Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, September 25, 2009

ADAM SMITH: Wealth of Nations (The Division of Labor)

Adam Smith’s great work on the economic theory of capitalism starts out with the declaration of a basic principle: THE greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour. This theoretical principle is easier to understand if we use a real-life example. Smith says To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture; but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of the pin-maker. A workman not educated to this business…could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. That’s not very many. But it sounds believable. How long would it take me or you to make just one pin from scratch? Smith goes on to point out that in the way in which this business is now carried on…we can be much more efficient. How? We break each task down into easy components. In making pins, for example, One man draws out the wire, another straightens it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head and so forth. Let’s say we have ten people doing nothing all day but working to make pins. Each worker has a specific role to play in producing each pin. Smith claims ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. Ten people working alone would produce maybe 10-200 pins in a day. Ten people working together can produce over 48,000. This is an incredible increase in productivity; Smith claims the vast power of capitalism makes us wealthy on a grand scale. He calls it The Wealth of Nations.

There’s no doubt that specialization of work leads to an increase in material goods. By planning out work and assigning different people to different tasks we can make more of anything. It doesn’t matter if it’s shoes or tires or pins. If we can make more of anything then we can have more of everything. That’s because human beings buy, sell and trade all over the world. If we have too many shoes we can trade them for chairs. If we have too many tires we can trade them for silverware. If we have too many pins we can trade them for coffee mugs. The wealth of nations can thus be translated into everyday terms: if we have too many shoes and tires and pins we can sell them to buy chairs and silverware and coffee mugs. That will make breakfast a more pleasant experience. It’s more civilized to sip coffee from a mug while sitting in a chair than it is to sit on a tire and pick up a doughnut by poking a pin in it.

But there’s a tradeoff. Who wants to sit around making pins all day long? In fact, you won’t even be making a whole pin. What you’ll be doing is drawing out wire; or straightening out bent pieces of wire; or cutting wire, etc. All day long. If someone asks what you do for a living you can say, I straighten out bent pieces of wire all day. Of course, not everyone will be making pins. In a capitalist system excess profits can be saved and invested in new ventures. As society becomes wealthier it also becomes more sophisticated. There will eventually be room not only for pin makers, but also for shopkeepers and merchant ships and bartenders; next we’ll need teachers, artists, and writers. The increase in wealth will also lead to an increase in leisure time for most people, so the leisure industries will also flourish. Travel will become possible for more people. Even ordinary workers will be able to afford a small vacation home or time-share. Life will be good; unless the pin making factory closes. Then what will you do? You don’t know how to hunt or scavenge in the woods or grow your own food. The only thing you know how to do well is straighten bent pieces of wire. Now what? Maybe you can sell coffee mugs instead.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

MELVILLE: Billy Budd and Justice

Simple question: What is justice? That’s easy. It’s something like doing the right thing, at the right time, to the right people. But when we try to pin it down the concept starts evaporating like smoke. It’s especially difficult if we try to apply justice to a specific case such as the one presented in Billy Budd. Most readers put down the story of the ill-fated Billy with an uneasy sense that an injustice has been committed. It just doesn’t seem fair that Billy would be executed; and since it’s not fair, there seems to be an injustice done here somehow. And yet when we look to the wisdom of the Western tradition for an answer, the same answer almost always keeps popping up: this was a legal execution. Justice was served.

How can this be? How can it feel so wrong and yet still be right? In The Crito Plato says: 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 all happened in Billy Budd. Conclusion = justice. John Dewey says justice is what contributes to the greater social good. Billy’s death served as an example to the other sailors. Conclusion = justice. Euripides thinks justice is doing the right thing no matter what other people think. The drumhead court wanted to let Billy go, but Vere reminded them of the legal requirements clearly established in the military code. Conclusion = justice. Aristotle thinks justice lies in establishing proper (natural) social relationships. Vere reminds the court that enlisted men can’t just go around striking superior officers or anarchy will result. Conclusion = justice. In Exodus justice is doing the will of God. Here we run up against a stone wall. In Exodus God communicates His will directly to Moses. Who knows the will of God in the story of Billy and Claggart? Conclusion = inconclusive. Hobbes says justice is whatever the government says it is; the state defines justice. England has set a clear penalty for Billy’s offense. Conclusion = justice.

So where does that leave us? We seem to have a showdown between justice and fairness. Is justice always fair? Some would say obviously not. Just look around you. Experience will tell you that justice isn’t always fair. But someone else might say, hold on. These cases you’re pointing out in daily affairs aren’t necessarily justice. Justice is a concept that’s not only fair, it’s timeless and never changes. So if you run into a case that isn’t fair, then it’s not justice. The story of Billy Budd doesn’t seem fair. Trust your instincts. This was not justice. Now we’re shifting onto different ground. Are we to judge with our minds, or with our hearts? Do we use logic, or emotions, to evaluate justice? Neither one seems sufficient on its own. It seems to take the whole person to answer a deceptively simple question: what is justice?

Now we have two options: trust tradition, or trust our own powers. A third option may be that our interpretation of tradition was incorrect to begin with. Plato may have meant that in this case England commanded Captain Vere to use his judgment and experience as captain to apply justice, not to follow orders blindly. Conclusion = injustice. Executing Billy Budd may not, in fact, have contributed to a greater social good but lowered crew morale. Conclusion = injustice. Euripides might have said that doing the right thing in this case didn’t consist in going against the grain of the drumhead court but of going against the grain of a too-rigid military code. Conclusion = injustice. In Billy Budd the proper relationships were not, in fact, established. On Aristotle’s terms Billy was a natural aristocrat because he was virtuous, Claggart was not. Conclusion = injustice. Billy Budd stands as a warning: Claggart was intellectual, Billy wasn’t, and Captain Vere read many great books. Moral of the story: you have to think for yourself.

