Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, January 23, 2010

MAIMONIDES: On Evil in A Good World

Here’s an age-old problem: if God is all-good and all-powerful, then why is there evil in the world? The answer to that question isn’t an easy one. Maimonides starts by pointing out that human beings are composed of two things: matter and form. What does that mean? Matter is concerned with things like eating and drinking and copulation and passionate desire for these things, as well as anger and all bad habits. Form is that part of us which gives man’s apprehension of his Creator, his mental representation of every intelligible, his control of his desire and his anger, his thought on what ought to be preferred and what avoided…and so forth. It’s very important that we remember people contain both things at once, both matter and form. Without either one we wouldn’t exist because it is impossible for matter to exist without form and for any of the forms to exist without matter. We’re in the delicate position of being made in the image of God and His likeness while at the same time being bound to earthy, turbid, and dark matter, which calls down upon man every imperfection and corruption. We’re being pulled both upward and downward at the same time. No wonder people are confused.

That’s all well and good but it still hasn’t answered the question: why is there evil in the world? Part of the reason is because of matter, the material we’re made of; part of the reason is because of form, the thoughts we have. Maimonides points out that the Bible is aimed mostly at curbing our physical appetites or at least containing them within reasonable limits: the commandments and prohibitions of the Law are only intended to quell all the impulses of matter. This includes things like eating, drinking, copulation, anger, and all the habits consequent upon desire and anger… None of these activities are necessarily bad. But any of them can become bad when they exceed reasonable limits. Our “form” as human beings is what helps keep these desires in check. We weren’t made to live like beasts. Maimonides firmly believes we were created by God to live decent lives. However, he also knows that matter is a strong veil and whenever we try to understand divine things we are separated by a veil from God because we’re physical beings. Maimonides goes on to say that the apprehension of His true reality is impossible for us because of the dark matter that encompasses us and not Him, for He is not a body. (Note: it’s interesting to consider a previous reading, The Gospel of Mark, from Maimonides’ point of view. God puts on “matter” (human flesh) and becomes pure “form” living in the material world.)

Evil then only occurs within this whole context of matter and form. In The Book of Genesis we read that God created the physical world and it was good, all of it. So God doesn’t create evil. Evil is the absence of God’s presence, whether it’s in matter or form. In Maimonides’ words: evils are only evils in relation to something…all evils are the lack of something. For us death is evil; the lack of life, which God created as good. Illness is evil; the lack of health, which God created as good. Ignorance is evil; the lack of knowledge, which God created as good. Every evil is just the absence or corruption of some good which God created and gave to us. A simple example is someone turning out a light. All of a sudden it’s dark. Darkness is the absence of light. For people who are afraid of the dark, darkness is an evil. Is darkness really “evil”? No. Maimonides says every ignoramus imagines that all exists with a view to his individual sake; it is as if there were nothing that exists except him. And if something happens to him that is contrary to what he wishes, he makes the trenchant judgment that all that exists is an evil. Let’s put this in perspective. We’re part of a universe that is more immense than we can imagine. Most of it is dark. Does that mean most of it is evil? No. It’s just dark. God created light to shine in the darkness so people wouldn’t be afraid. The absence of this light is what some people call evil.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

CHEKHOV: Uncle Vanya and Country Living

Many Americans get tired of the rat race of modern life and daydream about getting away from it all. Maybe get a little place out in the country somewhere, where nobody will bother you. Chekhov has a little piece of advice: be careful what you wish for, you may get it. You may get away from the hectic pace of modern living alright. You may also find yourself bored out of your mind. Anton Chekhov was a 19th century Russian doctor and author and had a deep understanding of human nature. His insights are just as true for Americans now as they were for Russians back then. The quest for leisure can lead to mere idleness. The search for relaxation can end up in sheer boredom.

