Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, September 29, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America - Volume 1, Part 2 (chap. 1 - 5)

When Tocqueville was writing about America in the 1830’s he noted that “At this time, America is possibly the country which harbors the fewest seeds of revolution in the world.” Why is that? Are Americans, of all the people in the world, the ones who are most satisfied with their government? It certainly doesn’t seem like it. Pick up any newspaper or turn on any news channel and you’ll find plenty of folks complaining about the government, either because of its policies or its lack of policies. And it doesn’t matter which party is in power. Americans will complain anyway. Perhaps this is natural. People tend to form together in groups who believe the same way. Tocqueville points out that “most of these groups are connected to one or the other of the two great parties which have divided men from the onset of free societies…some are seen to be pursuing the restriction of public power, others to widen it…” In America two great parties have formed around these great ideas about the proper use of power by the federal government. No one lives in a vacuum. We’re all affected by what the government does.

That’s the reason the media plays such an important role in American politics. Voters need to learn about the issues so they can make informed decisions. In Tocqueville’s day voters needed the same thing. But he makes an odd observation: “In France, the trade advertisements take up a very limited space; the news items themselves are few; the essential part of a newspaper is that devoted to political discussion. In America, three-quarters of the bulky newspaper set before the reader’s eyes is filled with advertisements; the rest is most frequently full of political news or just anecdotes.” The conclusion seems to be that Americans are at least as interested in being consumers as they are in being good citizens. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it does tend to make us pause and consider the role of the media in our lives today. In Tocqueville’s opinion “The freedom of the press makes its influence felt not only upon political opinions but also on all men’s opinions. It modifies customs as well as laws.” He believes we tend to be shaped by the media whether we like it or not. Furthermore, he believes that “generally, journalists in the United States have a lowly status, their education is rudimentary and the expression of their ideas is frequently coarse…” This is not good news for Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann.

But whose fault is it if Americans let themselves be shaped by the media? It’s a free country. We have lots of options about where we get our news. According to Tocqueville here’s the problem: “When an idea has seized the mind of the American people, be it correct or unreasonable, nothing is harder than to rid them of it.” That’s because many Americans tend to get their news from sources which they already know will agree with their own pre-conceived notions. This is not good. But Tocqueville has the cure: “A great man has said that ignorance lies at both ends of knowledge. Perhaps it would have been truer to state that deep convictions lie at the two ends, with doubt in the middle…Man has strong beliefs because he adopts them without looking deeply into them. Doubt arises when he is faced with objections. He often succeeds in resolving these doubts and thereupon he believes once again. This time he no longer seizes truth by accident or in the dark; he sees it face to face and walks straight toward the light.” This is good advice for a philosophical mind. But would it work in the modern political arena? In spite of all the talk about bipartisan efforts the two great parties in American political life seem to be drifting farther apart than ever. And having partisan media doesn’t help. The great question facing America at the outset was this: can ordinary people govern themselves? The great question facing America now is: can ordinary people govern themselves?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Book 1, Ch. 8)

Every four years Americans go through the ritual process of electing a new president or re-electing the one already in office. In recent years that means that about half the people will like the outcome and about half won’t. Even in Tocqueville’s day elections were a tumultuous business. He notes that “Americans are accustomed to all kinds of elections. Experience has taught them what degree of turmoil is tolerable and where they should stop (and yet)…As the election draws near, intrigues multiply and turmoil spreads…The whole nation descends into a feverish state.” In the past few elections intrigues have indeed multiplied. Every few days there’s a new scandal, new allegations that an opponent is stooping to a new low and using gutter tactics, etc. Tempers sometimes flare. The Founding Fathers knew this would happen. Tocqueville explains that “The problem was to find that method of election which expressed the genuine will of the people, while least arousing their passions.” The Electoral College is the result. It is possible to win the popular vote and yet lose the election. That has, in fact, happened in modern times. Is it fair to get more votes than your opponent and still lose? Because of that dilemma many people think the Electoral College is an anachronism and should be dropped. Others think it protects the smaller states and should be kept at all costs. If we can’t even agree on the process is it any surprise that we don’t agree on the candidates?

Elections may get feverish and tempers may flare but in the end it all works out somehow. Many countries go through violent upheavals during the election process. But Americans have always had a relatively peaceful transition from one administration to the next. Why is that? Tocqueville believes Americans have a good fundamental understanding of justice. And he points out that “The major objective of justice is to substitute the concept of law for that of violence and to position intermediate authorities between the government and the use of physical force.” Americans have confidence that the law is better than a gun to resolve disputes. The courts are set up to serve as the “intermediate authorities” between the government and mob rule. If the citizens think an election isn’t fair they can always take it to the courts and let judges decide. Of course being legal doesn’t always mean being fair. But this arrangement assumes that the people will obey the judge’s decision. As Tocqueville puts it, the courts “are all powerful as long as the people agree to obey the law; they are powerless when people have contempt for it.” In other words the law works only so long as we all agree to obey it.

