Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, July 31, 2009

PHILOSOPHY IN ACTION: Euripides and the Case of Iphigeneia

Reading a Greek tragedy is kind of like reading a fairy tale. It all seems so long ago and far away. We tend to divorce what’s taking place on the stage from what happens in real life. The characters are all larger-than-life figures and we ask “What’s all that got to do with me”? Well, as it turns out, plenty. Early in the play Agamemnon sends an old man with a message to his wife that there’s danger afoot, don’t come. Menelaos intercepts the old man and takes away the message. Here’s how the play puts it:

OLD MAN: You had no right to open the letter I was carrying.
MENELAOS: And you had no right to carry a letter that would harm the Greek cause.

This is an ancient Greek version of the modern-day American Patriot Act. The technology is different but the issue is the same: does the government have a right to intercept private messages if it believes those messages are harmful to American citizens? AGAMEMNON speaks for those who believe it’s more important to protect our privacy: you broke the seal. So you know what you have no business knowing. MENELAOS speaks for those who think safety is more important than privacy: Do you see this letter? It was meant to betray all of us. In those brief sentences Euripides summarizes the two positions in our contemporary dialogue regarding civil rights versus national security.

But the play doesn’t just highlight hot contemporary political issues. It also deals with a timeless question: should young people sacrifice their lives for the good of their country? Let’s turn to two very different philosophers for guidance: John Dewey and Plato. Dewey claims that an action becomes a virtue when it is turned to account in supporting or extending the fabric of social values; and it turns, if not to vice at least to delinquency, when not thus utilized. In other words, a “virtue” is given social value by promoting the common good. Question: does the death of Iphigeneia “extend the fabric” of Greek social values and promote the common good? The Greek army seems to have this ideal as a social value: if you steal our women we will come and punish you. Whatever it takes, whatever it costs us, we will get revenge. What does it mean to “extend the fabric” of social values in this case? Is it to reinforce those values? Or change them into something new? Dewey goes on to say that a virtue is an instinctive capacity and tendency to communicate emotions and ideas directed so as to maintain social peace and prosperity; and Iphigeneia certainly wants to maintain Greek social peace and prosperity. Is the good of the community worth more than the good of the individual citizen?

Plato gives an answer to that question in The Crito: The just lies here: never to give way, never to desert, never to leave your post, but in war or court of law or any other place, to do what City and Country command; that, or persuade it of what is by nature just. So it seems Plato has an answer to our question. The community is worth more than the individual. But Plato also says Put not life nor children nor anything else ahead of what is just, so that when you come to the Place of the dead you may have all this to say in your defense to those who rule there. That’s what makes this case such a thorny issue. We have a conflict between duty and justice. Is it “just” for an innocent young girl to die so grown men can sail off and plunder some foreign country? In contemporary terms: should our children go off to fight and possibly die in some foreign land for the greater good of America? This isn’t textbook philosophy; this is philosophy in action.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

EURIPIDES: Iphigeneia at Aulis

Here’s the situation. Paris is a handsome young prince from Troy. While vacationing in Greece he meets a beautiful young lady named Helen. He asks her to go back to Troy with him and she says yes. But here’s the problem: Helen is already married to Menelaos. When Menelaos finds out she’s left him he gets mad as a hornet. He’s not just Helen’s husband, he’s also a king. His older brother named Agamemnon is also a king and they decide to call all the Greeks together to invade Troy, loot the city, and bring back Helen. All the Greeks have gathered at Aulis for the expedition and are raring to go. But here’s the problem. The wind won’t blow. And if the wind won’t blow they can’t get to Troy. And the wind won’t blow unless/until Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia to the gods. That’s where Euripides’ play Iphigeneia at Aulis begins.

Agamemnon has a real moral dilemma here. He loves his daughter and is responsible for her safety and upbringing. But he’s also leader of the Greek expedition and is responsible for their success or failure in their war against the Trojans. Here’s the choice he has to make: either (1) sacrifice the life of Iphigeneia and win glory and victory for the Greeks, or (2) save Iphigeneia’s life but go home in disgrace with all the rest of the Greek army. This is just another version of an age-old question: which is more important, your family or your country? The answer to that question depends on who you ask.

