Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, April 21, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act 3

Great literature has a way of echoing down through the ages.  Times change but great literary themes have an enduring quality that appeals to every generation.  The story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden is one of those universal stories; and Shakespeare’s Iago is a human echo of the serpent, the original Evil One.  Remember in the Garden how the serpent tempted Eve?  Here’s the full exchange between the serpent and Eve: Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.  This is masterful manipulation of Eve’s good qualities.  Notice how the serpent asks a simple innocent question and Eve answers truthfully and honestly.  The serpent doesn’t respond with outright lies because then Eve would be on her guard.  Instead, the serpent resorts to half-truths.  He says Ye shall not surely die and it’s true that Adam and Eve didn’t die immediately.  But they did die.  Next the serpent tells her that your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil and this was also true.  But it wasn’t the whole truth.  The serpent failed to mention that knowing evil would permanently destroy her peace of mind.  This is the way Iago works too.  Take this conversation about Cassio, for example.  Cassio has a firm bond of friendship in Othello’s heart.  Iago tells Othello that Men should be what they seem, Or those that be not, would they might seem none!  This statement in itself is true.  Men should be what they seem; dishonest men should look dishonest.  The implication is that Cassio is a dishonest man.  The bigger truth that Iago fails to mention is that he himself (Iago) is the most dishonest man in the country.  Why is this important?  Because Iago not only wants Othello to think Cassio’s a dishonest man, he also wants Othello to think Cassio is sleeping with his wife.  So Iago moves on to a deeper level of Othello’s heart: Desdemona is the love of his life.   Iago points out She did deceive her father, marrying you…  He never comes right out and says “so she may deceive you too.”  Iago merely plants the seed, Othello takes the bait and his imagination starts running wild.  Soon Othello is convinced that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him: What sense had I in her stol'n hours of lust?/ I saw ’t not, thought it not, it harmed not me. / I slept the next night well, fed well, was free and merry. / I found not Cassio’s kisses on her lips. / He that is robbed, not wanting what is stol'n, / Let him not know’t, and he’s not robbed at all.  Here’s where Othello ties in with the Garden of Eden story.  Once you’ve tasted the fruit, there’s no going back.  Adam and Eve can’t un-know what they know after they’ve eaten the fruit.  They can never again go back to the Garden.  They know too much.  And so it is with Othello.  His peace of mind has been destroyed.  Once Iago holds out the apple of jealousy Othello takes a bite and there’s no going back.  Before then Othello had slept well, fed well, was free and merry.  No more.  He lost his peace of mind just as surely as Adam and Eve lost the Garden of Eden.  The question becomes: was it worth it?  Would Adam and Eve have been better off staying in the Garden or going out into the real world?  Would Othello be better off not thinking about Desdemona being faithful or unfaithful?  In short, are there some things we’re better off not thinking about?  Is having that knowledge worth losing our peace of mind?  These are hard questions.  Some people say: I want to know the truth, the whole truth.  I’m prepared to live with the consequences.  Other people say: I have a good life the way it is.  I sleep well, I eat well, I’m happy.  Let sleeping dogs lie.  Adam and Eve had to deal with the serpent in the Garden; now we deal with the serpent’s echo-men like Iago. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act 2

