Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, May 28, 2011

CHEKHOV: In Exile (Introduction)

Philosophers speak to our minds. John Locke’s essay on civil government is a good example: The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions… Storytellers speak to our hearts. William Faulkner’s story about the Snopes family is a good example: "This case is closed. I can't find against you, Snopes, but I can give you advice. Leave this country and don't come back to it." His father spoke for the first time, his voice cold and harsh, level, without emphasis: "I aim to. I don't figure to stay in a country among people who…" he said something unprintable and vile, addressed to no one. Anton Chekhov is a gifted storyteller. His story takes place in the heart of Siberia. His characters are cold and lonely convicts exiled from Russia, banished from the kind of civil government that Locke talks about. But Chekhov has a question: what good is philosophy when you’re stuck out in a Godforsaken place like Siberia? Clay, water, cold, no vegetables for you, no fruit; uneducated and drunken people all around, no manners at all… Siberians live like the Snopes family. How do people cope under those conditions? Here are two options: (1) accept your condition with stoic resignation and don’t wish for things you’ll never have, or (2) reject your condition and keep hoping for a better life someday. Chekhov lays out both options brilliantly through his two main characters, Semyon and Tartar. Semyon has taken the first option. He accepts his lot in life and has grown used to the harsh Siberian climate: "You (Tartar) will get used to it," said Semyon, and he laughed. "Now you are young and foolish, the milk is hardly dry on your lips, and it seems to you in your foolishness that you are more wretched than anyone; but the time will come when you will say to yourself: 'I wish no one a better life than mine.' You look at me. Within a week the floods will be over and we shall set up the ferry; you will all go wandering off about Siberia while I shall stay and shall begin going from bank to bank. I've been going like that for twenty-two years, day and night. …I want nothing and I am afraid of nobody, and the way I look at it is that there is nobody richer and freer than I am. When they sent me here from Russia from the first day I stuck it out; I want nothing! The devil was at me about my wife and about my home and about freedom, but I told him: 'I want nothing.' I stuck to it, and here you see I live well, and I don't complain… This is Stoicism in action. Stick it out. Don’t let anything disturb your peace of mind. You can’t control what’s going on around you but you can control your own thoughts. That’s what will keep you happy. A good Buddhist would say the same thing. But Tartar isn’t buying that philosophy. He defends a fellow exile named Vasily. Vasily’s wife came out to Siberia for awhile but she despised Siberia and after three years she went back home. She left their daughter behind with Vasily. Now the daughter is very sick and Vasily has spends a lot of time and money looking for a doctor who can heal her. Semyon thinks it’s all a waste of time because the girl will die anyway. Then Tartar offers this judgment of Stoic philosophy: You (Semyon) say, want nothing. But 'nothing' is bad! His wife lived with him (Vasily) three years; that was a gift from God. 'Nothing' is bad, but three years is good. How you not understand?" Even if Vasily is sad now, he still had three good years of happiness while his wife was with him. Three good years is better than nothing. Tartar summarizes the whole thing this way: "He is good . . . good; but you are bad! You are bad! The gentleman is a good soul, excellent, and you are a beast, bad! The gentleman is alive, but you are dead. God created man to be alive and to have joy and grief and sorrow; but you want nothing, so you are not alive, you are stone, clay! A stone wants nothing and you want nothing. You are a stone, and God does not love you, but He loves the gentleman!" Tartar doesn’t like Stoicism. He wouldn’t like Mr. Snopes either.

Friday, May 20, 2011

LOCKE: Of Civil Government (Introduction)

