Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, October 29, 2010

NIETZSCHE: Thus Spoke Zarathustra

When Zarathustra was thirty years old he left his home and went into the mountains. Here he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, for ten years. This is the way Nietzsche’s story begins. Or it could be his own philosophy, take your pick. Zarathustra, now forty years old, comes back down from the mountains and proclaims: I am weary of my wisdom…I must descend to the depths…I must go under. Whatever that means. Zarathustra speaks as if he’s the first one who’s ever felt that way. But the Preacher in Ecclesiastes was weary of his wisdom three thousand years ago: As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity. Sometimes I get tired of my wisdom too. It’s hard being wise. But Zarathustra was not one to suffer in silence. He wanted to tell the whole world about it. His years of solitude had given him a new vision of life. But Aristotle’s Politics says he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he isn’t a part of society. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature… After ten years alone in the mountains has Zarathustra become a beast or has he become a god? The answer probably depends on the reader. Some folks will think Zarathustra has become a sociopath (Definition: one who is affected with a personality disorder marked by antisocial behavior). Other readers will think Zarathustra has transcended human boundaries and become almost god-like. In this selection the term god-like has been translated as “overman.” Zarathustra says Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! … Other translations may use the word “superman” but superman evokes an image of a guy in a cape wearing tights. Nietzsche would be highly offended by that popular image. Nietzsche’s superman is a super-human tough guy who says What matters my happiness? My reason? My virtue? My justice? My pity? What matters most to this superman is to break the bonds that are holding us back from achieving our full human potential. A big part of our redemption as fully conscious human beings is to free ourselves from the bondage of religion. Zarathustra preaches that it is Not your sin but your dullness that cries to heaven… God isn’t worried that we’re sinning too much but that we’re too timid to break even minor rules, much less sin. Besides, there’s no such thing as sin because God is dead! There’s also no need to be afraid of what happens after we die: Behold, I teach you the overman. …there is no devil and no hell. Your soul will be dead even before your body: fear nothing further. To walk through life bravely and calmly, without fear, creating new values without regret, this is the goal of the new superman. This is what Zarathustra preaches. It’s a powerful message; especially when we consider what Zarathustra sees as the alternative: Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse. We can either remain “normal” and dull or we can follow the path of Neitzsche: companions I need, living ones, not dead companions and corpses whom I carry with myself wherever I want to. Living companions I need, who follow me because they want to follow themselves, wherever I want. Nietzsche calls out to those who feel alienated from this world: there’s a reason why you feel that way. You despise the herd. The reason Zarathustra has come is To lure many away from the herd, that’s why I have come. The people and the herd shall be angry with me: Zarathustra wants to be called a robber by the shepherds. Aristotle is apparently one of those shepherds. Aristotle says man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all… Nietzsche wants us to go beyond law and justice and become Superhuman. For Aristotle just being a normal human being is hard enough. Living in “a herd” makes is more human, not less. As for the herd Zarathustra has this to say: They do not understand me: I am not the mouth for their ears. He’s right on both counts.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

