Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, September 28, 2007

LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of the Universe - Book 2

In Book 1 Lucretius tells us he’s going to clue us in on the ultimate realities of heaven and earth. In Book 2 he proceeds to do just that. He wants to explain everything by using strictly physical explanations. Lucretius has the mind of a scientist and the soul of a poet and philosopher. He likes logic and science, but he also says that “this is the greatest joy of all: to possess a quiet sanctuary, stoutly fortified by the teaching of the wise, and to gaze down from that elevation on others wandering aimlessly in search of a way of life.” Lucretius feels that “All life is a struggle in the dark” and he wants to bring more light into the world.

What bothers Lucretius is that so many people wander around aimlessly. They’re afraid and superstitious. They make bad decisions. Many people search for the best way to live and turn to the gods for help, but Lucretius totally rejects the notion that there are gods who can help us. He believes that “it is essential to the very nature of deity that it should enjoy immortal existence in utter tranquility, aloof and detached from our affairs.” His notion of the universe runs directly opposite those who claim that there must be a God because everything holds together so intricately for our benefit. On the contrary, Lucretius says “…the universe was certainly not created for us by divine power: it is so full of imperfections.”

It’s true that the world is full of imperfections as far as humans are concerned. Think of chiggers. However Lucretius does admit that there’s a certain amount of order in the world. He just doesn’t think it’s orderly because of the gods. His theory is that everything that exists is composed of atoms. These atoms are eternal and indestructible bits of matter. But they can’t just randomly clump together to form everything we see around us. Lucretius gives a vivid image of why atoms can’t form at random: “If that were so, you would see monsters coming into being everywhere. Hybrid growths of man and beast would arise. Lofty branches would spread here and there from a living body.” Exactly why these things don’t happen is unclear. But Lucretius is clear that it’s certainly not the result of gods carefully planning things out. Somehow nature has always managed to regulate herself quite well without any outside help. As Lucretius puts it: “Nature is free and uncontrolled by proud masters and runs the universe by herself without the aid of the gods.”

As Lucretius sees the world it’s just in the nature of things to be the way they are. We never see men growing to be fifty feet tall or fully grown men only five inches tall, for example. Lucretius says “…things are bound by a set limit at either extreme, you must acknowledge a corresponding limit to the different forms of matter.” Who imposed those limits? It seems reasonable to many people that there must be some form of intelligence guiding this whole process. Lucretius will not concede this point but instead holds fast to his original theory - “Everything is composed of a mixture of elements” – and this theory must account for everything we can see and hear and smell and taste and touch. Then how, just to take one example, does Lucretius account for something as simple as the color blue? Are there “blue” atoms as well as white ones and red ones, etc? No, says Lucretius: “The primary particles of matter have no color whatsoever… atoms cannot possibly change color. For something must remain changeless, or everything would be absolutely annihilated.” Things are “blue” because the elements are mixed that way. There are only a few letters in the alphabet but an almost infinite number of words can be formed by various combinations of those letters. This kind of world makes sense to Lucretius. What he’s trying to do is make his point of view appealing not only to the scientists among us but also to the poets and philosophers of the world.

-- RDP

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Genesis: A Prologue

What do you do about a theory of life which you can neither prove nor disprove? Well, it depends. You can completely ignore it, as many people today do. Or, you can act "as if" the theory is true, and base all your actions and ethical judgments on a belief in an unprovable assertion. Is this rational? No, but it may be that irrational behavior is what separates humanity from mere programmable machines. Should all of human existence rest on a foundation of logic? Should reason be valued more than faith? If it were possible to be completely rational at all times, would that even be a desirable way to live? Does everything in our world require definitive proof or rational explanation? If so, are we not doomed to a life of bitter frustration and eventual despair?

For consider the many phenomena of human life that are beyond our control or understanding. Our own birth, our eventual death, random sickness, the catastrophes of nature, our parents, the country in which we were born, our genetic code. How can we begin to rationally explain such human feelings as joy, fear, sorrow, pride, hatred and love? What do any of these things have to do with logical proof? Genesis describes the origin of life, but there are two worlds in which we dwell? One is the natural world of physical bodies in motion governed by the laws of nature or nature's God. The other world is the sphere of human existence, both within ourselves (the realm of psychology) and the external political and social bonds which link us to one another.

