journey through Hell.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Theology and Literature

Is Dante’s Inferno a great book? Well, the Great Books Foundation certainly thinks so. Otherwise, they would not have included it in their program. The author, Dante Alighieri, was a gifted writer and in this book he embraced a large literary theme: the struggle between good and evil and the inability of man to avoid sin. The problem is that Dante’s story, which is basically a journey into the heart of darkness, is burdened with a flawed theology which seeks to impose its message on the reader. And what is this message? That every human being is born into sin, and without the intervention of the Catholic Church, and the mercy of God, every individual will surely end up in Hell, where he belongs. Thus, human existence is merely a prelude to the day of Judgment when we all will be held accountable for every sin and every moral transgression committed on earth. Thus, the punishment we receive in hell is but a reflection of our own moral corruption, if not in the eyes of men, then certainly in the eyes of God. The theology of Dante is conservative and judgmental because it is inspired by an institution which believes it has the power and the authority to speak for God. To accompany Dante on this journey is to follow him into the nightmare of a deranged institution, like Galileo being shown the instruments of torture, or Primo Levi in Auschwitz. For according to this theology, it is only through fear and shame that men learn obedience to the Church. Because there is only one true church and that is the church of St. Peter; all other churches and all other beliefs are manifestations of sin and pretenders to the throne of Christ.

 This is the theology and dogma upon which Dante’s Inferno is constructed. As a work of literature, it is quite impressive. Although the recitation of tortures inflicted upon the damned becomes a little tedious along the way. Once you have described in detail the pain and suffering inflicted on the numerous lost souls inhabiting one level of hell, do we really need the testimony of all the other condemned prisoners, whose destiny is to be  punished for all eternity?  Does it not seem a little redundant?  To me, every punishment described in the lower circles of hell is, fundamentally, a repetition of the agonies of the first. Even if the particular method of torture varies from one sinner to the next, does it really matter if one is boiled alive, torn apart, drowned, stabbed or crushed?

 Dante’s Inferno is a literary chamber of horrors, and we (the reader) are meant to be a witness to the suffering of all these condemned sinners.  Thus, Dante’s hell is a kind of school of instruction for the rest of us. We are meant to learn obedience (or submission) to the will of the Church by the example of those already in hell.. The Inferno is something like the experience of a public execution. It’s meant to demonstrate the power and authority of the clerical institution (or deity) which rules over us.  In that sense, the Inferno functions as a kind of preview of coming attractions. Either behave yourself and follow the rules of the Church elders, or be prepared to suffer the consequences of your disobedience.  It makes you wonder if the Inferno is really about the struggle between good and evil, or is it a political treatise, like Orwell’s 1984, about what happens to individual freedom when power becomes concentrated into the hands of a few, elite individuals.

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 29-30, Alchemy and Falsifiers)



As we near the end of our journey through Dante’s Inferno we meet the Falsifiers and Alchemists in Canto 29, souls such as Capocchio: “…for the alchemy I practiced in the world I was condemned by Minos, who cannot err… you will recognize Capocchio’s shade, betrayer of metals with his alchemy; you’ll surely recall (if you’re the one I think) how fine an ape of nature I once was.”  Capocchio’s sin is to mimic (“ape”) Nature in ways that deceive.  It isn’t in the nature of things for Nature to deceive.  And in Canto 30 we find the Greek soldier (Sinon) who deceived the Trojans into accepting the wooden horse: “‘My words were false; so were the coins you made,’ said Sinon, ‘and I am here for one false act; but you for more than any fiend in hell!’”  This “you” is a counter-fitting specialist named Master Adamo.  Adamo had “learned to falsify the coin… they encouraged me to turn out florins whose gold contained three carats worth of alloy.” 

