Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, February 26, 2011

TOCQUEVILLE: How an Aristocracy May Be Created by Industry

Adam Smith once wrote that the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another… is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals. We’re all psychologically geared for conducting business. In his opinion this is a good thing. We live in communities and everyone specializes in their work. That way we’re able to provide ourselves with all the necessities and comforts of life. But Maxim Gorky paints a bleaker picture in his short story “Chelkash” when he writes about the dockworkers: the powerful machines these men had made and which stood radiating well-being in the sunlight; machines which, when all is said and done, had been set in motion not by steam, but by the blood and muscles of those who made them. These men have become slaves of the very machines they’ve created. So which is it? Does business and industry make us better people or does it degrade our humanity?

Well, maybe both. According to Tocqueville there are a few people who get very wealthy but most people don’t. In this selection he points out that democracy favors the development of industry… industry may in turn lead men back to aristocracy. We may start out with a democracy where everyone is relatively equal. But in an industrialized society we soon become fragmented into the haves and the have-nots. This is a direct result from the division of labor. Adam Smith says it increases our wealth. Tocqueville agrees, but notes that the wealth tends to become concentrated into the hands of the owners of the business, while the workers fall further behind intellectually and socially. He writes that As the principle of the division of labor is ever more completely applied, the workman becomes weaker, more limited, and more dependent… thus, at the same time that industrial science constantly lowers the standing of the working class, it raises that of the owners… the worker is in a state of constant, narrow, and necessary dependence on the owner and seems to have been born to obey, as the owner was to command. What is this, if not an aristocracy? It may not be called an aristocracy but for all intents and purposes we’ll be living under conditions similar to the feudal arrangement of lords and serfs. Living conditions may be better because we’re able to produce so much more food and clothing and shelter. But the underlying conditions of work and compensation are decided by the owners of the companies, much the way they were decided by the lords of the manors in the Middle Ages. Of course neither the owner nor the workman admit this. It’s just an unspoken agreement between them: The workman is dependent on owners in general, but not on a particular owner. These two men see each other at the workplace, but do not know each other otherwise… The owner only asks the workman for his work, and the workman asks only for his pay. The owner contracts no obligation to protect the workman, nor the workman to defend the owner, and they are not linked in any permanent fashion either by custom or by duty. Thus, the worker is “free” to change jobs and move somewhere else. But wherever he moves there will be another owner who will set his wages and working conditions. Most people would argue that this is still an improvement. At least in modern times we’re given the choice of which “master” we’ll work for. But other folks feel that we’ve lost the sense of a stable community. They long for the days when there was more personal connection between people. In their view the sense of community has been sacrificed for efficiency. Tocqueville says the territorial aristocracy of past ages was obliged by law, or thought itself obliged by custom, to come to the help of its workers and relieve their distress. But the industrial aristocracy of our day, when it has impoverished and brutalized the men it uses, abandons them in time of crisis to public charity. Today we face many of those same problems Tocqueville predicted would happen. The hot news topics today revolve around pension costs, unemployment benefits and public health care. Tocqueville was right.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

GORKY: Chelkash

Readers of the Great Books may ask themselves how Maxim Gorky made it on the Great Books list. Does he belong to be given space alongside other intellectual giants we’ve been reading, such as Thucydides, Adam Smith and Freud? Is a short story about thieves a worthy plot for the grand adventure of Great Books? As usual, that’s up to the individual reader to decide. Let’s compare writers and find out for ourselves. Start with Adam Smith’s theory of the division of labor. Adam Smith wrote it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. The way Adam Smith tells it, there’s a clean division of work between people. Some sell meat, others make beer, still others offer bread. Everyone has his work to do. Everything works out. But what about those who don’t have regular “jobs” to do? What happens to them? Gorky starts his story with a description of workers on the docks of an unnamed seaport presumably somewhere around Russia. A poem of bitter irony could be read in the contrast between these ragged seating men, stupefied by the heat, the noise, and the exhausting labor, and the powerful machines these men had made and which stood radiating well-being in the sunlight; machines which, when all is said and done, had been set in motion not by steam, but by the blood and muscles of those who made them. Gorky’s story gives some flesh and blood to Smith’s description of the free market for the laboring class. It works out well for those at the top but what about these poor guys working all day in the hot sun just to earn enough money to eat? They’re barely surviving, not getting ahead or saving money; and for what?