Thomas Jefferson is famous in American history for coining the phrase “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But long before Jefferson was born John Locke had already said that Man... hath by nature a power... to preserve his property (that is, his life, liberty, and estate) against the injuries and attempts of other men. Jefferson’s notion of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is firmly planted in our brains. But where did Locke get his notion? This selection says Locke believes there are three faults that inhibit our thinking. First…those who seldom reason at all but do and think according to the example of others… These are people who tend to follow the traditions of the communities they grew up in. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that they’re not normally open to accepting new ideas. They prefer the devil they know to the one they don’t know. For traditionalists change should come slowly, if it comes at all. Second…those who put passion in the place of reason… There will always be people who follow passions instead of using their minds to chart out a rational lifestyle. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. Lots of artists and musicians tend to live this way. For passionate folks change should come quickly, like right now. Third…those who readily and sincerely follow reason, but for want of having that which one may call large, sound, round-about sense have not a full view of all that relates to the question… This is your typical absent-minded professor. They’re smart, they may even be brilliant, but they lack common sense or street smarts. The absent-minded citizen says: Change? What change? Here’s Locke’s point: when we live in community we have all kinds of neighbors. Some are traditional, some are passionate, and some don’t have much common sense. But we all have to live together and somehow get along with one another. Political power is the way we set rules how to live together peaceably. How do we do that? Locke believes we have to start at the beginning: To understand political power aright, and derive it from its original, we must consider what estate all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man. In Locke’s opinion we’re all born free to think and act in ways that we believe will serve our own best interests. But this “state of perfect freedom” doesn’t mean we can do anything we please. There are other people in the community too. And they have the same rights and responsibilities that we do: A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another… This doesn’t mean that some people won’t have more than other people. They will. In the free exchange of goods and services within the community some people will naturally get rich; others will stay poor. But as far as the LAW is concerned, we all have the same rights to life, liberty and our “estates” or material wealth. As one of our basic human rights, Jefferson replaced the concept of crude material wealth with the nobler-sounding goal: the pursuit of happiness. In Locke’s mind the term “estate” includes material wealth but goes much further. We certainly need things like food and clothing and good health. But Nature also provides us with human dignity. Locke says …The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions… For Locke (and for Jefferson) Nature and Reason are the twin teachers that will ultimately lead us to happiness.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

FAULKNER: Barn Burning

There’s a story about an old woman having a cup of coffee and reading the morning paper in a small town in Mississippi. When she finishes reading she slowly puts the newspaper away and says to herself: “I don’t care how many books he writes or how much money he makes; that Faulkner boy’s still just white trash.” That’s probably not good literary criticism but it’s one way to get a handle on Southern literature. William Faulkner’s Barn Burning is an echo of both the glory and the squalor of life in the old South. Literature doesn’t develop in a vacuum and neither does Faulkner’s fiction. This story takes place in a particular environment (Mississippi) with a particular set of people (the Snopes family). Meet Mr. Snopes: the wiry figure walked a little stiffly because a Confederate musket ball had taken him in the heel on a stolen horse thirty years ago. Not that the father of the Snopes clan ever fought on the Union side, or any other side for that matter. Mr. Snopes was just out for Mr. Snopes. During the Civil War he mostly spent four years in the woods hiding from all men, blue or gray, with his strings of horses (captured horses, he called them…) Horse thief is what other men called it, both blue and gray. Nowadays we would say that Mr. Snopes had an “antisocial personality disorder.” The idea of a stable social order has long been the goal of political philosophers. In one of our earlier readings Thomas Hobbes wonders: Bees and ants live sociably with one another… some man may perhaps desire to know why mankind cannot do that same. The obvious answer of course is that people aren’t bees or ants, and thank goodness for that. People think and act for themselves. Sometimes this puts them in conflict with their neighbors. But most folks do, in fact, come to terms and learn to live sociably and peaceably with one another. In today’s terms they play well with others. Then there’s Mr. Snopes. He’s the kind of guy who lets his hog get out and ruin the neighbor’s garden; more than once it’s been rumored that if you cross him Mr. Snopes will sneak out at night and burn down your barn. Aristotle said that man, when perfected, is the best of animals. But when separated from law and justice he is the worst of all. Mr. Snopes lives in his own private world without law and justice. Men like Mr. Snopes are the main reason we have police departments and court systems and jails. In the Federalist Papers we read that if men were angels, no government would be necessary. But men aren’t angels. And since there are people like Mr. Snopes the rest of society has to come to terms with criminals living in their midst. One way is to kick them out of the community. Here’s how Faulkner writes about it in his story: "This case is closed. I can't find against you, Snopes, but I can give you advice. Leave this country and don't come back to it." His father (Mr. Snopes) spoke for the first time, his voice cold and harsh, level, without emphasis: "I aim to. I don't figure to stay in a country among people who…" he said something unprintable and vile, addressed to no one. "That'll do," the Justice said. "Take your wagon and get out of this country before dark. Case dismissed.” Or we can establish social norms that discourage antisocial behavior. Here’s a selection from another Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor: “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.” Mr. Snopes wasn’t raised right. But we know how he intends on raising his own kids: to be just like him. At one point he tells his son "You're getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain't going to have any blood to stick to you.” For Mr. Snopes “sticking to your own blood” is a badge of honor. The important thing is the preservation of your own tribe, not the best interests of the community. Look out for number one. It took Faulkner a whole story to create a character like Mr. Snopes. It only took the old Southern lady two words: “white trash.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