HUME: Of Personal Identity

Sometimes philosophers say outrageous things. For example, David Hume points out that There are some philosophers who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our “self”…no proof can be derived from any fact of which we are so intimately conscious; nor is there anything of which we can be certain if we doubt this. Well, duh. That’s just common sense. We all know our own selves better than we know anything else in the world. But then Hume turns outrageous and throws us a curve ball when he says For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call “myself” I always stumble on some particular perception or other…I never can catch “myself” at any time without a perception and never can observe anything but the perception. Say what? Hume is saying he never sees “himself” but only some image from his past or something he’s done; but there’s nothing he can point to and say definitively, that’s me right there. All he can find are a bunch of different memories. There’s just a bunch of different stuff going on in his mind and they’re all distinct and different experiences. There’s no separate“self” that he can call “me”. Is Hume serious? Yes, he is. And it’s not just his own personal mind that’s like that. Yours is too. And so is mine. In Hume’s opinion Mankind is nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions. How can this be? Well, Hume explains, we confuse Identity with Relation. Here we go, it’s philosophy time. This will get a little bumpy so hang on. Hume defines Identity as an object that remains invariable and uninterrupted through time. That’s what our “self” is supposed to be when we claim to have a personal identity: stay the same. When that object is “me” I need to ask the question: does “me” stay the same for any considerable time? If I’m honest I would have to say, sort of. Think about it. Well, maybe “me” doesn’t stay totally the same all the time. Think about it some more. Well, actually my mind does change a lot; not only daily but almost from moment to moment. Now you can see what Hume is driving at. We’ve been confusing Identity with Relation. A Relation is several different objects existing in succession and connected together… Our thoughts aren’t what give us an Identity (an object that remains invariable or stays the same). Our thoughts are only Relations (several different objects existing together). Relation isn’t the same thing as Identity, although they seem like the same thing. That’s because we’re fooling ourselves. Hume points out that Relation facilitates the transition of the mind from one object to another and renders its passage as smooth as if it contemplated one continued object. …Our propensity to confuse identity with relation is so great that we are apt to imagine something unknown and mysterious (a “self”) connecting the parts… We see the Relations between our thoughts and actions and think they all belong to one complete Identity, but they don’t. I call my Identity “me” or my “self.” In reality, there’s no such thing. There are only distinct thoughts coexisting in my mind. And Hume says that Every distinct perception which enters into the composition of the mind is a distinct existence…but we suppose the whole train of perceptions to be united by identity. Therefore, Hume concludes, The identity which we ascribe to the mind of man is only a fictitious one… This conclusion is logically sound but still doesn’t seem right. It just feels wrong somehow. For one thing, even Hume assumes he has a personal identity when he says that when “I” try to enter into myself “I” can never observe anything but impressions. Who is this “I” if it’s not the Personal Identity of David Hume? Maybe I’m misunderstanding his philosophy. And even Hume admits that All the nice and subtle questions concerning “personal identity” can never possibly be decided and are to be regarded as grammatical rather than philosophical difficulties…All the disputes concerning the identity of connected objects are merely verbal… Merely verbal? Is this just a game? No, it’s philosophy. Philosophy isn’t a game. Philosophy makes us think. Socrates said the same thing a long time ago. Hume agrees.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

FLAUBERT: A Simple Heart

Reading philosophy can get complicated. Our last reading by Kant included totally new terms he invented himself, such as a “hypothetical imperative” (which is different from his “categorical imperative”). In Flaubert’s short story A Simple Heart we meet a woman who’s not a deep thinker. The question Flaubert poses is this: can a simple person have just as good a life as someone with a gifted mind who has studied deeply? That’s a good question. In A Simple Heart the woman’s name is Felicite. She’s very different from Kant. Kant’s a professor of philosophy and well-versed in almost every branch of human learning. Felicite is just an ordinary housekeeper in an ordinary household. She can’t read and write. She doesn’t know how maps work. But she can clean and cook and knows how to do all the practical things that are necessary to make life comfortable and pleasant. In short, her life is simple. Kant had a very well-defined philosophy. He spends several pages explaining why just “being good” isn’t good enough. You have to be good for the right reasons. Otherwise, you’re just acting out of your own self interests. Felicite, on the other hand, didn’t have a well-defined philosophy of life. She couldn’t write down her own philosophy even if she had one. And she didn’t spend much time thinking about right and wrong, much less good and evil. But in Flaubert’s world Felicite is “good” because her native goodness unfolded in her heart. She didn’t have to think about it. She just lived it day by day. Her whole world was a small village in southern France. Her daily life wasn’t very complicated: She got up at the crack of dawn so as to be in time for Mass, and worked till nightfall without stopping; then, when dinner was over, the dishes put away, and the door firmly shut, she would bury the fireplace log under the ashes and doze off in front of the hearth, holding onto her rosary. A fair question might be: what kind of life is that? Getting up early every day, going to church, working all day, then falling asleep in front of the fire? Not even any Internet or cable TV. Most people would probably prefer Paris but Felicite found that she was happy in these gentle surroundings. It was enough for Felicite. She couldn’t read but she knew the biblical stories: Felicite saw the Garden, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, cities all in flames, dying nations, idols overthrown; and these stunning visions left her awed by the Almighty and fearful of His wrath. She wept when she heard the story of the Passion. How could they have crucified him like that? Didn’t He love little children, feed the hungry multitudes, heal the blind? Even simple people have problems and Felicite was no exception. She recalled …her wretched childhood, the disillusionment of her first love, her nephew’s going away, and Virginie’s death… Felicite had her share of tragedy. But she persevered. Even when her body started falling apart: …she was deaf…Though her sins might have been broadcast throughout the diocese without dishonoring her or offending anyone else, the priest decided it would be best not to confess her from then on anywhere but in the sacristy. … She also began to lose her sight. The shutters stopped opening. Many years passed. There wasn’t a lot to keep Felicite going except for one thing: her beloved pet parrot, Loulou. As the world started slipping away from Felicite she still had Loulou to comfort her. And when Loulou passed away she had him stuffed. Then Flaubert paints a comical but touching picture of Felicite and her stuffed pet bird: A shelf was put up for Loulou…without sorrow, rather brimming over with peace, she would remember how things used to be… she was forever scrutinizing the Holy Ghost, and it struck her that he looked a little like the parrot…he was the very image of Loulou… It would not have been a dove that Our Heavenly Father had picked to be the bearer of His Word; nobody ever heard a dove talk; it must have been an ancestor of Loulou’s. Is this love or just plain blasphemy? Felicite couldn’t tell you because of dogma she understood nothing; did not even try to understand. Kant and Flaubert had two very different visions about what a good life is and how it should be lived.

