Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, April 26, 2010

WEBER: The Spirit of Capitalism

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “time is money.” That statement expresses a certain outlook on life that is not uniquely American, but Ben Franklin has often been thought of as a good example of what the solid American citizen should be: practical, straightforward, economical. Max Weber has this observation: All Franklin’s moral attitudes are colored with utilitarianism. Honesty is useful because it assures credit; so are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the reason they are virtues. Weber doesn’t approve or disapprove. He merely looks at the facts and tries to explain them as objectively as he can.

What are the facts? Weber’s main concern is with the modern economic system we call capitalism. He’s not so much interested in the nuts and bolts of what makes economics work. Adam Smith had already done that when he wrote his monumental Wealth of Nations. What Weber wants to do is look at why this particular system evolved and what effect it has on people AS PEOPLE and not as mere workers. He puts it this way: What is here preached is not simply a means of making one’s way in the world, but a peculiar ethic…it is an ethos. This is the quality which interests us. The ethic mentioned here is the “spirit” of capitalism. It’s the spiritual and psychological foundation on which the economy stands. Weber noticed some peculiar facts about capitalistic economies as practiced in the West. It’s a mathematical equation that goes like this: Limitation of consumption + Acquisitive activity = Accumulation of capital.

The “accumulation of capital” leads to the type of economy we call capitalism. So? Who cares? We all should care. Why? Because The capitalistic economy of the present day is an immense cosmos into which the individual is born, and which presents itself to him, at least as an individual, as an unalterable order of things in which he must live. It forces the individual, insofar as he is involved in the system of market relationships, to conform to capitalistic rules of action…Thus the capitalism of today which has come to dominate economic life, educates and selects the economic subjects which it needs through a process of economic survival of the fittest. Whether we like it or not, you and I are both involved in a system of market relationships over which we have little control. We’re all engaged in an “economic survival of the fittest.” Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?

That depends on what you want out of life. Capitalism isn’t the only economic game in town. Weber says that The most important opponent with which the spirit of capitalism…has had to struggle…is Traditionalism. What’s that? Weber goes on to explain that traditionalism is an economic system where a man does not by nature wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose. In other words, under traditionalism if you pay an employee more money, he’s happy to stay where he is financially and just works fewer hours. What does traditionalism mean in practical terms? Historically under traditionalist economies The number of business hours was very moderate, perhaps five to six hours a day…earnings were moderate, enough to lead a respectable life…relations among competitors were relatively good…A long daily visit to the tavern, often with plenty to drink, and a congenial circle of friends, made life comfortable and leisurely. So if you’re willing to work less to have more leisure time but less money, you want a traditionalist economy. If you want a boat, a bigger house, a college education for the kids, and you’re willing to work longer hours to get what you want, then you tend to want a capitalist economy so you can get ahead in life. In either case, Ben Franklin was right. Time is money.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Most people have heard about Jason and the Argonauts. They may have some vague notion about a heroic journey and a Golden Fleece. But that’s about it. Most people don’t know the rest of the story. Jason didn’t grab the Golden Fleece and get back home on his own. He had help. He was helped by an “Asian” princess named Medea. To help Jason get back home she had to betray her own country and even contributed to the death of her own father. Now they’re safely back in Greece and have a couple of children of their own. But Jason has an opportunity to advance in the world by marrying a rich Greek princess. He takes it. The play opens with Jason planning on his upcoming wedding while Medea sits absolutely furious.

The Nurse (or modern-day Nanny) is worried. She’s afraid Medea might harm her own children to get back at Jason. NURSE: Why link your children with the nasty things their father's done? The boys aren’t to blame for what Dad does. But what bothers Medea mostly is her own pride has been insulted. Jason is leaving her for a Greek princess, true. But Medea is also a princess. Not only is Medea a princess, she’s a sorceress too. This is not a woman you want to cross. The Nurse tries to persuade her to pursue the path of moderation. NURSE: I don't want a grand life for myself; just to grow old with some security. They say a moderate life's the best of all, a far better choice for mortal men. Going for too much brings no benefits. This sounds like good advice to modern middle-class Americans. Don’t go for too much, Medea. Forget about Jason, just move on and get on with your life. Everybody will be happier that way. But Medea is an ancient Asian princess. Her honor has been damaged. She will get revenge, no matter the cost.

