Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, March 30, 2009

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil (Chapter 2)

Imagine it’s Saturday night at the college dorms. Some of the guys are out on dates. Some have gone camping for the weekend. Some are at a sports bar watching the big football game. Meanwhile Freshman Newguy (FN) is up in his room immersing himself in Schopenhauer. That’s what FN did last weekend too; and the one before that. FN despises average guys for being shallow and boring; the average guys think FN is a weirdo who spends too much time alone in his room. Who’s closer to being right? The answer depends on your perspective about what’s important in life. Here’s what Nietzsche thinks of the average guy: “The long and serious study of the average man – and consequently bad conversation (all conversation is bad conversation except with one’s equals) – that constitutes a necessary part of the life-history of every philosopher; perhaps the most disagreeable, odious and disappointing part.” Nietzsche believes philosophy is only for the strong-hearted. Not everyone is capable of understanding philosophy books; and even if they do understand them they may not like them. This is because, as Nietzsche says, “For lower minds they are dangerous, disturbing, unsettling books, but for higher minds they are herald-calls which summon the bravest to their own bravery.” Most folks find this brand of philosophy dangerous and disturbing. For Nietzsche it’s a quest for a higher level of living and thinking. Who's right? Take your pick.

In Nietzsche’s opinion the reason most people don’t attain this higher level is because they worry too much about comfort and security. Most people just want to be happy and think they can be happier if they’re also good. Most philosophers have traditionally thought this too. Ever since Socrates there’s been a strong link between the notion of happiness and virtue. Not so with Nietzsche. He says “Nobody will very readily regard a doctrine as true merely because it makes people happy or virtuous – except perhaps the amiable “Idealists” who are enthusiastic about the good, true, and beautiful…Happiness and virtue are no arguments.” Average people surely will ask: if happiness and virtue don't make for good arguments, then what does? Nietzsche is now striking at the very core of Western values. Was the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty fine for the classical world of Socrates but somehow not ok now? If we can’t hold on to these bedrocks then what can we hold on to? Nietzsche says we shouldn’t hold on to anything; not to our country, not to our parents or even to our spouse and children. To be a “free spirit” we need to let go of all traditional moorings and set off in pursuit of a totally new and unencumbered philosophy. Naturally most people will say “forget it then – philosophy’s not for me.”

But Nietzsche believes that a new order of philosophers is already appearing in the world. So who are these new philosophers? Well, for one thing they’re not your average guys. Philosophers have never been average guys but here’s the difference: Socrates would go about the marketplace talking to politicians and shoemakers, young boys and old men, the brilliant and the dull. The new philosopher will avoid the marketplace like the plague. Why? Because the marketplace is filled with ordinary people. The new philosophers want to be “free spirits” and in the modern world ordinary people are “slaves of democratic taste and people with modern ideas are not free spirits, they’re just superficial thinkers…What they want is security, safety, comfort and “Equal Rights”…they don’t believe in the dangerous formula: Beyond Good and Evil…” Whether this new philosophy is a blessing or a curse depends on your view of human nature and what you want out of life. Do you want to develop into a super-human hero? Then this new philosophy is a blessing. Do you want a quiet, peaceful life? Then it’s a curse. Take your pick.

On the Prejudices of Philosophers

Part One of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil is devoted to a critique of philosophy and asks whether or not the entire tradition of western philosophy is based on a sham, or at the very least, a radical misunderstanding of the limits of reason. Nietzsche speaks of the seductive charms of philosophy, especially as formulated by Plato. Much of philosophy since Plato has been a response to his claim that reality is essentially rational, and can be perceived, with proper guidance, as a region of ultimate truth. Truth, for Plato, is the state of absolute perfection, a realm of eternal ideas or "forms" which prop up the inferior material world (the world of "appearances") that we all inhabit. Nietzsche blames Plato for propagating a myth, a kind of metaphysical ghost story which has burdened philosophy with pointless speculation about abstract ideas, when in fact the only truth worth pursuing is the study of our own human nature, or what Freud might call the inner life of man. Of course, Nietzsche would not approve of Freud's invention of the subconscious, with its own mythological entities such as the id or superego. But at least Freud was correct to focus his research on the substratum of human behavior, the drives and impulses that guide our every action.

