Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Reading Schedule - Fall & Winter 2017-18

Sept. 5 -- Knight’s Tale, Parts 3 and 4  ( The Canterbury Tales )

Sept. 12 -- Miller’s Tale 

Sept. 19 -- Reeve’s Tale and Cook’s Tale 

Sept. 26 -- Man of Law’s Tale 

Oct. 3 -- Wife of Bath’s Tale 

Oct. 10 -- Friar’s Tale 

Oct. 17 -- Summoner’s Tale 

Oct. 24 -- Clerk’s Tale 

Oct. 31 -- Merchant’s Tale 

Nov. 7 -- Nun’s Priest’s Tale 

Nov. 14 -- Franklin’s Tale 

Nov. 21 -- Physician’s Tale and Pardoner’s Tale 

Nov. 28 -- Shipman’s Tale and Prioress’s Tale 

Dec. 5 -- Plato, Phaedrus, through 241d

Dec. 12 -- Phaedrus, 241e–257b 

Dec. 17 -- Phaedrus, 257c–end 

Jan. 2 -- Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, through Part 1, Chapter 3

Jan. 9 -- Gulliver, Part 1, Chapters 4–8 

Jan. 16 -- Gulliver, Part 2, Chapters 1–4 

Jan. 23 -- Gulliver, Part 2, Chapters 5–8 

Jan 30 -- Gulliver, Part 3, Chapters 1–5 

Feb. 6 -- Gulliver, Part 3, Chapters 6–11 

Feb. 13 -- Gulliver, Part 4, Chapters 1–6 

Feb. 20 -- Gulliver, Part 4, Chapters 7–12 

Feb. 27 -- Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

HERODOTUS: History (Book 6)

In some ways reading Herodotus doesn’t feel like ancient history; it reads more like one of today’s national newspapers.  One common thread stays constant from ancient times down to our own; the fact that politicians always want more power.  It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about an ancient Greek tyrant, a Persian king, or a modern American politician.  They’re all after the same thing.  Change the names and places but the political motive always stays the same.  We can trace this in a story Herodotus tells about Histiaeus.  Histiaeus was a “tyrant of Miletus, who had been allowed by Darius to leave Susa, and come down to Sardis.”  Histiaeus had been driven out of Miletus by his fellow Greeks and sought refuge from the Persian king.  Darius accommodated his request and settled him comfortably in the Persian capital at Susa.  While Histiaeus was in Susa the Persians had to put down a Greek rebellion in Sardis and this is what brought him back there.  “On his arrival, being asked by Artaphernes, the Sardian satrap, what he thought was the reason that the Ionians had rebelled, Histiaeus made answer that he could not conceive, and it had astonished him greatly, pretending to be quite unconscious of the whole business.”  Artaphernes had been ruling as the Persian governor of Sardis and wanted to know why the Greeks had rebelled in the first place.  Histiaeus shrugged and said he didn’t have a clue.   “Artaphernes, however, who perceived that he was dealing dishonestly, and who had in fact full knowledge of the whole history of the outbreak, said to him, ‘I will tell thee how the case stands, Histiaeus: this shoe is of thy stitching; Aristagoras has but put it on.’"  Artaphernes was no fool.  On the surface the rebellion had been instigated by Aristagoras but the hand behind it all had been the hand of Histiaeus.  Histiaeus had planned the whole thing; Aristagoras had just put the plan into action.  Three men are involved in this story.  Darius is the generous and kind-hearted king who shelters Histiaeus.  Histiaeus is the double-dealing tyrant trying to get back into power through the kindness of Darius.  Artaphernes is loyal to his king and wants to protect Darius’s real interests.  He can see what’s going on.  But what can he do about it?

