Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Thursday, June 28, 2012

DEWEY: The Virtues (Introduction)

Here’s a pop quiz.  Our last two readings were about Antigone and Socrates.  Antigone broke the law; Socrates didn’t.  Which one is virtue? Socrates would probably come back with a counter-question: what do you mean by virtue?  To help answer this question we turn to fellow-American John Dewey.  Dewey gives his own definition of virtue: A virtue may be defined either as (1) the settled intelligent identification of an agent’s capacity with some aspect of the reasonable or common happiness; or, (2) a social custom or tendency organized into a personal habit of valuation.  This is about as clear as mud.  Dewey is a smart guy but he doesn’t write very well.  Socrates asked a simple question: what is virtue?  Dewey seems to break virtue down into two separate categories: personal virtue and public virtue.  Fine; now we have two definitions of virtue.  Would that satisfy Socrates?  Probably not; Socrates would want to ask some follow-up questions to clarify what those definitions actually mean.  Dewey tries to make things clearer by giving examples: Natural abilities are used in different ways and aim at different results… For example, no society can exist without patriotism and chastity.  But the actual meaning of patriotism and chastity is widely different in contemporary society from what it was in savage tribes… Now we’re getting somewhere.  We could spend time talking about patriotism and how it relates to virtue; or chastity and how that relates to virtue.  For Socrates this would be progress.  This is what Socrates is all about.  We would be learning what virtue is by reflecting on it through the prism of patriotism or chastity.  This should give us a better notion of what virtue is in the first place.  But then Dewey goes on to say the meaning of virtue changes from time to time.  The abstract form of virtue (the man’s attitude toward the good) stays the same.  But customs change…  This would really get Socrates going.  Oh, he might say, so virtue is different in modern America than it was back in my day in ancient Greece?  That’s interesting.  Tell me more O professor of true virtue.  Dewey defends his notion of virtue like this: The community’s formulated code of esteem and regard and praise at any given time is likely to lag somewhat behind its practical level of achievement and possibility.  It is more or less traditional, describing what used to be, rather than what are, virtues.  Socrates might respond: then the so-called “virtue of the many” is not the true virtue that we’re seeking?  It’s merely the community’s formulated code of social behavior, and not true virtue?  Is that what you’re saying (Socrates asks Dewey)?  Dewey answers that we sometimes confuse personal virtue with social respectability.  This happens when the “respectable” comes to mean tolerable, passable, conventional. Accordingly the prevailing scheme of assigning merit and blame, while on the whole a mainstay of moral guidance and instruction, is also a menace to moral growth.  Socrates would agree that virtue strives for excellence and not just trying to achieve what’s tolerable, passable, and conventional.  So, Socrates would continue the conversation, is achieving excellence in patriotism or chastity the same thing as achieving excellence in virtue?  If I’m an excellent patriot but an unchaste man, am I still virtuous?  You claim that virtue changes from time to time.  Is the meaning of patriotism different in modern America than it was in ancient Greece?  Is chastity the same thing for me as it is for you?  What I want to know is this: is virtue one simple thing that applies in all times and in all places for all people?  Dewey would come back: Virtues are numberless.  Every situation not of a routine order brings in some special shading, some unique circumstance…  Oh, I see, replies Socrates.  So what may be right for me may be wrong for you, and what’s right today could be wrong tomorrow?  Is that what you mean?  The two philosophers could go on like this for hours.  Dewey wouldn’t win.  People don’t win arguments with Socrates; they pursue truth.  But that’s not the point.  Socrates asked a question and many Americans shrug off hard questions.  At least John Dewey is in the game. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

