Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, April 18, 2016

ARISTOTLE: On Happiness (Jacob and His Fiddle)

In our last reading we met a character who never found the happiness he was looking for.  Toward the end of his long life Jacob thought about all the things he might have done.  He might have become a fisherman and sold fish in the marketplace.  He might have set up a travelling music-boat show.  He might have started a ferry business.  He might have raised geese.  Would any of these things have made Jacob happy?  In this week’s reading Aristotle says probably not.  Why not?  Because Jacob never fulfilled his proper role in life.  According to Aristotle “the proper function of man consists in an activity of the soul in conformity with a rational principle.”  Jacob was very active.  He made coffins, played the fiddle, drank vodka, and beat up on Jews.  But his life wasn’t guided by a rational principle or, for that matter, any guiding principle at all.  The only thing he really cared about was making money.  That seemed to be his only principle.  Aristotle doesn’t think getting rich is a necessarily a bad thing.  Having money is, in fact, one of the ingredients for happiness.  But it’s only one of the ingredients.  Aristotle notes that “some people think happiness is virtue; others that it is practical wisdom; others that it is some kind of theoretical wisdom; others believe it to be pleasure and some also include prosperity in its definition.”  Happiness may include these things.  But having any (or even all) of them is no guarantee that a person will be happy.  For Aristotle being happy reflects “a kind of good life and well-being.”  Jacob didn’t have a good life.  But it wasn’t because he was poor.  It was because he didn’t live well. 

What does Aristotle have in mind when he says we should live well?  Choosing the right things for the right reason and then doing them well is what he calls happiness.  Jacob does some things well.  He makes good coffins.  He’s a good musician.  But he fails to become a better man by participating in those activities.  Jacob doesn’t use his work and leisure time to improve his soul.  “Soul” for Aristotle is that life-giving part of us which makes us alive.  We’re not rocks.  Our “souls” make us capable of thinking and doing.  Aristotle thinks a well-lived life doesn’t just happen.  It’s planned and carried out according to a rational blueprint.  How do we develop this blueprint?  Aristotle responds “perhaps this is best done by first ascertaining the proper function of man.”  First we should determine what we’re here for and only then develop a life plan for ourselves.  Whatever plan we choose, Aristotle adds, we need to set high standards because “the function of the harpist is to play the harp; the function of the harpist who has high standards is to play it well.”  Jacob set high standards for making coffins.  He set high standards for playing the fiddle.  In those areas he did very well.  But he failed to set high standards for being a man.  He failed at being a good neighbor and a good husband.  Making coffins didn’t help him be a better friend to Rothschild and playing his fiddle didn’t help him be a better husband to Martha.  Instead, Jacob focused his life almost entirely on making money.  He thought this would make him happy.  Aristotle warns that “fortune does not determine whether we fare well or ill, but is, as we said, merely an accessory to human life.”  The winds of Fortune can blow against us.  We’ll see that happen when we read Antigone (GB1).  But we can’t blame all our misfortunes on Fortune.  Sometimes it’s our own fault.  We’ll see that when we read Othello (GB1).  Jacob’s fault wasn’t that he loved to play the fiddle.  His fault was using the fiddle as his primary emotional outlet.  He should have shared his feelings with his wife and fellow band members.  Aristotle tells us “the crown at the Olympic Games is not awarded to the most beautiful and the strongest but to the participants in the contest.”  Being a good fiddle player isn’t enough.  To be happy, to be a winner in life, you have to be in the game.  Jacob never got off the bench.  He just daydreamed about what might have been.  That makes for a good song but not a good life. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

CHEKHOV: Rothschild’s Fiddle (Preview of Great Books)

Rothschild’s Fiddle may seem like an odd choice to begin a Great Books series covering the best works of Western civilization.  Nevertheless it’s the first reading in the first volume of the series.  Why would the editors start with this reading?  We can only guess but one reason may be that it touches on so many of the great themes covered in the set.  And Jacob the protagonist provides some good opening Great Books questions of his own.  He wonders “Why couldn’t a man live without all that loss and fuss… Why do people always do the wrong things… Why are people generally such a nuisance to each other?”  The Preacher in Ecclesiastes (GB5) pondered those same questions three thousand years ago and concluded “All is vanity.”  This pessimism isn’t limited to the ancient world.  Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) came to the same conclusion when he wrote that “death is the great opportunity to no longer to be I.”  (Indestructibility of Our Inner Nature, GB4)

This vision is too bleak for most people.  We want something a little more positive.  We want to go on living and, if possible, be happy, because as Aristotle wrote (On Happiness, GB1) “happiness is at once the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing.”  Jacob wasn’t able to find happiness in 19th century Russia.  Jews weren’t able to find happiness living in bondage in ancient Egypt either.  So the Lord said to Moses “Come now therefore and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.” (Exodus GB2)  But it was hard for Jews to find happiness in 19th century Russia too because “For no obvious reason Jacob became more and more obsessed by hatred and contempt for Jews, and for Rothschild in particular.”  Jacob doesn’t understand his own hateful anti-Semitic views and at one point asks himself “what, oh what, was the point of scaring and insulting that Jew (Rothschild) just now?”  He has a change of heart and by the end of the story Jacob leaves Rothschild “that Jew” his beloved fiddle.

