Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, October 26, 2009

LOCKE: Of Civil Government and Nature

John Locke didn’t think the world was an arbitrary place. He believed there’s purpose and order to the universe. He also believed we have minds so we can figure out what that purpose and order is. As Locke sees things The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it. By using our minds we can reason our way to improve life and make the world a better place to live. Reason is the common heritage of all mankind: 2+2=4 no matter who you are, no matter where you live. But life isn’t always as simple as 2+2=4. If it were, then we would all agree and get along with one another. In real life we often disagree; sometimes we disagree violently and people get hurt or killed. That’s the reason we band together into larger groups. We form into communities and, on a larger scale, into nations. We pick a few people from the community to make laws and enforce rules so we can live together in peace and safety. We designate these people as legislators. But it’s important for these legislators to know that they’re still part of the community too. They’re our representatives, not our masters. Locke puts it in plain terms: The law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others. The rules that they make must…be conformable to the law of nature, i.e., to the will of God. For Locke human reason and the divine will of God are not in conflict, they’re complimentary. They both teach us how to live. Locke believed that God created us to be free rational beings in the original state of nature. Rational thought leads us to know the will of God and teaches us to live better lives. But freedom also includes the power to reject rational thought and the will of God. If we reject these eternal rules of order then bad things happen.

For example, in a state of nature the earth supplies food and nourishment for every living creature. If I find acorns lying on the ground I can eat them. Anyone can. Acorns belong to everyone, first come first serve. But let’s say I go a step further. I don’t just find an acorn and eat it, then find another one and eat it and so on at random. I want to have acorns to eat in the wintertime too, so I gather a bunch of them together. Then I crack the shells to get the nuts. Then I place the nuts in a basket. Now I “own” these acorns. Why? Because I’ve taken the time and effort to gather them up, crack them open, and store them carefully in a basket. Now they don’t belong to everyone, they belong to me. Locke says we instinctively know this because for every man The labour of his body and the work of his hands we may say are properly his. I worked for these acorns, now they’re mine. All rational creatures agree to this fact; there doesn’t have to be a rule that says Thou Shalt Not Steal written in stone. It’s a natural law. Everyone knows it’s wrong to take someone else’s stuff. But some people don’t care about natural law. They just want some acorns and it’s a lot easier to take my acorns than go gather up their own.

So people like me band together with other acorn-gatherers for safety and security. We give up some of the freedoms we have in a state of nature so our acorns won’t be taken away from us by thieves. Then we’re no longer living in a state of nature but under the rule of law. In Locke’s terms the Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by… Our standing rule is that people can’t take away acorns they haven’t worked for. If they do, they’ll be punished. This is not some far-fetched theory. The American continent was a whole new world to the Europeans and was still in “a state of nature” in a very real sense. But America didn’t spring up out of a vacuum. Settlers brought ideas along with them. John Locke’s ideas on natural law, freedom and private property were essential for establishing the American colonies. Today America has become a great nation, to a very great extent, because of those ideas.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

HERODOTUS: The Persian Wars (Book 7: The Usefulness of History)

Herodotus has often been referred to as “The Father of History.” We might ask: before Herodotus there was no history? Of course there was. So how can he be the father of history? Answer: because of how he approached the subject. He himself tells us that My business is to record what people say, but I am by no means bound to believe it; and that may be taken to apply to this book as a whole. Things happened before Herodotus lived but as far as we know he was the first historian who tried to be objective about recording those events. Before Herodotus history was primarily viewed through the prism of conquering rulers or the gods. In Exodus we read about the Hebrews throwing off their bondage to their Egyptian masters. How? By following Moses and using the power of God to break the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart. This is a great story but it’s not history in the sense we know it. We hear only one side of the story.

Good history needs to present alternative points of view. We read in Herodotus that Without a debate in which both sides of a question are expressed, it is not possible to choose the better course. All one can do is to accept whatever it is that has been proposed. But grant a debate, and there is a fair choice to be made. History should give both sides of the story (hopefully in a fair way) and let the reader decide for himself what it all means. Without hearing both sides we’re left in the dark about what really went on in the past. For that matter without hearing both sides we’re left in the dark about what’s really going on today. That’s one of the primary lessons we can learn from history: there are two sides to every story, usually more. Hear them out before making any final decisions. That’s one of the other lessons we learn from history: don’t act too quickly. Good plans take time. We also read in Herodotus that Nothing is more valuable to a man than to lay his plans carefully and well; even if things go against him, and forces he cannot control bring his enterprise to nothing, he still has the satisfaction of knowing that it was not his fault, the plans were all laid; if, on the other hand, he leaps headlong into danger and succeeds by luck, well, that’s a bit of luck indeed, but he still has the shame of knowing that he was ill prepared. This was good advice 2500 years ago; it’s good advice today. Be prepared.