Monday, September 14, 2009

MELVILLE: Billy Budd, Sailor

Imagine being captain of a war ship. Your chief petty officer accuses an enlisted man of trying to start a mutiny. Without time to think, the enlisted man strikes the chief petty officer and kills him with one punch. What should the punishment be? Military law is clear on this point: death by hanging. But you believe the chief petty officer was lying; the enlisted man is the last guy on the ship who would mutiny. You also witnessed the event and there was obviously no intent to commit murder. What to do? What is justice? Not justice as an abstract principle, but justice in this particular case?

That’s the dilemma Captain Vere faces in Billy Budd, Sailor. Plato once defined justice as each man getting what he deserves. Using this definition we could argue that the chief petty officer, Claggart, got what he deserved. But what does Billy Budd deserve? Billy was clearly innocent of the mutiny charge. He was also clearly guilty of not only striking, but killing, a superior officer. There are also extenuating circumstances on both sides of the question. This is a very difficult decision, even in the comfort of an armchair reading the story in the safety of your own home. And Melville points out that Forty years after a battle it is easy for a noncombatant to reason about how it ought to have been fought. It is another thing personally and under fire to have to direct the fighting while involved in the obscuring smoke of it. Sports fans aren’t the only Monday morning quarterbacks. Many of us daydream about how calmly we would respond under pressure. This story may make us reconsider and hope that day never comes. Under certain conditions the time for philosophical talk about justice is over. There’s no more time to think about it. We have to act. As Captain Vere puts it so bluntly to his fellow officers: We must do; and one of two things we must do, condemn or let go.

In considering what justice is, there are many side roads we might take. For example, can an innocent man like Billy live in the same world with evil men like Claggart? Do we, as a society, have an obligation to protect innocent people like Billy? Or should we instead get rid of evil men like Claggart? But how do we know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? How do we separate the wheat from the tares? And following this line of thought even deeper: how do we know that evil men should be held responsible for being evil? Melville puts it this way: With no power to annul the elemental evil in him, though readily enough he could hide it; apprehending the good, but powerless to be it. Claggart can’t help being the way he is. This is what Melville, taking his cue from the Bible, calls “the mystery of iniquity.” There’s evil in this world and there are men like Claggart amongst us even today. What are we to make of a man like Claggart? Melville says that To pass from a normal nature to him one must cross “the deadly space in between.” This is getting us into some very deep waters. Maybe we should leave the deadly space in between to the existentialist philosophers and move on.

To get back to the main road then, we’ve still not answered the question what is justice? Remember, you’re captain of a war ship. Your crew is waiting for your decision and time is wasting. What will you do? Captain Vere’s verdict: for us here, acting not as casuists or moralists, it is a case practical, and under martial law practically to be dealt with. It may not be fair, but Billy must hang. And we still don’t know what justice is.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

SHAKESPEARE: Romeo and Juliet

Love is a theme which has a long history in the Great Books tradition. Few of these stories are as simple as boy meets girl and they get married and live happily ever after. Love, like life, is usually more complicated than that. In Homer’s Odyssey Penelope remains faithful for twenty years while Odysseus is off fighting in the Trojan War. When he returns she welcomes him back into their old bed, true to the end. Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War to a wife who has long ago taken another lover; one of the first things Clytemnestra does when Agamemnon returns is to kill him. Oedipus, without knowing it, has two children by his own mother. When Jason tries to divorce Medea it doesn’t go well; she not only kills Jason’s fiancé but also murders their two sons as revenge. Dido commits suicide when Aeneas leaves her to go establish the Roman Empire. Mark Antony prefers Cleopatra to being emperor of Rome. Dante’s love for Beatrice leads him on a journey through hell, purgatory and on up to paradise. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath tells us about her five husbands. Othello kills Desdemona because of his unfounded jealousy. The list is long and love takes many forms, yet it’s the key ingredient in each of these stories.

But of all the love stories in western literature there may be none as famous as Shakespeare’s tale of a pair of star-cross’d lovers: Romeo and Juliet. They’re young, attractive, and hopelessly in love. Unfortunately their families are mortal enemies. This story gives Shakespeare a great tragic plot to work with but also allows him to meditate on the nature of love; and he’s a master at probing the human heart.

Consider first someone who doesn’t care much for either love or peace. Tybalt tells Benvolio: Talk of peace! I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee. Tybalt isn’t interested in love, he’s much more interested in killing Montagues like Benvolio and Romeo; and if there’s ever a man hopelessly in love, it’s got to be Romeo. He knows it too. He himself admits that Love is a smoke rais’d with the fume of sighs…what is it else? A madness most discreet. Even knowing this, he can’t help himself. He has no control over his own emotions and says as much when he proclaims I have lost myself; I am not here; This is not Romeo, he’s some other where. So it’s no real surprise when he stammers one of the most famous lines in the literature of love: But soft! What light through yonder window breaks, it is the east, and Juliet is the sun! Say what?

To Romeo’s friends this is pure nonsense. Benvolio counsels him not to get too hung up on one woman. Benvolio: Be rul’d by me, forget to think of her. Romeo: O, teach me how I should forget to think. Benvolio: By giving liberty unto thine eyes; examine other beauties. Benvolio’s advice is old: there’s more than one fish in the sea. Mercutio has a different take. Love isn’t a game for sissies. His advice to Romeo is If love be rough with you, be rough with love… Does Romeo listen? Of course not. He’s in love. Does anyone so deeply in love ever listen to sound advice? He does what many lovers do, even today; he plunges in head over heels and doesn’t worry about the consequences. It all ends in tragedy, but what a tragedy. Shakespeare knows a good story when he sees one and he knows the human heart as well as any modern psychologist. The result is magnificent For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.