Jacob’s wife Martha also found it hard to find happiness in their little Russian village.  Living with a husband like Jacob made it nearly impossible for her to be happy.  Chaucer presents an interesting contrast of marriage in two of his Canterbury Tales (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and The Clerk’s Tale GB3).  The Wife of Bath wouldn’t have put up with Jacob for a single day.  She says “I didn’t give a hen for all his proverbs and his wise old men.  I wouldn’t be rebuked at any price; I hate a man who points me out my vice, and so, God knows, do many more than I.”  At the opposite end of the spectrum is Griselda in The Clerk’s Tale.  Griselda says “I for one was never worth, never in my life, to be your chambermaid, much less your wife.”  Martha resembled Griselda more than she resembled the Wife of Bath.  Of course Griselda’s husband was a marquis and Jacob was a poor coffin maker.  But in the Clerk’s Tale marriage isn’t supposed to be a constant battle of the sexes the way the Wife of Bath portrays it.  The Clerk says “O bow your neck under that blessed yoke!  It is a kingdom, not a slavery.”  Only after Martha dies does Jacob finally realize how tyrannical he had been as a husband.  He wasted his only chance for happiness because “never in his life had he been kind to Martha or shown her affection.”  
This story touches on happiness, the nature of marriage, and many other themes covered in the Great Books: money, government and bureaucracy, the role of the arts, death and taxes.  That’s a lot to pack into such a short story.  Americans today face these same problems and Rothschild’s Fiddle still seems fresh.  We’ll explore its main themes in future GB readings.

Monday, April 04, 2016

DELMORE SCHWARTZ: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (Submerged Truth)

In our last reading Virginia Woolf said “it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”  She believes our dreams contain hidden truths that lie somewhere deep within us.  Delmore Schwartz has a similar perspective but says responsibilities begin in our dreams.  What does he mean by that?  This is an odd story.  It takes place in the early morning of a young man’s 21st birthday.  He’s dreaming about watching an old film of his parent’s courtship when they were young.  He says “I feel as if I were in a motion picture theatre… and the actors are dressed in ridiculously old-fashioned clothes.”  The young man is three levels removed from reality.  First of all, it’s a dream.  Second, it’s a film.  Third, it takes place in an imaginary past.  He couldn’t possibly have known the reality of his parent’s courtship.  He wasn’t even born then and can only imagine what it was like.  Here’s the question proposed by the title: is the young man responsible for what happened in his dream?  In the film?  In the past?  From this point onward is he responsible for what happens in his own life?

We’ll look at the psychology of dreams later when we read Freud (On Dreams, GB5).  For this story we’ll focus on the film.  Schwartz describes the sensation of being a moviegoer.  He says “I am anonymous, and I have forgotten myself.  It is always so when one goes to the movies, it is, as they say, a drug.”  Is this why we go to movies?  So we can temporarily be anonymous and forget ourselves?  The power of watching films can be addictive as a drug.  We can’t resist the action taking place on the screen.  This film is a little different though.  It’s not one that Schwartz can watch anonymously and forget all about himself.  It’s about his mother and father.  It’s a film intimately connected to his own life.  But readers must wonder how much of this film reflects the real mother and father versus how much they’re just acting out roles.  When his father proposes marriage Schwartz’s mother responds “it’s all I’ve wanted from the moment I saw you.”  Is this his mother’s real feelings?  Or is she simply repeating a line she thinks she’s supposed to say?  Maybe it’s just a line from a movie she had seen somewhere and vaguely remembered.
Schwartz finally drops his anonymity and plays out his own role as future son-to-be.  He “stood up in the theatre and shouted: Don’t do it.  It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you.  Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.”  With the help of hindsight Schwartz already knows the ending to this movie and it’s not a happy one.  He wants it to stop and ends up shouting “What are they doing?  Don’t they know what they’re doing?”  This annoys the other moviegoers and the usher grabs his arm and asks “What are you doing?  Don’t you know you can’t do whatever you want to do?”  Now we’re getting at the heart of the story.  It’s Schwartz’s story.  It’s his dream.  Is it his film too?  Is he responsible for it?  When people make films (or any other kind of art) in real life, can they do whatever they want to do?  Are artists free to do whatever they please or are they bounded in by the rules of their chosen arts?  When Schwartz writes a story can he do whatever he pleases?  Or is he bounded by the rules of grammar and human logic?  Can Schwartz’s character in the story do whatever he pleases?  Or is he also bounded by the rules of time and human society?  And what exactly is the connection between art and real life?  Does art enhance and highlight what goes on in real life?  Or is it an illusion that distorts things?  Does Shakespeare’s Hamlet show us the deeper meaning of what it means to be human?  Or does he distort life because normal people don’t think and talk in such lofty terms?  All these questions may be what Virginia Woolf refers to as “submerged truth.”  It lurks hidden beneath life’s daily activities.  Is it the responsibility of the artist to bring this submerged truth to the surface?  Or is it our responsibility to dig it out?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

