Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Summer & Fall 2018 Great Books Reading Schedule


Date        Reading     

5 Jun    Aristophanes, Birds
12 Jun Schopenhauer, 3 Essays: On Style, On Some Forms of
              Literature,
-----        On the Comparative Place of Interest and Beauty in Works                                            of Art
19 Jun William James, On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings
26 Jun Joyce, The Dead
3 Jul William James, What Makes A Life Significant?
10 Jul José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses,
              Chapters 1–5
17 Jul The Revolt of the Masses, Chapters 6–10
24 Jul The Revolt of the Masses, Chapters 11–14.4 
31 Jul The Revolt of the Masses, Chapters 14.5–15
7 Aug Bible, Esther
14 Aug Euripides, The Bacchae
21 Aug Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, Chapters 1–3
28 Aug Death in Venice, Chapters 4–5

















---------------------------------------------------------------------

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Reading Schedule - Spring 2018

   Dostoevsky -  Crime and Punishment

 6 March  – Crime and Punishment, Part 1, Chapters 1-3

13 March – Crime and Punishment, Part 1, Chapters 4-7

20 March – Crime and Punishment, Part 2, Chapters 1-4

27 March – Crime and Punishment, Part 2, Chapters 5-7

 3 April  –   Crime and Punishment, Part 3, Chapters 1-3

10 April –   Crime and Punishment, Part 3, Chapters 4-6

17 April –  Crime and Punishment, Part 4, Chapters 1-3

24 April –  Crime and Punishment, Part 4, Chapters 4-6

  1 May –   Crime and Punishment, Part 5, Chapters 1-3

  8 May –   Crime and Punishment, Part 5, Chapters 4-5

15 May –   Crime and Punishment, Part 6, Chapters 1-4

22 May –  Crime and Punishment, Part 6, Chapters 5-8

29 May –  Crime and Punishment, Epilogue

Friday, January 19, 2018

SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels I (A Voyage to Lilliput)

What makes a human being human?  Normally this is a question for philosophers and biologists.  But in this case Jonathan Swift uses literature to highlight qualities, both good and bad, that make us human.  He has high hopes for the human race, and high standards too.  Gulliver (Swift) expresses his disillusionment in a letter to his cousin Sympson: “I cannot learn that my Book hath produced one single Effect according to mine Intentions…”  And what were those intentions?  “When Party and Faction are extinguished; Judges learned and upright… young Nobility’s Education entirely changed; Physicians banished; Females abound in Virtue… when Wit, Merit and Learning are rewarded…”  Alas, the human race falls far short of Swift’s expectations.  He points out our human follies and shows us the path to human virtue through the travels of Lemuel Gulliver.  The book is part travelogue, part adventure story, part philosophical musing.  It’s a clever literary device but how is Swift able to convert a travelogue into a meditation on human nature?  As a young man Gulliver became a doctor but says when “my business began to fail” he “determined to go again to Sea.”  Being a doctor on a ship gave Gulliver lots of free time and he says “My hours of leisure I spent reading the best Authors, ancient and modern; being always provided with a good Number of Books.”  So far, so good.  Studying, reading and writing books, building ships and going to sea are all human activities.  The trouble begins when Gulliver’s ship sinks in a storm and he’s washed up ashore in an unknown land.  When he regains consciousness he feels something moving across his chest and he “perceived it to be a human Creature not six inches high, with a Bow and Arrow in his Hands, and a Quiver at his Back.”  Here’s a question.  Can a “Creature not six inches high” be human?  Gulliver thought so.  Why?  The “Creature” looked human.  And besides, creatures such as bugs and birds and chipmunks don’t have bows and arrows and quivers on their backs.  This particular creature looks human but happens to only be six inches tall.  As creatures go, that’s more the size of a bug or a bird or a chipmunk than the size of a human being.  How tall does someone have to be in order to be human?  Gulliver determines even at six inches this creature is human.  What if the creature was just one inch, or microscopic?  Is there a downward limit to the size of humans?  Let’s turn Swift’s proposition around and look at it from the other end.  Gulliver was over 10 times the size as these Lilliputians.  How would we feel if we encountered creatures who were 50 or 60 feet tall?  Probably much as the Lilliputians felt when they said “whether there are other Kingdoms and States in the World, inhabited by human Creatures as large as your self, our Philosophers are in much Doubt; and would rather conjecture that you dropt from the Moon…” 

