Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, November 21, 2009

JOHN DEWEY: Habit and Will

John Dewey is one of the few Americans included in the Great Books series. And he has been described as one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. Maybe he was. Unfortunately he wasn’t a very good writer so it’s hard to tell. Few English writers need a good translation of their work into language that English-speaking people can understand. Dewey does.

Having said that, what is Dewey’s concept of the human being? What sort of creature is man? If I understand him correctly Dewey thinks we are what we do. In his words, We are the habit…All habits are demands for certain kinds of activity; and they constitute the self. Our “self” is the interpenetration of will and desire and habit and action. Our selfhood isn’t what we think, but what we do; the way we act. There’s a strong sense of pragmatism in Dewey’s outlook on life. He wants no part of what he calls hocus-pocus. That kind of thinking only retards human progress. Dewey says that Belief in magic has played a large part in human history. And the essence of all hocus-pocus is the supposition that results can be accomplished without the joint adaptation to each other of human powers and physical conditions. A desire for rain may induce men to wave willow branches and to sprinkle water. The reaction is natural and innocent. But men then go on to believe that their act has immediate power to bring rain without the cooperation of intermediate conditions of nature. This is magic… This is also a very modern outlook on life. Our modern faith is placed in science and technology, not a “god” who intervenes in human affairs. When we need rain we don’t pray to the gods, we look for ways to get water ourselves; maybe irrigation canals or trucking water in somehow. Magic has no place in the modern world.

And yet in the Great Books tradition we read about miracles taking place. In The Gospel of Mark, just to take one example, we read that there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full. And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish? And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith? And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? This story is very much in the Western tradition and is the subject of various paintings, poems, sermons and stories. Until quite recently this story was a crucial part of the Western psyche. Why? Because these kinds of stories were drilled into children from the time they were old enough to understand the meaning of words. As they grew older they may have rejected them, but kids still knew the stories by heart and it molded their lives, for better or worse.

Parents teach their children good stories because they think it helps them grow up to be better adults. Dewey also understood the importance of implanting good habits. He remarks that Only the man whose habits are already good can know what the good is…For, as Aristotle remarked, the untutored moral perceptions of a good man are usually trustworthy, those of a bad character not. It’s important to cultivate good habits because of the crucial difference it makes in our daily lives. Take the simple act of walking, for example. Dewey says Everything that a man who has the habit of locomotion does and thinks, he does and thinks differently on that account. But you could apply this kind of thought to ANY habit. Any habit makes us think and act differently. Unfortunately Dewey doesn’t know how to explain this simple fact very clearly.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

SHAKESPEARE: The Merchant of Venice

One of the great recurring themes in the Great Books is the question of justice: what is it and how do we achieve it? The first Great Book of Western civilization, Homer’s Iliad, begins with this very subject. King Agamemnon has his girl/war prize taken away so in return he takes away Achilles’ girl/war prize for himself. Is this justice? Agamemnon thinks so but Achilles is outraged. The reason Achilles is in Troy in the first place is because Agamemnon’s sister-in-law, Helen, has been taken by the Trojan prince Paris. Now the Greeks want to sack the whole city of Troy in revenge. Is this justice? The Greeks think so; the Trojans think not. Why should innocent Trojans have to suffer because of what Paris did? Many Western thinkers since Homer have tackled the thorny problem of justice.

Shakespeare takes up this issue in The Merchant of Venice. What’s a fair punishment when someone doesn’t repay a loan? Should punishment be the same for everyone, or should each punishment be tailored to fit the specific situation? Does a person’s background make any difference when a judge decides a case? In this play we have a character that’s hard to like. Shylock is shrewd, devious and demands justice in harsh terms. Antonio owes him money. Shylock demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh as payment, literally. Plus, he wants a pound of Antonio’s flesh that is closest to the heart. At this point Shylock appears to us as the embodiment of evil. When Portia, disguised as a judge, offers a way out for Antonio then we see the pendulum swing back to the middle. Antonio won’t have to die because he owes Shylock money. Justice will be served. But then the pendulum keeps on swinging and Shylock not only loses the money he had lent Antonio, he loses everything he has. This seems too much. The pendulum has swung too far the other way and now we have injustice on the other side. Shylock may be mean and cruel but he’s still a human being. He puts it this way I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? Jews are human beings. So are Muslims. Even terrorists are human beings. The most vicious criminal is still a human being. They have eyes and hands. They eat the same food and feel hurt, just like we do. They bleed and laugh and die, just the way we do. The question for modern Americans is: how should we punish fellow human beings? The question posed by Homer at the dawn of Western civilization remains the same. What is justice, in human terms?

Put another way, what should we do? Shakespeare knows there are no easy answers. Portia says If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men's cottages princes' palaces. If you think it’s hard trying to decide what to do, just wait until you try actually doing it. Portia goes on to say It is a good divine that follows his own instructions: I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching. Out of twenty people who know what’s right maybe only one will actually do it. Maybe not even one. Why is that? Portia goes on to explain that The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o'er a cold decree: such a hare is madness the youth, to skip o'er the meshes of good counsel the cripple. We’re flesh and blood, just as Shylock said. Justice takes hard thinking but Portia reminds us that this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband. Life must go on; I need a husband. Philosophers may think about justice but lovers think about each other. For Shakespeare that’s poetic justice.