VIRGINIA WOOLF: A Room of One’s Own (Searching for Truth II)

The heroine in Virginia Woolf’s story (A Room of One’s Own) goes to the library in search of truth.  The logical arrangement of subject headings only baffles her.  So she develops her own research method by “making a perfectly arbitrary choice of a dozen volumes.”  Random selection is a kind of method.  But are her selections really arbitrary?  Woolf is motivated by Freudian theory and believes “it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”  The books chosen “arbitrarily” by the heroine leads, in her mind, to a submerged truth.  Or maybe it’s a personal demon.  She was (subconsciously perhaps) led to pick up a specific book entitled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex.  It was, the heroine says, “the one book, the one phrase, which had aroused the demon; it was the professor’s statement about the mental, moral and physical inferiority of women.  My cheeks had burnt.  I had flushed with anger… it was anger that had gone underground and mixed itself with all kinds of other emotions.  It was anger disguised and complex, not anger simple and open.”  Her own method of research had led to the discovery of her own truth: “professors (I lumped them together thus) were angry… why are they angry?” 

Why are these professors, all men, so angry?  The battle of the sexes is an old theme that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden in Genesis (GB1).  It’s also a major theme of A Room of One’s Own.  What makes this reading different is what lies beneath the surface (or “underground” as the heroine puts it).  There’s a deeper and more complex question than the relationship between men and women.  It’s the relationship of the reader (or researcher) to truth.  In the introductory notes Virginia Woolf says reading is a two-step process, the first step being “to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, the second to pass judgment.”  This story serves as a good test case. The original purpose in going to the library was the search for truth.  Now the question becomes, where is it?  There are three possibilities to help guide us in our search.  (1) The truth is out there and we can find it.  Our task is to find it and follow wherever it leads.  This is the path followed by Oedipus the King (GB5).  (2) The truth is out there but we can’t really know it first-hand.  The best we can do is view it from afar and try to follow it in our own lives.  This is the path followed by Kant using the compass of Conscience (IGB3).  (3) The truth is not “out there.”  It lies within us.  The best thing we can do is project our own truth onto the world around us.  This is the path followed by the heroine.  During her search she found the one book that crystallized truth for her.  Her anger was the compass pointing to that one book.

One other example may help in our own search for truth.  In his notes about Observation and Experiment (IGB1) the French scientist Claude Bernard said “observers must be photographers of phenomena… we must observe without any preconceived idea; the observer’s mind must be passive, that is, must hold its peace…”  He was talking about observing nature but we could apply the same method to literature.  Bernard’s advice is to let Virginia Woolf speak for herself and “as soon as she speaks, we must hold our peace; we must note her answer, hear her out and in every case accept her decision… we must never answer for her.”  Literary truth is not the same thing as scientific truth.  We can’t control variables and conduct experiments.  We can only “receive impressions with the utmost understanding.”  Those impressions are the key to literary truth.  Bernard says “it has often been said that, to make discoveries, one must be ignorant … it is better to know nothing than to keep in mind fixed ideas.”  The heroine doesn’t agree.  She wants to keep her fixed ideas.  And this is part of the charm of Woolf’s heroine.  She doesn’t care what Claude Bernard thinks.  He’s just a university professor.  A male university professor.     

