Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, April 15, 2017

BIBLE: 1 Samuel (11-20)

In many ways modern Americans can understand the book of Samuel.  These characters have many of the same concerns we do.  They want good jobs that pay well and provide higher social status.  They want what’s best for their children.  They worry that their government is not doing enough, or it’s doing too much.  They worry about going to war with hostile foreign nations.  These worries are things we can understand.  This is the kind of world we can understand because it’s a world much like our own.  But there are many things in 1 Samuel we can’t understand.  For example, in chapter 11 Nahash the Ammonite comes up and encamps against Israelites living in a town called Jabesh.  The Jabeshites are afraid of the Ammonites so they say “make a covenant with us, and we will serve thee.”  Making a peace treaty isn’t unusual, even in today’s world.  But in today’s world nations don’t make peace treaties by agreeing to “serve” other nations.  It was much worse than that in the Middle East around 1000 B.C.  Here was the response to the Jabeshite request for a peace treaty.  “Nahash the Ammonite answered them, On this condition will I make a covenant with you, that I may thrust out all your right eyes, and lay it for a reproach upon all Israel.”  The United Nations would not approve such a treaty and the modern world wouldn’t stand for it.  Some other country or Jabesh’s coalition allies would intervene.  But in that day there was no U.N. or allied coalitions.  There were only fellow Israelites to call upon for help.  If that failed, well, too bad, you were on your own.  This is one of the reasons the Israelites demanded a king from Samuel.  Having a king would centralize political and military power.  Centralized power would put Israel on a more competitive standing with the surrounding peoples.  Saul rallies the rest of Israel to come to the aid of Jabesh.  During this period Israel seems to have been a loose coalition of tribes, something along the lines of the early American Articles of Confederation.  The tribes were encouraged, but not compelled, to help their fellow citizens.  Saul warned of retaliation against those tribes which didn’t help fight against the Ammonites.  It worked.  “Saul put the people in three companies; and they came into the midst of the host in the morning watch, and slew the Ammonites… And all the people went to Gilgal; and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal.”

Saul seems like a good choice for a king.  He’s tall, strong, and handsome.  He’s also charismatic and has already shown he’s a good military commander.  Samuel gives the Israelites the king they asked for.  He also gives them a short history lesson about who they are, where they came from, and why they’re living where they are now.  But even though Saul looks like a king, he doesn’t always act like one.  He makes some serious mistakes that show his lack of leadership.  First he blurs the line between his own duties as king and Samuel’s duties as priest.  When Samuel gets delayed in coming before one crucial battle, Saul goes ahead and performs the sacrifice to the Lord himself.  That’s a serious mistake.  It’s Samuel’s place to make the sacrifice, not Saul’s.  Next he makes a serious blunder in military strategy in the war with the Philistines.  In chapter 14 it says “the men of Israel were distressed that day: for Saul had adjured the people, saying, Cursed by the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on my enemies.  So none of the people tasted any food.”  When Saul says “that I may be avenged on my enemies” he’s putting his own interest ahead of the interest of his troops.  They won the battle but even Saul’s inexperienced son Jonathan could see “How much more, if haply the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found?  For had there not been now a much greater slaughter among the Philistines?”  Saul looked like a king but didn’t have the qualities to become a good one.  A boy tending sheep would be Israel’s next king.  His name was David.  The rest of the story describes King David’s long and rocky road to the throne.

Friday, April 07, 2017

BIBLE: 1 Samuel (1-10)

