Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, June 26, 2010

PLATO: Symposium

When was the last time you walked into a bar and heard a bunch of guys discussing the nature of love in a philosophical tone? That’s sort of what Plato’s Symposium is all about. Drinking and philosophy generally don’t mix. When most guys start drinking they believe they’re saying profound things but are really just acting goofy. That’s the usual result of a dazed mind and confused thinking. Socrates was an exception. He could out-drink everybody in the bar and still remain clear headed. Philosophy was his passion in life and alcohol didn’t affect his mission of bringing philosophy to everyone he met. Apparently he was successful at it. One of Socrates’ pupils admits that …I don’t know anything that gives me greater pleasure, or profit either, than talking or listening to philosophy. But when it comes to ordinary conversation, such as the stuff you talk about finance and the money market, well I find it pretty tiresome personally, and I feel sorry that my friends should think they’re very busy when they’re really doing absolutely nothing. Of course, I know what you think of me; you think I’m just a poor unfortunate philosopher, and you’re probably right. But here’s the difference: I don’t think that you’re unfortunate, I KNOW you are. This is the kind of attitude that can get you into a fight in a bar. It eventually got Socrates killed.

Ordinary people may be forgiven for asking if there’s a link between philosophy and real life. Of course philosophy professors say there is. But let’s put it to the test and find out for ourselves. Let’s take a common human experience: love. Everybody knows about love and everybody has an opinion. What can philosophy tell me about love that I can’t find out in my local bar? In Symposium we find not just one, but several answers:
PHAEDRUS: Love is a god…the ancient source of all our highest good.
PAUSANIUS: There are two kinds of love: earthly and heavenly. The earthly Aphrodite’s Love…governs the passions of the vulgar. Heavenly love… is innocent of any hint of lewdness.
ERYXIMACHUS: Love is the ordering principle or harmony that is necessary to the good of all things.
ARISTOPHANES: The real nature of man is like this…in the beginning…the race was divided into three: male, female, and hermaphrodite.
(they were originally one creature, with four arms and four legs, two faces, etc. but because of human pride Zeus) cut them in half…(now) love is always trying to reintegrate our former nature, to make two into one, and to bridge the gulf between one human being and another.
AGATHON: Love is…tender, beautiful, wise, temperate, the loveliest and the best of the gods, and the author of virtue, peace and friendship among men.

So there’s philosophy for you. Ask a simple question and you get five different answers. And according to Socrates, they’re not even the right answers. For Socrates, love is a life-long search for beauty. The right answer goes something like this: Starting from individual beauties, the quest for the universal beauty must find him ever mounting the heavenly ladder, stepping from rung to rung; that is, from one to two, and from two to every lovely body, from bodily beauty to the beauty of institutions, from institutions to learning, and from learning in general to the special study that pertains to nothing but the beautiful itself…if man’s life is ever worth living, it is when he has attained this vision of the very soul of beauty. There are at least three good options here. You can (1) go to a bar, drink beer and listen philosophically to Hank Williams sing I’m so lonesome I could cry; (2) sit home and read Plato; or (3) forget about love and go do something else.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