Shakespeare has his own way of dealing with questions about human nature. He doesn’t present people as philosophical problems. He shows human nature in terms of flesh-and-blood folks just trying to make their way through life as best they can. These aren’t abstract cardboard characters that Shakespeare moves around on the stage; he uses them to meditate on what it means to be human. How do people act? How do they react? What turns them on? What makes them tick? Othello is one long meditation on these questions. It’s tempting to think of Othello as a good man, but not a wise one; and to think of Iago as a wise man, but not a good one. That might be a simple solution, but it’s too simple for Shakespeare. Is Othello really good? Is Iago really wise? Shakespeare’s characters are rarely simple good-or-evil/wise-or-stupid people. They have their strengths and weaknesses; they have their ups and downs; they have their good days and their bad days. This play opens with Othello on his way up. He’s just married a beautiful woman and the Venetian Senate is calling on him to take command and stop the Turkish fleet. It seems as if “the Moor” has been fully accepted into the aristocratic social circles of Venice. So we catch Othello in a happy mood on one of his good days. Iago, on the other hand, has recently been passed over for a key promotion and this greatly agitates him. He probably won’t be climbing any higher on the military or the social ladder. So we catch Iago in a foul mood on one of his bad days. But moods come and go. In the long run Othello still tends to be a good man and Iago still tends to be a bad one. Othello’s goodness is acknowledged even by Iago, a man who hates him: The Moor…is of a constant, loving, noble, nature; And I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona a most dear husband. But Othello somehow lacks the wisdom to build a foundation on which to support his own good nature. For example, he passes over Iago for a promotion and then turns around and trusts him completely with his wife and possessions. Was this wise? He marries Desdemona without her father’s blessing; without her father even knowing about it. Was this wise? No, it will come back to haunt him. And he’s a little too quick to demote Cassio without first giving him the benefit of a thorough investigation. Worst of all, Othello fails to live up to the advice of Socrates: know thyself. Othello doesn’t know himself. More specifically, he doesn’t know his own weaknesses. And this will turn out to be his undoing. Iago is a master of undoing people by exploiting their weaknesses, and even the strengths. Iago knows that Othello is of a constant, loving, noble, nature; And I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona a most dear husband. So this will be the weapon that Iago will use against him. Iago knows that Desdemona’s goodness and fidelity to Othello is her greatest virtue: So will I turn her virtue into pitch, and out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all. Goodness is the weapon Iago will use against Desdemona. Iago’s knows that Roderigo’s weakness is lust. So he’ll use that weapon against Roderigo. How does Iago manage to accomplish all this? In Roderigo’s case Iago promises a plan so Roderigo can sleep with Desdemona: But, sir, be you ruled by me… When this doesn’t quickly happen Iago gives “wise” words of counsel to Roderigo: How poor they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees… Patience is indeed a virtue. But Iago twists virtue to serve his own needs. And virtues in the service of a bad man turn into vices. The same holds true for Cassio. Unlike Othello, Cassio does know himself. His weakness is alcohol and he freely admits it: I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking: I could well wish courtesy would invent some other custom of entertainment. In short, Cassio can’t hold his booze. Iago uses this weakness as a weapon against him: good wine is a good familiar creature if it be well used; exclaim no more against it. The key phrase here is “if it be well used.” Iago doesn’t care about using things well; he only cares about Iago. Shakespeare’s meditation on human nature is this: beware of people like Iago.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act 1

At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much of a connection between Darwin’s theory of evolution and Shakespeare. What do they have in common? Well, for starters they both ponder the question "what sort of creature is man"? And not surprisingly they give different answers. In previous readings we’ve had a wide range of opinions on what human beings are like. Freud tells us bluntly that Men are not gentle creatures…they are, on the contrary, creatures whose instincts include extreme aggressiveness. Rousseau has a little better view of people and says we can always improve: There is no wicked man who could not be made good for something. The Bible puts man on a higher level than either Freud or Rousseau: God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness… That’s a pretty broad range of opinion concerning the nature of man. And this is where Darwin and Shakespeare come into play. Darwin was a master of biology; Shakespeare was a master of drama. Darwin looks at the natural world as it is. Then he tries to piece together what it means to be a human being in the form of fossil records. Then he develops a scientific theory to tell us what he found out. Shakespeare looks at the world as it is too. And he too ponders what it means to be a human being. But instead of developing a scientific theory Shakespeare tells a story. Here’s where Othello intersects with Darwin’s theory of survival: can a good man compete and survive in a society full of devious men? Othello is a good man, an excellent military commander, and he’s also strong and courageous. Othello would seem to be a perfect candidate for survival under Darwin’s theory. But Iago is also strong and courageous. And he’s a good military commander too. The difference is this: Othello is open and honest, Iago is devious. Iago is not, to use Freud’s phrase a “gentle creature.” Othello and Iago are both fighters. But they use different methods. Here’s the question for Darwin’s theory of survival: if it comes to a showdown which one is more likely to survive? And make no mistake, Iago wants a showdown. He cannot rest easy as long as Othello is alive. It soon becomes clear that either Othello or Iago has to go. Venice is not big enough for both of them. The whole world isn’t big enough for both of them. Iago practically hisses his hatred: I do hate him as I do hate hell-pains. In the jungle Iago could just conk Othello on the head or run him through with a spear. But in Venice he would then be charged with murder and executed. Death defeats the primary goal of survival. So Iago has to somehow plot and scheme Othello’s downfall without becoming implicated himself. Surviving in a corrupt society requires different skills than surviving out in the wilderness. Recall Darwin’s theory that natural selection is the tendency in individuals and species for variations that are favorable for survival to be preserved in the struggle for existence, and for injurious variations to be eliminated. Of course Darwin was mostly looking at physical traits that lead to survival of a whole species; in Othello Shakespeare explores the struggle for survival between individual men. But Shakespeare’s exploration of human nature is as complex as piecing together fossils. How does human nature work itself out in society? That’s Shakespeare’s problem. We must remember Darwin also argued that traits such as sociability and cooperation would be powerful tools for survival of the species. So we turn back to the original question whether good people can survive in a corrupt society? Here’s the problem as Shakespeare defines it: Othello is good but he’s not street-smart; Iago is street-smart but he’s not good. This is a prescription for tragedy. It’s also a good example of how drama, if done right, is just as difficult as studying paleontology. Shakespeare uses drama to bring us right to the edge of philosophy. Can Othello be good if he isn’t wise? Can Iago be wise if he isn’t good? What does it mean to be wise? Why should we be good? Our survival may very well depend on how we answer those questions. Despite their differences concerning human nature Shakespeare and Darwin do agree on this much: survival isn’t easy.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

