Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, April 29, 2011

HOBBES: Of Commonwealth (Introduction)

In the past few weeks our Great Books discussion group has read about the social effects of money (Shakespeare’s Timon), how primitive society affects the modern mind (Conrad), the importance of studying (Ortega) and how civilizations begin (Aristotle). Now we come to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The threads of the previous four readings come together in his short piece Of Commonwealth. Hobbes wants us to consider the basic human organizational structure we use in order to govern ourselves. Aristotle calls this structure a State. Hobbes calls it a Commonwealth. It doesn’t matter whether we call it a State or a Commonwealth, living in a civilized social order requires a certain set of skills. Shakespeare showed us how money can blind us to the true meaning of friendship. Conrad showed us that living in modern society makes us unfit to return and live in a primitive state of nature. Ortega showed us the importance of handing down our knowledge from one generation to the next. It was Ortega who said that if a whole generation should cease to study, nine-tenths of the human race would die a violent death. Hobbes agrees. And Aristotle made his famous statement that the state comes into existence originating in the bare needs of life and continues in existence for the sake of the good life. Thomas Hobbes partly agrees with all these writers and partly disagrees. Hobbes stakes out his own particular views on the social order by concentrating his attention on the most basic need of all: the need to survive. Without establishing our continued survival first, all this talk about principles and values is just a bunch of wasted words. When your back is to the wall in a struggle for life and death things like money and education become luxuries we can’t afford. But why do we have to become involved in some life-or-death struggle in the first place? Aristotle gave us the short answer: Man, when perfected, is the best of animals. But when separated from law and justice he is the worst of all. Hobbes agrees. You may be a good guy but some people out there are really bad guys. Hobbes goes into a little more detail in this essay. He notes that bees and ants live sociably with one another… some man may perhaps desire to know why mankind cannot do that same. Yes, many men (and women too) have asked why can’t people get along like other social creatures in the state of nature? Hobbes is one of the most direct writers in the Great Books. Here are his six reasons:
1. Men are continually in competition for honor and dignity, which these creatures are not.
2. Amongst these creatures the common good differeth not from the private.
3. These creatures having not (as man does) the use of reason, do not see, nor think they see, any fault in the administration of their common business.
4. They want that art of words by which some men can represent to others that which is good in the likeness of evil and evil in the likeness of good.
5. Irrational creatures cannot distinguish between INJURY (intentionally hurtful speech or words) and DAMAGE (actual loss of property or bodily harm).
6. The agreement of these creatures is natural; that of men is by covenant, which is artificial.
We could comment on every one of these reasons in more detail. Each statement is rich in philosophical speculation. But there’s no need to speculate. Hobbes states the most obvious points in the briefest number of words. You may disagree with him. Many people do. But you won’t misunderstand what Hobbes is saying. And he seems to split humanity right down the middle when he asks the reader to decide: which is more important, freedom or safety? Some will always choose freedom. Give me freedom or give me death! The Melians in Thucydides chose freedom and it got them killed. Hobbes says: choose safety.

Friday, April 22, 2011

ARISTOTLE: Politics (Introduction)