Few people would disagree that the Bible is a great book.  Almost all public and academic libraries have several editions on their shelves.  Many people also have more than one edition in their own private libraries.  Maybe the whole Bible is a great book but does that mean every book in the Bible is great too?  Is the book of Samuel a great book?  Can someone read this section of the Bible on their own, without the help of scholarly aids and commentaries, and come away with the notion that they’ve encountered a Great Book?  Let’s start with the title.  Why is the book called Samuel and not The Story of David?  Without using commentaries we can make a good guess.  Every literate person is familiar with the story of David and Goliath.  Not as many people are familiar with the story of Samuel.  A lot of people don’t know who Samuel is, much less why he’s important.  Samuel is the end of the line of a long tradition in the history of Israel.  He was the last in the line of judges to hold political power before kings began to rule in Israel.  In fact, it was Samuel himself who oversaw the rise of Israel’s first king: Saul.  Next we should ask what kind of book is this.  Is it literature?  History?  Philosophy?  One of the problems in reading the Bible is how it should be read.  My King James Version has The Holy Bible stamped on the cover.  Reading it as a holy book gives different results from reading it as we would read any other book.  But by interpreting the text from a strictly secular perspective we can still make some judgments about it.  The writer of this book tells the story of Samuel in a straightforward and rather spare style, similar to Homer’s storytelling technique in The Iliad.  As secular literature, it’s a good story.  We’re introduced at the outset to a woman named Hannah.  She wants to have a child but so far has not been able to have one.  Hannah goes to Shiloh every year to worship “the Lord of hosts.”  There she runs into a priest named Eli.  Eli knows the joys of parenthood but he also knows its disappointments.  He has two sons of his own but they’re not very good sons.  They’re even worse as priests and Eli knows it.  But he blesses Hannah and soon she conceives and has her own son.  She names him Samuel.  Eli trains him to be a priest and Samuel turns out to be a good one.  It’s a good story, even as secular literature.  But meanwhile this story isn’t taking place in a vacuum.  As in all stories, it needs to be read in historical perspective.  The Israelites are in constant battles with the Philistines.  The fighting in Homer’s Iliad is written with much more detail, but the battles seem to have been much the same.  In those days men fought with spears and swords in a primitive, haphazard fashion.  The Philistines keep getting the better of the Israelites on the battlefield so one day they come complaining to Samuel.  By this time Samuel has taken over for Eli as priest, prophet and judge.  They tell Samuel, give us a king!  We want to be like other nations and have a king to lead us into battle!  The era of theocratic rule by judges is over.  Saul is crowned king and the era of monarchy begins.  This is good as literature, but is it good as history?  The book of Samuel seems to be something of a hybrid, again similar to The Iliad.  There really was a Trojan War and there were real kings and real battles with spears and swords.  We might call the book of Samuel “embellished” history.  Can the book of Samuel be read as philosophy?  It’s certainly not a treatise on ethics or political theory.  But if we think of philosophy as the love of wisdom then we can surely gain deeper wisdom by reading and pondering the lessons it has to teach.  The questions it poses are philosophical as well as spiritual in scope.  Why do good people sometimes have bad children?  Why do bad guys win battles and even prosper in this world?  Why do people worship different gods?  Why do people worship gods at all?  What qualities should we look for in spiritual leaders?  Do we need different qualities for our political leaders?  Should those two roles be kept separate?  What’s the best form of government?  These kinds of questions make the book of Samuel a very good book.  Maybe even a candidate for a great book.            

Monday, April 03, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Summary)

Modern Americans are familiar with the advice that we need to get out of our comfort zones.  One of the lessons readers take away from Anna Karenina is a different piece of advice.  Stay in your comfort zone.  If you don’t have a comfort zone, find one.  If you can’t find one, make one.  Very few characters in this novel live in a comfort zone, even the ones with plenty of money and social prestige.  Many of the peasants seem to live contentedly, if modestly, in their environment.  They live close to nature and aren’t bothered by the problems created by city life in Petersburg or Moscow.  They do their own work on the farm, raise their own children, and believe in their own God.  Life is simple and personal and their problems are close at hand and can be solved.  Tolstoy was romanticizing but that was his vision of a comfort zone.

The main characters in the story lived in the upper echelons of society.  They mostly worked in cities, served on committees, and had to meet the considerable expenses associated with sophisticated urban living; “balls, concerts, dinners, matchboxes, ladies’ dresses, beer, restaurants” and so forth.  In the upper classes children were mostly raised by a governess.  Religion, for many of these urban socialites, was optional.  It was trendy among them to reject the idea of a personal God in favor of the more enlightened views offered by science and reason.  In this kind of environment comfort zones were rare.  There was an expensive club for rich men to find refuge from the worries of city life.  And a few characters lived relatively comfortably amidst all the affluence and luxury and decadence.  The old prince (Dolly and Kitty’s father) was one example.  He was comfortable in his own skin and in being who he was, even if he was considered something of a curmudgeon by his associates.  Lvov found happiness by giving up his lucrative foreign post in order to raise his own children and personally direct their education. 