Gulliver did not, in fact, drop from the moon.  But according to Lilliputian experience they had never encountered a creature like Gulliver before, so dropping from the moon is as good an explanation as any.  From our perspective, no one has ever seen a 50 or 60 foot tall creatures except in science fiction movies.  If we did encounter a creature so big and so powerful, how should we respond?  We could turn to science fiction movies to get a popular answer.  The classic case would be “King Kong” (1933).  In “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) the earth was invaded by a powerful force.  In both cases earthlings acted aggressively to defend ourselves against hostile forces.  In the movie “Independence Day” (1996) the earth was also invaded by powerful forces.  This time we tried the opposite approach.  Earthlings celebrated and held peace parties on the tops of tall buildings.  Then they got unceremoniously obliterated by alien creatures who had come to scavenge the earth and then move on to their next conquest.  So much for peaceful intentions.  Humans, like Lilliputians, would probably be very cautious if confronted with a strong alien force.  And we would be right to do so.  In that sense, Swift was way ahead of his time and gives us a preview of his next meditation, Gulliver’s “Voyage to Brobdingnag.”

Saturday, December 30, 2017

PLATO: Phaedrus

Readers of Plato should feel right at home in this dialog.  Socrates is featured in many of Plato’s writings and this one is no different.  Usually Socrates is doing the talking and this one is no different.  He’s usually talking to a young man or a group of young men.  This one is no different either.  Phaedrus is a young man who’s just heard an impressive speech by an orator named Lysias and Phaedrus says the speech “is one of your sort, for the theme which occupied us was love.”  Of course this is exactly one of Socrates’ “sort” because talking about that kind of theme is what he does all the time.  It’s his passion to talk about love and justice and knowledge and many other topics.  But they all seem to revolve around a primary theme, and Socrates returns to this theme time and again throughout the many dialogs by Plato.  We’ll let Socrates speak for himself: “I have certainly not time for this; shall I tell you why?  I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says; and I should be absurd indeed if while I am still in ignorance of myself I should be curious about that which is not my business… I want to know not about this, but about myself.”  Socrates can talk about love but his first theme is always Delphian: know thyself.  It has to be personal.  The other theme is knowledge, a certain kind of knowledge.  Now we’re ready to roll up our sleeves and talk about love.  Socrates admits that “I am a lover of knowledge, and the men who dwell in the city are my teachers, not the trees, or the country.”  In Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It” the Duke is forced to retire to the Forest of Arden and says, “this our life, exempt from public haunt, Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in everything. I would not change it.”  This may satisfy the Duke but it’s not for Socrates.  He likes talking to, and learning from, other men and women.  For Socrates wisdom does not come spontaneously from contemplating trees and brooks and stones.  It comes from interacting with other people.  It comes from exploring perennial human themes such as love and knowledge and justice through back-and-forth dialog.  Animals (and Dukes) may learn all they need to know from observing things like trees and brooks and stones but wisdom lovers need teachers.  Phaedrus thinks he has found a good teacher in Lysias.  Socrates says Lysias “is a master of his art, and I am an untaught man.”  But Socrates is a master of irony.  What he really means to say is, Lysias doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  This is another major theme.  According to Socrates most people don’t know what they’re talking about.   He claims that “all good counsel begins in the same way; a man should know what he is talking about.”  But it has been Socrates’ experience that the speaker usually doesn’t really know what even relatively simple things are; things like love or knowledge or justice.  It turns out that these things are not as simple as most people think.  We may think we know what love is, what knowledge is, or justice.  Until we talk to Socrates.  Then we find out we don’t know as much as we thought.  Here was Socrates’ point to Phaedrus: neither does Lysias.  Lysias may in fact be a good speaker.  That doesn’t mean he’s a good man, much less able to give good advice when it comes to a topic like love.  Socrates wants Phaedrus (and later, readers of Plato’s dialogs) to be able to think for themselves.  He poses a question: “What is good and what is bad, Phaedrus?  Do we need someone to teach us these things?”  That’s a good question.  Do we need someone to teach us what good is and what evil is?  Socrates says, in effect, maybe.  It depends on who the teacher is.  We need a teacher who believes, as Socrates does, that “the soul is immortal.”  Once we find that kind of teacher, we need to learn how to protect our souls from hostile influences (such as Lysias).  Socrates ends this dialog with a prayer: “Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one.  May I reckon the wise to be the wealthy, and may I have such a quantity of gold as none but the temperate can carry.”  And may we all find good teachers.

