Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, July 28, 2008

How the Universe Works:

A Guide to Planetary Behavior from an Aureliun Perspective

The Greek philosopher, Empedocles (490 B.C.), believed that the world could be explained by the presence of two forces, love and strife, acting upon four basic elements: fire, air, water, and earth. Since, logically, something cannot come out of nothing, he thought that nature must be composed of a mixture of these elements, and that the death or destruction of its individual parts is simply a rearrangement of their basic configuration. Love and strife being the forces which act upon and cause the changes we perceive all around us.

Certainly, our understanding of nature in the last 2,500 years has come a long way since Empedocles. But his basic theory was pretty good. If instead of "love" you substitute the word "attraction," and replace the word "strife" with "repulsion" you have the essential concepts for two of the fundamental laws governing the universe as we know it: the electromagnetic force and gravity. The reality is that every physical change in nature can be explained as the influence of gravity upon matter or the effect of electromagnetism on elementary particles such as protons and electrons. Whether or not this is simply a case of Empedocles making a fortuitous guess, nevertheless, his belief that all motion or change can be understood as the result of attraction or separation is inspired. It gives us a useful metaphor for understanding why change occurs, both in the physical world and in the arena of human behavior.

A. Politics

In a democratic society, the activity which most concerns its people, aside from the essential laboring required to keep one's self alive, is politics. The fact that many people do not vote or listen to political debates is beside the point. Everybody has an opinion about how things should be and is free and even anxious to express it. Today, you often hear the claim that our government is polarized with politicians from both parties entrenched in their respective views. At times, our two party system seems almost designed to promote disharmony and conflict. Democrats and Republicans act as though they represent two entirely different species, each with its own agenda, incapable of any useful communication with the opposing side. Why is this? What is it about the two parties that makes governing so contentious? Is this simply the natural order of things, such as the so-called war between the sexes? Or is there some other explanation for social disharmony? Let us consider the nature of the contending parties. What is it about democrats and republicans that makes cooperation so difficult?

1. The Conservatives

If we employ Empedocles model of two basic forces, love and strife, we readily see that the conservatives belong to the former category. Love stands for attraction (i.e., contraction), or as Empedocles might say, when two bodies move toward one another they are "attracted" to one another. Conservatives band together because they have shared values or beliefs. For example, they prefer the status quo or the way things are now, over some hypothetical future. Thus, they are inclined to preserve what they already have (tradition) rather than exchange it for something newer or different. This resistance to change is conservative in its orientation to the world. In philosophical terms, it represents the idea of "being" over the idea of "becoming." In public policy terms it translates into a preference for less government, less taxation, and less interference in private lives. This predilection for less is not universal, however. Conservatives approve of wealth without restriction. Thus, their belief in unrestricted markets, free from the taint of government interference. A conservative's view of the world starts with the idea that conflict or war is the normal state of nature, as propounded by Thomas Hobbes. And though civil society is an improvement over nature, it too is marked by conflict over scare resources in a never ending competition for survival. Thus, in capitalism the free market exhibits the same aggressive behavior as is found in nature, except that in civil society violence is eschewed for the endless pursuit of wealth. But as in nature, so in the marketplace there are winners and losers, booms and busts, fortunes alongside poverty. The conservative view is to accept this natural cycle of financial success and failure as being preferable to any artificial manipulation of the economic pendulum. This economic view, which might be compared with the Darwinian model of nature (i.e., the tendency for some forms of life to become extinct) is offset with a strong religious conviction that God oversees everything, and nothing happens without reason. Thus, if some people die of disease or malnutrition it must be that God's will requires that human sacrifice.