For Nietzsche, Plato, is simply the father of all lies, a Mephistopheles who infects human reason with the fantasy of a non-visible world of spirit. Why does this matter? Because the legacy of this fantasy will be our entire body of Judeo-Christian morality which we inherit from the merger between Jewish religion with neo-Platonic philosophy. Nietzsche believes this merger was catastrophic for western culture. Christianity becomes a repudiation of all things material and substitutes for normal human drives a kind of neurotic fascination for other-worldly salvation. But his analysis of western morality is not addressed here. Part One is entitled "On the Prejudices of Philosophers" and that is where he directs his complaint.

Nietzsche suggests that the whole project of philosophy, i.e., the search (or will) for truth is delusional...

Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosopher so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir. (13)

There is no way to separate human reason from human psychology. We are fundamentally biological organisms with biological needs. Philosophy is an attempt to impose reason upon nature, which is unreceptive to human feeling. In this respect, Nietzsche believes that our current trust in the power of science or technology to resolve basic problems in human society is also doomed to fail. The really significant problems such as crime, social unrest, war, insanity, etc., are mere manifestations of a deeper conflict that cannot be resolved through logic. Morality is society's attempt to regulate this conflict and keep it within acceptable limits. But morality cannot transform or cure what nature has provided. Inequalities exist because nature is not a slave to human desire. Philosophy (and science) is man's attempt to understand nature, but human understanding itself, as Freud recognized, is subject to irrational forces beyond our control.

Nietzsche believes that philosophy seduces man into believing he can transcend his human limitations. That is why all philosophy deals in dogma. It hides behind a cloud of illogical assumptions. For example, western philosophy is dualistic in its approach. It assumes that reality can be divided into opposing categories: matter and spirit; truth and error; substance and quality; day and night; good and evil. But, in fact, no clear line separates these categories because we have no clear understanding of what these categories represent. Every noun in human speech is a metaphor that points to something we have in mind. But what, exactly, do we have in mind? An idea? An image? An intuition? Objects in nature at least have empirical properties that can be tested. But abstract ideas such as freedom or virtue are not easily identified. Nietzsche suggests that language itself presents an impassible barrier to our understanding because it is a symbol system whose fundamental nature is poetic, not logical. In other words, we inherit assumptions about what our ideas (symbols) refer to without really knowing for certain what these things are. Another way of stating this is to say that philosophy and poetry are essentially interchangeable. They suggest approximations to the world, but lack the means to fully disclose it.

Dogma is harmful because it hides behind the illusion that truth is knowable (or discoverable). But, in reality, truth is a manufactured product, assembled from our limited storehouse of knowledge to satisfy our human craving for certainty. What Plato provides is a theory which offers man the hope that something endures beyond our brief tenure on earth: i.e., the Good. But dogma arrives at your doorstep like an unwanted guest. You start with dogma (earth as the center of creation) and proceed outward, expanding your conception of nature to account for observations which conflict with your sacred assumptions, namely the retrograde motion of the planets. Dogma always masquerades as prophesy. Like the divine right of kings, we assume its truth and adjust our observations to align with its center of gravity, in Ptolemaic fashion. Nietzsche argues that all philosophy is dogma of one kind or another. But some forms are more dangerous than others. Philosophy can only reveal the prejudices of the philosopher while unable to provide anything useful to human existence. In other words, philosophy is a palliative. It gives comfort and serenity in the illusion of truth, but is unable to relieve our distress. Moreover, it makes no difference whether we adopt Plato, Hegel, Spinoza or Kant as our guide, for they will only lead us around in circles. To escape from this intellectual wilderness, we need to abandon rationalism and return to the physical world of men and nature. For that, we must turn away from dogma toward an examination of what Nietzsche calls "the will to power."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil (Preface & Chapter 1)