What makes Medea a sympathetic character is her underlying humanity. She’s not an evil witch and she’s not a monster. Medea’s a flesh and blood woman and a princess. She loves her children. She has been a faithful wife and dutiful mother. But she will not tolerate being dismissed. If Jason leaves her for another woman there’ll be hell to pay. Medea decides killing their two boys would hurt him most. She loves her sons, but she hates Jason more. She is fully aware of what she’s about to do. MEDEA: The evil done to me has won the day. I understand too well the dreadful act I'm going to commit, but my judgment can't check my anger, and that incites the greatest evils human beings do. In her mind there are no good options left. The gods may or may not take vengeance on Jason for breaking his marriage oath to her. But Medea will help the gods by taking matters into her own hands. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and it’s even worse if she’s got the powers of a witch. Jason’s fiancé/bride gets burned alive by a magic gown and the father-in-law Creon also dies a horrible death trying to save his ill-fated daughter. Then Medea takes the lives of Jason’s two sons using her own hands. Then there’s nothing left but to taunt Jason before she leaves in a chariot drawn by dragons.

What is a modern reader supposed to make of all this? The modern term “depth psychology” may well apply here. Euripides probes the human mind long before Freud made it popular. Modern readers like to ask questions such as: What makes Medea tick? Why do we hurt ourselves in order to “get back” at someone? Does primitive sexuality trump civilized behavior? Is there a thin line between love and hate? What happens when that line is crossed? Why is domestic violence so rampant in our culture? Euripides explored these questions too. But he had a broader agenda in mind. CHORUS: Zeus on Olympus dispenses many things. Gods often contradict our fondest expectations. What we anticipate does not come to pass. What we don't expect some god finds a way to make it happen. So with this story. So it is with our own lives.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

SCHOPENHAUER: The Indestructibility of Our Inner Nature

Philosophy has sometimes been defined as the human mind taking itself seriously. For human beings there’s nothing more serious than death. A story like The Death of Ivan Ilych proves that great literature can help us cope with real life situations such as dying. Can philosophy do that too? Schopenhauer points out that Socrates defined philosophy as “preparation for death.” And he whole-heartedly agrees. Schopenhauer goes even further: without death there would hardly have been any philosophizing…All religions and philosophical systems are primarily the antidote to the certainty of death. Other philosophers have also tried to console us with advice concerning our own mortality. Epicurus said “Death does not concern us,” with the explanation that when we are, death is not, and when death is, we are not. That’s very, well, philosophical. But it’s cold comfort to someone like Ivan who’s dying and enjoys life and wants to go on living.

The question is: why would we want to go on living in a messed up world? Is death really so bad? If we knocked on the graves and asked the dead whether they would like to rise again, they would shake their heads. In Plato’s Apology this is also the opinion of Socrates. Schopenhauer asks us to consider an old man, stricken in years, totters about or rests in a corner, now only a shadow, a ghost, of his former self. What still remains there for death to destroy? One day a slumber is his last, and his dreams are??? They are the dreams that Hamlet asks about in his famous monologue. And Hamlet did ponder this problem when he said “to be, or not to be. That is the question.” Is it better to be, or not to be? Death may be a friend to an old man who’s only a ghost of his former self. Do we want to go on existing in that condition, or not? This is religion and philosophy at its very roots. Schopenhauer tells us that …(some) religions represent man as being made out of nothing and as actually beginning at his birth the existence he has received from another. This is exactly what we find in our reading of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…and God saw that it was good.” According to this version everything that exists was created out of nothing by God. Existence is good. Cherish it.