ST. AUGUSTINE: The City of God

In the Great Books tradition we run across a great variety of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. We meet a poor Russian coffin maker/fiddle player (Rothschild’s Fiddle); an English captain on a steamboat in the middle of Africa (Heart of Darkness); an Egyptian Queen and Roman politicians (Antony and Cleopatra, Caesar and Cleopatra); Greek and Trojan heroes (The Iliad); Italian nobility (The Prince); French courtiers and sycophants (The Misanthrope); Christian martyrs (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire); and American citizens (The Federalist). There doesn’t seem to be a lot in common with most of these people. In spite of these appearances Augustine assures us that there are no more than two kinds of human society, which we may justly call two cities, according to the language of our Scriptures. The one consists of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit. Is this true? At bottom are there really only two kinds of people in the world? If so, does that mean that those who “live after the flesh” are bad and those who “live after the spirit” are good? We might think so. Augustine doesn’t. Why? Because if anyone says that the flesh is the cause of all vices and ill conduct, inasmuch as the soul lives wickedly only because it is moved by the flesh, it is certain he has not carefully considered the whole nature of man. Man isn’t merely a body and he isn’t merely a soul. He’s both. They’re fused into one complete being. Neither is complete and would cease to exist without the other. So Augustine wants us to be very careful to understand what he means by the terms “living after the flesh” and “living after the spirit.” He goes on to say that in enunciating this proposition of ours, then, that because some live according to the flesh and others according to the spirit, there have arisen two diverse and conflicting cities, we might equally well have said, “because some live according to man, others according to God.” So what Augustine is really saying is that there’s a big difference between people who live according to man and those who live according to God: this is the great difference which distinguishes the two cities of which we speak, the one being the society of the godly men, the other of the ungodly, each associated with the angels that adhere to their party, and the one guided and fashioned by love of self, the other by love of God.

The main difference is the motivation (or “love”) which drives our lives. Augustine sums up this idea when he says Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self…the heavenly by the love of God. The things that motivate people seem to drive them into two distinct parties. Those who believe that man is the measure of all things follow one standard. Those who try to live according to the laws of God follow another standard. Does it really matter which standard we follow? Can those who live according to man be just as good, or better, than those who live according to God? This is a difficult and complicated question. It depends on how we define the term “good.” Augustine doesn’t waver. He believes the man who lives according to God, and not according to man, ought to be a lover of good, and therefore a hater of evil. This doesn’t mean the City of God will be perfect in this life. We all inherited sin from our original parents Adam and Eve. In a modern manner of speaking sin is in our DNA. But even though we won’t be perfected in this earthly life Augustine believes we should try. We won’t be perfect but at present it is enough if we live without crime… Our “affections” will invariably lead us into various lusts for pleasure, money, and the thousand other temptations in the City of Man. But …we must live a good life in order to attain to a blessed life; a good life has all these affections right, a bad life has them wrong. The goal is to live a blessed life and according to Augustine a blessed life is possessed only by the man who loves it. Any of us can leave behind the City of Man and enter into the City of God. Augustine shows us the way.

Friday, June 18, 2010

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW: Caesar and Cleopatra

Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra is a love story but it’s also the story of the clash between the cultures of Rome and Egypt. George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra is a love story too and it’s also the story of the clash between the cultures of Rome and Egypt. So what’s the difference? In Shakespeare CLEOPATRA says: He (Antony) was dispos’d to mirth, but on the sudden a Roman thought hath struck him. For Shakespeare Rome was grimly firm; Egypt was pleasantly weak. Mark Antony was portrayed as sliding away from the manly Roman virtues into the extravagant pleasures offered by “the East” as personified in Cleopatra. In Shaw’s play Romans are generally portrayed as crude money-grabbers while Egyptians are portrayed as the truly civilized culture. Shaw has the Egyptian BELZANOR say: That shows that the Romans are cowards. His companion BEL AFFRIS replies: They care nothing about cowardice, these Romans: they fight to win. The pride and honor of war are nothing to them. This is a different interpretation than the one Shakespeare had made. For Shakespeare the Romans are proud and honorable. They’re just misled by the temptations of an alien Eastern culture. In Shaw’s play it’s the Egyptians who are a proud and honorable people; the Romans are mostly just tough and brutish soldiers from a simple and close-minded country.