The most famous piece of literature in all of Western philosophy is quite possibly Plato’s Apology which covers the trial of Socrates. Plato is firmly entrenched in the Western mind. So much so that Alfred North Whitehead once noted that "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." The Preface to Beyond Good and Evil goes something like this: Nietzsche walks into an imaginary bar of philosophers and looks around for the biggest guy he can find. The biggest guy around is Plato; so he picks a fight with him. Here’s the way Nietzsche puts it: “the worst, the most tiresome, and the most dangerous of errors hitherto has been a dogmatist error – namely, Plato’s invention of Pure Spirit and the Good in Itself…How did such a malady attack the finest product of antiquity, Plato? Had the wicked Socrates really corrupted him? Was Socrates after all a corrupter of youths and deserved his hemlock?” What’s this all about? Is Nietzsche trying to insult nearly everyone in the Philosopher’s Bar?

Yes, he is. That’s his intention. He wants to get our attention and in the Preface he does just that. Once we’ve been jolted by the Preface Nietzsche then proceeds to make some philosophically outrageous claims in Chapter 1. Here’s one claim: “Granted that we want the truth: why not rather untruth? Or uncertainty? Even ignorance?” Here’s another one: “The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it…” Why do these ideas sound so crazy? They sound crazy because we’re used to thinking about philosophy the way Plato said it should be done. We examine questions like: What is justice? How should we live? Why should we try to be good? What happens after we die? These are the questions Plato would have us ask. Many of us are Platonists whether we know it or not. Nietzsche knows this.

So he proceeds accordingly. There’s a method to his madness. He wants to get our attention but he also wants to change the way we think about philosophy. This is not an easy task. Plato (along with Aristotle) has had a stranglehold on Western philosophy for 2500 years. The study of philosophy in the West has become synonymous with the quest for Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Nietzsche asks a simple question: why? Why should we search for truth, goodness and beauty? Why not instead pursue a philosophy that is “life-furthering, life-preserving, species-preserving?” Why not pursue it wherever it takes us? If the search leads away from truth, goodness and beauty, so what? Let’s take a chance and see where this new path goes.

Many of us (me included) are inclined to say, “Oh, let’s not.” I’m quite comfortable contemplating questions like the meaning of justice. Nietzsche wants to ask different kinds of questions. What if Western philosophy’s search for “truth” been going down the wrong path all along? Has Plato mislead us from the beginning? In the beginning Socrates would question everyone about everything. This idea of a “Great Conversation” became the centerpiece of Western philosophy. It became so central that Nietzsche feels it has become a dogma more than a method of philosophical inquiry. Nietzsche’s idea is to blast away this dogmatic method and replace it with – what? Presumably with a new and better dogma created by, well, Nietzsche. My question is: What’s wrong with the old guys? Nietzsche believes “their thinking is far less a discovery than a recognizing, a remembering, a return and a homecoming to a far-off, ancient common household of the soul.” My reply is – precisely, that’s the whole point. It took us 2500 years to build a common household. Nietzsche and I are not off to a good start.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

RACINE: Phedre

In Hippolytus by Euripides we have a love triangle involving Theseus, Phaedra and Hippolytus. In Phedre by Racine we have two love triangles. One triangle involves Theseus, Phaedra and Hippolytus but there’s a second one involving Phaedra, Hippolytus and a lady named Aricia. What was already a complicated situation in the Euripides play turns into a very complicated situation in Racine’s play.