Man does not live by bread alone. In an earlier reading Freud said: The Bolshevists, too, aspire to do away with human aggressiveness by insuring the satisfaction of material needs and enforcing equality between man and man. To me this hope seems vain. Gorky knew the Bolshevists. Does he agree with Freud that if man’s material needs were met we would still be an aggressive species? Chelkash has few physical needs. He’s a thief. He “earns” his living by stealing what other people have produced. Gorky paints this picture of a talented thief among these tough dock workers: Chelkash was in his element amid this mad welter. He was anticipating a great haul that night, a haul that would cost him little effort but require a great deal of skill. We never find out what he stole but we do know that it was worth a lot of money. Chelkash is satisfied as long as he’s got enough to pay for a bottle of vodka, cabbage soup, roast beef and tea. Chelkash is clearly not motivated by the thought of having more money. What seems to motivate Chelkash is his own notion of freedom and power. He likes being his own boss. He likes being independent. He also likes telling other people what to do. This notion of power as a motivating force is something Freud understood well. But Thucydides understood it some 2500 years before Freud. Thucydides wrote: We (Athenians) 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 (Melians) and anyone else as strong as we are would do as we do. Gorky understood this universal “natural law” of power too. Men always rule when they’re stronger. In this case Chelkash is stronger than young Gavrilla. It’s not physical strength. Chelkash is mentally tougher. He can survive this harsh environment; Gavrilla can’t. Just like the Athenian-Melian situation. Neither city-state would survive the Peloponnesian War. So whether we consider Adam Smith’s labor theory, or Freud’s psychology, or Thucydides’ idea of political power, Maxim Gorky belongs in this company of distinguished writers of Great Books.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

ADAM SMITH: Concerning the Division of Labor

Back in the old days there weren’t any people called economists. Adam Smith taught moral philosophy, which included economics, but also involved political science, ethics and what we would now call sociology. One of the basic problems of all human societies is how to provide food, shelter and clothing for its members. For Adam Smith, the moral philosopher, this was not only a practical problem but an ethical one as well. In human terms we have two different levels when we consider the material means of living well: The desire of food is limited…but the desire of the conveniences and ornaments seems to have no limit. This is related to the problem Socrates talked about in his republic. Just having enough food to eat is fine if you’re building a city for pigs. But people want delicacies to eat as well as nice things for themselves and their families. They want fancy clothes to wear and comfortable transportation and elegant homes or apartments. The problem is, there’s only so much to go around. How do we decide who gets the best food, the best clothes, the best homes and apartments? How can we most efficiently distribute the goods and services of society? We could turn it over to the politicians. Unfortunately Smith points out that Kings and ministers are themselves always, and without exception, the greatest spendthrifts in society. In short, we can’t trust politicians to stay within the budget. We could let the folks who run the businesses decide. Unfortunately Smith points out that people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. So that pretty much leaves us ordinary folks to work things out for ourselves. This is just what Adam Smith is proposing. He argues that the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another…is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals…Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. But wouldn’t this lead to a dog-eat-dog kind of world with every man for himself? Smith says that, yes, it will be every man for himself but not necessarily a dog-eat-dog society. He asks: who is most qualified to look after your own best interests? The politicians? No. The business owners? No. You are. I am. But we have to provide for our needs in a manner worthy of human beings. Adam Smith believes that in civilized society people stand at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes. In almost every other race of animals each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren… Human beings aren’t the only social creatures on the planet. There are bee hives and schools of fish and herds of antelope and colonies of ants. However, human beings have a deep psychological need of one another in order to supply not only our material needs, but our social needs as well. Aristotle correctly points out that human beings are by nature social creatures. Hermits are the exception rather than the rule of human nature. It’s a rare (and often eccentric) individual who will move out to the woods, build his own house, get his own food, and make his own clothes. The rest of us adapt to living in society with other people. And we learn early on that some of us are good at some things, others of us are good at others. Ideally I do what I’m good at and you do what you’re good at. Then we swap what we’ve done: I’ll give you this, if you’ll give me that. Of course we don’t usually do this directly. We use money instead. And Smith is clear that it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. This may seem cold and heartless but it’s the most civilized way to live according to Adam Smith. Each of us pursuing his own interests benefits everyone.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

