Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

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.

Monday, August 08, 2016

ROUSSEAU: The Social Contract (Public Policy)

Reading Rousseau’s essay on The Social Contract is both an inspiration and a problem for modern American readers.  The Social Contract is the foundation of all legitimate government based on the “general will” of its citizens.  Rousseau believes “the general will alone can guide the forces of the State according to the end for which it was instituted, which is the common good… it is uniquely on the basis of this common interest that society ought to be governed.”  This theory of government is an inspiration for people who want government of the people, by the people and for the people.  But what sounds good in theory presents some problems when trying to figure out how to put it into practice.  How does Rousseau’s theory hold up under closer examination?  For starters, why should we follow the general will?  Because, as Rousseau says, “the private will tends by its nature toward preferences, and the general will toward equality.”  That may be true but here’s the problem.  What Rousseau calls “preferences” other folks call freedom.  And they worry that personal freedoms may get submerged under the power of the general will.  Tocqueville calls this state of affairs the “tyranny of the majority.” (Democracy in America, GB1)  Equality may indeed be a worthy political goal.  But does following the general will (in the name of “equality”) have a levelling effect on society as a whole?  Socrates did not share Rousseau’s trust in the judgment of “the many” in his Apology (GB1).  Rousseau thinks “the general will is always right and always tends toward the public utility.”  Was the general will right in Socrates’ case?  Was it in “the public utility” for the Athenians to execute Socrates?  If they wanted to preserve the peace, then yes, maybe it was.  But if they wanted to pursue the truth, then no, it wasn’t.  The vote for execution was very close, which leads to another problem. 

How do we determine the general will?  Rousseau is aware of this problem and tries to resolve it partially by stating “In order for the general will to be well expressed, it is therefore important that there be no partial society in the State, and that each citizen give only his own opinion.”  What does this mean exactly?  The American Founding Fathers were also concerned about the power and divisiveness of what they called “factions” (Federalist Papers, GB4).  Would Rousseau think modern political parties are a bad idea?  Would he consider the Amish people to be a “partial society” and banish them from living in America?  Tocqueville actually admired the American’s knack of forming local “associations” to take care of local situations and problems.  And Rousseau says each citizen must give up “only that part of his power, goods, and freedom whose use matters to the community; but it must also be agreed that the sovereign alone is the judge of what matters.”  In the United States would Rousseau consider “the sovereign alone” to be the federal government alone?  If so, then how does federal government represent the general will, whereas local government does not?  This matters a great deal when it comes to establishing public policy.  For example, Rousseau says “every authentic act of the general will obligates or favors all citizens equally so that the sovereign knows only the nation as a body and makes no distinctions between any of those who compose it.”  It makes sense that federal government can look after the common good of the whole country better than any state or local government can do.  But this leads to another problem.  If the general will “favors all citizens equally” then what would Rousseau think of federally-sponsored affirmative action programs?  Would he approve of programs designed to create more equality?  It can be argued from a Social Contract perspective that these kinds of programs do contribute to the common good.  But it can also be argued that these programs create a sort of “partial society” where the State is partial to one group of citizens over another.  Reading The Social Contract is a good way to understand certain aspects of political theory.  Turning that theory into public policy can be problematic.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

ROUSSEAU: The Social Contract (Freud’s Perspective)

Rousseau’s intention in this essay is to consider “men as they are and laws as they can be.”  The problem he tries to solve is this.  “Find a form of association that defends and protects the person and goods of each associate with all the common force, and by means of which each one, uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before.”  How can we live in security under a nation of laws and still retain all of our natural freedoms?  This is a tall order. 