In the play we get several different answers depending on who's doing the talking. CLYTEMNESTRA takes a mother’s point of view and says: There is (no justice) in offering up your daughter as a victim of the army…Turn back, be wise. Every good mother wants to protect her child. It’s natural to take this point of view. However, in war many parents have to face a much larger context. It’s not just about me and my child; it’s about other parents and their children too. It’s about our whole country. It’s about our pride and honor. AGAMEMNON takes pride and honor seriously when he says: Being Greeks, we must not be subject to barbarians, we must not let them carry off our wives. This isn’t just an arrogant husband speaking. Agamemnon knows what he’s talking about. He himself killed Clytemnestra’s husband and father in warfare and then carried off Clytemnestra to be his own wife. Iphigeneia was the result of their marriage.

IPHIGENEIA is afraid at first. But she’s also young and idealistic. After giving it some thought she comes to the conclusion that Because of me, Greece will be free… She’s willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good of the Greek cause. ACHILLES is also young and idealistic. At first he says that he will act from a simple heart. If the commands of the sons of Atreus (Agamemnon and Menelaos) are just, I will obey them. If not, I will refuse. But by the end of the play he’s come to terms with human limits and admires Iphigeneia’s courage to accept her fate calmly: You are no match for the gods…you have reconciled what should be with what must be.

Finally, there’s the CHORUS. Iphigeneia and Achilles may think it’s noble to die for one’s country but the Chorus is having none of it: It is the role of destiny in this, and the role of the goddess, that are sick…The gods are not worshipped that way. Do the gods really require that we sacrifice our own children for the glory of our country? If that’s the case then maybe Greece isn’t worth saving. It’s a lesson for all times and all places.

Friday, July 24, 2009

DEWEY: The Virtues

A friend once told about the first time he went off to school. His kindly little old grandmother looked down at him and said “Now Warren, always remember that some people out there are mean as hell.” Little Warren never forgot that lesson. And as he grew up he found out that his grandmother was right; there are a lot of mean people out there. Why?

John Dewey addresses this question in his essay on The Virtues. One answer is that we may not understand the other person’s intention. Parents might seem mean to children when they have to go to bed at a decent hour. Or a boss may seem mean to us because we have to work extra hard to get a project finished on time. In these cases there’s been a simple misunderstanding. The parent and the boss aren’t being mean. They’re doing what parents and bosses do; they’re working for the good of the child or the company. Dewey says that there are different kinds of people in this world with all kinds of motives. He points out that One person is not more or less virtuous than another because his virtues take a different form. And this may be true in other cases too. It takes a deeper understanding to discover that the parent and the boss are striving to achieve their own values. They’re not just trying to be mean but they have goals. It’s important to grasp this concept because Dewey thinks that men must look behind the current valuation to the real value. Otherwise, mere conformity to custom is conceived to be virtue…

Socrates would agree with Dewey that “real value” is more important than “current valuation.” But their agreement may end there. Socrates believes that a value is not only real but that it’s also eternal and unchanging. Dewey thinks actions only have value in their relationships to the social culture. Context is important to Dewey. Actions that achieve social harmony are good; actions that destroy social harmony aren’t. Therefore, the idea of what “virtue” is can change from one society to another. American customs may not be the same as those in Samoa. Virtues can also change from one era to another within the same society. The values of 1860s America aren’t the same values of 1960s America. For this reason Dewey proclaims that Virtues are numberless. Not only because people develop different customs in different parts of the world but also because the times change. And even within the same culture and the same time virtues can change. Why? Because according to Dewey Every situation, not of a routine order, brings in some special shading, some unique adaptation, of disposition.

