Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

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. 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.