Let’s start with “men as they are.”  What kind of people are we talking about?  What are our neighbors like, the people we have to live with every day?  Freud’s insights may help us here.  In Civilization and Its Discontents (GB1) Freud says “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us.”  In order to make life easier some people turn to intoxicating substances like booze or drugs.  That helps dull the pain of living.  Other turn to “illusions” found in the arts and create a fantasy world of their own.  Freud puts religion in this category.  Still others focus on their careers or get involved in politics or study science.  These folks may differ in their methods but their goal is the same: to escape from their problems.  What do they really want?  Freud asks what we all demand from life and his answer is simple.  Pleasure.  We’re driven by the pleasure principle.  We want to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  But we face a host of threats from three directions: our own bodies, the external world, and other people.  These are real threats.  Our bodies wear out and we get sick.  There are floods and earthquakes and tornadoes to deal with.  Foreign wars and domestic murders happen regularly.  Science and technology have alleviated some of these threats but they have not, in the final analysis, brought us happiness.  Love Thy Neighbor is a wonderful ideal but is unachievable.  Besides, if the truth is told, most of us are unlovable.  When all is said and done Freud thinks we should admit the truth: man is a wolf to man.

This is a grim view of the human condition.  But Rousseau’s task is to take “men as they are” and devise a system of government where they can live in peace without giving up their freedom.  How can this be done?  Rousseau starts with the premise that “man was/is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”  What we have to do now is preserve the freedom of citizens without constraining them by “chains” of oppressive laws.  Rousseau believes we all have a “common freedom” based on the common interests of the community as a whole.  This is the freedom which should be preserved.  Society can’t solve the whole laundry list of problems presented by Freud.  What it can do is set up a legitimate power to enforce those laws which will benefit all citizens.  In Rousseau’s opinion a government which oppresses its citizens is not legitimate.  He says “might does not make right, and one is only obligated to obey legitimate powers… Since no man has any natural authority over his fellow man, and since force produces no right, there remain only conventions as the basis of all legitimate authority among men.”  In nature our rights may come from God but in human societies our rights come from the establishment of social and political associations.  It works like this.  Each citizen agrees to give up “all his rights to the whole community… and since the condition is equal for everyone, no one has an interest in making it burdensome for others.”  This is a long way from Freud’s assertion that man is a wolf to man.  Freud’s man isn’t interested in making it burdensome for others either; he wants to have total power over them.  Rousseau disagrees with that view because he thinks “men are not naturally enemies.”  Our common interest overrules our private selfishness.  A man wants to live in society with others where “his faculties are exercised and developed, his ideas broadened, his feelings ennobled, and his whole soul elevated.”  This is Rousseau’s vision of society at its best.  Whether that’s the way men really are is debatable.  Freud doesn’t think so.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

FREUD: Civilization and Its Discontents (Conscience)

Freud’s mission in life was to place human psychology on a rational, scientific foundation.  In order to do this he wanted to account for all mental activity in a way that would preclude any divine influence.  One major phenomenon he had to explain was human Conscience.  Freud needed a rational explanation for “the origin of the sense of guilt.”  Why do we feel guilty when we do things we know are wrong?  Freud agrees that “a person feels guilty (devout people would say ‘sinful’) when he has done something which he knows to be ‘bad.’  But then we notice how little this answer tells us.”  Actually it tells us a great deal.  If most people call certain activities “sinful” then we already have a clue about both their religious values and the society they live in.  But Freud’s main point is well taken.  Why do they feel guilty?  Where do these feelings come from?  Freud puts it this way.  “How is this judgment arrived at?  We may reject the existence of an original, as it were natural, capacity to distinguish good from bad.”  Freud rejects the notion that we have an inborn “capacity” to know right from wrong.  Instead, he thinks society channels our inborn capacity for aggression and directs it inward, in the form of a superego, kind of a policeman and judge of the mind.  Thus we internalize the values of society.  What society determines is “good” becomes good in our minds, at least in our superego.  When we deviate from those “good” principles we feel guilty (or, if we’re religious, sinful).  Freud believes this acceptance of society’s conception of right and wrong is the glue that holds society together.  It’s what makes civilization possible.  And this feeling runs so deep that psychologically (according to Freud) “it makes little difference whether one has already done a bad thing or only intends to do it.”  We feel guilty if we even think about breaking social taboos and “This state of mind is called a ‘bad conscience’… Present-day society has to reckon in general with this state of mind.”