The notion that some people suffer while others prosper is troublesome to conservatives because they believe in the idea of justice. The idea of justice rests on the assumption that God punishes the guilty and watches over the innocent. Yet conservatives are not so naive that they believe the innocent are protected from harm. They see the world as a corrupt and dangerous place to which man has been exiled due to his original sin against God. In other words, the world is a battlefield between good and evil, in which God's faithful will someday be redeemed. But in the meantime, the life of man is, as Hobbes put it, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

2. The Liberals

Going back to Empedocles' two primal forces, we find that liberals are characterized by their affinity for strife (or in electromagnetic terms, expansion, i.e., repulsion). This connection with strife might seem ironic since liberals, by and large, adopt a very benevolent view of humanity. They believe that the entire human race is capable of perfection, or if not perfection, significant moral improvement. Yet, this idea of progress derives from a dynamic model of nature in which everything is continually evolving towards an optimal stage of development. This might take the form of the "good society" or Marx's "withering away of the state." In theological terms, it might be conceived of as the city of God or paradise regained. This utopian view of the world contrasts sharply with Hobbes notion of the eternal "war of all against all." Liberals believe that conflict can be resolved peacefully through negotiation, hence their affection for such institutions as the League of Nations and the UN. Liberals also take seriously such statements as "all men are created equal," and spend a lot of their time worrying about injustice and man's inhumanity to man. Thus, the liberal agenda includes a lot of rhetoric about racial equality, gender equality, economic fairness, cultural sensitivity, inclusive social planning, etc. The favorite social model seems to be "one world," "one people." This global perspective is perceived as being more rational, more civilized than the view that people are intrinsically hostile toward one another. It is as if the liberal God is a kinder, more gentle deity than the Old Testament God of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth."

Liberals are against war unless it is absolutely unavoidable. But sometimes this depends on the war. Most republicans were opposed to our entering World War I or II (until after Pearl Harbor), but most liberals were opposed to Viet Nam and Iraq. In general, if liberals perceive that the strong are persecuting the weak (Somalia, Bosnia), then they endorse the use of American military power. On the other hand, if the dispute involves money, oil or the restoration of colonial rule, they believe we should mind our own business and stay away.

Liberals are also troubled by the manifest presence of inequality in the world. The idea that some people have certain advantages over other people seems unfair and "un-American." It clashes with the original Puritan idea of man's collective guilt and sinful nature. The modern liberal's idea of universal brotherhood derives much of its energy from the historical events of the Enlightenment, a distinctively French philosophical movement which was transplanted to American soil by way of Montesquieu, Rousseau, Diderot, Smith, Locke and others. But universal brotherhood didn't flourish immediately, and it was not until after the Civil War that liberals could nurture the idea of a distinctively American version of happiness. Unfortunately, the pursuit of absolute social equality is still on the distant horizon.

Meanwhile, liberals cherish all movements and beliefs that lead toward their idea of the "new enlightened man." Socialism, trade unionism, Green Peace, Sierra Club and other environmental groups continue to mark the liberal discomfort with Darwinian politics. The liberal view is one that is man-centered, not God centered. They believe the only evil in the world does not come from Satan, but from the ideology of conservatives who oppose human progress (i.e., the universal brotherhood of man). Liberals favor expanding the domain of human rights wherever possible. This includes such developments as gay marriage, drugs, pre-marital (and extra-marital) sex, artistic expression, health care, euthanasia, and abortion. Curiously, liberals, who normally oppose war and capital punishment, favor abortion and euthanasia; whereas conservatives who normally oppose governments intruding on private lives, favor a ban on abortions and euthanasia.

Evidently, life has a sacred value only for certain people at certain times.

B. Physics

The universe that we conservatives and liberals inhabit is governed by four elementary forces: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. We used to believe that Earth was the center of the universe. Now we know better. Earth is not even the center of its own solar system, or the galaxy, much less the center of everything. In fact, we don't even know where the center of the universe is, if it even exists. Since the boundaries of the known universe are believed to be infinite, there is no logical way of defining where the center might be.

At the moment (i.e., given the current theory), we believe the universe is expanding and will continue to do so forever. Just how long is forever? Current predictions give a total life span of (depending upon the theoretical model) from about 50 billion years to 100 trillion years. On the other hand, our sun is using up its nuclear fuel at such a rate that it will burn out in 5 - 6 billion years. That pretty much limits the time allowed for any Earth-bound civilization. Unless we migrate to other planets, we are down to our last 5 billion years. Of course, humans have only been around for about 400,000 years, so we still have a ways to go. Biologically, unless we succeed in increasing our life span, we have only about 250,000,000 generations to evolve before we become literally homeless. That's assuming that global warming is, as the conservatives say, only a scam. If it isn't a scam, then we might have to adjust our estimates downward.