The thing that makes ancient history interesting is the same thing that makes ancient art or ancient philosophy interesting: it’s human. These were real people dealing with real problems trying to come up with real solutions. Were they successful? Sometimes they were; sometimes not. But they were real people, just like us. In this selection Xerxes is admiring his army and all of a sudden breaks into tears. This is certainly unexpected. Why is Xerxes, king of the mightiest army in the world, crying? Because, he says, It came into my mind how pitifully short human life is; for all these thousands of men not one will be alive in a hundred years’ time. Like many of the stories Herodotus plugs into his book, this one is rich in meaning. Xerxes has hit upon the most poignant aspect of the human condition: mortality. In a hundred years none of his soldiers will be alive. Neither will he. Neither will we. This fact puts all our power struggles into clearer perspective. What are we fighting for? What do we hope to accomplish? Maybe not much. But maybe more than we think. In this story the Greeks face overwhelming odds against the Persians. They are advised by Persian tributaries to submit and not fight back. The Greek answer: The advice you give us does not spring from a full knowledge of the situation. You know one half of what is involved, but not the other half. You understand well enough what slavery is, but freedom you have never experienced, so you do not know if it tastes sweet or bitter. If you ever did come to experience it, you would advise us to fight for it not with spears only, but with axes too. The Greeks knew what freedom means. Because they fought back, so do we.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

KIERKEGAARD: The Knight of Faith (Introduction)

Some readings in the Great Books are fairly easy to understand. You may not agree with the author but at least you know what he’s saying. Other readings are obscure. You’re not even sure what the author is trying to say, much less whether or not you agree with him. Kierkegaard is obscure. If I understand Kierkegaard correctly (and I’m not sure that I do) he’s trying to answer a simple question: what is faith? For some people the answer is simple: the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it. For other people the answer is simple but for a different reason: faith is the result of sloppy thinking, or no thinking at all. Kierkegaard seems to reject both of these views. For him there are no easy answers; but some answers are better than others. He rejects the first answer (the Bible says so) because it’s too easy. He rejects the second (personal thinking) because it’s too hard. Take the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, for example. To say that things turn out ok in the end is a failure to grasp the deeper meaning of the story. As Kierkegaard puts it, that interpretation turns wine into water. We haven’t earned the right to understand the story because we haven’t yet struggled with the awful implications involved. We’ve just glossed over the horrible detail that God has asked Abraham to kill his own son. On the other hand, to believe we can make sense of the story by the power of our own minds is just as bad: If someone deludes himself into thinking he may be moved to have faith by pondering the outcome of that story, he cheats himself and he cheats God out of the first movement of faith; he wants to suck worldly wisdom out of the paradox. The fact is this story is beyond human comprehension. Kierkegaard himself says Abraham I cannot understand; in a certain sense I can learn nothing from him except to be amazed.

So if we can’t just accept the story at face value and we can’t think our way through it, then what are we supposed to do? Apparently we have to live these things out in our own lives. We have to struggle to make sense of things that make no sense; we have to somehow come to an intensely personal understanding of the “absurd” condition of life. Fine. How are we supposed to do that? Here’s where I’m not sure I understand what Kierkegaard’s driving at because of a paradox: somehow we have to accomplish this task in the daily routine of our ordinary lives. The true seeker after faith feels no inclination to become another person…The deeper natures never forget themselves and never become anything other than what they were. Abraham remained Abraham even after his encounter with God. He was just a man like the rest of us. And yet somehow he was different. Kierkegaard says No one was as great as Abraham. Who is able to understand him? Perhaps the only one who can really understand Abraham is a Knight of Faith. The only way to become a Knight of Faith is by making certain “movements.” The first is the movement toward infinity. Spiritually we have to leave this world behind and all that goes with it; truly leave it all behind because Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith. This is difficult but not impossible. In fact, according to Kierkegaard Every person can make the movement of infinite resignation. Then comes the hard part: we have to come back down to earth and live out our lives among ordinary people. This is called “the movement of faith” and few people can do it. Kierkegaard says this movement I cannot make but he admires those who can. And for those who THINK they can do it he says faith begins precisely where thought stops. Faith lies beyond thinking; it’s living.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

SHAKESPEARE: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Good Writing and Bad)

Lord, what fools these mortals be! That’s the conclusion of Shakespeare’s fairyland play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. More specifically we see how love can sometimes make people act foolishly. In Antony and Cleopatra we get the same message, but in that case the result was tragic. Antony and Cleopatra could not hold on to both love and power. They chose love and lost everything. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on the other hand, is a light-hearted comedy. Things end well and everyone goes home happy. Characters fall in love, then out of love, then back in love again. There are love potions and playful spirits that inhabit the forests and fields. There’s a play-within-a-play that’s so awful it’s almost good, in a backhanded sort of way. Such is the genius of Shakespeare. He’s so adept with the use of words that he makes it look easy. It isn’t. To prove it, he throws in a bad play-within-a-play so the audience can see the difference.

