Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, November 26, 2007

John Stuart Mill – On Liberty

Chapter 2 “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion”

Reading the second chapter of Mill’s ideas on liberty is certainly thought-provoking and worth discussing in greater depth. What would King Solomon have made of Mill? In the book of Ecclesiastes we read Solomon’s view of the world: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Mill’s concept of the duty of man is quite different. Mill’s world is one where everyone speaks his own piece of mind and no one is under compulsion – not even from God, and certainly not from society. In Mill’s world we find that “If all mankind, minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” This is a lofty goal. Is it attainable? Is it even desirable? That all depends on your own world view.

John Stuart Mill and King Solomon were two of the smartest guys that ever lived. Yet their conclusions about the really important things in life are dramatically different. How can this be? How can such intelligent men be so far apart? For one thing they seem to be writing for different purposes. In the book of Ecclesiastes King Solomon is writing for individual improvement. His advice is highly personal. So the way he tells his story is also highly personal. Solomon candidly admits that he’s tried just about everything and knows from experience what he’s talking about. He speaks from personal experience when he says that there’s no end to thinking. It just wears us out. In the long run the best way to live is to trust in God and be satisfied with your place in the world. Solomon writes from the heart, to the heart.

Mill, on the other hand, is writing to persuade the reader’s mind. His writing is highly impersonal and seeks the improvement of society as a whole. For Mill the most important thing is not to put your trust in God but to question everything and to evaluate all your beliefs and opinions. Mill says that “No one can be a great thinker who does not recognize, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead.” The conclusions of some intellects may lead them away from traditional concepts of God, at least the way that God is generally understood by the society we live in. Mill says, in effect, so be it.

King Solomon warns that too much thinking isn’t good for us. We should learn to conform our ways to God’s ways. We can only get there by living right, not by thinking about it. God’s ways are much higher than the human mind can comprehend. We have to trust that God knows more than we do. But Mill believes that thinking for ourselves is the only way we can truly improve either ourselves or society. We should never stop seeking to improve our minds. We should not accept on blind faith what traditional religion teaches. The best society is one which allows everyone to improve their own minds in their own unique ways. This will lead some people to an entirely different philosophy of life than the one preached by Solomon.

Given these two outlooks it’s really no surprise that these two great writers should end up so far apart. They started far apart. They’re classic representations of two views of life that are still with us today and express themselves in our own political and social beliefs. Mill says that “it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life…” What matters most to King Solomon is order and stability. What matters most to Mill is progress and reform. What matters most to Americans is…well, order and progress, stability and reform. At the same time. Now.
-- RDP

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lucretius: Book 6

Lucretius ends his work with the same goal he had when he started Book 1: “I will set out to discourse to you the ultimate realities of heaven and the gods.” And so he does. The ultimate reality to Lucretius is one which has been darkened by the veil of irrational superstition. What he wants to do is shed light into the darkened corners of men’s souls. He states once again in Book 6 – word for word – an exact duplication of a statement he made earlier in Book 3: “This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature.”

Throughout the entire book Lucretius has been trying to explain the nature of the universe as a materialistic composition of atoms, more atoms, and nothing but atoms. Under this theory there’s no room for gods to be meddling in human affairs. Why should they? If the gods exist at all they are surely at peace. It’s human beings that do all the fretting and worrying. They try to be optimistic about the future and hope for the best, but somehow “…the poor creatures are plunged back into their old superstitions and saddle themselves with cruel masters whom they believe to be all-powerful. All this because they do not know what can be and what cannot…”

By using our minds we can learn about the things that can be and those that cannot be. We certainly have many things to fear in nature – being struck by lightning, drowning in a flood, catching some deadly virus – but there are many things Lucretius believes we’re needlessly afraid of – ghosts, hell, the wrath of the gods. And he seeks to dispel these fears by giving rational explanations for some of nature’s most frightening phenomena - thunder, lightning, the formation of storm clouds, rain, earthquakes, why the sea doesn’t get bigger and flood the world, how volcanoes work, and why diseases come about. The gods don’t cause these things to happen as punishments for our sins – they happen because atoms react in certain ways. To his credit, Lucretius does a remarkable job of taking a simple atomic theory and using it to ease our minds about some of our most worrisome threats.

Still, there’s a certain amount of uneasiness left over when the reader finishes the last page of “On the Nature of the Universe.” There are many, many metaphysical problems that are more worrisome than natural disasters or plagues. Lucretius is not helpful at all in alleviating these problems or answering the nagging questions of the soul. He tries. But even after all the careful explaining away of the nature of things many readers will still feel a simple but compelling question tugging at their souls – all this stuff about atoms is well and good, but what about me? What about this one unique creation in the universe that just happens to be the person that I am? Lucretius responds: “You must remember that the universe is fathomless and reflect how minute a part of the whole is one world – an infinitesimal fraction, less in proportion than one man compared to the whole earth. If you look squarely at this fact and keep it clearly before your eyes, many things will cease to strike you as miraculous.”

I am trying to look squarely at this fact and keep it clearly before my eyes. But it still seems miraculous to me that things exist at all. Why do atoms go through all this bother? According to Lucretius they have no choice. They’re atoms. They do what atoms do. They clump together to form things like earthworms and ice crystals and galaxies. Then they un-clump and eventually form something else. Sometimes they even re-clump together to form beings that can read and write and think about what it means to share a universe with earthworms and ice crystals and galaxies. They can ask questions like: what is the meaning of all this? Or, to put it another way, what is the nature of the universe?

--- RDP