Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, August 27, 2011

LAVIN: Happiness 2011

In our last reading John Dewey presented a theory about habits and their relationship to willpower. He wrote that a man who CAN stand properly does so, and only a man who can does. If we substitute “happiness” for “stand properly” we end up with this theory: people who CAN be happy WILL be happy; those who are never satisfied with anything will never find happiness. This is just a theory. Does it hold true in real life? In a story from Chekhov we read that when everyone else was trying to have a good time, Akaky Akakievich was not even thinking of diverting himself…Having written to his heart’s content he would go to bed smiling in anticipation of tomorrow, of what God would send him to copy. Akaky found happiness without ever looking for it. It just came to him because he had a predisposition to BE happy. In Mary Lavin’s short story we find a similar theme. A woman named Vera has three children and a loving husband. Then her husband dies unexpectedly and Vera’s character is put to the test. But Vera is a strong woman and she has very definite views about life: Her theme was happiness: what it was, what it was not; where we might find it, where not; and how, if found, it must be guarded. Never must we confound it with pleasure. Nor think sorrow its exact opposite. Vera was not a philosopher. She was just a young single mother raising three children and supporting herself by working at the local library. Plus, she had her own aging mother to deal with; and grandmother wasn’t always pleasant to be around: Our grandfather had failed to provide our grandmother with enduring happiness. He had passed that job on to Mother… Father Hugh had given our grandmother up early in the game. “God Almighty couldn’t make that woman happy,” he said one day… But Vera did her best to support herself, her three children, and her elderly mother. This attitude had a strong effect on the three girls. They weren’t philosophers either, but they were introduced to philosophy by having to come to terms with the way that Vera approached life: What was it, we used to ask ourselves; that quality (which mother called happiness)… was it courage? Was it strength, health, or high spirits? Something you could not give or take? A game of catch-as-catch-can? “I know,” cried Bea, “a sham!” Vera has many good qualities: courage, strength, health, high spirits. But does happiness require these things? Or is happiness sheer luck: A game of catch-as-catch-can? The skeptical daughter Bea suspects that happiness may be a sham. Maybe their mother is merely putting on a good front for the girls and is faking it. Maybe she’s not really happy after all. People disagree about what happiness is and the role of happiness in living a good life. Vera and the priest disagree, for example: Mother answered. “Take Father Hugh… he rejects happiness! He casts it from him.” “That is simply not true, Vera,” cried Father Hugh, overhearing her. “It’s just that I don’t place an inordinate value on it like you. I don’t think it’s enough to carry one all the way. To the end, I mean, and after.” Father Hugh doesn’t agree with Aristotle that happiness is the highest good. For him happiness is not enough to carry one all the way. But Vera is persistent in her quest. Even though she works hard and the burden is heavy, Vera is able to carve out a niche of happiness for herself: There was only one place Mother found rest… the garden… So if she did not succeed in defining happiness to our understanding, we could see that whatever it was, she possessed it to the full when she was in her garden. Vera didn’t DEFINE what happiness was (the way Aristotle did); she SHOWED what happiness is by DOING it. Make no mistake. Vera’s life was hard; but on her own terms it was a happy one. So in the end over Bea’s face came the light that had so often blazed over Mother’s… “You don’t HAVE to face it! It’s over!” Then she who had so fiercely forbade Father Hugh to do so blurted out the truth. “You’ve finished with this world, Mother,” confident that her tidings were joyous. Vera had done what she had been born to do and she had done it well. In Vera’s world that’s called happiness.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