Monday, October 09, 2017

CHAUCER: Canterbury Tales (The Lawyer’s Tale)

In the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale we saw human vices on display; especially deceit, greed and lust.  In this story we see some human vices too but also some of the human virtues; especially meekness, courtesy, holiness and generosity.  These virtues describe a beautiful Roman emperor’s daughter named Constance.  Modern readers may feel right at home in the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale.  In today’s terms they’re the equivalent of watching an R-rated movie.  But the Lawyer’s Tale takes us into the alien territory of the concept of medieval virtue.  Courtesy and generosity would be recognized as modern virtues.  Meekness and holiness, not so much.  Constance is not a modern woman.  A Syrian sultan likes to talk to merchants about their travels in foreign lands.  When “these merchants told him tales of fair Constance, from such nobility” the sultan was smitten, without ever having seen her.  “This sultan caught a dream of great pleasance… to love that fair lady.”  What he loved in her was her “nobility” or the medieval virtues of meekness, courtesy, holiness and generosity.  He was so much in love that he agreed to convert from Islam to Christianity in order to marry her.  No one asked Constance what she wanted.  But she went along, even though “Constance was overcome with sorrow” to be sent into “a strange country, far from friends” to marry a man she’d never met.  However, she didn’t complain.  She told her father that “women are born to slave and to repent and to be subject to man’s government.”  This is the kind of meekness that is rejected by most of the modern world.  And Constance’s problems were just beginning.

Many of Chaucer’s stories make perfect sense to modern readers.  The Miller’s Tale, the Reeve’s Tale and the Wife of Bath’s Prologue revolve around getting along in a grimy world with grimy people.  Constance is not a grimy person.  In fact, she’s so clean that she comes off like some kind of cartoon character; too good to be living in this world.  For one thing, she stoically accepts her suffering as a normal part of life.  But just because she doesn’t complain that doesn’t mean she’s a weak woman.  She comes across as a holy woman, made holy by the suffering she patiently endures.  It’s ironic that her suffering is caused precisely because she is such a virtuous woman.  The sultan was impressed with her virtue, not her beauty.  The irony of this story is that her virtue is not rewarded, at least not until the very end, and then her “reward” is dubious.  And this brings up the question of the role of religion in the medieval mind.  We’re left wondering if Christian faith helped people better cope with suffering; or if their faith helped cause their suffering.  The problem is further complicated by the failure of the sultan to convert his countrymen from Islam to Christianity.  His own mother led a revolt which led to the death not only of the sultan but of all the others he had persuaded to convert to Christianity.  What is the message of that failure of Christian conversion?  Was it due to the strong faith of the Muslim population?  Or was it due to their moral failure to accept love and make peace with their Christian neighbors?  This leads into the deeper question of how much control these characters have over their own lives.  Constance doesn’t seem to have much choice what happens in her life, and she’s an emperor’s daughter.  How much less choice do all the daughters of the lower classes have?  The Roman emperor seems hemmed in.  A match between his daughter and the sultan would cement relations between two whole kingdoms.  That marriage would benefit thousands of people and his own wishes or those of his daughter would pale in comparison.  Also, the sultan doesn’t seem to have much control over his heart.  He can’t help falling in love with Constance.  The sultan’s mother can’t control her own son.  How free are these people?  It’s as if the ancient Greek battle between Fate and Free Will has resurfaced in the Middle Ages.  Or maybe it never went away.  Human vice and human virtue seems to thrive in every age.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