DARWIN: The Moral Sense of Man

Charles Darwin has a special place in Tennessee history. His ideas put Dayton, Tennessee on the intellectual map at the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. At that time it was against the law to teach evolution instead of Genesis at any state-funded school in Tennessee. Times change. Now it’s against the law to teach the Genesis creation story in Tennessee’s public schools. What’s the fuss all about? This reading centers on a concept Darwin calls “natural selection” which is the tendency in individuals and species for variations that are favorable for survival to be preserved in the struggle for existence, and for injurious variations to be eliminated. We focus on just a small portion of that theory: the development of moral sensibilities in mammals. How does moral development help physical survival? Darwin tries to demonstrate that having sympathy for others increases the chances for the whole species to be successful in the overall struggle for existence. He says that although man has no special instincts to tell him how to aid his fellow men, he still has the impulse, and with his improved intellectual faculties would naturally be much guided in this respect by reason and experience. In other words, we’re not born knowing how to help other people by natural instinct. However, by using our minds and experience our efforts become much more effective. And it seems reasonable that more people will survive if we all put our minds to work helping out our neighbors. But there are problems with this theory. For example, how does helping “useless” people promote the welfare of the rest of the group? This sounds cold, but speaking strictly in biological terms, why should human beings care for people who can’t produce anything or contribute anything to the community’s material well-being? The short answer is: because we’re human beings. That’s what we do. Bees don’t do that. When winter starts coming on the drones are driven out of the hive. Nothing personal, they just don’t pull their weight anymore and are a useless burden for the rest of the bees. Freud points out that humans don’t do much better sometimes: Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved and who at the most can defend themselves when they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments include extreme aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbors are potential helpers and sex partners, but their neighbors also tempt them to satisfy their aggressive instincts: to exploit, to rape, to steal, to humiliate, cause pain, to torture and kill their neighbors. Sometimes human beings are as cold-hearted as bees. People can be cruel and selfish. But this is not the goal for highly-developed human cultures. We help those who need help. And we try to help everyone become as self-sufficient as possible. In Darwin’s view this is a good way to promote overall survival of the species. Aristotle notes that the final and perfect good seems to be self-sufficient. However, we define something as 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. Darwin seems to share Aristotle’s optimism for the human race rather than Freud’s pessimism. This reading ends on an optimistic note: Looking to future generations there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance. In this case the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe and virtue will be triumphant. Darwin hopes that virtue will triumph. But are we any more virtuous today than our ancestors were in Aristotle’s time? That depends. What kind of world do we live in? Genesis says God created mankind and pronounced it good. Darwin says we evolved by chance and hopes for the best. Two different answers give two very different world views. That’s what “the monkey trial” was really all about: a debate about what kind of world we live in. Tennesseans have been debating that question since 1925.