Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, May 29, 2010

MILL: Utilitarianism (selections)

In his book on Ethics Aristotle points out that people have different ideas about what they want out of life, but there’s one thing that everyone wants: happiness. Anyone who’s ever been both happy and unhappy would choose to be happy if they had a choice. Aristotle thinks happiness is a kind of good life and well-being, not just a passing feeling we have. John Stuart Mill agrees that happiness is important: The utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end. But happiness for Mill has to be a human happiness, based on the higher pleasures of life. One of Mill’s famous quotes is that It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides. This sounds good and is a good sound bite. But is it true?

First of all, what is Mill talking about when he uses the term Utilitarianism? Like any good philosopher, Mill defines his terms: Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure… Happiness in the Utilitarian view is pleasure, or the absence of pain. This sounds reasonable. Most people would say they’re happy when they’re having fun. But how would Mill’s theory account for the activities of the early Christian martyrs in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? They went out of their way to seek martyrdom. Were they unhappy? The Roman governors thought so: “Unhappy men!” exclaimed the proconsul Antoninus to the Christians of Asia, “unhappy men! If you are thus weary of your lives, is it so difficult for you to find ropes and precipices?” But these people went to painful deaths singing joyful hymns. Clearly there’s a difference of opinion here about the meaning of happiness. Mill tries to explain in more detail what Utilitarianism means: …utilitarian writers in general have placed the superiority of mental over bodily pleasures chiefly in the greater permanency, safety, uncostliness, etc., of the former; that is, in their circumstantial advantages rather than in their intrinsic nature. For Mill, mental pleasures are better than bodily pleasures because they last longer, they’re safer, and they don’t cost as much. This may convince philosophers but would it convince ordinary people? Mill thinks the case is closed: on all these points utilitarians have fully proved their case… Really? If the case is “fully proved” then why isn’t everyone a Utilitarian?

Mill thinks part of the reason is that people don’t fully understand what Utilitarianism is all about: We not uncommonly hear the doctrine of utility inveighed against as a godless doctrine…If it be a true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and that this was his purpose in their creation, utility is not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly religious than any other. This sounds good. God desires all his creatures to be happy. But our reading in the book of Job gives a very different impression about what God wants. There may be things even more important than happiness. Does Mill think that living a life of virtue, such as Job did, will necessarily lead to happiness (i.e. if I be good to God, God will be good to me)? Experience doesn’t show this to be true. Job suffers even though he hasn’t done anything wrong. Sometimes bad things happen to good people and we don’t know why. But we do know that living well is more likely to bring us happiness. That’s what Mill is driving at: the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Whether you’re a person or a pig, be happy.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


A few years ago a popular book came out called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. That could have been the title of Job’s autobiography. How do we know this? Because the Bible tells us that There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil…this man was the greatest of all the men of the east. But Job is in for a severe downturn in his fortunes. Right off the bat we’re faced with a question. Job was exceedingly wealthy. Was he the greatest man of the east because he was so successful? Or because he was perfect and upright? Or because he feared God and turned away from evil? Many more questions surface as we follow Job’s life.

Early in the story an odd scene takes place: the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face. In some ways this seems like something straight out of The Iliad, where the gods and goddesses looked down from Mt. Olympus. “The Lord” in this scene doesn’t seem much different from Zeus. It’s evident that the Lord is proud when he asks: how about my man Job? Satan isn’t impressed. Of course he feareth God, and escheweth evil, look at everything you’ve given him; he’s rich, he’s healthy, he’s got a wife and lots of children. I’d be loyal too if I had all that stuff. Take it away and Job will crumble. So the Lord decides to let Satan put Job to the test. Why? Satan is allowed to take everything Job has, including his health. Then said his wife unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die. But he said unto her, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips. Despite losing everything, Job stays faithful to God. Why? Most people would fold under those circumstances. Job didn’t. Was this why he was considered the greatest man of the east?

