Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Thursday, March 29, 2007

TOQUEVILLE: Democracy in America

What sort of people are Americans? It’s hard to say. After all there are more than three hundred million of us. How can that many people be neatly summarized in a phrase or two? On the other hand can anyone seriously argue that the English aren’t somehow fundamentally different from the French? Not to mention the Russians? There’s something distinctly characteristic about each of them. Despite individual quirks of individual citizens living within each country there is definitely something that stands out collectively to make England what it is, France what it is, and Russia what it is. The food, architecture and general outlook of the people is distinctly different in each country. So what is it that makes Americans what they are – distinctly different from the English or the French or the Russians?

This is one of the questions Tocqueville sets out to answer in Democracy in America. Whether or not he is successful is a question historians can debate amongst themselves. I’m convinced that Tocqueville is remarkably perceptive in assessing the general American character. Two words summarize his overall judgment: politics and business. Some folks might argue that entertainment and sports are also two favorite American pursuits but those two arenas have been nearly consumed by politics and business. In 2005 Americans spent over 50 billion dollars on sporting goods. In 2006 Americans spent almost 10 billion dollars on movie tickets alone. Sports and entertainment are big business and where there’s money to be made politics can’t be far behind. Example: Congress getting involved in the latest scandals involving steroid use in amateur and professional athletics. Example: Congress threatening to pass legislation to make movie ratings mandatory if the film industry didn’t clean up its act on its own.

Tocqueville states outright that “I do not regard the American Constitution as the best, or as the only one, that a democratic people may establish.” But he thinks the constitution of the United States is almost perfectly adapted for the energies and the interests of the American people. Tocqueville admits that “Democracy does not confer the most skillful kind of government upon the people…” but that’s ok with Americans because what American-style democracy does confer is “an all-pervading and restless activity…” It’s this restless activity which keeps the economy going, which in turn fuels the heated political climate of the country, which promises in return to keep the economy strong, and so on in an endless cycle. Tocqueville points out that “the country that exerts itself so strenuously to promote its welfare is generally more wealthy and more prosperous than the country that appears to be so contented with its lot.” That makes a lot of sense to no-nonsense Americans. So the goal to promote the general welfare is built right into the Constitution of the United States. It’s one of the cherished notions of American citizens that they have a constitutional right to get rich.

For better or for worse this is the climate into which Americans are born. We’re nurtured by it and we thrive in it. We live within the context of a hyperactive community of intense participation. We want to keep up with what’s going on around us. Tocqueville makes the observation that “if an American were condemned to confine his activity to his own affairs, he would be robbed of one half of his existence.” In short, as long as Americans flourish there’ll be a market for People magazine, political action committees and shopping malls. And every summer, baseball. Welcome to America.

-- RDP

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

WHITMAN: Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

A small boy goes down to the seashore and notices a couple of birds nesting. He listens to them sing happily together. Then one day the female bird is gone. All summer the male bird continues to sing, alone, because his mate never returns. When the boy grows up he writes a poem about the experience he’d had as a child. That’s the gist of this whole poem. But to tell the story in straightforward prose drains all the poetry from it. This is a poem, not an essay or a newspaper account or a scientific treatise. Therefore it has its own sort of internal world-view. Either it works or it doesn’t. Whatever meaning the reader gets out of the poem comes from one of two readings: either you grant Whitman’s concept of a love-sick bird as something worthy of poetry because it’s beautifully sad, or you dismiss it as implausible if not downright ridiculous.

There’s something about Whitman’s poetry that especially appeals to some readers. The Whitman lovers tend to like his confident attitude. They like the portrayal of the natural world that gives a human resonance. They like his free and easy style of writing. They like his autobiographical and personal tone. The Whitman haters dislike him for precisely the same reasons. Same material, different interpretation. The Whitman haters tend to see foolish arrogance rather than confidence. Whitman’s portrayal of the natural world sometimes seems too mawkish and doesn’t accurately reflect the real truths of nature. This poem for example. Whitman’s free and easy style of writing is really just a lack of proper focus and discipline. And there’s much too much personal information packed into the poetry for these readers to fully appreciate the poem itself. It’s more like watching Whitman admire himself in a mirror. Who cares?

All those factors are present in this poem. And readers would separate very early on into the Whitman lovers (WL’s) and the Whitman haters (WH’s). The title itself will start readers off on the right or the wrong foot. “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking…” WL: Isn’t that a beautiful phrase? WH: Yes, but what’s it supposed to mean? Then Whitman proceeds to begin three straight lines with “Out of the…cradle/mockingbird’s throat/Ninth-month midnight…” WL: Doesn’t the repetition of the lines give it a poetic feel? WH: Yes, but how can a cradle rock endlessly? Is somebody pushing it or something? Then, after one line of going “Over the sterile sands…” Whitman uses a rhetorical device that begins with “Down from…Up from…Out from” and then eight straight lines begin with the word “From….” WL: Don’t you love the lines starting over and over? It’s like waves coming in to the shore. WH: Maybe that’s what’s rocking that cradle so endlessly. When readers come to the bird part of the story the division gets even wider. “Loud I call to you, my love.” WH: Isn’t that sad? So sad? WL: It’s a bird. Birds don’t sing sad songs. They sing for all kinds of reasons, but not for pensive longing like some 19th century Romantic poet. Do they?