Thursday, March 24, 2016

VIRGINIA WOOLF: A Room of One’s Own (Searching for Truth)

John Stuart Mill wrote a great book called On Liberty (IGB 3-5).  The introductory notes say “Mill was a fervent egalitarian in private and in public life.  As a Member of Parliament he made the motion that the word ‘man’ be replaced by the word ‘person’ as the question of a woman’s right to vote was raised in legislative assembly for the first time in modern history.”  That was England 1867.  Fast forward to England 1928.  Virginia Woolf gave a couple of lectures on Women and Fiction at two women’s colleges.  She expanded on these lectures and published a book called A Room of One’s Own.  In this story a young woman receives a generous annual payment for the rest of her life from her aunt’s estate and she got this news “about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women.”  Her reaction is interesting.  She says “of the two (the vote and the money) the money, I own, seemed infinitely more important.”  This young woman valued economic freedom more than political freedom.  Would a young man come to the same conclusion?  The young woman is doing research on a topic entitled Women and Fiction.  She has a “swarm of questions.  Why did men drink wine and women water?  Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?  What effect has poverty on fiction?  What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?”  Armed with questions like these she goes off to do some “research in books which are to be found in the British Museum.  If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where… is truth?”  She wonders if truth can be found in the stacks of a library.  A modern researcher may wonder if truth can be found on the Internet.  She quickly gets off track.  The first problem she encounters is the sheer volume of information available.  She wonders “how shall I ever find the grains of truth embedded in all this mass of paper?”  A modern researcher may similarly wonder if the Internet is a help or a barrier in the pursuit of truth.  If we want information then search engines are a big help sorting through all the junk to get to the jewels.  But if we’re looking for wisdom then search engines might be a barrier to actually finding it.  We need a method of sifting through mountains of words and numbers.  We need a way to determine what’s true and what’s not.  There’s a big difference between the goal of Truth = Information and the goal of Truth = Wisdom.  And the young woman seems to sense this.  She says “the student who has been trained in research at a university has no doubt some method of shepherding his question past all distractions till it runs into its answer as a sheep runs into its pen… but if, unfortunately, one has had no training in a university, the question flies like a frightened flock hither and thither, helter-skelter.”  In modern America having university training is all important.  Socrates would not be qualified to teach a course in philosophy at a modern university. 
Without university training the young woman is bewildered by the vast resources of the library.  Anyone trying to do research on their own knows what she’s up against.  She wants to know why women are poor.  Where should she begin?  She tries looking up Women and Poverty in the card catalog and gets dozens of subheadings such as Conditions in Middle Ages of, Habits in the Fiji Islands of, etc.  First there wasn’t enough information; now there’s too much.  A university trained researcher calls this an Aristotelian system.  Take a complex problem.  Break it into simpler parts.  Re-define the problem and focus your research on that.  “Women” is too broad for research.  Women and Poverty is still too broad.  Concentrate on Women and Poverty in the Middle Ages or in the Fiji Islands, etc.  Voila.  See, this is what happens.  You ask a simple question, why are women poor?  And before you know it you’re off on a wild goose chase in Medieval Europe or the Fiji Islands.  America in 2016 isn’t England in 1928.  We use computers instead of 3x5 cards.  But the search for Truth is still confusing as ever.  Maybe even more.

Monday, March 21, 2016

TOCQUEVILLE: Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare (Community)

Alexis de Tocqueville agrees with John Locke that property ownership is fundamental to the formation of political societies.  Locke wrote that “the great end of men’s entering into society being the enjoyment of their properties in peace and safety…”  Tocqueville agreed and noted “in no other country in the world is the love of property keener and more alert than in the United States.”  But Tocqueville looked at America and also saw a deeper bond which held the United States together.  It was a strong sense of community.  This communal chain had one especially weak link and Tocqueville once wrote prophetically that “if there ever are great revolutions there, they will be caused by the presence of the blacks upon American soil.”  A civil war did in fact take place not long afterwards and it almost tore the country apart.

Aside from that catastrophe the United States has been the most stable democratic system the world has ever known.  It has been so stable that Tocqueville almost sounds prophetic when he proclaimed “I can easily, though vaguely, foresee a political condition, combined with equality, which might create a society more stationary than any we have ever known in our Western world.”  Except for the Civil War America has not been plagued with the conflicts that swept European democracies throughout the ages.  Tocqueville goes on to say that “one hears people say that it is inherent in the habits and nature of democracies to change feelings and thoughts at every moment.  That may have been true of such small democratic nations as those of antiquity. But I have never seen anything like that happening in the great democracy (America) on the other side of the ocean.”  What accounts for this relative stability of the American political system?  In Tocqueville’s view it’s because “men’s main opinions become alike as the conditions of their lives become alike… it must, I think, be rare in a democracy for a man suddenly to conceive a system of ideas far different from those accepted by his contemporaries.”  This uniformity of opinion creates a strong bond when citizens affirm the authority of the U.S. Constitution and have faith in the essential soundness and goodness of American political ideas.