To find an answer we should look back to our reading of 2 Samuel.  There we find a parallel story.  David is like Darius, the generous and kind-hearted king.  Absalom is like Histiaeus and takes advantage of the king’s generosity.  Joab is commander and advisor to King David, just like Artaphernes is to Darius.  When Absalom leads a rebellion against David, David can’t bear to think of Absalom (his own son) being killed in battle.  So he commands the soldiers to spare Absalom if they can safely do so during the heat of battle.  Joab can see what’s going on and ends up killing Absalom himself.  Because Joab knows that if Absalom’s life is spared then David will pardon him and the danger to David’s political power (and even his life) will remain.  This is similar to what happened when Histiaeus “fell into the hands of the Persians…”  The Persians could have taken Histiaeus alive back to King Darius; just as Joab’s soldiers could have taken Absalom alive back to King David.  But Herodotus thinks “Now, had he been taken straightway before King Darius, I verily believe that he would have received no hurt, but the king would have freely forgiven him.”  This is what Joab thinks would have happened if Absalom had been taken alive back to King David.  The Persians could have taken Histiaeus back alive.  Herodotus goes on to say “Artaphernes, however, satrap of Sardis, and his captor Harpagus, on this very account (because they were afraid that, if Histiaeus escaped, he would be again received into high favour by the king) put him to death as soon as he arrived at Sardis.”  Darius probably would have granted clemency to Histiaeus, if he had the chance.  He didn’t get that chance.  Artaphernes, just like Joab in the story of Absalom, made sure of that.

Friday, July 14, 2017

HERODOTUS: History (Book 5)

Herodotus spent several chapters telling us about Persia, Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia, and Scythia.  Meanwhile, back at the home front, he turns our attention to Thrace, the northern neighbor of the Greek world.  In some ways the Thracians are as strange as any of the “barbarians” Herodotus has covered.  He gives an example from the Thracian Trausi tribe.  “When a child is born all its kindred sit round about it in a circle and weep for the woes it will have to undergo now that it is come into the world, making mention of every ill that falls to the lot of humankind; when, on the other hand, a man has died, they bury him with laughter and rejoicings, and say that now he is free from a host of sufferings, and enjoys the completest happiness.”  What are we supposed to make of that?  It sounds similar to the book of Ecclesiastes, where “all is vanity.”  But this is not a theme that captures the ancient Greek imagination.  For them life was a struggle and they openly acknowledged that life can be tragic.  In fact, the Greeks invented tragic drama.  Aeschylus showed how the great king Agamemnon came to a tragic end because of hubris.  Sophocles showed how Oedipus suffered at the hand of Fate.  Euripides showed how Medea (one of those “barbarians” from around the Black Sea/Scythian area) was betrayed by that famous Greek icon, Jason.  These were all tragic lessons brought to the stage by Greek dramatists.  But generally life for an ancient Greek, man or woman, was not a tragedy.  Life was an adventure to be lived to the fullest.  Homer’s Odyssey is one of the truly great Western adventure stories about a long journey to get back home.  For Plato philosophy is the ultimate human adventure; the tragedy is that so few people follow it.  Herodotus proves this point when he goes on to say that for the Thracians “to be idle is accounted the most honorable thing, and to be a tiller of the ground the most dishonorable.  To live by war and plunder is of all things the most glorious.”  Thrace was not a country that encouraged philosophy.  Aristotle would emphatically reject the Thracian (or any) “philosophy” that encourages idleness and plunder.  For Aristotle happiness was the full development of human capacities to achieve excellence in whatever field is pursued, whether in work, in war, in drama or philosophy.  So what were these glorious Greeks busy doing while those far-away barbaric Persians were getting stronger and spreading their empire?  The Greeks were fighting bitterly amongst themselves.  Herodotus doesn’t make excuses.  He just records how the Greeks, in their own way, were just as avaricious and power-hungry as any Persian king ever was.  It’s true that Cyrus came to power by leading the Persians ruthlessly against the Medes.  And when Cyrus was killed his son Cambyses (who Herodotus thought was insane) took his place.  Then Darius led a bold and murderous coup to claim the Persian throne.  This sounds as bloody as our reading in 1 Samuel when Saul, like Cyrus, wanted his own son (Jonathan) to rule after him.  But the rise of David led to civil war amongst the Hebrew tribes.  Some were for Saul, some were for David, and many were just out for themselves.  This was how the game was played and the Persians and Hebrews weren’t exceptional in this.  Neither were the Greeks.  Aristagoras wanted to revolt against king Darius; not because he was a patriotic Greek but because he wanted to rule for himself.  He tried to get Sparta and Athens to help.  But Sparta had its own problems.  They had a king (Cleomenes) whom Herodotus suspected of not being in his right mind.  And at that time the Athenians were split between the backers of Clisthenes (who called the common people to his aid), and Isagoras who, finding things weren’t going his way, called on Cleomenes (a Spartan) for help.  When Isagoras (with the help of Cleomenes) drove out Clisthenes, where did Clisthenes turn for help?  To Sardis, to make an alliance with… guess who?  The Persians.  Got all that?  We need a program guide to keep up.  These real-life historical characters don’t sound much different from Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Jason.  Herodotus shows readers just how dramatic history can be.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

