Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, February 20, 2010

CHAUCER: The Wife of Bath’s Prologue

If English literature were like boxing then surely two of the heavyweights would be Shakespeare and Chaucer. In one corner we have Shakespeare’s Falstaff: womanizer, liar, storyteller extraordinaire and rowdy companion of a future king. In the other corner we have Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. The lady has been around the block once or twice. She knows who she is and what she wants. She’s also buried five husbands. This seems like a pretty even match to me: Falstaff vs. the Wife of Bath. The story begins innocently enough. There’s a little group heading out on a pilgrimage to Canterbury to seek the holy blissful martyr. This was before there were iPods or CDs to listen to. There wasn’t even FM radio back then. So to keep themselves entertained they agree to take turns telling stories. When the Wife of Bath’s turn comes she decides to talk about what she knows best: herself. And to make it more interesting she concentrates on what she knows second best: sex. It’s a long way to Canterbury. That’s no problem because the Wife of Bath has had five husbands. And she’s going to tell us about every one of them.

She begins like this: If there were no authority on earth except experience, mine, for what it’s worth (and that’s enough for me) all goes to show that marriage is a misery and a woe… That, in a nutshell, is her whole philosophy, her whole way of life: If there were no authority on earth… To put it in modern terms, the Wife of Bath has a problem with authority figures. She doesn’t like to be told what to do, what to think, who to see or not see, and she especially doesn’t like to be told how she should act. She wants to do as she pleases, whenever she pleases. But the Wife of Bath isn’t just some self-centered airhead. To think that is to vastly underestimate her and she will eat you alive. Remember what she said: If there were no authority on earth EXCEPT EXPERIENCE. And if the Wife of Bath is anything, she’s experienced.

She’s also one of the most illogical people you’ll ever meet in literature. But there’s always a method to her madness. Every logic-twisting turn she makes somehow ends up in her favor. In short, she first decides what she wants. If logical thinking will help her get it, fine. If not, then she’ll find some other way. This approach works for her. She knows from experience how to get what she wants. And she didn’t learn it from reading books. Even the Bible were no authority for her. It’s not that she hasn’t read the Bible. She has. And she quotes it frequently to prove her point. She just twists it around to fit her needs. Here’s an example: God bade us all to wax and multiply. That kindly text I can understand. She likes that part. And she says Take wise King Solomon of long ago; We hear he had a thousand wives or so. She likes that part too. When it comes to husbands why not marry two or even eight? But she doesn’t like the part about virginity. The Apostle Paul…may advise a woman to be one; Advice is no commandment in my view. He left it in our judgment what to do…There’s a prize offered for virginity; Catch as catch can! Who’s in for it? Let’s see! The Wife of Bath doesn’t think virginity will be a big hit, and she’s right. She knows human nature too well. Her conclusion is that In wifehood I will use my instrument As freely as my Maker me it sent.

The Wife of Bath has worldly wisdom. She’s learned about life by living it; by talking to other women; through sheer trial and error. Her philosophy of life is this: trust your own experience, not someone else’s authority. That sounds good. She would be the life of the party wherever she went. The catch is: she’s getting older and she doesn’t like it. Neither did Falstaff. They’re two of a kind. They can talk their way around or through anything; almost. Time is its own authority. It trumps experience.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

MONTESQUIEU: Principles of Government

What would people be like in our natural state, without the artificial props of societies and governments? The Great Books don’t always agree on the answer to that question. Rousseau tells us that Men are not naturally enemiesWar is not, therefore, a relationship between man and man, but between State and State… Obviously civilization corrupts and kills. On the other side is Hobbes. He says that without society and government there would be no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. So Roussseau is wrong, civilization provides protection. Montesquieu thinks they’re both wrong because they’re asking the wrong question. For Montesquieu societies and governments ARE our natural state. Living in society under government is as natural for people as it is for bees to live in hives or fish to swim in schools. Montesquieu outlines these four basic laws of nature for human beings: the first is that we all seek peace; second, we all seek food and nourishment; third, we all have a natural inclination for other beings like us; fourth, we all want to live in some sort of society with those others.