SHAKESPEARE: Troilus and Cressida

In many of Shakespeare’s plays we see love triumph over hate. For example, the Montague and Capulet families hated one another but the love between Romeo and Juliet proved stronger than any family feud. In many of Shakespeare’s plays we see good triumph over evil. Macbeth is a good example of this type play. Macbeth hatches a plan to kill King Duncan and become king himself. But it’s a short-lived success and the play winds up with Macbeth’s own death. Troilus and Cressida isn’t a play of triumph. In real life love doesn’t always triumph over hate and good doesn’t always triumph over evil. Shakespeare knows this. King Lear and Othello are perfect examples of how things don’t always turn out so well. And so it is in this play. Things don’t turn out so well. Troilus and Cressida pledge their eternal love to one another. But once they’re separated Cressida doesn’t prove to be as faithful as Juliet was to Romeo, or Cordelia and Kent were to King Lear, or as Desdemona was to Othello. Cressida’s love for Troilus just sort of melts away when she meets the Greek hunk Diomedes. No triumph of love over hate here. It’s just the mundane story of a young girl’s love interests being diverted from one young lover to another. And there’s no triumph of good over evil here either. Hector is clearly one of the good guys in this play. Here’s a short exchange between Pandarus and Cressida: PANDARUS: That's Hector, that, that, look you, that; there's a fellow! Go thy way, Hector! There's a brave man, niece. O brave Hector! Look how he looks! there's a countenance! is't not a brave man? CRESSIDA: O, a brave man! PANDARUS: Is a' not? it does a man's heart good. Look you what hacks are on his helmet! look you yonder, do you see? look you there: there's no jesting; there's laying on, take't off who will, as they say: there be hacks! CRESSIDA: Be those with swords? PANDARUS: Swords! anything, he cares not; an the devil come to him, it's all one: by God's lid, it does one's heart good. But Hector is caught up in the Trojan War. The crux of the problem in the Trojan War is Helen. What to do about Helen? The Greeks want her back and the Trojans refuse to give her up. Why? Because of pride on both sides. The Greeks want her back to restore their honor. They don’t want other guys just swooping in and stealing away their womenfolk. The Trojans maintain that Helen came willingly and she loves Paris more than she loves that half-barbaric husband, Menelaus. They feel like they need to protect Helen out of honor. And since neither side will give in, war breaks out. The ancient Greek poet Homer handles this story in the tight straight-forward Greek manner. He tells about these events in poetry and includes battle scenes, campfire dinners, everyday conversation and much more. Shakespeare handles the story like a master Elizabethan dramatist. He actually has three plots going on here: the love story between Troilus and Cressida set against the bigger backdrop of the love story between Paris and Helen set against the even bigger backdrop of the war between Greece and Troy. Good stories always involve tension. In this play there’s a great deal of tension between lovers. Helen wasn’t faithful to Menelaus and Troilus learns the hard way that not all women are as faithful as Andromache is to Hector. There’s also a great deal of tension between the two warring armies and even more tension within the armies themselves. Hector is the pivotal character because he’s the older brother of Troilus and also the cousin of the Greek warrior Ajax. Hector tries hard to protect his Trojan family against the onslaught of the Greek invasion. In the end it’s not enough. Homer portrays the defeat of Hector as a trick by the gods. Shakespeare portrays the defeat of Hector as a sneaky trick by Achilles to kill an unarmed man. So the lovers are not triumphant and the good guys don’t win. What are we to make of all this? Life goes on. Fools always muddle through somehow. Agamemnon is a fool to offer to command Achilles; Achilles is a fool to be commanded by Agamemnon… But Shakespeare is nobody’s fool. Only the Bible and Homer stand higher in Western literature and culture.