Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, January 27, 2012

MARX: Alienated Labor (Wages) 2012

Immanuel Kant was a strong believer in the power of conscience to affect the way we live. How does that belief work out in real life? Here’s a typical scenario. Suppose I don’t have any money and I’m starving. Is it ok to steal food in order to survive? Kant says conscience is an instinct and my conscience tells me that stealing is wrong. But my instinct to survive is strong too. What would Kant advise? Let’s leave Kant for a moment and turn instead to Karl Marx for clarification. Marx would ask this question: why are you poor and starving in the first place? You don’t have any money. Why not? Either (a) you don’t have a job, or (b) you do have a job but it doesn’t pay enough to put food on the table. How can this happen? Marx’s basic theme is that wages are determined by the bitter struggle between capitalist and worker. The reason people are poor and starving is that they’re losing the struggle with capitalists (the investors and business owners who control the financial means of production). Marx begins with the notion that it’s a STRUGGLE between employers and workers rather than cooperation between them. Marx believes that the normal wage is the lowest which is compatible with common humanity, that is, with a bestial existence. Marx sees the “normal wage” as the lowest wage that an individual employer will pay rather than the highest wage the worker can get from working somewhere else. He does not see employers in a struggle between themselves to hire the best workers. A third point Marx makes is that in work, all the natural, spiritual, and social differences of individual activity appear and are differently remunerated, while dead capital maintains an unvarying performance and is indifferent to real individual activity. This seems to mean that work is a human activity and is therefore subject to human conditions. Marx sees money, on the other hand, as “dead capital” that is “indifferent” to real people. Other economic writers (such as Adam Smith) view money as a morally-neutral tool that can be used for either good or for bad. It merely keeps score on supply and demand for products and services. Our recent readings may help shed further light on the relationship between people and money. In Rothschild’s Fiddle Jacob was not a hired worker. He owned his own business. No one was exploiting him. But he was still greedy. Until near the end of his life all he thought about was how to make more money. His motto was: it’s all such a waste of money… without the hate and malice folks could get a lot of profit out of each other. For Aristotle money is obviously necessary for us to lead a happy life. But we shouldn’t let money overwhelm our primary human function, which is to pursue the good. Aristotle says as for the money-maker, his life is led under some kind of constraint: clearly wealth is not the good which we are trying to find, it is only useful as a means to something else. And in The Apology Socrates is very careful to distance himself from the notion that philosophy can be used to make money. At his trial Socrates said: If you have heard from anyone that I undertake to educate men and make money doing it, that is false… And religion as well as philosophy is often used to keep money in its proper place. In the Gospel of Luke we find this warning: Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. The story Heart of Darkness is a long meditation on the evils that money can do to people and the hardships we’re willing to endure in order to make money. Sometimes we may even go against our conscience in order to get rich. This brings us back to the original question of stealing food in order to survive. Kant seems to be counseling us to follow our conscience. Stealing is wrong, period. We must find some other way to survive. Marx seems to be saying that it’s the capitalists who are actually doing the stealing: they’re stealing money from the working-class in the form of low wages for the worker and high profits for the owner. Conscience is a just ploy to maintain the economic status quo. The subject of money is definitely a subject to which the Great Books speak.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

