Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Montaigne almost single-handedly invented the essay format. This alone would make many people avoid reading him. That’s too bad, because Montaigne has a lot to say about a lot of things. Maybe just what many people need these days: the wise old uncle we never had. Unlike reading philosophy, Montaigne’s essays give insight into the man, not just the thinker. Reading Montaigne is to know what kind of man he is. No one else writes quite like him.

Losing a close friend early in life makes friendship a topic that Montaigne takes very seriously. His own (very) close friendship with a man named Etienne Boetie is the standard he uses for measuring all relationships. Montaigne goes through several types in order to show what real friendship is not. A parent and child cannot experience real friendship, for example. There’s too much at stake in the parent-child relationship, not to mention the age gap. According to Montaigne real friendship “cannot exist between them because of their too great inequality”. The blood kinship prohibits any voluntary relationship freely chosen by both parties. For the same reason Montaigne believes that real friendship cannot exist between siblings either. He says that “Father and son may be of entirely different dispositions, and brothers also.” (Maybe we should add sisters here too.) Montaigne points out that we’re born into a specific family with specific parents and specific brothers and sisters. We have no choice in the matter. But we do choose our friends. That makes a real difference. We can change friends whenever we want, but we’re stuck with mother and father and brother and sister forever. For better or for worse.

We also take spouses “for better or for worse” so would that count as one of Montaigne’s real friendships? Well, no. Montaigne doubts whether real friendship can ever exist between men and women, either inside or outside of marriage. Why? Two reasons. First, Montaigne believes that women just aren’t capable of sustaining the kind of friendship he has in mind. That’s blunt and maybe women have a different view. But there’s a second, perhaps stronger reason: sex. Montaigne thinks that even under the best of circumstances there will always be sexual tension between men and women that can’t translate into sincere friendship. He says that “in love there is nothing but a frantic desire” and friendship would destroy the attraction. Montaigne is emphatically not opposed to this kind of attraction. Quite the opposite. He appreciates a beautiful woman as well as sex and openly states that he prefers “for the bed, beauty before goodness.” That’s also the root of the reason why Montaigne thinks homosexuals can’t experience true friendship. Any sexual relationship cancels out the possibility of true friendship. According to Montaigne’s reckoning sexual desire is a burning flame. Friendship is a warm glow. And they are mutually exclusive.

So where does that leave us? Montaigne’s ideals for true friendship are high, perhaps impossibly high for most people. But Montaigne isn’t most people. His friendship with Boetie sets this standard: “I think it was some ordinance from heaven.” Normal people can’t compete with that. Ordinary friendships by Montaigne’s definition are mere “acquaintanceships and familiarities, formed by some chance or convenience.” That may be true, but many modern people are comfortable enough with normal friendships and may feel distinctly uncomfortable with the intensity of a friendship like the one proposed by Montaigne. He seems to be reaching out to us across time and saying: “if you were better people, you would have better relationships. Try harder.” A final exam question: Is this the wisdom of the ages speaking, or just an eccentric old uncle who hasn’t changed with the times and is now an embarrassment to the family?


Friday, February 09, 2007

Aeschylus: Reflections on Suffering, Law and Justice in "Prometheus Bound"

Aeschylus' play opens with Prometheus chained to a rock on a nameless cliff at the outer edge of the world, in Tartarus. Prometheus committed the ultimate sin of stealing fire from the immortal gods and giving it to human kind. For this act, Zeus condemned him to an eternity of suffering. The rest of the play considers whether Prometheus is unjustly punished for his deed. Like God at the murder of Christ, Zeus never appears in this play, but his messengers convey the idea that Zeus feels Prometheus betrayed him by giving fire to the human race, a species not worthy of such love. Although, no written law has been broken, the play suggests that fire was never intended for human use, and so Prometheus knew well the risk he was taking...

I have known all that you said: I knew,
I knew when I transgressed nor will deny it.
In helping man I brought my troubles on me;

Never does Prometheus deny having done the deed for which he is punished. Yet, like Job, he feels his punishment is too severe, that Zeus is not a just and noble god but a cruel, vindictive tyrant who abuses his power.

