Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, September 24, 2011

KANT: Conscience 2011

How should we live? That’s one of the questions philosophy has to answer from one generation to the next. John Stuart Mill thinks each generation needs to decide for itself the best way to live. Not only that, but each individual person in each generation should decide the best way to live. What works for one generation may not work for another generation. And what works for one person may not work for somebody else. Mill puts the emphasis on our freedom to choose. Immanuel Kant agrees with Mill, but only up to a point. Here’s where they agree. Kant says that enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! (dare to know) "Have courage to use your own understanding!" that is the motto of enlightenment. That’s something Mill would have no trouble agreeing with. We need to exercise our freedom to choose for ourselves what we think and how we live. But Kant believes this freedom to choose isn’t quite as free as Mill might have us think. Kant poses this question: what if we choose badly? What if we choose not to live right? For Mill there’s no “right way” to live. We’re the only ones who ultimately can determine what makes us happy. So we keep experimenting until we get it right. But Kant believes differently. He thinks that human lives aren’t just some kind of experimental laboratories so we can explore various modes of living. We weren’t born into a world of our own making. We were born into a certain kind of world with certain kinds of laws governing it. Just as there are laws of physics governing the physical universe, Kant thinks there are moral laws governing the ethical universe. If we break those laws there will be consequences. “Conscience” is the tool that nature has given to us to determine those consequences. When we make choices our consciences act like Geiger counters to let us know when something’s gone wrong. We’ve either made a bad choice or we’re fixing to make a bad choice. Again the question comes up: what if we choose badly? How do we know if we’ve chosen to do good or to do bad? Kant says that We have the faculty to judge ourselves logically…but conscience has the power to summon us against our will before the judgment seat… In other words, we really don’t have a choice in the matter. Our personal freedom to choose isn’t what’s at stake here. What’s at stake here is a question of right and wrong. Many people have a hard time using rigid categories such as “good and evil” or “right and wrong.” Even in Kant’s time he acknowledges that many have argued that conscience is a work of art and education… And Mill was one of those arguing that we’re formed by our upbringing, the neighborhoods we live in, the schools we attend; these are the things that develop our individual consciences. Not so, says Kant. Conscience isn’t a “work of art” developed by human beings. Conscience is an instinct to pass judgment upon ourselves in accordance with moral laws. These moral laws stand apart from our mental abilities to create them. They’re more like the law of gravity that functions whether or not we fully understand why. That’s how we come to know right from wrong and good from bad. Our little Geiger counters go off and our consciences summon us before the judgment seat. Our first instinct may be to plead ignorance and claim: but I didn’t know. Kant (our conscience) will reply: oh yes, you did. That’s because natural moral laws must be known to all; they are contained in our reason…with positive laws we can have innocent errors…in respect to the natural law there are no innocent errors. Conscience doesn’t make mistakes. This fact is either reassuring, or troubling, depending on the person and on how they’ve been living. How then should we live? Mill says “choose what makes you happy.” Kant adds “but first, check with your conscience.”

