Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act V (Knowing Good & Evil)

This play can be read as a long meditation on the nature of evil.  If we try reading it that way then what message is Shakespeare trying to give us?  One message is this.  We can understand evil.  We may not like it but at least we know what it is.  Our reading of Genesis (GB1) took up this theme in the Garden of Eden.  The Lord God said to Adam “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”  The serpent said just the opposite to Eve: “Ye shall not surely die.  For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”  Adam and Eve already knew what good is.  Their world had already been proclaimed good by God.  They don’t know what evil is but they can find out, if they really want to know.  The decision is theirs but here’s the catch.  It’s an irrevocable decision.  Once they know what evil is they can never un-know it.  Othello reflects this kind of destructive knowledge in Act III when he says “I had been happy… So I had nothing known.  O! now, for ever farewell the tranquil mind; farewell content!”  Othello was speaking of jealousy and jealousy is just one of the many faces of evil.  At its core evil is the enemy of tranquility and contentment.  This is a kind of death of the spirit.  Evil resurfaces in Genesis directly following the story of Adam and Eve’s decision to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Their eldest son Cain is jealous of Abel’s relationship with the Lord God.  So “Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.”  The same sort of evil jealousy seems to be behind Iago’s vendetta against Cassio.  Iago wants to destroy Cassio the same way Cain wanted to destroy Abel.  Why?  What had Abel and Cassio done to deserve such hatred?  Nothing.  They were basically good men and evil is the enemy of the good.  In Act V Iago expresses why he wants to destroy Cassio: “if Cassio do remain, he hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly.”  Cain felt the same way about Abel.  Seeing beauty and excellence in others can be motivation to change and try to live better lives ourselves.  This is what good is.  On the other hand beauty and excellence can make us feel ugly by comparison.  Then we may plot to tear down others and either destroy them or try bringing them down to our level.  This is what evil is.  Knowing evil on an intellectual level makes us better equipped to fight against it. 

Another view of evil is that it is beyond human comprehension.  We can see its effects but we can never fathom the depths where evil originates.  In this play the effects of evil are strewn all over the stage.  Evil (in the form of Iago) is the root cause of disorder and chaos:  Othello murders his wife.  Cassio gets drunk and almost loses his military career.  Roderigo loses most of his wealth and almost loses his life trying to satisfy his lust for Desdemona.  Desdemona is murdered by her husband.  Emilia is an unwitting accomplice to that murder by agreeing to commit simple theft.  Evil (in the form of Iago) caused all this.  How does Iago try to explain his actions?  Othello asks the perennial question when people are confronted with an evil they cannot understand: why me? “Why hath he thus ensnar’d my soul and body?”  Think of Job (GB4).  He wanted answers to the same question.  Iago gives the perennial answer, the same answer evil always seems to give.  “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know.” 

A third view is this.  We can know evil and yet not resist it through the intellect.  Iago was plenty smart but smart didn’t help him resist evil.  Faust was the smartest guy in town but still made a deal with the devil. (Faust GB5).  Kurtz (Heart of Darkness GB1) was a product of the best education Western civilization had to offer and he still followed evil to its bitter end.  In this view the intellect may merely become more fertile ground where evil can flourish. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act IV (Marriage and Politics)

Early in the book of Genesis we read “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”  In Act I of Othello Desdemona leaves her father and cleaves to Othello as her husband.  A similar situation happens in Act I of King Lear (GB5).  King Lear asks Cordelia for a public declaration of her love for him.  She replies “I love your majesty according to my bond; nor more nor less.”  What Cordelia is saying is that she loves Lear as a daughter should love her father.  Some day she will have to share her allegiance and “cleave unto” a husband: “Good my lord, you have begot me, bred me, loved me: I return those duties back as are right fit, obey you, love you, and most honour you. Why have my sisters husbands, if they say they love you all? Haply, when I shall wed, that lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry half my love with him, half my care and duty: sure, I shall never marry like my sisters, to love my father all.”  So it is in Othello.  When Desdemona leaves her father she’s following a plan long established by Genesis in the religious tradition of Western civilization. 

