Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

PLATO: Crito (The Obligation to Disobey Unjust Laws)

In last week’s reading Sophocles showed us why we sometimes have an obligation to disobey unjust laws. (Antigone, GB1)  Antigone chose to disobey a law she believed was unjust in order to obey a higher law.  This week we find Socrates arguing the opposite point of view in Plato’s dialog on Crito.  Socrates (via Plato) says we should normally obey the laws, even if we think some of them are unjust.  Of course there are crucial differences between Sophocles’ Antigone and Plato’s Socrates.  Antigone was a young woman; Socrates was an old man.  Not all young women think we should disobey laws we don’t like.  Not all old men think we should obey them anyway, even if many people think the conviction was unjust in the first place and even if we’re sentenced to death.  But Socrates thinks “it would scarcely be appropriate in a man of my age to be distressed if he now had to die.”  He’s not too concerned about getting the death penalty.  He says “If it so pleases the gods, let it be so.”  Not all old men are that wise or that calm in the face of death.  King Lear (GB5) is a good example.  Shakespeare shows his tragic downfall and by the end of the play Lear laments: “Pray, do not mock me: I am a very foolish fond old man, Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less; And, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”  There’s nothing wrong with Socrates’ mind.  Because of his long apprenticeship in philosophy he seems sharper at seventy than he was in his prime and Socrates ultimately decides to reject Crito’s advice to escape.  He decides to stay in prison and take his medicine (the hemlock poison which was the Greek form of capital punishment at that time).

Crito tries to persuade Socrates that it’s perfectly reasonable to disobey an unjust law and makes three good arguments for him to escape from prison.  He knows Socrates can’t be swayed by emotional pleas.  We’ve already seen that in Socrates’ trial in the Apology (GB1).  Only the truth will persuade Socrates.  So Crito points out three major obligations Socrates should consider.  Obligation 1: the obligation to one’s self.  Underneath Crito’s argument lies one foundational belief: the trial was a sham.  Everyone knows it, even those who voted to convict Socrates.  No one would be surprised if Socrates walked away from the injustice of a false conviction.  That way he could continue his philosophical speculations in the safety of, say, Thessaly.  Since that argument didn’t work Crito goes to plan B.  Obligation 2: your friends.  Rather than appealing to Socrates’ own self-interest Crito asks him to consider his friends.  Crito says, in effect, think about us: “People won’t believe that you refused to escape even though we were eager to help.”  The truth is, people will think that we abandoned you when we should have stood by you.  Antigone didn’t abandon her brother, even in death, and we don’t want people to think we abandoned you.  Socrates doesn’t buy this argument.  He replies: “Why should we be concerned about what people will think?  Those worth considering will believe that things happened as they did.”  Crito tries one more argument, kind of a philosophical Hail Mary attempt.  He tells Socrates “You betray yourself when you could be saved” and you won’t escape for the benefit of us, your friends so consider Obligation 3: your family: “… in addition, I think you’re betraying your sons… Either a man shouldn’t have children, or he should accept the burden of raising and educating them.”  Crito’s main point is this.  Socrates has put the interests of philosophy ahead of everything else; his family, his friends, his own best interests.  Crito is asking Socrates to consider being a little more pragmatic.  Don’t be so stubborn and dogmatic about abstract philosophical principles.  Compromise.  Live to fight another day.  By staying and facing execution you’re only justifying the actions of “the many” and you yourself said “they cannot make a man wise or foolish.  They only act at random.”  Why let a random act of violence stop your pursuit of wisdom?  Your obligation right now is to fight injustice by disobeying bad laws.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

SOPHOCLES: Antigone (Creon and the Preacher)

In his book on Ethics (GB1) Aristotle made the famous statement that “Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”  Happiness is something we do, not something we feel.  After reading Antigone we may want to ask if the same observation applies to wisdom as well.  Is wisdom an “activity of the soul” and something we do; or is wisdom a kind of comprehensive understanding of the world by the mind?  Creon apparently believed wisdom is something we do.  He was decisive in ordering the body of Eteocles to be honored while the body of Polyneices would be left without burial.  The result?  Toward the end of the play Creon laments “Whatever my hands have touched has come to nothing.  Fate has brought all my pride to a thought of dust.”  He tried to do what (we have to assume) he thought was the right thing to do given the unique circumstances he faced as king of Thebes.  The Preacher from the book of Ecclesiastes (GB5) understood Creon’s predicament better than most of us.  The Preacher was a king too; the king of Israel.  And the Preacher’s conclusion was much the same as Creon’s.  The Preacher asks “What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?”  What good did it do you, Creon, to become king of Thebes?  It brought you wealth and power.  Did it bring happiness too?  No.  Did it give you wisdom?  Maybe.  Just not the clear and optimistic wisdom of Aristotle. 