Then follows a long discussion Job has with his friends who have come to comfort him in his misery: when Job's three friends heard of all this evil that was come upon him, they came every one from his own place…for they had made an appointment together to come to mourn with him and to comfort him… But instead of making Job feel better they give him lectures. Here’s a typical one from Job’s friend Eliphaz: Behold, thou hast instructed many, and thou hast strengthened the weak hands. Thy words have upholden him that was falling, and thou hast strengthened the feeble knees. But now it is come upon thee, and thou faintest; it toucheth thee, and thou art troubled… This is not helpful to Job. He listens patiently to what his friends have to say, then replies: No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you. But I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you: yea, who knoweth not such things as these? … ye are all physicians of no value. They aren’t telling Job anything he doesn’t already know. But right now he’s hurting. He doesn’t need a lecture … Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O ye my friends; for the hand of God hath touched me. Pity from his friends would help Job. But what would help more than anything is this: My desire is, that the Almighty would answer me. Amazingly, the Almighty does answer Job. Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said… What the Lord says won’t satisfy some readers; it sounds too much like “shut up, God explained.” But the ways of God are deep. And so is the story of Job's life.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

GIBBON: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Books 15 and 16)

In the Great Books tradition there’s a famous scene in The Gospel of Mark. An obscure teacher named Jesus has been brought before Pilate, the Roman governor of a Jewish province. A mob has gathered and demands capital punishment for this trouble-maker called Jesus. Pilate conducts an investigation and determines that Jesus is not a criminal. But the mob insists he be put to death anyway. Pilate asks Why, what evil hath he done? The Jewish province was probably not a great assignment for a rising Roman politician. These Jews were an obstinate people and their religion was confusing not only for Romans but for most of the rest of the ancient world. The historian Edward Gibbon says We have already described the religious harmony of the ancient world, and the facility with which the most different and even hostile nations embraced, or at least respected, each other's superstitions. A single people refused to join in the common intercourse of mankind. The Jews… The Jews alone refused to acknowledge any gods but their own God, Jehovah. Pilate sensed that Jesus was somehow involved in some controversy that was rocking the Jewish establishment. To maintain peace Jesus was executed.

From this spiritual seed blossomed a Church destined to change the course of history. This reading traces the astonishing rise of a new religion that would soon dominate the whole Western world and much of the Near East as well. How could this happen? Gibbon uses his skills as a historian to help us make sense of a huge panorama. He explains that on the one hand If we seriously consider the purity of the Christian religion, the sanctity of its moral precepts, and the innocent as well as austere lives of the greater number of those who during the first ages embraced the faith of the gospel, we should naturally suppose, that so benevolent a doctrine would have been received with due reverence, even by the unbelieving world; that the learned and the polite, however they may deride the miracles, would have esteemed the virtues, of the new sect; and that the magistrates, instead of persecuting, would have protected an order of men who yielded the most passive obedience to the laws, though they declined the active cares of war and government. From a Roman perspective, here was a religion that preached peace and love. It wasn’t some militant band of outlaws trying to topple the Roman Empire. These new “Christians” followed a ruler whose kingdom was not of this world. They were instructed by their leaders to obey the laws and live good and decent lives. Who could be against that?

If, on the other hand, we recollect the universal toleration of Polytheism, as it was invariably maintained by the faith of the people, the incredulity of philosophers, and the policy of the Roman senate and emperors, we are at a loss to discover what new offence the Christians had committed, what new provocation could exasperate the mild indifference of antiquity, and what new motives could urge the Roman princes, who beheld without concern a thousand forms of religion subsisting in peace under their gentle sway, to inflict a severe punishment on any part of their subjects, who had chosen for themselves a singular but an inoffensive mode of faith and worship. Why were Christians despised by some of the Roman emperors? The Roman Empire tolerated all types of strange and fanciful religions. Why single Christians out for persecution? The answer is complicated and depends on who was emperor at the time. Some were lenient, others were harsh. But the main point Gibbon makes is that Christianity survived. In the end it was the Christian faith that drove out the traditional Roman worship of household gods. It also ended the practice of worshipping Roman emperors. Maybe this is what the emperors were afraid would happen. This new religion prepared the imagination for the appearance of the Son of God under a human form. The Gospel of Mark was just the beginning of a much larger story.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

LIFE LESSONS FROM THE GREAT BOOKS: Schopenhauer, Medea and Max Weber

SCHOPENHAUER: Don’t sweat the small stuff. All those problems that seem so overwhelming to you now won’t amount to a hill of beans a year from now. In ten years they’ll all be forgotten. In a hundred years you’ll be forgotten. In a thousand years this whole city will be forgotten. Time marches on. This little time we have on earth is just the blink of an eye. Life comes into this world, goes back to where it came from, then re-emerges as a different form of life. Life goes on. Only the forms change. There’s nothing new under the sun and there’s nothing you or I can do about it. So don’t worry what tomorrow will bring. Don’t worry about your puny little ego. In the grand scheme of things you really don’t matter very much anyway. You’re just a speck in the great cosmos of time and space. This may sound depressing at first. But think about it for awhile. Once you accept it for what it is, it’s really a liberating experience. Your ego will no longer matter. You can move beyond all those small-minded worries which seem to plague you so much. Accept your place in the great wheel of life and death and re-birth.