The secular tradition of Western civilization also views marriage as the basic plan of society.  Families are the fundamental building blocks for the whole political structure.  Aristotle (Politics GB2) says “In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue… Out of these two relationships between man and woman, master and slave, the first thing to arise is the family…”  Master and slave?  This political dynamic within the marital relationship has been the cause of much grief between many husbands and wives.  Love is fine but who gets to make the final decisions?  That’s the question the Wife of Bath asks in The Canterbury Tales (GB3) and here’s her conclusion “If there were no authority on earth except experience, mine, for what it’s worth, (and that’s enough for me) all goes to show that marriage is a misery and a woe.”  She had gone through five husbands and every marriage had been a battle for supremacy.  But in spite of her own bad experience she would still welcome the opportunity to have a go at a sixth marriage.

How does Shakespeare handle this perennial human predicament of the battle of the sexes?  In Act IV of Othello Desdemona and Emilia ponder the pros and cons of marriage.  Specifically, Desdemona wonders how wives could ever be unfaithful: “O these men, these men! Dost thou in conscience think, tell me, Emilia, that there be women do abuse their husbands in such gross kind?” Emilia assures her that there are such women.  Then Desdemona asks “wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?”  Emilia’s response is interesting.  She says “the world is a huge thing; ‘tis a great price for a small vice.”  What Emilia calls “a small vice” has sent Othello into a murderous rage.  Iago has thoroughly convinced him that Desdemona has been unfaithful.  Desdemona is as good and as innocent as Cordelia was in King Lear.  Emilia is more like the Wife of Bath when she says “Let husbands know their wives have sense like them: they see and smell and have their palates both for sweet and sour, as husbands have. What is it that they do when they change us for others? Is it sport? I think it is: and doth affection breed it? I think it doth: is't frailty that thus errs? It is so too: and have not we affections, desires for sport, and frailty, as men have? Then let them use us well: else let them know, the ills we do, their ills instruct us so.”  For Emilia men and women aren’t very different.  So both she and the Wife of Bath use feminine power to counter masculine power.  Although there’s no evidence either of them were unfaithful, they let it be known they can give as good as they get.  Desdemona and Cordelia take a softer, gentler approach.  They never threaten to retaliate and prefer building trust for mutual conflict resolution.  In that sense marriage is like politics on a much smaller scale.                

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act III (Lessons in Language)

In Act II Iago tells Cassio that “reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving: you have lost no reputation at all, unless you repute yourself such a loser.”  In Act III Iago tells Othello that a “good name in man and woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls: who steals my purse steals trash; ‘tis something, nothing; ‘twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands; but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”  When he’s talking to Cassio reputation means nothing; with Othello reputation becomes one of life’s most important possessions.  Well, which is it?  In Act I Iago admits to Roderigo “I am not what I am.”  In Act III when he’s with Othello he says “Men should be what they seem.”  Well, which is it?

Who is Iago, really?  What makes him tick?  It’s possible in his own mind and in his own way Iago sees himself as pursuing justice.  How can this be?  Here we might turn back to Plato’s Apology (GB1) for guidance.  In that selection Socrates defends the pursuit of eternal Truth against the Sophists.  Socrates believed there were eternal truths that don’t change in the ebb and flow of human affairs.  What’s good stays good in all times and in all places.  The Sophists, on the other hand, believed very much along the lines of Rousseau’s thinking in his Social Contract (GB1).  According to Rousseau and the Sophists “conventions” (human laws, institutions, and customs) are all man-made.  Therefore Man is the measure of all things.  All conventions were designed to make life better for human beings.  When they no longer serve this purpose they can, and should, be changed.  It all sounds very logical but also, according to Socrates, is very wrong.  For Socrates Man is not the measure of all things.  We shouldn’t try to shape reality according to our own transient needs.  Instead we should try to shape our lives according to an order established by Nature.  This is the only reality we’ll ever find.  How does Iago fit into all this?  In his own mind Iago thought he had been passed over for honors that rightfully belonged to him.  This was not due to some divine intervention.  If that were the case then Iago would have to be reconciled to his fate, much as Job was reconciled to his fate in the Book of Job (GB4).  The Lord spoke to Job directly out of a whirlwind but God apparently never crosses Iago’s mind.  God is mostly absent in Othello and there is no divine justice in this play; there are only frail human beings striving for power and struggling to survive the intrigues and deceptions of the world.  Iago did what he had to do and just used the means available to him to achieve his goal.        

