Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, January 24, 2015

NIETZSCHE: Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Prologue & Aristotle’s Vision)

Friedrich Nietzsche is most famous for one short phrase: “God is dead.”  Besides that, what else does he have to say?  Flaubert spoke by telling a story and Hume spoke through philosophy and reason.  Nietzsche does both.  In Thus Spoke Zarathustra he tells a story with a philosophical flavor.  Zarathustra is an unusual man.  He’s what Nietzsche calls an “overman” or what we might call a super-man.  Zarathustra’s not like us.  He’s stronger than we are and smarter too.  He went up into the mountains for ten years to meditate and then one morning he woke up and it literally dawned on him: “I am weary of my wisdom.”  What wisdom had he discovered after many years of meditation?  He discovered that society’s values are worthless.  The things people say they admire and respect are worthless.  Using Zarathustra’s own words, what does he think of Happiness?  “It is poverty and filth and wretched contentment.”  Reason?  “It is poverty and filth and wretched contentment.”  Virtue?  “…poverty and filth and wretched contentment.”    

Nietzsche knew this would not be a popular message.  In the story he writes, “Behold, I teach you the overman…”  And what was the result”?  “When Zarathustra (Nietzsche) had spoken thus… all the people laughed…”  This was predictable.  Before anyone had ever read the story Nietzsche had already built in his response: “They do not understand me.”  Why not?  It may be because he’s just plain hard to understand; the story is difficult.  But Nietzsche also suspected people wouldn’t want to hear what he had to say.  And he was right.  Most people like comfort; Zarathustra (Nietzsche) has only contempt for bourgeois comfort: “We have invented happiness, say the last men, and they blink.  They have left the regions where it is hard to live, for one needs warmth.  One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth.”  He thinks this need for neighbors and warmth makes us weak; it keeps us from becoming super-men.  We huddle together for comfort and soon “Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same.”

What is an ordinary person supposed to make of all this?  As Nietzsche says, “Dark is the night, dark are Zarathustra’s ways.”  He’s right.  What do we have in common with a super-man who thinks happiness is only “poverty and filth and wretched contentment?”  Aristotle agrees with Nietzsche that everybody wants to be happy.  But he thinks everybody wants happiness for a good reason: happiness is a good thing to have.  Reason and virtue are also good things to have.  They’re not poverty and filth, as Nietzsche says.  Reason and virtue are values that lead us out of poverty and filth.  They help us to live better lives.  To live better lives we don’t need to go off to the mountains and meditate.  We need to settle down and live with our neighbors.  This is not a weakness.  It’s what human beings were made to do.  A man who lives outside a social network is either a beast or a god.  Aristotle thinks it’s beastly to live outside of society; Zarathustra thinks it’s god-like.  Since “God is dead” Nietzsche thinks we need new super-men to become new gods and create new values.  “To lure many away from the herd” is Nietzsche’s goal.  For Aristotle this is not good.  Man is a social being.  At his core Man is a political being, a creature whose natural habitat is the polis, or city.  Even Nietzsche admits “companions I need, living ones.”  What he objects to is the herd mentality of values.  He wants to create new values and recruit new Zarathustras to join him.  This message appeals to many college students.  That’s why Aristotle says young people aren’t prepared to study politics.  Building society is hard work and needs the very values Nietzsche rejects.

Monday, January 19, 2015

What Good is Philosophy?

It would be a wonderful thing if philosophy could give us clear and unambiguous answers to all the questions we have about ourselves and the world in which we live. But this is not the way it works. Philosophy cannot give us those clear and indisputable answers because the human mind itself is incapable of providing us that information. Why not? What's the problem? Well, the problem, as Descartes demonstrated, is that the human mind is incapable of giving us absolute certainty about anything because every thought which the mind can hold is capable of being doubted. It is a curious property of human intelligence that our mind generates questions about all of the mental objects (ideas) which we hold, and at the same time, will generate doubts or questions regarding the reliability of those ideas. In other words, the mind both generates and negates the ideas we have. Everything which can be doubted is subject to that peculiar quality of being both real ("true") and unreal ("false"). The only fact which Descartes found which cannot be doubted is our own existence. We are not even sure what the "our" part of that statement refers to. Our own identity is contingent upon other facts which need the support of external proof. This is the essential problem of philosophy: to separate what we know for certain from what we do not know for certain. And it turns out that there is damn little information (or "facts") that we know for certain. Hume did not invent this situation; he merely commented upon it.

