Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, March 28, 2011

ROGER FRY: Essay in Aesthetics

In his famous poem about a Grecian urn John Keats once wrote that 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.' Over the years many people have believed this idea deep within their hearts. Beauty and truth are so closely inter-related that they are merged into one. Over the years many other people have believed just as strongly that this is pure nonsense. Beauty and truth are two entirely different things. Who’s right? Roger Fry checks into this fight on shaky ground. He admits that …I have never believed that I knew what the ultimate nature of art was. So why has he decided to write an essay on this very subject? Maybe he wants to clear up his ideas in his own mind. Maybe he wants to persuade us that beauty is just as important as truth. And he does take a strong position. In his opinion …the aesthetic pursuit is as important in the long run for mankind as the search for truth. He realizes that not everyone will agree with him. In fact, some of the heavyweights of philosophy will say that Fry is just plain wrong. Plato may be one of them. Did Plato believe that the search for beauty was as important in the long run for mankind as the search for truth? No. Fry writes that Plato himself put the question: Is art worthwhile? …he decided that it was not worthwhile and proceeded to turn the artists out of his ideal republic. So much for the artists. But maybe they wouldn’t want a philosopher like Plato in their own ideal artistic republic either. An obvious question is: why are these two views so much opposed? Can’t they live peaceably in the same town? Part of the answer is that they want different things out of life. Fry helps put this in perspective by setting the background for us: Man has the peculiar faculty of calling up again in his mind the echo of past experiences, of going over it again “in imagination” as we say. He has, therefore, the possibility of a double life; one we call the actual life, the other we call the imaginative life. Plato puts his emphasis on “the actual life” and the artists put their emphasis on “the imaginative life.” So what? Does it really make any difference? Yes, it does. In fact, it makes a great deal of difference. Fry writes that we get in the imaginative life a different set of values and a different kind of perception. It’s this “different set of values” that apparently bothers Plato. Actual life sometimes requires citizens to be brave instead of cowardly, chaste instead of promiscuous, restrained instead of impulsive. The imaginative life doesn’t require us to be citizens. It doesn’t require us to “be” anything. It doesn’t require us to do anything either. In the imaginative life we can simply sit back and observe our emotions without committing ourselves to any course of action. Fry expresses it this way: Art is an expression and a stimulus of imaginative life, which is separated from actual life by the absence of responsive action. Responsive action implies in actual life moral responsibility. In art we have no such moral responsibility. It presents a life freed from the binding necessities of our actual existence. When we respond in real life we can be brave, chaste and restrained. On the other hand, we can also turn out cowardly, promiscuous and impulsive. In the imaginative life we can walk into an art museum or a movie theater and see explicit representations of life. There we can see various interpretations made by artists. They may be accurate interpretations or wildly misguided; they can be beautiful or they can be bizarre. It doesn’t matter. For those who agree with Fry each work of art is an expression of life seen from a unique perspective. It makes the world a richer and more beautiful place. Our emotional life is enriched by these works of art. And that’s good for art lovers like Fry. But it’s not good according to Plato. Why? Fry believes it’s because morality appreciates emotion by the standard of resultant action. Art appreciates emotion in and for itself. Fry wants us to observe more and learn to appreciate our emotional life, in and for itself. He thinks we can do this by contemplating works of art. Plato wants us to become better citizens. He doesn’t think we can do this by retreating from real life. The debate continues.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