That kind of interpretation is being too kind to Iago.  He knows exactly what he’s doing and he also knows it is evil.  That’s why he deliberately cloaks his actions and deceives everyone around him.  He knows how to use words to get what he wants.  In Act II Iago says “good wine is a good familiar creature if it be well used.”  The same can be said for language.  According to Darwin (GB1) language unveils our human sympathies and reinforces basic communal instincts, but only if it be well used.  Iago uses language to tear down, not to build up.  In Dante’s Inferno (GB5) the deepest levels of Hell are reserved for those who deliberately deceive and destroy family, friends, or country.  Dante was a poet and knew how words can be used to break down the bonds that hold civilization together.  For Dante, men like Iago won’t be accepted into Paradise, or even Purgatory, in the next world and pose a real danger to society in this one.  He’s the kind of guy Freud warned us about in Civilization and Its Discontents (GB1).  Shakespeare knew how to use words well.  He also had sympathy for basic human decency and showed it to us in drama, in a way no philosophical or theological language could ever express.

Monday, September 05, 2016

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act II (Happiness, Alcohol & Reputation)

Act I of Othello showed us how jealousy is one of the most common motivations of human behavior.  It’s one of those subconscious motivators because it affects our actions in ways we’re not even aware of.  Freud talks about this in Civilization and Its Discontents (GB1).  Shakespeare is a master dramatist but he’s also a master psychologist and a philosopher too.  Act II shows three more common motivators which drive human behavior: happiness, alcohol, and reputation.     

Aristotle says we all want many things out of life but “happiness is something final and self-sufficient and the end of our actions.” (On Happiness, GB1)  Happiness is the main goal and everything else we do is just a means to try to get and hold onto the state of being happy.  In Act II Othello has achieved this state.  He tells Desdemona that fate has blessed him: “If (I) were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy, for I fear my soul hath her content so absolute that not another comfort like to this succeeds in unknown fate.”  Othello’s right.  If he had died at that moment he would have died a happy man.  But it was not to be.  “Unknown fate” would begin to intervene that very night in the form of a devious plan by Iago to dismantle Othello’s happiness.  Aristotle warned that happiness must be measured in terms of a complete life because “one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one sunny day; similarly, one day or a short time does not make a man blessed and happy…”  Othello’s bright joy quickly turns into dark despair.

Cassio’s happiness is also short and sweet, though for a different reason than Othello’s.  Cassio is not undone by the virtue of love but by the vice of alcohol.  Iago comes to him after the Venetian victory and says “come, lieutenant, I have a stoup of wine…”  Cassio knows he can’t handle his liquor and replies, “Not to-night, good Iago; I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking: I could well wish courtesy would invent some other custom of entertainment.”  As Othello’s second in command Cassio needs to keep a clear mind.  Liquor both clouds the mind and impairs the ability to act rationally.  A good example in Great Books is Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. (Notes from the Underground, GB3)  At a social outing he drinks too much, gets angry at his companions, and starts brooding, “Now is the time to throw a bottle at them, I thought, picked up the bottle and… poured myself out another glass.”  Cassio also gets angry but instead of having another glass he gets into an altercation that was pre-planned by Iago.  This results in him being relieved of his command and publicly shamed with loss of his reputation. 

Once he’s sobered up a bit Cassio is mortified by what he’s done.  He cries to Iago “O! I have lost my reputation.  I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.  My reputation, Iago, my reputation!”  For Cassio reputation is everything.  Iago tries to comfort him (falsely) by claiming that “reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.”  The old Roman general Marc Antony seems to agree with Iago.  In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (GB3) the soldiers observe that “this dotage of our general’s o’erflows the measure… and is become the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy’s lust.”  The “gypsy” is Cleopatra and Antony has ignored his official duties to carouse with her in Egypt.  But unlike Cassio, Antony doesn’t care what people think. “Let Rome and the Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the empire fall!  Here is my space.  Kingdoms are clay.”  These are two vastly different interpretations of reputation.  One side says personal reputation is everything and without it we’re no better than beasts.  The other side says personal reputation means nothing.  Shakespeare’s genius is using language to make both sides sound reasonable.  The philosopher takes sides.  The dramatist’s job is to show the many sides of what it means to be human.      

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act I (Jealousy)

In recent readings both Rousseau and Darwin took optimistic views of human nature.  Rousseau places his confidence in equality.  He says “since the condition is equal for everyone, no one has an interest in making it burdensome for others.” (The Social Contract, GB1)  Darwin places his confidence in Man’s social instinct.  He says “looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger…” (The Moral Sense of Man, GB2).  Shakespeare’s Othello gives a different opinion of human nature.  In this play Shakespeare explores one of the fundamental flaws in the theory of human progress: jealousy.  As the play opens Roderigo is jealous of Desdemona’s love for Othello.  Iago is jealous of Cassio’s recent promotion by Othello.  Brabantio is jealous because Othello has stolen away his daughter.  Othello is jealous of the culture and sophistication of the Venetians.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these desires.  Young men normally want a beautiful woman, not just Roderigo.  Ambitious men normally want better jobs with more power and higher social status, not just Iago.  Fathers normally want their daughters to be safe and secure, not just Brabantio.  And many a brutish man wants a good education and good manners, not just Othello.  Jealousy isn’t necessarily wanting something you don’t have, that’s normal; it’s pushing desire beyond the normal boundaries of law and even basic human decency. 