We are driven by the urge to know more than we are capable of knowing, and perhaps more even than is good for us to know. Who would choose to know in advance the moment of his own death? If the world were to end tomorrow, would you prefer to have that information right now? If your husband or wife ever cheated on you, but you are blissfully unaware and happy, would you prefer to know the bitter truth. Do you really want to know what other people think of you? Perhaps it comes down to what you value the most. Happiness or truth? Science concerns itself with facts, not feelings. But what about religion? Is it the purpose of religion to make us happy? It doesn't seem so. Genesis certainly gives us reasons to fear the wrath of God. It is not very reassuring to be told that God loves us, but is quite willing to strike us dead if we prove unworthy of grace.

So why should we care one way or the other? Shouldn't we just go about our lives and believe whatever makes us happy at the moment? Is happiness (however you define it) the point of human existence? That does not appear to be the lesson of Genesis. What we learn from the Bible is that God places certain demands upon us that we must acknowledge. If we choose to ignore these demands, we suffer. But notice, please, that if we obey God's commands to the best of our ability, nevertheless, we must still, on occasion, suffer. That is what writers today refer to as "the human condition." A life filled with much suffering and pain, relieved by sporadic moments of joy. This fundamental principle is soon learned by every human who ever managed to escape the womb. Whether the world is God's creation or just random bits of matter floating in the void of space, our human condition remains the same. Whether or not we regard the world as "good" depends largely on the state of our personal circumstances. If we are born healthy and rich, and live in a free society, we probably see the world as a benevolent place. If we are born with spinal meningitis and are poor, or live our lives in a war ravaged country, we might see the world as one long prison sentence. The "goodness" of the world lies in the eye of the beholder.

Is the Bible trustworthy? Does it, in fact, give us vital information on which we ought to base our lives? Many people believe so. But they do not always agree on what parts of the Bible (or what versions of the Bible) give us this essential information that cannot be found elsewhere. So, we have differences in interpretation even among those who regard the Bible as a sacred text. How are these differences to be reconciled? One popular way is to proclaim that your interpretation is "divinely inspired," and thus incapable of error. But if one prophet says one thing and another says something quite different, which one do you trust?

Science exhibits some of the same problems when proposing new theories about nature. But, here final judgment rests on a foundation of verifiable data. Either a theory is supported by empirical evidence or it is not. Theories are modified or discarded as the facts emerge into the light of day. Thus, the world is reinvented (or recreated) as our experience and understanding of it grows. On the other hand, the biblical version of scientific progress is conveyed to us by the gift of revelation. As God chooses to reveal more of himself or his creation, so our knowledge expands. What we don't know remains hidden behind a veil of mystery.

Genesis is all about origins. It describes the beginning of the world and of our own place in the cosmos. It marks the point of departure from which the story of creation proceeds. As such, Genesis cannot tell us everything. It functions as the prologue to the narrative of human history. But it does set the stage for everything which follows. It describes the relationship between man and his Creator. As the remaining books of the Bible unfold, this relationship is further explored, illuminating the path which we (the human race) are intended to follow.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Bible: Genesis

Reading the first chapter of Genesis won’t tell you everything you need to know about the world. But it does provide three very important bits of information to help you evaluate anything else you’ll ever learn about it: (1) there was a beginning, (2) it was created by God, and (3) it is good. You’ll never be able to prove any of these three statements. But you can’t disprove them either – not by science, or theology, or philosophy. So what’s an ordinary person supposed to think? If I’m not a trained scientist or theologian or philosopher then how can I possibly make sense of those first few critical verses from the book of Genesis?

Let’s deal with the beginning question: was there really a beginning to the universe? Just because we’re not professionally trained scientists doesn’t mean we have to remain totally illiterate in the physical sciences. We can follow scientific discoveries and advances in popular newspapers and magazines and TV programs. Good writers make complex issues simple enough for amateurs to grasp the essential points. What I gather from current Big Bang theory is that there was a definite beginning to the universe. Cosmologists have even gotten the timing down to a fairly reliable approximation of its age. This theory tends to confirm that the book of Genesis is correct on this point. There really was a beginning. But scientists aren’t sure this “beginning” was the first time there’s been a Big Bang, or it it’s just the latest one in a series. There may have been other Big Bangs. How many? We don’t know. What’s on “the other side” of our own Big Bang is lost to us, with no possibility of recovery. Why? Because space and time were created at the same instant “our” Big Bang took place. All we as human beings can really know must be known within the context of our own space and time. Anything outside this space and time are beyond our comprehension and makes no sense at all to us. Maybe the Big Bang was a one-time deal – “let there be light, and there was light.” Or maybe the universe always existed and there have been countless numbers of Big Bangs before. We just don’t know.