The wisdom Creon stumbled upon was more of the melancholy variety.  It was the sad wisdom of experience.  He thought he was doing the right thing.  But so did Antigone.  This wasn’t a situation where there were good guys on one side and bad guys on the other.  They both had convincing arguments that they were doing the right thing.  It was a tangled situation and would not have surprised the Preacher.  He had pretty much seen it all before and famously stated that there was nothing new under the sun: “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. That which is crooked cannot be made straight…”  Creon thought it was the king’s job to make crooked things straight.  Maybe he was right.  But the Preacher learned from experience that there are some things in this world that can’t be made straight; at least not by men.  Only God (or the gods) can straighten them out.  Even king Creon finally had to admit that “the laws of the gods are mighty, and a man must serve them to the last day of his life!”  The Preacher agreed: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”  The Preacher learned patience the hard way and came to understand that “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”  There’s a time to do this, a time to do that, and a time not to do anything at all but just sit and ponder the problem of fate, much the same way Job (GB4) sat and pondered the problem of fate with his friends.  There’s not much time to meditate for a man who has the responsibilities of a king.  Ordinary folks can take more time to ponder what the Messenger in the play has to say: “Fate raises up, and Fate casts down the happy and unhappy alike: no man can foretell his Fate.”  Or meditate on the advice of the Chorus when they sing “There is no happiness where there is no wisdom; no wisdom but in submission to the gods.”  The Preacher (and king of Israel) somehow found time to ponder these things.  What did he decide?  “Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth to me; and why was I then more wise?”  If fate raises up and casts down both the wise and the foolish then what advantage does wisdom have over foolishness?  And even if I want to seek out wisdom anyway, how do I go about finding it?  Creon and the Preacher agree we can’t find it by reading books.  The Preacher put it this way: “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”  Of course the great irony is this.  We find the wisdom of Creon and the Preacher by reading about them in a book. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

SOPHOCLES: Antigone (Freedom or Fate)

Every four years Americans vote for President of the United States.  American democracy has a long tradition of a smooth and peaceful transition of power as the outgoing President hands on the office to the incoming President-Elect.  Not every democracy makes a peaceful transition. In this play Sophocles shows what happens when the transition of power is not peaceful.  The political plot is simple.  The “presidential” term is up for Eteocles and now it’s time to hand power on to the next ruler, Polyneices.  But Eteocles refuses to step down.  So Polyneices goes away, raises an army and comes back to Thebes to try and take the office by force.  In the ensuing battle both leaders are killed.  Then Creon steps in to take charge and tries to restore law and order to Thebes.  With that background in mind we should remember what Simmel had to say about freedom.  His theory of freedom is that it evolves historically from slavery to serfdom to freedom.  Money liberates individuals by freeing them from personal obligations to specific individuals.  With money I’m free to choose my own destiny.  Sophocles doesn’t agree.        

Money gives us the illusion that we’re free to choose our own destinies.  For Sophocles the concept of Fate is much more prominent than we think.  We like to think more money will give us more freedom but what it actually does is corrupt hearts that may otherwise be honest.  Creon puts it like this: “Money!  There’s nothing in the world as demoralizing as money.  Down go your cities, homes gone, men gone, honest hearts corrupted, crookedness of all kinds, and all for money!”  Money is just a symptom of a deeper problem and Sophocles wants us to ponder the tragedy of the human condition.  Every character in this play tries to do what is right.  Creon’s position is entirely logical.  “Polyneices made war on his country.  Eteocles defended it.”  Therefore Polyneices is a traitor; Eteocles is a hero.  Creon tries to do the right thing and clearly explains his position: “No ruler can expect complete loyalty from his subjects until he has been tested in office.  Nevertheless, I say to you at the very outset that I have nothing but contempt for the kind of Governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course that he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare, I have no use for him.”  Antigone and Ismene also want to do the right thing.  Antigone tells Ismene “now you can prove who you are.  A true sister, or a traitor to your family.”  Ismene is afraid and her position is pragmatic.  She says “The law is strong, we must give in to the law in this thing, and in worse.  I beg the Dead to forgive me, but I am helpless: I must yield to those in authority.”  But it’s not just fear that motivates her opinion.  She also considers her religious and civic duties.  When Antigone says “Apparently the laws of the gods mean nothing to you” Ismene responds “They mean a great deal to me; but I have no strength to break laws that were made for the public good.”  Ismene has a point.  Antigone is acting on what she conceives to be her private obligation.  Creon is acting on what he conceives to be best for the public good.  Ismene is caught in between.  Creon’s son Haemon puts this whole situation into perspective when he says “Reason is God’s crowning gift to man, and you are right to warn me against losing mine… yet there are other men who can reason too; and their opinions might be helpful.  You are not in a position to know everything…”  Haemon is right too.  No one knows everything.  We each have our own opinions and we live amidst a turmoil of clashing human opinion; but when the dust finally settles, what then?  Sophocles sums it up in one word: Fate. “Fate raises up, and Fate casts down the happy and the unhappy alike: no man can foretell his Fate.”  We may really want to do the right thing but love of money and power get all mixed up in politics.  The result of that potent mixture is what Sophocles calls Fate.  Simmel thinks people in the rational modern world are free to choose their own destinies; Sophocles hints that we’re not as free as we think.    

