Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Thursday, May 25, 2017

HERODOTUS: History (Book 1 Ch. 95-216)

In this section Herodotus traces the rise and fall of Cyrus.  The rise of Cyrus was either inevitable or highly unlikely, depending on how we interpret the sources Herodotus gives us.  He says he will “follow those Persian authorities whose object it appears to be not to magnify the exploits of Cyrus, but to relate the simple truth.”  The truth turns out to be not so simple.  This much we know for sure: “The Assyrians had held the Empire of Upper Asia for five hundred and twenty years, when the Medes set the example of revolt from their authority.”  Herodotus relates how at first “Deioces collected the Medes into a nation, and ruled over them alone.”  His son, Phraortes, went a step further.  He “began by attacking the Persians; and marching an army into the country, brought them under the Median yoke.”  Then Phraortes’ son, Cyaxares, “was the first who gave organization to an Asiatic army… who before his time had been mingled in one mass, and confused together.”  After combining the Median and Persian empires, Cyaxares set his sights on conquering the Assyrian empire.  “A battle was fought in which the Assyrians suffered a defeat.”  After 520 years of Assyrian rule what we now call Asia Minor was united under a Mede-Persian empire.  Almost united.  A few city-states still wanted independence.  This would eventually lead to war between the Persians and the Greeks.  But this is just background information for the real story Herodotus wants to tell: the rise of Cyrus.  Astyages became king after Cyaxares.  He had a daughter and dreamed she would give birth to a boy who would de-throne him.  So instead of marrying her to a Mede nobleman he gave her to Cambyses, “a Persian of good family, indeed, but of a quiet temper, whom he looked on as much inferior to a Mede of even middle condition.”  This is where Cyrus enters the stage of world history.  In a story reminiscent of Oedipus the King, Cyrus is miraculously saved from being killed as an infant.  When he’s grown to manhood he leads a revolt of the Persians and defeats the army of the Medes.  That’s how he became sole ruler of a vast empire.  For almost thirty years he was victorious and spread his rule over most of the peoples surrounding him.  Eventually he tried to conquer the wrong people.  “The Massagatae were ruled by a queen named Tomyrisa.”  When he invaded her country Tomyrisa warned Cyrus to back off.  She sent a message and told him to “be content to rule in peace thy own kingdom, and bear to see us reign over the countries that are ours to govern.”  Cyrus ignored her warning and invaded anyway.  This was a fatal mistake.  A battle was fought and “at length the Massagatae prevailed.  The greater part of the army of the Persians was destroyed and Cyrus himself fell, after reigning nine and twenty years.”  What does all this have to do with the Greeks?  Before his fatal encounter with the Massagatae Cyrus had subdued most of Asia Minor.  But the Greek city-states in Ionia and Aeolia resisted.  They appealed to mainland Greece for help.  No help was offered but the Spartans did send a ship of fifty men to keep an eye on what was happening and warn Cyrus not to molest any of the Greek cities.  Cyrus saw them and asked “Who these Spartans were, and what were their number, that they dared to send him such a notice?  …If I live, the Spartans shall have troubles enough of their own to talk of, without concerning themselves about the Ionians.”  In hindsight it was clear that Cyrus had enough problems without trying to conquer the Massagatae.  He had his hands full just keeping his provinces in Asia Minor under control.  Cyrus had conquered Lydia but as soon as he left, they revolted.  He asked his political aide Croesus (the former king of Lydia) “Where will this end, Croesus, thinkest thou?  It seemeth that these Lydians will not cease to cause trouble both to themselves and others.”  The Ionians and Aeolians, like the Lydians, saw themselves as freedom fighters.  Cyrus saw them as a “cause of trouble both to themselves and others.”  Persia didn’t need Spartans or other Greeks stirring up more rebellion.  By the end of Book 1 Cyrus is dead.  But the Persian empire is still intact.  This is a war just waiting to happen.   