For the same reason, we can never know for sure whether God created the universe. God must exist outside space and time, where the human mind cannot go. So science purposefully limits itself to things that can be explained on a strictly natural level. For many people it’s common sense that God created the universe – just look at all the beauty and order around us – there had to be a Maker of all this stuff. Other people say: nonsense. You’re just finding connections because that’s what you want to believe. The universe is a cold and unforgiving place. For non-believers, there’s no divine intelligence behind it all, much less a “God” who’s a loving Father figure with tender feelings toward human beings.

The same folks who believe in God also tend to believe that the universe is good. Why? For one thing, that’s what it says in the book of Genesis. For another thing, it makes them feel good, and non-believers can’t argue against what believers feel. Those who don’t believe in God have a valid question: what’s so “good” about the universe? There may be things you personally enjoy about the world. But that’s a self-centered assessment. If you were terribly sick or if tragedy suddenly struck, then you may not think the world is so good after all. The universe is what it is: neither good nor bad, just indifferent to human beings and human concerns.

Who’s right, who’s wrong? Nobody knows. Some people think the first chapters of Genesis hold the key to the ultimate meaning of life. Others think those same chapters keep the human race bogged down in a darkness of superstition. We may all begin “In the beginning” but we soon take off in totally different directions interpreting what it all means. Someday these problems may clear up for us, but in the meantime we see as through a glass, darkly.

-- RDP

Thursday, September 06, 2007

CHAUCER: The Canterbury Tales

Does Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales qualify as a “great book”? There are some pretty good arguments why it should not. The language is often plain. The stories are generally entertaining but sometimes more appropriate for a barroom than a set of great books. And some say that great works of art should not only entertain but also elevate the mind and the soul. Others say that a great work of art should have a certain unifying scheme underlying the whole structure, and they feel this is something lacking in the widely variable Canterbury Tales.

These are valid criticisms and must be taken seriously by Chaucer fans. The language is usually plain. The stories are sometimes bawdy rather than elevating. And what exactly is the unity behind this wild assortment of tales? While acknowledging that these may be reasonable drawbacks to the traditional notion of a great book there are still good reasons why I think it should be included in nearly anyone’s list.

First, the language is plain. But so (in translation) is Homer’s. The characters in Sophocles or Aeschylus aren’t given to flowery speeches. They say what they mean and get right to the point. Hobbes doesn’t beat around the bush and neither does Montaigne. These are all great writers who wrote great books. Not every great writer embroiders the language like a Shakespeare or a Milton. Few can. Few do.

Second, the stories are often commonplace and even bawdy. But it’s not Chaucer’s intention to write an epic poem. His characters aren’t of the same stature as Achilles in The Iliad or Aeneas in The Aeneid or Satan and Adam in Paradise Lost. Chaucer’s characters are ordinary people taking an ordinary journey and they pass the time by telling stories to one another. The storytellers are either noble or well-to-do (The Knight, The Franklin), or scheming liars (The Pardoner), or hypocrites (The Prioress), or drunkards (The Miller), or sexually active, if not promiscuous (The Wife of Bath). In short, these are the kind of people you would meet in any town on any given day in modern America, or in any country for that matter. They represent the good and the bad, the high and the low, the holy and the bawdy. And their stories tend to be just like them – only expanded versions. I believe this is where Chaucer’s genius lies and why the Canterbury Tales is not just a collection of random stories but a unified great book.

Plus, Chaucer is a master of human psychology. He knows our fears and our foibles; he knows what motivates us and makes us laugh. Example: the Wife of Bath exclaims “I hate him who tells me about my errors, /And so, God knows, do more of us than I.” Does this ring true? It does in my experience. Few people like to have their faults flaunted to their face. Or how about this one: “Let whoever can, win, for everything is for sale.” Remember, this notion comes from a very sexually active woman. Is this just the way she presents herself (“everything is for sale” and I’ll marry the highest bidder) or is she claiming that’s the way we all are (everyone has a price)? Reading between the lines yields some deep psychological insights for the astute reader. There are many referential points throughout these stories: honor and chastity, love and revenge and dozens of other human struggles that every generation faces. Whether or not stories about the daily struggles of ordinary people can rise to the level of a great book is debatable. Like religion and politics, Chaucer’s tales will be appealing to some and appalling to others. He appeals to me. Great book.

-- RDP