The setting for Uncle Vanya takes place on a country Russian estate but could have taken place in almost any rural setting. It’s not the geographical location that makes the big difference. It’s the people. They don’t know what to do with themselves. The young wife of an old professor sums up the whole situation. ELENA: There is something very wrong in this house. Your mother hates everything…the professor is irritable…Sonya is angry…you hate my husband…I am on edge…There is something very wrong in this house. There is indeed something very wrong in the house. But it’s not the house’s fault. It’s the people. Elena goes on to say I’m dying of boredom. I don’t know what to do. Of course when you live out in the country there’s plenty to do. There are always chores to be done. Or she could teach or nurse the peasants. But she doesn’t want to do that kind of work. Neither does the Professor. He says: I am a scholar, a man of letters, and have always been a stranger to practical life. It wouldn’t do for a scholar and man of letters to be digging around in the dirt out in the garden. In fact, he hates rural living: To go on living in the country is impossible for me. We are not made for country life. Yet, to live in town on the income we receive from this estate is also impossible. The Professor and his young wife have only come out to the country estate because it’s so expensive living in the city. They’re not used to rural life and they don’t like it.

They’re also not hesitant to say so. This makes everybody else unhappy too. Most of these characters have lived out their whole lives in the country and it didn’t seem to bother them until the Professor and his wife arrived. Telyegin, for example, claims that The weather is delightful, the birds are singing, and we live in peace and harmony. What more do we need? But Telyegin is just a country bumpkin and doesn’t know any better. The rest of them soon become infected by the complaints of the city folk. Dr. Astrov tells Elena bluntly that Wherever you set foot, you and your husband (Elena and the professor), you bring ruin. Uncle Vanya feels like he’s been ruined by the professor and his wife: My life is over! I was talented, intelligent, self-confident…If I had had a normal life, I might have been a Schopenhauer, a Dostoyevsky… This statement shows Vanya’s lack of understanding what life is all about. He himself HAS had a normal life. Schopenhauer and Dostoyevsky were the ones who were unusual. Normal people get up in the morning and go to work. Then they come home in the evening and have supper. Then they go to bed. Nothing much exciting happens. This is normal. The old household nurse-maid is the one least infected by all of this turmoil. When the professor and his wife finally leave, it’s Marina who puts things back in perspective and says: Well, now we’ll go back to our old ways. Breakfast by eight, dinner at one, and in the evening we’ll sit down to supper; everything in its proper order, the way other people live…like Christians. It’s been a long time since this old sinner has tasted noodles. Life goes on: The geese will cackle, then they’ll stop. They cackle, and stop…There, there, little orphan. God is merciful…it will pass. Marina is a wise woman.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

CLAUSEWITZ: What is War?

The first great work in the Great Books tradition is Homer’s Iliad. It’s about the anger of Achilles and the long war between the Greeks and the Trojans. So it seems that war has been around for a very long time. People have been waging war all over the planet for as long as anyone can remember. Why? Karl von Clausewitz was a German soldier who joined the Prussian army when he was twelve years old and ended up fighting against Napoleon. Writing as a professional soldier, Clausewitz asks a simple question: what is war?

War is one of the great tragedies of human existence. Many people have devoted their lives to preventing it. They were not successful. Clausewitz was highly skeptical about these efforts to prevent war. He states that Philanthropic souls might easily imagine that there was an artistic way of disarming or overthrowing our adversary without too much bloodshed and that this was what the art of war should seek to achieve. Pacifists have good intentions. They mean well. It seems logical that diplomacy would be a more effective way of resolving conflicts. And it would be much more humane and much less expensive. Unfortunately, according to Clausewitz, the world doesn’t work that way. Clausewitz says that However agreeable this may sound, it is a false idea which must be demolished. In affairs so dangerous as war, false ideas proceeding from kindness of heart are precisely the worst. We can’t just wish war would go away. For Clausewitz pacifists are not only wrong, they’re dangerous. There’s no shrinking away from the facts: As the most extensive use of physical force by no means excludes the cooperation of intelligence, he who uses this force ruthlessly, shrinking from no amount of bloodshed, must gain an advantage if his adversary does not do the same. This is what makes war so brutal and the reason it continues: people can’t trust the other side not to be brutal once they get the chance.