DEWEY: Habits and Will 2011

In the book of Genesis we read the story of creation. At first human beings were happy and living in a paradise world. But one thing God told them they must never do was eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of course that’s just what they did. And this one simple act of disobedience led to a deep-seated tendency for us to choose wrong things. That’s why we develop bad habits and don’t live right. So goes the story. Philosophers have offered various opinions about how we can change all that. With this background John Dewey brings his can-do American spirit into the discussion. He says that a bad habit… makes us do things we are ashamed of, things which we tell ourselves we prefer not to do. This observation comes from simple human experience. We’re not ashamed of putting on our right shoe first or eating with our right hand. These things don’t much matter. But some things do matter and we call them “bad.” Dewey gives examples such as foolish idling, gambling, or addiction to liquor and drugs. We believe there are some things we shouldn’t be doing. But we do them anyway. Why? And why do we feel ashamed doing them? Dewey thinks we feel ashamed because we’re not in full control of our lives. We feel shame because a bad habit overrides our formal resolutions, our conscious decisions. When we are honest with ourselves we acknowledge that a habit has this power because it is so intimately a part of ourselves. It has a hold upon us because we are the habit. That’s the part we don’t like and that’s the part that makes us feel ashamed. In the Garden of Eden story Adam and Eve hide themselves from God because they’re afraid (ashamed): And he (Adam) said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. Adam's human weakness has been exposed and his first reaction is to hide. Dewey thinks this is a mistake. What we need to do is confront our problems intelligently. What if God had given Adam a different command: all he needed to do was stand up straight? Adam would have still failed. Why? Because the assumption is that if a man is told to stand up straight, all that is further needed is wish and effort on his part, and the deed is done. It’s not that easy according to Dewey: this belief is on a par with primitive magic in its neglect of attention to the means which are involved in reaching an end. In order for Adam to stand up straight he first has to know HOW to stand straight. Dewey goes even further: in fact a man who can stand properly does so, and only a man who can does. Unless Adam knows how to stand straight (or be obedient) he will ALWAYS fail because the deck is stacked against him. Unless we change the conditions affecting Adam’s posture then he will continue to slouch. According to Dewey what Adam needs to do is form an intelligently controlled habit. And this doesn’t just hold true for Adam. We all have false notions about the control of the body and extending to control of mind and character, and this is the greatest bar to intelligent social progress. This seems to be the key factor in Dewey’s philosophy: intelligent social progress. How can we make things better for everyone? After all, isn’t this the quest of American democracy? For Dewey it all boils down to getting the right kind of education: Only the man whose habits are already good can know what the good is… For, as Aristotle remarked, the untutored moral perceptions of a good man are usually trustworthy, those of a bad character, not. We have to be taught what good and bad is. And it isn’t just a matter of private, personal learning. Dewey wants to improve Aristotle’s philosophy: (But he should have added that the influence of social custom as well as personal habit has to be taken into account…) If we can somehow change the social environment and develop good habits, things will improve. This brings us back to our original Garden story. Things were (almost) perfect in Paradise and yet we failed. That’s how the story goes. So maybe we can’t change the whole world but Dewey says the thing which is closest to us, the means within our power, is habit. Maybe we can at least start with ourselves.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

ARISTOTLE: On Happiness, Introduction 2011

Aristotle would have made a good lawyer. He believes that everyone wants to be happy. Who wants to be sad? It’s hard to argue with him on that point. Therefore Aristotle comes to the reasonable conclusion that whatever creates or increases happiness…we ought to do. And the other half of the equation is also reasonable: whatever destroys or hampers happiness…we ought not to do. Simple. But these conclusions only seem simple. They are not. To begin with, what does Aristotle mean by the word “happiness?” He goes on to tell us what most people mean when they talk about happiness: (1) prosperity combined with virtue, (2) independence of life, (3) secure enjoyment of the maximum of pleasure, (4) a good condition of property and body. (5) Happiness is one or more of these things. Fair enough. These all sound suspiciously like the American ideal of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But different people still come to different conclusions about what happiness is. Americans do, in fact, come to different conclusions about what happiness is. Why? Aristotle’s answer: confused and sloppy thinking. As rational people we need to come to logical conclusions about what happiness means. It won’t do to take somebody else’s word for it because happiness is not a personal preference. It’s a rational decision. So what are we talking about when we talk about happiness? Aristotle thinks we must at least have a vague notion. Otherwise, we simply wouldn’t understand one another. But we do understand this much: we both agree that happiness is a good thing. Why do we think that? And what do we really want when we say we want to be happy? Here again Aristotle goes into great detail: 1. good birth 2. plenty of friends 3. good friends 4. wealth 5. good children 6. plenty of children 7. a happy old age 8. body excellence (health, beauty, strength, large stature, athletic powers) 9. fame 10. honor 11. good luck 12. virtue. This is a good list; twelve things that make people happy. And the list seems about right because it sounds so reasonable. Anything can be abused if it’s used in the wrong way or we get too much of it. But Aristotle has given us a list of inherently good things. Who wouldn’t want friends and good health and a happy old age? Modern Americans may quibble over the details: Good birth? I may not be a blue blood but I’ve got common sense and pulled myself up by my own boot strings. Wealth? I don’t need to be rich to be happy. Large stature? Let’s not go there. Americans like their food. Leave it at that. Fame? Who wants paparazzi around all the time anyway? So in some areas ancient Greek aristocrats and modern middle-class Americans simply disagree about what happiness is. We don’t have the same vision of what a happy life consists of. What Aristotle wants to do is find the common ground. So he frames the question this way: what is our ultimate purpose? He answers his own question: The proper function of man is an active life of the rational element. This is a good definition. It’s reasonable. It sounds right. But is it true? Other answers are possible. Marcus Aurelius might say that the proper function of man is to do our duty. St. Augustine might say that the proper function of man is to know, love and serve God. Thomas Jefferson might say that the proper function of man is to become a good neighbor and fellow citizen. We disagree about what happiness is because we ultimately disagree about what’s important in life. Or, to use an age-old question: what’s the meaning of life? Aristotle believes that we can only find the answer if we follow our reason and not our emotions. Emotions can too easily lead us astray. We have to follow the rational element in ourselves if we want to make sense out of life in this world. The brain should be in charge, not the heart. This conclusion may not give us the final answer to the meaning of life; it may not solve all of life’s problems. But Aristotle thinks it’s a good place to start. If our goal in life is to be happy we’re much more likely to get there if we have a road map, a good plan for a good life, and then follow it. Aristotle the attorney presents the evidence and rests his case. The verdict is up to the reader.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

