Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, January 15, 2011

THUCYDIDES: The Melian Dialogue

There's an old saying that might makes right. Is that true? Like many simple questions, there's no simple answer. Of course you could give a quick and simple answer such as: no, might doesn't make right. Having more power doesn't mean your side is right, it only means that your side is stronger. But it doesn't mean your side is necessarily wrong either. What if the stronger side really is right? Or what if there's no "right" and "wrong" but only two different points of view? Then we're right back where we started from. "Might" may not make right, but as long as your side has the power, your side gets to call the shots. And maybe in the real world that's what matters most, having the power. But maybe not. Maybe what matters most is doing the right thing, regardless of the cost. These are two very different world views. Thucydides explores both sides of this issue in real-life terms during a real-life conflict. What makes this reading such a masterpiece is the concise use of language. Both sides use precision in stating their political and moral objectives. The Athenians have the power. They've come to try and get the Melians to surrender without a fight. The Athenians first set the stage by proclaiming: Let us have no long speeches. But the Melians know what this is all about: You have come to be yourselves the judges of the debate, and its natural conclusion for us will be slavery if you convince us, and war if we get the better of the argument. This is a no-win situation for the Melians. The best they can do it try to talk their way out of it. But the Athenians only want to hear one thing. They want the Melians to give up. And they want them to give up without a lot of trouble. So here's the Athenian proposal: Let each of us say what we really think and reach a practical agreement. You know and we know, as practical men, that the question of justice arises only between parties equal in strength, and that the strong do what they can, and the weak submit... we have come in the interest of our empire... we wish you to become our subjects with least trouble to ourselves. We wish you to become our subjects with least trouble to ourselves. There can be no more honest answer than that. The response by the Melians is also blunt: It may be your interest to be our masters; how can it be ours to be your slaves? For the Athenians this is as simple as solving an arithmetic problem : By submitting you would avoid a terrible fate, and we would gain by not destroying you... This is not a competition in heroism between equals, where your honor is at stake, but a question of self-preservation. We have X number of troops, you have Y number of troops. X is greater than Y. X - Y = you must surrender or die. But the Melians aren't quite convinced that this equation equals their destruction: If we submit at once, our position is desperate; if we fight, there is still hope... The Athenians are having none of that: Hope encourages men to take risks... you are weak, your future hangs on a turn of the scales. So the Melians try a different argument: We trust that Heaven will not allow us to be worsted by Fortune, for in this quarrel we are right and you are wrong. Now the two different world views are emerging more clearly. One side is arguing from the angle of military power, the other side is arguing from moral grounds. To counter this moral argument the Athenians do have to adapt their strategy slightly, and they reply: As for divine favor, we think that we can count on it as much as you... We believe that Heaven, and we know that men, by a natural law always rule where they are stronger. We did not make that law nor were we the first to act on it; we found it existing and it will exist forever, after we are gone. And we know that you and anyone else as strong as we are would do as we do. You would do the same thing if you were in our shoes. It's a weak argument. But who knows? Maybe the Melians really would do the same thing in the Athenian's place. In any case the Melians say they will not in a moment deprive of freedom a city that has existed for seven hundred years. And the Athenians won't give up their glory and empire. The Athenians have the power so it's checkmate for the Melians. They die with honor.

Sunday, January 09, 2011


Groucho Marx once said that "Behind every successful man is a woman, and behind her is his wife." Macbeth doesn’t need another woman. Lady Macbeth has enough ambition for both of them. She gives him nerves of steel to do whatever it takes to get to the top. And Lady Macbeth’s ambition is to be Queen of Scotland. She won’t let anything stand in her way of climbing to the top. Whether she likes it when she gets there is a different story. We know from the start of the play that something’s wrong. Three witches meet on an open stage. FIRST WITCH: When shall we three meet again In thunder, lightning, or in rain? SECOND WITCH: When the hurlyburly's done, When the battle's lost and won. No good can come of this. Some people think witchcraft and sorcery is childish. Others take it seriously but avoid it like the plague. Macbeth and his companion Banquo are intrigued by it. What power do these three witches have? Banquo isn’t afraid of them and asks a direct question: If you can look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not, Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear Your favours nor your hate… Do they have the power to tell the future? Who among us can look into the seeds of time and know what will happen? Maybe no one. Would we really want to? Even if we knew the future, would it help us? Banquo himself admits that 'tis strange: And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths, Win us with honest trifles, to betray's In deepest consequence. In his opinion spirits tell us “the truth.” But it’s a truth that’s slanted. Macbeth will be king. Good news? Herodotus tells a story about an ancient king consulting an oracle. He’s about to invade another country with his army and wants to know if he’ll succeed. The oracle says that if he invades a great kingdom will fall. The king is pleased that the oracle has given a good omen. So the king invades and a great kingdom does indeed fall. Unfortunately it’s his own kingdom. So much for oracles. Lady Macbeth falls for the same trick. She’s a sharp student of human nature and knows her husband well: yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o' the milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great; Art not without ambition, but without The illness should attend it… You’ve almost got what it takes. You just don’t quite have the spine to take care of the rough stuff. You've done well becoming a Duke. But I can make you a King. Even Lady Macbeth herself almost shrinks from the task at hand. Not only will they assassinate a king, they’ll also be killing their honored guest. In Scottish culture that’s breaking two strongly-held taboos at once. Nevertheless, she’s determined to go through with it: Come, you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood; Stop up the access and passage to remorse… Once Lady Macbeth makes up her mind to do something, it will get done. You can count on it. She may be a woman but she can do a man’s job better than any man, if that's what it takes (unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty!). You don’t want to get on the wrong side of Lady Macbeth. She may be the most dangerous woman on stage since Euripides’ Medea. But in the end even Lady Macbeth falters. She doesn’t sleep well. She wanders around in the night sleepwalking and sighing things like Out, damn’d spot! A disturbed conscience may be the most fitting punishment for Macbeth and his Lady. Macbeth says: Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep', the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care, The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, Chief nourisher in life's feast,-- So the three witches told the truth. Macbeth did become king and Lady Macbeth his queen. But neither of them ever knew another good night’s sleep until they died. That’s the part the witches left out. Banquo was right: oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths. Or half-truths.