FLANNERY O’CONNOR: Everything That Rises Must Converge

The Great Books introduction tells us that Flannery O’Connor was a native Southerner and a devout Catholic. She was also a great writer who has earned her place in the Great Books series. O’Connor once explained that a story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way… When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The only way to understand this short story is to read it yourself. No explanations will do. So in O’Connor’s own words we can judge how well she fits in with other great writers we’ve been reading. Gorky’s story about Chelkash is one example. Cheklash is an accomplished thief and is very good at what he does. He recruits a young kid to help him steal. How would that kind of thing be viewed through Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Catholic eyes? She has one character say it like this: “What gets my goat is all those boys from good families stealing automobile tires,” the woman with the protruding teeth said. “I told my boy, I said you may not be rich but you been raised right and if I ever catch you in any such mess, they can send you on to the reformatory. Be exactly where you belong.” Gorky would have loved that kind of writing. In just a few well-chosen words O’Connor captures not only the Southern slang language but also the culture that produces the kind of people who talk like that. The Southern aristocracy had obviously left its mark on O’Connor’s Southern viewpoint. Aristocracy? Tocqueville had brilliant insight into the way an aristocracy can be created in an American-style industrial economy. But Flannery O’Connor knows about Southern agrarian aristocracy. This short exchange between mother and son is a good example: “Of course,” she said, “if you know who you are, you can go anywhere.” She said this every time he took her to the reducing class. “Most of them in it are not our kind of people,” she said, “but I can be gracious to anybody. I know who I am.” “They don't give a damn for your graciousness,” Julian said savagely. “Knowing who you are is good for one generation only. You haven't the foggiest idea where you stand now or who you are.” She stopped and allowed her eyes to flash at him. “I most certainly do know who I am,” she said, “and if you don't know who you are, I'm ashamed of you.” Next, Claude Bernard talks about observation and experiment in the laboratory. O’Connor’s laboratory is a small town in Georgia. Another exchange between mother and son goes like this: “True culture is in the mind, the mind,” he said, and tapped his head, “the mind.” “It's in the heart,” she said, “and in how you do things and how you do things is because of who you are.” So who’s right? Is “true culture” in the mind or in the heart? Take Claude Bernard’s advice and observe what happens. Julian’s mother often says things that make him cringe. Her racism is a relic of the past and he’s been to college. Now he’s more open-minded and wants to help improve race relations but he had never been successful in making any Negro friends. His mother, on the other hand, immediately makes friends on the bus with a young black boy. This leads to a physical assault by the boy’s mother. She hits Julian’s mother and causes her to have a stroke. As Julian’s mother tries to focus her failing mind she reverts to what makes her feel most secure: “Tell Grandpa to come get me,” she said. He stared, stricken. “Tell Caroline to come get me,” she said. Julian’s mother is dying. At first she asks for her Grandpa. But as she fades closer to death she calls out for someone who makes her feel even more secure, Caroline. Who is Caroline? "I remember the old darky who was my nurse, Caroline. There was no better person in the world. I've always had a great respect for my colored friends,” she said. “I’d do anything in the world for them and they'd. . .” She referred to Caroline as an “old darky” but also said there was no better person in the world. I’d do anything in the world for them… Julian was different: When he got on a bus by himself, he made it a point to sit down beside a Negro, in reparation as it were for his mother's sins. Who’s the real racist? Read the story and decide for yourself.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

BERNARD: Observation and Experiment

Yogi Berra once said that you can observe a lot just by watching. Yogi was a pretty good baseball player but he wouldn’t have made a good scientist. Claude Bernard explains that observation is only half the goal. You can indeed learn a lot by watching. But in order for it to mean anything you have to put your observations into some sort of logical context. There needs to be a framework so all those observations will make sense and be useful. That’s where experiment comes in. It’s the second half of being scientific. Bernard puts it this way: Men who gather observations are useful only because their observations are later introduced into experimental reasoning; in other words, endless accumulation of observation leads nowhere. So where should observation lead us? In his case Bernard wanted to establish medicine in a logical context. Bernard’s aim was to establish medicine as an exact science, comparable to chemistry and physics... We can’t do that by just looking around. By simply noting facts, we can never succeed in establishing a science… To learn, we must necessarily reason about what we have observed, compare the facts and judge them by other facts… In order to create a foundation for knowledge Bernard has to walk us through the steps it takes to establish an exact science. First of all we have to keep an open mind. Men who have excessive faith in their theories or ideas are not only ill prepared for making discoveries; they also make very poor observations. Of necessity, they observe a preconceived idea… If we think we already know something then we’ll be blind to facts that don’t confirm what we already think. We’ll unconsciously look for the facts that back us up and discard the facts that are against us. That’s why Bernard is very firm on this point: We must never make experiments to confirm our ideas… one must accept the results of experiments as they come… So our relationship to the world should follow in a strict order. We begin by observing something that happens. Let’s say it’s something simple like seeing a straight pin sticking to a magnet. We come up with a theory that other materials will also stick to magnets. So we devise an experiment to test our theory. Here’s where we can get into trouble. Why? Because we’re already prejudiced. It was our own idea that materials stick to magnets. That’s fine when we try a nail. It works. But when we put a piece of cloth next to a magnet, nothing happens. Does that mean our experiment is a failure? Even worse, does that mean that WE are failures? We’re human beings and human beings have emotions. That’s why Bernard thinks it’s so hard to be both observer and experimenter. He says that Observers must …purely and simply note the phenomena before their eyes…(they) must be photographers of phenomena… But on the other hand an experimenter…is a man inspired…to devise experiments which in the logical order of his anticipations shall bring results serving as controls for his preconceived idea. These are two very different operations. The job of the scientist is to keep these two operations going at the same time. Why is this important? Because the observer does not reason, he notes; the experimenter, on the other hand, reasons… it seems impossible to separate them in practice. We all have a tendency to want to jump in and make something happen. We want to make things happen the way we think they should happen. And we especially want things to turn out in ways that fit our notions of the way the world SHOULD be. This is a noble goal for politics but it is bad science. That’s why we have to keep politics and science separate. The same goes for religion. Politics deals with one set of problems. Religion deals with another set of problems. Science has a different goal: Our experimenter puts questions to nature, but as soon as she speaks he must hold his peace, he must note her answer, hear her out and in every case accept her decision. Politicians don’t want to give up power. Believers don’t want to give up God. This is only human. Science, politics and religion are all human activities, but in very different ways. Bernard was passionate about keeping science pure.