But Shaw is too good a writer to follow the simplistic formula Egyptians good, Romans bad. As in real life, there are good and bad people on both sides. And the real fight is between clashing cultural values. Honorable people on both sides violently disagree. It’s not because one is good and the other one is bad, or because one is right and the other one is wrong. They disagree because they’re not starting from the same set of cultural assumptions. For example, the question of whom one should or should not marry and have sexual relations with. The following exchange takes place between honorable men: THEODOTUS: Caesar, you are a stranger here, and not conversant with our laws. The kings and queens of Egypt may not marry except with their own royal blood. Ptolemy and Cleopatra are born king and consort just as they are born brother and sister. BRITANNUS (shocked): Caesar, this is not proper. THEODOTUS: (outraged). How! CAESAR (recovering his self-possession): Pardon him Theodotus, he is a barbarian and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature. BRITANNUS: On the contrary, Caesar, it is these Egyptians who are barbarians; and you do wrong to encourage them. I say it is a scandal.

Theodotus thinks it’s only natural for royalty to produce royal offspring. That’s the way he was raised. Britannus is horrified at the idea of a brother and sister having sex. That’s the way he was raised. Caesar is wise enough to see the irony at play here and makes this observation:
CAESAR: Scandal or not, my friend, it opens the gate of peace. For Caesar the main question is: what works? In some ways Caesar follows Mill’s Utilitarian philosophy to maximize the pleasure and minimize the pain. This often puts him in conflict with how the rest of the world thinks and acts. And it makes him different from most men. Here’s an example: POTHINUS: Caesar, I come to warn you of a danger, and to make you an offer. CAESAR: Never mind the danger. Make the offer. RUFIO: Never mind the offer. What's the danger? POTHINUS: Caesar, you think that Cleopatra is devoted to you. CAESAR (gravely): My friend I already know what I think. Come to your offer. Pothinus and Rufio are both good and honorable men. But they’re also products of their old fashioned cultures and find comfort in them. Caesar is a universal man and accepts new cultural values but he’s not really “at home” anywhere. Which is better? Shakespeare prefers the old fashioned English way of life. Shaw makes fun of it.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention, A kingdom for a stage, princes to act And monarchs to behold the swelling scene! That’s how Shakespeare begins his play that traces the further adventures of Prince Hal and also of Falstaff and his motley crew. What makes this play different from the rest of Shakespeare’s plays is the use of a Chorus. Unlike the ancient Greek tragedies Shakespeare doesn’t normally use a chorus. But in this case a chorus helps bridge the gaps between France and England; gives an opportunity to explain history to the audience; and accounts for the passage of time that might otherwise be impossible to put on stage. It also helps point out the vast difference between a live theatrical performance and a modern movie. Shakespeare has the chorus speak the lines: Think when we talk of horses, that you see them Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth; For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times, Turning the accomplishment of many years Into an hour-glass: for the which supply, Admit me Chorus to this history… In other words, you have to use your imagination. Imagine these are horses. Imagine these are decked-out kings. Imagine everyone growing older with the passage of time. In movies we’re not asked to use our imaginations. When we sit in a movie theater we expect to see something: show me real horses. Show me the decked-out kings. Show me people who have grown older as the film progresses. Use make up. Use special effects. Do whatever you have to do, but don’t ask me to use my imagination. Shakespeare teaches us how to imagine history.

Henry V requires a lot of imagination from the audience. It also leaves a lot of difficult questions for readers of the Great Books. Henry V lives in a world of action, not contemplation. Actors must act but the audience is left free to contemplate the action. In another play, Julius Caesar was lenient with conspirators and got assassinated, which threw Rome into a bloody civil war. Here Henry V is harsh with conspirators and lives to become a hero. As a result England was at peace for many years. What’s the lesson? Be tough? Take pre-emptive action before your enemy gets any stronger? Summarily execute those accused of treason? Our reading in the book of Job says: 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. Job tried his best to be good and lost everything he had. Henry spends his youth drinking and carousing with losers like Falstaff and Bardolph, who both fritter away their lives and die miserable deaths. But young Prince Hal goes on to become King Henry V and winds up a hero instead. Why? What’s the lesson here? One of the characters in Moliere’s play The Misanthrope says we should accept people as they are, or else leave them alone. This sounds good to modern ears. But what’s the lesson? Would this advice apply to characters like Falstaff and Bardolph, who are drunkards and thieves? Accept them as they are? How about young Henry (Prince Hal) when he’s out drinking and carousing with them? When should we intervene and when should we just let people be? Gibbon describes the tenacity with which the early Christian martyrs clung to their religion. This baffled the Romans. But these martyrs were heroes to later generations of Christians. The French noblemen clung tenaciously to their king and died by the thousands. But they weren’t considered heroes; they squandered their military superiority and lost the battle of Agincourt. What’s the lesson? Finally, what’s the lesson when your back’s to the wall and you face overwhelming odds? King Henry gives a famous speech to his outnumbered men that goes something like this: We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother… Is war glorious or is it terrible? Shakespeare’s overall lesson seems to be this: it’s better to be lucky, like Henry V.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