For Socrates this kind of thinking won’t do. He might respond to Dewey that “we are indeed fortunate to be looking for a virtue and here you’ve discovered a whole army of them! And furthermore you say that mere conformity to custom is a bad thing. How do you know that it's not, in fact, a virtue to conform to the customs of your country? I thought that conforming to Athenian customs was important. They were important enough for me to die for. You also say that Every situation, not of a routine order, brings in some special shading, some unique adaptation and must be dealt with as a unique situation. That line of thinking would require a unique virtue adapted specifically for every situation. That’s why you claim that virtues are numberless. Because situations are numberless you think that virtues must be too. But isn’t that a bit like trying to hit a moving target?” And the conversation would continue into the night. Dewey and Socrates discussing the nature of virtue. They would argue about what temperance is, and courage and justice. Together they pursue an elusive goal: wisdom.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


In The Crito Plato says: Now you, Crito, are not going to die tomorrow—at least, there is no human probability of this, and therefore you are disinterested and not liable to be deceived by the circumstances in which you are placed. Tell me then, whether I am right… Socrates has been condemned and is scheduled to be executed. He’s close to death; Crito isn’t. Therefore, Socrates reasons, Crito can be more objective. Whether this is true or not is open for debate. Does someone approaching death become more clouded in their thought processes? Or do they actually become more clear-minded?

This is one of the themes Shakespeare explores in King Richard II. In Act 2, Scene 1 John of Gaunt is very sick and is talking with the Duke of York. John of Gaunt tells the Duke that they say the tongues of dying men Enforce attention like deep harmony… He that no more must say is listen'd more Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose (Glose: To flatter; to wheedle; to fawn; to talk smoothly) What John's basically saying is that dying men don’t have anything to fear so they can talk straight. They’re facing death and no longer have to worry about things; not reputation, not retribution, not anything. Socrates says men facing death can’t be objective because the idea of dying has clouded their minds. John of Gaunt says the nearness of death gives him an opportunity to speak his mind without fear. Who’s right?

John of Gaunt may be able to speak his mind freely but that doesn’t mean that his speech will be any good. In fact, the Duke doesn’t think it will matter anyway because Richard simply won’t listen. He gives John this advice: Vex not yourself, nor strive not with your breath; For all in vain comes counsel to his ear. Even if Richard does listen to John, he won’t follow his advice anyway. But John of Gaunt doesn’t give up and counters that Though Richard my life's counsel would not hear, My death's sad tale may yet undeaf his ear. At this point John may or may not be totally sound of mind when he says Methinks I am a prophet new inspired And thus expiring do foretell of him. Anyone who tells you that they’re a “prophet new inspired” may be just plain nuts; but they may actually be inspired. Maybe you should listen to what he has to say. Any prophet who is “new inspired” will seem crazy to people at first. In this case John may truly foresee what will happen to Richard. It might be in Richard’s best interests to listen.

Of course he won’t. People rarely do. Only the wise can really discern which new-inspired prophets are nuts and which ones are worth listening to. Richard isn’t a wise man; he may not even be a good man. Confiscating Bolingbroke’s estates is an extreme penalty. On the other hand, Bolingbroke isn’t lily pure himself. To depose a sitting king is about as extreme as it gets in Elizabethan England. Therefore, neither Richard nor Bolingbroke seems kingly. England deserves better. As the dying fool/prophet John of Gaunt sees things, England is This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall, Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands, This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…What great lines; we might add: this Shakespeare!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

PLATO: The Crito

Let’s say you were framed. You went to trial to clear yourself but incredibly the jury found you guilty. To add insult to injury, they’ve sentenced you to death. Some of the media applaud your conviction but others are outraged. One of your friends has come to your prison cell with a proposition: arrangements have been made for you to escape. A new home is waiting for you in Cuba. All you have to do is give the word and Fidel Castro will protect you from any further persecution. The problem is you’ve always been a good, solid American and a strong defender of American freedom. You believe in America and its ideals. You love living here. In fact, the only time you’ve ever left the country is the stint you served in the armed forces. This is a tough decision. What should you do?

This is the sort of situation Socrates faces in Plato’s dialog called The Crito. Socrates is sitting in prison waiting for the day of his execution. One of his student-philosophers (Crito) comes to try and talk him into escaping to some place like Thessaly. Arrangements have already been made. All Socrates has to do is give the word. Socrates says no. At first Crito can’t understand why. He’s not just worried about what will happen to Socrates. Crito’s also worried about himself. What will people think if they feel he didn’t try harder to save Socrates? A lot of people would blame him for letting Socrates die without a fight. So Socrates tries to explain it more clearly to his student: why, my dear Crito, should we care about the opinion of the many?... the truth is, that they can do neither good nor evil: they cannot make a man wise or make him foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance.