In his essay On Studying Jose Ortega y Gasset says Generation after generation the frightening mass of human knowledge which the student must assimilate piles up… Underneath this culture, received but not truly assimilated, man will remain intact as he was; that is to say, he will remain uncultured, a barbarian… Culture may be a “frightening mass of human knowledge” but Ortega still sees education as the key for passing civilization on from one generation to the next. Failure to preserve civilization will lead to catastrophe. Ortega goes on to say that if a whole generation should cease to study, nine-tenths of the human race would die a violent death. We saw that happen in Conrad’s short story about An Outpost of Progress. Two men met violent deaths because their education had not prepared them to survive outside the safety net of their own civilization. Aristotle helps make sense of these ideas in his own writing about Politics. Aristotle was multi-talented and a shrewd observer of human nature. He was also thoroughly trained in biology and took careful note of the world around him. For example, in some of his writings Aristotle drew this distinction between old and young men: Elderly men have lived many years; they have often been taken in and often made mistakes; and life on the whole is a bad business… They “think” but they never “know” and because of their hesitation they always add “possibly” or “perhaps”… their experience makes them distrustful and therefore suspicious of evil. Then he goes on to say that Young men (are different). All their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently… They think they know everything and are always quite sure about it. These are two very different views of the world and two very different views about how to live life. But it should be noted that the same man can have both of these traits at different periods in his life. The brash young playboy hitting the nightclubs may someday grow up to be a cautious old gentleman nodding off in a rocking chair in front of the fire. So what does all this have to do with politics? Young and old men often disagree about what should be done. When it comes to making changes the younger men usually err on the side of bold change and the older men on the side of proceeding more cautiously. Men may be more willing for a country to go to war than are most of the women. Young families may be more interested in public education policy than young singles. But all of these people have one thing in common: they all want to be safe and prosper. And for that reason people tend to band together and form small communities with shared interests. Then small communities band together to form larger cities and states and nations. Aristotle speculates that the state comes into existence originating in the bare needs of life and continues in existence for the sake of a good life. And if the earlier forms of society are natural so is the (modern) state… We start out needing basic things like food, shelter and warm clothing. Then we develop weapons to protect ourselves from outsiders and rules (laws) for living peaceably amongst our neighbors. Once this is accomplished we start developing things like the arts and history and philosophy. Writers like Rousseau and Thoreau believed that civilization is unnatural and forces us to live up to false standards. Aristotle disagrees and uses his biological instincts to view a human city like Paris or New York to be just as “natural” as a bee hive or an ant hill. An art museum is just as natural to Aristotle as Walden Pond was to Thoreau. Thoreau thought we would be better off to get away from the corrupting influences of town and city ways. Aristotle couldn’t disagree more. For Aristotle the man who is unable to live in society or who has no need of society must be either a beast or a god. It’s important for Aristotle that we try to live more like gods and less like beasts. That’s because man, when perfected, is the best of animals. But when separated from law and justice he is the worst of all. One of the primary benefits of living in civilization is to feel safe and be confident that justice will prevail. Aristotle thinks this is the purpose of politics.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


We are going to study metaphysics… Now there’s an opening sentence that will drive folks toward the exits. But let’s give Ortega a chance. The mere word “metaphysics” is enough to turn most people off. So let’s start with this question: what is metaphysics? Ortega’s simple answer: metaphysics is something that man does or something that man makes… man makes many things, not just metaphysics… he makes his house, he makes politics, industry, verses, science… This helps get us on solid ground. We’re going to study a subject that’s man-made, the same way we live in a house that’s been made by men. But a second question may arise: why study metaphysics? Why shouldn’t we spend our time studying something useful, like carpentry? Then we can learn how to build houses and earn a living. Why bother studying metaphysics? Do we really need it? The short answer from Ortega is: no. But here’s his longer answer: Metaphysics is not metaphysics except for those who need it. For one who does not need it, who does not seek it, metaphysics is just a series of words. For those who don’t really care about metaphysics it’s just a waste of time. They may as well be doing something useful such as learning carpentry. But for those who are curious and still hanging around to see what all the fuss is about Ortega continues: In order to truly understand something, and most of all metaphysics, it is not necessary to have what is called talent or to possess great prior wisdom… what is necessary is to have need of metaphysics. Metaphysics is philosophy. The best students of philosophy are those who WANT to be philosophers. The rest should go be carpenters or do something else. Now Ortega gets down to business: man engages in metaphysics when he seeks a basic orientation in his situation. A good example of being disoriented can be found in Conrad’s short story An Outpost of Progress. Two men find themselves out in the wilderness with no contact or support from their own civilization. They want to get rich and sit around waiting for the proverbial ship to come in. But they should be learning carpentry so they can repair their own buildings and gardening so they can grow their own food. They become extremely “dis-oriented” regarding their circumstances. How can metaphysics help these guys? Actually metaphysics is the very thing they both desperately need. Ortega doesn’t think metaphysics is useless speculation or mere navel-gazing. Metaphysics (and its cousin, philosophy) provide us with a road map to re-orient our path through life. No matter what our situation is, philosophy can help figure out where we are, where we should go and even what we should do to get there. Ortega says that man’s life seems to made up of situations… as long as one lives, one is living in a specific situation. That’s why we need to study a subject like metaphysics, because man’s primary situation is life, is living. Metaphysics consists of the fact that man seeks a basic orientation in his situation. No matter where we are in life, metaphysics can help re-orient us to a new and better situation. This argument will not persuade most people. That’s ok. They should wait until they truly need philosophy in their lives. It won’t come naturally. Very few people call up their buddies and say “hey let’s have some fun. Why don’t you guys come on over so we can study some metaphysics! Whoo-hoo!” But everyone has to BE something. Ortega notes that there are an infinite number of ways of being a man, and all of them are equally genuine. One can be a man of science, or a business man, or a political man, or a religious man… but man by himself would never be a student, just as man by himself would never be a taxpayer. He MUST pay taxes, he HAS to study, but he IS by nature neither a taxpayer nor a student. To be a student or to be a taxpayer is an artificial state in which man finds himself by obligation… in my judgment the reform of education ought to begin with that brutal paradox. Philosophy is a very practical subject. Ortega says we should reform our educational system. Sound familiar? Philosophy can help but that’s a whole different topic.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