But surviving until the sun runs out of hydrogen is not our biggest concern. It is just conceivable that we might self-destruct long before nature finishes us off. A lot depends on how our long standing feud between liberals and conservatives plays out. The conservatives are banking on the Second Coming of Christ to redeem mankind from its evil ways. However, there is no way to know for sure when or even if that is going to occur. It is unquantifiable, as the bean counters say.

That leaves the liberals faith in man's evolving into a superior being, whose intelligence will enable him to prolong his lifespan through genetic re-engineering. This too, is unquantifiable. If you constructed a probability table using historical data from the last 2,000 years, you would not get a very optimistic result. It seems much more likely that cockroaches will be here in 50,000 years, but not mankind.

One thing we know for certain. Change (attraction & contraction) is all around us and by the time the universe runs out of gas, we'll be long gone. Which brings me to Marcus Aurelius.

C. Metaphysics

What do we do in the meantime? How do we conduct our business, that is to say, the business of living out our human lives?

The first thing we should do, says Marcus Aurelius, is learn to distinguish between the things we control and the things we cannot control. Of the things we cannot control, there are many: where you were born, the mother who gave birth to you, whether the wind blows or not, the movement of the stars in the sky, how long we will live, what people will say of us when we are gone. Of these things, we have no power to choose. And if we cannot affect them, then why spend any time in thinking about them? Let those concerns fall away.

What things should you be concerned with? Your duty. Your work. Whether you are using your abilities and your intelligence in the best manner possible. Avoiding waste and lethargy.

The next principle to keep in mind is the clear understanding that everything we see is temporary. Our own life is but a brief interval between two eternities of darkness. Since mortal time is short, do not waste it. Apply yourself to the task at hand. Don't equivocate.

Another idea to keep in mind is the duty you owe to others. Aurelius believes in the responsibility of individuals to their family, to their country, and to all mankind. Personal happiness or pleasure counts for nothing. Only what serves the good of all. This is an idea which falls heavy upon modern ears. We have enshrined as one of our core beliefs the right to pursue our own happiness. This idea is born of the Enlightenment reverence for freedom and personal achievement, however it is conceived. It derives from the belief that individuals have rights and that these rights are bestowed by our divine Creator. Yet Aurelius, though allowing for the existence of God, does not put man, as an individual, at the center of creation. Rather, it is the institutions that man has created, government, law, the culture that benefits everyone, and the structures that make civilized life possible, that require our loyalty and protection. For without them, we descend back into that primeval world of nature, mere beasts in the jungle, " in tooth and claw." Our own lives are as nothing compared to the larger ordeal of mankind striving to rise above its human limits. Toward that higher end, all men must yield.

Although these Stoic principles might sound foreign to our ears, accustomed as we are today at hearing proclaimed the virtues of individualism, yet the need for people to cooperate in the interest of society cannot be denied. Hobbes believed that we join together out of fear, not friendship. And so the social contract endures only as long as people believe that it serves their interest. Once that belief weakens, the bonds of civil society dissolve, and we return to that primordial condition of nature. In other words, we become as strangers again one to one another.

To avoid that fate, St. Paul calls us to acknowledge a higher calling than our own self-interest. To serve God in all things is the first principle of a Christian society. This duty comes before our own needs or pleasures. Inherent in this duty must be the practice of Christian humility and tolerance for our neighbors, since our own failures and sins are ever known to our Creator.