Most characters weren’t so lucky.  Dolly had to come to terms with her husband’s repeated infidelities.  Sometimes she dreamed of a better life.  But her comfort zone consisted entirely of her relations with her family and her children, excluding her husband Stiva.  Stiva himself found city life stimulating but a little too expensive.  He could only find comfort by living beyond his means.  Levin’s brothers never found much comfort.  Nikolay never achieved anything by his social activism and devoted his unhealthy life to booze.  “Sergey was clever, cultivated, healthy, and energetic and he did not know what use to make of his energy.”  He wrote a book but it didn’t amount to much.  He thought seriously about marrying Varenka but that didn’t amount to anything either.  The main focus of the story centered on two characters: Anna and Levin.  Did they ever find their comfort zones?  The answer is: no, and maybe.  At the beginning of the novel Anna is vaguely unhappy.  By the end of the novel she’s not vaguely unhappy; she’s truly miserable and commits suicide in a gruesome fashion.  No comfort zone there.  At the beginning of the novel Levin is vaguely unhappy too.  He wants a wife and a family.  By the end of the novel he has both.  Maybe more than he bargained for.  He has a son and a big portion of Anna’s family has come out to his farm estate for a visit.  But Levin’s comfort zone doesn’t come from the outside.  It comes from within his own soul.  He finally comes to terms with his relationship to God, to his family, and to his fellow man.  Levin finally accepts his place in the world.  He’s not ecstatically happy but he’s found a deeper sense of comfort in fulfilling his role as a husband, a father, and a productive member of the community.  He makes his own way in the world by hard work and gives up many of his own comforts for the benefit of others.  This isn’t exactly a comfort zone and at the end of the novel Levin has many years of life left.  Unhappiness could be lurking just around the next corner.  But at least for now he’s found a way of life that brings him a certain amount of contentment.  That may be the only comfort zone most of us will ever find. 

Saturday, April 01, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 8)

In Part 7 Anna says “we are all created to be miserable, and we all know it, and we all invent ways of deceiving each other.”  The she goes on to ask “When one sees the truth, what is one to do?”  Her answer is to leave this miserable life as quickly as possible.  Anna thought she would die at the birth of her second child and that would solve all her problems.  When that didn’t happen she took matters into her own hands and threw herself under a train.  That’s one answer.