We all want to live around other people. But the way we live varies widely from one culture to the next. Montesquieu distinguishes between four types of government which orders societies. First are democracies (or republics); second are aristocracies; third are monarchies; and lastly there are tyrannies (or despotisms). But these are only the FORMS of government. They only provide the shell which gives shape to a particular society. Montesquieu calls this the “nature” of the government. The “nature” of the United States government is a republic. That’s our form of government but that’s not what makes us tick. Montesquieu points out that something has to give society the energy it needs to get things done. This is what he calls the “principles” of government. These principles are what make cultures go. The nature of government (its structure) determines the principle (the driving energy) of its society.

Here’s a simple example. There are different means of transportation available for humans. We can drive a car. The means of transportation (or nature of transportation to use Montesquieu’s term) is the automobile. The principle which makes it go is gasoline. We can use a hot air balloon. The nature is the balloon but the principle which makes it rise is helium. We can take a sailboat. The nature is the boat. Wind is the principle which makes the boat move. And so forth. The way to make things move depends on the form of transportation we choose. And so it is with government. The type of government we have determines the type of society we live in.

Montesquieu outlines the four types of government and the driving force behind each one. The driving principle of DESPOTISM is fear, when a ruler maintains power by making citizens afraid of him. This is the form of government Herodotus describes in his Persian Wars. The driving principle of MONARCHY is honor. In the Iliad of Homer we find two kings vying for power. Neither Agamemnon nor Achilles wants to be dishonored in the eyes of other Greeks. The driving principle of ARISTOCRACY is moderation. In Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels a breed of talking horses act more rational and moderate than human beings. Despite being horses they form a natural aristocracy by restraining their passions. Finally, the driving principle of DEMOCRACY is virtue. Our own Founding Fathers believed that people can’t govern themselves unless they cultivate the virtues necessary for citizenship in a free republic. The Federalist Papers try to channel the political virtues so government by the people will succeed. This is a modern view of man in his natural state: an American citizen going into a voting booth.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

SHAKESPEARE: King Henry IV, Part 2

Literature doesn’t just naturally fall down from the sky like rain. It has to be thought up and written down by someone. And writers don’t just spring up out of the ground like weeds. They have to come from somewhere, from a specific place and a specific time. This is important. Nashville isn’t much like London and modern America is certainly not like Elizabethan England.

So why are we still reading Shakespeare after four hundred years? Because literature is a reflection of its own place and time. But great literature is universal and timeless. Shakespeare’s plays are often universal and timeless. The reign of King Henry IV isn’t a part of American history. But we’ve known men who are somewhat like Prince Hal, and Falstaff, and Northumberland. And Shakespeare, in his turn, lived in an age far different from the classical Greek world of the Trojan War. But he could visualize what it must have been like to meet King Priam or Agamemnon or Hector. And he was able to translate those ancient Greek stories into Elizabethan examples. One example is the story of the fall of Troy. The Greeks got into the city by hiding inside a giant wooden horse. When night fell the Greeks snuck out of the wooden horse and set fire to the place. Shakespeare has Northumberland recall that scene. One of Northumberland’s men has returned from battle to tell him that his son Percy has been killed. Before the messenger has a chance to speak, Northumberland says: Even such a man, so faint, so spiritless, So dull, so dead in look, so woe-begone, Drew Priam's curtain in the dead of night, And would have told him half his Troy was burnt; But Priam found the fire ere he his tongue, And I my Percy's death ere thou report'st it. When King Priam awoke in the middle of the night and saw that half of Troy was on fire, no one needed to tell him that all was lost. So it is with Northumberland. The look on the messenger’s face tells him that Percy is dead. Here’s the point Shakespeare is making: Northumberland isn’t the first man who’s had to face tragedy. Long before him King Priam faced tragedy on the plains of Troy. Shakespeare paints a literary picture of Northumberland, just as Homer and Virgil showed us a literary portrait of King Priam.