As Hume says, the "self" which we take for granted is nothing more than a bundle of perceptions in the mind. We'd like to believe that something substantial is behind human consciousness, but when we examine it closely we can't find anything but a bundle of nerves which convey electrical impulses from one part of the brain to another. We are thinking machines. But is that all we are? Does human consciousness completely disappear when the electricity is turned off. This is one of those deep questions that only theologians and philosophers worry about. It is disturbing to think that human consciousness is nothing but a program running inside the brain (computer) in our heads.

What about soul? Does anything endure or survive our biological death? Are we composed of just matter or is there something else (soul, spirit, mystical energy)? Science today is incapable of answering that question with the tools at its disposal. But philosophy doesn't require the same body of evidence as does science. It is perfectly ok to speculate about what might be possible or what might be true. Philosophy has an entire branch of metaphysics devoted to the art of speculation, as does theology. The only rule that philosophy observes is that one should be entirely rational and honest in one's adventures of the mind. In other words, you should not be guided by emotions or prejudice in your quest for knowledge. The only thing that Descartes believed could not be doubted was our own mind. Hume refers to this "mind" as a bundle of perceptions. As a result of his own epistemological journey, Descartes provided us with one basic rule for exploring the unknown: everything (but our own existence) should be open to doubt.

So, Hume is following his own speculations about what seems true or plausible.  Doubting the contents of your own mind is risky business. For some, that path leads to madness. But philosophy was never intended for everyone. Just for those of us who want to think, even if thinking sometimes requires us to go to unfamiliar places.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

HUME: Of Personal Identity (What Would Socrates Think?)



Of Personal Identity is a chapter from Hume’s book entitled A Treatise of Human Nature. Hume has an interesting theory.  He believes “mankind… is nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions.”  Human beings are made up of sense perceptions and our ideas come from those perceptions.  We are what we see and touch.  In Hume’s view “the mind is a kind of theatre” where we watch one thought after another come in and out of view.  This would get confusing if we stopped to think about it.  Most of us don’t.  But Hume did.  He wondered how we can make sense of all this confusion of perceptions and thought.  How can we identify all these diverse perceptions as ideas?  What makes them related to other ideas?  Hume concludes, “Our chief business, then, must be to prove, that all objects, to which we ascribe identity, without observing their invariableness and uninterruptedness, are such as consist of a succession of related objects.”

There’s the key term: identity.  Things change.  Plants grow.  People get old.  They don’t look anything like they did before.  And yet in our minds they still seem like the same things they were.  Why?  Hume gives an example.  He says, “in a very few years both vegetables and animals endure a total change, yet we still attribute identity to them.”  An acorn grows into an oak tree.  Acorns and oaks don’t look anything alike.  And yet in our minds the IDENTITY of the acorn and the oak tree is the same thing.  That acorn became this oak.  An even stranger example is a church.  Let’s say a church (call it St. Michael’s) burns down and is rebuilt in a new style with different materials.  But we still call it St. Michael’s.  Why?  Hume says “…neither the form nor materials are the same, nor is there anything common to the two objects but their RELATION to the inhabitants of the parish; and yet this alone is sufficient to make us denominate them the same.”

Hume says the “church” still exists but only in our minds.  There’s a real building made of stone, that’s true.  And before that there was a real building made of wood.  But now they’re entirely different buildings made of entirely different materials.  St. Michael’s Church still exists in our minds but only because our memories connect the current stone building with the wooden building that stood there before.  In reality they don’t have the same “identity” because they’re nothing like they were.  They’ve totally changed.  To call them the same thing is a mental delusion.  And it’s not just acorns and churches. The same principle applies to us too.  Hume says “The identity which we ascribe to the mind of man is only a fictitious one…”  My mind, my own identity, is a fiction?

This all sounds very strange.  Everything Hume says sounds perfectly logical.  But really, what good is it?  Hume started off his essay by saying “there are some philosophers who imagine we are at every moment intimately conscious of what we call our ‘self’… (Footnote: not just philosophers; every sane person thinks they have a self.) …nor is there anything of which we can be certain if we doubt of this.”  That’s what “some philosophers” think.  And that’s the whole point.  If I can’t be certain that “I” even exist then what else in the whole wide world can I ever be certain of?  Hume seems to be undermining the foundations of our minds.  Is this what philosophy is for?  Socrates had a sort of maxim that it was good to Know Thyself.  Hume implies there’s no self to know.  Is this what philosophy has come to in the past two thousand years?  It’s too bad Socrates and Hume can’t sit down together and have a long talk.      