Monday, March 07, 2011


“The American people” is a common phrase in American politics. Both parties claim to speak for the people. This is only natural in a democracy and it’s one of the things we’re proud of as a nation. “We, the people of the United States of America” is a bedrock foundation of our society. But Shakespeare’s play about Coriolanus makes us take a step back and look at democracy from a different angle. What if the people are wrong? What if the people can’t govern themselves? What then? Shakespeare’s portrayal of Roman democracy is not pleasant. He paints an unflattering picture of “the people” not as a romantic theory but as an ugly reality. Here’s the argument FOR democracy: SICINIUS (speaking for the people): What is the city but the people? CITIZENS: True, the people ARE the city. This is the best argument for democracy; the State is formed for the good of the people who live in it. That may be true. But here’s the argument AGAINST democracy: CORIOLANUS: That is the way to lay the city flat; to bring the roof down to the foundation. It may be true that the State is formed for the good of the people, but all people are NOT equal. The leveling tendency of democracy is resented by those who aren’t satisfied with mediocrity. The Roman aristocrat Menenius puts it this way: There is a difference between a grub and a butterfly. Coriolanus is a good example of the difference between man and man. Coriolanus has this advice for the common people: Bid them wash their faces and keep their teeth clean. The people don’t appreciate this kind of attitude. And what makes his attitude rankle even more is the fact that Coriolanus can back it up. He’s a great warrior and a noble spirit. He stands out from the common herd. This is dangerous to the ordinary men who want to be democratic politicians. Nietzsche might have appreciated Coriolanus but ordinary citizens don’t. Here’s their attitude toward the Roman aristocracy: CITIZEN: They ne'er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their store-houses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily, to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there's all the love they bear us. That sounds like the generic argument against the wealthy: they’ve gotten rich on the backs of poor working folks. But Menenius points out that the aristocrats aren’t just sitting around idly wasting time. They’re out there working hard for the good of the State: The senators of Rome are this good belly, And you the mutinous members; for examine Their counsels and their cares, digest things rightly Touching the weal o' the common, you shall find No public benefit which you receive But it proceeds or comes from them to you And no way from yourselves. What do you think, You, the great toe of this assembly? It is, in fact, the aristocrats who are doing all the heavy lifting when it comes to national security and good governance. It’s the people who are the lazy ones idly wasting their time. CORIOLANUS: your affections are A sick man's appetite, who desires most that Which would increase his evil… Hang ye! Trust Ye? With every minute you do change a mindIt’s the people who demand more and more from the State. And to make matters even worse the people are fickle and can’t even devise a coherent policy, much less carry it out. BRUTUS (speaking for the people): We do it not alone, sir. MENENIUS (speaking for the aristocrats): I know you can do very little alone; for… your abilities are too infant-like for doing much alone… You know neither me, yourselves nor any thing… When you are hearing a matter between party and party… (you) dismiss the controversy bleeding, the more entangled by your hearing: all the peace you make in their cause is, calling both the parties knaves… more of your conversation would infect my brain. Name-calling doesn’t help in politics: your abilities are too infant-like for doing much… Neither does calling the other side stupid: You know neither me, yourselves nor anything. Americans should read more Shakespeare.