Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, August 25, 2008

Reading Schedule - Fall 2008

Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America

September 1 - No Meeting

September 8 - Democracy in America: VOL. 1 Part 1 (1-4)

September 15 - Democracy in America: VOL. 1 Part 1 (5-7)

September 22 - Democracy in America: VOL. 1 Part 1 (8)

September 29 - Democracy in America: VOL. 1 Part 2 (1-5)

October 6 - Democracy in America: VOL. 1 Part 2 (6-9)

October 13 - Democracy in America: VOL. 1 Part 2 (10)

October 20 - Democracy in America: VOL. 2 Part 1

October 27 - Democracy in America: VOL. 2 Part 2

November 3 - Democracy in America: VOL. 2 Part 3 (1-17)

November 10 - Democracy in America: VOL. 2 Part 3 (18-26)

November 17 - Democracy in America: VOL. 2 Part 4

Homer – The Odyssey

November 24 - The Odyssey: Books 1-4

December 1 - The Odyssey: Books 5-8

December 8 - The Odyssey: Books 9-12

December 15 - The Odyssey: Books 13-16

December 22 - The Odyssey: Books 17-20

December 29 - The Odyssey: Books 21-24

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 11)

Reading through these meditations it sometimes seems like Marcus Aurelius is saying the same things over and over again. He just uses different words. The theme he keeps coming back to, however, isn’t trivial: how should we live? That may be the most important question we’ll ever ask and the answer we give is crucial to our destinies. As Marcus points out that “This is not a debate over trifles, but over whether we will be sane or not.” (quoting Epictetus) It isn’t always easy to stay sane in this crazy world. But it’s not like we’re the only ones who have ever been through it before. Marcus also believes that “…the man who lives to be forty, if he has any sense at all, will have seen everything that was or will be.” If that’s true then we should all have life pretty much figured out by the time we’re forty. I don’t think that’s true. Maybe some folks do but my suspicion is that most people don’t have life figured out at all – even at eighty or ninety. If that’s the case then “No situation is better suited for the practice of philosophy than the one you’re in now.” No matter how old we are it’s not too late to start practicing up on our philosophy. In fact Socrates defines the task of philosophy as “learning to die.” It’s puzzling then why Marcus also says that “this readiness (to die) should result from a personal decision, not from sheer contrariness like the Christians…” Is that his opinion of the early Christians – that they were just being “contrary”?

Something about the early Christians must have annoyed or offended Marcus. The irony of this is that Marcus lays out some specific points to keep in mind when other people offend you. There are ten of them: (1) “We are made for one another,” even if they annoy us sometimes. (2) “What are they like at the table, in bed, and elsewhere?” It’s hard to hate someone who’s coming down in the morning in his pajamas to get some cereal for breakfast. (3) “If what they do is right, you have no reason to be offended. If wrong, then it’s plain they act out of compulsion or ignorance.” But what if they’re intentionally trying to get on my nerves? Then they’re not ignorant, they know what they’re doing and purposefully keep on doing it just to get under my skin. (4) “You often do wrong yourself.” But I’m trying to do better; they’re obviously not. (5) “You have no proof that they are doing anything wrong…A man must know a great deal before condemning another man’s behavior.” That’s true. Sad but true. (6) “Think how fleeting this life is and how soon you…will be laid out in the grave.” That’s not a pleasant thought and isn’t very helpful. (7) “It isn’t what others do that troubles you…you are bothered by your opinions of what they do. Rid yourself of those opinions…then your troubles will go away.” Just like that? Just rid myself of all my opinions? (8) “Our rage and lamentations do us more harm than whatever caused our anger or grief in the first place.” This is also true, but it must be fun – just read the op-ed section in the newspaper. These people obviously enjoy their rage and fill several columns with their lamentations. (9) “As long as it’s genuine…kindness is irresistible.” This may be possible for saints, but it’s very difficult for ordinary people to be kind to mean people. And finally (10) “To expect the wicked not to sin is sheer lunacy. It asks the impossible.” Kind of like asking Vanderbilt’s football team to get a bowl bid. Just one. Which brings us back to practicing philosophy. Being a Vanderbilt football fan is a philosophical education in itself: to calmly accept fate. It’s in the nature of things to eventually lose in the end. If Marcus Aurelius were alive today I think he’d be a Vandy season ticket holder.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 10)