HERODOTUS: History (Book 4)

Americans aren’t the only ones who want “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Reading Herodotus it seems that even in ancient times all people wanted to live in freedom and be happy.  It’s not clear whether Herodotus thinks all people are essentially alike or if he thinks they’re fundamentally different.  Compare what he has to say about two great peoples, the Egyptians and the Scythians.  “The Egyptians adhere to their own national customs, and adopt no foreign usages.” (Book 2)  “The Scythians have an extreme hatred of all foreign customs, particularly those in use among the Greeks.” (Book 4)  In this way at least they’re alike; they both want to live in freedom and be happy living by their own traditional customs.  But in other ways they couldn’t be more different.  The Egyptians had been rooted in the same spot since prehistoric times.  They were an agrarian urban-based people.  The Scythians had wandered all over the northern part of Asia Minor.  They were a nomadic people.  “The Egyptians… believed themselves to be the most ancient of mankind.” (Book 2)  But “According to the account which the Scythians themselves give, they are the youngest of all nations.” (Book 4)  The Egyptians had to defend their homeland by the Nile River and had no place to retreat.  That’s why the Persians under Cambyses and Darius could defeat the Egyptians in battle (though they were less successful in Libya and Ethiopia).  The Scythians had a different defensive strategy.  They “make it impossible for the enemy who invades them to escape destruction, while they themselves are entirely out of his reach, unless it please them to engage with him.  Having neither cities nor forts, and carrying their dwellings with them wherever they go… how can they fail of being unconquerable, and unassailable even?”  Darius had to withdraw from Scythia without conquering them.  In fact, it was a somewhat humiliating retreat, not a strategic one.  Herodotus says “the Persians escaped from Scythia” and thinks they were lucky to get out alive.  The Greeks were intimately connected with both Egypt and Scythia.  Herodotus believed “almost all the names of the gods came into Greece from Egypt.”  He also says “I maintain that both the shield and the helmet came into Greece from Egypt.” (Book 2)  The seafaring Greeks were also well acquainted with the Scythians.  They had established colonies and trading posts around the Black Sea.  We can infer this from Herodotus’ testimony that “the Geloni were anciently Greeks who, being driven out of the factories along the coast, fled to the Budini and took up their abode with them.  They still speak a language half Greek, half Scythian.”  (The Budini were a people who lived in far northeastern Scythia.)  In spite of these intimate connections Aristotle still believed "It is proper that Greeks should rule over barbarians" (Politics, Book 1, chapter 2)  Why would he think this?  He believed Greek civilization was superior to all the others.  All people may want to live in freedom and happiness, but he thought the Greek way was best.  For example, Herodotus says “The Agathyrsi are a race of men very luxurious and are very fond of wearing gold.  They have wives in common...”  Aristotle thought wealth should be used to live a certain kind of moderate lifestyle, not a “luxurious” one.  He also thought the family (a husband and wife raising their own children) was the cornerstone of civilized life.  Herodotus told us that “The Androphagi are more savage than those of any other race.  They neither observe justice, nor are governed by any laws.”  Aristotle believed that when people are governed by rational laws they’re the best of creatures, but when they’re not, they’re the most savage of creatures.  For these reasons Aristotle thought it proper that Greeks should rule over barbarians, not the other way around.  That’s fine; but what did barbarians think of that idea?  Let Herodotus speak for them: “These be the names of the Libyan tribes whereof I am able to give the names; and most of these cared little then, and indeed care little now, for the king of the Medes.”  Presumably they cared little for the Greeks as well.  They didn’t give a fig for Darius or for Aristotle either.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