Shakespeare knew the story of the Trojan War very well. He also drew from English history and focused this play on the transition from the reign of King Henry IV to King Henry V. Shakespeare also drew deeply from the Bible and knew that his audience would be well-versed in Biblical themes. For example, once Northumberland has accepted Percy’s death his own mind turns to revenge and bloodshed. He tells his co-conspirators: Let heaven kiss earth! now let not Nature's hand Keep the wild flood confined! let order die! And let this world no longer be a stage To feed contention in a lingering act; But let one spirit of the first-born Cain Reign in all bosoms, that, each heart being set On bloody courses, the rude scene may end, And darkness be the burier of the dead! The Elizabethan audience would be well aware that the spirit of the first-born Cain was set on a bloody course when he murdered his brother Abel. Now Northumberland wants the rebellious fighters to feel the same rage Cain must have felt. The audience would have grasped this immediately. Shakespeare didn’t have to explain who Cain was and what he did.

Modern Nashville isn’t Elizabethan London. But some Nashvillians still read Homer and Virgil and learn about the story of the Trojan War. Some still read in the Bible (especially the King James Version, written around Shakespeare’s time): And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. We can go to the library and check out a history of England and read about the trials and tribulations of kings and queens. But very few of us could pull all of these threads together into one great story. Great literature doesn’t just fall down from the sky. That takes a Shakespeare.

Monday, February 01, 2010

HOMER: Iliad – The Roots of War

The earliest classic text of Western civilization begins like this: Anger is now your song, immortal one, Achilles’ anger, doomed and ruinous, that caused the Greeks loss on bitter loss and crowded many brave souls into hell…What a way to start a civilization, with anger and war. But somehow this seems natural and universal. One of the earliest classic texts of Hinduism is the Bhagavad-Gita. And what is its subject? War. Anger is a basic human emotion and war is a common human activity that runs throughout history, pre-history included. The Iliad takes place right at that bridge between pre-history and history; the time when oral traditions began to be preserved in written form.

So where should we begin? Begin the story when two men first contending broke with one another: Lord Marshall Agamemnon and Prince Achilles. Who brought this quarrel on? Apollo. Agamemnon angered him, so Apollo brought a plague down on the Greek army… At the dawn of history the gods were intimately involved in human affairs. Plagues had causes. And in the ancient world those causes were the gods. The thought process runs along these lines: we must deserve this; we must have done something wrong. We need to placate the gods. And so it was in the Iliad: A priest of Apollo’s named Khryses came down to the ships with gifts to ransom his daughter… But Agamemnon would not ransom her. It went against his desire, and brutally he ordered Khryses away: “Don’t let me find you here by the long ships old man; if I do, the staff and the ribbons of the god Apollo won’t help you. Give up the girl? I swear she will grow old at my home in Argos, far from her country, working on my loom and visiting my bed. Leave me in peace and go away in safety while you still can.” This is not the way to treat a priest of Apollo. Apollo is the god of healing. But he is also a god who can bring death and destruction; by bringing on a plague, for example. And Apollo is not happy about the way Agamemnon has treated his priest Khryses: Now when Apollo heard this he walked with storm in his heart from Mt. Olympos…Pack animals were his first targets, and dogs, but soldiers too soon felt the pain of the plague, and funeral pyres burned for nine days and nights. This is the background for the dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles.

Achilles wants to give the girl back so Apollo will take away the plague. Agamemnon says he’ll give the girl back because he wants to save the army. But he wants a replacement prize. He’s the leader of the entire army and it wouldn’t look right for other soldiers to have girl-prizes and the leader to have nothing. Since there are no more girl-prizes as booty he’ll have to take one from another soldier. And since Achilles is the one threatening his role as commander, Agamemnon decides to take Achilles’ girl-prize as a lesson to others. Of course this infuriates Achilles. The rest of the Iliad shows the results of Achilles anger and how it nearly destroys the Greek army. This is a miniature lesson about the roots of war: two sides want the same prize and both sides think they deserve it. Push comes to shove and the next thing you know fists (or swords, or bombs) are flying. They’re willing to fight to maintain their honor. At the dawn of civilization Homer shows us that nations behave just like people. To fight is crazy, but to back down shows weakness. That’s Homer’s lesson in both human psychology and international politics.