Saturday, January 10, 2015

FLAUBERT: A Simple Heart (Felicite and Her Bird)



Felicite never understood Church dogma.  She didn’t even try.  She loved going to church and attended daily Mass.  But Felicite would fall asleep when they tried to teach her dogmas like the Trinity.  “She found it (particularly) hard to visualize the Holy Ghost; for he was not only a bird, but a flame as well, and at other times a breath.”  Felicite isn’t alone.  Much ink has been spilled by scholars trying to explain the Trinity.  Sharper minds than Felicite’s have failed to grasp this great mystery of Church dogma.

The bird.  As the years passed Felicite grew older and the years were not kind to her.  She knew the deep tragedy of losing both her beloved nephew Victor and Madame Aubain’s daughter Virginie.  And Felicite never married.  “Years passed, one like another, and uneventful except for the recurrence of Holy Days.”  Then one day joy came into her life in the form of a bird.  There’s an old story about a little girl who was as confused about the Holy Spirit as Felicite was; instead of saying “the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete” this girl would always say “the Holy Spirit, the parakeet.”  Felicite’s bird wasn’t a parakeet.  It was a parrot.  And this wasn’t just any old parrot.  It was Loulou.  Felicite threw her whole heart and soul into that bird.  Strangers couldn’t understand her devotion.  “They would say he looked like a turkey, or even like a chunk of wood; comparisons that cut Felicite to the heart.”  Felicite had no parents, no husband or children, and no close friends.  She only had Madame Aubain and Loulou.  In the end she had many bad memories; “her wretched childhood, the disillusionment of her first love, her nephew’s going away, and Virginie’s death.”  Felicite’s room became a kind of museum or shrine; a reflection and memorial of everything she had loved and lost in her long life.  Then she became deaf and “her small circle of ideas shrank even more.” 

The vision.  As the poet (W.B. Yeats) says, things fall apart, the center cannot hold.  And so it was with Felicite.  Physically she was falling apart.  Eventually she became not only deaf but blind too.  Under these circumstances “without sorrow, rather brimming over with peace, she would remember how things used to be.”  Today we would say she retreated into a shell and maybe even suffered from clinical depression.  On the outside it appeared that way.  “Having no communication with anyone, she lived in a kind of sleepwalker’s trance.”  And yet her interior life was still rich and satisfying.  It was just in a quirky kind of way.  She saw things according to her own interpretation.  Felicite reasoned, “It would not have been a dove the Our Heavenly Father had picked to be the bearer of His Word.  Nobody ever heard a dove talk; it must have been an ancestor of Loulou’s.”  Is this the reasoning of a devout 19th century Catholic heart?  Or is it just plain old apostasy?  Had Felicite’s faith blossomed with personal heartfelt devotion?  Or had she reverted to the ancient practice of worshipping creatures instead of the Creator?  At the end of her life a strange thing happened: “with her last breath there appeared to her, while the heavens opened, a gigantic parrot, hovering directly over her head.” 

Was it really the Holy Ghost?  Or was it just a figment of Felicite’s overworked imagination?  Flaubert doesn’t say.  It’s up to the reader to decide.  That’s what makes A Simple Heart a great story worthy to be included in The Great Books Series.  Flaubert never preaches.  He paints a picture with words: a gigantic parrot hovering over a woman looks either hilarious or scary; unless you’ve read the story of Felicite and Loulou.     

Monday, January 05, 2015

FLAUBERT: A Simple Heart (Felicite and Faust)



John Stuart Mill once said “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”  It’s a famous quote and makes a good sound bite for philosophy class.  But is that really a fair choice?  If we take out “dissatisfied” and “satisfied” as adjectives we have the following choices.  Would we rather be a human being or a pig; Socrates or a fool?  Seriously.  A better question we might throw back at Mill would be this: Would he rather be Faust or Felicite?  Is it better to be a dissatisfied, immoral genius-poet; or a moral and satisfied illiterate peasant girl?     
It may be going a little too far to call Faust an immoral man.  And it may be a bit of a stretch to say Felicite was happy with her life.  But an objective comparison might be helpful.  What criteria can we use to objectively examine and compare two lives?  In one of the Great Books readings John Dewey takes the traditional Virtues as his criteria: Justice, Wisdom, Courage and Moderation.  How would Faust and Felicite compare?

