Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, November 27, 2010

ADAMS: The Education of Henry Adams

One of the hottest topics in America right now is education. Are our children learning enough? Why are we falling behind other countries? What values should children learn at school? Should we cut back on arts programs? Eliminate sports? Are our graduates ready to participate in a new global workforce environment? These questions aren’t just for parents of school-aged children. All Americans are affected by the answers we give. In this regard Henry Adams was well ahead of his time. He could foresee the tensions in his own education and he was concerned about the future of America. So he wrote a book about the progress of his own education. Adams is clear about his intentions: American literature offers scarcely one working model for high education. The student must go back, beyond (Rousseau), to Benjamin Franklin, to find a model even of self-teaching. Except in the abandoned sphere of the dead languages, no one has discussed what part of education has, in his personal experience, turned out to be useful, and what not. This volume attempts to discuss it. What’s useful and what’s not? What kind of education is the best? Is real-life experience more useful than what we learn in the classroom? Adams thought so. He hated school: If school helped, it was only by reaction. The dislike of school was so strong as to be a positive gain. The passionate hatred of school methods was almost a method in itself… He hated it because he was here with a crowd of other boys and compelled to learn by memory a quantity of things that did not amuse him. This isn’t an unusual reaction. Lots of boys hate school. But Adams was writing as a sixty year old man. He had plenty of time to reflect on his life and concluded that his school-days, from ten to sixteen years old, as time thrown away… had his father kept the boy at home, and given him half an hour's direction every day, he would have done more for him than school ever could do for them… the man of sixty can generally see what he needed in life, and in Henry Adams's opinion it was not school. This statement comes from a man who received one of the best educations his age could provide. He went to one of the finest schools in Boston, had access to his grandfather’s extensive library, and graduated from Harvard. So maybe Adams simply expected too much from education. Life can be difficult and there’s only so much preparation any education can provide. For example, Adams thought being exposed to violence is a critical part of education. It would be difficult to include this in the local school curriculum and bullying is still a big concern in schools these days. But the real world is a tough place and young people have to grow up and live in the real world. Adams says Blackguard Boston was only too educational, and to most boys much the more interesting. A successful blackguard must enjoy great physical advantages besides a true vocation… Now and then it asserted itself as education more roughly than school ever did. One of the commonest boy-games of winter, inherited directly from the eighteenth-century, was a game of war (snow ball fights) on Boston Common. This may sound like harmless child’s play but Adams goes on to point out that …ten or twelve years afterwards when these same boys were fighting and falling on all the battle-fields of Virginia and Maryland, he wondered whether their education on Boston Common had taught Savage and Marvin how to die. If violence were a part of complete education, Boston was not incomplete. One of the problems (as Adams sees it) is how to expose young folks to these harsh lessons and show them how to live a good life in a bad world. How to live well has been a primary question about the role of education from Plato on up until today. It’s an old problem. Adams was aware of this and he wasn’t sure the old ways would work anymore: The generation that lived from 1840 to 1870 could do very well with the old forms of education; that which had its work to do between 1870 and 1900 needed something quite new. Kids going to school in 2010 may need something new too; but what? Henry Adams didn’t have all the answers but at least he knew how to ask the right questions.

