Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Thursday, December 23, 2010

PLATO: The Republic

We live in a country built along these lines: “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union…” This is the beginning sentence in our Constitution. It forms the backbone of our society. But we weren’t the first people to think about creating a perfect society. And we probably won’t be the last. Long after we’re gone people will still be trying to make their lives better by improving their form of government. How should we live? That’s the question that faces each new generation. Plato’s Republic is one of the earliest recorded attempts to put together a “just” society and tell us what it would take to achieve it. Socrates is the architect of this new society and he begins by explaining that a city, as I believe, comes into being because each of us isn’t self-sufficient but is in need of much. Lots of philosophers agree with Socrates’ diagnosis of the problem. It’s the solution that we’re still trying to figure out. Living around lots of other people can be a real hassle sometimes. But living outside of human society would be a disaster for most of us. In an earlier reading Thomas Hobbes says living outside a human community would be short, nasty and brutish. Socrates agrees. We live much better by cooperating with other people and living together in an established community. Living in towns and cities makes it much easier to provide for our basic needs. We can buy the basic things we need, like food and shoes and homes. If we stopped there we shouldn’t have too many problems. But we don’t stop there. Soon we want exotic food and fancy shoes and bigger homes. Then we need new cars and flat-screen TVs and access to the Internet. We also start needing musicians and actors and dancers to keep us entertained. Then we eat too much and exercise too little and have to have doctors to take care of us when we get sick. That’s the problem. Socrates says that if people only work enough to provide for their bare necessities “they will live out their lives in peace with health, as is likely, and at last, dying as old men, they will hand down other similar lives to their offspring.” This is old school philosophy. Glaucon speaks for most of the modern world when he replies “If this were a city for pigs, Socrates, that would be enough… but men who aren’t living wretched lives want to sit in chairs and eat from tables and they want to eat other things besides figs and berries and acorns.” So who’s right? Do we want to be healthy or do we want to have fun? The problem is, how do we keep people from fussing and fighting when too many people want the same things? What if there aren’t enough flat-screen TVs to go around? Who gets the new flat-screens and who has to make do with what they’ve got? We already know what the problem is; not enough to go around. It’s the solution part that we’ve been trying to figure out. Socrates thinks the best solution is to let people follow their natural inclinations. He’s got a simple idea of justice …the money-making, military and ruling classes doing what’s appropriate, each of them minding its own business in a city, that would be justice. You say most people just want their flat-screen TVs and they’ll be satisfied? Fine. Let them work for flat-screen TVs. Other people want travel and adventure and a strenuous physical life? Let them have it. A few people want to spend more time studying and thinking and planning for the future? Well, then let them study and think. Here’s the catch: once you decide what you want from life, stick with it. Don’t go mucking around in other people’s business. Why should you care if a few nerds are off somewhere studying and thinking as long as you’ve got a flat-screen TV? Or someone else may say: let folks stick to making money if that’s what they want. I’d rather be out here humping up this mountain and training for combat. Socrates thinks if everyone sticks to what they’re good at then we all benefit: Meddling among the classes, of which there are three, and exchange with one another is the greatest harm for the city and would most correctly be called extreme evil-doing. This doesn’t sound American. That isn’t what the founding fathers had in mind when they wanted to create a more perfect Union.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