SHAKESPEARE: Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Shakespeare wrote many great plays during his life. Pericles, Prince of Tyre is not one of them. I’m told that during his lifetime this was one of his favorite plays for theater goers of the day. That may be so. But it still doesn’t change my opinion that this is not one of Shakespeare’s best. Maybe it’s because this play follows two of his truly great tragedies: King Lear and Macbeth. Those two plays rank right up there with Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King as possibly the best tragedies ever written. There are also modern tragedies such as Love Story and Old Yeller. But they’re not really in the same league with Shakespeare and Sophocles.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre isn’t a tragedy and it doesn’t include a dog, but it is a love story. In fact, it covers several different types of love: the love between fathers and daughters, the love between husbands and wives, and the love between friends. The play starts with an account of illicit love between fathers and daughters. A poet named Gower is the narrator and tells us that Antiochus the Great Built up, this city, for his chiefest seat: The fairest in all Syria, I tell you what mine authors say: This king unto him took a fere (wife), Who died and left a female heir, So buxom, blithe, and full of face, As heaven had lent her all his grace; With whom the father liking took,And her to incest did provoke: Bad child; worse father! to entice his own To evil should be done by none… Let’s stop right there: bad child, worse father. We don’t know the details. We don’t know how old Antiochus’ daughter was or when the relationship started. Maybe it wasn’t her fault. Maybe incest is never the child’s fault, no matter how old the child is and even if the “child” is an adult. It’s the parent’s responsibility to navigate their children through the complexities of life. Sleeping with them doesn’t help and is an abuse of parental power. So even though we don’t know the details of the affair, we do know that they engaged in a relationship that isn’t acceptable in Syria, or anywhere else for that matter. Incest is a taboo which apparently is universal. Fathers don’t have sexual relations with their daughters. It’s an evil should be done by none… Nowhere, no way. This is Shakespeare’s way of showing us from the start that there are relationships that are healthy and those that aren’t. By the end of the play we’ve had quite a romp through scenes that include shipwrecks, jousting tournaments and brothels; even people coming back from the dead. Maybe this is part of the reason the play was so popular during Shakespeare’s day. But it’s unsatisfying in many ways. Gower appears several times throughout the play to narrate events. At the end of the play he shows up to tell us what we’ve just seen: In Antiochus and his daughter you have heard Of monstrous lust the due and just reward: In Pericles, his queen and daughter, seen, Although assail'd with fortune fierce and keen, Virtue preserved from fell destruction's blast, Led on by heaven, and crown'd with joy at last: In Helicanus may you well descry A figure of truth, of faith, of loyalty: In reverend Cerimon there well appears The worth that learned charity aye wears: For wicked Cleon and his wife, when fame Had spread their cursed deed, and honour'd name Of Pericles, to rage the city turn, That him and his they in his palace burn; The gods for murder seemed so content To punish them; although not done, but meant. So, on your patience evermore attending, New joy wait on you! Here our play has ending. All this is true. But it’s a moralistic summary of the entire play. It’s also simplistic. The good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. It’s not like Shakespeare to preach so openly. His great dramas such as King Lear and Macbeth don’t tell us what to think. They tell us a story and let us draw our own conclusions. This play not only tells us a story, it tells us what to think too. Maybe this was a popular thing to do in Shakespeare’s time. If that’s the case, then all we can say is: bad play, worse audience.

Friday, February 04, 2011


Who am I? If someone asks who we are, our first response is usually to give our name. If they want to know more then maybe we’ll tell where we come from, or maybe what we do for a living. Telling someone who “I am” seems simple enough. And yet William James points out that the answer isn’t quite as simple as we might think at first. He writes that In its widest possible sense…a man’s Me is the sum total of all he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and his works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank account. That pretty much sums it up. A man’s Me is the sum total of all that he has and is. But there’s also a clear division between some of those things that all add up to equal Me. For instance, there’s a material me: We all have a blind impulse to watch over our body, to deck it with clothing of an ornamental sort, to cherish parents, wife, and babes, and to find ourselves a house of our own which we may live in and improve. This is the “me” that’s plain and obvious to everyone because they can see who I am. But there’s also a spiritual me that isn’t obvious to everyone, maybe not even to myself: When we think of ourselves as thinkers, all the other ingredients of our Me seem relatively external possessions. So we’ve got this external world (the “material me”) and this internal world (the “spiritual me”). But there’s still a third “me” that James wants to concentrate on in this selection. That’s the “social me” and that’s when the internal and external me comes into contact with other people. Our relationships with other people are determined both by the outside world we share: our culture, our families, our friends and neighbors; and by the world inside of us that’s more personal and unique: our feelings, our moral duties, our sense of what’s right and wrong. The dual external/internal nature of this “social me” creates tension concerning how I should act or what I should do. That’s because we have different responsibilities to different people. James points out that We do not show ourselves to our children as to our club companions, to our customers as to the laborers we employ, to our own masters and employers as to our intimate friends. From this there results wht practically is a division of the man into several selves. As a practical matter this makes sense. Our job as a parent is to raise healthy children. Our job at the office is to produce a profit. Our job as a citizen is to make informed decisions about who to vote for. All these separate selves are all “me” in one way or another. But James also shows how this “social me” can pull us in different directions at the same time: As a man I pity you, but as an official I must show you no mercy. Or: As a politician I regard him as an ally, but as a moralist I loathe him. The question I would pose to James is this: is it healthy to act out these different “me’s” in isolation from one another, or is it better to integrate them all into one coherent personality? Can the official show mercy and still be a good official? Can the politician dump his ally and still be a successful politician? The way we answer those questions can be very important. The “social me” provides the key to understanding how we answer. For example, consider Thucydides writing the Melian Dialog. The Athenians felt like they absolutely had to make an example out of the Melians. The Melians felt like they absolutely had to preserve their honor. James says that a man’s fame, good or bad, and his honor or dishonor are names for one of his social selves… A soldier’s honor requires him to fight or to die under circumstances where another man can apologize or run away with no stain upon his social self. The heart of the conflict between the Athenians and the Melians were questions of social prestige. When should I stand up and when should I back down? When should I punish and when should I forgive? Who should I fight and who should I defend? These are questions the social me has to answer. No one can do that for you.