KANT: Conscience 2012

Toward the end of Heart of Darkness Marlow overhears Kurtz saying to himself: I am lying here in the dark waiting for death. Then just before Kurtz dies Marlow hears him say the horror! The horror! What’s the meaning of those final words? Joseph Conrad deliberately left the meaning open to different interpretations. Conrad wrote fiction and part of the power of fiction is to leave stories purposefully vague. If we’re looking for beauty then this kind of writing can open the way to deeper levels of meaning. Philosophy is different. If we’re pursuing truth we want precision. A philosopher needs to be precise in showing us the truth he wants to reveal. Kant is a very precise writer. For instance, in this selection Kant defines conscience in very specific terms: Conscience is an instinct to pass judgment upon ourselves in accordance with moral laws. That’s a clear definition but not very helpful in understanding how it works and how we can apply it to our own lives. So he goes on to point out in more detail that conscience is not a mere faculty, but an instinct; and its judgment is not logical but judicial. This is a short sentence but it’s hard to really grasp its meaning. For starters, what is a “faculty” anyway? Webster’s dictionary says in general, the faculties may be called the powers or capacities of the mind… Is Kant saying that our conscience isn’t just something we make up in our heads? Right and wrong isn’t just in our minds. Kant calls our conscience an “instinct” to determine what’s right and what’s wrong. Animals have instincts to help them survive. For example, birds fly south in the winter to get away from the cold. Many animals hibernate during the cold months. They don’t seem to think things through and then suddenly say: “oh it’s time for me to get ready for winter.” No. They just do it by instinct. Kant says our judgment is not logical but judicial. What does that mean? If we were entirely logical creatures we wouldn’t need a conscience. Our logical brains would tell us when something was wrong. It would be kind of like checking our car to see if the oil was low. Is it above this line? Yes, no problem. Not above the line? Then it’s low. When it comes to ethical behavior a logical mind would ask: did you do something wrong? Answer: Yes/Verdict: Guilty. Answer: No/Verdict: Not guilty. That would be the simple logical judgment. But conscience goes farther than that. The logical mind can tell us if we did something wrong but it cannot enforce its decision. Once logic forms a judgment it has completed its work. However, a judicial judgment has the power to determine guilt PLUS the power to enforce the judgment it makes. Kant puts it this way: Thus his judgment has force of law and is a sentence. The judge must either condemn or acquit; not merely form a judgment. This is apparently what happened to Kurtz at the end of his life. Kant believes that we find a judge within us who either condemns or acquits. It is impossible to blind his judgment. Kurtz appeared before the judge of his conscience and it condemned him. Marlow put it like this: (Kurtz) had summed up; he had judged, “The horror!” But in Rothschild’s Fiddle we have a case where Jacob appeared before his conscience and was acquitted: Jacob lay down all day, sick at heart. When the priest heard his confession that evening and asked whether he remembered committing any particular sin he exerted his failing memory and once more recalled Martha’s unhappy face and the desperate yell of the Jew bitten by a dog. “Give my fiddle to Rothschild,” he said… “Very well,” the priest answered. Later on Freud will contradict Kant that we all have a binding moral law of personal conscience. Freud says: “conscience” is ready to put into action against the ego the same harsh aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other extraneous individuals. Freud thinks conscience comes from social pressure on our egos from the outside. Kant disagrees and says we have an instinct to distinguish right from wrong because it is the moral law, established as the holy and inviolable law of humanity. For Kant this moral law is planted in our hearts and is true for everyone, everywhere, at all times.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

CONRAD: Heart of Darkness, 3 (2012)

There’s somewhat of a letdown when Marlow and the reader finally encounter Kurtz in part three of the story. All that’s left of Kurtz by now is a shell of a man. He’s sick and is, in fact, dying. He’s been out in the wilderness for too long; both his body and his mind have suffered from the strain. Still, Kurtz is a remarkable man. So is Marlow in his own kind of way. Marlow’s commentary on life and death are much more instructive to readers than Kurtz’s strange pronouncements. Contemplating Kurtz’s fate here’s how Marlow sums up his own destiny: My destiny! Droll thing life is; that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself; that comes too late; a crop of unextinguishable regrets. This is not encouraging. Socrates encourages us to know ourselves, to examine our lives and see what we find. The way Socrates tells it we find encouragement through philosophical inquiry. Marlow seems to be responding: that’s bunk. Go ahead, examine yourself. You will not like what you find. That’s why this little story is called “heart of darkness” because what we will come to know is a very unpleasant truth; not only about ourselves but about all human beings. And that’s if we’re lucky. That’s the MOST we can hope for. Kurtz was one of the lucky ones and came to see himself as he really was and the world as it really is: dark and forbidding. The reality is that the end-game is the same for all of us. We all face death, no matter if it’s the desolation of Kurtz’s station or in a fancy home back in the “civilized” world. Death calls on all alike. This world is a hard place to find your footing and death is no different. Marlow explains: I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. Death is our adversary and we will lose that fight. Like Kurtz, we will have our shot at life. Kurtz had big plans and he was a remarkably gifted and talented man. But he failed. How much more will ordinary people fail? What Marlow admires about Kurtz is that Kurtz took a stand. He had something to say and he said it. That’s something. Marlow wonders what he might have to say when he faces death himself and here’s what he found: I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. Great books aren’t always uplifting and death is a theme that can’t be ignored. But Conrad’s conclusion is an unusually pessimistic outlook in the western tradition. Our previous reading may provide a clue why. The Gospel of Luke proclaims that Jesus came to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death... When Marlow is taking Kurtz back downstream to the station he overhears Kurtz saying to himself: I am lying here in the dark waiting for death. The Gospel message provides a way out of this dead-end worldview and has given hope to millions of followers of Jesus who also waited for death. In the reading before Luke, Socrates voluntarily chooses death over exile as his punishment. The reading from Aristotle On Happiness warns us not to call any man happy until after he’s already died. We don’t know what kind of ending anyone will ultimately come to. Kurtz was a man of many talents and had a bright future ahead of him. But his end came on a steamboat in a muddy river in the middle of nowhere and his dying words were The horror! The horror! Perhaps at the very end he could see his whole life in perspective. It doesn’t have to be that way. In Rothschild’s Fiddle the anti-Semitic Jacob also knows he’s dying and sees how mean-spirited he was during his lifetime. But he tries to make amends as best he can by giving his beloved violin to the Jew they called Rothschild. Another excellent story on this theme is Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych. Conrad will not appeal to every reader. But like Kurtz, Conrad was a remarkable writer.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