Here’s a sample of great dramatic writing: More strange than true: I never may believe These antique fables, nor these fairy toys. Shakespeare doesn’t believe fairies really exist except in our minds; and he knows that we don’t believe it either. Nevertheless, he creates these “fairy toys” to show us what they would be like if they really did exist. He goes on to explain that Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, such shaping fantasies, that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends. Shakespeare is an amateur psychologist as well as a poet. He knows that people are moved by things other than mere logic. Our reason can convince us of cold facts, but we’re moved by the warmth of our imaginations. It’s for that reason that The lunatic, the lover and the poet Are of imagination all the same. One sees more devils than vast hell can hold, That is, the madman: The lunatic sees devils. What about the lover? The lover, all as frantic, sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt. Marc Antony, for example, found more desire in an Egyptian queen than in his own Roman wife. What about the poet? The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; and as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet's pen turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. This is brilliant writing. Shakespeare is that poet. He takes “airy nothing” and gives back to us a whole world of kings and queens and lovers and fairy-spirits. And he makes it all believable.

Do you think that’s easy to do? Then sample this little prologue from the bad play-within-a-play; the tragic story of Pyramus and Thisbe:
If we offend, it is with our good will. That you should think, we come not to offend, But with good will. To show our simple skill, That is the true beginning of our end. Consider then we come but in despite. We do not come as minding to contest you, Our true intent is. All for your delight We are not here. That you should here repent you, The actors are at hand and by their show you shall know all that you are like to know.
What is that supposed to mean? This is bad writing. And that’s just the prologue. It goes downhill from there. These guys are so bad that in modern America they would develop a cult following. At the end of the play what have we learned? Maybe not a whole lot, except seeing the difference between good and bad writing. It’s just a pleasant way to spend an afternoon or a midsummer night’s evening at the theater. Then we can go home and relax. Some plays are like that. Even Shakespeare likes to have a little fun sometimes.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

SHAKESPEARE: Antony and Cleopatra (Rome & Egypt)

To modern Americans the Romans are an ancient people. To the ancient Romans the Egyptians were an ancient people. The Egyptians were as far-removed from the Romans as the Romans are from us. That’s history on a vast scale. Reading Shakespeare’s plays are not the same thing as reading history. They’re plays. They’re meant to entertain and enlighten us about the universal human condition, not give us a definitive history of Egypt and Rome. However, that doesn’t mean Shakespeare is free to make up whatever he wants. His audience already knew the story of Antony and Cleopatra as it was related by Plutarch and other historians. But no one, including Plutarch, knew for sure what Antony said to Cleopatra, or how Cleopatra responded. Within limits Shakespeare is free to create his own conversations. Through dialog and action Shakespeare can re-create the ancient characters of Antony and Cleopatra right before our very eyes. Who were these people, according to Shakespeare?

Shakespeare doesn’t just tell us who they were by describing them; he shows us who they were through the way they talk and interact with one another. For example, early in the play CLEOPATRA says: Give me some music; music, moody food of us that trade in love. Egypt (Cleopatra) is all about music and love, food and drink; Rome (Antony) is all about war and hardship and deprivation. We know Cleopatra likes music and love. But how do we know that Antony has been hardened by war and deprivation? Because as (Octavius) CAESAR says: Thou (Antony) didst drink the urine of horses, and the gilded puddle which beasts would cough at; thy palate then did deign the roughest berry on the rudest hedge…The barks of trees thou brows’d; on the Alps it is reported thou didst eat strange flesh, which some did die to look on…Antony is one tough guy. Even among the tough Romans, Antony stands out as unusually hardened to life.

So what is he doing in Egypt cavorting around with Cleopatra? Short answer: he’s in love. As he puts it: ANTONY: Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the rang’d empire fall! Here is my space. Kingdoms are clay… Apparently Antony has had enough of fighting. Now he’s ready to take on love; and he’s never met a woman like Cleopatra. Roman women are virtuous, almost stern. Egyptian women, on the other hand, are luxurious and sensual. They’re also highly cultured and entertaining. In one scene Cleopatra’s maid has the following exchange with a fortuneteller, SOOTHSAYER: You shall outlive the lady whom you serve. CHARMIAN: O excellent! I love long life better than figs. This kind of banter takes a highly-developed sense of humor. To appreciate its finer points is an art in itself. In another scene CLEOPATRA says: He (Antony) was dispos’d to mirth, but on the sudden a Roman thought hath struck him. To the fun-loving Egyptians the Romans seem dull. Even Antony’s no-nonsense assistant Enobarbus is impressed with Cleopatra. ANTONY: Would I had never seen her! ENOBARBUS: O, sir, you had then left unseen a wonderful piece of work…

Cleopatra is indeed a wonderful piece of work. But so is Antony. Cleopatra is wonderful in her sheer exotic exuberance. Antony is wonderful in the grandeur of his ordinary manhood. He has all the strengths and weaknesses that ordinary men have; he just takes them to extremes. CAESAR says of Antony: You shall find there a man who is the abstract of all faults that all men follow. In his youth he was a great warrior; perhaps the greatest Roman general there was after Julius Caesar himself. In middle age he turns his sights on love. What better sight than Cleopatra, nude on one of her famous love boats, calling Antony to a sensual pleasure he's never known? So Rome and Egypt meet at last. On Shakespeare’s stage they come to life.