Racine is fairly faithful to the Euripides version but does add some interesting new twists. For one thing we get a clearer picture of Theseus. In Euripides’ play Theseus is a shadowy figure and not a very well-developed charqacter. Racine goes to greater lengths to give us a more human version of Theseus. In Racine’s play we learn through Hippolytus that “Theseus has left all his youthful errors behind him…Phedre changed his fatal inconstancy.” It’s a good thing that Theseus left behind his “youthful errors” because even though there were “tales of his noble exploits” there were also rumors of “the less glorious deeds, his promise of marriage offered in a hundred places.” Theseus is a bona fide Greek hero but Racine tempers that heroism with this less appealing side of Theseus. To put him in an even more unappealing light Racine has Theseus giving this reaction when he thinks Hippolytus has tried to seduce Phaedra: “How is it that on the face of an adulterer there shines the expression of virtue and innocence? Shouldn’t we be able to recognize by certain signs the heart of a traitor?” Given Theseus’ background that statement is certainly a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Aricia is an entirely new character. She doesn’t appear in Euripides’ play at all. Even though she’s a minor character in Racine’s play her presence greatly increases the dramatic tension. It does this in three ways. First, it adds a political element to the story. Aricia’s mere presence in Athens makes political calculation part of what Hippolytus has to deal with. Second, it adds jealousy to Phaedra’s list of sorrows. In Euripides’ Hippolytus Phaedra was merely rejected by a prudish version of Hippolytus. In Racine’s Phedre she’s not only rejected but she’s spurned for another woman. Hippolytus loves someone else. For Phedre this just rubs salt in the wound of love. Third, Racine’s play sheds a different light on Hippolytus. In this play even Hippolytus can fall victim to the slings and arrows of outrageous love – he has fallen in love with his father’s sworn enemy. Racine wrote a play full of Freudian undertones written well before Freud’s time.

But the main thread in both versions is Phaedra’s “unholy love” for her stepson. One question the reader might ask is this: Is there any possible way there could have been a happy ending to this story? The answer is probably not. This is a tragedy and tragedies are supposed to be tragic. What exactly is the tragedy here? Phedre asks herself: “To what extremes did my desires and my mind wander? I have lost my mind. The gods have deprived me of it.” It’s not real clear if Phedre’s biggest sin is letting lustful desires overwhelm her or if it’s because she directed those desires toward a taboo object: her stepson. Would it have been any more acceptable if Phedre had lusted after another young man? And is Hippolytus any better in some ways? Here’s his reaction to the whole adulterous dilemma: “I will trust the justice of the gods.” You mean he’s going to put all his trust in lusty gods like Zeus and Venus? Foolish boy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

EURIPIDES: Hippolytus

What is it we mean when we talk about people being “in love”? That’s one of the questions asked in Euripides’ play Hippolytus. It’s one of those questions where you’re sure you know the answer. But then when you start trying to pin it down it just sort of melts away in your mind. For example, Phaedra really, really wants to go to bed with Hippolytus. In fact, she’s pining away for him and hasn’t eaten anything for three whole days. Here’s the problem: Hippolytus is her stepson. Is this love? What do we mean when we talk about love? There are very good biological reasons why parents and children shouldn’t have sex. It’s bad for the gene pool. That’s probably why there’s a near-universal taboo regulating such activity. But with step-parents and children it’s a different matter. There’s no blood relationship. It’s a social or religious taboo. Why is this? There are very good psychological reasons why step-parents and children should never have sex.

The reasons why step-parent/child sex is bad for individuals is one of the themes Euripides wants to explore. Phaedra wants to go to bed with Hippolytus but of course she hasn’t because she’s his step-mother. Still, she has erotic feelings for him that she can’t ignore. The way Phaedra sees herself is: “My hands are pure but my soul is stained.” In other words, merely to have these thoughts is wrong, regardless if the sexual desire for Hippolytus is ever fulfilled. She shouldn’t even be thinking about him that way. As for Hippolytus, he’s so pure that when he finds out about her desire for him he says: “how could I commit so foul a crime when by the very mention of it I feel polluted?” It’s wrong for fathers and sons to sleep with the same woman or mothers and daughters to sleep with the same man. Why? Some folks say it’s wrong because the Bible says so. Others say it’s wrong because it’s against the law. Still others point out that we just know that it’s wrong - instinctively - even if we can’t say why. We just know it.

But all this focus on sexual relationships is really just a means for Euripides to explore a much bigger problem: What are human beings capable of? Can we excel like gods or are we limited? If we’re limited then how much can we really change? Can we even control our own thoughts; much less change the whole world? Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle set very high standards for human achievement. The sky’s the limit. Euripides seems more modest when he says: “Men shouldn’t aim for excessive perfection in life; for they cannot with exactness finish even the roof that covers a house…” This compassionate view of human nature sets the tone of the whole play: we should consider the human heart in all its complexity before passing judgment. Question: should we condemn Phaedra because she has sexual longings for her stepson Hippolytus? Perhaps she can control what she does but can she control what she feels?

