Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Emperor's Handbook – A Commentary (Book 2)

First thing every morning, tell yourself today I am going to meet a busybody, an ingrate, a bully, a liar, a schemer, and a boor. Ignorance of good and evil has made them what they are. But I know that the good is by nature beautiful and the bad ugly, and I know that these wrong-doers are by nature my brothers, not by blood or breeding, but by being similarly endowed with reason and sharing in the divine. None of them can harm me, for none can force me to do wrong against my will, and I cannot be angry with a brother or resent him, for we were born into this world to work together like the feet, hands, eyelids, and upper and lower rows of teeth. To work against one another is contrary to nature, and what could be more like working against someone than resenting or abandoning him?

First of all, notice that Aurelius sees humanity for what it is, warts and all. There is no naive idealism here. Some people are rotten and that's just the way it is. So why are these people bad? Because they are ignorant of the truth. Not because they are poor or inherently blood thirsty, but because they lack knowledge of good and evil. And since good is by nature beautiful, we might assume that some people are bad because they lack an appreciation for beauty, just as other people might be color blind or lack the ability to hear certain frequencies. But instead of condemning "wrong-doers" as a blight upon the world, Aurelius says they are our brothers for they are endowed with reason and share in the divine. This beneficent attitude is surprising coming from a Roman emperor who is busy suppressing the Christian religion. Nevertheless, he makes a practical observation that wrong-doers cannot force me to do wrong against my will. From this, we can infer two things: that knowledge is an antidote to wrong-doing; that we control our own will, and cannot be forced to act against it. Aurelius makes another interesting point: that Romans (and perhaps, by extension, all of humanity) should get along with one another because to work against one another is contrary to nature. Again, this echoes the sentiment expressed by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount: for if you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.

Again, these thoughts were written while Aurelius was campaigning to suppress the Germanic tribes on the river Gran, so it is wrong to think he was advocating peace and love to all men. He wasn't. But, unlike some evangelical prophets, he did suggest that we not abandon our neighbors to moral oblivion just because they are disagreeable.

What am I but a little flesh, a little breath, and the thinking part that rules the whole? Forget your books! They aren't any part of you. And as someone who is dying, you should disregard the flesh as well: it is nothing but blood and bones and a network of muscle tissues, nerves, and arteries. Breath! What is that? A puff of wind that is never the same, being sucked in one moment and blown out the next. That leaves the thinking part, the part meant to rule. Now that you are old, it is time you stopped allowing it to be enslaved, jerked about by every selfish whim, grumbling at its present lot one moment and bemoaning the future the next.

Aurelius believes the mind should rule over the body. In fact, as odd as it sounds, the only part of you which is real is the mind. The body is simply a container for the mind and that other thing which he calls "breath," an animating force giving life to the mind and body. But who we are, in other words, the thing which regulates our entire character and will (i.e., our conscience), is derived from that "thinking part which rules the whole." So, if the body is injured, it will not alter who we are; yet when the mind is destroyed we are completely lost. Thus, mind controls will, just as will controls the movements of our body. It sounds simple. Just make up your mind to do the right thing, and your body will follow. Yet, almost anyone can see this does not always happen. But it does happen more frequently if the mind is composed and not beset with trivialities. Aurelius is nobody's fool. He knows that human behavior is complicated and not everyone does what he is supposed to do. But if our mind rules over us, what happens if the mind is disoriented and filled with a lot of foolish nonsense? Maybe something else is needed to keep us on the right track.

So what's the point of it all? Simply this. You embarked; you sailed; you landed. Now disembark! If it is to start a new life, you will find the gods there too. If it is to lose all consciousness, you will be liberated from the tyranny of pleasure and pain and from your bondage to an earthly shell that is vastly inferior to the master contained in it. For the spirit is intelligent and godlike whereas the body is blood and dust.