Justice.  Faust was a doctor and the son of a doctor.  He had a fine education and lived in luxurious comfort.  And yet he complained about the human condition in general and his circumstances in particular.  He was directly or indirectly responsible for four deaths; Gretchen, their baby, Gretchen’s mother and her brother.  Felicite was an illiterate orphan peasant girl.  She was sent out to work tending cows “as a mere infant” and made her way through life as best she could.  She started with nothing.  But she worked hard and never complained.  And she was good to people.  Give one point to Felicite.
Wisdom.  As smart as he was Faust had no problem dealing with Mephistopheles.  Is it wise to make a deal with the devil?  And he also got his girlfriend pregnant out of wedlock.  How much wisdom does that take?  Felicite had no “book learning” but at least she knew how to keep from getting pregnant.  She also knew how to head off unwanted advances, run an efficient household, and handle drunken uncles.  Felicite leads 2-0.
Courage.  When the chips were down Faust had a chance to show his courage in a prison cell with Gretchen.  But when the chips were down he ran away.  When the Aubain family was threatened by a rampaging bull Felicite could have run too.  But she didn’t.  When the chips were down Felicite held her ground.  So it’s Felicite three Faust zero.
Moderation.  Part of Faust’s problem was he wanted to go to extreme limits of human experience.  That’s what prompted his deal with Mephistopheles; Faust wanted to go beyond normal human emotions.  The most extreme emotion Felicite felt in her young life was a broken heart; just a normal broken heart.  And she did what normal people do.  She grieved for awhile; then got on with a normal life.  It’s a shutout.  Felicite wins 4-0.

Maybe we can’t score life like we score a baseball game.  But there’s one more area where we can see the difference between them.  Faust had mastered theology.  But he was bored and cynical about religion.  Felicite?  “Of dogma she understood nothing; did not even try to understand.”  She couldn’t read but she listened intently.  “Felicite saw the Garden, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, cities all in flames, dying nations; idols overthrown; and these idols left her awed by the Almighty and fearful of His wrath.  She wept when she heard the story of the Passion.  …Sowings, harvests, winepresses, all the everyday things the Gospel speaks of, had their place in her own life; God, by His passage, had sanctified them…”  Felicite had a simple heart and a simple mind.  But Faust clearly missed all this in his studies.  In baseball Felicite would be ahead 5-0.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ethics 101

Can virtue ever be  taught? Many people believe that it can. Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, to name a few. We could also mention Saint Paul, Aquinas, and Luther. In fact, all religions teach some form of virtue. The problem lies in the details. Everyone acknowledges a distinction between good and evil. But what exactly do we mean by these terms? Do we always recognize good when we see it? What about evil? The human tendency is to label things we disapprove of as “evil,” while the things we admire we call “good.” Is there any objective quality to things we call good, or do we just inherit these values from our parents?

The problem with morality is that it presupposes a point of view which is not shared by everyone. Most people agree that murder, theft, lying and rape are wrong. But what about premarital sex or abortion? Where exactly do our values come from? And if most people agree that these actions are wrong, why do so many people in the world continue to do them? When you deliberately do things  you believe are morally wrong, aren’t you living a lie? On the other hand, Walt Whitman once said,
“Do I contradict myself. Very well. Then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes”

Here, Whitman is not talking about lying. He is acknowledging that human beings are not machines. We often say one thing, and do another. Yet, even if we disregard the occasional discrepancy, why do we so often fail to live up to the values we claim to hold dear?

Immanuel Kant attempted to give a rational explanation for morality. He believed that when we act, we often act out of sentiment. If we were truly rational creatures, we would always do only what we believe is right, rather than let our emotions be in charge. Aristotle, too,  knew that emotions are unreliable guides to good behavior.

Morally speaking, every action represents a value judgment. We like to think we are doing the right thing and that others, if they were in our place, would choose to do the same thing as we do. Then may we infer that behind every action is an intention to do the right thing? Of course not. That would only be true, as Madison once said, if men were angels. But men are not angels. We live in a fallen world, which means that some people will always prefer the darkness. Man’s intentions are not always benevolent.

Even so, Kant believed we are rational creatures. Since we are guided by our intentions (our will), then we need a principle or rule of conduct to bring this will under our control. Then our rule acts like a moral compass, guiding our decisions in a rational manner. But this methodology only works for people who actually think about what they are doing. Whenever we get angry or depressed, we are not in our right mind. We do things that we later regret doing. So good behavior requires not only that we be in our right mind, but that we also have a good will. This is what we mean by “doing the right thing.” We don’t fall into grace accidentally; we choose to pursue the good with our eyes open regardless of the pain.