Thursday, September 22, 2011

MILL: On Liberty 2011

Socrates had definite opinions about some things. He believed that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father… For Socrates the survival of the state is more important than the survival of any one individual or family. People come and go but the state goes on for generations. John Stuart Mill thinks almost the exact opposite. The state exists solely for the benefit of the people living in it right now. As long as they’re not hurting anyone else they should be allowed to live however they please. Mill begins by defining Liberty: The subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will…but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. Mill confines his essay on liberty to be about people living with other people in a political society. When people live together there have to be rules; no matter if it’s a nation of millions or just two people living in the same house. The principle is the same. Two big questions need to be answered. What are the rules? Who gets to make them up? Mill admits that the answers aren’t easy. The main problem is and always has been the struggle between Liberty and Authority… Living in a house, for example, I may have the freedom to take a shower. But I don’t have the freedom to leave my wet towel lying on the floor. Who decides where wet towels go? Multiply the towels and you get the problem of governing a whole society. There will be lots of wet towels. What should we do with them? Some people want to wash them, fold them up and tuck them away in carefully marked baskets; others want to leave them wherever they darn well please; and still others think we need all new towels. Who decides? Mill says that in old times this contest was between subjects…and the government. Traditionally it was the government which took on the responsibility of deciding what to do about the towels. But “the government” could mean many things. One guy may just emerge one day and start announcing towel policy without any input from the rest of the citizens. Sometimes this works. However, as time went on more people wanted to have a say about towel policy. So democracies were born. Now “the people” themselves decide what to do about the towels. Good. But then a funny thing happens. Mill describes it this way: such phrases as "self-government," and "the power of the people over themselves," do not express the true state of the case. The "people" who exercise the power, are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised, and the "self-government" spoken of, is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; …and in political speculations "the tyranny of the majority" is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard. What is Mill driving at? Let’s say you want to use a beach towel after you take a shower. Most people think this is a dumb idea. So they pass a law: no beach towels may be used as bath towels. Majority wins. Is this fair? No, says Mill. This isn’t a matter of fairness. It’s a matter of allowing people to experiment and run their own lives. You may not want to use a beach towel after a shower. But does that mean nobody else should either? Mill summarizes his position this way: This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first…in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; Second…liberty of tastes and pursuits… Third…the liberty of combination among individuals; freedom to unite… These are the ideal goals. Mill believes we should think for ourselves and be free to live our own lives. Obviously self government is hard work. It’s not easy but we can’t just throw in the towel and quit.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