CONRAD: An Outpost of Progress

One of the most unpopular selections in the Great Books Adult Series set is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Why? Depending on who you talk to the story is too long, too boring or too depressing. But An Outpost of Progress is different. It’s shorter. Otherwise it’s just as bleak and hopeless as Heart of Darkness. Even the themes are the same: two civilized white men journey into the deepest parts of Africa and confront an alien culture. The result is disturbing to many readers. Still, it’s important to read Conrad for at least three reasons: (1) he’s a master of English prose, (2) he’s out of fashion, and (3) he’s included in the Great Books set. Let’s take them in order. First, Conrad knows how to write. He knows how to weave an enchanting spell around the reader. Many readers claim that he’s boring. And they’re right, but only in this sense: any really long journey is going to be filled with hours and hours of sheer boredom. Conrad knows how to make you FEEL it in just a few short pages. As Conrad explains My task is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel; it is, before all to make you SEE. That, and no more, and it is everything. If Conrad seems boring it’s because he knows what he’s doing. He intends for you to be “bored” for a reason. He’s setting the stage for you to FEEL like the characters in the story. Second, Conrad falls into a class of writers who used to be read a lot but have fallen out of favor in recent times. Rudyard Kipling and Ernest Hemingway also fall into this category. Why? It’s hard to say but probably because the message they bring is not welcomed in modern America. Conrad says Those who read me know my conviction that the world, the temporal world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must be as old as the hills. A culture in love with iPods and Netflicks isn’t really interested in ideas that are old as the hills. They want the latest upgrade. But there’s also a deeper reason. In many ways Conrad is a subversive writer, only in reverse. He says I have not been revolutionary in my writings. The revolutionary… (has a) hard, absolute optimism that is repulsive to my mind by the menace of fanaticism and intolerance it contains. This is not the kind of language that will motivate a social activist. Many Americans believe deeply in progress. They think we can make things “better” and Joseph Conrad is having none of that. Reading his stories is like reading The Book of Job only without the happy ending. Finally, some of us read Conrad just because he’s included in the Great Books set. Who picks up a book and says “you know I think I’ll read this long, boring, depressing story?” But it’s included in the Great Books for a reason. Conrad believes life is hard and mostly dark. Thomas Hobbes agreed. Gorky’s story about Chelkash is like that too. They’re starkly opposed to Rousseau’s or Thoreau’s notion that life can be rosy if only we shed the inhibitions of civilization and learn to be ourselves. We need to be more like the Noble Savage and live according to nature. To this idea Conrad can only shake his head and say: really? Let me tell you a little story. An Outpost of Progress shows us what life would be like in a state of nature. Here’s your noble savage, a man named Makola, who cherished in his innermost heart the worship of evil spirits… He got on very well with his god. Perhaps he had propitiated him by a promise of more white men to play with, by and by… In Conrad’s opinion the contact with pure unmitigated savagery, with primitive nature and primitive man, brings sudden and profound trouble into the heart. This is not the message of Rousseau or Henry David Thoreau. In Conrad’s opinion civilization is a blessing, but with a twist. “Progress” is an illusion. We say we believe in it but we actually live by ideas that are as old as the hills. Civilization is only a thin veneer covering up primitive passions. Two very ordinary white station masters found this out the hard way: Progress was calling to Kayerts from the river. Progress and civilization and all the virtues. They signed on to go into dark, primitive Africa for six months and make lots of money. Neither of them ever came back. This is classic Conrad.