This is a scary thought. Tocqueville thought so too when he proclaimed that “The government of the Union rests almost entirely upon legal fictions. The Union is an idealized nation which exists only in men’s imagination.” A country is strong when it shares a common idea and purpose. “Union” is the idea holding America together as one people. When we abandon that idea we lose our country. Tocqueville goes on to say that “The history of the world affords no example of a great nation which has remained for a long time a republic.” So far - we’re it. But who knows what challenges and problems the future holds? Can America survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? An image that Tocqueville uses is the legislator as captain of a ship: “The legislator is like the man who steers his route upon the ocean. He is able to guide the ship he is on but cannot change its structure, create winds, or stop the ocean from heaving…” The tides of history come and go. So do nations. That’s why every four years we choose a new captain to navigate the ship of state through new and perilous waters. For over two hundred years America has weathered the storm. We just take it four years at a time.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Book 1, ch. 5-7)

Many people are old enough to remember two distinct trends in American politics. One trend is Ronald Reagan running for president on a philosophy that believes “Government isn’t the solution to the problem. Government is the problem.” The other trend can be observed after natural disasters such as hurricanes. Many Americans start asking “Why isn’t the government doing something?” In both cases the “government” is the federal government. What should government be doing for American citizens? What should it not be doing? Tocqueville makes it clear that he doesn’t approve of a man who “thinks that everything is outside his concern and belongs to a powerful stranger called the government…if his own safety or that of his children is threatened, instead of trying to ward off the danger he folds his arms and waits for the entire nation to come to his rescue.” What is the purpose of the federal government anyway? This is a real dilemma for Americans. It was a dilemma when the U.S. Constitution was drafted. It was a dilemma when the Federalist Papers were published. It’s a dilemma today. For Tocqueville it was a dilemma too. On one hand he states that “in general one can say that the overwhelming characteristic of public administration in the United States is its extraordinary decentralization.” But on the other hand he admires America’s political achievement and points out “I cannot conceive that a nation can exist, much less prosper, without a strong centralization of government…” These two statements reveal the underlying tension between power at the local level and power at the federal level. Tocqueville sounds contemporary when he goes on to say that “Those who support centralization in Europe maintain that the government is better able to administer localities than they can themselves.” Can a city like Clarksville be governed better from Nashville? From Washington? Who can say for sure? Tocqueville knew the strength and weakness of the U.S. Constitution better than most Americans know it themselves.

Tocqueville saw other things too. He foresaw what would happen in cases like the 2000 presidential election, for example. We can talk about the purpose of government. We can talk about the power of government. We can talk about what should be done or not be done. But somewhere along the line talking has to stop. Decisions have to be made. What happens when the decision is contested by one party? Then who decides? That’s where American judges step in. Tocqueville lists three characteristics of judges: (1) For there to be a judge, an action must be brought to court; (2) to pronounce individual cases and not general principles; (3) so the court can act only when summoned…it does not, on its own, prosecute criminals, seek out injustices, or investigate facts. The good news is that judges don’t go out looking for trouble. The bad news is that trouble comes to them anyway. The Supreme Court probably preferred to stay out of the contentious 2000 presidential election. But they couldn’t. Why not? Because no other choice was available. Someone has to decide. Tocqueville points out that “an American judge is dragged, despite himself, on to the political field. He judges the law only because he has to take on a case and he has no choice but to take on a case. The political question he has to resolve is linked to the interests of the litigants and he could not possibly refuse to deal with it without denying them justice…” Is this fair? That depends. E.B. White once wrote that “I have never seen a piece of writing, political or non-political, that does not have a slant. It slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular.” That’s the way it is with ordinary people. That’s the way it is with judges too. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? The answer depends on whether your side wins or loses. If your side wins? Is this a great country or what? If your side loses? Then it’s obvious the whole system is going down the tubes. Welcome to America.

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Book 1, Ch. 1-4)

Alexis de Tocqueville begins his great work about democracy in America in an appropriate place: the beginning. He first talks about what America was like before the arrival of European settlers. The native population had a very different perspective than the Europeans and Tocqueville points out that they were mostly free to do as they pleased: “The Indian owed a debt only to himself: his virtues, vices, and prejudices were his own achievement: he had grown up in the primitive independence of his nature…” The native-born American was pretty much on his own because there was no urban culture. Whether this freedom from cultural influences was a blessing or a curse Tocqueville doesn’t say. But since there weren’t any cosmopolitan centers like London or Paris the Native Americans were forced to live their lives much closer to nature. Was this a good thing? In some ways it made them tougher than their European counterparts because “The Indian could live without necessities, suffer without complaining, die singing…” And there was certainly more equality and freedom than there was in Europe. Tocqueville points out that “the Indians, while they are ignorant and poor, are all equal and free…” So this was the situation when the Europeans arrived. There was plenty of equality and freedom within the native culture but it was also a culture filled with ignorance and poverty. Some people might argue that the Europeans were the ones who were ignorant about how to live in harmony with nature. It might also argued that the natives were poor in material possessions but rich in spiritual insight. Maybe. But it’s Tocqueville’s book and that was not his opinion of the situation at the time the Europeans arrived on the scene. It was Tocqueville’s opinion that the native population was doomed because “Their unforgiving prejudices, their indomitable passions, their vices, and, still more perhaps, savage virtues, exposed them to inevitable destruction. The ruin of these races began the day the Europeans landed on their shores.”