Schopenhauer doesn’t believe that. He thinks things have always existed and always will. They just change shapes and forms. That’s neither good nor bad. It’s just the way things are. So death shouldn’t bother us. Why should it bother us if we ceased to exist in our current forms? Think about it this way …non-existence after death cannot be different from non-existence before birth…an entire infinity ran its course when we did not yet exist, but this in no way disturbs us… An infinite time has run its course before my birth; what was I throughout all that time? Metaphysically, the answer might perhaps be: “I was always I; that is, all who throughout that time said I, were just I.” Talking about infinity is a deep philosophical topic. But it’s also a deep question to consider who you were before you were born. Where were you? Did you have a name? A face? A personality? Who am I, really? What makes me who I am? In our reading of Exodus Moses essentially asks God the same question. Who are You? Who is sending me to relay God’s message to the Hebrew people? The answer is: I AM. At some point philosophy stops and the human mind is at the end of its ability to understand without supernatural help.

Schopenhauer has been down that road. He looked at Western religion and philosophy and did not find satisfactory answers to his questions. So he turned to the East. He apparently found what he was looking for in the Bhagavad-Gita: Nature’s statement is that the life or death of the individual is of absolutely no consequence. This was somehow comforting to Schopenhauer. Mark Van Doren once wrote: trust no philosopher who doesn’t relish his existence; choose life.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010


Like most of Shakespeare’s comedies, this one has a happy ending. It also has a familiar theme: boy meets girl, loses her, goes through several trials, but gets her back by the end of the play. And like most of his plays this one has some memorable lines. One poses this question: I do not know what poetical is: is it Honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing? Let’s try to find out.

In this play there’s a monologue that’s one of the most famous in all of English literature. Shakespeare traces in rough outline the lives of us all. It begins with the well-known adage that All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players… That sounds nice. That’s why it’s famous. But is it true? Is “all the world” really a stage? Are we really “merely players?” That leads to further questions. Do we get to pick the parts we play or do we have them thrust upon us by some invisible Director? Who knows? Shakespeare goes on: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts… This sounds like we’re not stuck in one role but get to play several roles during the course of our lives. We have our entrances; we have our exits. Anyone who’s lived long enough goes through several life changes. But Shakespeare breaks our roles down into distinct “acts.” Just as there are distinct acts in a play so there are distinct acts in our own lives: His acts being seven ages.

So according to this theory we all go through seven distinct stages of life. What are they? Like a good playwright Shakespeare starts at the beginning: At first the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms. We don’t remember starting out this way but this is the way we all started out in life. What’s the second stage? And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school. Shakespeare has just captured the whole essence of childhood in one sentence. Through school we learn the discipline of showing up on time, working math problems, getting along with other kids, dealing with bullies. No wonder the little lad was creeping along like a snail. School is hard. The third phase is also hard, but in a different kind of way: And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Here’s where we learn how to deal with love and broken hearts. It’s the kind of stuff that country music songs are made of. Eventually most of us recover and get on with a fourth phase of life, that of being young adults: Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon's mouth. These days our entry-level jobs may not be working as soldiers but Shakespeare has again captured the essence of young adulthood. Many young adults are “full of strange oaths” and get jealous and are quick to quarrel and seek that elusive bubble called “reputation.” As we mature many of us mellow into positions with more authority: And then the justice, In fair round belly with good capon lined, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances; And so he plays his part. By now years have passed and many people have taken on definite roles within their organizations and communities. But is this mere role-playing or is this what people have actually become? Is he playing the role of judge, or is he really a judge? More time passes and The sixth age shifts Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side, His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice Turning again toward childish treble, pipes And whistles in his sound. These are our golden years. We’ve saved up for retirement and start taking it easy. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. We end where we began. These are poetic lines. But are they true? Maybe it’s just “as you like it.”