HERODOTUS: History (Book 3)

Examining ideas is at the heart of the Great Books reading and discussion program.  One idea that comes up over and over again is the concept of Fate.  Herodotus deals with this question in Book 3 of his History with the story of Polycrates.  In some ways Polycrates was a huge success.  “Wherever he turned his arms, success waited on him… he plundered all, without distinction of friend or foe.”  The Egyptian ruler Amasis grew alarmed and had this advice for Polycrates: “Amasis to Polycrates thus sayeth: It is a pleasure to hear of a friend and ally prospering, but thy exceeding prosperity does not cause me joy, forasmuch as I know that the gods are envious… For never yet did I hear tell of any one succeeding in all his undertakings, who did not meet with calamity at last, and come to utter ruin.”  It might not be true that all successful people eventually meet with calamity and come to utter ruin.  But many do.  In the Great Books we read about Oedipus (Sophocles) and Othello (Shakespeare) rising to the pinnacles of power and success only to “come to utter ruin” in the end.  Aristotle seems to agree when he says “many reverses and vicissitudes of all sorts occur in the course of life, and it is possible that the most prosperous man may encounter great disasters in his declining years, as the story is told of Priam in the epics; but no one calls a man happy who meets with misfortunes like Priam's, and comes to a miserable end.” (Ethics, Book 1, Ch. 9)  One lesson we might draw from Herodotus is not to get too satisfied in success, nor too despondent in defeat.  The wheel of fortune (Fate) will spin its own direction, regardless of human wishes.  Today most people don’t believe that.  Amasis did.  “He perceived that it does not belong to man to save his fellow-man from the fate which is in store for him.”  (As a side note: in this case Amasis was right.  Polycrates met a bad end.)  Another idea that keeps popping up in Great Books is the idea of Truth.  Just as the question of Fate has never been fully resolved, neither has the question of Truth.  A popular magazine recently had this headline on the cover: Is Truth Dead?  This is the question Socrates addressed in many of Plato’s dialogs.  Socrates emphatically believed that Truth was not dead in his day and wouldn’t be dead in ours either, because Socrates believed Truth was an eternal guiding principle.  But the magazine wasn’t really addressing the question of philosophical Truth.  It was talking about political truth.  Does it make any difference?  Is the Truth spoken about in philosophy different from the one we’re talking about in politics?  The Persian ruler Darius had this to say about telling the truth: “An untruth must be spoken, where need requires.  For whether men lie, or say true, it is with one and the same object.  Men lie, because they think to gain by deceiving others; and speak the truth, because they expect to get something by their true speaking, and to be trusted afterwards in more important matters.  Thus, though their conduct is so opposite, the end of both is alike.  If there were no gain to be got, your true-speaking man would tell untruths as much as your liar, and your liar would tell the truth as much as your true-speaking man.”  Maybe this is a cynical view but there’s a lesson Herodotus can teach us here.  When we listen to political speeches the right question may be not be: is this politician telling the truth?  The right question may be: what advantage are they trying to gain by giving this speech?

