Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

CONRAD: Heart of Darkness, 1 (2012)

Aristotle wrote a very convincing and persuasive philosophical treatise on happiness. It’s very common-sense and down to earth. But it’s still philosophy. Here’s a sample: What is the aim of politics? Both the common man and the cultivated man call it happiness. They understand happiness to be the same thing as “living well” and “doing well.” But when it comes to defining what happiness is, they disagree, and the answer given by ordinary people is different from the answer given by philosophers. As long as we’re just reading about happiness this theory sounds good; but how well does philosophy hold up in real life? This is a question Joseph Conrad pondered in his masterpiece Heart of Darkness. A sailor named Marlowe goes out looking not so much for happiness but for… what? Adventure? Money? The meaning of life? Marlowe’s not even sure himself. Aristotle says we’re all looking for happiness, we just don’t agree what it is. But in the real world the search for happiness becomes translated (or diluted) into the much humbler task of just trying to earn a living. Most people are just trying to find a job that will pay the bills. The characters in this story are not philosophers; they’re sailors, businessmen, clerks, managers. Are they “living well” or “doing well” as Aristotle put it? Early in the story Marlowe meets a minor character who embodies this search for happiness Aristotle is speaking of. Here are Marlowe’s words: I shook hands with this miracle, and I learned he was the Company's chief accountant, and that all the book-keeping was done at this station… I respected the fellow. Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair. His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser's dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That's backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character. He had been out nearly three years… Thus this man had verily accomplished something. And he was devoted to his books, which were in apple-pie order. This man wasn’t a philosopher. He was an accountant. And he was very good at what he did. Everything around him was in chaos and falling to pieces. But his books “were in apple-pie order.” Aristotle would certainly have appreciated a man who was good at his job. But Conrad is asking a more probing question: so what? What good are starched shirts and good bookkeeping when the whole operation is in reality a futile flailing about in the darkness? Philosophers tell us that thinking is good and Socrates explicitly says that the unexamined life is not worth living. But sailors like Conrad may have a different philosophy: I watched the coast. Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you -- smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, 'Come and find out.' This is not the noble voice of philosophy calling us. This is an ominous voice luring us into a possible trap or into a dark world from whence we’ll never return. Socrates may have seen the sunny highlands of philosophy but Conrad saw a heart of darkness. It might be best not to go too deeply into that jungle. But Conrad is like Socrates in this way: he wants us to think about what we’re doing before we get in over our heads. Conrad can be as blunt as a steamboat stuck on a river bottom. … I had a notion it somehow would be of help to that Kurtz whom at the time I did not see, you understand. He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? This is not philosophy but the story of a remarkable man named Kurtz. Kurtz has gone far up the dark river to… do what? There are rumors back at the station that something has gone terribly wrong. Kurtz is not “doing well.” He may have gone too far into the darkness. Kurtz may have become darkness. This story sheds light on Luke’s gospel message of Jesus: To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide (their) feet into the way of peace. Luke is asking the same question: do you see the man? Do you see the story? Do you see anything?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

BIBLE: The Gospel of Luke

In the Great Books tradition there are many different roads to happiness. They just don’t all agree on the path to achieve it. Homer stands at the beginning of the tradition and in The Iliad the ideal of happiness is to attain glory in battle and win the spoils of victory. We read in the book of Exodus that the way to happiness isn’t through war; instead it is to follow the law of God as given to Moses. Socrates believed that discussing philosophy was the way to happiness. Aristotle laid out a whole common-sense program of happiness in his work on Ethics. In Jonathan Swift’s story Gulliver finds happiness by living a rational life. The Wife of Bath thinks happiness can be found by being in complete control of her marriage. In a short story by Gogol it only takes a new coat for Akaky to find happiness. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes believes the pursuit of happiness is futile; the best we can hope for is to enjoy the work that we’re given to do in this world. Flaubert tells a story about a woman finding her happiness in a bird. And Nietzsche thinks we can find happiness by forging new values the way Zarathustra did. But The Gospel of Luke lays out an entirely different road to happiness. Let’s look at a couple of our most recent readings to see how this Gospel gives a different definition of happiness. Our latest reading was Plato’s Apology and at his trial Socrates said this: Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy... Understand that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times. This wasn’t much different from the trial of Jesus. Both Jesus and Socrates refused to compromise their principles, even under penalty of death. In another book written by Luke (Acts of the Apostles) we see a similar response given by the followers of Jesus: Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men. It would be interesting to listen in on a conversation between Socrates and Jesus. Socrates would start off with a question meant to enhance the search for philosophical truth; Jesus would answer with a parable aiming at spiritual enlightenment. But a more interesting project would be to take the life of Jesus and filter it through Aristotle’s great work on happiness. This would give us a pretty good notion not only about the life of Jesus but also about the limits of philosophy. For instance, Aristotle asks What is the aim of politics? Both the common man and the cultivated man call it happiness. They understand happiness to be the same thing as “living well” and “doing well.” But when it comes to defining what happiness is, they disagree, and the answer given by ordinary people is different from the answer given by philosophers. Was Jesus one of the common men or a cultivated one? Even in a casual reading of the Gospel the answer would have to be: both. In Luke’s little biography did Jesus “live well” and “do well?” Jesus certainly did a lot of good things. He healed people. He taught them. But did he live well by Aristotle’s standards? Jesus wasn’t rich; he never married or had children; he died an excruciating death at a relatively young age. How can anyone honestly say that this man was happy? And yet, that’s exactly what Luke is telling us. The goal of happiness according to Aristotle is to achieve excellence in human terms: to be healthy, enjoy a certain amount of wealth, to have a good family and plenty of friends, to win respect and admiration from your peers. These are the things people should strive for according to Aristotle. Jesus had a different set of goals in mind. They can be summarized in what we know today as “The Lord’s Prayer” Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil. These goals might intrigue Socrates; they certainly are not what Aristotle calls happiness. Luke saw things differently. For Luke the life of Jesus was the key to happiness both in this life and the next.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