It ended her own problems but caused more problems for other people.  Vronsky’s mother put it this way: “No, say what you will, she was a bad woman.  Why, what is the meaning of such desperate passions?  It was all to show herself something out of the way.  Well, and that she did do.  She brought herself to ruin and two good men; her husband and my unhappy son.”  Levin took a different route.  He, too, saw that life was often a miserable affair.  He found out what misery was like when his first proposal to marry Kitty was rejected.  Levin was very unhappy for a while but kept on going through the daily motions of living.  Then the circumstances of life changed, as they always do.  One day he woke up to find he was not only Kitty’s husband but also the father of their first child.  The joy of life had driven away the misery of life.  At least for a while.  Then the circumstances of life changed, as they always do.  Going through the daily motions of living brought back the same old question: “we are all created to be miserable, and we all know it, and we all invent ways of deceiving each other.  When one sees the truth, what is one to do?”  Until he answered that question he would find no peace.  Kitty was aware of Levin’s restless spirit.  Furthermore, she “knew what worried her husband.  It was his unbelief… What does he keep reading philosophy of some sort for all of this year?  She wondered.  If it’s all written in those books, he can understand them.  If it’s all wrong, why does he read them?  He says himself that he would like to believe.  Then why is it he doesn’t believe?  Surely from his thinking so much.”  In Kitty’s opinion Levin brooded too much.  He worried too much about whether there was a God, or not; whether life was worth living, or not.  Going through the daily motions of life could temporarily drive these questions away but couldn’t answer them definitely.  And it wasn’t that Levin didn’t want to believe, didn’t want to affirm God and affirm life.  He did.  But he wavered because the question overwhelmed him.  He couldn’t understand why.  “All the people nearest to him who were good in their lives were believers.  The old prince, and Lvov, whom he liked so much, and Sergey Ivanovitch, and all the women believed, and his wife believed as simply as he had believed in his earliest childhood, and ninety-nine out of a hundred of the Russian people all the working-people for whose life he felt the deepest respect, believed.”  Why couldn’t he believe as simply as they did?  The simple answer was simple.  Reason.  “Reasoning had brought him to doubt, and prevented him from seeing what he ought to do and what he ought not.  When he did not think, but simply lived, he was continually aware of the presence of an infallible judge in his soul…”  The complex answer was, not surprisingly, more complex.  Levin was considering the question as an intellectual problem to be solved.  But this question was not an intellectual problem.  It was much more than that.  It was a matter of life and death.  He knew a peasant woman who had recovered from a life-threatening illness and was now hard at work on his farm, and he pondered the hard effort it takes to live: “Why was it all being done… she recovered, but today or tomorrow or in ten years she won’t; they’ll bury her… they’ll bury her and this piebald horse, and very soon too... and what’s more, it’s not just them; they’ll bury me too, and nothing will be left.  What for?”  What for?  That simple question was totally beyond Levin’s comprehension.  He could never reason his way to an answer. He didn’t know if life overall was good or bad.  Only an “infallible judge” could answer that question and the “infallible judge” in Levin’s soul answered: it is good. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 7)

There’s an old country song that goes: “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout, We've been talkin' 'bout Jackson, ever since the fire went out.  I'm goin' to Jackson…”  Anna and Vronsky didn’t get married in a fever because Anna was already married to another man.  But they were both “hotter than a pepper sprout” for a while.  Then in Part 7 that fire of desire starts cooling off.  Anna wants to go back; not to Jackson, but to Vronsky’s country estate at Vozdvizhenskoe.  That way they can be alone, away from the harsh judgments of Petersburg and Moscow.  Anna was battered by social scandal and Vronsky was defiant.  In Part 6 Dolly admits that Anna’s “position in the world is difficult.”  Vronsky replies, “In the world it is hell!  You can’t imagine moral sufferings greater than what she went through in Petersburg.”  But it’s not just the critique of society putting pressure on their relationship.  They’re also plagued by their own domestic problems.  In one scene Anna says “let me tell you that a heartless woman, whether she’s old or not old, your mother or anyone else, is of no consequence to me, and I would not consent to know her.”  Vronsky’s reply is blunt.  “Anna, I beg you not to speak disrespectfully of my mother.”  But Anna persists.  “A woman whose heart does not tell her where her son’s happiness and honor lie has no heart.”  Vronsky’s response is stern.  “I repeat my request that you will not speak disrespectfully of my mother, whom I respect.”  That’s not really true.  Earlier in the novel we learn that Vronsky did, in fact, love his mother; but he did not respect her.  Her promiscuous lifestyle troubled him.  Underneath the love Vronsky and Anna felt toward one another was another troubling fact.  Polite society considered their love affair an illicit relationship, which it was.  Anna was not one of those heartless women.  When she protests that the opinions of “your mother or anyone else, is of no consequence to me” she’s being as dishonest as Vronsky.  They do care what people think.  Anna’s heart is deeply wounded by her position in society and despite what Vronsky says in public, so is his.  All they have is each other and this arrangement puts tremendous pressure on their relationship.  At one point Anna says “if you don’t love me anymore, it would be better and more honest to say so.”  Vronsky feels stifled by Anna’s constant need to be reassured of his love for her.  He replies “no, this is becoming unbearable!  What do you try my patience for?  It has limits.”  This should be a warning to Anna to back off but instead she keeps pushing those limits.  Something has to give.  What finally gives is Anna’s mind.  Earlier in the novel the reader sees a troubled mind going into free fall.  In Part 4 Vronsky is despondent and begins talking to himself.  That’s bad.  Then he begins answering himself.  That’s worse.  “What’s this?  Am I going out of my mind?  Perhaps.  What makes men go out of their minds; what makes men shoot themselves?