And so on. Whitman definitely struck a chord in the American poetic tradition. The question is: was that a good thing, or a bad thing? WL: Oh, a wonderful thing. He made confessional poetry possible. WH: Are you kidding? That kind of stuff has ruined American poetry. And so on and so on. The two views will never have a meeting of the minds. WL: Love and birds go beautifully together. Lovebirds. WH: Are you kidding me? So does bird and brain.


Friday, March 16, 2007


Over time some works tend to grow along with you. They contain more wisdom than you thought when you first read them. Shakespeare’s plays for example. Others tend to diminish over time and contain less wisdom than you thought. Emerson’s essay on “Self-Reliance” falls into this category. When I first read “Self-Reliance” in college I took Emerson’s aphorisms to be pearls of wisdom that one could use as a foundation to build a personal philosophy of life. Years later, reading the essay with more experienced eyes, many of those aphorisms turned out not to be pearls at all, but sometimes foolish and maybe even dangerous if taken literally by impressionable young people.

For one thing Emerson’s style is built on personal conjecture that sometimes turns out to be sheer nonsense. He states an opinion as if it was rock solid truth but many of his statements make more sense if you just rephrase them so they proclaim the exact opposite. For example, Emerson says “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius.” What if someone said instead “that’s not genius, that’s lunacy”? What you truly believe in your own heart may, in fact, be true for all men. But it wouldn’t be true if your heart harbored the beliefs of, say, a sociopath. Emerson says “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts…” But wouldn’t it be more truthful if we said that in most works of genius we recognize things we’d never have dreamed of in a million years? Emerson says “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Perhaps. But it might be the case that society everywhere is more of a cooperative effort to promote the well-being of its citizens. Otherwise, what’s the point of living in a civilized social order?

These are prime examples of Emersonian wisdom which on closer inspection aren’t exactly pearls of wisdom. And one can point to other examples that show why the essay might be dangerous in the wrong hands. Emerson believes that “The nonchalance of boys who…would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature.” This is healthy? And how would most people react if a loved one came home one evening and announced “O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearance hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s…I must be myself…”? This is actually fairly common among college sophomores studying Philosophy 101 but it’s a less desirable trait in a grown man. According to Emerson, “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” According to others, whoso would be a man must get a job and support himself and his family. Would Emerson consider it too conformist to hold down full-time employment?

Having said all that, Emerson does make some pretty good points in this essay. I heartily endorse his love of home: “let us not rove; let us sit at home...the soul is not a traveler; the wise man stays at home…Traveling is a fool’s paradise…our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.” These are pearls of wisdom. So is this one: “Thy lot or portion of life,” said the Caliph Ali, “is seeking after thee; therefore be at rest from seeking after it.” Unfortunately, the pearls are few and far between. And the few that we do find are hidden among numerous rocks and shoals of bad advice and foolish principles. Most college students and all immature readers should steer clear.

-- RDP

Thursday, March 15, 2007


Pascal ranks as one of the world’s truly great intellects. He was always busy doing things like inventing the world’s first known mechanical calculating machine, discovering the science of hydrostatics, and formulating the mathematical principles of probability theory. So what does a man like that have to say to ordinary people living ordinary lives? Surprisingly humble but sound wisdom: “…the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room…because they do not enjoy staying at home.” That sounds like something parents or grandparents might say, but it sounds true. For all his scientific achievements Pascal is still a human being and knows very well what it is that human beings really want – they want to be happy. He puts it this way: “All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they may employ, they all strive toward this goal.”

If there are no exceptions, then we too are included. We may think that Pascal’s idea of happiness would surely be different from ours. Would the Einstein of his age find happiness the same way we do? Actually the answer is yes. For all the hustle and bustle people really just want to relax and be comfortable. St. Augustine once said that the heart is restless until it finds its rest in God. Pascal agrees. Pascal’s most famous observation is “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” This seems a little strange coming from such a rational man. But Pascal doesn’t think we’ll find our happiness in God via the intellect. He explicitly states that “It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is…” Even though Pascal spent his life in the rational realm of mathematics and science, in the end he turns to faith for solace. He believes true happiness comes from a heart turned toward God. He also says that “Telling a man to rest is the same as telling him to live happily.” Pascal equates staying at home, resting, and being content with happiness. Since there’s no permanent rest or home or happiness in this life we should direct our thoughts and efforts toward heaven.