From a different perspective, the existential creed declares that we ourselves are responsible for our fate, yet such a view is not contrary to the needs of society, as long as it is remembered that our fate is bound up with that of our fellow men. Religion and philosophy are but two ways of reconciling our minds to the world around us. When our will and our virtue are in harmony, then we may advance the cause of mankind. Otherwise, we will fade from the canvas of creation leaving no sign of our presence, no memory of our demise.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 6)

Would I be a happier person if I adopted the Stoic philosophy of life? The answer to that question depends on my definition of happiness. Aristotle defined happiness in his Ethics as an activity of the soul in conformance with virtue. That’s probably not the definition most of us would give. I don’t. Marcus Aurelius doesn’t define happiness for the reader, but he does tell us that “…to revere and honor your own mind will make you content with yourself, in harmony with society, and in agreement with the gods.” If I’m content with myself and get along with other people and I’m living a lifestyle that’s agreeable to God then I suppose that’s as close to happiness as I can hope for in this world. The problem is that it won’t last. One of these days it will all be over and I’ll either be old and feeble or dead. How can I be happy if I’m dead? Not to worry, says Marcus, “You are not dissatisfied, I suppose, because you weigh only so many pounds and not three hundred. Do not be dissatisfied then that you must live only so many years and not more.” It’s true that I don’t wish I weighed three hundred pounds. But at some point I may wish I had an extra five or ten years of life, especially if my life is a happy one. I don’t think we can compare being bigger with living longer. Those are two separate issues.

It may be more relevant to take quality of life issues into consideration. For example, if I’m bed-ridden and sleep eighteen hours a day what difference would an extra five or ten years matter to me? The important issue for Marcus seems to be: am I still able to do the work of a man? Furthermore, I need to not only be able to work physically but also to understand the reason why I’m working. This is important no matter how old I am. Marcus believes that “We are all working together to one end, some with knowledge and design, and others without knowing what they do.” In other words, working for the sake of work is pointless. Work needs to have a goal. If we’re all working together to achieve the same goal then our work takes on a social value for the whole community. That’s why we must “understand among what kind of workmen you place yourself” – are these people I’m working with doing it for the good of the community, or is money their only incentive? It makes a difference what kind of people we work with. It also makes a difference what kind of work we do. Marcus thinks that “he who rules all things will certainly make right use of you.” This statement assumes an inherent order to the universe. That most certainly includes the kind of work we do. So we should carefully consider our personal skills and talents and learn to apply them for the good of the community where we live. Trying to do work we’re unfitted for just mucks things up. “Does the sun undertake to do the work of the rain?”

If we extend this concept further it becomes clear to some people that not only am I a member of my community, I’m also a citizen on the international level. Marcus is an international citizen. He tells us that “my city and my country, so far as I am (Marcus), is Rome; but so far as I am a man, it is the world.” Other people, some of them just as advanced as Marcus, may disagree. Their argument would be this: I can take care of my family and the friends and neighbors around me. I can’t take care of a billion people who live half way around the world. But for Marcus the point isn’t to be able to take care of people who live far away. What he wants to do is acknowledge our common humanity. In that sense it matters when injustice on a massive scale is taking place, no matter if it’s in the northern provinces of the ancient Roman Empire or in modern-day Darfur or Zimbabwe. The principle is the same. Cain once asked “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Marcus would say “Yes, you are.”

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 5)

There are many kinds of people in the world. Some are wise and some are foolish. Some are lazy and some aren’t. Marcus Aurelius thought it was better to be wise than it was to be foolish and better to work than be lazy. One of the things he reminded himself daily was “In the morning, when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being.” Of course it’s a lot easier to hit the snooze button and roll over for another fifteen minutes of sleep. But Marcus says we should ask ourselves “Have I been made for this, to lie under the blankets and keep myself warm?” Birds were made to fly. Fish were made to swim. People were made to work. That’s what Marcus thinks. So do what it is you were born to do without fussing or complaining. We shouldn’t spend our days sleeping in late or hanging out on the couch watching TV. We should be doing something productive with our lives “…are you unwilling to do the work of a human being?”