Monday, November 09, 2009

THOREAU: Civil Disobedience

Americans are a rowdy bunch. They don’t like to be told what to do. So it’s not too surprising that an American would make a statement like this one: I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; but... "That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. That’s Mr. Henry David Thoreau speaking. Is Thoreau a prototype American or just a flaky eccentric? It depends on who you ask. Americans have been debating the proper role of government since the founding of the Republic. Some think government’s too big and tries to do too much; others think it’s too small and doesn’t do enough. This debate goes on today and every couple of years we have elections to decide who’s going to run things. It’s just practical politics. Things have to get done. Debating the virtues of government is a lofty goal but in the meantime potholes have to be filled.

Thoreau is more interested in the higher questions. He is above all an individualist and considers himself to be a majority of one. He muses that There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. This would be discouraging to the Founding Fathers. The whole American system of government, of laws, of checks and balances, is crucially dependent on the ability of ordinary people to govern themselves. Thoreau intends to govern himself but also adds that I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society. If ordinary citizens like Thoreau aren’t responsible for society, then who is? He’s objecting to two major things he thought were wrong with American society: the Mexican War and slavery. These are powerful objections. Thoreau is posing the question: so what are we going to do about it? He lists three options. Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? We can obey laws even though we think they’re unjust. This is what Socrates did in Crito. Many people thought he was unjustly tried and convicted and felt he would be justified in escaping from prison. Socrates disagreed. He said he would remain loyal to the laws even if he was personally treated unjustly. The second option is to amend the laws. This is what the United States Constitution is for. If something’s wrong there are legal means to change it and make it right. The third option is to break the law. This is what Thoreau calls “civil disobedience.”

Civil disobedience didn’t work in Thoreau’s case. The Mexican War and slavery both went on despite his objections. He spent some time in prison rather than cooperate with policies he thought were wrong. Thoreau could do that because he was a bachelor. His advice is to live light: You must hire or squat somewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon. You must live within yourself, and depend upon yourself always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs. But most people don’t want to just “squat somewhere.” They want homes and families and a place to set down roots. To live always tucked up and ready for a start is for nomads. Americans move around a lot but no one would mistake them for a nomadic people. Nor do they want to sever the ties that bind them into communities. Thoreau is idealistic and believes his idealism is vitally necessary for living communities: It is not so important that many should be as good as you, as that there be some absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump. The big question is whether civil disobedience can only succeed within the framework of a lenient liberal democracy. Thoreau says, Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any society which I have not joined. Lenin says, You may not be interested in war; but war is interested in you.

Monday, November 02, 2009

SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels and the Use of Language

Not many writers add an entirely new word to the English language. Jonathan Swift has: the word yahoo. According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary a Yahoo is defined as 1 (capitalized): a member of a race of brutes in Swift's Gulliver's Travels who have the form and all the vices of humans. 2 [influenced by yahoo]: a boorish, crass, or stupid person. Swift’s Yahoos are actually worse than just plain boorish, crass, and stupid; much worse. These so-called “Yahoos” are imaginary human beings in a state of nature. Swift describes them as those filthy Yahoos, although there were few greater lovers of mankind at that time than myself, yet I confess I never saw any sensitive being so detestable on all accounts; and the more I came near them, the more hateful they grew…

Let’s back up a bit and put this word Yahoo in perspective. The French philosopher Rousseau wrote that human beings in a state of nature are like noble savages. In our natural state we follow our primitive instincts and for Rousseau that’s a good thing. It’s only when we become infected by the vices of civilization that we behave badly and get into trouble. Voltaire is said to have written to Rousseau in response: One feels like crawling on all fours after reading your work. This is not a compliment. Swift is even more emphatic. In a state of nature people aren’t just bad, but the worst of all creatures. Why? Because we’re savage alright, but not in a noble way; we’re savage in the worst sense of the word. What makes us worse than snakes or scorpions is the fact that we’re rational creatures. We should know better than to lie, cheat or steal. But because we’re gifted with the use of reason we not only practice these vices, we even justify our actions through the perverted use of both reason and language. First we subvert our reason to justify to ourselves that it’s ok to lie, cheat or steal. Then we exploit language in an attempt to convince others that it’s ok for us to lie, cheat or steal. At our best we may be just a little lower than the angels, but at our worst we’re just plain savages.

A truly rational creature would behave more like the creatures Swift calls Houyhnhnms. They look like horses but behave like rational beings. The term “Houyhnhnm” is a word that not only signifies “horse” in their language but its etymology stems from the phrase "the perfection of nature.” These creatures follow Reason and Nature as their guides and don’t let passions dictate their actions. For example, the Houyhnhnms don’t even have a word for “lying” in their vocabulary. When they don’t believe some of the things Gulliver (a transplanted Yahoo) tells them, they have to search for a phrase and the best they can come up with is that Gulliver said the thing which was not. For the Houyhnhnms language is intended to communicate thoughts clearly and truly. Why would anyone wish to say “the thing which was not”? Houyhnhnms have no need to deceive and they don’t expect to be deceived in return. Here’s the Houyhnhnmian explanation: the use of speech was to make us understand one another, and to receive information of facts; now if one said the thing which was not, the ends were defeated; because I cannot properly be said to understand him; and I am so far from receiving information, that he leaves me worse than in ignorance, for I am led to believe a thing black when it is white, and short when it is long. This would have made Socrates smile. The irony is that Swift himself made up this whole story. Are we supposed to believe that somewhere in this world there’s an island with talking horses? Swift has said the thing which is not. Is fiction itself a form of lying?