Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, December 26, 2009

THUCYDIDES: The Study of History

The Great Books have been broken down, roughly, into four basic categories: Literature, Philosophy, History, and Mathematics/Natural Science. Each one has its own method and purpose. In some ways they all have something in common with history. Literature tells stories; so does history. Philosophy pursues wisdom; so does history. Mathematics tries to put things into a logical order; so does history. Science tries to explain the real world; so does history. Then what makes history different? Why does it claim its own separate category of method and purpose?

Let’s tackle the question of purpose first. What’s the point of studying history? What good does it do? People give many different answers to this question. Historians themselves don’t always agree. Here’s one answer: Thucydides the Athenian wrote the history of the war fought between Athens and Sparta…in the belief that it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those which had taken place in the past. Thucydides could have written about literature or philosophy or science or mathematics. All of these areas were fertile subjects in ancient Athens. After all, this was the age of Sophocles and Socrates and Hippocrates. Yet Thucydides chose to devote himself to writing a history of the war between Athens and Sparta because it was “worth writing about.” Why? Because this wasn’t just an ordinary skirmish between a couple of small city-states. Thucydides writes that…after looking back into it as far as I can, all the evidence leads me to conclude that these periods were not great periods either in warfare or in anything else. But this time things were different. This was to be a “great war” fought between the two regional superpowers: Athens and Sparta. The fate of the whole Mediterranean region depended on who came out victorious. In hindsight, the fate of the whole western world depended on the outcome. For better or worse, western civilization is what it is because the Athenians lost this long drawn-out conflict. Studying the past teaches us how things got to be the way they are. That’s one purpose of history.

But the war between Athens and Sparta was a long and complicated affair. Many events happened: treaties were made and broken, battles were fought, speeches were made, political alliances were formed and also broken, armies and navies were moved around in various locations… What method can we use to make sense of all this apparently random activity? Here’s the method Thucydides used: It may well be that my history will seem less easy to read because of the absence in it of a romantic element. It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever. If Thucydides wanted to tell a story he would have written literature. If he wanted to find wisdom he would have written philosophy. If he wanted to put the real world into some sort of logical order he would have written science or mathematics. By writing history Thucydides teaches us how to gain wisdom from the Athenian-Spartan conflict, and he does it in a logical way. This is a tall order but Thucydides passes the test by writing a great history about a great war. He bet that people would always read history because human nature never really changes; and people do in fact still read stories about the past in order to gain wisdom. Thucydides was right.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

BIBLE: The Gospel of Mark and the Great Books

Question: why are readings from the Bible included in the Great Books reading plan? Answer: the Bible is the heart of Western Civilization; and for Christians the Gospels are the heart of the Bible. Biblical knowledge is absolutely necessary, even for non-believers, in order to understand western culture. Art museums, plays, music, poetry, architecture, politics, philosophy, history, even the sciences, have all been directly influenced by the Bible. For many people the Bible is divine revelation. But it also stands as a great work of literature in the Great Books tradition.

One way to consider the Bible as a Great Book is to bounce Biblical passages off other Great Books readings. For example, one of our readings comes from the modern American philosopher John Dewey. Dewey thinks if we want to change our lives then we should concentrate on changing our habits and external conditions. In the Gospel of Mark both Jesus and John the Baptist say we should “repent” of our sins. Here we have two different approaches to changing the way we live. What needs changing most: our habits or our hearts? It makes a big difference how we answer that question. Another big difference is this: 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. In the Gospel of Mark we read that there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full. And (Jesus) 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. Question: is this a miracle, or is it magic? The way we answer that question makes a big difference too.

Or consider the 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill thinks we should be free to live however we choose. He says I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions… The term “utility” to Mill means whatever works to bring about the greatest amount of human happiness. This sounds reasonable enough. But in the Gospel of Mark Jesus thinks we should follow the will of God. Jesus says not what I will, but what thou (the Father) wilt. This is quite a different concept from Mill’s notion of everyone living whichever way they choose. Question: is the purpose of life to obtain personal happiness, or is it something else? The way we answer that question makes a big difference in the way we live.