One question that never seems to get resolved is this: what’s beautiful and what’s not? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder, as we’ve often heard? Or is beauty somehow in the object itself? The “eye of the beholder” may help us determine what’s beautiful in the visual arts but what about music? How can we tell if something we hear is beautiful? By the emotional impact it has on us? If that’s the case, were the Beach Boys better than the Beatles? Was Bach better than Beethoven? There’s a strong current of thought in contemporary society that all beauty is merely subjective: I know what I like, and that ain’t it. Aristotle doesn’t agree. He thinks that art, like any other subject, can be clarified by rational analysis. Aristotle’s general method is to take a complex subject and break it down into simpler parts that are easier to understand. In this selection he takes drama as his example. There are two types of drama: Comedy and Tragedy. Let’s deal with Tragedy. As Aristotle sees it every tragedy must contain six (and ONLY six) parts which determine its quality. They are (1) spectacle, (2) melody, (3) diction, (4) character, (5) thought, and (6) plot. That’s an impressive start. But is it true? Are there ONLY six parts to a tragic play? Can you come up with any others? Off the top of my head I can’t. Not only does Aristotle think there are these six parts but he even ranks them in order of importance: Plot is the first essential; the very soul of Tragedy. Character comes second… Third comes Thought… (Thought is quite distinct from Character… Character in a tragedy is that which reveals the WILL of the agents (the kind of things they choose or reject… Thought on the other hand is shown in all that is said)… Fourth among the literary elements is Diction, the expression of thoughts in words… Melody (is Fifth and)… Spectacle is the least artistic of all the parts and has least connection with the art of poetry. Here there may be room for legitimate disagreement. Is Plot really more important than Character? Some authors may think it’s more important to concentrate on Character. Can there be tragedy when nothing much happens? Aristotle states his opinion firmly: Plot is the very soul of Tragedy. It can’t get any clearer than that. He would probably not be impressed with many of today’s films. Spectacle is at the bottom of the list as the least artistic of all the parts and has least connection with the art of poetry. Using special effects cheats the audience of its own imagination. On the other hand, this essay deals strictly with the art of Tragedy. It’s not the purpose of tragedy to wow us with flaming car chases or galactic firefights. Aristotle says that one must not expect every kind of pleasure from a tragedy but only its own distinctive pleasure. Car chases and space ships don’t move us. They thrill us but they don’t make us feel sorry for the actors. We have to be deeply moved by the action because for Aristotle Tragedy is a form of poetry. And in his opinion the poet’s function is to describe not what HAS happened, but the kind of thing that MIGHT happen… Why is this important? What difference does it make? For starters, it means that poetry is more important than history. Why? Where the historian differs from the poet is in his describing what has happened, while the poet describes the kind of thing that might have happened. Poetry therefore is more philosophic and of greater significance that history, for its statements are the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are particulars. A movie about an historical event will show us what happened to specific people at a particular place in a particular time. The writer or director can’t change the outcome of a historic film about Queen Elizabeth. But the writer or director CAN change what happens long ago and far away to a king named Lear. So in Aristotle’s view Tragedy by its very nature is a “philosophic” endeavor. Its whole purpose is to give us deeper insight into life. Is this beauty? Or is it wisdom? Good tragic drama seems to be both. For Aristotle, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but resides in the content of the play itself. Good tragedy is a kind of wisdom expressed beautifully; bad tragedy is just plain ugly.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

SHAKESPEARE: King Lear and the Great Books

The Great Books concept is centered around the idea that all the readings focus on one great conversation. King Lear is a play that demonstrates the wisdom of this concept. David Hume, for example, in his essay Of Personal Identity raises the question about how much we really know; even about ourselves. In this play we can ask the same question. Does King Lear ever know who he really is? Does anybody? At the start of the play Lear has all the power of a king and isn’t afraid to use it. By the end of the play he’s just a weak old man and can’t even rule his own family. The ending may make some of us question how stern a stuff we’re made of. Does it take some sort of big life test to learn what we’re really made of? How would we react when the chips are down? Lear’s evil daughters know him better than he knows himself. They know he’s getting old and weak and say so: 'Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself. And once he’s lost his power Lear becomes like the emperor with no clothes. Without his power he’s lost. Even Lear himself asks Who is it that can tell me who I am? So Hume was well within the Great Books tradition when asking questions like: who am I?

Dante’s vision of power is quite different from that envisioned in the world of King Lear. For Dante all power comes from a divine source. And in the end all punishment will be in God’s hands. King Lear protests that I am a man More sinned against than sinning. That may be true but it’s not up to Lear to decide the point. People can’t be objective judges of their own cases. God will judge and determine who has sinned and to what extent. In one view King Lear seriously disrupted the natural order of things when he abdicated his responsibilities. Is this a sin or just poor judgment? Or take another case. Edmund and Gloucester both used deceit. What was the difference? Edmund deceived his brother because he wanted to take away his estate and title. Gloucester deceived his guests because they were corrupt and he wanted to remain loyal to the rightful king. But was King Lear still the rightful ruler? He had already abdicated his throne and power. Why should Gloucester remain loyal? Also, at the end Edmund seemed to repent of his evil. Does this result in a Get Out Of Hell Free card? Maybe. Dante had definite views on these things and participated in the great conversation.

Edmund Burke was a citizen of the British Empire, just like Shakespeare. So he also had a unique English perspective. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France showed that he was generally no friend to revolutionary ideas. But put yourself in Gloucester’s place (or Kent’s). King Lear has handed over all authority to his daughters. The daughters and Lear then have a quarrel. Now who should you follow? Who is doing the revolting and who is remaining loyal to legitimate authority? This question of legitimate political authority has a long tradition in the Great Books, going all the way back to the start with Homer. At the very dawn of Western civilization the question was: who has the right to rule? And how much right does the ruler have to make other people obey? Agamemnon and Achilles had a showdown over this very question. Burke is in the Western tradition when he asks why (and who) we should obey.

The Education of Henry Adams is part of the Western tradition too. Adams wasn’t happy about the education he received as a young man because it didn’t equip him to deal with life in the twentieth century. Here’s a question for King Lear: What kind of education would be best if we lived in Lear’s kingdom? In broad terms, should we be educated on how to be good people or how to succeed in a cut-throat environment? Besides, is it even possible to teach people like Goneril, Regan and Edmund how to be good? That’s what the great conversation is all about.