CHAUCER: Canterbury Tales (Reeve’s Tale)

In the Prologue to the Miller’s Tale Chaucer gives fair warning that not all of the Canterbury Tales will make for wholesome reading.  He writes “gentle soul, I pray that for God’s love you’ll hold not what I say evilly meant, but that I must rehearse all of their tales, the better and the worse, or else prove false to some of my design.”  This is clever.  Chaucer is writing a story about some folks taking a pilgrimage to Canterbury.  These folks decide to each tell a story along the way to make the journey more pleasant.  This story-within-a-story format allows Chaucer to claim that he “must rehearse all of their tales” for better or for worse.  In other words, he’s not taking any responsibility for the content of the stories because they’re being told by the pilgrims.  Chaucer claims he’s just retelling what the travelers had to say on the road to Canterbury.  It’s a neat literary trick.  It allows him to go on and say “therefore, who likes not this story, let him turn the page and choose another tale… stories touching on gentility, and holiness, and on morality.”  What follows then is the very bawdy Miller’s Tale.  Chaucer gave us fair warning.

The Miller’s Tale is in fact very bawdy.  It’s also very entertaining.  But not to everyone.  In the Miller’s Tale a reeve (or carpenter) ends up looking like a fool.  So when the reeve’s turn comes to tell a story he says “it’s lawful to meet force with force.  This drunken miller has related here how a carpenter was beguiled and fooled; perchance in scorn of me, for I’m a carpenter.  So, by your leave, I’ll requite him anon.”  The miller told a bawdy story about a carpenter, so I’m going to even the score and tell a bawdy story about a miller.  And he does.  In the Reeve’s Tale a miller has been cheating Cambridge College for a long time.  They come to him to have their wheat ground and he puts a lot of husks back in the sack and siphons off a lot of the wheat for himself.  Two novices (John and Alain) come to the miller to have the wheat ground.  They’re on to his tricks and devise a plan to make sure the miller doesn’t cheat: one will stand at the top and the other will stand at the bottom to make sure all the wheat gets in the sack.  But the miller has devised a better plan.  He unlooses their horse so John and Alain have to leave their posts and chase after the horse.  By the time two college students come back all sweaty and weary, the miller has already cheated them out of some wheat.  The boys have to spend the night and during the night they get even with the miller by having sex with the miller’s wife and daughter.  Chaucer tries to put a happy face on this story by tacking on a moral proverb at the end: “an evil end will come to an evil man.  The cheater shall himself be cheated.” 

This is a good proverb but doesn’t quite fit the case.  What are we supposed to make of this story?  The miller cheated, so it’s ok to get even?  Does having sex with his wife and daughter count as getting even?  Socrates says we should never repay evil for evil.  We might respond that this is literature, not philosophy.  It’s not the job of literature to uphold moral truths.  So what is the job of literature, or we might add, what is the job of the arts in general?  Just to entertain?  Does art have no moral function?  Does the artist (in this case Chaucer) have no obligation whatsoever to show us “the good, the true and the beautiful” things in life?  Is that duty left only to philosophers?  What about historians?  We just read Herodotus.  Does Herodotus make moral judgments about the war between the Greeks and the Persians?  Should modern historians suspend moral judgments about imperialism or slavery?  What about the Bible?  In 2 Samuel we just read about David getting Bathsheba pregnant and sending her husband Uriah to the front lines to be killed.  Are we supposed to suspend moral judgment about that too?  Does Chaucer tell good stories?  If by “good” we mean entertaining then Chaucer tells good stories.  But if we mean “good” in the sense that Socrates meant it, then Chaucer falls short.  Socrates thought the purpose of art was to make us better people.  He would have banished Chaucer from his Republic.  Chaucer avoids the moral problem altogether and says: You don’t like this story?  Pick another one.   

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. 19 -- 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