Saturday, May 20, 2017

HERODOTUS: History Book 1 (1-94)

Herodotus tells the reader what his book is about with this prologue: “These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their deserved share of glory; and withal to put on record what were the grounds of the feud.”  The “researches of Herodotus” include documents he’s read and stories that he’s heard from others.  He gathers them all together, sorts through them, and then shapes them into a long story about how the Greeks fought off the Persian attempt to dominate them militarily and politically.  Why would he go to all this trouble?  He’s already told us.  Herodotus thinks it’s important to remember the past and honor those who deserve it.  We could just build a monument.  But a monument doesn’t tell a story.  History does.  It’s interesting that Herodotus begins with what was most important in Greek culture: the story of the Trojan War as told in Homer’s Iliad.  He says “Alexander (Paris) the son of Priam… fully persuaded that as the Greeks had not given satisfaction for their outrages, so neither would he be forced to make any for his.  Accordingly he made prize of Helen…”  This is some background that pre-dates the Iliad.  The Greeks had “carried off Medea” from the area of Asia Minor, where Troy is located.  So Paris didn’t think the Greeks would mind if he did the same thing.  He was wrong.  As Herodotus writes, “the Asiatics, when the Greeks ran off with their women, never troubled themselves about the matter; but the Greeks, for the sake of a single Lacedaemonian girl (Helen), collected a vast armament, invaded Asia, and destroyed the kingdom of Priam.”  Here’s one of the puzzles of ancient history.  When Jason abducted Medea the “Asiatics” didn’t retaliate by invading Greece.  So why did the Greeks invade them when Paris abducted Helen?  One of the main themes of Herodotus is the clash of values between cultures.  He gives a good example of this in two attitudes regarding nudity.  The Greeks celebrated the human body with their artistic depictions of nude models.  The Asiatics were much more modest and circumspect in their attitude toward the human body.  Why?  Those were their customs.  That was the way they had been taught.  Herodotus writes that Gyges (an “Asiatic”) says “Our fathers, in time past, distinguished right and wrong plainly enough, and it is our wisdom to be taught by them.”  This is one reason we study history; to see how notions of “right and wrong” develop over time and how different cultures perceive them.  Herodotus portrays this vast diversity in his History.  Besides the problem of distinguishing between right and wrong Herodotus also examines the meaning of happiness.  Is it the same for the Persians as it is for the Greeks?  Or do their interpretations of happiness differ, as they do regarding nudity?  Herodotus tells the story of Croesus, a splendidly rich king, and Solon, a wise philosopher.  Croesus thinks Solon will appreciate all his wealth and asks Solon who he thinks is the happiest of men.  To Croesus’ surprise, it’s not him.  Solon admits a rich man has many advantages if “he is whole of limb, a stranger to disease, free from misfortune, happy in his children, and comely to look upon.”  But he goes on to say, “Call him, however, until he die, not happy but fortunate.  Scarcely indeed can any man unite all these advantages: as there is no country which contains within it all that it needs, but each, while it possesses some things, lacks others, and the best country is that which contains the most; so no single human being is complete in every respect; something is always lacking.  He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, is, in my judgment, entitled to bear the name of ‘happy’.”  This is true not only of men, but of entire nations too.  Those nations which can gain “the greatest number of advantages” will be happiest.  Thus Herodotus has set the stage for the monumental struggle between the Greeks and the Persians to obtain these advantages.       