…This is how people go mad and how they shoot themselves; to escape humiliation.”  Vronsky did not kill himself.  But he tried.  Anna’s descent into madness and suicide was more serious.  Tolstoy shows the relentless logic of madness by revealing what was going through Anna’s mind.  “Now nothing mattered… the one thing that mattered was punishing him… she began musing with enjoyment on how he would suffer, and repent and love her memory when it would be too late.”  In calmer moments she’s aware of what’s happening to her.  “What am I going to do?  Yes, I’m going to Dolly’s, that’s true or else I shall go out of my mind.”  So she goes to Dolly’s.  But the logic of madness pursues her there too.  Dolly saw “it was obvious that nothing interested Anna” and “Anna got into the carriage again in an even worse frame of mind than when she set out from home.”  Then the logic of suicide sets in.  “We are all created to be miserable, and we all know it, and we all invent means to deceiving each other.  When one knows the truth, what is one to do?”  For Anna there’s only one answer.  Somehow the fever of love went wrong.  Love Gone Wrong is a theme for a great country song.  Or a great novel.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 6)

How should we live?  That’s the question every generation in every country in every age must face.  How should we live or, to put it a little differently, how can we live a good life?  Aristotle once said “Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”  We could replace the word “happiness” and use “the good life” instead.  Then we’d have a definition that says “the good life is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”  But that still doesn’t answer the question how should we live?  What kind of activity are we talking about?  And what virtues (or in today’s terms “whose values”) are we to follow?  Aristotle says people have various opinions about what what they want out of life but “both the common run of people and cultivated men call it happiness, and understand by ‘being happy’ the same as ‘living well’ and ‘doing well.’”

That’s one framework for understanding Anna Karenina.  All the characters in this novel want to be happy.  But they can’t even agree on what happiness is, much less how to get there.  And they can’t agree whether happiness is best sought in the city or in the country; in an urban or in a pastoral setting.  Tolstoy has a deep understanding of human psychology and shows us several paths people take in their quest for happiness.  The Great Books approach is similar to the path Sergey and others tried.  They wanted to read and discuss the best that has been thought and said throughout history.  They tried to find happiness by pondering ideas and sharing them with others.  Religion is another path.  Tolstoy portrays the Countess Lidia using religion in a harmful way, as a crutch or an excuse for her own misfortunes in life.  But he also shows the positive side of religion in Varenka, whose life is a kind of spiritual dedication of service to others.  Art is another path.  For some people the search for happiness and the search for beauty are pretty much the same thing.  Mikhailov takes this path.  Vronsky tries art for a little while, then abandons it when it ceases to make him happy.  Social activism is the chosen path for others.  Levin’s brother Nikolay tries, and fails, to find happiness in his plans for restructuring the social order of Russia.  Living in harmony with nature has appealed to many people, including the American writer Henry David Thoreau.  Some of the peasants in this novel seem to have found happiness in nature.  Other characters have not.  Dolly is disappointed when living the country life as a grown woman does not recapture the happiness she had as a child.  But she does find a different kind of happiness in country life by focusing her attention on her own children.  Sport also promises a certain amount of happiness and several men in the story get a great deal of pleasure from horse racing and hunting.        