I can win no pity: pitiless is he
that thus chastises me, a spectacle
bringing dishonor on the name of Zeus...
I know that he is savage: and his justice
a thing he keeps by his own standard

Here, we might be tempted to respond, as Hermes does to Prometheus, that if you willfully break the law, you should expect to be punished. But in this case, does the punishment fit the crime, or is Zeus being petty and sadistic? It helps to recall that Zeus is not the father of Prometheus, whose real father was Kronos, the sovereign ruler of the Titans. Zeus and his immortal siblings subdued the Titans in a tremendous war for world supremacy, a war in which Prometheus was persuaded by his mother to join Zeus. Thus, according to Prometheus, Zeus only became master of the universe by a kind of coup d'état over Kronos. So, does that make Zeus an illegitimate ruler? And if Zeus is illegitimate, can he possibly be a just god?

Let us consider the crime of Prometheus: he stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind.

As soon as he ascended to the throne
that was his father's, straightway he assigned
to the several gods their several privileges
and portioned out the power, but to the unhappy
breed of mankind he gave no heed, intending
to blot the race out and create a new.
Against these plans none stood save I: I dared.
I rescued men from shattering destruction

So, to a weak and suffering race of people, Prometheus brought salvation. Not only did he bring fire, but he brought hope to a people that had none.

I caused mortals to cease foreseeing doom...
I placed in them blind hopes

In fact, he did more than this. He brought to them the skills of craft making, measuring, literacy, the domestication of animals, herbal medicine, brick making, the ability to interpret omens, and all manner of "subtle devices," such that "all arts that mortals have come from Prometheus." And for doing this he is,

...hated of all
the gods that enter Zeus's palace hall,
because of my excessive love for man.

Clearly, from the point of view of mankind, Prometheus is not a criminal but a hero, a savior of the human race. But other gods see things differently...

Now play the insolent; now, plunder the gods' privileges and give
them to creatures of a day. What drop of your sufferings can mortals
spare you?

It seems that in his act of rebellion Prometheus stands alone. Does that mean he is wrong? Are there times when it is noble to stand up to authority and resist injustice? If Zeus decides to annihilate mankind or simply ignore their miserable condition until they starve to death, is it unjust to oppose him? Where exactly does justice fit in here?

However Zeus came to power, he is now, de facto, ruler of the universe. No one, man or god, can withstand the lethal impact of his thunderbolts. But does superior power give anyone unlimited moral authority over life and death? If so, what does justice really mean? In the Roman Republic (from which we get our concept of law), justice is regarded as the proper administration of law, or the fair and equal treatment of individuals under the law. But when law becomes simply the will of a tyrant, then how are we to identify what is just or unjust? Without law, as Cicero would say, no man is free. What duty does the slave owe his master?

Worship him, pray; flatter whatever king
is king today; but I care less than nothing
for Zeus. Let him do what he likes,
let him be king for his short time: he shall not
be king for long.

Here, Prometheus gives the same advice as Odysseus might give to Agamemnon: to use flattery and deception when direct confrontation is not possible. Trickery might work sometimes, but is it right? Is lying to your sovereign acceptable, or is Prometheus just being spiteful?

One way to decide is to see how other characters in the play react to Prometheus's fate. Is he alone in his belief about Zeus, or do others feel the same way? At the beginning, when he is chaining Prometheus to the cliff, Hephaestus, the god of Tartarus, shows sympathy for Prometheus. He is not sure that gods should ever be imprisoned:

But for myself, I have not the heart to bind violently a god who is my kin
here on this wintry cliff. Yet there is constraint upon me to have the heart for just that, for it is a dangerous thing to treat the Father's words lightly.

To ensure that his orders are properly carried out, Zeus, acting like Tony Soprano, sends his enforcers, his muscle men Might and Violence. Yet these characters cannot be relied upon for any philosophical truth because they represent the power of Zeus, not his moral authority. Their duty is to carry out the will of their master. As Might says,

There is nothing without discomfort except the overlordship of the gods. For only Zeus is free.

In other words, no one is free but the one who rules over us all. So why talk about justice? In biblical terms, it is like Job or Abraham standing before God and asking why? Or, to put it another way, how can justice ever exist between unequal parties? Unless both parties adhere to a standard of justice, it cannot exist. Justice implies a relationship between one god and other gods, or between one man and other men. But there is no room for justice between dogs and cats, or between gods and men.