MEDEA: Are you kidding me? That’s the mentality of a slave. It may be an acceptable way for a philosophy professor to live but I’m a princess. Your life may not mean very much; mine does. You may not matter very much but I do. You say the world will continue long after I’m gone. But what’s that to me? That may or may not be true. One thing I do know is that I’m alive here and now. And as long as I have breath left in my body I WILL make a difference in this world. You can’t understand that because you think too much. While you’re sitting alone in your room reading a book I’ll be out sailing the seas, making love, establishing kingdoms. That’s something you’ll never experience because you’re too timid. Don’t lecture to me about life and death. I give life and I can take it away too. Test me and find out. Your ego may be small and puny. Mine’s not. I’m too much woman for a man like you. Some day death may come but as long as I’m here I’m going to live with passion. Just don’t cross me.

WEBER: Well, in my opinion both of you guys are a bit extreme. Look, most people aren’t philosophy professors and they’re not royalty. They’re just ordinary folks trying to get by the best way they can. They’ve got children to raise, grass to cut, mortgages to pay. They don’t have time to ponder the meaning of the universe or establish kingdoms. They just want a decent job and a comfortable place to come home to at night. Maybe a week’s vacation up in the mountains or down at the beach. Is that too much to ask out of life? Lighten up. We can’t be grim and serious all the time. As long as you have interesting work to do and a little leisure time, what more do you want out of life? We’re born, we grow up, we grow old, we die. But that’s what life is all about. That’s the way it was with our grandparents and their parents before them. That’s the way it will be with us too. And our children after us. And their children after them. Time marches on, that’s true. But here’s the real secret of happiness: accept who you are. Do your work. Do it well. And when the time comes to move on, then move on. No regrets. You left the world a better place than you found it. Life’s not about studying philosophy all the time. Or sailing the seas in search of glory and honor. Just stay at home and live an ordinary life. That’s the real secret of happiness.

MOLIERE: The Misanthrope

A recent U.S. survey of adults who don’t attend church, not even on holidays, found that 72 percent don’t attend because they think the church is full of hypocrites. One wag commented: Don’t let that stop you. There’s always room for one more. In modern society people don’t always live the way they should or speak what’s really on their minds. Is this hypocrisy? Sometimes there’s a fine line between being hypocritical and just being plain polite. It hasn’t always been so. In primitive cultures people often spoke more honestly to one another, face to face. In The Iliad Achilles tells Agamemnon what’s on his mind: You thick-skinned, shameless, greedy fool!...we joined you, you insolent boor, to please you…You overlook this, dogface, or just don’t care…To this the high commander (Agamemnon) made reply:…No officer is hateful to my sight as you are… This is speaking honestly from the heart. Is it an improvement?

The Misanthrope is an exploration of how far we should go in speaking from the heart. Moliere is one of the few dramatists I know who can rival Shakespeare in laying open the human heart. The opening of the play poses the question of honesty versus hypocrisy for the audience:
ALCESTE: …I say it’s base and scandalous To falsify the heart’s affections thus; If I caught myself behaving in such a way, I’d hang myself for shame, without delay.
PHILINTE: It hardly seems a hanging matter to me; I hope that you will take it graciously If I extend myself a slight reprieve, And live a little longer, by your leave.
ALCESTE: How dare you joke about a crime so grave?
PHILINTE: What crime? How else are people to behave?
ALCESTE: I’d have them be sincere, and never part With any word that isn’t from the heart.
This is great drama. We have two distinct sides here. Alceste is on the side of honesty and openness. Our hearts should be sincere. Doesn’t Alceste have a point? Shouldn’t we be sincere in our dealings with others? But his friend Philinte has a different point of view:
ALCESTE: It chills my heart to see the ways Men come to terms with evil nowadays; Sometimes, I swear, I’m moved to flee and find Some desert land unfouled by humankind…
PHILINTE: Show some leniency toward human failings. This world requires a pliant rectitude; Too stern a virtue makes one stiff and rude; Good sense views all extremes with detestation, And bids us to be noble in moderation. The rigid virtues of the ancient days Are not for us; they jar with all our ways And ask of us too lofty a perfection. Wise men accept their times without objection, And there’s no greater folly, if you ask me, Than trying to reform society…I take men as they are, or let them be, And teach my soul to bear their frailty…you would do well, Sir, to be still. Rage less at your opponent.
Philinte has a good point too. What if we spoke with brutal honesty to everyone? What if we said, honestly: you’re too fat, and this one’s boring, and that one’s ugly…where would that lead? It would undo the social fabric and soon we’d all be undone. Better to be discrete and polite. Things go more smoothly that way. Besides, as Philinte goes on to say: This philosophic rage is a bit extreme…The world won’t change, whatever you say or do; And since plain speaking means so much to you, I’ll tell you plainly that by being frank You’ve earned the reputation of a crank. The world won’t change anyway and people will hate you besides. What good does that do anyone? Philinte is the voice of reason and moderation. Still, it’s good to have critics like Alceste. Socrates was a critic along these lines, exploring truth fearlessly wherever it may lead. And there’s a third character in the play which expresses a Socratic point of view. ELIANTE: The honesty in which he takes such pride Has, to my mind, its noble, heroic side. In this false age, such candor seems outrageous; But I could wish that it were more contagious… We may be hypocrites but we don’t have to like it.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

