Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

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 (Book 1, Ch. 1-17)

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.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

SOPHOCLES: Antigone (Creon and the Preacher)

In his book on Ethics (GB1) Aristotle made the famous statement that “Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”  Happiness is something we do, not something we feel.  After reading Antigone we may want to ask if the same observation applies to wisdom as well.  Is wisdom an “activity of the soul” and something we do; or is wisdom a kind of comprehensive understanding of the world by the mind?  Creon apparently believed wisdom is something we do.  He was decisive in ordering the body of Eteocles to be honored while the body of Polyneices would be left without burial.  The result?  Toward the end of the play Creon laments “Whatever my hands have touched has come to nothing.  Fate has brought all my pride to a thought of dust.”  He tried to do what (we have to assume) he thought was the right thing to do given the unique circumstances he faced as king of Thebes.  The Preacher from the book of Ecclesiastes (GB5) understood Creon’s predicament better than most of us.  The Preacher was a king too; the king of Israel.  And the Preacher’s conclusion was much the same as Creon’s.  The Preacher asks “What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?”  What good did it do you, Creon, to become king of Thebes?  It brought you wealth and power.  Did it bring happiness too?  No.  Did it give you wisdom?  Maybe.  Just not the clear and optimistic wisdom of Aristotle. 

The wisdom Creon stumbled upon was more of the melancholy variety.  It was the sad wisdom of experience.  He thought he was doing the right thing.  But so did Antigone.  This wasn’t a situation where there were good guys on one side and bad guys on the other.  They both had convincing arguments that they were doing the right thing.  It was a tangled situation and would not have surprised the Preacher.  He had pretty much seen it all before and famously stated that there was nothing new under the sun: “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. That which is crooked cannot be made straight…”  Creon thought it was the king’s job to make crooked things straight.  Maybe he was right.  But the Preacher learned from experience that there are some things in this world that can’t be made straight; at least not by men.  Only God (or the gods) can straighten them out.  Even king Creon finally had to admit that “the laws of the gods are mighty, and a man must serve them to the last day of his life!”  The Preacher agreed: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”  The Preacher learned patience the hard way and came to understand that “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”  There’s a time to do this, a time to do that, and a time not to do anything at all but just sit and ponder the problem of fate, much the same way Job (GB4) sat and pondered the problem of fate with his friends.  There’s not much time to meditate for a man who has the responsibilities of a king.  Ordinary folks can take more time to ponder what the Messenger in the play has to say: “Fate raises up, and Fate casts down the happy and unhappy alike: no man can foretell his Fate.”  Or meditate on the advice of the Chorus when they sing “There is no happiness where there is no wisdom; no wisdom but in submission to the gods.”  The Preacher (and king of Israel) somehow found time to ponder these things.  What did he decide?  “Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth to me; and why was I then more wise?”  If fate raises up and casts down both the wise and the foolish then what advantage does wisdom have over foolishness?  And even if I want to seek out wisdom anyway, how do I go about finding it?  Creon and the Preacher agree we can’t find it by reading books.  The Preacher put it this way: “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”  Of course the great irony is this.  We find the wisdom of Creon and the Preacher by reading about them in a book. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

SOPHOCLES: Antigone (Freedom or Fate)

Every four years Americans vote for President of the United States.  American democracy has a long tradition of a smooth and peaceful transition of power as the outgoing President hands on the office to the incoming President-Elect.  Not every democracy makes a peaceful transition. In this play Sophocles shows what happens when the transition of power is not peaceful.  The political plot is simple.  The “presidential” term is up for Eteocles and now it’s time to hand power on to the next ruler, Polyneices.  But Eteocles refuses to step down.  So Polyneices goes away, raises an army and comes back to Thebes to try and take the office by force.  In the ensuing battle both leaders are killed.  Then Creon steps in to take charge and tries to restore law and order to Thebes.  With that background in mind we should remember what Simmel had to say about freedom.  His theory of freedom is that it evolves historically from slavery to serfdom to freedom.  Money liberates individuals by freeing them from personal obligations to specific individuals.  With money I’m free to choose my own destiny.  Sophocles doesn’t agree.        

Money gives us the illusion that we’re free to choose our own destinies.  For Sophocles the concept of Fate is much more prominent than we think.  We like to think more money will give us more freedom but what it actually does is corrupt hearts that may otherwise be honest.  Creon puts it like this: “Money!  There’s nothing in the world as demoralizing as money.  Down go your cities, homes gone, men gone, honest hearts corrupted, crookedness of all kinds, and all for money!”  Money is just a symptom of a deeper problem and Sophocles wants us to ponder the tragedy of the human condition.  Every character in this play tries to do what is right.  Creon’s position is entirely logical.  “Polyneices made war on his country.  Eteocles defended it.”  Therefore Polyneices is a traitor; Eteocles is a hero.  Creon tries to do the right thing and clearly explains his position: “No ruler can expect complete loyalty from his subjects until he has been tested in office.  Nevertheless, I say to you at the very outset that I have nothing but contempt for the kind of Governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course that he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare, I have no use for him.”  Antigone and Ismene also want to do the right thing.  Antigone tells Ismene “now you can prove who you are.  A true sister, or a traitor to your family.”  Ismene is afraid and her position is pragmatic.  She says “The law is strong, we must give in to the law in this thing, and in worse.  I beg the Dead to forgive me, but I am helpless: I must yield to those in authority.”  But it’s not just fear that motivates her opinion.  She also considers her religious and civic duties.  When Antigone says “Apparently the laws of the gods mean nothing to you” Ismene responds “They mean a great deal to me; but I have no strength to break laws that were made for the public good.”  Ismene has a point.  Antigone is acting on what she conceives to be her private obligation.  Creon is acting on what he conceives to be best for the public good.  Ismene is caught in between.  Creon’s son Haemon puts this whole situation into perspective when he says “Reason is God’s crowning gift to man, and you are right to warn me against losing mine… yet there are other men who can reason too; and their opinions might be helpful.  You are not in a position to know everything…”  Haemon is right too.  No one knows everything.  We each have our own opinions and we live amidst a turmoil of clashing human opinion; but when the dust finally settles, what then?  Sophocles sums it up in one word: Fate. “Fate raises up, and Fate casts down the happy and the unhappy alike: no man can foretell his Fate.”  We may really want to do the right thing but love of money and power get all mixed up in politics.  The result of that potent mixture is what Sophocles calls Fate.  Simmel thinks people in the rational modern world are free to choose their own destinies; Sophocles hints that we’re not as free as we think.