In one sense whenever we talk about ethics, we are really talking about rules of conduct; but virtue is more than just rules. In a free society, it doesn’t matter so much what you believe; but it always matters what you do. In Gustave Flaubert’s story, “A Simple Heart,” Felicite is a good person. What makes her good? Not her education because she has none. It is not reason that guides her; it is her heart. Kant would call this a “good will.” But she does not spend time deliberating over what is right or wrong. She simply does instinctively what she feels is right. In fact, her entire life is based on these feelings which have nothing at all to do with rationality. She is drawn to the good as moths are drawn to the light. But what is the source of this light? For Felicite, it is her faith in God. The Bible says that rain falls on both the just and the unjust, and yet some trees remain barren.

For Socrates, our “daemon” or guardian spirit is here to lead us in the right direction. We call this inner voice a “conscience,” and when it speaks clearly to us, we are guided through the wilderness of human error, into the light of truth. But when the daemon refuses to speak, we are left to our own devices, and often become confused and lost.  So is it better to have unwavering faith like Felicite, or Kant’s reason to guide us? A good will may be incapable of showing us the way home. Yet unless we have a good will, reason alone will not sustain us. Maybe Kant was right. We need both.

Monday, December 29, 2014

FLAUBERT: A Simple Heart (Kant and Flaubert)



The introduction to our reading of Kant said “Kant taught and wrote about a broad range of subjects, including metaphysics, logic, ethics, geography, anthropology, mathematics, physics, astronomy, geology, meteorology, and fireworks.”  The man was a walking encyclopedia.  He didn’t write simple books on How to Live a Good Life in Twelve Easy Steps.  The work we just read was called The Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals.  Kant was an intellectual giant.  On the other end of the scale we have a character named Felicite in this week’s reading from Flaubert: A Simple Heart.  The introduction to this week’s reading says Flaubert “enjoyed writing simply and naturally.”

In some ways Flaubert is Kant’s opposite.  Flaubert wrote fiction; Kant wrote philosophy.  In Flaubert’s story there’s a geography book “that showed scenes from various parts of the world… Paul explained the prints to Felicite.  That was all the book learning she ever had.”  So Felicite was illiterate; Kant was a college philosophy professor.  And of course Felicite is a fictional character and Kant was a real person.  But there’s a good reason why the Great Books Series follows up Kant with Flaubert.  Kant and Flaubert both agree having a good will is important.  Every good action is based on the premise that there are good intentions behind the action; it’s not just an accident.  But Kant puts his emphasis on the mind; Flaubert on the heart.  Does it really make much difference?  Yes it does. 

Kant’s ethical guidelines have the precision of mathematical certainty.  They give us a solid framework to develop and build up a strong ethical theory.  But what about people like Felicite?  She doesn’t think deeply like Kant thought.  She can’t even read.  Is she just out of luck?  Can she be a good person anyway?  Of course, says Flaubert.  How?  Felicite can be a good person because she has “a simple heart.”  That’s Flaubert’s fictional term for a good will.  Flaubert doesn’t try to prove morality to us as if life needs some sort of mathematical proof.  He shows us a good life instead.  He simply tells the story of Felicite’s life and lets us draw our own conclusions.  Kant wants to convince us intellectually.  Flaubert wants to move us emotionally.  These are two paths, two different strategies, but they have the same goal.  They teach us how to be better people. 

This is an old contrast in the Western tradition going all the way back to Plato and Aristotle.  Is ethics more like mathematics or more like biology?  Plato took mathematics as his model.  In his dialogs Socrates is constantly prodding his students for greater and greater precision in their thinking.  He’s trying to get them to conform more precisely to a perfect form of the good.  Aristotle used biology as his model.  He wanted precision too; but only as much precision as the subject would allow.  And ethics won’t always allow black and white answers.  In this sense Flaubert was more like Aristotle.  In their view a good will isn’t like a set value in a mathematical equation.  It’s more like a seed that grows and develops.  It’s always planted in a specific environment and has to be nurtured with good habits.  In this view virtue is organic.  Living a good life isn’t like solving a mathematical equation.  It’s more a matter of responding in the right way to surrounding circumstances.  Kant was using an ideal universal model that he believed would apply in all times and all places.  Flaubert was using a very human model of an illiterate peasant woman living in 19th century France.  These are two paths with one goal: a good life.