The big fear which dominates human life is the question of what happens to us after death. Aurelius seems immune from this worry. He has no particular interest in answering that question. Life in the here and now is all that he cares about. He believes that life in the next world, if there is one, will take care of itself. Either you go on or you do not. If there is no second life, then why spend time worrying over it? And if there is a continuation after death, the gods will be there to guide us. Seems pretty straight forward. So what's the problem? Note, please, that Aurelius has no concept of hell. No idea of eternal torment or the sword of Damocles hanging over our head. The Christian call to salvation relies on the threat of the burning fires of hell: repent or prepare to meet your doom. Aurelius has a more benign view of things. He has no desire for bodily resurrection because the body is a kind of prison or tomb, vastly inferior to the master contained in it. Thus, if anything endures beyond death it should be our mind which is the only thing worth preserving. Note, also, the complete absence of "soul" in this account. Soul should not be confused with Aurelius' idea of spirit which is simply the life force which animates us. There is no provision for souls in his philosophy. Nothing to be damned or saved for eternity. The focus is on here and now. In that sense, like the sayings of Confucius, it is an activist philosophy which promotes good behavior, not a speculative philosophy like Hegel or Bergson.

Do not waste the rest of your life speculating about others in ways that are not to your mutual advantage...Purge your mind of all aimless and idle thoughts, especially those that pry into the affairs of others or wish them ill...This sort of man determined to be counted among the best in the pursuit of virtue, is a veritable priest and minister of the gods, especially of the god that dwells within him and keeps him untainted by pleasure, unharmed by pain, safe from any wrong, innocent of all evil, a mighty warrior in the greatest warfare of all—the struggle against passion's dominion.

You can't help but find a bit of Emerson or Thoreau in these words. Here, Aurelius preaches the value of self-reliance and the need for control over one's passions. It reminds us of Aristotle's high regard for moderation in life. It could easily pass for a contemporary guide to self-mastery:

Does the news bother you? Do you worry about things out of your control? Then take the time to concentrate your mind in the acquisition of some new and useful knowledge and stop it from flitting about. By the same token, guard against making the mistake of those who keep themselves so busy trying to gain control that they wear themselves out and lose their sense of direction, having no purpose to guide their actions or even their thoughts.

It is hard to believe these words were not written today by someone whose books appear on the "self-help' aisle at your local bookstore. When you first read The Meditations, the advice does not seem profound or even slightly original. But when you consider that it comes from a man writing 1,800 years ago, and whose main occupation was governing the Roman empire, it deserves a second look. Anyone searching for some clarity on how to cope with the stress and moral fragmentation of modern life need look no further. What seems to be missing for many people today is a "purpose to guide their actions or even their thoughts." And what is the purpose that Aurelius is offering? In short, it is the cultivation of virtue. And by "virtue," I mean the classical sense of moral and political grace, or rectitude. Another way of saying it is the development of character, an attitude toward life that includes a larger perspective than the Epicurean pursuit of pleasure. It implies self-awareness but not self-obsession. For Aurelius, a Roman citizen will always find himself at the center of a larger, public arena in which the revelation of his duty must be fulfilled. In one sense, Aurelius found what religion was unable to provide: a means of locating one's self in a violent, uncertain world. You might say that he offers a secular equivalent to the quest for God.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 2)

What kind of philosopher advises people to “throw away your books” and “cast away the thirst after books”? It’s the same philosopher who says that “those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.” And it’s also the same philosopher who says “What then can guide a man? One thing and only one, philosophy.” Marcus Aurelius is that philosopher. What does he mean by these statements? Surely he doesn’t believe that reading is a bad thing. Socrates always spoke out his philosophy and never wrote a book. But we don’t have the advantage of having a man like Socrates to teach us directly. I don’t think Marcus Aurelius did either. So we do the best we can – we read about the conversations Socrates had with his pupils, as recorded (or invented) by Plato. It’s not as effective as being there in person or, better yet, being interrogated by Socrates himself. But surely it’s better than not knowing Socrates at all. I think what Aurelius is driving at is that you can’t learn about life from reading it in a book. You have to live it. Philosophy is only a tool. It can guide a man only insofar as it persuades him to act in one way and not another. Otherwise philosophy is just words on a page.

