Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, October 29, 2011

TOCQUEVILLE: Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare 2011

America 2011. This morning a group called “Occupy Wall Street” is protesting at the Tennessee state capitol. A couple of years ago the “Tea Party” did the same thing. Even though their protests may be aimed at different targets, the basic underlying argument is the same: fairness. Americans think things should be fair and both these groups want change, and they want it now. Of all the Great Books reading selections Alexis de Tocqueville probably has the most to say directly about what’s going on in America today. Here’s his short summary of Americans in this selection: They love change, but they dread revolutions. Two questions: first, what does Tocqueville mean by that? And second, is it true? First point: they love change but not revolutions. What Tocqueville means is that Americans are forever varying, altering, and restoring secondary matters; but they carefully abstain from touching what is fundamental. Americans may protest the amount of profits corporations make or the amount of taxes the government collects; all in the name of “fairness.” And different groups have different ideas on how to go about making things fairer. But no group advocates overthrowing the democratically-elected government and replacing it with a monarchy. Why is that? Because, essentially no one in America wants a true revolution. And why is that? Why not? Because, as Tocqueville explains, …in democratic communities the majority of the people do not clearly see what they have to gain by a revolution, but they continually and in a thousand ways feel that they might lose by one. So what do they have to lose by a revolution? The short answer: everything they own. And almost everybody in America owns something: a car, a television set, furniture, a computer, clothes, or any other personal belongings. John Locke claims the basic purpose of government is to protect this private property of its individual citizens. In fact, Locke’s ideal of Life, Liberty and Property is practically embedded in our Constitution (“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”). Once people begin accumulating things they want to hold on to them and enjoy them in peace and safety. Business helps them acquire the things; government provides peace and safety so they can enjoy them. In Tocqueville’s view I know of nothing more opposite to revolutionary attitudes than commercial ones. Commerce is naturally adverse to all the violent passions; it loves to temporize, takes delight in compromise, and studiously avoids irritation. It is patient, insinuating, flexible, and never has recourse to extreme measures until obliged by the most absolute necessity. Business doesn’t like surprises. It likes for things to be stable and predictable. Then people can make reasonable plans on investing or expanding. Business is willing to compromise in order to insure a safe and peaceful society. For that reason Tocqueville believes democracies such as America have a natural aversion to revolutions: Not only are the men of democracies not naturally desirous of revolutions, but they are afraid of them. All revolutions more or less threaten the tenure of property; but most of those who live in democratic countries are possessed of property… And this is particularly true of America: In no country in the world is the love of property more active and more anxious than in the United States; nowhere does the majority display less inclination for those principles which threaten to alter, in whatever manner, the laws of property. That’s why Tocqueville would probably say that neither “Occupy Wall Street” nor the “Tea Party” will have a deep and lasting influence on American politics. Americans will sympathize with both movements. They will support them too, but only up to a point. Remember what Tocqueville said: They love change, but they dread revolutions. He thinks most Americans don’t mind chipping around the edges to make some minor changes but they don’t want to overhaul the whole system. Too many people have too much invested to take a chance on losing it all. That was Tocqueville’s answer to our first question. Our second question was this: does what he said still hold true for 2011? We’ll see.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