Monday, November 07, 2016

SIMMEL: Individual Freedom (The Psychology of Freedom)

In last week’s reading Georg Simmel made his case that an economy based on monetary transactions allows for maximum individual freedom.  Money gives us many more choices about how we earn a living, where we live, and what we do with our leisure time.  Exchanging money for goods and services make us more dependent on the system but less dependent on individual people.  There’s both an upside and a downside to this kind of economic arrangement.  Here’s an example of what Simmel is talking about.  He says “the personality as a mere holder of a function or position is just as irrelevant as that of a guest in a hotel room.”  The upside of this arrangement is the depersonalization of business transactions.  A waitress at a restaurant or a clerk at a convenience store won’t refuse me service just because they don’t like me.  The downside of this arrangement is the depersonalization of business transactions.  Under a monetary system I’m just another customer and as irrelevant as “a guest in a hotel room.”            

Not everyone is comfortable with this kind of arrangement.  Tocqueville once remarked that “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America.”  He’s talking about the power of the majority but the principle also holds true for a people utterly dependent on commerce.  In order to conduct business Americans are compelled to act, and even think, in certain ways.  For Tocqueville being dependent on such a system is in reality a limitation of freedom.  Simmel doesn’t agree.  Simmel thinks “we are compensated for the great quantity of our dependencies by the indifference toward respective persons and by our liberty to change them at will.”  If I don’t like my boss I can find another job.  If I don’t like my neighbors I can move.  Money gives me freedom to change my relationships to other people.  I can make my own choices about who I do business with and for Simmel “this is the most favorable situation for bringing about inner independence, the feeling of individual self-sufficiency.”  Simmel points out that “the vassal could change his master whereas the serf was unalterably tied to the same one.  This reflects an incomparably higher measure of independence for the vassal compared with the serf… It is not the bond as such, but being bound to a particular individual master that represents the real antipode of freedom.” 

Simmel and Tocqueville seem to have a fundamental disagreement about what freedom means.  They both emphasize the psychological as well as the financial component of freedom.  But Simmel says “The slave could not change his master even if he had been willing to risk much worse living conditions, whereas the industrial worker can do that at any time.”  Knowing we can choose to change our circumstances is the key to freedom for Simmel.  That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be better off, at least financially.  Simmel admits that “there is no necessary connection between liberty and increased well-being.”  But there’s a line from an old George Strait song that goes “I ain’t got a dime but what I got is mine; I ain’t rich, but Lord I’m free.”  That may be true but Tocqueville counters with this argument.  “Fetters and headsmen were the coarse instruments which tyranny formerly employed; the civilization of our age has refined the arts of despotism… in democratic republics the body is left free but the soul is enslaved.”  I’m free to leave my job and work for someone else or I can start my own business. But I’m still dependent on the same system.  Simmel thinks freedom means not being “bound to a particular individual master.”  Tocqueville worries about something much worse.  Being bound to majority opinion and having many anonymous masters is a worse fate than having a particular individual master.  Better to deal with the devil you know than the many devils you don’t know.  This is the psychological tension Freud spoke about in Civilization and Its Discontents (GB1).       