In order to know what we’re doing we need to be able to understand how our minds work. What Aurelius may ultimately be driving at here is that we have the power to shape our own minds. But I also think he’s saying that at first we should be content to just observe. Before we can run we have to learn how to walk. By quietly observing how our minds work we’ll be much more capable of shaping them when the time comes. This kind of observation and understanding apparently has a sort of calming effect on the personality. Aurelius believes it should be our goal to “live a life that flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods.” If we can achieve a high level of concentration and peacefulness we will obtain true happiness. The Zen Buddhist tradition calls this state of mind “satori.” But somehow I don’t see Aurelius as a Zen Buddhist monk and I can’t envision him ever converting into one either, even if he knew what it was. Aurelius is much too western in his outlook. His goal isn’t to obtain satori. His goal is to “every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what you have in hand with perfect and simple dignity…” There would be certain Stoic elements shared in common with his brother Zen Buddhist monk – such as “do what you have in hand with perfect and simple dignity” – but make no mistake, Aurelius has one main desire: to think steadily as a Roman. This is no Zen Buddhist monk talking.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a philosophy that shares some traits in common with Zen Buddhism: for example, do the task at hand with simple dignity; meditate; “see the breath also, what kind of a thing it is”; and do not fear death but understand what kind of a thing it is too. In other ways Stoic philosophy is far removed from Buddhist principles. Aurelius doesn’t want to withdraw from the world. He wants to take an active role in the affairs of the state. However, that activity must be a controlled action directed first by a reasonable and calm mind. Aurelius warns us not to become “triflers who have wearied themselves in life by their activity and yet have no object to which to direct every movement and thought.” These are the kind of people who have no focus and therefore their lives have no purpose. The Buddhist monk would also disapprove of these rootless people. So the real disagreement between the Buddhist monk and the emperor Aurelius is where to put down roots. The real dispute between them is this: to what cause should we attach ourselves? To nothing, the monk would answer. To my duty as a Roman, would be the answer of Aurelius.

Friday, June 13, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 1)

Reading Marcus Aurelius is almost like listening to him speak. He’s direct and to the point and makes an impression right from the start: Mr. Aurelius is a no-nonsense kind of guy. He’s thankful for his upbringing and gives full credit for his own character formation to his family and teachers. He tells us that he was lucky because “I didn’t have to waste my time in the public schools but had good tutors at home instead and learned that one cannot spend too much money on such things.” Aurelius would probably have been a big proponent of the Great Books Program. But he doesn’t come off as a bookish sort of man. His tutor taught him “to love hard work, to limit my desires, to rely on myself, to keep my nose out of other people’s affairs, and to turn a deaf ear to gossip.” Those aren’t the kinds of things one gets from reading books. Aurelius was fortunate to have a good family, good teachers, and good friends. Even the gods come in for a share of thanks: “I thank the gods that when I became interested in philosophy I did not fall into the hands of a sophist, or throw away my time reading fictive histories, sifting through obscure arguments, or gazing at the stars.”

Aurelius knows more about his own life than we do. No one can argue about his having good family, teachers and friends because we weren’t there. What’s interesting though is why Aurelius chose to list the particular virtues he’s thankful for receiving. He’s thankful for specific things like having been taught “a keen interest in any proposal for the public good” for example, or “to be vigilant in managing the affairs of the empire…” These aren’t the virtues most ordinary men need to function. Nowhere does Aurelius state that he’s thankful to Smith for teaching him geometry or thankful to Jones for teaching him how to tie his sandals. An emperor has more important things to do. Anyone can determine the truth of a Euclidean proof. Very few of us have what it takes to run a company or a government agency, much less a whole nation or an empire. Reading the Meditations puts us in the presence of a truly great man.