One way of looking at Phaedra is to view her through the prism of the Greek gods. In this view she’s merely a pawn in a game that Venus is playing. Venus is the goddess of love and Hippolytus disrespects her when he says that “I can never satisfy my hate for women.” Venus wants revenge on Hippolytus so Phaedra’s “heart is crushed, cruelly afflicted by Venus with unholy love.” Phaedra’s nurse catches wind of what’s going on and at first she’s shocked. But after she thinks about it awhile she tells Phaedra: “Your fate isn't unusual …you're stricken by the passion Venus sends. You’re in love; so what? So are many more.” Euripides’ message seems to be: we’re all human; the human heart is a complex thing and we often have desires we can’t control. 2500 years later a psychologist named Freud would come to the same conclusion.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

EURIPIDES: The Trojan Women

In Homer’s Iliad we hear that “It is honorable for a man to die fighting in defense of his country.” He was speaking about Hector. In Euripdes’ play The Trojan Women we hear that “Whoever is wise should fly from making war.” In Homer’s case Hector wasn’t the aggressor and was fighting to defend his family and his home. That’s different from waging an unnecessary war. Here’s the question we’re left to ponder: is there any war that’s ever worth the cost it takes in human lives? Euripides play seems to say no, it’s not worth it. Not even close. Aristotle would agree, up to a point. In his Nicomachean Ethics (Bk 10) Aristotle says that “we work so that we may rest; we make war so that we may be at peace (but) no one chooses war, nor prepares for war, for war’s sake.” This sounds odd – make war so you can be at peace. In a perfect world making war to have peace would be an oxymoron. In the real world it makes sense. Aristotle believes only bloodthirsty madmen make war for its own sake. But the Trojans weren’t fighting in order to kill Greeks. They were fighting to prevent their homeland from being captured. The Trojans lost. Euripides continues the story where The Iliad left off.

It’s not a pretty story. As the title implies, this is the story of the Trojan War as told through the eyes of the women on the losing side. There’s no glory in this version of war. They’re left without husbands, without fathers, without sons, without homes. All that’s left is for them to continue life as slaves or concubines of the conquering Greeks. This is indeed an unhappy prospect for the Trojan women. For Hecuba it means becoming the slave of the man she most despises – Odysseus. Here’s how she responds to her fate: “God help me! I have fallen as a slave to a treacherous foe I hate, a monster of lawlessness.” She was once the queen of Troy. Now she’ll spend the rest of her life as a slave in the house of Odysseus at Ithaca.

For Andromache it means handing over her young toddler son, Astyanax, to be thrown from the towers of Troy. Andromache is the wife of Hector, the bravest of the Trojan soldiers. There’s no way the Greeks will allow Astyanax to live and grow up to avenge Hector’s death. So they dash him to pieces on the rocks beneath the tower. The Greeks see this as a practical way to insure their future safety. Hecuba doesn’t see it that way. Astyanax is her grandson. Here’s what she thinks about the whole matter: “O you Greeks! You have more reason to brag about your power than your wisdom! Why have you in stark terror of this child been guilty of such a hideous murder? that our city is taken and every Trojan killed you still fear a tender baby such as this?” And who was it that recommended that Astyanax be killed? Odysseus.

What can the Trojan women do under such bleak conditions? Not much. They can endure. They can go on living. But they may never again be happy for the rest of their lives. There’s no one they can turn to. The Greek herald Talthybius states it to them in blunt terms: “Nowhere hast thou any help; consider this thou must: thy husband and thy city are no more. So thou art in our power.” In this play Euripides shows us how terrible war can be. But maybe that’s the main reason why Aristotle said men go to war – to prevent what happened to the Trojan women. Nobody in their right mind would choose to go to war. However, the alternative may be even worse. That’s the human condition and it hasn’t changed much since Homer’s time. There will always be men like Euripides who point out the horrors of war. And there will always be men like Aristotle who reply: what else can we do? As long as other men mean us harm we have to defend ourselves. As Hecuba says in the play: “This is necessity’s grim law.”