Socrates is clearly not your average prisoner. Most inmates would argue this point: I didn’t get a fair trial so I’m going to escape. Why should I care what people think? Socrates argues the opposite: we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him. In other words, even if I’ve been convicted unfairly, that was the jury’s decision. My trial may not have been “fair” but it was legal. They followed the laws of my country so I’ll submit to them. Socrates admits that most prisoners wouldn’t agree with this line of reasoning. He says that this opinion has never been held, and never will be held, by any considerable number of persons; and those who are agreed and those who are not agreed upon this point have no common ground, and can only despise one another, when they see how widely they differ.

So Socrates stays in prison and is, in fact, executed. By staying and dying Socrates became a martyr for philosophy. He put Western philosophy on the map and his student Plato has been a guiding star for Western philosophers for nearly 2500 years. Plato didn’t have all the answers but he asked the right question: How important is philosophy? Socrates thought it was worth dying for; otherwise philosophy is just a verbal game we play and we can quit playing when it isn’t fun any more. But to Socrates philosophy wasn’t just a game. We can’t quit whenever we want. We have to see it through to the end. He took philosophy seriously and advised his students to do the same. When the chips were down Socrates had to choose. He chose; and his message has never wavered. Philosophy isn’t about thinking; it’s about doing the right thing.

Monday, July 06, 2009

PLUTARCH: Lives (Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar)

Every biography has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Every life story is based on that simple theme. Plutarch has chosen some of the great Greeks and Romans of the past as his theme. These were all truly great men. That is, if your definition of a great man is someone who does great things. Some were good, some were bad, but all of them were great. You may not like what they did (Hitler and Stalin for example) but you can’t argue that their lives didn’t matter. They did matter. They mattered very much, and they changed history.

These four men chosen by Plutarch also mattered. They mattered a great deal to the Roman world. Marius was a classic rags-to-riches story. Plutarch says Marius started with nothing: He was born of parents altogether obscure and indigent, who supported themselves by their day labor. Sulla also started with nothing, but in a different situation: Sulla was descended of a patrician or noble family but In his younger days he lived in hired lodgings at a low rate and started out his life with a father who left you nothing. Pompey had a totally different background from either Marius or Sulla: never had any Roman people’s goodwill and devotion more zealous throughout all the changes of fortune, more early in its first springing up, or more steadily rising with his prosperity, or more constant in his adversity than Pompey had. The black mark against Pompey was that his father, Strabo, had been a detested general. Caesar too had been born wealthy, and he knew how to spend it. According to Plutarch the open house he kept, the entertainments he gave, and the general splendor of his manner of life contributed little by little to create and increase his political influence. In fact, He was so profuse in his expenses that, before he had any public employment, he was in debt thirteen hundred talents.

Obviously these men came from very different backgrounds but they had this much in common: they all rose to supreme power in the Roman state. They each did it in different ways and Plutarch traces the details in each biography. He shows their beginnings, their rise to power, and what finally happened to them at the end.

Marius gave himself up to drinking deep and besotting himself at night in a way most unsuitable to his age…he fell into a pleurisy…kept his bed seven days, and then died. Sulla’s end was not pleasant: his bowels were ulcerated, till at length the corrupted flesh broke out in lice…He went frequently by day into the bath to scour and cleanse his body, but all in vain… Pompey didn’t die of natural causes: Septimius first stabbed him from behind with his sword; and after him likewise Salvius and Achillas drew out their swords. He, therefore, taking up his gown with both hands, drew it over his face, and neither saying nor doing anything unworthy of himself, only groaning a little, endured the wounds they gave him, and so ended his life, in the fifty-ninth year of his age, the very next day after the day of his birth. Caesar also met with the treachery of assassination: when he saw Brutus's sword drawn, he covered his face with his robe and submitted, letting himself fall, whether it were by chance, or that he was pushed in that direction by his murderers, at the foot of the pedestal on which Pompey's statue stood, and which was thus wetted with his blood. So that Pompey himself seemed to have presided, as it were, over the revenge done upon his adversary, who lay here at his feet, and breathed out his soul through his multitude of wounds, for they say he received three and twenty. And so ended the lives of these four great men. Their achievements were extraordinary. So are Plutarch’s biographies.