One of the most widely quoted phrases in the western world is “Know Thyself.” Marcus Aurelius agrees that this is a wise approach to life. For example, he believes when someone is bothering us we shouldn’t ask why this guy acts like that; you should ask yourself why it bothers you in the first place: “begin with yourself, and examine yourself first.” You may not have control over what other people do, but you should have control over yourself. How can I do that? Marcus has several tips: you could “Inquire of yourself as soon as you wake from sleep, whether it will make any difference to you if another does what is just and right. It will make no difference.” Just tell yourself: I don’t care what that other guy does, I’m not going to let it bother me. Or you could just try ignoring obnoxious people. Marcus says you should ask yourself: “who is he that will hinder you from being good and simple?” If that doesn’t work you could reflect that “Whatever may happen to you, it was prepared for you from all eternity…” That sounds ok when you first read it but stop and think about it for a second. Does it seem likely that from all eternity there was a master plan for this particular guy to get on your nerves?

Maybe so, maybe not. In any case, reading these Meditations can get on your nerves after awhile. I hate to say that because everything Marcus says is so rational and noble and uplifting. But sometimes it’s just too hard for ordinary people to measure up to his expectations. He asks “will you be satisfied with your present condition, and pleased with all that is around you, and will you convince yourself that you have everything and that it comes from the gods, that everything is well for you, and will be well whatever shall please them.” Some days that’s really hard to do. Everything is not well all the time. Sometimes I’m not satisfied with my present condition. I turn on the news and I’m not pleased at all about what’s going on in the world. Then I read Marcus and feel like a whiner. His advice is to buck up and take it like a man: “Everything that happens either happens in such way as you are formed by nature to bear it, or as you are not formed by nature to bear it.” Great. If you can bear it, don’t complain, just bear it. If you can’t bear it, don’t complain, “for it will perish after it has consumed you.” Everything that doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. Marcus is like a Marine drill sergeant and he knows it. That’s why he’s writing these meditations. He also knows the reaction most people will have: “Let us at last breathe freely being relieved of this schoolmaster. It is true that he was harsh to none of us, but I perceived that he tacitly condemned us.”

Having said that, I still think everyone should read at least some of Marcus Aurelius’ meditations about life. Sometimes we need stern schoolmasters to tell us what we don’t want to hear. For example: “You have but a short time left to live. Live as on a mountain. For it makes no difference whether a man lives there or here.” Books, magazines, movies and television are all full of dreams about getting away from the rat race we call modern life. This can become an excuse for shirking our responsibilities. Reading Marcus is like a splash of cold water and it brings us back to reality: “Let this always be plain to you, that this piece of land is like any other; and that all things here are the same as things on the top of a mountain, or on the seashore, or wherever you choose to be.” You can’t run away from life. Do you want the whole world to change? If that’s what you want Marcus would say, “begin with yourself, and examine yourself first.”

Monday, August 04, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 9)

Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic but he could have followed another path if he had wanted to. Some of our Great Books readings have shown us other views of life. How do these views compare with Stoicism?

Lucretius lays out the Epicurean view in his book On the Nature of the Universe: the material world isn’t just a good thing; it’s the only thing. Therefore, the best way to live is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Epicurus believes this is the only reasonable way to live. But Marcus says “he who pursues pleasure as good and avoids pain as evil is guilty of impiety.” Epicurus is an atheist and asks: impious against whom? There are no gods. That’s just mumbo-jumbo to keep us living in fear and darkness. Marcus seems more agnostic: “if there is a god, all is well; and if chance rules, do not also be governed by it.” Marcus thinks the prudent attitude toward the gods is to take a wait-and-see attitude: “Either the gods have no power or they have power.” Question: is the Epicurean view of life fundamentally incompatible with Stoicism? Can there be such a thing as a stoic Epicurean? Marcus quotes Epicurus in this section and seems to approve.