Friday, November 19, 2010

BURKE: Reflections on the Revolution in France

The French Revolution is one of the pivotal events in the history of Western civilization. Some folks were elated when the old established order fell; some folks were horrified when the old established order fell. Edmund Burke was horrified. In this selection he explains why the change brought about by the Revolution was personally revolting to him. Those who were elated by the French Revolution felt that “the people” had finally obtained the political power they deserved. But in Burke’s view the whole revolution was an illegitimate exercise in massive criminal activity. He feels that no name, no power, no function, no artificial institution whatsoever can make the men of whom any system of authority is composed other than God, and nature, and education, and their habits of life have made them. Capacities beyond these the people have not to give. For Burke the only legitimate authority for political power is the authority given by God, nature, education and individual talent. “The people” as a group aren’t qualified to distinguish who is and who is not ready to take on the awesome task of governing society. The reason they can’t distinguish is partly because of inexperience but also because they tend to be ruled by their passions. This was certainly the case in the French Revolution. Passions got out of hand. Burke believes that society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected…the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. Most people aren’t capable of controlling their passions. Plato said the same thing when he laid out his famous Republic. Burke agrees with Plato that controlling people’s passions can only be done by a power outside of themselves… In the political sense the power outside of themselves is the law. Burke thinks the purpose of civil law is to restrain our unruly passions and desires. Most of us think of civil rights as freedom to do some things and from coercion into doing others. But Burke says that the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights. In a certain sense we have a contract with other members of society that we’ll all follow the same set of restraints. But civil society isn’t an ordinary business deal. Burke points out that Society is indeed a contract… but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee… In Burke’s view those who perpetrated the French Revolution were guilty of breaking a sacred contract by unlawful means. Of course those who “perpetrated” the revolution believed they were doing good. They believed they were overthrowing the shackles of tyranny. For them, change was good. Burke counters that they were too hasty and undermined the foundations of their French traditions. This is not good in Burke’s eyes. He feels like the French people were disrespectful, even contemptuous, of their own heritage. The way Burke sees it, a spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors. The only reason Frenchmen were capable of rebelling in the first place is because they had a certain amount of freedom to do so. But liberty doesn’t just spring up out of the ground. Instead, Burke says that Liberties… are an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers and to be transmitted to our posterity. We inherit freedom from our parents and pass it on to our children. This is what Burke calls tradition. That’s what the French rejected when they took to the streets and started a long spree of killing and terror. Burke thinks rejecting your own traditions is a fatal flaw in any social order. That’s because without tradition No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of summer. For some folks, that’s ok. They would rather shed the burdens of tradition. For Burke, tradition links individuals with history, and that’s what gives meaning to our lives. Rebellious types were elated by the French Revolution; Burke was horrified by it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

DANTE: The Inferno

What is justice? Most people believe justice is when bad people are punished and good people are rewarded. That obviously doesn’t always happen in the real world. A lot of times bad people end up being surrounded by wealth and luxury. And a lot of good people wind up with nothing. A few good people even get killed for being good. So why should I try to be “just” or, in modern terms, why should I do the right thing? Dante is one of those who believe justice is when bad people are punished for doing bad things and good people are rewarded for doing good things. The problem as Dante sees it is that we don’t know the whole story. We see bad people being successful and dying a peaceful death in old age in a mansion. We don’t see what happens after that. Dante’s poem about The Inferno tells us what happens to bad people after they die. The tale begins when Dante tells us that Midway along the journey of our life I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path. Many people experience a mid-life crisis and some of us go a little wacko during that spell. During his own mid-life crisis Dante wrote a long poem about taking a journey through Hell. This isn’t something everybody can do. And it’s not a task Dante took on lightly. It’s not child’s play to descend into Hell and come back to write about it. Dante trembles a little at the task set before him: Why am I to go? Who allows me to? I am not Aeneas, I am not Paul. But Dante has been chosen precisely because he’s lost in a dark wood. His life isn’t going the way he had planned and he’s wandered off the straight path. He needs help. A benefactor named Beatrice sees his plight from Heaven. She gets Virgil (the long-dead Roman poet) to come back to earth and serve as Dante’s guide. Virgil leads Dante to the very edge of Hell. Over the gate there’s a sign posted: I AM THE WAY INTO THE DOLEFUL CITY…ABANDON EVERY HOPE, ALL YOU WHO ENTER. This is the entrance for all the souls who didn’t make it to Purgatory or Heaven. For these souls, there is no exit. Entering this world is a one-way street. It’s not like anything we’ve ever experienced before. Dante is often at a loss for words on how to explain the sights he sees, the smells and the sounds, because everything about this underworld is utterly alien to creatures used to living in a world of sunshine. He does his best to describe what it’s like. But we have to strain our imaginations to catch his true meaning. Dante warns us that this won’t be easy: …all of you whose intellects are sound, look now and see the meaning that is hidden beneath the veil that covers my strange verses… During this journey we meet some souls we’ve seen before and some that we haven’t. But they all have one thing in common: they deserve to be in Hell. Why are some souls in Hell while others aren’t? Virgil tries to explain to Dante (and Dante to us) as best he can. In the vestibule (something like a waiting room) there eternally dwell wretches, who had never truly lived… because they had never made a decision to be either truly good or truly bad. Pontius Pilate is an example of this type. Then there’s a circle called Limbo. They’re not quite in Hell either but they’re more at peace with themselves. They just won’t ever make it to Heaven. Here live The virtuous pagans… they have not sinned. But their great worth alone was not enough, for they did not know Baptism, which is the gateway to the faith you follow, and if they came before the birth of Christ, they did not worship God the way one should; I myself (Virgil) am a member of this group. For this defect, and for no other guilt, we here are lost… (Along with)… Homer, the sovereign poet…(and) Hector, Aeneas, Caesar, Socrates, and Plato. Plato? In Hell? Can this be true? Yes, it can. Why? Wasn’t Plato a good man? Probably so. Just being good isn’t enough to get you to Heaven because they did not know Baptism… For this defect, and for no other guilt, we here are lost… Is this justice? Many of us won’t think this is fair. Many dwellers down here don’t think it’s fair either. Maybe it’s not “fair” but nevertheless there they are. And here we are. And we’re just getting started. Welcome to Hell…