LOCKE: Of the Limits of Government 2011

One of the problems every generation has to face is the basic question: how can we all live together in peace? Different people have different ideas on the best way to go about doing this. So governments are formed to help everyone agree on the basic ground rules society will live by. First this fundamental question must be answered: what is the purpose of government? Again different people will give different answers. The United States Constitution lists life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as legitimate government goals. Locke’s answer is this: the great end of men's entering into society, being the enjoyment of their properties in peace and safety… The rest is just a matter of filling in the details so people can enjoy in peace and quiet all those things they’ve worked to acquire. Governments are formed to protect us and our property. But Locke poses an interesting question. Who protects us from the government? For example, can the government force me to sell my land in order to build a new football stadium? Interesting question. From Locke’s view we have two competing claims: my claim to enjoy my property versus the claims of my neighbors to enjoy football games at a new stadium. Someone has to decide these things. Who decides? Maybe Locke can help us here. He says (The legislative branch) is not only the supreme power of the common-wealth, but sacred and unalterable… In other words, we will elect people to make laws for us. They are our legislators. But that doesn’t mean they can do whatever they want: First, it is not, nor can possibly be absolutely arbitrary over the lives and fortunes of the people: nobody has an absolute arbitrary power over himself, or over any other, to destroy his own life, or take away the life or property of another... This makes it seem clear: the legislature can’t take away my land. But Locke goes on to say: Their (legislator’s) power, in the utmost bounds of it, is limited to the public good of the society. This is also clear: a new football field is for the public good of society. Therefore, I’ve got to sell my land to the football team. They’re not “taking” my land; they’re just buying it from me to build a new football field. I can go buy some land somewhere else. Is this fair? Locke is uncomfortable with a government where everything is decided on the spur of the moment. We need some rules that everyone agrees to follow. Locke puts these limits on the legislators: They are to govern by promulgated established laws, not to be varied in particular cases, but to have one rule for rich and poor, for the favorite at court, and the country man at plough. The laws should be the same for everyone and everywhere; rich or poor, city or country, the same laws apply equally. This is for our own good. Locke elaborates on this need for established laws: the legislative, or supreme authority, cannot assume to its self a power to rule by extemporary arbitrary decrees, but is bound to dispense justice, and decide the rights of the subject by promulgated standing laws, and known authorized judges… The game won’t be fair until everyone knows the rules of the game. And we have to agree what those rules are before the game starts. We can make a law, for example, that says society can’t force someone to sell their property. What Locke says we should not do is then go back and change it to say: society can’t force someone to sell their property EXCEPT to build a new football field. Why does he feel so strongly about changing the rules? Because it’s a slippery slope. If they can take my property for a football field, they can take your property for a shoe store, or any other reason for that matter. Locke’s conclusion is this: for the preservation of property being the end of government, and that for which men enter into society, it necessarily supposes and requires, that the people should have property…nobody hath a right to take their substance or any part of it from them, without their own consent: without this they have no property at all… No football field.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

KAFKA: A Hunger Artist 2011

This story reminds me of the movie Elephant Man, only backward. In the movie we have a deformed man who very much wants to be like everyone else and become a part of the human family. He desperately wants to be normal. But he can’t because his deformity is so severe that he’s not even considered human by people who see him. In Kafka’s story we get the exact opposite: a seemingly normal man who very much wants to be different and apart from the rest of the human race. Kafka’s Hunger Artist voluntarily chooses to set himself apart from humanity. In that way they’re very different from one another. But in this way they’re both very much alike: they both end up working in freak shows in traveling carnivals. And they’re also both aware of their intense aloneness in the world. There’s no one else like either one of them. The Elephant Man had no choice because he was born that way; the Hunger Artist chose his own isolation. Or did he? This story leaves many lingering questions. Do people become artists mainly because they’re different from other people? Or do they become artists because they’re so deeply human that most of us simply can’t understand the creative depths they’re drawing from? Another question: are artists generally misunderstood? That seems to be the explanation in modern theory. For instance, take the song about Vincent Van Gogh (Starry, Starry Night). The lyrics tell us that “they” (that would be us) could not love you, but still your love was true. And when no hope was left in sight on that starry, starry night, you took your life, as lovers often do. But I could have told you, Vincent, This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you. In other words, Vincent was too good for this world. How many times have we heard this line of thought whenever artists, writers or musicians die from drug overdose or alcoholism? They were too good for this world. Or, they weren’t meant long for this world. The line goes that artists are generally misunderstood by the masses. The story about the Hunger Artist is proof that the masses don’t appreciate the finer things in life, like Vincent Van Gogh’s art. The fact is Van Gogh is more popular now than he was in his own day. Does that mean that “the masses” have finally come around to appreciating the beauty behind Vincent’s art? Does it mean that he was just ahead of his time? Or does it just mean that times have changed and so have artistic tastes? The story of the Hunger Artist says: We live in a different world now. When the Hunger Artist was a young man the crowds were wowed by feats of professional fasting. But as he grew older times changed and the crowd’s interests were diverted in new directions; kind of like Vincent Van Gogh in reverse. The Hunger Artist started off with a bang but then his popularity gradually went downhill. That’s how he finally wound up in a small cage in a freak show in a traveling carnival. People were no longer interested in watching people slowly becoming skinnier and skinnier. They wanted to see new and more exciting things. It would be interesting to see how many people would still like Vincent Van Gogh if his paintings weren’t in school textbooks and television and magazine advertisements. How much are our artistic tastes are shaped not by what we really like but by what other people say they like? In this story we see how it takes some background knowledge before someone can truly appreciate the art of fasting…the children, still rather uncomprehending, since neither inside nor outside school had they been sufficiently prepared for this lesson--what did they care about fasting?--yet showed by the brightness of their intent eyes that new and better times might be coming. The same thing goes for much of modern art. To the untrained eye much of it looks just plain ugly. But that’s apparently because the untrained eye is unsophisticated. As the Hunger Artist says: Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting! Anyone who has no feeling for it cannot be made to understand it. The only way to understand fasting is to go hungry for awhile and see how it feels. In the Middle Ages people used to fast regularly for their religion. But as Kafka puts it: We live in a different world now.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