Monday, October 11, 2010

KANT: First Principles of Morals

Cartoons use to portray ethical dilemmas something like this: on one shoulder there’s a little angel whispering in one ear “don’t do it!” and on the other shoulder there’s a little devil whispering “go ahead, do it!” in the other ear. In the cartoons I’ve seen the little devil usually boots off the little angel and gets his way; which is probably what the cartoon character really wanted to do anyway. Real life isn’t a cartoon but the dilemma is much the same. What if we have competing voices inside our heads telling us what to do? How do we determine which one is the voice of the little angel and which one is the little devil? First Principles of Morals is apparently Kant’s attempt to answer this question. Whether he’s successful or not probably depends on the reader. It’s hard for me to tell if Kant’s ideas are extremely complex and I’m too dumb to understand them or if Kant’s just a bad writer who can’t express his ideas clearly. My understanding of Kant’s principles of morals boils down to this: all our actions are centered in the WILL. If we want to determine if something is good or bad we first have to start by considering our WILL. Is it good or bad? Kant says A good WILL is good not because of its effects or the attainment of some purpose but simply by virtue of the volition (the power of choosing or determining = will). I think this means that it doesn’t matter whether what we did turns out good or bad. The main thing is we meant to do good. We were trying to do good. Even if the results turned out bad, the intention was good. This is a very different concept from the ancient Greek notion of what’s right and wrong. For example, in Oedipus the King we read about Oedipus killing his father and marrying his mother. He certainly didn’t intend to. He even did everything in his power to prevent it. But for the Greek writer (Sophocles) facts are facts. It doesn’t matter what Oedipus intended, what matters is what he actually did; and Oedipus is punished severely by the gods. This seems grossly unfair in Kant’s ethical system and most modern readers would agree. But the ancient Greeks weren’t as much interested in what you thought as in what you actually did. Which is more important, what we THINK or what we DO? Kant does give some guidelines on how to determine right from wrong. First of all he says that to have moral worth an action must be done from DUTY. If you help people because you feel sorry for them or because you’ll get an award then it really doesn’t count. You’re doing good but you’re doing it for the wrong reason. You’re just being selfish (even though in a socially good way). Again, just as above Kant says an action done from DUTY derives its moral worth not from the action itself…but merely on the principle of volition (the power of choosing or determining = will)… by which the action has taken place. This is a clunky way of saying: did you do good for the right reason (out of “duty”)? But this just raises another question: how do we know what our “duty” is? Kant believes DUTY is the necessity of acting out of respect for the LAW. That helps. A little bit. But what if the law itself is bad? This was exactly Thoreau’s complaint in our reading on Civil Disobedience. He thought taxes helped pay for a war (the Mexican War) that was wrong by its very nature. So he refused to pay and went to jail for it. Laws are made by men and men sometimes get it wrong. But there’s a higher power that won’t ever get it wrong. That’s because some laws are universal and are right at all times and in all places. This universal law should direct our moral choices. How can we know what this universal law is? We know it by using our minds; by exercising our reasoning power. Only the rational mind can be objective enough to not lead us astray. A perfectly GOOD WILL would obey OBJECTIVE laws… So Kant believes rational thinking leads us on the right path and to make the right decisions. This sounds fine if you’re a philosopher. But what about ordinary folks who don’t have all day to think about these things? Can we learn what’s good by listening to our hearts instead? Flaubert shows us how in his short story about A Simple Heart.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