Each of these four men (Roderigo, Iago, Brabantio, Othello) has a character flaw that expresses itself in various ways.  Jealousy represents a breakdown of rational thought and makes each man do foolish things.  Roderigo wants to make love to Desdemona.  Because of jealousy he’ll spend everything he owns to get into bed with her.  Iago doesn’t just want Cassio’s position.  Because of jealousy he wants to destroy Othello for passing him over for promotion.  Brabantio says he only wants his daughter Desdemona to be safe and secure.  But what he really wants is for Desdemona to do as he says.  Because of jealousy Brabantio disowns her when he finds out she’s gone behind his back and married Othello.  Othello is a special case.  That’s why the play is named after him.  For starters, he’s a Moor living in Venice.  Not only that, he’s the brilliant military commander of the Venetian forces.  The Turks (or “Ottomites” as they’re called in the play) are set to attack Venetian strongholds in Cyprus.  Othello, a Moor, is asked to lead the Venetian fight against the Moors.  That’s when all the tensions in the play start converging.  Othello will be loyal to Venice but who will be loyal to him?  Will Desdemona be a loyal wife?  Brabantio plants the seed of jealousy in Othello’s heart when he says: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see; she has deceiv’d her father, and may thee.”  This could easily be dismissed as the rantings of a jealous father except for one thing, Iago.  Iago waters the seed of jealousy and it grows beyond the boundaries of Othello’s emotional capacities.  Othello may be a great commander of military forces and a good judge of how to make war on the battlefield.  But he’s ill-equipped to withstand the onslaught of Iago’s psychological warfare.  So Iago uses Othello’s own open-hearted nature against him as he plots his strategy: “the Moor is of a free and open nature, that thinks men honest that but seem to be so, and will as tenderly be led by the nose as asses are.”  The whole play revolves around a central question: why did Othello marry Desdemona in the first place?  It’s not a rational move.  Marriage is really not in his best interests and probably not in hers either.  As an outsider living in Venice is it really wise to go and marry a powerful Senator’s daughter behind his back?  By doing so Othello made an enemy of Barbantio.  Desdemona is disinherited.  Still, it’s possible they might have lived happily ever after; just not in Venice.  But once Iago fans the flames of Othello’s imagination they wouldn’t be able to live happily anywhere.  Jealousy is the key that unlocks the whole human tragedy.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

DARWIN: The Moral Sense of Man (Loyalty & Conscience 2)

In the early part of this essay Darwin tries to establish the fact that loyalty to the group is a biological trait which helps a species survive.  This seems logical when applied to social animals and especially when it applies to humans.  Being loyal to one’s family, community and country is a basic ingredient for social cohesion.  It’s the glue that holds society together and is a fundamental principle for Rousseau’s Social Contract (GB1).  On a societal level it’s crucial that we follow the laws and customs of our neighbors.  But on an individual level why should I do what’s best for the community rather than what’s best for me?  One instinct tells me I should be a good neighbor and follow the golden rule because we’re all in this together.  Another instinct tells me I should put my own interests first because in the real world it is survival of the fittest.  Which instinct should I follow?  Darwin put the question this way: “Why should a man feel he ought to obey one instinctive desire rather than another?”  Great Books authors disagree on this point.  Kant and Aristotle come down on the golden rule side.  Kant because we should always act as if our actions were universal and ask what would happen if everybody did it?  Aristotle because we’re social animals by nature and loyalty to our family and community develops natural virtue.  Felicite in Flaubert’s A Simple Heart (GB5) is a good example.  Machiavelli and Nietzsche come down on the other side.  Machiavelli because leaders must sometimes be willing to break rules, even the golden rule.  Nietzsche because following the herd is for weaklings and the golden rule was invented by weaklings to protect themselves from stronger, better, more independent men.  Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (GB1) is a good case study.  So is Snopes in William Faulkner’s Barn Burning (IGB2).  Darwin has stepped into a hornet’s nest.   