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

BIBLE: 2 Samuel 19 - 1 Kings 2

Aristotle once wrote: “For there is required, as we said, not only complete virtue but also a complete life, since many changes occur in life, and all manner of chances, and the most prosperous may fall into great misfortunes in old age, as is told of Priam in the Trojan Cycle; and one who has experienced such chances and has ended wretchedly no one calls happy.” (Ethics, Chapter 9)  This was certainly true of David.  The end of the book of Samuel isn’t the end of David’s life.  His long life doesn’t come to an end until the second chapter of the book of Kings and David has trials and tribulations right up to the very end.  Only then can the reader look back and reflect.  Was David a good king?  Was he a good man?  Like many strong characters, in literature as well as in life, the answer depends on who you ask.  Let’s reflect on David as a king.  Israelites who were followers of the house of Saul wouldn’t have much good to say about David.  To them he was a bloody man and an outright rebel against the authority of Israel’s real king, Saul.  When David had to leave Jerusalem after Absalom’s rebellion, Shimei had this to say: “The Lord hath returned upon thee all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose stead thou hast reigned; and the Lord hath delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom thy son: and, behold, thou art taken in thy mischief, because thou art a bloody man.”  Another man who never accepted David was Sheba and “he blew a trumpet, and said, We have no part in David, neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse: every man to his tents, O Israel.”  On the other hand, David had many faithful followers.  When he fled Jerusalem we read that “all the country wept with a loud voice, and… lo Zadok also, and all the Levites were with him.”  Was David a good king?  What would Uriah say?  Bathsheba?  Joab?  Absalom?  From a human perspective David must be judged on human terms.  From a divine perspective we come to different conclusions.  One of the lessons of the book is that God is working through history for His own purposes, not David’s.  The book of Ruth (right before the book of 1 Samuel) ends this way: “And the women her neighbours gave it a name, saying, There is a son born to Naomi; and they called his name Obed: he is the father of Jesse, the father of David.”  The Gospel of Matthew begins this way: “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…  And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; And Jesse begat David the king; and David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias…”  Boaz (Booz) was David’s great grandfather.  He took a Moabite named Ruth as his wife and after a couple of generations David was born.  David was just one link in a long chain of generations.  He was an important link, that’s true, but the meaning of his life can only be viewed within the context of what came before him and what came after him.  An important question remains.  Was this story a story about God working out his purpose in human history?  Or was David’s life, the good, the bad, and the ugly, merely the result of his own human efforts?  David himself has this to say in Chapter 22 (which is also Psalm 18): the Lord has “delivered me from my strong enemy, and from them that hated me: for they were too strong for me.  They prevented me in the day of my calamity: but the Lord was my stay.  He brought me forth also into a large place: he delivered me, because he delighted in me.”  David certainly believed it was the hand of God that delivered him from his enemies.  Modern readers may be more skeptical.  Why would God, if there is a God, delight in a man who committed adultery and then murder to try and cover it up?  What would Aristotle think of David’s ethics?  Would Plutarch use him as an example in his Lives?  The Bible is not a Greek book based on rational thinking.  It’s the story of God’s people told through the lens of human history.  David learned the hard way that God’s ways are not man’s ways; and that everyone, good or bad, eventually goes to his own grave.  “So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David.”

Friday, May 05, 2017

BIBLE: 2 Samuel (10-18)

After waiting many years and enduring many trials David finally becomes king of Israel.  He’s about as well prepared as any king to face enemies on the field of battle.  David was a man forged by constant conflict and toughened by war.  But he was also a human being; and a passionate human being at that.  He could dance with religious ecstasy in public or shed bitter tears over the death of someone close to him.  He could display sound judgment but he was also capable of making terrible mistakes.  Up to this point David made good decisions most of the time.  But once he becomes king he begins making mistakes.  It starts with a little relaxation of his normally aggressive nature: “And it came to pass, after the year was expired, at the time when kings go forth to battle, that David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel; and they destroyed the children of Ammon, and besieged Rabbah.  But David tarried still in Jerusalem.”  Question.  Why was David staying home while his troops were away in battle?  After all, this was supposed to be “the time when kings go forth to battle.”  Isn’t that what the Israelites wanted in the first place?  They had specifically told Samuel “we will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.”  David is not fighting their battles; he’s hanging out at home in his palace.  This was the start of many problems that begin to plague David.  While Joab and the rest of the troops were out in the field fighting the enemy, “David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.”  The beautiful woman was Bathsheba.  The story of David and Bathsheba is almost as famous as the story of David and Goliath.  What happened to David?  The heroic slayer of giants became a deceitful king who used his power to indulge his desires.  That may be the key term: power.  Like many people before him and many people after him, David didn’t always use his newly-gained power wisely.  This seems to be a universal human trait that’s reflected in many Great Books readings.  Agamemnon misused power in the Iliad.  King Lear misused power in Shakespeare’s play.  Faust misused power in Goethe’s play and leaders today continue to misuse their powers.  That may be a permanent part of the human condition.  We don’t always know how to use our powers wisely and wind up using them for selfish purposes.  David had the power to act decisively in the rape of Tamar, but he didn’t.  Instead he just gave his son Amnon a mild slap on the wrist.  This infuriated Absalom (who was David’s son too).  Absalom was also Tamar’s brother and Amnon’s half-brother.  He eventually got his revenge by killing Amnon and fleeing.  David’s biggest worry wasn’t the Philistines.  It was his own family.  These intense internal family conflicts often deteriorate into blood feuds and are also reflected in the Great Books.  Agamemnon was killed by his own wife Clytemnestra because he had sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia.  He did it to advance his own power as leader of the Greek expedition to Troy.  Their son, Orestes, killed his own mother in revenge.  King Lear’s daughters end up killing one another because he misused his power.  And in the Faust play Gretchen accidentally poisons her mother so she can spend time with her lover Faust.  In 2 Samuel sons turn against their fathers.  Jonathan turns against Saul and Absalom turns against David.  But we don’t have to turn back to the old classics to make sense of David’s story.  Modern psychologists like Freud would have a field day with it.  David can’t maintain order in his own family.  In fact, he can’t even maintain order in his own soul.  David is torn between his duty as king, his responsibility as a husband and father, and his desire as a man.  He dances with joy and cries with grief.  He knows fear, anger, lust, and regret by personal experience.  He’s a fully human creature with all the dreams and disappointments of life on full display.  There’s probably a little bit of David in all of us.  That’s why his story never grows old.       