The attitude we bring to our work is almost as important as the work itself. Our attitude is important because we spend all of our time inside our own minds. The thoughts we have are crucial to our quality of life. Marcus points out that “Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.” What Marcus calls “the character of your mind” is what we would call a personality. My personality is a unique blend of life experience and the things that are important to me as a person. Our personalities are formed partly by ourselves and partly by our environments. But by focusing our thoughts on the positive we can go a long way in changing the environment around us. Marcus believes that “where a man can live, there he can also live well.” Whatever the external circumstances are we still have the ability to improve the quality of our lives by sheer exertion of willpower. This is what separates the wise from the foolish and the diligent from the lazy.

It doesn’t mean that all will be well and have a happy ending. We still live in an imperfect world. Marcus doesn’t flinch from stark reality: “Are you angry with him whose armpits stink? Are you angry with him whose mouth smells foul?” The fact is we have to live around people who sometimes have smelly armpits and bad breath. But which is more important: the bad breath and smelly armpits of others or our own reaction to it? Marcus believes our reaction to unpleasant things is much more important. In fact, one of the keys to happiness is accepting these things for what they are: “He has such a mouth, he has such armpits: it is necessary that such an emanation must come from such things…” That’s just the way things are. Live with it. This is the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius in a nutshell.

It’s a hard philosophy. Too hard for most people I suspect. Most people prefer pleasant things. We don’t like bad smells or being cold. We like warm blankets and sleeping fifteen extra minutes. And if things go wrong many people aren’t above praying for help from the man above. Marcus won’t have any of that. He believes “In truth we ought not to pray at all…” His is a very tough-minded philosophy of self-sufficiency. But there are other philosophies of life. The Apostle Paul, for example, says we should pray without ceasing. This is the exact opposite of what Marcus says. What are we to make of all this? In short, who can we trust? This is the human dilemma. Where do we turn for answers about life’s bedrock issues? How we should live is about as bedrock as it gets. Get that one right and everything else falls into place. But if you get it wrong…well, philosophy isn’t child’s play. At this level philosophy isn’t something to be goofing around with. Either do it seriously or you’d be better off not doing it at all. It can mess you up. Marcus Aurelius and the Apostle Paul were serious men with serious philosophies of life. They weren’t playing around.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 4)

Marcus Aurelius was the thinking man’s emperor. He had to spend most of his time governing Rome and later on shoring up the Roman military defenses out in its far flung provinces. He was good at it too. But there’s little doubt he would have preferred being president of a university. It would have been even better if he had been head of a small department of philosophy somewhere. That would have given him time to do what he loved best – think about things. His writings have been labeled Meditations but that term can be misleading if taken in the wrong sense. Marcus wasn’t sitting around calming his mind by intense concentration. He was thinking about the things of this world and he was thinking about them deeply. His advice was for men to “seek retreats for themselves.” Not a retreat out into the country or the mountains or the seashore. He was advocating a retreat into the quiet places of our own minds. There we would find the tranquility and calm that escapes us in the hectic pace of day to day living. And of all the people who ever lived very few could have a more hectic schedule than Marcus Aurelius.

It’s not surprising then that the Stoic philosophy appeals to Marcus. It’s a philosophy that puts a heavy emphasis on right thinking but also emphasizes right action. In the Stoic view thinking and doing are interconnected and influence one another. We think about things deeply so we can go out and act rightly in the world. We observe the actions of men and then ponder them in the quiet of our own minds so we can make sense of them. That’s what gives depth to many of the speculations and maxims found in the Meditations. This isn’t contemplation on some cosmic plane inaccessible to ordinary human beings. It’s a very practical and accessible philosophy that people of any age can use to improve their lives. In that sense it’s one of the first self-help books ever published.

But to label the Meditations as a self-help book is to do it a grave disservice. Even though it’s written in a plain style and gets right to the point it is also highly philosophical in the best sense of the word. If philosophy means the love of wisdom then surely this is a book of philosophy in the best sense of the word. For example, Marcus claims that since we’re all rational creatures then all men are essentially brothers. Are all men really our brothers? This is a very deep spiritual question as well as a profound philosophical problem. The way we answer that question makes a big difference in how we live. Do we belong to a world community, or not? Should there be a death penalty? How much wealth should I acquire? How much should I share with others? These questions take on a whole new perspective if all men are my brothers. If we’re all in this together then I can’t function properly without feeling intense concern for all my brothers and sisters throughout the world.