The Platonists believe just the opposite of the Epicureans. They think the material world is just a pale copy of the real thing. Plato outlines this idea in The Republic. Perfect chairs or horses or triangles only exist in a sort of spiritual plane. What we see around us is a mere shadow of the true and eternal existence. “Real” chairs and horses and triangles in this world aren’t nearly as good as the pure idea of them. Marcus says that “the universal nature is the nature of things that are…this universal nature is named truth.” Does this mean that Plato and Marcus agree about the nature of truth? Or are they saying totally opposite things? Is Marcus saying that there are no perfect chairs and horses and triangles lying around out there somewhere? Marcus actually mentions Plato directly: “Do what nature requires. Set yourself in motion, if it is in your power, and do not look about you to see if anyone will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic…”

St. Augustine talks about the Manicheans in his Confessions. The Manicheans think the material world is bad and the spiritual world is good. There are two creative forces at work in the cosmos: one creates evil and the other creates good. Neither can fully overcome the other so they’re locked in eternal conflict. But Marcus claims that “Man and God and the universe all produce fruit, each at the proper season.” Question: is there a “proper season” for evil to be produced? Is evil a real thing in the Stoic philosophy or is evil just our misguided perception of reality? Marcus does say that “For the stone that has been thrown up it is no evil to come down, nor indeed any good to have been carried up.” But that’s only saying that there are natural laws that drive the universe. Those laws aren’t good or bad, much less evil. They just are what they are. What is the Stoic position on the presence of evil in this world?

The Judaeo-Christian view is that the spiritual world is good and the material world is good too. God created the heavens and the earth and in the book of Genesis God says that it’s all good. Marcus poses a question: “have you determined to abide with vice, and has experience not yet induced you to fly from this pestilence?” God says the world is good. Marcus says it’s a pestilence. How would Christians respond to Marcus’ question: if you Christians believe in heaven and everlasting life then why hang around this rat-hole of a world? Why not flee from it now? Question: can there be such a thing as a stoic Christian?

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 8)

Throughout the ages people have been searching without success for the meaning of life. You may be one of them. Well today’s your lucky day! Marcus Aurelius has not only found the meaning of life but has also outlined it in four easy steps. Of course Marcus doesn’t call it “the meaning of life”; he calls it “the proper work of a man.” And the first step in the proper work of a man is “to be benevolent to his own kind.” Or, in plain English: be good to people. That’s harder than it sounds. A lot of times people will do things that irritate us. They may even do things that enrage us. Never mind. Marcus informs us that “men will do the same things even though you burst with rage.” Don’t wait for people to change. Be good to them starting today because “the men of tomorrow will be exactly like these whom we cannot bear now.” People won’t change just to please us. So we either “teach them then or bear with them.”

The second step in the meaning of life is “to despise the movement of the senses.” That one’s a little harder to understand. But Marcus gives us a clue when he says “you are far from philosophy. You have fallen into disorder…” And it’s a shame that you’ve fallen into such bad disorder because “it is your duty to be a good man.” You can’t be a good man and continue to live badly. Therefore, “it is your duty to order your life well…” The movement of our senses (i.e. taking drugs, watching pornography, etc) arouses our passions. Our passions lead us into disorder. Disorder ruins our lives. Philosophy teaches us how to order our lives by freeing our minds from our passions. And according to the philosophy of Marcus “the mind that is free from the passions is a citadel.” This is the kind of citadel we should retreat to often.

The third step in the meaning of life is “to form a just judgment of plausible appearances.” That sounds even harder to understand than the movement of the senses. But all Marcus is trying to do here is lay down some first principles. We need a strong foundation to build on. These first principles are very simple rules; really just plain common sense. Marcus says that “nothing should be done without purpose” because “everything exists for some end, be it a horse, a vine” or a man. Marcus then goes on to ask, “For what purpose then do you exist?” This sounds a whole lot like asking: why am I here? Which is a whole lot like asking: what is the meaning of life? It seems like we’ve just come full circle and ended up right back where we started. But here’s the difference – now we’re trying to answer the question according to the “just judgment of plausible appearances.” Marcus gives examples: “A cucumber is bitter.” Throw it away. “There are briars in the road.” Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, “And why were such things made in the world?” In other words, don’t go around asking questions like “what is the meaning of life?” Just see things for what they really are and then accept them as they are without judging them. Then you can live in harmony with reality.