Friday, April 28, 2017

BIBLE: 2 Samuel (1-9)

In 2 Samuel David finally becomes king in his own right.  But that doesn’t mean his problems are over.  In some ways they’re just beginning.  The old set of problems (having to live life on the run from Saul) gives way to a new set of problems (having to deal with internal divisions as well as external enemies).  An allied Amalekite soldier comes to David with the news that Saul and Jonathan have been killed in battle.  He says Saul had been badly wounded and asked him to kill him before the Philistines did.  The Amalekite says he was just complying with Saul’s request.  He brought the crown from Saul’s head and the bracelet from his arm to give to David.  David “mourned, and wept, and fasted until even, for Saul, and for Jonathan his son, and for the people of the Lord, and for the house of Israel; because they were fallen by the sword.”  Was David’s grief sincere?  We don’t know.  We do know that Saul is dead.  But if the Amalekite thought he would get rewarded for his services he was badly mistaken.  David asks, “How wast thou not afraid to stretch forth thine hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?  And David called one of the young men, and said, Go near, and fall upon him.  And he smote him that he died.”

The pathway to be king of Israel still hasn’t been made clear for David.  Saul has another son named Ishbosheth.  So “Abner, the son of Ner, captain of Saul’s hosts, took Ishbosheth, the son of Saul…and made him king…over all Israel.”  Meanwhile David has become king of Judah and sets up headquarters in Hebron.  “Now there was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David: but David waxed stronger and stronger, and the house of Saul waxed weaker and weaker.”  We learn that “Abner made himself strong for the house of Saul.  And Saul had a concubine, whose name was Rizpah…”  Abner had taken Rizpah for one of his own concubines.  This may not seem like such a big deal to us now, but in that day it was a very big deal.  Recall how the Iliad starts out.  Agamemnon had to give up his own concubine in order to appease Apollo.  Then, just to prove his power, he decided to take Achilles’ concubine instead.  This was an outright insult and infuriated Achilles.  In 2 Samuel Abner is making a direct threat to the power of Ishbosheth.  Abner can see which way the wind is blowing.  Ishbosheth’s power is falling; David’s power is rising.  So Abner takes a gamble to go over to David’s side.  This is risky business.  Remember what David did to the Amalekite?  David respects the office of king, even if he doesn’t respect Ishbosheth.  By turning to David Abner is taking his life in his hands.