Here’s what we nowadays call a teaching moment.  Dante is fascinated by all the bickering back and forth between Capocchio and Master Adamo.  But Virgil reprimands him: “I (Dante) was listening, all absorbed in this debate, when the master (Virgil) said to me: ‘Keep right on looking, a little more, and I shall lose my patience,’ I heard the note of anger in his voice and turned to him; I was so full of shame that it still haunts my memory today.”  Here’s the teaching moment lesson.  Virgil says to Dante: “If ever again you should meet up with men engaging in this kind of futile wrangling, remember I am always at your side; to have a taste for talk like this is vulgar!”  This is the lesson Great Books readers can take away from this incident.  It’s easy to get caught up in squabbles of the moment.  Virgil warns us no matter if it’s partisan politics or workroom gossip “talk like this is vulgar!”  We should rise above such pettiness and focus on permanent things; issues and questions that endure throughout all generations.  Issues the Great Books calls The Great Conversation.  This is what we should be listening to.  If Dante were still around he might warn us that these days it’s easy to get caught up and waste time reading stories and inflammatory comments on the Internet that mean nothing.

So what should we be doing?  One underlying theme of Dante’s Inferno is time.  We all eventually run out of time; then what?  Dante believes we’ll all have to give an accounting for the things we did on this earth with the time we were allotted to live it.  Over and over again we see men (and women) like Capocchio and Sinon and Adamo who get caught up in the schemes of their own times.  They don’t seem like evil people.  Capocchio messed around with alchemy, which was a forerunner of modern chemistry.  What’s wrong with that?  Sinon used deception as a military strategy to bring victory to his side.  What’s wrong with that?  And Adamo added a little alloy to coins to water down the gold a bit.  Is that so bad?  Dante’s message is clear from one end of the Inferno to the other: yes, it’s bad.  Bad enough to get all these poor souls condemned for eternity. 

That’s a harsh message for modern ears.  This kind of punishment looks more like retribution instead of rehabilitation.  And many modern readers will reject Dante for that reason alone.  But Dante would point out that Purgatory is the place for rehabilitation.  He would turn the question around to ask: and what would you do with those who won’t be rehabilitated?  Turn them loose on society?  You call that justice?  Questions about “the permanent things” are always hard.  That’s why they’re permanent.      

Saturday, March 21, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 28 Schism)



There are several different approaches to reading books and Great Books are no exception.  How should we read the Great Books?  We can read them for fun.  Or we could read them to become more informed about the history of ideas.  Or we could read them to learn how to live better lives.  There are many reasons to read Great Books but it seems important that most readers spend more time reading the text itself and less time reading what someone else has to say.  Dante’s Inferno is a good example and Canto 28 is an especially good example.  This canto is all about schism.  A scholarly approach to reading Dante might start with defining the term “schism.”  The online Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us that schism is “a division among the members of a group that occurs because they disagree on something.”  This is a good start.  We have to remember that all these characters (in one way or another) caused strife and division.  Another good scholarly tool is to consider the etymology or origin of words.  Where did schism come from and how did it get started in the first place?  The M-W online dictionary says the modern term schism came from the Middle English scisme; which came from an old Anglo-French word cisme; which was derived from the Late Latin word schismat; and that came from an old Greek noun schisma, which means cleft, or division.  Ok, that’s mildly interesting but so what?  Ancient Greek to Late Latin to Medieval Anglo-French to Middle English to us.  Does that help me understand Dante any better?  Maybe, maybe not.  But here’s something else.  First known use: 14th century.  Dante’s Inferno takes place in the year 1300 A.D. (the start of the 14th century).  Was Dante on the cutting edge of defining schism in terms of the modern phenomenon as we know it?

Maybe, maybe not.  But we could get lost in the labyrinths of all these etymologies and histories.  (Side note: this kind of reading appeals to some obscure librarians.  For a good example of this kind of literature read some short stories in “Labyrinths” by Jorge Luis Borges.)  Before long we can’t see the forest for the trees and lose sight of The Inferno itselfDante isn’t writing for obscure librarians.  The Inferno text is often blunt and downright bawdy.  In Canto 28 he writes “I saw someone ripped open from his chin to where we fart.  Between his legs his guts spilled out, with the heart and other vital parts, and the dirty sack that turns to shit whatever the mouth gulps down.”  This is disgusting.  Who is this guy anyway?  Dante writes, “See how Mahomet is deformed and torn!” 