What’s at stake here is the moral sense of Man.  As far as we know only human beings are capable of making moral decisions and having either a clean or a guilty conscience.  Darwin approaches the problem from a biological perspective and says “We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower animals have this capacity… But in the case of man, who alone can with certainty be ranked as a moral being, actions of a certain class are called moral…”  According to Darwin human beings are moral beings because of biology.  We have natural instincts to live in social units and after long generations of natural selection we have developed a very complex moral culture that is best suited to adapt and thrive in our environment.  But there’s still room for improvement.  Darwin believes “The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.”  Freud thinks this is impossible and even psychologically damaging because at bottom we’re irrational creatures driven by impulses we’re not even aware of, much less in control of.  And in our next reading Shakespeare has Iago give a little speech that demonstrates the depth of depravity that lurks in the human heart: “Virtue! a fig! 'tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce… why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions: but we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts…” (Othello, Act I, Scene 3)  For some folks Reason is a weak weapon to use against raging carnal lust.  Still, Darwin has a Victorian gentleman’s optimism that things will get better, that we’re making progress: “Looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger…”  That was 150 years ago; a mere blip in the slow, slow process of natural selection.  In our next reading we’ll see how Shakespeare handles this question of loyalty and conscience. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

DARWIN: The Moral Sense of Man (Loyalty & Conscience)

This week’s selection is taken from Charles Darwin’s book with the popular title of The Descent of Man.  The full title is The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.  Our current reading is taken from Chapter 4 “Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals (continued, Part 1).”  It’s interesting that Darwin chose to call his book The Descent of Man rather than The Ascent of Man.  Presumably Darwin wants to emphasize the point that we are descendants of more primitive forms of species.  In this section he wants to focus exclusively on the moral sense of man because “of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important.”  Right from the start we’re faced with a dilemma.  Is conscience a topic suited for science or is it best studied as a branch of philosophy?  Is science equipped to deal with questions of morality?  The key may lie in the way Darwin uses the word “sense” as a framework for describing moral behavior (as in the moral “sense” of man).  This is a bold attempt and he admits “as far as I know, no one has approached it exclusively from the side of natural history.”  “Natural history” is what we now call science.

How successful is Darwin in separating scientific fact from philosophic speculation?  It’s a daunting task and the results are mixed.  Sometimes he falls short.  For example, Darwin says the word “ought (or duty)… is the most noble of all the attributes of man.”  Is “noble” a scientific term?  Can a “noble” trait be quantified or tested by experiment?  In another section Darwin talks about “the blackest fact in natural history.”  On a scientific level are some facts dark and ominous while other facts are bright and inspirational?  Here we should pause to consider a related question.  Is it the job of science to make value judgments?  Or should science be value-neutral by merely observing and describing what takes place?  Claude Bernard helps shed light on this question in his essay on Observation and Experiment (IGB2).  He says scientists “must be at once observers and experimenters.  Observers… purely and simply note the phenomena before their eyes and… must observe without any preconceived idea; the observer’s mind must be passive.”  An experimenter, on the other hand, must “experiment with a preconceived idea.  An experimenter’s mind must be active.”  These two approaches “correspond to different phases of experimental research.  The observer does not reason, he notes; the experimenter reasons and grounds himself on acquired facts, to imagine and induce rationally other facts.”

Darwin attempts to bridge the gap between the two approaches.  He’s made careful notes about his vast observations of nature.  He talks about the habits of rabbits, sheep, birds, seals, monkeys, horses, cows, wolves, pelicans, and baboons, among others.  As an observer Darwin knows what he’s talking about.  But as an experimenter Darwin is working with a big disadvantage.  How can he “experiment” with processes which can take millions of years?  What he tries to do is take things as they are now and work backwards.  His “preconceived idea” is a simple one.  Things as they are now are the result of millions of years of natural selection.  Species which can adapt to changing conditions will thrive and flourish.  Species which cannot will wither away and become extinct.  It’s relatively easy to see how giraffes with longer necks will tend to survive.  It’s harder to see how a trait like “conscience” can help a species survive.  Darwin “grounds himself on acquired facts” by observing the examples of social animals.  By noting the fact that they “warn one another of danger” he makes the imaginative leap that loyalty to the group is a trait which helps a species survive.  We can’t really set up an experiment to test if this hypothesis is true but it seems reasonable.  The question for modern readers is whether traits like loyalty are transmitted genetically or by what Rousseau called “convention.”  We’re still working on that.