Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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.


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