Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, June 25, 2011


How much does the place where we live affect our concepts of ideals like justice? Not just the country we happen to be living in: America or England or Russia or China. I’m talking about the physical geography of the land where we’re born and raised; the hills and the fields, the lakes and rivers, the kinds of trees and even the weather. Do physical features affect the way we perceive what’s right and wrong? Or is the notion of justice pulled somewhere out of the sky, a place where no one has ever lived? It’s an interesting question that only comes up after reading a story like Sorrow-Acre. A one-sentence summary of the story is this: a woman is given a chance to save her son’s life if she can harvest a rye field by herself in one day. If you haven’t read the story then it seems like an odd plot. It is. But remember what Isaiah Berlin wrote in his essay about equality: Finally, those must not be forgotten who… object to all rules as such and desire a society, whether this is practicable or not, governed in an unsystematic manner by the will of an inspired leader, or by the unpredictable movement of the Volksgeist, or the “spirit” of a race, a party, or a church. In this story the Volksgeist is the spirit of Denmark. The inspired leader is an old Danish lord of a large estate. He gives a peasant woman named Anne-Marie a chance to save her son if she can do the work of three men in one day. What does all this have to do with physical geography? The story is not just about some random mean old landlord and a heroic peasant woman. It’s about Denmark and its particular space on this earth, both the good and the bad. Lords and peasants are all molded by the same climate. They all have their place within the landscape: Many duties rested on the shoulders of the big landowners; towards God in heaven, towards the King, his neighbor and himself and they were all harmoniously consolidated into the idea of his duties towards his land. This story could not have taken place in America so it’s hard for us to read it without feeling a sense of outrage. But in Denmark A human race had lived on this land for a thousand years, had been formed by its soil and weather, and had marked it with its thoughts, so that now no one could tell where the existence of the one ceased and the other began… it was the fixed materialism of human longing and of the human notion that it is better to be in one place than another. It’s impossible for an American to grasp what it must be like for your family to live on the same estate for a thousand years. To be raised with such a heritage must leave deep and permanent influences on lifestyles and values. Even when you’re away from home the influence must run deep. Here’s the way one young man reacted: In England Adam had come in touch with the great new ideas of the age: of nature, of the right and freedom of man, of justice and beauty. The universe, through them, had become infinitely wider to him; he wanted to find out still more about it and was planning to travel to America, to the new world… But the young man was seized by a strange, deep, aching remorse towards his old home in Denmark… The ties which bound him to this place were of a mystic nature… he had not, like many young travelers in foreign countries, learned to despise his native land. No, said Adam, he had lately in England longed for the fields and woods of his Danish home. In short, he was homesick. Not just for the fields and woods of his old Danish homeland, but also for its old and ancient ways. The old Danish lord knew his land and he knew his people. In his own way he loved them. And he especially loved the peasant woman, Anne-Marie. Plus, Denmark was a Christian country… a plain, square embodiment of the nation’s trust in the justice and mercy of heaven. Americans simply cannot understand this brand of justice and mercy. We’re not Danish landlords.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


The American Declaration of Independence clearly states: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s certainly inspirational and Thomas Jefferson is to be commended for stating it so eloquently. But apart from its eloquence, what does it mean exactly? What are the practical consequences of believing that all men are created equal? Isaiah Berlin’s essay helps us understand more deeply what equality really means. For one thing, there’s no correct answer. There are several different views of equality. At least five different views are presented in this essay. In no particular order, they are (1.) The natural rights school will not object to inequalities, providing these do not infringe on natural rights. These guys agree with Jefferson that everyone is born with certain rights. But if anyone complains about inequality they would ask: are you being deprived of your life? No. Are you being deprived of your liberty? No. Is anyone depriving your pursuit of happiness? If the answer is still no then you have no complaint. You have all your natural rights intact. Be satisfied. (2.) Appeals to rational thought must protest against any inequality, unless a sufficient reason for it is produced. Under this theory even equality-loving Americans may have to tolerate some inequalities within society. Take a symphony, for example. Without a conductor or someone in charge, what kind of music would result? We can’t all be equal all of the time. In some things someone has to be in charge. We just have to learn to live with it. (3.) The laissez-faire/freedom school of equality: its proponents freely admit (that freedom) may lead to inequalities, but defend (freedom) upon the ground that it gives an equal OPPORTUNITY to all. Under this theory government can make sure that everyone gets an equal chance to succeed. But it can’t guarantee that everyone will in fact succeed. Some will fail. We gave everyone an equal chance; that’s the best goal that government can aim for. (4.) Edmund Burke and the natural social hierarchy: demand full equality of treatment (but only) upon each rung of the ladder, this is the only true equality; but bitterly oppose as being contrary to the natural order any attempt to deny the existence or relevance of such rungs or hierarchies... To say that everyone is equal is just sheer foolishness. Experience teaches us otherwise. To be human means living under certain social traditions. People have not been, are not now, and never will be truly equal. Government should preserve these traditional customs. (5.) Romantic irrationalism: Finally, those must not be forgotten who… object to all rules as such and desire a society, whether this is practicable or not, governed in an unsystematic manner by the will of an inspired leader, or by the unpredictable movement of the Volksgeist, or the “spirit” of a race, a party, or a church. This is the theme of Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and celebrates the visionary members of society. Most of us are equal only in the sense that wey’re like sheep. Once in a while a truly outstanding leader transcends this equality of the dull and the ordinary. Zarathustra was repulsed by the whole notion of equality. He went to the mountaintop. His vision has power to transform our whole society. Isaiah Berlin pointed out all these conflicting views of equality for a reason: I cite this only as a warning against the thesis that the commandment to treat all men alike in like situations needs no independent argument to support it… but are something taken for granted by reasonable men, a form of the working of natural reason, which needs no justification, but is as self-evident as the principle of identity or that red is different from green. Jefferson proceeds on ideas that he believes need no justification. Equality is one of those ideas. But reading about Socrates makes it clear that many of us in fact operate under false assumptions and we really don’t know what we’re talking about. That’s why Berlin’s essay on equality is in the best tradition of the Great Books concept.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