PLATO: The Crito 2011

The tenth anniversary of the attack of 9/11 is a good time to pause and reflect. We start with this question: what good are Great Books today? Can reading the classics help us come to terms with what happened on 9/11/2001? Our reading this week is Plato’s The Crito. There were no airplanes in Plato’s world. There weren’t any skyscrapers. This was long before there were Christians or Muslims. So how can ancient philosophy possibly help us understand 9/11? Let’s take the old lessons that Plato taught and adapt them for today’s world. For starters, Crito comes to Socrates in a good cause. Socrates was wrongfully accused, wrongfully convicted, and wrongfully sentenced. Crito sincerely believes that it’s his duty to help Socrates escape. Crito does this with the best of intentions. Socrates is his friend. More than just friendship is at stake for Crito. He also believes it’s his patriotic duty to free Socrates for the good of the Athenian city-state. Socrates doesn’t see it that way. He appreciates Crito’s efforts but tells him bluntly: Dear Crito, your zeal is invaluable, if a right one; but if wrong, the greater the zeal the greater the danger… Here’s our first lesson. What Socrates calls “zeal” we would now call devotion to a cause. And this can be a good thing. Modern Americans are devoted to freedom and civil rights, for example. Socrates wants us to pause and consider: devotion is fine but what if we’re devoted to the wrong cause? Then what? Then our devotion to do something good might actually become an intense fierceness to do evil. Crito was devoted to the fate of Socrates. But so were Socrates’ enemies. Lesson one: Passion that can be used for a good cause can also be misused in a bad cause. Here’s a second lesson we can learn. Consider the following exchange. CRITO: But you see, Socrates, that the opinion of the many must be regarded, for what is now happening shows that they can do the greatest evil to anyone who has lost their good opinion. SOCRATES: I only wish it were so, Crito; and that the many could do the greatest evil; for then they would also be able to do the greatest good; and what a fine thing this would be! But in reality they can do neither; for they cannot make a man either wise or foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance. As modern Americans how does this conversation relate to us? Here’s how. Instead of the term “the many” use the term The People and see how it sounds to modern ears. The People? That would be us. Politicians from both sides claim to speak on behalf of “the American people.” The very foundation of American government is based on the idea that The People represent our greatest source of political wisdom. Not so, says Socrates. The People can’t make us wise or foolish. They can’t make us good or bad. The People only react out of blind instinct. So lesson number two from Socrates is this: The People are not a good source of wisdom. Now take that ancient Greek idea and place it in historical context: United States of America, morning of September 12, 2001. What do we do now? We’re scared. We’re angry. Many Americans want to wage war but others want to “wage peace.” We need wisdom. Fast. What would Socrates advise? Strike back? Turn the other cheek? Socrates says this: 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… if she lead us to wounds or death in battle, thither we follow as is right; neither may any one yield or retreat or leave his rank, but whether in battle or in a court of law, or in any other place, he must do what his city and his country order him; or he must change their view of what is just… Read carefully. Our shared vision as a nation is more important than any single person or family. We should follow our nation AS IS RIGHT. Do the right thing. Pursue justice. Socrates poses a simple question: what is justice? He takes a public event, such as his own trial or our tragic attack, and makes it personal. What is justice in this case? The People can’t tell. So what do YOU think? Philosophy is personal. Ten years after 9/11 and 2500 years after Socrates we still need to talk about justice. Welcome to Great Books.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Shakespeare’s plays have traditionally been classified as either comedies, tragedies, or histories. Under those terms how can we classify Cymbeline? Most people probably shelve it under comedy because it has a happy ending. But it wasn’t a happy ending for Cloten. He wanted to be king but lost his head instead. It wasn’t happy for his mother. She wanted him to be king too. And it wasn’t happy for the Roman general Caius Lucius. He lost the battle to enforce Rome’s rule over Britain. For those folks the play was more of a tragedy than a comedy. It all depends on whose side you’re on. But the play could also be classified (somewhat loosely) as history. Apparently the plot of Cymbeline is based on a story by Geoffrey of Monmouth about a real-life ancient British king named Cunobelinus. As usual, Shakespeare only uses the historical account as a basic plot to take off from. Then he makes it his own dramatic adaptation. He adds a few sub-plots, adds dialog, and then the story becomes an entirely new creation. But this play is no more British history than Julius Caesar is Roman history. It’s based on things that may have really happened but it’s still just a play. It’s not history. Anyway, is it really important how we classify drama? Scholars might think it’s important. But the important questions for amateur readers are simple things like: how does this play stack up as entertainment? Is it a good story? Is it believable? If it’s not believable, is it still entertaining? Does it have lessons about real life that I can take away with me? In short, does this play appeal to me on a personal level? The answer: some people will like this play, others won’t. An evil stepmother plots to put her son (Cloten) on the throne. But the princess (Imogen) already loves, and marries, another man (Posthumus Leonatus). Posthumus is a commoner and this infuriates her father (Cymbeline, the king). So the evil Queen (Imogen’s stepmother) gives what she believes to be poison as a gift. Here’s the deal: if Posthumus takes the poison and dies, then Imogen would have no husband and would have to marry Cloten. So Cloten would become king. If Imogen takes the poison and dies, then Cloten is next in line for the throne anyway. Either way, Cloten would become king once Cymbeline is gone. There are subplots about Posthumus suspecting Imogen of being unfaithful; two long-lost sons of Cymbeline are really alive and eventually save Britain from the Roman invasion; and a couple of curious incidents along the way. One is a dream of Posthumus where Jupiter appears: Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt. No more, you petty spirits of region low, Offend our hearing; hush! How dare you ghosts Accuse the thunderer, whose bolt, you know, Sky-planted batters all rebelling coasts? This sounds a little like the image of Yahweh in our readings of Genesis and Exodus. God destroys the world by a flood, appears in a burning bush, and parts the sea. Jupiter, like Yahweh, has to establish order amongst rebellious men on earth: Be not with mortal accidents opprest; No care of yours it is; you know 'tis ours. This reminds us of the book of Job where God tests Job beyond the powers of human understanding. The reader knows that Job is being tested by Satan, but Job doesn’t know that. The divine message from God is basically: this is my business, not yours. The divine remains inscrutable, unsearchable, by human beings. The other curious incident in this play is an oracle given concerning Posthumus: When as a lion's whelp shall, to himself unknown, without seeking find, and be embraced by a piece of tender air; and when from a stately cedar shall be lopped branches, which, being dead many years, shall after revive, be jointed to the old stock and freshly grow; then shall Posthumus end his miseries, Britain be fortunate and flourish in peace and plenty… Like most oracles, from Greek tragedy onwards, these words don’t make any sense. But then one day everything happens just as the oracle predicted. In hindsight it all makes perfect sense. In Cymbeline everything works out in the end. Order is restored. The good guys win. Love prevails. Shelve as comedy.