PLATO: The Apology 2011

Almost every student of Western philosophy begins his studies by reading Plato’s Apology. There are good reasons for this. It’s easy to read and gives the impression that it’s easy to understand. A wise man has been unjustly accused by a jealous mob. He’s put on trial and unjustly condemned by an ignorant mob. Then he’s offered exile instead of capital punishment by a fickle mob. But to the mob’s surprise this wise man refuses exile and forces them to follow through with their decision. This is high drama. But The Apology is also inspiring. Socrates chose a noble death instead of a safe exile. He defends himself in a way that reflects well on the study of philosophy. In fact, it makes the reader want to learn more about this subject we call “the love of wisdom.” This is all exactly as Plato intended. We have to remember that this is a STORY about Socrates. It’s not a transcript of the trial. We get a view of heroic philosophy at its best and philosophy’s critics at their worst. Here’s a test: read The Apology and then put it aside. Read it again a year later. This time you’re likely to get a different reading than you did the first time. That’s the kind of story this is; many-sided, complex, and worth re-reading for a whole lifetime. That’s why it’s a Great Book. One interpretation is that Socrates is indeed a hero just as Plato portrayed him. And Socrates certainly does appear heroic at first reading. But other interpretations are possible. After years of experience a reader who first encounters Socrates in college may later read it with a different perspective. A mature reader may pause to ask: what’s really going on here? There’s more at stake in this trial than the innocence or guilt of one man. A whole society is on trial. In fact, WE are on trial. The real question put to the jury is this: what are your values? This man is undermining your way of life. He teaches a philosophy that can (and does) corrupt some people, especially young people. What are you going to do about it? Socrates starts his defense by saying: These men, I claim, have said little or nothing true. But from me Gentlemen you will hear the whole truth… Here’s a delicate subject: truth. In another famous trial the judge asked the accused man: what is truth? Now we’re on to something. What is truth? What’s at stake in this trial is not merely establishing the guilt or innocence of Socrates. The important question is: what is truth? Or to put the same question in modern terms: is there such a thing as “truth?” The way we answer that question is literally a matter of life and death. At his trial Socrates asks this question: Callias, if your two sons were colts or calves we could get an overseer for them and hire him and his business would be to make them excellent in their appropriate virtue. He would be either a horse-trainer (for the colts) or a farmer (for the calves). But as it is, since the two of your sons are men, whom do you intend to get as an overseer? Who has knowledge of that virtue which belongs to a man and a citizen? In our previous reading On Happiness Aristotle’s whole philosophy is built on the assumption that we want what is good. For Aristotle that means all lifestyle choices are not the same; some are better than others. Put another way, some are “true” and others “false” in this sense: they’re true if they are an activity of the soul in conformity with virtue. Socrates taught Plato. Plato taught Aristotle. Aristotle teaches us. There’s a long tradition in Western literature of searching for the truth. That search begins with The Apology and Socrates is the model Western philosopher. In the Great Books series this reading is wedged in between Aristotle’s On Happiness and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Aristotle says happiness is striving to achieve excellence. Socrates says we should pursue truth. In Heart of Darkness a man named Kurtz tries to do both: achieve excellence and also find the truth. He’s spectacularly successful in business and he does find out the truth, but it doesn’t enlighten him; it destroys his mind. Socrates and his critics were both right: the stakes in philosophy are high. It’s not a game.

