Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, August 29, 2009

HOBBES: Origin of Government (Laws of Nature)

The world, as Thomas Hobbes sees it, is a grim place. All men compete for finite resources. So in a true state of nature, with no government, it’s every man for himself. Without government authority to keep us in check we do whatever we want until someone stops us. The way Hobbes sees it during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. This isn’t good. Without government to enforce laws there can be no industry or culture or navigation or building, no arts and letters, no society. People will live in continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Fortunately there’s an alternative to this continuous state of war of man against man. Hobbes believes human beings are inclined toward living peacefully for three reasons: first, they’re afraid of being killed; second, they want nice homes and good food and to be able to generally enjoy life; third, they think if they work hard enough they can obtain these things. This is perfectly natural. They should want these things. Hobbes lays down some rules of nature about how this can happen:
1. We have a right to seek peace and defend ourselves from bodily harm.
2. We must be willing to lay aside some of our rights if others do the same. However, there are some rights we can neither renounce nor transfer. In the American view these include such rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Aside from these basic rights we must be willing to agree to live peacefully with our neighbors.
3. Men must keep their agreements to live together peacefully (Hobbes calls this a “covenant”). These covenants must be more than just words on a page; they have to be enforceable by some third party.
4. We should be grateful for gifts or acts of kindness from others and not betray their goodwill or break the communal covenant.
5. We should try to fit in with our community and not incite rebellious behavior.
6. If someone does break the communal covenant and then repents, we should consider pardoning the offender. This is the granting of peace.
7. Revenge is the payment of evil for evil. Except for the correction of offenders, or to set an example for others, retribution serves no ultimate purpose and is therefore only cruelty being practiced through the power of the community.
8. No one should show contempt for others within the community. All its members should be respected as citizens of the covenant.
9. Every one should acknowledge that we’re all equal under the covenant.
10. No one should reserve rights for himself that others don’t also have.
11. The community should make sure that it judges everyone equally and fairly.
12. Property that cannot be divided should be enjoyed in common.
13. Property that can neither be divided nor enjoyed in common should be allocated either by the first possessor rule, or determined by lottery.
14. Peacemakers should be allowed safe conduct. This is the white-flag rule.
15. Controversies should be submitted to an arbitrator, or judge.
Hobbes thinks if we just follow these simple rules we’ll be ok. Good luck with that.

Monday, August 24, 2009

BIBLE: Exodus

In Fiddler on the Roof the following conversation takes place between Tevye and Mendel:
TEVYE: As Abraham said, “I am a stranger in a strange land.”
MENDEL: Moses said that.
TEVYE: Ah. Well, as King David said, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
MENDEL: That was also Moses.
TEVYE: For a man who was slow of tongue, he talked a lot.

Who was this Moses? The book of Exodus is his biography but it’s also much more than that. Arguably Exodus might be the most influential book in history. Picking it up for the first time with no introduction a reader would probably ask: what kind of book is this anyway? Is it history? Literature? Philosophy? But who in the western world can pick up Exodus and not already have some idea of what to expect? Every westerner knows about the Ten Commandments. Virtually every westerner has heard the story of the plagues in Egypt and the parting of the sea. So it’s almost impossible to read this book and not have some pre-conceived notion about what’s going on.

And there’s a lot going on here; strange things as well as ordinary things. Babies are found floating in baskets in the river. There’s infanticide and murder. A young man runs away to avoid being prosecuted for a crime. People get married and have children. Burning bushes talk. National leaders debate immigration policy. There’s a discussion of construction techniques and the best way to make bricks. Sticks turn into snakes. Water turns into blood. Frogs come up out of the river and get into people’s houses and beds. There’s a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. The sea opens up to let people walk across on dry land. What’s going on here? What kind of world is this? What kind of book is this anyway?

It’s the kind of book you can pick up and understand it the very first time you read it. It’s also the kind of book you can read over and over again and still not fully understand it. In short, it’s a great book. It’s accessible to beginners and yet over the head of serious life-long readers. For example, take the story of pharaoh who has a hardened heart and won’t let the Israelites go. A beginner might say: Fine, pharaoh’s a stubborn man. I get it. A more seasoned reader would go further and ask more probing questions. Pharaoh must have his own political reasons for not letting the Israelites go. If they leave, how will that affect the unemployment rate in Egypt? What effect will that have on our economy? And what if they don’t go very far? Do I really want to risk having bands of raiders and thugs hanging around the borders? Even worse, what if they ally themselves with our enemies, or hire themselves out as mercenaries? And who’s to say that they wouldn’t perish by the thousands while wandering around in the desert? Would I really want that on my conscience? No, the best course is to keep them here in Egypt.