SHAKESPEARE: The Tempest 2011

We live in an age dominated by science and technology. The boundary of knowledge is constantly expanding in fields like astronomy, biology, chemistry, medicine and physics. We’re surrounded by gadgets that were only science fiction just a generation ago: hand-held computers, flat-screen televisions, cell phones, digital displays… the list goes on. And yet today many of the most popular films adopt an age-old theme: magic. Movies like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia all revolve around the concept of magical or supernatural events. Shakespeare’s play about The Tempest falls into this tradition. Prospero is one of our earliest images of the wise old magician/wizard buried in books of arcane knowledge. Prospero is the Elizabethan version of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings or Dumbledore in Harry Potter. The island/paradise of The Tempest is as exotic as Middle-Earth or Hogwarts or Narnia. Early in the play Prospero sets the tone when he says that my library was dukedom large enough. Prospero had in fact been Duke of Milan but spent too much time with his books. So his evil brother Antonio had little trouble cheating Prospero out of the dukedom and gathering power into his own hands. This would have made Machiavelli proud. But in Middle-Earth, Hogwarts and Narnia the battle isn’t just about who will gain power; the real battle is good against evil, right against wrong. Prospero had been wronged. He spent too much time studying when he should have been governing. That doesn’t mean that Antonio should be the rightful ruler. And Antonio subtly acknowledges that it’s wrong to usurp power, especially from an older brother. Antonio ships off Prospero and his infant daughter (Miranda) out to sea where he hopes they’ll both drown and be done with it. Years pass and Prospero is not dead. He’s been biding his time on a deserted island except for him, his daughter, a monster named Caliban, and some spirits. When Antonio’s ship is wrecked off shore of the island the stage is set for a fateful reunion of the two brothers. Antonio has power on his side; Prospero has special knowledge of the black and white arts of magic. Prospero can call spirits into being and then dismiss them whenever he wants: These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits, and Are melted into air, into thin air, And, like the baseless fabric of vision, The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with sleep. Prospero inhabits a world midway between heaven and earth, halfway between the spiritual and physical. The lines that are so clearly defined for most of us become blurred by Prospero’s wizardry. Are we really such stuff as dreams are made of? Ariel is a spirit who can see you but you can’t see him. He can sing soft music and ordinary human beings have no idea where the sound is coming from. But real people are solid flesh-and-blood creatures. Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love because they have eyes to see with and lips to kiss with. They don’t fall in love with shadows of themselves. They throw their whole bodies into it; Prospero lives somewhere between the spirit-world of Ariel and the physical world of the two lovers. Ariel wants to return to his own spirit-world. He constantly asks Prospero to set him free. Miranda has grown up without seeing any other human being except for her father. When she finally does encounter other flesh-and-blood human beings she exclaims: O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world That has such people in't! It takes a writer like Shakespeare to remind us how wonderful and beauteous the world really is. Middle-Earth, Hogwarts and Narnia are marvelous places in the old sense of the word: they’re full of marvels. We stand in wonderment at the creatures and events that take place in those fictitious worlds. Miranda reminds us that there is wonder and beauty right here in this world too; just as it is. Science and technology can be useful tools. But magic is more fun.