Modern society may indeed have to reckon with this state of mind but we’re certainly not the first generation to face this reckoning.  Immanuel Kant (Conscience GB1) dealt with the same issue but came to an entirely different conclusion.  For Kant “Conscience is an instinct to pass judgment upon ourselves in accordance with moral laws” and not just society’s values.  He did not believe moral laws were derived from society.  Some societies may in fact be good and have good laws but they can also be corrupt and have corrupt laws.  If we use society as our guiding foundation then how would we ever know if our conscience had not been corrupted too?  Kant thinks we need to build on a firmer foundation than the human mind, which is notoriously prone to error and self-interest.  So he proposes a different standard when he says “Conscience is the representative within us of the divine judgment-seat; it weighs our dispositions and actions in the scales of a law which is holy and pure; we cannot deceive it, and, lastly, we cannot escape it because, like the divine omnipresence, it is always with us.”  Kant finds in divine law a standard that is “holy and pure” and cannot be corrupted.  That’s why Kant believes “He who has no immediate loathing for what is morally wicked, and finds no pleasure in what is morally good, has no moral feeling, and such a man has no conscience.”  For Kant it’s important for us to listen to that small, pure voice within, even if society teaches us differently.  That’s because if “the verdict of natural conscience is in conflict with the verdict of instructed conscience, we must obey the natural conscience.”  The best education society has to offer cannot change divine law and Kant says “a cultivated mind need not be followed by a cultivated conscience.  Thus conscience is synonymous with natural conscience.”  Freud doesn’t believe in a “natural conscience” at all and their disagreement is not a trivial one.  Isn’t it interesting that two of the finest minds of Western Civilization can’t agree on how to answer one simple question: Why do we feel guilty when we do things we know are wrong?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

FREUD: Civilization and Its Discontents (Abraham and Freud)

A large portion of the book of Genesis focuses on the story of Abraham, who has long been considered the father of faith for generations of Jews, Christians and Muslims.  They hold him in great esteem because of what Sigmund Freud calls his “religious sentiments.”  Freud suggests that men like Abraham may be suffering from a form of mental illness.  As a psychiatrist Freud is interested in probing the mental state of believers and tries to analyze “the true source of religious sentiments.”  A question arises.  Who is best qualified to identify “the true source of religious sentiments”?  Psychiatrists?  Theologians?  Scientists?  Philosophers?  Ordinary people?  We have two texts.  What insights can an ordinary reader can gain by comparing them?

Freud thinks the true source of religious feeling is found in “a sensation of eternity, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded; as it were, oceanic.”  He admits that “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself… From my own experience I could not convince myself of the primary nature of such a feeling.  But this gives me no right to deny that it does in fact occur in other people.  The only question is whether it is being correctly interpreted…”  Did Abraham experience this ‘oceanic’ feeling in himself?  We don’t know.  The text doesn’t tell us how Abraham felt.  It just says the Lord told him to “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee.”  How Abraham felt about leaving his home and moving to an alien land is left to the reader’s imagination.  All we know for sure is what the text tells us: “So Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken unto him.”  One insight we gain from this reading is that we can’t get into Abraham’s mind.  We can’t know all the nuances of his thinking or the deep psychological foundation of his motivations.  And this is precisely what Freud is interested in knowing.  All we can know for sure is what Abraham actually did.  The rest is conjecture.  Whether we have “correctly interpreted” the story is open for debate.  Which brings us to a second insight and another question.  Who should participate in this debate?  Is a man who has never personally experienced this “oceanic feeling” qualified to talk about religion?  Or does that very fact make him uniquely qualified to objectively interpret religion?  For his part, Freud says he’s “concerned much less with the deepest sources of the religious feeling than with what the common man understands by his religion.”  Does Freud think Abraham was a common man?  In a sense Abraham is not one of the common herd.  He’s immensely wealthy for one thing.  But he might be considered a common man in the sense he’s as mentally healthy as most normal human beings are.  He’s not perfect.  He shares the fears, aspirations and needs we all feel and he made mistakes.  What separates Abraham from most of us is this.  He doesn’t want to debate religion.  He wants to do what God tells him to do.  Maybe that’s the reason he was chosen for his mission.  Understanding God is his whole purpose in life. 