Monday, December 12, 2011

ARISTOTLE: On Happiness 2011

Any discussion of society should begin with simpler components: the people who make it up. Who are these people? What do they want? Aristotle can help us but he starts in a sideways fashion: Every art or applied science and every systematic investigation, and similarly every action and choice, seem to aim at some good… Before we begin we need to take a step back and look at the methods we’re going to use to guide our research. The important point for Aristotle is that everything we do will “aim at some good.” We don’t just wander around aimlessly. We have certain things we want to accomplish. So what is this “good” we all aim for? Since the title of this selection is “On Happiness” we’ve already given away the answer: everyone wants to be happy. That’s really what we’re all after. But what exactly is this goal we call “happiness?” Is it the same for everyone? Again Aristotle can help us. But again we have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Man is a social creature. Therefore happiness must be connected in some way with society. And societies are governed by politics. Therefore (as Aristotle sees it) Politics determines which sciences ought to exist in society, what kind of sciences each group of citizens must learn, and what degree of proficiency each must attain… Thus it follows that the end of politics is the good for man. This sounds like Aristotle is recommending that government should decide what we should learn, who should learn it and which people should go on for graduate degrees. That idea will never fly in America. But maybe Aristotle is merely suggesting that we need to think about the good of the whole community. If everyone goes off doing their own thing then what kind of community will we have left? The whole point of politics is to advance our best interests. Our best interests are served when the whole community thrives. Stated in simple terms, Aristotle asks: What is the aim of politics? His answer: Both the common man and the cultivated man call it happiness. Well, ok. So what is “happiness” in political terms? Aristotle explains that they understand happiness to be the same thing as “living well” and “doing well.” But when it comes to defining what happiness is, they disagree, and the answer given by ordinary people is different from the answer given by philosophers. We all agree that we want to be happy. The disagreement comes when we go about trying to describe what it is that makes us happy. We think what makes us happy should make other people happy too. Not so, says Aristotle. He says there are basically three kinds of lifestyles: (1) a life of enjoyment, (2) the political life, (3) the contemplative life. What makes #1 happy won’t make #2 happy; what makes #3 happy won’t make #1 happy, and so on. That’s because the goal of happiness is different in each of these cases. It should be noted that these are not political parties. They’re just three different approaches to life. We’ll find all three lifestyles mixed in with Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike. An interesting side-note is Aristotle’s observation that a young man is not equipped to be a student of politics… This will not be a popular idea with college students. How can Aristotle say such a thing? For Aristotle it’s not prejudice against college students, it’s just common sense. A college student has no experience in the actions which life demands of him, and these actions form the basis and subject matter of the discussion. In other words, the whole point of politics is to answer questions like how do I pay my mortgage? How can I get the best education for my children? Should we get braces to straighten little Sally’s teeth? Is my Senator doing a good job? College students simply don’t have the real-life experience to adequately answer these questions. And these are the kinds of things that ultimately lead to happiness. Aristotle admits happiness is a tough topic. He says Precision cannot be expected in the treatment of all subjects… Politics is not mathematics. It’s harder. There’s not a clear, correct answer. Happiness is kind of like that. Everyone’s not the same but Aristotle has laid out a firm foundation for us to pursue happiness in a logical way.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

GREAT BOOKS PREVIEW: Adult First Series, Volume One (Society)

Does a fish know it’s wet? How could it know? In order to know if it’s wet it would have to also know what “not-wet” (or dry) is. The fish has never known anything but water. The same goes for human beings. We live in society. We’ve never known anything else. Even hermits once had family and friends. So how can we properly evaluate what it would be like to live outside of society? We’d be like a fish trying to determine what it would be like to live on dry land. The Great Books series begins with the simple theme that human beings are social creatures. All Great Books authors agree on that point. But it comes as no surprise that there’s very little else they agree on. They all have a unique perspective about what it means to be a social creature. That’s why they’re in the Great Books set. The first volume contains nine different readings with nine different opinions about society. Here they are, in order: CHEKHOV views society as an economic system that affects all our human relationships. Why are people generally such a nuisance to each other? It’s such a terrible waste of money. Without the hate and malice folks could get a lot of profit out of each other. ARISTOTLE believes human society is the best arrangement for living the good life. The end of politics (society) is the good for man... good seems to be self-sufficient. However, we define self-sufficient not by reference to the “self” alone. We do not mean a man who lives his life in isolation, but a man who also lives with parents, children, a wife, and friends and fellow citizens generally, since man is by nature a social and political being. PLATO (SOCRATES) uses society to explore human wisdom. Perhaps someone may say, “Would it not be possible for you to live in exile, Socrates, if you were silent and kept quiet?”… To do so would be to disobey God… I examine myself and others, the unexamined life is not worth living. CONRAD shows what life would be like if we didn’t live in civilized societies. And (England) also, said Marlow suddenly, has been one of the dark places of the earth… I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago… We live in the flicker… but darkness was here yesterday… Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages; precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in the wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay. Cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death… they must have been dying like flies here… They were men enough to face the darkness. KANT says society helps develop our conscience. Vices bring their own punishments. MARX tries to prove that society is man-made from natural materials and therefore we have complete control over the kind of society we build. The object of labor is the objectification of man’s species-life; for he no longer reproduces himself merely intellectually, as in consciousness, but actively and in a real sense, and he sees his own reflection in a world which he has constructed. GENESIS traces society back to its origins beginning with one family in Adam and Eve and developing further into distinct tribes and nations. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. FREUD examines the impact of civilized society on human psychology. The liberty of the individual is no gift of civilization. It was greatest before there was any civilization… The development of civilization imposes restrictions on it and justice demands that no one shall escape those restrictions… The urge for freedom, therefore, is directed against particular forms and demands of civilization or against civilization altogether. ROUSSEAU thinks society is the problem, not the solution. Man was/is born free and everywhere is in chains. Which one is right? Who knows? That’s why we have Great Books discussions; we have to decide for ourselves.