Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

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 

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.