Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, July 31, 2010


In his great essay on Civil Disobedience Henry David Thoreau makes the famous statement that I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least.” He goes on to make a more extreme statement when he says... "That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Think about that for a moment. The best government, for Thoreau, doesn’t govern at all. To most of the writers in the Great Books tradition that’s just plain nonsense. It’s like saying that the best ballplayer is one who never plays ball. Furthermore, when will men EVER be prepared to live with no government at all? Rousseau might have been intrigued by that possibility; but not serious political writers such as Aristotle, Hobbes and Tocqueville. Still, Thoreau poses some good questions: why do we have government? What purpose does it serve? What is it supposed to do? How much government is necessary? These are questions that James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay take up in The Federalist Papers. To say they do a good job is an understatement. The fact is they give the best explanation of democratic political theory ever given by anyone, anywhere, at any time in history.

Here are some sample excerpts from their deliberations: …you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. (#1) To “deliberate” is to follow a rational method of examining a question. These writers don’t base their political ideas on sentimental notions like Thoreau’s dream of a world in which government wouldn’t be necessary. They accept the world the way it is and proceed accordingly. This new Constitution won’t be written for some utopian people living on some faraway island. It will be written for ordinary men and women. What the Federalist writers want to determine is whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. (#1) The great question America poses to the rest of the world is this: can ordinary people govern themselves? One of the great problems of democracy (“rule by the many” or ordinary people) is that democracies tend to fall apart into special interest groups. Madison called these little separate interest groups “factions.” He defines the term this way: A faction is a number of citizens who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens. (#10) This is the problem facing a democratic form of government: how can small groups of private citizens with diverse interests cooperate for the common good? Will they set aside self interests for the good of the whole body of citizens? The answer is no. Madison believes that As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed…The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man (#10) Madison, Hamilton and Jay ask some of the same questions as Thoreau but the Federalists give better answers. Q: why do men have government? Madison: Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint. (#15) Q: what purpose does government serve? Madison: what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. (#51) Q: what is government supposed to do? Madison: Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit. (#51) Q: how much government is necessary? A: Enough to get the job done. Hamilton: A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government. (#70) Q: Are modern-day Americans more like Thoreau, or more like Madison, Hamilton and Jay? A: Both.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


At some point in their lives most people get fed up with “the rat race” and daydream about getting away from it all, somewhere far away; maybe a simple island, where they can live happily ever after. This happens (sort of) in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Miranda is fifteen years old. She was taken to an island by her father when she was three years old and has been brought up far away from the corrupting influence of cities and cell phones. So Miranda is no ordinary teenager; which is good because Prospero is no ordinary father. He’s a magician or a wizard of sorts and is also the undisputed king of the island. But Prospero’s not an ordinary king. He once ruled Milan. Now his only subjects are island “spirits” such as the fairy-like being called Ariel and a half-man, half-monster/creature named Caliban. So how do they all get along? Not as well as you might imagine in your daydreams. Ariel is kept in servitude only because Prospero threatens to pin him/her (do spirits have genders?) inside an oak tree for twelve long winters. Ariel would gladly run away at the first opportunity. And Caliban once tried to rape Miranda, so Prospero has had to keep on the lookout ever since. Caliban still has plans to people the island with little Calibans by using Miranda’s body, if he ever gets a chance.

When the play opens there’s a terrible storm. A ship has been sunk and the crew washed ashore, along with lots of booze. Even out here in the middle of nowhere, there’s always something going on; life’s just one darn thing after another. Obviously this little faraway island isn’t much better than the rat race back home. Still, it’s a wondrous island, full of music and magic and love. When Miranda first sees the stranded sailors from Naples she exclaims How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't! Of course not all these “goodly creatures” are “beauteous” at all. There are also drunkards, thieves, assassins, rapists, cowards and fools included in the bunch. Miranda is totally innocent of knowing about these kinds of men. What kind of Queen would she make back in Milan or Naples? What kind of education could she have received on a deserted island to prepare her for life in the big city, much less all the intrigues involved in courtly life?

And what good did education do Caliban? He says You taught me language; and my profit on't Is, I know how to curse: the red plague rid you, For learning me your language. Caliban doesn’t want to be educated. He only wants to be in charge of the island and left to do what he wants to do; including having sex with Miranda. But to be fair, how much different is Caliban from the “civilized” sailors from Naples? Caliban (half-man, half-beast) is really only doing what his nature requires. He’s up front about his desires and doesn’t try to hide them. The sailors are crafty and devious. Which is worse? And there’s a softer side to Caliban we rarely see. He tells the shipwrecked sailors from Naples to Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices That, if I then had waked after long sleep, Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming, The clouds methought would open and show riches Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked, I cried to dream again. Caliban isn’t sophisticated but he knows what pleasure is, and he knows what pain is. He’s almost child-like in his attempt to fall back asleep and pick up where he left off in a good dream. Caliban retires into his dreams because his reality is so dismal. His mother was a witch, literally. We can only guess what kind of childhood Caliban had. In short, he’s lonely. He probably daydreams about getting away from it all; maybe someplace where there are lots of Miranda’s to choose from. Someplace far away, maybe a big city like Naples or Milan. Faraway islands have their problems too.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

DIDEROT: Rameau’s Nephew

Socrates is a hero to every generation of college students. They normally sign up for Philosophy 101 to get credit for a course in the humanities so they can graduate from college. Then they can go out into the world and look for a job with a bachelor’s degree tucked neatly into their resume. Socrates himself would probably have been amused at this state of affairs. Diderot’s character Rameau would have understood perfectly. In 18th century French society Rameau was adept at leeching off rich cultivated Parisians. That way he didn’t have to do any real work. In modern-day America he would likely have tried to make a living off university stipends, government programs and grants from private foundations. That way he wouldn’t have to do any real work.
Come to think of it, neither did Socrates; unless talking about philosophy is considered an occupation. Does that count as real work?