Since Prometheus is immortal, one might be argue that some type of justice does exist between Zeus and other gods. But this is not so. Zeus is much stronger than all other Olympian gods. In fact, he is so much stronger that no one even bothers to challenge his authority. This being the case, unless Zeus voluntarily limits his own power, there can be no justice (nor democracy) in Olympus. Zeus can be tricked (and often is by Hera), but he cannot be defeated in battle. Tyrants rule by intimidation, not by a show of hands. As Immanuel Kant would argue, moral authority is never derived from power alone but from reason. As long as Zeus remains all powerful, he cannot be a just ruler, for his judgment is indistinguishable from his will (desire). Unless the will is absolutely Good (as in the Hebrew god, Yahweh), then justice lies outside the province of any single creature. Unlike Yahweh, Zeus did not create himself nor did he create the world in which he lives. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that a power (or being) greater than Zeus must exist. Thus, it is to this greater power that we must look to find justice, for it cannot be found in Olympus.

To mortal man, justice stands apart from any particular form of government. We think we know the difference between justice and injustice because we believe we can tell the difference between good and evil. When Io appears before Prometheus and tells her sad story of harassment by Zeus and Hera, we all feel that an injustice has been done to her. Yet she, unlike Prometheus, did nothing to deserve her fate. But she suffers all the same. In a civilized society, one of the presumptions of justice is that guilty people are punished, and the innocent are left unharmed. So, even if one argues that Prometheus deserves his punishment, why is Io made to suffer?

This brings up the Greek idea of fate, or the law of necessity. Fate controls everything. Even Zeus cannot overpower fate. How can justice co-exist with necessity? If fate controls everything, what's the use of complaining about injustice? On the other hand, Prometheus has the gift of prophecy and can see what the future holds. He sees a time in the distant future when Zeus himself will be overcome by another, and his reign shall come to an end. Is Aeschylus saying that fate brings its own measure of justice? And if so, must fate be the ultimate judge of our actions? Of course, in the Christian universe, fate means the same thing as God's will, and so, in that sense, fate stands for the divine judgment that awaits us all. But in secular terms, fate just means whatever natural law brings about. In other words, the planets and stars above follow their own orbits, irrespective of our wishes. Is there justice between the sun and the moon? Maybe, if you believe that justice is what happens "when everything is in its place." But for mankind, justice, like religious faith, exists only as long as our belief in it continues to sustain us. Belief is what finally separates us from the rest of creation. We judge ourselves and, in doing so, we become fully human.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

AESCHYLUS: Prometheus Bound

Some literature seems to grow over time. I first read Prometheus Bound as a college student and understood immediately what it was all about. It was obviously an allegory about the older generation (aka Zeus) trying to muzzle the artistic and spiritual freedom of the younger generation (aka Prometheus). To me, Prometheus was a great romantic poet who posed a dire threat to a decrepit social order, so he had to be crushed. Prometheus was like Shelley or like, well, me. Zeus was an old fogey. He represented an established order, like T.S. Eliot or Richard Nixon or somebody. According to this reading, Prometheus is a scapegoat and suffers unjustly.

Years passed and a funny thing happened to the play: it grew. Several layers of meaning either sprouted out of it or glommed on to it by the passage of time. Now I was reading almost a totally different play. It wasn’t at all about youthful artistic freedom (whatever that means) or breaking the bonds of tyranny, it was really about spreading chaos and anarchy versus the maintenance of an established orderly society. Here we have a traitor (Prometheus) willing to literally overturn Heaven and Earth to get his own way. He boxes in the authorities (Zeus) until there’s no alternative left but to punish the rebellious (Prometheus) in order to maintain safety and stability for the rest of the gods. Reading it this way, Prometheus was guilty of treason against his own kindred and got exactly what was coming to him.

Which one of these readings is correct? Maybe both are too extreme. For example, why is Prometheus so sure that he’s right and Zeus is wrong? Is it worth risking civil war to find out? Who gets to decide these things? And Prometheus is certainly courageous to make a stand against blatant injustice. But is it courageous to make a stand against overwhelming force, or is that just plain foolish and stubborn? These are the kinds of questions a younger reader must grapple with. A middle aged reader faces different dilemmas: Zeus has to punish Prometheus in some way. Why? Because he (Zeus) was the new king and Prometheus challenged his authority. If he did nothing the other gods might rebel too. On the other hand, was Prometheus’ punishment too harsh? Is there a better way to handle youth without totally crushing its spirit? Would a better leader have been able to gain his objective without resorting to brute force?