LIFE LESSONS: Julius Caesar, Moliere, Edward Gibbon, Job and J.S. Mill

JULIUS CAESAR: Beware the Ides of March. Maybe I should have listened. Maybe not. No matter. You can’t listen to every crank. He wanted to warn me there was danger ahead. There’s always danger ahead. You can’t let that stop you. Every man has a destiny. I fulfilled mine. I was Caesar. There haven’t been many like me; there won’t be many more. That’s because most men dream small. Not Caesar. Risk everything you’ve got; that’s the only life worth living. Imagine what I could have accomplished if I’d only had time. Maybe I’d have watched Cassius a little more carefully, not get so close to Brutus. Otherwise, I’d do it all again. That’s the way to live; that’s the way to die. Then people will always say: this was a man! This was Caesar!

MOLIERE: Bravo! Of all the roles I’ve seen played, your glorious Roman patriot was one of the best. Life’s a stage you know, and we all have our parts. You played yours; I play mine; some unfortunate Englishman plays his on that dreary island they call home. There are so many roles: friend, lover, flirt, busybody. Could you have played someone else I wonder, an entirely different role? Could you have played Courtier, for example? It would have been interesting to watch. Now starring: Julius the Courtier! You’re an actor. I prefer to watch. Life is tragic only if you take it too seriously; it’s more of a comedy to me. Now tell me, what was Cleopatra really like? Did she like dramatists?

GIBBON: The man of action and the man of fiction. Both are worthy pursuits for men of ability and character. But life is neither tragedy nor comedy. Life is what it is. The job of historian is to rationally describe the actions of men. Men of action generally don’t do a lot of thinking. They’re too busy and leave it to other men to write books. Men of fiction, on the other hand, write lots of books. But they can’t be trusted. They embellish whatever they touch. Probably because they think reality is too harsh. That’s not true. Take the Romans, for example. Here were men worthy of study. Whatever Caesar’s failings, at least he failed like a man. What French courtiers are worthy of study? Only people interested in the latest fashion of breeches care what goes on in those decadent circles. Gossip is their weapon of choice because they can’t handle hard fists and cold steel the way Romans once did.

JOB: Words, empty words. Unless you’ve suffered you should keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. Once I had it all. Then I lost everything: health, wealth, everything. Until you’ve reached that point you don’t know what life’s all about. Most people don’t know who they are, why they’re here, or where they’re going. They’re just born, knock around the world a few years, then return to the dust from whence they came. God spoke to me once. You can believe that or not, doesn’t matter to me. Just stop talking so much.

J.S. MILL: It seems to me that we should think this thing through a little more thoroughly. By discussing each point of view we may come to a consensus about what we all want out of life. Personally, I think you’re all looking for the same thing. You all want to be happy, just in different ways. Perhaps it would be best if we each pursued our own version of happiness and let other people do the same. Moliere had it right: accept people as they are, or let them be. Who are you, Caesar, to tell me how I should live? And who are you, Gibbon, to talk about the Romans? Or you, Job, to speak for God?