Monday, January 03, 2011

FREUD: Why War?

The oldest selection in the Great Books series is Homer’s Iliad and dates to about 750 B.C. It’s an epic poem about the war. In the opening scene there’s a big argument between two soldiers over war booty, in this case a beautiful young girl. Two boys fighting over a girl. Sound familiar? Homer’s telling us a war story but his underlying theme is about human conflict and its two fundamental causes: aggression and sexuality. Surely Homer must have been one of the top psychologists of his day. Fast forward almost 3000 years. One of the top psychologists of our day (Sigmund Freud) writes a letter responding to the top physicist (Albert Einstein). Einstein has posed this question: What is to be done to rid mankind of the war menace? Here’s what Freud says: I was dumbfounded by the thought of my (I almost wrote, of our) incompetence to answer this question. Aren’t there experts on war? Shouldn’t we be consulting Army Generals? Politicians? Philosophers? To Freud’s credit, one of the first clues of competence is to realize when you’re incompetent. And Freud feely confesses that he’s a psychologist, not a military commander. But it’s interesting to get his psychological perspective into why men fight and kill one another: You are amazed that it is so easy to infect men with the war fever, and you surmise that man has in him an active instinct for hatred and destruction, amenable to such stimulations. I entirely agree with you. I believe in the existence of this instinct and have been recently at pains to study its manifestations. In this connection may I set out a fragment of that knowledge of the instincts, which we psychoanalysts, after so many tentative essays and gropings in the dark, have compassed? We assume that human instincts are of two kinds: those that conserve and unify, which we call "erotic" (in the meaning Plato gives to Eros in his Symposium), or else "sexual" (explicitly extending the popular connotation of "sex"); and, secondly, the instincts to destroy and kill, which we assimilate as the aggressive or destructive instincts. Freud confirms what Homer must have suspected 3000 years ago. Homer was “groping in the dark” but Freud states the same phenomenon in scientific terms. What’s really at stake in war is the aggressive instinct for domination and destruction versus the erotic instinct for peace and preservation. The question now becomes: which instinct is stronger? War depends on the answer we give. This psychological stuff is all well and good but Einstein asked a practical question: Can war ever be permanently eliminated? Freud is not optimistic. He believes there is but one sure way of ending war and that is the establishment, by common consent, of a central control which shall have the last word in every conflict of interests. In short, will one group of people voluntarily relinquish full control over their property, their bodies and their lives to another group of people? Not likely. That’s why we have wars. And it may be too much to overcome the biological instinct for survival in order to follow “reason” and lay down our weapons while hostile enemies are still armed and dangerous. This isn’t reasonable. It’s easy to imagine what happens when two men are pointing guns at each other: you drop your gun and I’ll drop mine. Ok, you go first. Freud doesn’t think either man will drop the gun first. But he comes to an interesting conclusion: Why do we, you and I and many another, protest so vehemently against war, instead of just accepting it as another of life's odious importunities? For it seems a natural thing enough, biologically sound and practically unavoidable. Since wars have always been with us, why shouldn’t we accept them as an unpleasant fact of life and just move on? Freud answers his own question: Because every man has a right over his own life and war destroys lives that were full of promise; it forces the individual into situations that shame his manhood, obliging him to murder fellow men, against his will; it ravages material amenities, the fruits of human toil, and much besides. War is hell. And maybe we’ll never stop it. But in Freud’s opinion we should never stop trying.