How do we do that? First we need to know who we are in this world and where we belong in the state of nature. Pascal asks “…what is man in nature? A nothing compared to the infinite, a whole compared to the nothing, a middle point between all and nothing…Let us then realize our limitations. We are something and we are not everything.” Since we’re not all good and not all bad but in constant flux somewhere in between, Pascal thinks it would be wise to “…seek neither assurance nor stability…once that is clearly understood, I think that each of us can stay quietly in the state in which nature has placed him.” Very well then, once we realize our true place in nature we’ll give up the search for any permanent happiness this side of heaven. However, that doesn’t mean we should give up all worldly intellectual pursuits. Quite the contrary. Pascal affirms that “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed…Thus all our dignity consists in thought…Let us then strive to think well…” If we can think clearly then we’ll acknowledge that our greatest chance for permanent happiness lies beyond this world. It can only be found in eternity with God.

But does God really exist? Given the limitations of mortal creatures can we ever be absolutely certain, one way or another? Unfortunately no. It’s the most important question we’ll ever ask and yet even a mind as great as Pascal’s can’t give a definite answer. It’s all one big gamble. But even though Pascal can’t prove that God exists, he thinks he can improve the odds we face when gambling in life’s greatest casino challenge: “How will you wager…you must wager. There is no choice…if you win, you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then; wager that he does exist.” And if we’re right the payoff is eternal happiness.


Monday, March 05, 2007

Montaigne: OF SOLITUDE

Look up the word “solitude” in Webster’s dictionary and you’ll find this definition: Solitude – (Noun) - 1. A state of social isolation. 2. A solitary place. 3. A disposition toward being alone. Read Montaigne’s essay “Of Solitude” and you’ll get a different meaning. What Montaigne has in mind isn’t so much what we think of as solitude (being alone), but rather being comfortable with one’s self in a state of retirement. This is an important topic for the multitude of baby boomers closing in on 55 or 60. What should they do? They would do well to consult Montaigne’s essay before giving notice to their employers. Montaigne may not have known about 401(k)’s or Medicare plans, but he’s well versed in human psychology and has sound advice for those thinking about leaving the rat race behind.

To start with, Montaigne says that “it is not enough to have gotten away from the crowd, it is not enough to move; we must get away from the gregarious instincts that are inside us, we must sequester and repossess ourselves…we take our chains along with us; our freedom is not complete; we still turn our eyes to what we have left behind…” Just because we retire doesn’t mean we’ll change. Even if we move to a retirement community in Florida or Arizona, we take our life-long habits with us. What Montaigne has in mind isn’t just a change of address or climate, but a complete overhaul of our way of living. Old habits must be overcome and new ones take their place if we’re to find the comfort we seek. That’s easier said than done.

It wouldn’t be too soon to begin planning right now, whatever stage of life you’re in. According to Montaigne, each stage of life has its own unique function. He draws this conclusion from his own extensive reading of the classics: “Socrates says that the young should get instruction; that grown men should practice doing good; and that old men should withdraw from all civil and military occupations and live at their own discretion, without being tied down to any fixed office.” Montaigne’s essay is focused primarily on the last stage of life. He wants to know: how is the best way to live the years I have remaining? (For the record, Montaigne inherited his father’s extensive estate at 38, retired at 39, and died age 59.)

In short, his advice is this: “We have lived enough for others; let us live at least this remaining bit of life for ourselves. Let us bring back our thoughts and plans to ourselves and our well-being. It is no small matter to arrange our retirement securely…” So far, so good. Every good employer can help plan for a secure retirement. But no employer can tell you the best way to spend your retirement years. Only you can make that decision. And beware getting it wrong. An ancient maxim is Know Thyself, and Montaigne seems to know himself pretty well. He says “The occupation we must choose for such a life must be neither laborious nor annoying…This depends on each man’s particular taste: mine is not at all adaptable to household management.” Montaigne is sure that he doesn’t want to spend his retirement years doing yard work.

So what should we do then? Montaigne doesn’t prescribe any ultimate, guaranteed best way to spend your golden years. He knows what he wants to do, but he only gives general advice for the rest of us: “We must reserve only so much business and occupation as we need to keep us in trim and protect ourselves from the inconveniences that the other extreme, slack and sluggish idleness, brings in its train.” In other words, kick back and relax, but don’t get so relaxed that the plumbing backs up and the bills go unpaid. If you wanted those kinds of headaches, you may as well have kept on working. The whole point of retirement, as far as Montaigne is concerned, is so folks can have leisure time to prepare to go softly into that good night. We should use our retirement years wisely because there may be a long, long road ahead.

-- RDP