Lots of stories end “and they lived happily ever after.” Othello isn’t that kind of story. By the end of Othello most of the good guys are dead. The play starts out on a bad note: a senator of Venice is upset because his daughter (Desdemona) has been sleeping with a foreign mercenary, Othello. But Desdemona is a good girl and she thinks it’s ok because they’ve secretly gotten married first. So it’s ok, right? Wrong. It’s not ok with Desdemona’s father. Since Othello is a highly successful general in the Venetian army there’s not much her father can do about it. But he warns Othello about Desdemona: Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father, and may (deceive) thee. Here lies the key to the whole play. Modern American readers tend to note first that Desdemona is white and Othello is black. That’s because we’re a race-conscious society. But in the context of the play race isn’t the important distinction. Othello is an outsider: not because he’s black but because he’s a Moor. That doesn’t mean Othello isn’t a good man. He is. But he’s not “one of us” (a Venetian). And Desdemona is a good woman. Of all Shakespeare’s women characters Desdemona is truly the Miss-Goody-Two-Shoes type. But mixing two good people like Desdemona and Othello together can lead to a lethal combination. How? All it takes is some evil person to come along and exploit the insecurity and fear a man like Othello inherits when he marries a wealthy and cultured Venetian lady. It takes an evil person to exploit the innocence and naivety of a woman like Desdemona. But it can happen. That evil person in this play is named Iago. If Iago hadn’t come along Desdemona and Othello might have lived happily ever after. But the warning at the start of the play echoes ominously in the back of Othello’s mind: Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father, and may (deceive) thee.

In philosophy the word “evil” might be defined merely as the absence of good. Or it might be that evil is just our subjective response to something we don’t like. But in literature “evil” has a face and a name. Evil has to be a creature with knowledge of both evil and good. Only a person or an angel can be evil. A tornado may be bad news but it’s not evil. Cancer is a scourge of mankind but it’s not evil either. Mephistopheles in Faust is evil. The devil in Job is evil. In this play the name for evil is Iago. We find out immediately what kind of man Iago is and what kind of man he isn’t. Iago tells the audience bluntly that I am not what I am. Then what is he? He’s consumed with a rage to lash out and not just destroy other people but make them suffer. Othello is his main target: I do hate him as I do hell-pains. Yet, for necessity of present life, I must show out a flag and sign of love, Which is indeed but sign. In other words, Iago presents himself as if he’s one of Othello’s most devoted friends. In reality he’s his deadliest enemy. Iago wants to destroy Othello and make hum suffer. The best and easiest way to do that is through an unlikely source: Desdemona’s virtue. Iago thrills at the mere thought of it: So will I turn her (Desdemona’s) virtue into pitch; And out of her own goodness make the net That shall enmesh them all. Desdemona is so innocent and naïve that she’ll never know what hit her. Neither will Othello. Iago wants Othello to suffer and jealousy of Desdemona is the best (most devious) way to do that. Iago delights in the thought that Othello will never know peace and quiet ever again: Not poppy, nor mandragora, Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep Which thou owedst yesterday. Iago knows that once Othello suspects Desdemona of adultery then he’ll never get another good night’s sleep. And Iago’s scheme works. This is evil. Two good people (and more) are destroyed by Iago. At the end Desdemona says I have not deserved this… She’s right. Othello says Here is my journey's end… He’s right too. And Iago says Men should be what they seem. Even Iago is right sometimes.