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

SIMMEL: Individual Freedom (Economic Freedom)

In last week’s reading we saw how personal freedoms could easily be smothered by The Power of the Majority (GB1).  Tocqueville believed that within democracies public opinion and social shaming are stronger weapons than written laws to enforce uniformity of manners and ideas.  In this week’s reading Georg Simmel looks at the idea of individual freedom but takes that idea in a different direction.  For Tocqueville freedom is the ability to think and act independently.  Simmel agrees, but only up to a point.  It’s true that freedom is the ability to think and act independently but for Simmel freedom can only exist within an existing framework of social duties.  Only social obligations can provide a context for true freedom and we don’t get more freedom by shirking those obligations.  Simmel puts it this way: “what we regard as freedom is often in fact only a change of obligations; as a new obligation replaces one we have borne hitherto, we sense above all that the old burden has been removed.  Because we are free from it, we seem at first to be completely free; until the new duty makes its weight felt.”  If I stop paying rent on my apartment I seem to be free of the duty to make monthly payments.  At least for a while.  Before long though I’ll be burdened with the new duty of finding another place to live. 

Simmel wants us to think more clearly about the relationship between freedoms and obligations.  For him freedom isn’t an emotional feeling but an objective reality.  He says “moral philosophy always identifies ethical freedom with those obligations imposed by an ideal or social imperative or by one’s own ego.”  We can’t act as moral agents unless we can choose to fulfill our social obligations in our own way, without coercion.  Simmel’s insight is this.  We can’t have ethical freedom without a certain amount of economic freedom. 

For Simmel economic freedom takes three main forms and has followed a clear historical development.  The first phase is slavery.  Under this economic system “the obligation does not involve a service that is objectively defined, but to the person himself who performs the service.”  Under modern conditions this would include people such as domestic servants and military personnel.  Their personal freedoms are constrained by their economic status and their social obligations are primarily toward a superior authority.  The next phase is serfdom.  Under this economic system the services of a serf are generally defined by obligations of time or specified commodities.  An obligation of time would be to work at the manor on a public project two days a month.  But instead of working on public projects the serf may be given another option.  For example “instead of a fixed amount of labor time and energy, a specific product of labor is required.”  The obligation of supplying commodities would be to turn in a certain amount of corn or wheat each year, for example.  This isn’t an ideal situation but it’s a step up from complete slavery.  And it’s not just under serfdom that this arrangement can be found.  “One finds a similar phenomenon today when talented people, who work for a wage, prefer to work for a company with its strictly objective organization rather than for an individual employer.  They may prefer factory work to service with people of authority, where they are in a better position financially but feel themselves less free in subordination to individual personalities.”  The third phase of economic freedom is the replacement of payment in kind (commodities) by money payment.  Simmel calls this the “magna charta of personal freedom” because it gives maximum choice to the individual.  It’s a step up from serfdom because “The lord of a manor who demands beer or chickens or honey from a serf thereby determines the activity of the serf in a certain direction.  But the moment he imposes merely a money payment the serf is free, insofar as he can decide for himself whether to keep bees or cattle or anything else.”  We’re still under the social obligation to pay taxes, rent and other expenses but we’re free to decide how we get the money. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America II (Law and Aristocracy)

In the Declaration of Independence and its new Constitution the United States announced to the world its intention to reject monarchy and form a government without an inherited aristocracy or titles of nobility.  The problem now was where to find leaders able to guide this new republic.  In this week’s reading Tocqueville asserts that the United States found its leadership in a certain class of citizens: lawyers.  Of course this wasn’t spelled out in either the Declaration or the Constitution but nevertheless became the guiding force in establishing order and stability in America.  Why lawyers?  Tocqueville thinks it’s because “Men who have more especially devoted themselves to legal pursuits, derive from those occupations certain habits of order, a taste for formalities, and a kind of instinctive regard for the regular connection of ideas, which naturally render them very hostile to the revolutionary spirit and the unreflecting passions of the multitude.”  As a profession, and as a special class of citizens, Tocqueville believed lawyers were uniquely qualified to govern America.  Is that still true today?  Do lawyers still dominate American politics?  A recent article in the ABA Journal (January 20, 2016) says “Lawyers once dominated Congress, but they are being ‘squeezed out’ today by those who have made politics a career, according to a new research paper.  In the mid-19th century, nearly 80 percent of members of Congress were lawyers. The percentage fell to less than 60 percent in the 1960s and less than 40 percent in 2015.”  Tocqueville’s analysis was apparently correct for his own day but not so much nowadays.  What accounts for the decline?  The article “attributes lawyers’ declining dominance in politics not only to the rise of politics as a career, but also to broader changes in the profession.  The ‘professionalized political class’ includes campaign aides, lobbyists, members of think tanks, and employees in public-interest jobs. These jobs provide an alternative gateway to political office.  Most members of Congress with these backgrounds are not lawyers.”  The rise of corporations has also contributed to this phenomenon: “While in the 19th century, stories abounded of the public coming to courtrooms to listen to the oratorical skills of top lawyers and to be entertained by the cases of the day, by the end of the century many of the elite lawyers moved from the courtroom to the corporate boardroom. Top lawyers no longer required large public followings to bring in business.” 