Tolstoy is well aware of all these approaches to the ongoing human project of finding and holding on to happiness.  There are lots of ways people can find pleasure in life but happiness is elusive.  Tolstoy’s theme seems to be this.  There are many pathways to pleasure but, as the Bible says, the greatest of these is love.  What all these characters are really searching for, whether in great books, religion, art, social activism, nature or sports, can only be found in love.  Sergey has his books, but something is missing.  He considers marrying Varenka, then misses his chance to share his life with hers when he backs out at the last moment.  Countess Lidia has her religion.  What she really wants is a husband who will love her.  Mikhailov has his art, but art’s abstract beauty means more to him than his real flesh-and-blood wife.  Anna and Vronsky want love so badly they’re willing to destroy the lives of others, and even their own, to find it.  Maybe they’re asking more from love than love is able to give them.  But of all these characters it’s Levin and Kitty who seem to be on the right path.  Love is not what either one of them pictured it to be.  For that very reason, Tolstoy apparently thinks that’s the real deal; love is a shared life.      

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 5)

Many of the most basic themes of life recur over and over in this story; love, marriage, work, money, education, politics and religion are all examples.  Religion means nothing to some the characters in the novel.  For others, such as Karenin, religion is seen primarily as a way to get social and political advancement.  The Countess Lidia Ivanovna takes religion very seriously, although the way it’s presented Tolstoy thinks she embraces a warped form of it.  The subject comes up again when Levin decides to marry Kitty.  Oblonsky asks a practical question: “have you a certificate of having been at confession?”  Apparently confession is necessary before a couple can be married in the church.  Levin is surprised by the question.  “Why, I believe it’s been nine years since I’ve taken the sacrament!  I never thought of it.”  He had given a lot of thought to subjects like love and marriage and work and money and education and politics; but “Levin found himself, like the majority of his contemporaries, in the vaguest position in regard to religion.  Believe he could not, and at the same time he had no firm conviction that it was all wrong.”  Levin wasn’t sure what he thought about religion.  But he knew one thing for sure; he wanted to marry Kitty.  And if he had to go to confession first, well, so be it.  Before going to confession Levin attended the church service and was baffled by all the ceremony and ritual.  “Yes, now it will soon be over, he thought.  No, it seems to be beginning again, he thought, listening to the prayers.  No, it’s just ending; there he is bowing down to the ground.  That’s always the end.”  Levin went to confession and got his certificate.  But his confusion persisted.  Once he got married he found out how confused he had been about marriage too.  It wasn’t at all like he thought it would be.  Even the marriage ceremony had come as something of a surprise.  The head-deacon intoned the words: “Vouchsafe to them love made perfect, peace and help, O Lord, we beseech Thee.”  These were just boilerplate words; part of the church’s routine ceremony and ritual.  But these weren’t just boilerplate words to Levin.  “Levin heard the words, and they impressed him. ‘How did they guess that it is help, just help that one wants?’ he thought, recalling all his fears and doubts of late. ‘What do I know?   What can I do in this fearful business,’ he thought, ‘without help?  Yes, it is help that I want now.’”  These were just the words Levin needed to hear when he was feeling insecure about fulfilling the duties of being a good husband to Kitty.  As for Kitty, the ceremony, the vows, the words, these were all just part of the way things are supposed to be.  She didn’t probe on an intellectual level.  They were just part of who she was.  Levin reflected that “Since their conversation about religion when they were engaged neither of them had ever started a discussion of the subject, but she performed all the ceremonies of going to church, saying her prayers, and so on, always with the unvarying conviction that this ought to be so.”  For Kitty religion wasn’t a problem to be solved; it was a way of life.  It was a certain kind of love developed within the context of a conventional marriage; in doing her own work and raising her own children.  That’s what Kitty wanted.  Levin’s brother Nikolay was different.  For Nikolay religion was merely an intellectual problem.  “Levin knew his brother and the workings of his intellect: he knew that his unbelief came not from life being easier for him without faith, but had grown up because step by step the contemporary scientific interpretation of natural phenomena crushed out the possibility of faith…”  Kitty believed, Levin wasn’t sure and Nikolay did not believe.  These three views intersected when Nikolay lay on his deathbed.  Kitty took charge.  She felt sorrow and pity, made sure Nikolay was as comfortable as possible, and arranged for him to receive the sacraments.  Levin “strange to say, felt utterly cold, and was not conscious of sorrow nor of loss, less still of pity for his brother.”  Meanwhile Nikolay’s “sufferings, steadily growing more intense, did their work and prepared him for death.”