A final example might be taken from one of the greatest plays of western civilization. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet we have some of the most famous lines ever written. Hamlet is wondering whether it’s worth it to go on living in a corrupt world: To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them. In other words, should I put up with this? When someone wrongs me, should I just let it slide and get on with my life? Or should I try to get even? If I don’t look out for myself then who will? This sounds reasonable. But in the Gospel of Mark Jesus goes about preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God. It’s a very different place from the kingdom of this world. Jesus says that a man should take up his cross, and follow me. For whosever will save his live shall lose it; but whosever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. This is a hard saying; hard to understand and hard to do. The Gospel of Mark often serves as a mirror which both reflects and challenges the western values all of us try to live by. That’s one of the hallmarks of a truly Great Book.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

SHAKESPEARE: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Wives may be merry and yet honest too… All Shakespeare’s plays revolve around common human themes. Macbeth has ambition. Othello is jealous. Hamlet wants revenge. Romeo wants Juliet. In The Merry Wives of Windsor Sir John Falstaff wants money. He’s broke and needs money. Fortunately for Falstaff there are a couple of women living in Windsor who have plenty of money. Unfortunately they’re both married. For Falstaff this isn’t a problem. He tells his drinking buddies: My honest lads, I will tell you what I am about… Briefly, I do mean to make love to Ford's wife… Falstaff doesn’t rise as far as Macbeth. He doesn’t fall into a rage of jealousy like Othello. He doesn’t think too much as Hamlet does. He hasn’t fallen head over heels in love like Romeo. Falstaff has a much simpler concern: he needs money.

Shakespeare’s plays can reach majestic heights of philosophical meaning. No writer has ever portrayed the human condition more poignantly than he did in King Lear, for example. But what sets Shakespeare above all other writers is his ability to also descend to the lower depths of human nature. It would be hard to find worse people than Iago and Lady Macbeth. In the real world most folks don’t rise too high or fall too low. Their weaknesses are human and therefore understandable. Falstaff needs money. There are two women in town who have money. If he can seduce one of them, good. But if he could seduce both of them, then life would really be good. So what’s the best way to go about this seduction? Falstaff decides to write them love letters. These may be the worst love letters in the history of literature. His wooing goes something like this: You are not young, no more am I; go to then, there's sympathy: you are merry, so am I; ha, ha! then there's more sympathy: you love sack, and so do I; would you desire better sympathy? In other words, we’re both getting old, we both like to have a good time, and we both like to get drunk. Why don't we get drunk and jump in bed? How romantic.

To make matters worse, Falstaff sends the same letter to both women. He just changes the names. To make matters still worse, these two women are good friends. This is not good. Can a man know less about women than Falstaff? The reaction of the two ladies is predictable. Mrs. Page says What, have I scaped love-letters in the holiday-time of my beauty, and am I now a subject for them? All that time I was young and beautiful I didn’t get any love letters. Now that I’m middle aged and beauty has faded I get this half-baked love letter from some guy I barely even know. I don’t even like him. Mrs. Page says Falstaff is well-nigh worn to pieces with age and on top of that he’s a Flemish drunkard and on top of that he hath not been thrice in my company! In short, Falstaff’s attempted seduction of both Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford failed miserably. The only question they have is what should we do in return? In modern terms they don’t get mad, they get even. Poor Falstaff doesn’t stand a chance with these ladies.

And yet in spite of everything there’s something about Falstaff that’s likable. We laugh with him rather than at him. Of course he’s an idiot, but how many of us have never acted like idiots? He’s middle-aged, fat, and drinks too much. Yet he still thinks women will fall for him, just like Juliet fell for Romeo. Fat chance. But many (most?) middle-aged men still hold on to the same fantasy. Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet were all alone pursuing ambition, jealousy and revenge. These weren’t ordinary men. Falstaff is very ordinary; and he’s shown up to be just another aging, bungling schemer when he tries to hook up with the two wives in Windsor. In the end it’s the women who come out on top. Falstaff is in over his head. He’s a little older, and hopefully a little wiser, by the time Mrs. Page asks him: Now, good Sir John, how like you Windsor wives?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

SHAKESPEARE: Hamlet (To Be or Not To Be)

To be, or not to be, that is the question… That’s not just a question; it’s also the most famous line in all of English literature. Shakespeare was good with words. Even though we may not realize it, many of the phrases he invented are still with us today: What's in a name? That which we call a rose; The lady doth protest too much; Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?; Parting is such sweet sorrow; The winter of our discontent; What a piece of work is a man... the list goes on and on. These are all memorable lines. Any of us might have come up with phrases like these. Only Shakespeare actually did it. Such is the power of language.