We are Americans and we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… This idea is so firmly planted in our minds that we can’t possibly imagine how it could be any other way. Of course all men are created equal. It’s just plain common sense. That’s what America is all about. Thomas Jefferson was just expressing the beliefs of American citizens: we’re all in this together. We may not all be on the same level socially or economically, but we’re all equal under the law. Jefferson goes on to state that everyone, regardless of their social status are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These rights were given to use by the Creator of the world. They are “unalienable” which means they can’t be given away or sold. But since people aren’t angels there are some men who will try to take away our happiness, or our freedom, even our lives. Therefore Jefferson says that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. People band together and form governments to protect these unalienable rights. To repeat, this idea is so firmly planted in our minds that we don’t see how it could be any other way. It sounds almost like a natural law that “the people” should be in charge of their own government. And yet the greatest of philosophers disagrees with this notion. Socrates never trusted “the people” to make wise decisions. He had these words for his student Crito: But why, my dear Crito, should we care about the opinion of the many?... the truth is, that they can do neither good nor evil: they cannot make a man wise or make him foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance. (Plato’s Crito) This is a very different view of “the people” and what they’re capable of accomplishing. And it should be disturbing to American readers who are fans of both Socrates and our American Declaration and Constitution. There’s a tension between these two views and they’re hard to reconcile. Was Jefferson mistaken about all men being equal? Is that a starting point for establishing government or is that the ultimate goal? Was Socrates wrong about “the many” not being able to do anything good? Does he really believe that “the people” act randomly and without political wisdom? What are we to make of these statements? Jefferson admits that we need government. He says prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes… accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. Jefferson seems to be saying that even bad government is better than having no government at all. But when bad government becomes so bad that its citizens are being abused then it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Surely Socrates would agree with Jefferson on this point, right? Wrong. Socrates does not agree. Jefferson and Socrates have different visions of what the State is and what a Citizen is. Socrates has this question for Jefferson: Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father or any ancestor, and more to be regarded in the eyes of the gods and of men of understanding? (Plato’s Crito) Look Mr. Jefferson, don’t you think our country is even more important to us than our parents? I do. And when we are punished by her, whether with imprisonment or stripes, the punishment is to be endured in silence; and if she leads us to wounds or death in battle, thither we follow as is right. Socrates is saying something like this: This is my country, may she always be right. But right or wrong, she’s still my country and I will defend her with my life. So would Jefferson. But Socrates believes that a man must do what his city and his country order him; or he must change their view of what is just. Jefferson on the other hand believes that it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off (bad) Government.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Writers of the Great Books ponder great questions. How should we live is one of those great questions. And pondering how we should live makes us consider how we should govern ourselves. In Federalist Paper #51 James Madison asks: what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. Since we’re not angels, how should we govern ourselves? In a sense the idea of America is all about finding answers to that question. Other Great Books writers have held various opinions about government. Aristotle’s Politics says all government helps provide the basic necessities of life but good government helps its citizens live the good life. Hobbes in his Leviathan believes government provides safety and security. We need an army and a navy and a police force to protect us from foreign enemies abroad and from murderers and crooks at home. John Locke says the purpose of government is to preserve our life, liberty and property. We need laws and courts to provide ground rules for living peaceably. These three foundations of government rest on certain assumptions about what human beings are like. Human nature needs a responding form of government and our views of human nature don’t always agree. That’s why we have liberals and conservatives and Libertarians and Socialists etc. They all start from a specific view of what human beings are like and what human beings can accomplish through their own efforts. For example, Aristotle believes that human beings are social creatures by nature. Birds of a feather flock together. We want to be with other people because we’re hard-wired that way. Hobbes believes that human nature is aggressive and violent. He agrees with Aristotle that humans want to be with other people. But Hobbes believes it’s because we want to be safe, not because we want to socialize. In nature it’s always the weak and the stragglers who fall prey to predators. So for Hobbes, there’s safety in numbers. And then Locke believes that every human being is born with certain rights that can only be taken away by fraud or force. These basic rights include our lives, our freedoms and our private property. We cannot live fully human lives unless we are guaranteed these basic human rights. This is the background for reading The Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson coined the famous phrase We hold these truths to be self-evident…and then goes on to claim the following “self-evident truths” (1) all men are created equal (2) they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights (among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness) (3) Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed and (4) it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off (bad) Government. Armed with the theories of Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke we’re now prepared to ask a couple of crucial questions about these four “self-evident” propositions: (1) Are they true? (2) Are they self-evident? There are at least three distinct possibilities. First, all these propositions really are true and they’re self-evident too. Every reasonable person agrees with them. For example, everyone wants life, freedom and happiness. This is just common sense. The second possibility is this: these propositions may be true but they’re not all self-evident. For example, it’s not clear whether all men really are created equal. That might be true but it might not. It certainly doesn’t seem to be true on the surface. It hardly seems that even two single people are equal, much less a whole population. The third possibility is this: these propositions aren't even true, much less self-evident. For example, why does Jefferson assume that governments are instituted by men? When we read Exodus it seems as if government is instituted by God, not by man. Pharaoh may think he’s in charge but there’s a bigger force than Pharaoh working in the stream of human history. And America was also born in the great stream of human history. American citizens must ponder these great questions about history and human nature. The Declaration of Independence is our primer on civic education.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