Another way to consider pharaoh’s hardened heart is to think of ordinary, everyday examples. During all the plagues pharaoh will finally relent and tell them they can go, only to change his mind and tell them they have to stay. But who hasn’t experienced this change of heart in real life? As Mark Twain used to say, “It’s not hard to quit smoking. I’ve quit dozens of times.” Anyone who’s ever had an addiction of any kind can relate to that. That’s what makes the book of Exodus a book for the ages: it appeals to us on a human level and speaks to us where we are. It’s the story of a people changing their bondage for freedom. All Americans can relate to that.

Friday, August 21, 2009

DOSTOEVSKY: Notes from the Underground

I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. No, I am not a pleasant man at all. So begins Dostoevsky’s tale of woe. This is the guy no one liked in school; or, later in life, at the office. He’s the one you avoided, if you noticed him at all. Dostoevsky paints a literary masterpiece by posing the question: why are people like this? The answer is both simple and complex and may not be pleasant at all.

Here’s the simple answer. There’s an internal life and an external life for everyone. As we mature we find that life isn’t usually what we thought it would be. The external world won’t easily be bent to our wishes and most people learn to accept this. It’s just a law of nature. But there are a few people, like the Underground Man, who refuse to accept it. He says what do I care for the laws of nature…No doubt I shall never be able to break through such a stone wall with my forehead, if I really do not possess the strength to do it, but I shall not reconcile myself to it just because I have to deal with a stone wall and haven’t the strength to knock it down. In other words, why do I have to accept things the way they are? Why can’t I just bend the outer world to satisfy my own inner desires? So the Underground Men of the world try to bend other people to their own way of thinking. Other people don’t usually like being bent, so they avoid the Underground Men. That’s how Underground Men end up alone, and miserably lonely. This is the simple answer.

Here’s the complex answer. Underground Men don’t want to be like this. They know they’re engaged in self-destructive behavior but they do it anyway. Either they do things they shouldn’t do, or else they don’t do things that they should do. Why? Why don’t they just act in their own self-interests, as Aristotle recommends in his Politics? Because, as the Underground Man puts it When, to begin with, in the course of all these thousands of years has man ever acted in accordance with his own interests? What is one to do with the millions of facts that bear witness that man knowingly, that is, fully understanding his own interests, has left them in the background and rushed along a different path to take a risk… History is full of powerful men who threw away everything by their own choices. Mark Antony threw away the Roman Empire for Cleopatra. How was this in his best interest? Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel. How was this in his best interest? Who knows? They had their own motivations and definitely weren’t swayed by “rational” decisions.

So where does that leave us? It may not be pleasant. The Underground Man points out, quite rationally, that reason is an excellent thing. There is no doubt about it. But reason is only reason, and it can only satisfy the reasoning ability of man… This is a direct challenge to Aristotle: why are you relying so heavily on your intellect? What about the rest of me? The Underground Man states explicitly that I quite naturally want to live in order to satisfy all my faculties and not my reasoning faculty alone. I don’t want to sit around thinking all the time. I also want to eat and drink and make love. I want to be respected by men and admired by women. I want…I want…and we find ourselves right back where we started. My inner life is filled with infinite desire and the outer world is finite. Plus, there are other people to deal with and they have inner desires too. If we don’t learn to live together we may become Underground Men. And that’s not pleasant.

Friday, August 07, 2009

ARISTOTLE: Politics and the Good Life

A lot has changed in the past 50 years; a whole lot has changed in the past 2500 years. Can someone who lived that long ago really have much of importance to say to us today? Well, yes and no. In some ways Aristotle seems hopelessly outdated. For example, he thinks slavery is not only acceptable, but natural and right. He thinks women are inferior to men because they’re not as rational. He thinks charging interest for lending money is bad. These ideas don’t go over well in the modern world. So why read Aristotle at all?

Because Aristotle also has much wisdom for the modern world. Some of his ideas are at the very foundation of western civilization. Occasionally it does us good to be reminded of them. Aristotle starts with the assumption that people always act in order to obtain that which they think good. Until fairly modern times this would not have been a controversial idea. Don’t people normally do things they at least think is in their own best interest? Aristotle seems right about this. But somewhere around the 19th century we started questioning that idea. Dostoevsky says (in “The Underground Man”) when, to begin with, in the course of all these thousands of years has man ever acted in accordance with his own interests? Come to think of it, don’t people often do things that they know to be self-destructive and against their own good. Why? Could Aristotle have been wrong about his assumption that we seek the good for ourselves and our families?