Last but not least we need to “take a survey of the nature of the universe.” This isn’t nearly as hard as the other three. All you have to do is take a few courses in calculus, physics, etc. and find out how the universe works. Only then can you understand what Marcus means when he says “the universal nature converts and fixes in its predestined place everything that stands in the way and opposes it.” The universe is impersonal but it’s also a very orderly kind of place. It’s the kind of place where rational creatures can learn the meaning of life by studying philosophy. The good news is we’re rational creatures and can bring order into our lives via philosophy. The bad news is ““you are far from philosophy. You have fallen into disorder…”

Saturday, August 02, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 7)

Would most Americans say the proverbial glass is half full or half empty? It depends on who you ask but Americans generally have a half full, can-do attitude. That’s why I think some of Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy appeals to us and some of it doesn’t. Marcus says we should “think not so much of what you lack as what you have.” That’s the glass-is-half-full philosophy of life. Lots of Americans already look at the world that way. And there’s an optimistic tone when Marcus tells us we should “Always bear this in mind…that very little indeed is necessary for living a happy life.” It may be true that very little is necessary for living a happy life but a lot of Americans today think if you’ve got more stuff then you’ve got an even better shot at happiness. The best shot of all is if you have stuff like boats and time-share properties and have enough time and money to take advantage of self-help programs. Marcus Aurelius could have been an announcer on American TV pitching an infomercial when he assures us that “To recover your life is in your power…” That’s the can-do spirit of America talking. Where do I sign up?

However, before we sign up we need to read the fine print and look at the other side of Marcus. It’s not all fun and games. In some ways he cuts against the grain of what Americans hope to achieve in life. We want to be happy although many of us are conscious that we live in a culture based heavily on consumerism. But by and large we think we’re pretty good folks and America is a good place to live. And it is. We have our problems, as all societies do. What Marcus wants us to do is confront the bad as well as the good. He asks “What is badness? It is that which you have often seen. Amidst all that happens, keep in mind that you have seen it often…There is nothing new.” We have seen it. We’ve seen it often and in the midst of our communities in our daily lives. We know what badness is just as well as Marcus knew it because it’s not much different in modern America than it was in ancient Rome. The difference is how we deal with it. Marcus is not speaking for Americans when he says “Be upright, or be made upright.” Marcus believes we should voluntarily choose to live right. But what if we don’t? Should citizens “be made upright” by the laws of society? How? American courts aren’t in agreement with Marcus on this. As long as I’m not breaking any laws or harming others I’m pretty much left alone to do as I please in America. Whether I’m living right or not is my own business. Who is Marcus to tell me how I should live?

But to read the Meditations and come away with the idea of Marcus Aurelius as some kind of shyster ad man or a prudish scold is to diminish the work. Readers can cherry-pick these meditations and pretty much find whatever they’re looking for. Are you an optimist? Well, so is Marcus: “Love mankind. Follow God.” Are you a pessimist? Marcus is too: “The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s.” Need a tough guy philosophy of life? Marcus says “The breeze that heaven has sent we must endure, and toil without complaining.” Are you the kind of person who sees things as they really are and tells it like it is? Marcus agrees and thinks we should “Wipe out the imagination.” So what kind of philosophy is this? Is it philosophy at all? Critics can point to numerous instances where Marcus seems to contradict himself. And they have a point. There are times when he does seem to be taking opposite sides. There are times when I’ve done that myself. Since I’m not a philosopher I have that luxury. Maybe Marcus wasn’t trying to be a philosopher. He was trying to be a good emperor. Before he could be a good emperor he had to be a good Roman. And before he could be a good Roman he had to be a good man. It was real life. It seems to me that this is philosophy at its best.