CONRAD: Heart of Darkness, 2 (2012)

In the second part of Heart of Darkness we begin the journey down river. The mysterious Kurtz waits deep in the interior. As Marlowe and the reader leave the station behind we also leave civilization behind. Giant trees and lush vegetation and the unending river rule this part of the world. On the river you’re more likely to meet a hippopotamus than a human being. Books are out of place here. Philosophy may also be out of place here. It can be enlightening when Socrates stands in the marketplace of bustling Athens and proclaims that the unexamined life is not worth living. But out here among the giant trees and sluggish river there’s not a philosopher to be found. Who would Socrates debate with? A hippopotamus? On the other hand, philosophy may be the only thing that can preserve sanity in the backwaters of this primeval environment. Civilized behavior is an acquired habit, not a natural inclination. What seems perfectly natural out in the bush isn’t normal in civilized society; what’s normal in the city would seem ridiculous out in the bush. Aristotle says human beings are social creatures. We naturally gravitate toward towns and cities because that’s where other people are. But Kurtz is different from most people. Marlowe has already shown that Kurtz is a highly civilized man. No doubt Kurtz was familiar with Socrates and Aristotle. He had been hand-picked by the elite of Europe for this important company station. Kurtz’s future with the company was bright. But something has gone wrong and thrown all these fine plans off course. A large shipment of ivory arrived for the company in good order, but no Kurtz. What happened? Kurtz had apparently intended to return himself, the station being by that time bare of goods and stores, but after coming three hundred miles, had suddenly decided to go back, which he started to do alone in a small dugout with four paddlers, leaving the half-caste to continue down the river with the ivory. This is a critical part of Marlowe’s story because: I seemed to see Kurtz for the first time. It was a distinct glimpse: the dugout, four paddling savages, and the lone white man turning his back suddenly on the headquarters, on relief, on thoughts of home perhaps; setting his face towards the depths of the wilderness, towards his empty and desolate station. Why did Kurtz turn back? Marlowe wants us to mentally see the image of a dugout canoe, four paddling “savages” and Kurtz. It’s almost as if Kurtz made a momentous decision on the long journey up the river with the ivory. He wasn’t just heading back to his station down the river. It wasn’t like he had forgotten something and was going back to pick it up. No. He was literally turning his back on civilization. Why? Why would anyone in his right mind give up all the social advantages to voluntarily live in a place so desolate and empty? Marlowe explains: You can't understand. How could you? With solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer you… stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman… How could we possibly understand the motivations of a man like Kurtz? We live safe and sound in a society with grocery stores when we need food and police when we need help. We learn to adapt. In society we learn civil behavior from family, friends and neighbors. What would happen if there were no family, no friends no neighbors to help us? What if we were suddenly thrown out on our own, far away from help? Kurtz had to learn to adapt on his own by the way of silence; utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbor can be heard whispering of public opinion? These little things make all the great difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness. Of course you may be too much of a fool to go wrong; too dull even to know you are being assaulted by the powers of darkness. Marlowe seems to be asking: can you hear the power of darkness? Utter silence; no warning voice of a kind neighbor. Can you see it? How could you with solid pavement under your feet? Kurtz heard and saw the darkness.