Who were these Europeans? What were they like when they settled in the New England colonies? For the most part they brought their own version of civilization with them. These first settlers weren’t poor and they weren’t ignorant. Tocqueville points out that “Relatively speaking, there was a greater number of intelligent men than in any present-day European nation.” Intelligence and civilization weren’t the only things they brought with them. They also brought their faith in God. These were the Puritans and at that time “Puritanism was almost as much a political theory as a religious doctrine.” They had come to the new world for a purpose. These were people on a mission. They had left their old lives behind to begin a new life in a new country. Living in an unsettled land meant they had to establish a new government, starting from scratch. They were searching for freedom and praying for wisdom. As Tocqueville puts it “…in America religion leads to wisdom; the observance of divine laws guides man to freedom.” So it’s no wonder that the first laws of this new government reflected the religious fervor of the settlers. In this new world there was “…the feeling of religious awe; one seems to breathe an atmosphere of ancient thought, a flavor of the Bible.” It seems strange to modern Americans that the earliest American laws were framed within a Biblical context. And yet Tocqueville assures us that the settlers wanted it that way: “We must not lose sight of the fact that there was no imposition of these strange and despotic laws. They were freely voted in by all the interested parties, whose customs were even more austere and puritanical than the laws.” The stage was set for a new way of life and they took full advantage of it. Their unspoken and half-developed philosophy was simple: “heaven in the other world, comfort and freedom in this.” They weren’t natives and they weren’t Europeans. They were something totally new: they were Americans.

Friday, September 05, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 12)

There are a couple of primary questions all human beings face in all times and all places: Is there a God? and How should we live? If Marcus can’t help us answer these most fundamental questions then we should question his credentials as a philosopher.

Regarding the existence of God Marcus lays out a very rational analysis of the problem. There are three distinct possibilities: “Either there is (1) a fatal necessity and invincible order, or (2) a kind Providence, or (3) confusion without a purpose and without a director.” In plain English here are the three options. First possibility: there may be a god, but this god is far removed from all human affairs and concerns. For human purposes there may as well not be a god at all. The second possibility: there’s a god who cares deeply about human conditions and therefore cares what happens to each and every one of us. The third possibility is that there is no god and no purpose to the universe, just a stormy confusion. Those are basically the three possibilities. That’s all well and good; the problem has now been thoroughly analyzed. But analyzing a problem doesn’t solve it. I like for a man to state clearly where he stands. Marcus does that. He says “To those who ask, ‘Where have you seen gods, and how can you be so sure of their existence that you worship them?’ I reply: ‘First, they are clearly visible to the eye (i.e. the stars); and second, I’ve never set eyes on my soul, yet I honor it. So it is with the gods: I see their power at work around me every day, and I conclude that they exist, and I worship them.’ You may not agree with him but Marcus tells us very clearly where he stands.

How should we live? Marcus is much more comfortable answering this question. In modern political terminology you can almost hear him say: I have a plan. His plan is basic and not very original: “First, do nothing unintentionally or without some end in mind. Second, make the common good the only end of all your actions.” Almost all philosophers in western civilization tell us we should act with a specific purpose in mind. Acting rationally is a trademark of western philosophy. Advocating rational behavior puts Marcus squarely in the mainstream. Marcus is on a little shakier ground when he advises that the “common good” should direct our actions. Most western philosophers agree. Plato is one who wholeheartedly agrees with Marcus. Almost every page of Plato’s Republic reflects the importance of working toward the good of the whole community. But why is the community more important than our own deeply personal needs? If everyone looks out for the common good what becomes of the humanity found within each individual person? This is the tension between objective impersonal reason and subjective personal opinion. Marcus advises us to “Jettison your cargo of opinion and you are saved.” Personal preferences and communal biases must to be rejected so we can think more clearly. Aristotle agrees with this notion. Dostoyevsky does not. In Book 2 of his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle says “human excellence is of two kinds: intellectual and moral.” We can’t have one without the other. Moral improvement can’t take place unless we first develop clear minds free of personal bias. Dostoevsky says just the opposite in The Brothers Karamazov: our intellectual side isn’t nearly as important as our emotional side. It’s not what’s in our heads that counts but what’s in our hearts. To be a better thinker, listen to your mind. But to be a better person, you must listen to your heart. This is Dostoevsky’s message and it’s a real challenge to the views of Marcus.