And that’s a third insight we can gain by filtering our reading of Genesis through Freud’s lens.  Freud says “the question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one… One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be “happy” is not included in the plan of “Creation.”  For Abraham God provides not only a “satisfactory answer” to the question of the purpose of life, it’s the only answer that brings peace of mind.  We don’t know if Abraham had an “oceanic feeling” but we do know he had a purpose in life.  This is simply unacceptable for Freud.  He says “by forcibly fixing them in a state of psychical infantilism and by drawing them into a mass-delusion, religion succeeds in sparing many people an individual neuroses.  But hardly anything more.”  Thus Genesis and Freud present two very different views of religion.

Monday, July 11, 2016

BIBLE: Genesis (Why Abram?)

The story of the Tower of Babel has several levels of meaning but one of its central themes is the role of language in human understanding.  Genesis emphasizes the importance of language when it notes that “the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”  God gave divine order to the world when He created natural law but Adam gave human order to the world when he started naming things.  Here’s a little thought experiment.  What if God had stopped creating and had rested after the third day?  That’s when the earth brought forth “grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree…”  What if the only living things in the world were plants?  Would words like truth, beauty and goodness have any meaning at all?  Can a tree know the difference between what is true and what is false?  Can a flower recognize its own beauty?   In a world where only plants lived can truth, beauty and goodness exist at all?  Genesis says yes.  God created light and divided the waters from heaven and earth.  But it wasn’t until plants started growing that “God saw that it was good.”  Isn’t light good?  Isn’t water good?  What’s different about plants?  This is how they’re different.  They’re alive.  Life is good because it brings animate objects into the universe.  Why is this important? 

Only animate creatures can discover what is true or good or beautiful.  It takes highly developed intelligence to follow a line of reasoning leading to that discovery.  When “God saw that it was good” we have a starting point to guide our thinking.  Can anything false be good?  Can anything good be ugly?  Can anything beautiful be bad?  By saying something is “good” God also lays the foundation for truth and beauty.  But to find them it’s crucial to use intelligence the right way.  That’s why Aristotle says “intelligence is the highest possession we have in us.” (On Happiness, GB1)  Using intelligence the wrong way leads men to sometimes claim that bad is good, false is true, and ugly is really beautiful.  That’s also the reason Kant says intelligence should be guided by conscience.  He believes “conscience is the representative within us of the divine judgment seat.  It weighs our dispositions and actions in the scales of a law which is holy and pure; we cannot deceive it and we cannot escape it because, like the divine omnipresence, it is always with us.”  (Conscience, GB1)Conscience keeps intelligence pointed in the right direction.

But what is holy and what is pure?  What is Kant talking about?  How can we understand words such as “God ended his work which he had made; and he rested”?  How can God “rest” from work?  How do we understand that kind of language?  This is where Abram enters the world stage.  Abram may not be the smartest guy in Ur but he knows the difference between good and bad, what’s true and what’s not and he knows his wife Sarai is beautiful.  God can work with that.  So God speaks to Abram and Abram not only listens, he does what God tells him to do.  This is God’s command: “the Lord said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee.”  This is God’s promise: “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing… in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”  Abram can’t fully understand what God is trying to do, at least not rationally.  But by experience he can dimly see what God wants from him.  And that’s enough.  Abram is not Aristotle and doesn’t try to reason his way to God.  He learns about God by living out the command and believing God will keep his promise.  This is not rational knowledge; it is understanding through faith and experience.  God didn’t choose Abram because of his high IQ.  Not everyone can follow Aristotle’s or Kant’s intellectual reasoning about God.  But anyone can follow Abram’s path to God by faith.