In the Great Books tradition there’s no right answer and wrong answer regarding Fate and Truth.  But some answers are better than others.  The same goes for the idea of Government.  In Book 3 Herodotus examines three types of government: democracy, aristocracy and monarchy.  Three Persians each give a speech showing the virtues and vices of each form of government.  Which one is best?  Who knows?  They can all work or they can all fail, depending on the people involved.  In the end, the Persians chose monarchy; not necessarily because it’s best but because they thought it would work best for them.  The Greeks chose democracy.  These choices eventually led to war.  It wasn’t just a war of blood and steel.  It was a war of ideas.

Friday, June 09, 2017

HERODOTUS The History (Book 2)


In Book 2 Herodotus takes us on a travel tour of Egypt.  This may seem like a diversion from his topic of the great wars between the Greeks and the Persians, but it’s a pleasant diversion.  And it’s actually on topic because it’s an exploration of: (1) how the Greeks became Greek, and (2) the tools of history which Herodotus was just beginning to develop.  History is, of course, the study of the past.  And Herodotus begins Book 2 by noting that “The Egyptians… believed themselves to be the most ancient of mankind.”  Who better to tell about the past than “the most ancient of mankind.”  Whether this is actually true is debatable.  But there’s no denying the antiquity of the Egyptians.  They were an ancient people even to the ancient Greeks.  And the Egyptians were exceptionally skilled in many areas, including history.  Herodotus says “The Heliopolitans have the reputation of being the best skilled in history of all the Egyptians.”  Compare this to his fellow Greeks.  Herodotus thinks “The Greeks tell many tales without due investigation… it seems that such a story proves the Greeks to be utterly ignorant of the character and customs of the people.”  Herodotus personally went on a tour of Egypt to conduct his own historical research.  What he found was amazing.  After talking to people who actually lived there he concluded: “What they said of their country seemed to me very reasonable.”  Let’s start with geography.  Herodotus believes location made the Egyptian people who they were; specifically, Egypt itself was a gift of the Nile River.  Herodotus records that “At present, it must be confessed, they obtain the fruits of the field with less trouble than any other people in the world, since they have no need to break up the ground with the plough, nor to use the hoe, nor to do any of the work which the rest of mankind find necessary if they are to get a crop.”  This may not be literally true but it does show how the flooding of the Nile gave the Egyptians enough leisure time to pursue other activities.  And they had many, many other activities.  Herodotus goes into great detail about their customs.  He talks about their markets and business practices, where they eat their food, what the duties of the priests are, how Egyptians support their parents, how they wear their hair, and a long section on their pets and how they generally treated animals.  Herodotus tells how Egyptians felt about the cat, the crocodile, the hippopotamus, the mythical phoenix, and various snakes.  That all sounds interesting but what does it have to do with the Greek and Persian wars?  It turns out that Greece was heavily influenced by the Egyptians.  Take religion for example.  Herodotus believes “Almost all the names of the gods came from Greece into Egypt.  My inquiries prove that they were all derived from a foreign source, and my opinion is that Egypt furnished the greater number.”  He goes on to say that “Whence the gods severally sprang, whether or no they had all existed from eternity, what forms they bore; these are questions of which the Greeks knew nothing until the other day, so to speak.”  In fact, the Egyptians seemed to know more about the Trojan War than the Greeks themselves did.  Herodotus comes to the conclusion (based on his Egyptians sources) that the Trojans didn’t give Helen back to the Greeks because the Trojans didn’t have her.  Paris had taken her to Egypt, not toTroy.  Take another example, the great Greek lawgiver Solon.  Herodotus says it was the Egyptian ruler, Amasis, who “established the law that every Egyptian should appear once a year before the governor of his canton, and show his means of living; or failing to do so, and to prove that he got an honest livelihood, should be put to death.  Solon the Athenian borrowed this law from the Egyptians, and imposed it on his countrymen, who have observed it ever since.  It is indeed an excellent custom.”  Greek culture was not just an extension of Egyptian culture but Herodotus shows that the Greeks did borrow many things from Egypt; just as the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, the British from the Romans, and Americans from the British.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