SHAKESPEARE: Julius Caesar

There’s a famous country song about a couple of outlaws named Pancho and Lefty. The Federales have been trying to get Pancho for a long time. Finally they got him. They gunned him down in Mexico. The song goes on to say that The day they laid poor Pancho low, Lefty split for Ohio. Where he got the bread to go, ain’t nobody knows. Ain’t nobody knows for sure maybe, but it sure sounds like Pancho got sold out by Lefty. This kind of betrayal doesn’t just happen out in the Wild West. The same thing happened in The Gospel of Mark when Judas betrays Jesus. And the same thing happens in Julius Caesar. The men he thought were friends end up betraying him. Human nature doesn’t change whether it’s Mexico, Jerusalem, or Rome.

Betrayal by a friend is the unkindest cut of all, according to Shakespeare. Lefty may have been nothing but a lowdown, no-good scoundrel to Pancho. Lefty just wanted the reward; but Brutus wasn’t in it for the money. He betrayed Caesar because Caesar had betrayed Rome, at least according to Brutus. And Brutus wasn’t alone in thinking Caesar had seized too much power and threatened the whole republic. To men still faithful to the old Roman republican virtue of liberty, Caesar was a mortal danger and had to be eliminated. One of the conspirators, Cassius, puts it to Brutus this way: I was born free as Caesar; so were you: We both have fed as well, and we can both Endure the winter's cold as well as he. And yet Caesar is on the verge of becoming king and absolute dictator of the whole Roman Empire. Why should one man have so much power? It would destroy the traditional freedom of Romans to govern themselves. Under a republic all men have political equality. Under Julius Caesar one man would control everything. Cassius points out that Caesar is consolidating all the power into his own hands and urges Brutus to put a stop to it: Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world Like a Colossus; and we petty men Walk under his huge legs, and peep about To find ourselves dishonourable graves. Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings. Is Cassius patriotic, or is he just jealous of Caesar’s success?

Julius Caesar is no fool. Politicians like him don’t rise to power by accident. He’s a shrewd judge of men, and he doesn’t trust Cassius. He mentions this to one of his aides, Mark Antony: Let me have men about me that are fat; Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights; Yond' Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous. Julius Caesar is indeed a shrewd judge of men. Cassius is in fact lean and hungry, and he is dangerous. But the quality that made Caesar so great is also the very thing that will cause his downfall. Caesar has this fatal flaw: he’s in love with the greatness of his own image. He boasts that Danger knows full well That Caesar is more dangerous than he: We are two lions littered in one day, And I the elder and more terrible. Caesar can size up other men. He knows how and which men can be useful to him. But he can’t see himself clearly, and his enemies know it. They also know how to manipulate him: when I tell him he hates flatterers, He says he does, being then most flattered. Caesar can size up other men, but other men can size him up too. In the last days of the Roman republic this was a fatal game to play. Brutus is caught in the middle of a vast power struggle and he struggles to do what’s right. He’s a true friend to Caesar but he’s also a patriotic Roman. Which is more important? Brutus has to choose and he chooses the honorable path of patriotism. Caesar must go. The assassins do their work but it’s Brutus who hurts Caesar most: Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar! The great man is dead but Rome’s troubles are far from over. In fact they’re just beginning. Mark Antony yells Cry, 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war. Caesar’s death is the first, but it's not the last. The dogs of war have been let loose.