Tocqueville’s basic theory of a quasi-legal aristocratic class still seems relevant today.  The elite class has merely migrated from the legal profession to a “professionalized political class.”  The question remains whether it’s necessary to have a quasi-aristocratic class in a democratic republic.  Tocqueville thinks so.  He says “Lawyers belong to the people by birth and interest, to the aristocracy by habit and by taste, and they may be looked upon as the natural bond and connecting link of the two great classes of society.”  Under his theory there are two great classes of society: the people on one hand and aristocracy on the other.  Lawyers are uniquely qualified to serve as “the natural bond and connecting link” between these two classes.  Why?  Baby lawyers are born into a democracy and so have a vested interest in making the democratic system work.  But as they grow and become educated citizens they also learn to appreciate aristocratic values.  Lawyers have thus been trained to see both sides of the big picture.  So “When the American people is intoxicated by passion, or carried away by the impetuosity of its ideas, it is checked and stopped by the almost invisible influence of its legal counsellors, who secretly oppose their aristocratic propensities to its democratic instincts, their superstitious attachment to what is antique to its love of novelty, their narrow views to its immense designs, and their habitual procrastination to its ardent impatience.”  History teaches that democratic instincts and “love of novelty” often end in disaster if not checked by the aristocratic propensity for order.

Friday, October 14, 2016

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America I (Public Opinion)

Every four years America turns its national attention to politics.  This is a good time to read Tocqueville on democracy in America.  Even though he lived over 150 years ago his political insights are still on target.  Americans generally believe democracy is a good thing and is the best form of government.  Tocqueville puts the idea behind democracy in this little maxim: “The moral power of the majority is founded upon the principle that the interests of the many are to be preferred to those of the few.”  The United States Constitution and its laws are designed to protect the rights of the few while granting the power to govern to the majority.  Modern political parties are supposed to represent the will of the American People.  It’s not perfect but we believe this form of government is much better than the old monarchies that ruled in Europe.  Better that “the people” should have power rather than a king.  Many kings throughout history misused their power and became tyrants.  But Tocqueville wants us to consider this question.  “If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should a majority not be liable to the same reproach?  Men are not apt to change their characters by agglomeration.”  Why should “the people” be trusted with power any more than a king?  Tocqueville says “I can never willingly invest any number of my fellow-creatures with that unlimited authority which I should refuse to give to any one of them individually.”  In modern terms Tocqueville would think the two party system is a good idea.  Power can be transferred from one political party to another.  That helps keep them both in check over the long haul.  And it’s important to keep them in check because Tocqueville believes “unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion; and God alone can be omnipotent because his wisdom and his justice are equal to his power.”  The founding fathers created a constitution for real-life flesh and blood men and women, not for angels.  So heated political debate is good for the country. 

Tocqueville thinks debate is a healthy sign but here’s what worries him.  “In America as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced a submissive silence is observed.”  An unpopular opinion means losing at the polls.  Tocqueville thinks that’s what makes the power of the majority so coercive.  In fact, he says “I know of no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America.”  True democracy cannot exist without true independence of mind and freedom of discussion.  To be successful in American politics you have to know how to play the game.  You have to use the tools available in a democratic system of government.  Take the concept of patriotism.  Even in his own day Tocqueville had already noted that “Patriotism in the United States is a virtue which may be found among the people, but never among the leaders of the people.”  Is that true?  Many people go into politics because they love their country and want to do good things.  But a democratic system requires lots of compromise and pandering to the public.  That’s why Tocqueville says politicians “are forever talking of the natural intelligence of the people they serve… they assure the people that they possess all the virtues under heaven without having acquired them, or without caring to acquire them.”  What happens to democracy when we “the people” have neither intelligence nor virtue?  Politicians flatter us; we vote for them.  That’s how the game is played.  Tocqueville thinks this is what should bother us.  Who will tell us the truth?  Not politicians.  They need our votes.  Not the media.  They want us to keep reading their papers and watching their news shows.  Not the entertainment industry.  They want us to keep coming to their movies and listening to their songs.  We, the people, keep hearing we’re smart and virtuous too.  So it must be true.  Everybody thinks so, don’t you?