Years ago a seed was planted in my mind: the image of an immortal god chained to a rock for 500 years. From that seed sprouted all kinds of questions that have evolved over time: What is the nature of authority? How can we tell when it’s being abused? What is the purpose of punishment? What happened to faith in the ancient Greek gods? Why did it die away? These questions are seeds from within the text and they sprouted from reading the text itself. But other issues glom on from outside the text, coming from my own experience of life. As time passes the play becomes more complex and its questions pop up in the oddest places. For instance, the other day I heard a clacking-clacking in the woods and discovered two young bucks butting antlers for dominance. Is this the way conflict is settled in the real world – through brute force? I suspect that one of these years, close to the end of life, I’ll set aside questions of authority and punishment and brute force. I’ll be more interested in a bigger question at that point: what is death like? And yet another reading of the play may be revealed: What would it be like, really, to be immortal? Would I want to be immortal if it meant spending the next 500 years chained to a rock? I’m not sure. But I am sure of one thing - Aeschylus knew the important questions in life. And he knew how to write good plays too, plays that tend to grow along with you.

-- RDP

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is by far the oldest work we’ve read in the Great Books program. It was as remote in time from Augustus Caesar as Caesar is remote from us. It even pre-dates the call of Abram by Yahweh. The story of Gilgamesh has a long ago and far away tone. And yet, for all its remoteness in time and space and language, the story has a distinctly “western” feel to it. Of course many of the ideas that we’ve come to embrace as westerners (monotheism, democracy, scientific inquiry for example) aren’t yet fully developed. That’s what makes it seem so long ago and far away. But the seeds of later western thought are already present in this long poem. The roots of the West are deeply embedded in Mesopotamian culture by 2000 B.C.

There are many examples connecting the story with western culture. The Epic of Gilgamesh contains a flood narrative, a couple of temptation scenes, a snake that steals the life-giving plant, interpretations of dreams and other stories that echo in the pages of Genesis, Exodus and other books of the Old Testament. But American culture also echoes some of the themes from Gilgamesh. Modern readers contemplating the friendship and adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu see the precursors of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When we read about Enkidu in the wilderness, we glimpse the western fascination for characters like Tarzan or the castaway Robinson Crusoe or the mountain man Jeremiah Johnson. When we read about Gilgamesh’s journey to the underworld we are reminded of the travels and adventures of Odysseus. And the slaying of the monster Humbaba brings the medieval legend of Beowulf to mind. So, many western archetypes are already present in this earliest of epic poems. We recognize them as we might recognize the photograph of some distant relative. They’re pale versions from the past being presented to us now in translation, somewhat like a shadow play or through a glass, darkly.

But even though it’s a story from 4000 years ago, modern readers can still identify with both the characters and the scenes. Gilgamesh, for example, is a city boy from Uruk. Uruk is a word that may look foreign to our eyes and sound foreign to our ears, but listen to a description of the city: “Enter Uruk…where costumes bright are worn, where it is always time to party, where merry music never fades, where graceful girls do ever play with toys and boys and men; for in the night these revelers do their best to rule the town.” Of course this is a translation meant to make sense to modern readers, but the message is clear in any language: Uruk is a party town (kind of like Las Vegas) and Gilgamesh is perfectly at home there. Enkidu, on the other hand, is a country boy, the innocent rural dweller minding his own business and living in harmony with nature. Until one of the Uruk girls gets to him. Using sex as a lure, Shamhat persuades Enkidu to leave his country-bumpkin ways behind and come live in Uruk. That’s where Enkidu meets Gilgamesh and that’s when the adventures begin. These weren’t ordinary men. Men like these were probably the ones spoken of in Genesis when it says “There were giants in the earth in those days…mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” Gilgamesh and Enkidu became for Sumerian culture what King Arthur and Sir Lancelot later became for English-speaking culture – legendary heroes, perhaps real men once, but now forever lost in the mists of time.

However, to recommend this book merely as a prelude to the rise of western civilization would be a great disservice. It touches on most of the basic issues human beings face throughout all ages: love, sex, death, friendship, government, and nature in very few pages. For this reason alone, Gilgamesh is a masterpiece in its own right.

-- RDP