HERODOTUS: History (Book 1 Ch. 95-216)

In this section Herodotus traces the rise and fall of Cyrus.  The rise of Cyrus was either inevitable or highly unlikely, depending on how we interpret the sources Herodotus gives us.  He says he will “follow those Persian authorities whose object it appears to be not to magnify the exploits of Cyrus, but to relate the simple truth.”  The truth turns out to be not so simple.  This much we know for sure: “The Assyrians had held the Empire of Upper Asia for five hundred and twenty years, when the Medes set the example of revolt from their authority.”  Herodotus relates how at first “Deioces collected the Medes into a nation, and ruled over them alone.”  His son, Phraortes, went a step further.  He “began by attacking the Persians; and marching an army into the country, brought them under the Median yoke.”  Then Phraortes’ son, Cyaxares, “was the first who gave organization to an Asiatic army… who before his time had been mingled in one mass, and confused together.”  After combining the Median and Persian empires, Cyaxares set his sights on conquering the Assyrian empire.  “A battle was fought in which the Assyrians suffered a defeat.”  After 520 years of Assyrian rule what we now call Asia Minor was united under a Mede-Persian empire.  Almost united.  A few city-states still wanted independence.  This would eventually lead to war between the Persians and the Greeks.  But this is just background information for the real story Herodotus wants to tell: the rise of Cyrus.  Astyages became king after Cyaxares.  He had a daughter and dreamed she would give birth to a boy who would de-throne him.  So instead of marrying her to a Mede nobleman he gave her to Cambyses, “a Persian of good family, indeed, but of a quiet temper, whom he looked on as much inferior to a Mede of even middle condition.”  This is where Cyrus enters the stage of world history.  In a story reminiscent of Oedipus the King, Cyrus is miraculously saved from being killed as an infant.  When he’s grown to manhood he leads a revolt of the Persians and defeats the army of the Medes.  That’s how he became sole ruler of a vast empire.  For almost thirty years he was victorious and spread his rule over most of the peoples surrounding him.  Eventually he tried to conquer the wrong people.  “The Massagatae were ruled by a queen named Tomyrisa.”  When he invaded her country Tomyrisa warned Cyrus to back off.  She sent a message and told him to “be content to rule in peace thy own kingdom, and bear to see us reign over the countries that are ours to govern.”  Cyrus ignored her warning and invaded anyway.  This was a fatal mistake.  A battle was fought and “at length the Massagatae prevailed.  The greater part of the army of the Persians was destroyed and Cyrus himself fell, after reigning nine and twenty years.”  What does all this have to do with the Greeks?  Before his fatal encounter with the Massagatae Cyrus had subdued most of Asia Minor.  But the Greek city-states in Ionia and Aeolia resisted.  They appealed to mainland Greece for help.  No help was offered but the Spartans did send a ship of fifty men to keep an eye on what was happening and warn Cyrus not to molest any of the Greek cities.  Cyrus saw them and asked “Who these Spartans were, and what were their number, that they dared to send him such a notice?  …If I live, the Spartans shall have troubles enough of their own to talk of, without concerning themselves about the Ionians.”  In hindsight it was clear that Cyrus had enough problems without trying to conquer the Massagatae.  He had his hands full just keeping his provinces in Asia Minor under control.  Cyrus had conquered Lydia but as soon as he left, they revolted.  He asked his political aide Croesus (the former king of Lydia) “Where will this end, Croesus, thinkest thou?  It seemeth that these Lydians will not cease to cause trouble both to themselves and others.”  The Ionians and Aeolians, like the Lydians, saw themselves as freedom fighters.  Cyrus saw them as a “cause of trouble both to themselves and others.”  Persia didn’t need Spartans or other Greeks stirring up more rebellion.  By the end of Book 1 Cyrus is dead.  But the Persian empire is still intact.  This is a war just waiting to happen.