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

SHAKESPEARE: Measure for Measure

What is justice? That’s one of the oldest and most-discussed questions in the Great Books tradition. Measure for Measure is one of the best pieces I know that explores the meaning of justice. Socrates asked the question 2500 years ago and Shakespeare takes up the same theme in this play. It begins when the Duke of Venice puts a little test on his cousin Angelo. The Duke tells everyone that he’s going to leave Venice and put Angelo in charge for awhile. Angelo is still young and untested so the Duke wants someone older and wiser to keep an eye on things too. The older and wiser counselor is a man named Escalus. The Duke trusts Escalus and tells him that The nature of our people, Our city's institutions, and the terms For common justice, you're as pregnant in As art and practise hath enriched any That we remember. There is our commission, From which we would not have you warp… Escalus knows the Venetians well and is familiar with their laws. And the Venetians are a pretty bawdy bunch. There are bars and brothels all over Venice and its surrounding suburbs. There are laws on the books against public drunkenness, adultery and prostitution but these laws haven’t been enforced for a whole generation; nearly twenty years. The Duke’s problem is this: how can he rein in a rowdy bunch of people like the Venetians. He’s the one who has been lax enforcing the laws. He also knows that Angelo has a reputation for being severe and hopes somehow that Angelo’s severity will bring the Venetians to their senses. Then the Duke can take over again. Is this justice? With this background we’re ready to explore the theme of justice. For starters, is it a good idea for the Duke to put young Angelo through such a stringent test? Wouldn’t it be better to let him work his way up through the political ranks before bearing such heavy responsibilities? This question is still valid in America today. Every few years Americans decide we want to throw the bums out. Fair enough. But do we really want to put people into office who have no experience in governing? Is this justice? Even Angelo himself protests and says Now, good my lord, Let there be some more test made of my metal, Before so noble and so great a figure Be stamp'd upon it. And Angelo does, in fact, fail. His failure, as the Duke predicted, results from enforcing the laws too severely. He condemns Claudio to death for getting a girl pregnant. The girl is really his fiancé and they were already married in all but a strictly technical sense. But that’s all it takes for Angelo to prosecute. The irony is that Angelo ends up falling in love with Claudio’s sister, Isabella. Isabella is all set to become a nun and she comes to Angelo to plead for mercy. Before long the straight-laced Angelo is propositioning her: ANGELO: Which had you rather, that the most just law Now took your brother's life; or, to redeem him, Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness As she that he hath stain'd? Like any good novice nun, Isabella refuses. ISABELLA: Sir, believe this, I had rather give my body than my soul… Claudio is her brother and he’s important to Isabella. But her chastity is even more important. When push comes to shove, chastity wins out: ANGELO: Then must your brother die. ISABELLA: And 'twere the cheaper way: Better it were a brother died at once, Than that a sister, by redeeming him, Should die for ever…Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die: More than our brother is our chastity. This is noble of Isabel but the idea of justice is still left hanging at the end of the play. Claudio is set free but Angelo is punished by having to marry a former girlfriend. (Why would she want a guy like that anyway?) Is this justice? Meanwhile, a guy named Lucio is punished by having to marry a prostitute he’s gotten pregnant. Is this justice? Mistress Overdone (the madam of a brothel) is thrown in jail even though most local folks like her business. Is this justice? Isabella refuses to give her body in order to save her brother but she might do it in order to become a Duchess. Are all these justice? Yes, they are. At least they’re a type of justice. Everyone may not be happy and everyone may not think it’s fair. But this is the Duke’s brand of justice.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Nietzsche and the New Morality