And chance is another element in defining what war is. Clausewitz puts it this way: Chance – there is no human activity that stands in such constant and universal contact with chance as does war. Thus together with chance, the accidental and, with it, good luck play a great part in war. War is a human activity. People can be gullible, greedy, loving, jealous, creative, courageous or a thousand other things. But when they’re at war they turn their attentions to one objective: killing the enemy. How can a civilized nation fight a war and remain civilized? Fighting men live hard lives. How can they turn away from brutality and back to peace?

There’s an old Roman proverb that says if you want peace, prepare for war. But even if we seek peace by preparing for war, what kind of war are we talking about? There’s the catch. Clausewitz tell us that The greatest and most decisive act of the judgment which a statesman and commander performs is that of correctly recognizing in this respect the kind of war he is undertaking, of not taking it for, or wishing to make it, something which by the nature of the circumstances it cannot be. This is, therefore, the first and most comprehensive of all strategic questions. Who are we fighting, and what are we fighting for? We’d better be clear on that point, for as General Sherman once said, War is hell. For this reason Clausewitz warns us that War is no pastime, no mere passion for daring and winning, no work of a free enthusiasm; it is a serious means to a serious end. War is one of the most serious activities a human community can undertake. And because The art of war has to do with living and with moral forces; from this it follows that it can nowhere attain the absolute and certain… Once the shooting starts no one knows for sure what will happen. Homer knew all of this long ago when he first told the story of the Iliad. It was not a pleasant story then. It’s not a pleasant story now.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

SHAKESPEARE: King Henry IV, Part 1 (The Idea of Honor)

There are probably very few men more unfit for war than Sir John Falstaff. He’s too old, too fat, and drinks too much. He’s also a coward, but he’s not stupid. Falstaff is in fact a very clever man. And that’s one of the primary reasons he’s unfit to be a soldier. He thinks too much. He thinks too much in the wrong kind of way. And the wrong kind of thinking can get you and your buddies killed in battle.

In King Henry IV, Part 1 we come to the scene of a looming battle. Falstaff confesses to Prince Hal that he’s afraid to fight: I would 'twere bed-time, Hal, and all well. Falstaff wishes the battle was already over and he was back home in bed all safe and sound. But Prince Hal is ready to fight. And Hal says something Falstaff doesn’t really want to hear: Why, thou owest God a death. Everybody has to die sometime Falstaff. Today’s as good as any, if that’s what lies in store for us. So let’s get on with it. But Falstaff is always quick-witted and responds as Prince Hal strides away to the battle: 'Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before his day. The way Falstaff sees things it’s not his time to go. And besides, Falstaff never pays back loans before they’re due. A lot of times he doesn’t pay them back at all.

It’s at this point that Falstaff stops a moment to contemplate the concept of honor. What exactly is honor anyway? The motto of the United States Military Academy is “Duty, Honor, Country” but what does that mean? Falstaff stumbles onto this question when he asks What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? This is a question many soldiers must ask themselves before going into battle: why am I fighting these guys? What have they ever done to me? Then he answers his own question: Well, 'tis no matter; honour pricks me on. In other words, I’ll fight because my honor is at stake. Honor is the only thing worth fighting for. But all of a sudden Falstaff stops dead in his tracks and asks another question: Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? how then? What if I’m out there fighting and honor deserts me? Then what?

Falstaff reasons with himself along these lines: Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. This is a real battle fixing to take place, with real swords. Men will bleed real blood and die real deaths. Can honor help with any of those things? The answer is no. It doesn’t take a philosopher to figure that out. But Falstaff does go on to philosophize in his own kind of way: What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o' Wednesday. Honor to Falstaff is just a word. And words are just thin air, nothing more, nothing less. Besides, defending that word “honor” can get you killed. And to the soldier who’s dead, what good is honor then? Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. 'Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead.

So like the lazy philosopher that he is, Falstaff does what he usually does; he comes to a conclusion that’s good for Falstaff: I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism. If honor’s just a word and can get me killed, then forget it. Honor is just a “scutcheon” (a coat of arms). A coat of arms means nothing if I’ve got a busted head or a deep cut or, worst of all, I’m dead. So Falstaff does not distinguish himself in battle, or anywhere else. No big surprise. And here’s a lesson from Shakespeare: If you want to have a good time, hang out with guys like Falstaff. But if you want to live an honorable life, stay away from them.