Friday, April 08, 2011

SHAKESPEARE: Timon of Athens

Timon is a rich man. So rich that no one, not even Timon, knows for sure how much money he has. But Timon is not a miserly, stingy man. He gives money away freely; lots of money. But that’s ok. Timon considers it money well spent. His attitude is 'Tis not enough to help the feeble up, But to support him after. At the start of the play this seems like a very noble attitude. Don’t just help people get up off the ground, give them enough money to help them get started again. And Timon is very generous to his friends. He says what need we have any friends, if we should ne'er have need of 'em? …We are born to do benefits: and what better or properer can we call our own than the riches of our friends? O, what a precious comfort 'tis, to have so many, like brothers, commanding one another's fortunes! Wouldn’t you like to have a friend like Timon, who will come to your aid whenever you need to borrow money or get bailed out of jail? But hold on. There’s one man who knows exactly how much money Timon has. Timon’s business manager has a different picture of what Timon’s finances look like. FLAVIUS: What will this come to? He commands us to provide, and give great gifts, And all out of an empty coffer: Nor will he know his purse, or yield me this, To show him what a beggar his heart is, Being of no power to make his wishes good: His promises fly so beyond his state That what he speaks is all in debt; he owes For every word: he is so kind that he now Pays interest for 't; his land's put to their books. Well, would I were gently put out of office Before I were forced out! The fact is, Timon is spending money that he doesn’t have; and he’s promising all his friends that he’ll spend even more on them. Flavius has tried to tell Timon that he’s broke but Timon won’t listen. He just goes on talking about how much fun it is to be generous: I take all and your several visitations So kind to heart, 'tis not enough to give; Methinks, I could deal kingdoms to my friends, And ne'er be weary. Timon is kind-hearted but he’s also financially busted. He can’t even help himself, much less afford to help other people. So he runs his fortune right into the ditch. Flavius can see what’s happening but is powerless to stop it: No care, no stop! so senseless of expense, That he will neither know how to maintain it, Nor cease his flow of riot: takes no account How things go from him, nor resumes no care Of what is to continue: never mind Was to be so unwise, to be so kind. What shall be done? He will not hear, till feel. Timon does eventually feel the pinch of owing money. He has given away tons of money. But when he approaches his so-called “friends” for help, none of them even offers a loan. There’s a lesson to learn here. It’s a hard lesson but Timon learned it well. He should have read what Aristotle had to say about friendship in his book Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle says there are three kinds of friends: friendships of utility or “usefulness” (these would be people like your business partners), friendships of pleasure (these would be people like your drinking buddies), and friendships of the good (these would be the “true friends” who have your best interests in mind). Timon’s problem was thinking that all his acquaintances were friendships of the good. His acquaintances were all thinking that their friendship was one of usefulness or pleasure. When the money and the good times stopped flowing, so did the friendship. This was a hard lesson for Timon. A philosophical question arises: can a person be terrible at money management and still be good and wise? A more practical question would be: should a wise person try to be self-sufficient or develop financial partnerships with friends? To be fully human we all need friends. To be fully human we also need money. Shakespeare has his finger on the pulse where the concept of friendship and money intersect. In the modern world we often have to live most of our lives in that intersection. Friends come and go. People move into town, people move away. Money comes and goes too. The trick to success is simple: have more money coming in than going out; have true friends who care about your well-being. Timon’s tragedy was to fail on both counts.