David holds a secret meeting with Abner and they negotiate terms.  David accepts Abner.  Joab does not.  Joab is captain of David’s “hosts” and when he learns about the secret deal he tells David that Abner “came to deceive thee, and to know thy going out and thy coming in, and to know all that thou doest.”  Does Joab really think that?  Does he smell a dirty trick?  It’s hard to tell because Joab isn’t an objective bystander.  Abner had killed Joab’s brother in one of the battles so Joab has an ax to grind anyway.  The secret deal was just the excuse Joab had been looking for; an excuse to kill Abner.  And that’s just what he did.  When David finds out he wants the whole world to know that he had not ordered the death of Abner: “I and my kingdom are guiltless before the Lord for ever from the blood of Abner the son of Ner: Let it rest on the head of Joab…”  These are the new kinds of problems David was to face.  If he thought being king would be smooth sailing he was badly mistaken.  Being a shepherd boy fighting bears and lions taught him courage; killing Goliath had set him up as a major political and military figure; hiding from Saul with a band of outlaws made him something of a folk hero; kind of like Robin Hood.  But was David ready to be king and rule over this raucous country?  Ready or not, the responsibilities wouldn’t wait.  Now David would find out what kind of man he really was.

Monday, April 24, 2017

BIBLE: 1 Samuel (21-31)

The Middle East is a tough neighborhood.  That message comes through loud and clear in the book of 1 Samuel.  It may have been an even tougher neighborhood in David’s day than it is in our own. One of the goals of politics is to bring order to tough neighborhoods. Saul was given his chance and he couldn’t do it.  David was more successful.  Why?  There are at least three good reasons why David was more successful than Saul.  The first is charisma.  David was popular, both personally and as a political leader.  Jonathan was next in line for the throne after Saul but he chose to work against his own self-interest and helped David escape from Saul.  In fact, Jonathan went against his own family and so did his sister, Michal.  She also helped David escape.  Saul was their father.  And they weren’t the only ones who liked David.  A popular song making the rounds was "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands."  This may be one reason Saul became paranoid and set out to kill David; plain old jealousy.

But popularity alone doesn’t prevent people from getting killed.  One of the lessons of history is that the good guys don’t always win.  Sometimes good guys get killed and bad guys seem to prosper.  David was a survivor and that points to a second reason he was successful.  Skill.  He knew how to fight and was good at it.  But knowing how to fight wasn’t enough in this neighborhood.  David also knew when to fight and, maybe more importantly, he knew when not to fight.  He knew when to walk away and when to run and had a knack for living to fight another day.  That’s not easy.  Take two examples.  The first is Ahimelech.  “Then came David to Nob to Ahimelech the priest: and Ahimelech was afraid at the meeting of David, and said unto him, Why art thou alone?”  Ahimelech is suspicious and rightfully so.  Why is such a powerful man like David coming to Nob?  What is Saul up to now?  David is on the run but obviously he can’t tell Ahimelech the truth.  So what does he do?  He lies.  David tells Ahimelech he’s on a secret mission.  Ahimelech helps David and later Saul finds out about it.  Ahimelech is trying to be one of the good guys and what happens?  Saul has him executed.  Not only him, but all the priests of Nob.  All eighty-five of them.  Talk about tough neighborhoods.  The second example is Nabal.  David has his men go to a rich man named Nabal to ask for assistance, mostly food and drink.  What was the response?  “Nabal answered David's servants, and said, Who is David? and who is the son of Jesse? there be many servants now a days that break away every man from his master.”  Nabal was right.  Many servants were breaking away from their masters.  David was one of them.  He was breaking away from Saul.  So what happens this time?  This time it’s David who is enraged and sets out to kill not only Nabal but all his servants too.  Nabal’s wife Abigail intervenes so David spares Nabal.  But the Lord doesn’t.  Nabal’s “heart died within him, and he became as a stone.  And it came to pass about ten days after, that the Lord smote Nabal, that he died.”  Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  Tough neighborhood.

Which brings us to the third reason David was successful.  Fate.  Whether it was the Lord’s will or whether it was sheer luck, David seemed destined to become king.  But destiny only seems inevitable in hindsight.  One way of looking at history is that things turn out the way they do because that’s how they were meant to be.  In American history Manifest Destiny is a good example.  Looking back it seems almost inevitable that the United States would expand until it reached the Pacific Ocean.  It sure didn’t look that way in 1492.  And during David’s lifetime it sure didn’t look like it was inevitable that he would become king.  The odds were that he would be killed by Saul.  If not by Saul, then by the hands of the Philistines or Amalekites.  But the story of David takes us behind the scenes so we can see the hand of God at work in history.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

BIBLE: 1 Samuel (11-20)

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

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