That would be fine if we aspired to be emperors some day. But can M. Aurelius provide guidance to middle class folks living in Nashville, Tennessee in 2008? That’s a good question. The basic question is this: do the values that served M. Aurelius as emperor in ancient Rome still hold true for ordinary modern Americans? That leads to an even more basic question: do values change with the times? Now we’re getting to the bedrock of philosophical speculation. But we’ve already seen that Aurelius is “interested in philosophy” but not interested in merely “gazing at the stars.” He’s a practical man and that trait alone would appeal to many modern Americans. Aurelius didn’t have access to the Internet or movies or TV commercials but he tells us that “I learned to shun trivialities; to doubt the claims of wonder-workers and wizards about spells and exorcisms…” This is clearly not the kind of man to sit around watching TV reality shows or cruising through You Tube sites on the Internet. So how would a man like Aurelius live in today’s world? He’s already told us how to do it: I should learn “to love hard work, to limit my desires, to rely on myself, to keep my nose out of other people’s affairs, and to turn a deaf ear to gossip.” In some circles this attitude may be considered hopelessly old-fashioned and unsophisticated. For that matter, it may have been considered old-fashioned and unsophisticated in ancient Rome too. But this is a new era in history. It’s a fast paced world now and you’ve got to keep up with what’s going on or you’ll fall behind. As they say these days: you need to get with the program. Aurelius has his own program and it doesn’t seem to matter what the times are like. The times may have changed but the values of Aurelius haven’t.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

EUCLID: Elements (Introduction)

What is the author saying? Of all the Great Books authors we’ve read Euclid is the easiest to figure out what he’s saying. There’s no prologue or preamble. He just starts out with definitions and gets right to the point: “A point is that which has no part.” “A line is a breadthless length.” “The extremities of a line are points.” And so forth. Then he proceeds with Postulates and ends up with Common Notions. With these tools in hand we begin immediately with Book 1, Proposition 1: “On a given finite straight line to construct an equilateral triangle.” It would be almost impossible to be more clear and precise than Euclid. He says what needs saying, no more no less. But what is implied is that the world is an orderly and rational place. By following certain rules we can build on definitions, postulates etc. and come to reliable conclusions.

Is it true? It’s relatively easy to determine if a Euclidean proposition is true. Just follow the steps outlined and compare them with the definitions given at the beginning. If they all fit then the proposition is true. But that’s a superficial understanding of things. Does Euclidean proof have any meaning outside its own system? John Keats ended his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” with lines that tell us 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.' In Euclidean terms that’s just not true. Keats failed to define his terms at the beginning of the poem. We don’t really know what Keats thinks truth and beauty consist of. And for most people the common notion is that truth and beauty are two entirely different things. Wallace Stevens makes a similar blunder in “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” when he says ‘The mules that angels ride come slowly down/The blazing passes, from beyond the sun.’ In Euclidean terms that’s just sheer nonsense. If we define mules as physical creatures and angels as intelligences without bodily existence then how can angels possibly ride mules down so-called “blazing passes, from beyond the sun?” This won’t do for Euclid. Yet Stevens creates a vivid image, in my mind at least, that’s poetically true. I can imagine angels riding mules down blazing passes from beyond the sun even if it’s physically impossible. But is that concept so very different from Euclid’s “point” being defined as that which has no part? That seems physically impossible too though I can grasp it as a concept. Keats and Stevens are asking us to accept the terms of their poems just as Euclid is asking us to accept the terms of his geometry.

So what? It may be that art and mathematics inhabit separate realms. Maybe art is more interested in beauty and mathematics in truth. But there are other lessons to be drawn from Euclid. One example in our GB readings is Plato’s dialogue Meno. Socrates asks an untutored slave boy a series of questions and the boy unwittingly makes a geometric proof. Plato uses Meno to make a point about the nature of knowledge but it also demonstrates the close connection between mathematics and philosophy. Both require intense concentration to follow an argument to its logical conclusion. The GB readings also include The Constitution of the United States of America as an example. Article One, Section 2 begins “The House of Representatives shall be composed of…” and Article One, Section 3 begins “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of…” Article Two, Section 1 begins “The executive power shall be vested in…” Article three, Section 1 begins “The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in…” A constitution is obviously a different sort of document than a treatise on geometry. However, the beginnings of both the Elements and the Constitution start with definitions to be used as tools, although for very different purposes. The Elements uses those tools to build a geometric system. The Constitution uses its tools to build a nation.