SHAKESPEARE: Antony and Cleopatra in Love

There are lots of songs about love: Love Makes the World Go ‘Round, The Theme from Love Story; the list goes on. But our generation wasn’t the first one to discover love. And we weren’t the first generation to proclaim love in music, art and drama. Neither was Shakespeare. But he was exceptionally good at it. And Shakespeare was particularly good at taking universal human themes (such as love) and tying them to specific historic settings (such as medieval England or ancient Rome). This play is about the power struggle in Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. But its primary dramatic focus is the love between a powerful Roman general (Mark Antony) and an equally powerful Egyptian queen (Cleopatra). They weren’t equal in political power. Rome was clearly the ruling force in the world of politics. But Cleopatra was clearly the ruling force in the world of courtesans and lovers. Early on we get this insight into Mark Antony: his captain's heart, Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper, And is become the bellows and the fan To cool a gipsy's lust. Mark Antony had the heart to win great battles. But now his heart is hard at work in another task: “to cool a gipsy’s lust.” The “gipsy” is Cleopatra. Her lust is not for sex but for having things her own way. This is the same Mark Antony who once said Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears… And this is the same Cleopatra who once seduced the great Julius Caesar. The rest is history, as they say. Antony and Cleopatra are not just two ordinary tourists who happen to hook up on a cruise and fall in love. These are two extraordinary players on the world stage when both are at the top of their game. They’re also two of the most powerful people in the world, so the stakes are high. Kingdoms will rise or fall depending on the decisions made by Antony and Cleopatra. So what do these two spend their time doing? Here’s Shakespeare: ANTONY: Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space. Kingdoms are clayWhat sport tonight? Forget politics. Let’s have some fun. That’s Antony’s view. Here’s Cleopatra’s: He was disposed to mirth; but on the sudden A Roman thought hath struck him. Poor Mark, he’s stuck in that old Roman duty thingy. Why can’t he just relax and enjoy life? It’s not that Antony doesn’t know what’s going on here. He does. He even acknowledges the hold that Cleopatra and the luxurious culture of Egypt have over him. ANTONY: These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, Or lose myself in dotageI must from this enchanting queen break off: Ten thousand harms, more than the ills I know, My idleness doth hatch. In short, while Antony and Cleopatra are playing around in the love boats of Egypt, back in Rome there’s an anti-Antony coalition forming to put his rival (Octavius Caesar) in power. Antony knows this but can’t break away from the pleasures he finds in Egypt and Cleopatra’s arms. Sometimes he wishes things were different. ANTONY: Would I had never seen her. But his close advisor has seen Cleopatra too. ENOBARBUS: O, sir, you had then left unseen a wonderful piece of work; which not to have been blest withal would have discredited your travel. Why should a man travel the whole wide world if not to meet a woman like Cleopatra? So they pursue their doomed love affair to its tragic end. When Cleopatra’s ships flee in battle, Antony follows. Was it her fault? No. ANTONY: I have fled myself; and have instructed cowards To run and show their shouldersI have offended reputation, A most unnoble swerving. CLEOPATRA: O my lord, my lord, Forgive my fearful sails! I little thought You would have follow'd. ANTONY: Egypt, thou knew'st too well My heart was to thy rudder tied by the strings, And thou shouldst tow me after Antony was a great man, a man among men. Cleopatra was a wonderful piece of work. In the end he became “her” Antony (CAESAR: She shall be buried by her Antony…) and she became his queen. Antony was right. Kingdoms are only clay. Now Rome is long gone. But the love story of Antony and Cleopatra lives on.