But language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It has to represent something. In Hamlet’s case language is used as a tool. Hamlet fakes being crazy by saying crazy things. Hamlet tells Polonius that the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams: all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward. By acting crazy Hamlet can insult Polonius, who really is old. And Polonius ponders to himself that Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't. There is indeed a method going on here. Hamlet relates to his more intimate friends that I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw. In other words, Hamlet can turn his “insanity” on and off whenever the mood suits him.

However, there are some things Hamlet can’t just turn on and off whenever he wants. His father is dead, and that bothers him. His mother has quickly remarried, and that seems to bother him even more. Worst of all, Hamlet has seen his father’s ghost and has been warned to take vengeance. In short, emotionally Hamlet is a mess. He can be a fake on the outside but he can’t fool himself about his inward feelings. He’s falling apart. That’s when he has the famous discussion with himself about To be, or not to be, that is the question… Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them. The question, simply put, boils down to this: is life worth living? Is it worth it to get out of bed every morning and have to face all the trials of life, all the pain and suffering and turmoil that we go through nearly every single day? Is it worth it?

Maybe not. There’s always the temptation to let problems slide; just crawl back in bed and withdraw from the world. Hamlet puts it this way: to sleep, No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish'd. But Hamlet isn’t talking about a temporary withdrawal from the world. He’s talking about a permanent exit, stage right: To die—To die, to sleep; To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub: For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause—there's the respect That makes calamity of so long life. The problem with death is this: what comes next? How do we know we won’t be headed into something worse than the life we’re leaving behind? Again Shakespeare’s words heighten the meaning of this quest to leave life’s troubles behind: the dread of something after death, The undiscovere'd country, from whose bourn (boundary) No traveller returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all… Death is that “undiscovered country” from which no man returns; it’s a one-way ticket. In the end words really do mean something. To be or not…

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

MILL: On Liberty (Some Questions for Mill)

Free and open discussion of ideas is the heart of the Great Books program. In fact the first volume of the Great Books set is called The Great Conversation. John Stuart Mill is a great promoter of the liberty of thought and discussion. He feels that all ideas should be considered and investigated, then refined, and finally be refuted or affirmed. Even then the questions won’t be closed. To be effective they must be constantly reconsidered. The way Mill sees it If an opinion is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth. So in that spirit of questioning here are a few questions for Mill himself.

To begin with Mill says I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Two questions for Mill. First, why do you regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions? Many ancient and even a few modern writers use virtue instead of utility as the standard for ethical guidance. For those who use virtue as a guide something may “work” just fine but it would still be wrong. Why do you think utility is a better guide than the old-fashioned concept of virtue? Second, you say that utility must be understood in the largest sense. That larger sense is based on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Why do you assume mankind’s permanent interests are progressive? Would it make just as much sense to say that mankind’s true permanent interests are preserving what we’ve already gained by so much blood, sweat and tears? Many traditionalists actually prefer continuity to progress. Some of them think progressives are enemies of the permanent things because progressives often want to tear down what we’ve built up and replace it with something new.

You point out in your essay that Human nature is not a machine…but a tree…a living thing. People are more like trees than machines, that’s true. We grow and develop. But in order to grow and develop trees need roots for nourishment. Otherwise they just wither and die. Traditionalists believe that the customs of their fathers provide the roots of society. But you say that Where, not the person's own character, but the traditions and customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress. Why do you think it’s so wrong to follow the traditions and customs of our fathers? Those customs are the same ones your family and neighbors live by. A man lives in a certain place; so it matters how he lives. In your opinion it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin. That may be so. Londoners are more likely to be Christian than Buddhist because that’s where the Anglican Church is located. You would expect to find more Muslims in Mecca and more Hindus in India. But why do you assume it was “mere accident” that placed this gentleman in London in the first place? Have you considered the possibility that he’s in London for a reason? That used to be thought of as divine providence and many people took that notion very seriously. They believed things happened for a reason, even though we can’t always understand what that reason is. Some people still believe that. Are there some things the power of human reason can’t penetrate? Do you believe there are some things beyond human comprehension? Can we have a great conversation about things that are beyond human comprehension? At that point we may have reached a dead end. There are many other questions that come to mind. It’s a tribute to Mill’s essay to cover so many issues. Everyone may not agree with all of his conclusions but Mill belongs in the Great Books.