Friday, September 02, 2011

On Happiness

There is something to be said for optimism. We admire people who make the best of their situation and struggle to overcome the hardships which life puts in their path. The truth is no one likes a coward. We expect our leaders to govern wisely, and our soldiers to fight bravely; never show fear and never surrender. But most of us are not heroes. We lack the courage and fortitude to overcome adversity. Life is a series of obstacles, often confusing and sometimes impossibly tragic. So how can happiness even exist in a world filled with turmoil, rage and pain? Since we all desire happiness, why are we unable to rationally comprehend it? Is happiness just a state of mind or a passing mood, or is it to be found in an objective set of conditions?

Aeschylus, the Greek dramatist, once said that “a man cannot be called happy until he has reached the end of his life.” By this, he meant we cannot say whether our life has been well lived until it has run its course. This means that happiness is not simply a passing mood or sensation like joy or hunger. Rather, it is more like a drama which must be concluded before we can evaluate its worth.

Another common mistake is to confuse happiness with a state of mind. Dewey, who was a pragmatist, believed happiness to be something which exists solely in the mind. Therefore, we should be able to obtain happiness by simply willing it into existence. Thus, the action of standing on our own two feet lies within our own power, unless we are paralyzed or bound like Prometheus to a cliff. However, for Aristotle, happiness is something more than a state of mind. It is a synonym for “the good life” that is measured by having things like tasty food, a warm bed, and a healthy body. In other words, things which are not always within our power to obtain. It is a happy conceit of Dewey that the individual is in control of his own emotional state. But Freud, Dostoyevsky and Aeschylus all disagree. Clearly, we are not always in control of our emotions, otherwise we would not go insane, feel guilty, or be enraged or depressed. The notion that a happy man merely wills himself into a pleasant state of mind is far too simplistic, ignoring the basic problem which all men face: that we are not in control of our destiny, nor can we simply will ourselves into a state of bliss. This delusion is a byproduct of an Old Testament mythology which claims that all our problems today are of our own making due to Adam's original sin.

What contributes to this confusion is an inability to define happiness in such a way that it applies to all men in all circumstances. As Aristotle understood, happiness is something more than pleasure. We have physical needs as well as mental states. Mortality is our human condition. Our challenge is to live out our lives knowing we shall die, that our bodies will age and deteriorate, and when we are gone, the memory of our existence will soon fade from the annals of history.

So is happiness ever possible or is it just an illusion? The Stoics say that happiness is knowing how to distinguish the possible from the impossible, to know our limits and live within them. Aristotle called this attitude “sophrosyne" or moderation. Lao Tzu called it living in harmony with nature or having a balanced life. Buddhists say that happiness is contentment or lack of strife. Cato, one of the noblest Romans, believed that happiness was virtue, living with honor and respect for one's country and traditions. These days, we too often succumb to the foolish notion that happiness is “doing whatever we decide.” But this is the attitude of a civilization in decline. When we succumb to the desire for feeling good all the time (paradise?), we lose sight of what is immediately around us, or as Lincoln would say, of the "better angels of our nature." But virtue requires sacrifice and a willingness to endure what we cannot change. The quest for happiness is like the song of the Sirens who lured ancient mariners to their doom. It is entirely possible that happiness and human society are incompatible. Of course, the dream will not die; we persist in hoping that in some distant future, we will discover a formula or technique for making happiness available to everyone. But as Aeschylus said, while we live and breathe we cannot know happiness and we cannot say whether our life was good until we reach the end of our journey. Then, we will only glimpse it momentarily in the rear view mirror, as we pass from the living into the eternal void of sleep.