This doesn’t mean that Marcus Aurelius would approve of any modern New Age philosophy. He doesn’t see any signs of an Age of Aquarius dawning. Not in this world. Consider a couple of hard-headed assessments taken from Book 4 of the Meditations: “…all things take place by change, and accustom yourself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change the things that are and to make new things like them.” Like being young and alive so you can get back to nature? Too bad. Someday, and not too long either, you’ll be old and tired and will rather be sitting in your rocking chair than being out in the woods with bugs and snakes. There’s a whole new generation growing up right behind you. Soon it will be time for you to move out of this life to make room for them. Resign yourself to it. Be strong. “Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.” This is not a New Age philosophy of life.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

M. AURELIUS - Meditations (Book 3)

The Nashville Public Library owns 66 books on Alzheimer’s disease. There are 24 books on Down syndrome and 76 on the topic of “learning disabled.” Obviously there’s a great deal of interest in helping people who have difficulty understanding things most people take for granted. Some people may be concerned about a child, a parent, a grandparent or friend. Others may be worried about the impact their own Alzheimer’s disease will have on their families. But it also underscores the anxiety many people have of losing control of their mental capacities. The failure to fully comprehend the world around us strikes a deep fear in the human psyche. Understanding makes us who we are. Marcus hits on this theme when he writes about what he calls living in “dotage” - “We must make haste then, not only because we are daily nearer to death, but also because the conception of things and the understanding of them cease first.” In other words, our minds may fail before our bodies do. We should prepare ourselves accordingly.

How do we do that? We can make preparations through living wills, pre-written letters, and documents written while we still have our full faculties. But these are transitory worldly things. Marcus is mostly concerned with the permanent things, the eternal things. By all means we should take care of legal matters while we’re still capable of functioning normally. Beyond that Marcus thinks you should “apply yourself to the task before you (and) you will live happily.” If legal and medical matters are before us then we should be doing them well. Later when the time comes and death lies before us then we should be dying well. We need to do it properly and graciously, with human dignity. This is a philosophy that teaches us to do only a few things in life but to do those few things extraordinarily well.

What would Marcus make of today’s fast paced multi-tasking society? His outlook involves “casting aside other things, hold to the precious few…” Finding out those “precious few” things takes wisdom. Modern American society places premiums on competence, shrewd judgment, quick thinking and innovative ideas. These qualities all have a high value in today’s marketplace economy. Where does wisdom fit into this scheme of things? Good question. Marcus may tell the modern businessman to stick to a few basic things: know your product, know your market, and know your customer. He’s a firm believer in fulfilling one’s duties to the community and the state so he would also want us to be informed citizens and consumers. Our family commitments should also be included. The famous Packers football coach Vince Lombardi used to tell his players that only three things really matter: God, your family, and the Green Bay Packers. Marcus Aurelius and Vince Lombardi would get along just fine.

Wisdom for Marcus Aurelius is the ability to know the true value of things and use them accordingly. Since we’re rational creatures we should act that way. We should be in harmony with nature and with our fellow human beings. Marcus says we should “no longer wander at hazard” but live a life of duty and purpose. Living in a haphazard manner isn’t just a sign of laziness. We become what Marcus calls “an abscess in the universe.” This is a vivid way of saying that we’re out of sync with nature. The question for modern Americans may be this: what if our whole culture is out of sync with nature? Would Marcus prefer us to be out of sync with our fellow human beings? This is a case where his philosophy may cause conflict. We shouldn’t have to choose between living in harmony with society or living in harmony with nature. But this is a broader social and political problem. On a personal level we need to stick to the task at hand and contemplate our own “appointed end.” There’s one fate that awaits us all in the end - death. Marcus Aurelius is very clear how he thinks we should face it: “you have embarked, made the voyage, and come to shore – get out.” Vince Lombardi would agree.