Schism causes deep divisions.  To many people Mahomet is a holy man of God but Dante has put him in Hell.  And as usual Dante’s punishment fits the crime: “The souls that you see passing in this ditch were all sowers of scandal and schism in life, and so in death you see them torn asunder.”  Consider Julius Caesar; a hero for many Romans but a traitor to others.  Dante writes about Caius Curio, the guy who talked Julius Caesar into crossing the Rubicon: “This man, in exile, drowned all Caesar’s doubts and helped him cast the die, when he insisted: ‘A man prepared, who hesitates, is lost.’  How helpless and bewildered he appeared, his tongue hacked off as far down as the throat, this Curio, once so bold and quick to speak!”  Also on this level is Bertran de Born, who caused the rebellion of Prince Henry against his father, Henry II, King of England and now Bertran “held his (own) severed head up by its hair, swinging it in one hand just like a lantern…”  More knowledge of Islam, Roman and English history would obviously broaden our understanding of Dante.  But the best way to understand Dante is to simply read Dante.     

Friday, March 20, 2015

DANTE: The Inferno (Canto 27 Evil Counselors)



As we continue our journey down through the deeper levels of Hell we find that good and evil are getting harder and harder to distinguish.  The simple sins (lust, gluttony, anger, laziness) are far behind us.  Now we’re in a region where sins are more complex because they all involve fraud or malice.  What’s right and what’s wrong starts getting a little fuzzy.  Fraud and malice are much harder to detect than the simpler sins of lust and gluttony.  And we saw in Canto 26 how flowery speeches can persuade even good people to do things that are wrong.  That’s what Odysseus did and that’s why he’s in Hell.  Canto 27 echoes that same theme only with different characters in a different situation. Dante meets an ex-soldier (Guido da Montefeltro) in lower Hell who says, “I was a man of arms and then a friar, believing with the cord (the monk’s habit) to make amends; and surely my belief would have come true were it not for that High Priest (the Pope) his soul be damned! who put me back among my early sins.”  Guido made a living on earth as a mercenary soldier and he was good at it.  As he put it, “my actions were not those of a lion, but those of a fox; the wiles and covert paths, I knew them all.”  In other words, he was very good at deception and was most valuable when brute military force wouldn’t work.  The Pope knew of his exploits and wanted to make use of his military skills.

Guido was reluctant to return to his old ways.  He had forsaken military life and taken up the life of a monk for the salvation of his soul.  Now the Pope was tempting Guido to give up his peaceful ways.  “His lofty papal seat, his sacred vows were no concern to him, nor was the cord I wore… this one sought me out as his physician to cure his burning fever caused by pride.  He asked me to advise him.”  Here was the situation.  Some enemies of the Pope sought safety in the fortified refuge of Palestrina.  To get at them the Pope needed to level Palestrina and he wanted Guido’s help.  Here was the problem.  “The Prince of the New Pharisees (the Pope) chose to wage war upon the Lateran instead of fighting Saracens (Muslims) or Jews, for all his enemies were Christian souls.”  The “Lateran” weren’t enemies, they were fellow Christians.  Guido was reluctant to help kill other Christians, even if it was the Pope himself requesting it.  “I was silent, for his words were drunken.  Then he spoke again: Fear not, I tell you: the sin you will commit, it is forgiven.  Now you will teach me how I can level Palestrina to the ground.  Mine is the power, as you cannot deny, to lock and unlock heaven.”

So Guido helped the Pope level Palestrina to the ground.  Later, Guido says, “Saint Francis came to get me when I died, but one of the black Cherubim cried out: ‘Don’t touch him, don’t cheat me of what is mine! He must come down to join my other servants for the evil counsel he gave.’”  Wait a minute.  Wasn’t Guido already absolved from sin by the Pope  when he revealed how to defeat Palestrina?  Here’s the problem.  The Pope said, “the sin you will commit, it is forgiven.”  That one word (will) is what doomed Guido.  The black Cherubim explains why.  ‘From then to now I have been ready at his hair, because one cannot be absolved unless repentant, nor can one both repent and will a thing at the same time; one is canceled out by the other!’  Guido’s mistake was not thinking through his act of repentance.  Someone can be forgiven a sin they’ve already committed, if they’re truly repentant; but not for a sin before they’ve even committed it.  That’s not true repentance and black Cherubim are smart.  You can’t fool them.  This one told Guido, “Perhaps you never stopped to think that I might be somewhat of a logician!”