Monday, June 09, 2008

TOLSTOY: War and Peace (a Summary)

Some readers consider War and Peace the greatest novel ever written. Is it? In some ways we can certainly say that it isn’t. It’s a long and sprawling story that involves so many characters that it’s hard to keep up with who’s who. The chapters seem to come and go almost at random with no unifying purpose. On the other hand, it’s a story about war and peace. How can that subject not wind up becoming a long and sprawling story involving lots of characters and possibly serving no clear purpose in the end?

Tolstoy writes well about drawing room conversations and parties and weddings and family life. This is a woman’s world and when there is peace women tend to set the tone and arrange social engagements. War is a different matter. One of the main characters of the novel is Princess Marya, and “Princess Marya looked on as women do look on war. She was apprehensive for her brother who was at the front, and was horrified, without understanding it, at the cruelty of men, that led them to kill one another.” Men may not understand it either, but some men thrive on it and prefer a life filled with battles and military camps and would rather face death than boredom. Tolstoy doesn’t say why this is so, only that for some men it’s glory that makes life worth living.

What makes this a truly great book are the questions Tolstoy confronts us with. For example, what is the nature of history? That’s one of the main themes of the book. Tolstoy goes against the tide of modern opinion. He plainly believes that history may have a purpose but that purpose is beyond human understanding. The way Tolstoy puts it: “In historical events we see more plainly than ever the law that forbids us to taste of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.” And that leads to one of Tolstoy’s other grand themes: why did the Russians defeat Napoleon? Tolstoy attributes it to the Russian spirit. When they were forced to abandon Moscow Tolstoy writes that the Russian people “calmly awaited their fate, feeling in themselves the power to find what they must do in the moment of difficulty…The sense that this would be so, and always would be so, lay, and lies at the bottom of every Russian heart…they were ashamed of going away; but still they went away, knowing that it must be so.”

This is a powerful passage and the book as a whole is powerful literature. The sweep and grandeur of the tale takes in all of Russia. And yet the focus is also on the individual human predicament. Tolstoy isn’t focusing on just any old Russian but on, say, Pierre the reluctant aristocrat. What makes Pierre happy? He doesn’t know himself. It takes the tragedy of war to show him what’s really important in life. Tolstoy writes that “In Moscow, wasted by fire and pillage, Pierre passed through the hardships almost up to the extreme limit of privation that a man can endure…And now without any thought of his own, he gained that peace and that harmony with himself simply through the horror of death, through hardships, through what he had seen in Karataev…The satisfaction of his needs – good food, cleanliness, freedom – seemed to Pierre now that he was deprived of them to be perfect happiness.”

After some 1,400 pages of war and peace the reader comes away with the same notion. The things that are really important in life are simple things: good food, a clean bed to sleep in at night, having freedom to come and go wherever we want, whenever we please. On this basic level the simple joys of life are available to everyone. Tolstoy’s message is that not even a Napoleon can hope for anything better in this world.

-- RDP

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Reading Schedule for Summer 2008

June 2 - EUCLID: The Elements

The Meditations

June 9 - Meditations: Book 1

June 16 - Meditations: Book 2

June 23 - Meditations: Book 3

June 30 - Meditations: Book 4

July 7 - Meditations: Book 5

July 14 - Meditations: Book 6

July 21 - Meditations: Book 7

July 28 - Meditations: Book 8

August 4 - Meditations: Book 9

August 11 - Meditations: Book 10

August 18 - Meditations: Book 11

August 25 - Meditations: Book 12

Recommended edition:
Marcus Aurelius: The Emperor's Handbook (A New Translation of the Meditations)
Trans. C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks
Scribner (2002)