Dostoevsky may have been thinking of man at his worst; Aristotle of man at his best. For Dostoevsky people are full of sin and corruption and he tends to dwell on that aspect of human nature. But Aristotle says we must look for the intention of nature in things which retain their nature, and not in things which are corrupted. It may be true that men often act badly, but that isn’t natural for them. By nature we’re created to pursue the good life. People who live badly have been corrupted and shouldn’t be used as our model for living well. And that’s the true goal in life: not only to live, but to live well. Anyone can barely get by with just a few necessities. But is this all we aspire to? Eating and drinking and procreating until our lives are over? No, says Aristotle, we should aim higher than that; lots higher. That’s where politics comes in.

Aristotle believes that the state comes into existence originating in the bare needs of life and continues in existence for the sake of a good life. In order to be happy we need other people. For starters, there are many things we can’t produce by ourselves. And Aristotle points out that no man can live well, or indeed live at all, unless he is provided with basic necessities. Most of us don’t make our own shoes or bake our own bread. Aristotle believes shoes and bread are important. They improve life. But we need other things too. We need to be around other human beings for comfort and companionship. We need music and health care and beautiful buildings. To be fully human we need these things. Without some sort of communal life we’ll never “be all that you can be.” For these reasons Aristotle claims that he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is not part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature. Living the good life for Aristotle isn’t retiring to some mountaintop to live all by your self. Living the good life means becoming what you, by nature, were meant to be. It means participating fully in the life of a human community. And for Aristotle that’s an idea that never changes.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


The more things change, the more they stay the same. Recently the President of Honduras was removed by the Honduran army and expatriated to Costa Rica. This was done in accordance with a ruling by the Honduran Supreme Court and agreement by the national Legislature. The head of Congress has formally succeeded the President but many countries refuse to acknowledge the change in office. Question: Who’s in charge here? Who should be in charge?

That’s precisely the question raised in Shakespeare’s play King John. At the beginning of the play an emissary from France has come to proclaim the rightful heir to the English throne. The French, with some justification, believe the throne actually belongs to young Arthur. Arthur is the son of the late Geoffrey. Geoffrey was John’s older brother and in direct line of succession to be king of England. Upon Geoffrey’s death, his eldest son, not his younger brother, should be crowned king. So the French emissary refers to King John’s authority as borrowed majesty. This idea doesn’t sit well with John. He believes he’s the true king of England. So does his mother, Elinor. To make matters worse, Elinor is Arthur’s grandmother. But even Elinor must admit to John that the throne is Your strong possession much more than your right.

What makes this situation even more complicated is this fact: John is mature and tough, capable of being a king who can keep England free and sovereign. Arthur is really just a boy. If Arthur comes to the throne it won’t be long until France reduces England to a mere French province. So if you’re a soft-hearted legalist and believe Arthur should be awarded the throne then you may be throwing away England. That’s the whole point of having a king in the first place: to protect the country from foreign takeover. But if you’re a hard-headed realist and believe John should stay on as king in order to save England, then you’re left with this question: can a nation that doesn’t follow its own laws survive for very long? Arthur and his mother Constance think Arthur should be king; John and his mother Elinor think John should be king. Everyone else is expected to take sides.

Consider the poor town-folk of Angiers. Angiers belongs to England and the army of France has marched outside its gates. If Angiers doesn’t quickly acknowledge Arthur as king of England then the French will start shelling the town. However, the army of England has also come. And if the citizens of Angiers don’t immediately proclaim John as king then the English will start shelling the town. This is a thorny situation that calls for skilled diplomacy. The folks of Angiers prove themselves up to the task. When the French king says Speak, citizens, for England; who’s your king? The diplomatic answer from Angiers is The king of England, when we know the king. Brilliant strategy: when in doubt, sit this one out. They’re going to wait and see which side wins before committing themselves.

But this isn’t just a play about how private ambition creates public calamity and war. It’s also about how a country like England can survive in spite of its internal divisions. Not only Angiers but also the English lords have to choose sides. England might very well fall to the French. It’s a close call. But by the end of the play we come to learn that This England never did, nor never shall, Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror, But when it first did help to wound itself. Now these her princes are come home again, Come the three corners of the world in arms, And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue, If England to itself do rest but true. England will always survive as long as she stays true to herself. Not bad advice from a mere playwright.