LIFE LESSONS: An Interview with Plato, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant

First question goes to the oldest, Plato, and my question is this: Should I figure out the best way to live for myself, or listen to what other people tell me about life? PLATO answers: Why should we care what everyone says? Good men are the only ones we should care about. “The people” can’t make us either wise or foolish. Everything they do is just random activity. If we’re going to live well then we need guidance from people who know what they’re doing. Good men lived well before us. And they must have learned a lot. We don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Just see how they did it. MILL responds: The way you frame the question makes me assume that we’re talking about people who are free to choose. If people are going to be truly free then first of all they have to be free to think for themselves. And they should also be allowed to explore their feelings just as they please. People need to be free to have their own personal tastes and develop their own lifestyles. Otherwise, they’re not truly free. Every single person in every age needs to define for themselves how to live well. KANT responds: The inability to think for myself without guidance from somebody else is intellectual immaturity. You already know how to live well. Have the courage to use your own understanding!

Next question: Mr. Kant, who defines what’s right and wrong, my society or me? KANT answers: Our conscience is like an internal court. We’re guided by Natural Law (the law of reason). There shouldn’t be any conflict between the laws of men and the Natural Law. We judge ourselves. Our conscience has the power to summon us to the judgment seat even when we don’t want to come. Many things in life are confusing. But our conscience will not deceive us. MILL responds: Society and “the people” aren’t necessarily the same things. The government functions because a majority voted certain politicians into office. Then the government sets the laws. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right. Even a majority can be wrong. We have to decide for ourselves what’s right and wrong. Following society’s view is just following the herd. PLATO responds: Imagine the law saying: What are you doing Socrates? Are you trying to undo our whole society? How long do you think government will last if law courts can’t enforce the laws? How long would society last if everybody trampled on the law and did whatever they wanted? Who gave you the right to decide what’s right and wrong? Are you smarter than all the rest of us put together? It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to build our society. Don’t tear it down.

The final question goes to Mr. Mill: Let’s say that I’m determined to live a good life; should I listen to my head or to my heart? MILL: A lot of people are driven by their feelings. They just “feel” like they’re right and don’t need reasons; they think they already know what’s right and wrong. They can’t understand why everyone doesn’t agree with them. To these people their goals are self-evident and self-justifying. For example: We hold these truths to be self-evident… that's not an argument, it’s a personal faith. PLATO responds: Your determination to live well is a great thing if you’re right. Doing what’s right takes a lot of courage. But what if I’m wrong? Then my determination just makes things worse. I need to be persuaded by reasons. Can you persuade me that sheer determination will lead me to do the right thing? Convince me then. Otherwise, I’m sticking to rational principles. KANT has the final word: Many people think education is the key to building a better society. But a good education doesn’t necessarily make me a better person. I can be trained to talk the talk. In real life it’s more important that I learn how to walk the walk. Listen to your conscience and follow your heart.

Thank you, gentleman, for sharing your thoughts with us today.