It amuses me that Nietzsche provokes such a negative reaction among contemporary Americans. His views on the "herd" and the superior virtues of the "ubermensch" are derived from the same moral calculus held by early English settlers towards the native american inhabitants living in the New World, and toward African slaves imported to work the southern plantations of white Anglo-Saxon farmers. The European Enlightenment idea that all people are created equal was never intended to apply to such foreign cultures as Africa, Asia, India or the North American tribes. The belief in natural rights was reserved for members of European descent, primarily the Anglo-Saxen and Nordic races. Christians have never had any trouble in finding scriptural passages to justify a refusal to include "inferior races" as their brothers in Christ. So why are so many Christians offended when Nietzsche (or Zarathustra) comes down from the mountain to announce that "God is dead?" Unlike Moses, who came down from the mountain bearing stone tablets engraved with God's law to the Israelites, Zarathustra comes to liberate humanity. Zarathustra doesn't kill God. He merely looks around and observes how people behave, then comes to the perfectly rational conclusion that God must not exist, otherwise he would never tolerate mankind's treatment of his fellow man. Nietzsche was no apostle for brotherly love. He despised most of humanity, regarding them as members of a herd, as an assortment of crude, boorish, uncivilized creatures who masquerade as people of higher intelligence, but are, in fact, no more civilized than the wild animals living in the jungle. For Nietzsche, God is a fable invented by the herd to justify a belief in their own superiority. Yet the true virtuous man, the ubermensch, does not make excuses nor lower himself to the herd, who is incapable of understanding him. If God is dead, then what need is there of morality or compassion? The Ubermensch makes his own morality. He is Achilles who answers to no one and bows to no king. Should a great man bow to a peasant? Of course not. Nietzsche observes that most men hide behind the opinions of their neighbor, their priest, their councilman, or mayor. But the great man keeps his own company. His conscience is clear. He is beyond shame. He is a force of nature and will not be humbled by the petty bourgeois values of ordinary men. In a sense, he is a god of his own making. Another Caesar, Napoleon, or Alexander. How can the little people, the herd, even dare to look upon him? Yet the little people, the herd, have their own scale of values. They look down on all people of technologically backward cultures. So behold the new morality that Zarathustra brings: the freedom to despise all people lower than yourself. In Nietzsche's view, we are all monkeys in this jungle. But some monkeys are smarter than the rest. And so in the Darwinian model of evolution, it is we, the smart monkeys from Europe carrying a Bible in one hand and a musket in the other, who deserve to rule over the backward monkeys of other races. This is called our "manifest destiny." Or in Judeo-Christian terms, "God's will."