The narrator in Diderot’s short story introduces us to a unique character, Rameau, who is a philosopher in his own kind of way. He only thinks about himself. He doesn’t give a damn about the rest of the world. Come to think of it, one of Socrates’ favorite quotes was “know thyself” and he also taught that living in our everyday world was like living in a dark cave. He wanted his students to turn their backs on the “real” world and follow him into the sunlit splendors of philosophy. But Rameau was having none of that. He liked this world just fine, thank you very much. In fact, he was against most of the things that Socrates was for; philosophy, for example. Rameau says Lord, may I never meet anyone more pigheaded than a philosopher…Virtue and philosophy aren’t for everybody. For the few who can, let them have it. Socrates exhorted his students to seek a higher level of existence than we find in the workaday world. Rameau was having none of that either: The important point is that we exist and that we exist as you and I. Let everything else go. The best order of things, in my view, is one in which I exist here in this world. Who cares about life in a perfect world if I'm not in it? … So let's just accept things the way they are. Rameau accepted the world the way it is, imperfect as it is. That’s good enough for ordinary people. It’s the smarty-pants of the world that screw things up: We must have men, but not men of genius. No, my goodness, we don't need them. They're the ones who are constantly trying to change things … evil has always come from some genius. All this talk about philosophy gives folks unrealistic expectations about life. And therefore about how life should actually be lived: Virtue is praised, but really it’s hated. People avoid it when they can, because it’s ice-cold and in this world we have to keep our feet warm. A lot of times devout people are harsh, touchy and unsociable. That’s because they’ve forced themselves to do something that’s unnatural. They’re in pain, and people in pain make other people suffer too. This certainly gives a different spin on the Socratic method of trying to instill virtue into his students.

College wouldn’t have done a man like Rameau much good. He wouldn’t have followed the course guidelines anyway: You’d be surprised how little I care about methods and rules. The man who needs a textbook won’t get very far in life. Geniuses don’t read much, but they experiment a lot. Rameau has a simple philosophy developed on his own: I want a good bed, good food, warm clothes in winter, cool in summer, plenty of rest, money, and other things that I would rather have given to me than to earn them by working. This may be a bit blunt but at least it’s a coherent philosophy of life. And he may have given Socrates a run for his money in a fair and open debate. Not everyone will agree with Rameau’s outlook. College students will more likely gravitate (intellectually) to the message of Socrates. But many of them will actually live daily lives more like Rameau than Socrates. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

MONTAIGNE: Of Experience

There is no desire more natural than that of knowledge. We try all ways that can lead us to it; where reason fails us, we use experience… That’s the way Montaigne’s essay “Of Experience” begins. Here we go again, you might think; another dry academic treatise; another boring philosopher. Ho hum. But Montaigne isn’t a philosopher. He’s a flesh-and-blood man. He understands the way ordinary people think and he knows how they feel about studying philosophy: Philosophy is very childish, to my mind, when she gets up on her hind legs and preaches to us… Montaigne doesn’t preach. He just tells us what he thinks because that’s the subject he knows best: I study myself more than any other subject. No matter our station in life we would be wise to do the same. Montaigne believes that the life of Caesar has no more to show us than our own; an emperor’s or an ordinary man’s, it is still a life subject to all human accidents. Let us only listen: we tell ourselves what we most need. My own life should interest me more than reading about Julius Caesar. If my life seems dull in comparison to Caesar’s, that’s because I’m not paying attention. Of course we can learn a lot by reading. We can learn even more when we discuss what we read with other people. Montaigne asks: When do we agree and say, “There has been enough about this book; henceforth there is nothing more to say about it?” In a group discussion we always come away with more than we walked in with: new insights or ideas we hadn’t thought of while reading on our own. Still, when all is said and done we have to make up our own minds about what we think. No one can do it for us. We can read commentaries but Montaigne points out that it is more of a job to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the things, and there are more books about books than about any other subject: we do nothing but write glosses about each other. The world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is a great scarcity. In other words, reading commentaries will help us gain more knowledge. But commentaries will not make us wise. Wisdom is something we can only get through the experience of living and thinking for ourselves.

So then the obvious question is: how should we live and think? This is a question every mature person must consider. Montaigne has given the question a lot of thought. His advice is surprisingly simple: The most usual and common way of living is the best… All that deep thinking, and that’s the best he can come up with? Actually, “the most usual and common way of living” is both more difficult and yet easier than it sounds. It’s difficult because over the years Montaigne learned that There is nothing so beautiful and legitimate as to play the man well and properly, no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge of how to live this life well and naturally… And he gives us fair warning that we can’t learn about life from reading about it in books. We have another mission: To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win not battles and provinces but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. Life will come naturally and gracefully to those who “live appropriately.” Montaigne has comforting words for modern-day slackers: We are great fools. “He has spent his life in idleness,” we say; “I have done nothing today.” What, have you not lived? That is the only fundamental but the most illustrious of your occupations…Have you been able to think out and manage your own life? You have done the greatest task of all. To be socially and financially successful is a worthy goal, but to live well is enough for most of us. We may not ever be rich or famous or beautiful but Montaigne says the most beautiful lives, to my mind, are those that conform to the common human pattern, with order, but without miracle and without eccentricity. Montaigne believes just being an average person is a worthy goal. The modern world could use more philosophers who think like Montaigne.