But the uplifting political idea stated in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” also has a downside.  Political equality is the stated goal.  However, Tocqueville worries that “the general idea that any man whosever can attain an intellectual superiority beyond the reach of the rest is soon cast in doubt.  As men grow more like each other, a dogma concerning intellectual equality gradually creeps into their beliefs.”  In theory any American citizen can become President of the United States.  Can any American citizen therefore become another Plato or another Sophocles?  Tocqueville doesn’t think that’s likely in a democracy because “in aristocracies men often have something of greatness and strength which is all their own.”  In our recent readings Plato and Sophocles were great thinkers on their own terms and neither of them had much confidence in democracy.  Tocqueville explains that “in democracies public favor seems as necessary as the air they breathe, and to be out of harmony with the mass is, if one may put it so, no life at all.”  The modern era of social media seems to confirm his opinion.  Many young people today judge their worth by the number of “likes” they get on their cell phones.  Plato and Sophocles didn’t need “likes” to confirm what they were doing.  They already knew they were doing good work and didn’t need confirmation from fellow citizens.  In democracies popular culture is often an overwhelming influence and the average citizen thinks “he must be wrong when the majority hold the opposite view.”  Only very strong minds, in Tocqueville’s view, can swim against the tide of popular opinion and most Americans prefer the comforts of a community with shared values.  This is both America’s best strength and its worst weakness.

Friday, March 18, 2016

TOCQUEVILLE: Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare

In this excerpt from Democracy in America Tocqueville claims that grand revolutions aren’t likely to happen in America.  Why not?  For starters Tocqueville has this to say about Americans: “None of them has any permanent right or power to give commands, and none is bound by his social condition to obey.  Each man, having some education and some resources, can choose his own road and go along separately from all the rest.”  Americans are free to choose their own path, be it politics, religion or culture.  Why should they revolt?  Who would they be revolting against?  Themselves?  We might argue that many revolutions happen because of inequality of wealth.  Why don’t poor Americans just rise up and take some of that vast wealth?  Tocqueville observes that “among a great people there will always be some very poor and some very rich citizens.”  There have always been some very poor Americans and some very rich Americans.  But here’s the difference.  Tocqueville says “as there is no longer a race of poor men, so there is not a race of rich men; the rich daily rise out of the crowd and constantly return thither.”  In America the rich don’t always stay rich and the poor don’t always stay poor.  The hope of getting rich makes many poor people reluctant to overthrow the system.  The key, as Tocqueville sees it, lies in the concept of private property.  He says “any revolution is more or less a threat to property.  Most inhabitants of a democracy have property.”  Poor Americans may not own their own homes but most people do have cars or other valuable belongings.  They may not have everything they want but they want to keep the things they have. 

Then Tocqueville moves on to consider the middle class: “it is easy to see that passions due to ownership are keenest among the middle classes.”  Between these two segments of the population, the poor and the middle classes, “the majority of citizens in a democracy do not see clearly what they could gain by a revolution, but they constantly see a thousand ways in which they could lose by one.”  The hope of someday living a more comfortable life is a stronger motivation than risking everything and possibly losing it all.  America, more than most countries, has hitched its wagon to capitalism.  One American President said the business of America is business.  This may be a crucial factor in America’s caution in taking up revolutionary causes.  As Tocqueville sees it, “I know nothing more opposed to revolutionary morality than the moral standards of traders.  Trade is the natural enemy of all violent passions.  Trade loves moderation, delights in compromise, and is most careful to avoid anger… it makes them inclined to liberty but disinclined to revolution.”  The thing business wants most of all is a stable political, economic, and social environment.  This approach generally appeals to the middle and even to the lower classes because “no one is fully satisfied with his present fortune, and all are constantly trying a thousand various ways to improve it.”  So what do people want?

Karl Marx wanted revolution.  He once wrote that Labor “produces palaces for the rich, but shacks for the workers” (Alienated Labor, GB1).  And Max Weber made the observation (The Spirit of Capitalism, GB4) that “people only work because and so long as they are poor.”  He goes on to say that “a man does not by nature wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose.”  In Weber’s opinion people don’t necessarily want to be rich.  What they really want is leisure.  And this point isn’t lost on Tocqueville.  Countries undergoing revolutionary turmoil aren’t leisurely places to live.  But here’s the irony.  Neither are democracies.  Tocqueville says “indeed, there are few men of leisure in democracies.  Life passes in movement and noise, and men are so busy acting that they have little time to think.”  That’s what Tocqueville saw in America in 1831.