PLATO: The Crito 2012

In our last reading we heard a passionate defense from Antigone.  She claimed her conscience was obeying a higher law than the law of the State.  In this reading we hear an equally passionate defense from Socrates that we should obey the laws of the State.  What are we to make of this?  Briefly, this was Antigone’s argument for breaking the law (of the State): CREON:  You broke the law.  ANTIGONE:  I did.  But it wasn’t God’s law.  That final Justice which rules the afterlife makes no such laws.  Your edict was strong but all your strength is still weak against the immortal unrecorded laws of God.  Those laws are not merely for now; they were there before we were born and will still be in effect long after we’re gone; forever.  In other words, Antigone says God’s law is higher than man’s law.  The two shouldn’t come into conflict; but if they do, I’m obeying God’s law, not yours.  Now here’s what Socrates has to say about that.  He puts words into the mouth of law, as if law were actually speaking to us: Tell us what complaint you have to make against us which justifies you in attempting to destroy us and the State? Socrates believes that disobeying the law is equivalent to destroying government.  In the first place did we not bring you into existence? Modern readers may disagree that the State brought us into this world.  But Socrates is making the point that without the State life would become very difficult or even impossible.  Because the State exists we’re born into a relatively safe environment.  Living under the law of the State is infinitely better than living under the law of Nature.  Law goes on with its argument: Your father married your mother by our aid and begat you. Say whether you have any objection to urge against those of us who regulate marriage?  Many modern readers do, in fact, have an objection to the State regulating marriage.  They believe that relationships should be left to the privacy of the people involved.  Socrates doesn’t believe that.  When asked if he has a problem with the State regulating marriage he simply says: None, I should reply… Socrates is conceding that marriage is not just a private matter.  It’s a social institution that must be preserved by law.  The law continues making its case: since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? Most modern readers definitely have an objection to this line of thinking.  The modern view is that the State derives its power from the individual citizens.  The citizens aren’t slaves of the State.  They’re free individuals with individual rights.  But Socrates seems to be implying that with freedom comes responsibility.  The responsibility of the citizen is to defend the State and, if necessary, die in defense of that freedom.  To stay free we may have to occasionally give up some of our individual freedoms.  Finally the law summarizes its case in these terms: And if all this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you.  The State may sentence you to death.  You may not think it’s fair.  But you still have no right to strike back at the State which gave you everything.  Again, not all readers agree with Socrates on this point.  Many people (Antigone included) believe human rights come from God, not from the State.  This leads to a very interesting question, especially for citizens living in a democracy: who knows more about justice, the individual or the State?  This is the dilemma of both Antigone and Socrates: the State says justice is one thing but they believe it’s something else.  How do they respond?  Antigone chooses to break the law; Socrates chooses to obey it.  Why?  Because Antigone follows the wisdom of God’s law; Socrates follows the wisdom of philosophy: Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father or any ancestor, and more to be regarded in the eyes of the gods and of men of understanding? In the end they both die at the hands of the State, but as Socrates put it: it is not living which is of most importance, but living well.  Socrates was a wise man.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


In our last reading Georg Simmel made a powerful argument that money gives us more personal freedom.  He wrote this in our own modern era, around the turn of the twentieth century.  At the other end of the Great Books spectrum stands Sophocles.  One of the characters in Antigone had this to say about money: Money!  There’s nothing in the world so demoralizing as money.  Down go your cities, homes gone, men gone, honest hearts corrupted, crimes of all kinds, all for money!  Sophocles wrote about 2500 hundred years ago.  Has money really changed that much over time?  No, the concept of money itself hasn’t changed much.  But our understanding of money and our understanding of personal freedom have evolved since the days of Sophocles.  However, here’s a question that continues to bother modern Americans as much as it bothered Sophocles: where does the power of the state end and where does my personal freedom begin?  In Antigone we explore this question in greater detail.  Ismene makes the argument that we should obey the law because the state is strong and its citizens are weak: The law is strong; we must give in to the law in this thing, and in worse.  I beg the dead to forgive me, but I am helpless.  I must yield to those in authority.  And I think it is dangerous business to be always meddling.  This is the practical argument for obeying the law; stay out of trouble.  Don’t meddle in things that don’t concern you. The Chorus makes the argument that we should obey the law not because it’s good for us but because it’s good for the country: When the laws are kept the country proudly stands!  When the laws are broken, what of the country then?  Never may the anarchist find rest at my hearth; never let it be said that my thoughts are his thoughts.  This is the patriotic argument.  Then Creon makes the argument from the perspective of political leadership: I have nothing but contempt for the kind of leader who is afraid to follow the course he knows is best for the country.  As for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare; I have no use for him either.  I call God to witness that if I saw my country headed for ruin I would not be afraid to speak out plainly… no one values friendship more highly than I do; but we must remember that friends made at the risk of wrecking our ship of state are not real friends at all.  These are my principles…  Political leadership means doing what’s best for the country, not what’s best for my friends and political allies.  Our country will only be strong if we have political leaders who make good laws and govern good citizens who will in turn obey those laws.  This is crucial in a democracy.  The question, both in Sophocles’ time and in our own, is this: what do we do with people like Antigone?  Antigone seems to be a good citizen but she refuses to obey one particular law.  Antigone doesn’t see herself as a troublemaker.  She just wants to obey a higher law.  Here’s the exchange which explains Antigone’s basic argument for disobeying a law she thinks is unjust: CREON:  You broke the law.  ANTIGONE:  I did.  But it wasn’t God’s law.  That final Justice which rules the afterlife makes no such laws.  Your edict was strong but all your strength is still weak against the immortal unrecorded laws of God.  Those laws are not merely for now; they were there before we were born and will still be in effect long after we’re gone; forever.  Antigone respects the laws of the state; but she respects the laws of God even more.  Personal freedom is not the issue here and Simmel’s theory of money doesn’t help either.  Sophocles sums up the problem like this: Fate raises up and Fate casts down both the happy and the unhappy alike.  No man can predict his own Fate.  Take the case of Creon.  Creon was happy once… and now it’s gone.  Who can say that a man is still alive when his life’s joy fails?  He’s a walking dead man; even if he’s rich and lives like a king in a mansion.  If his pleasure is gone then I wouldn’t give so much as the shadow of smoke for all he owns.  Maybe money can’t buy happiness but it can buy freedom.  That’s the good news from Simmel.  The bad news from Sophocles: we’re never free from Fate, no matter how much money we have.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

SIMMEL: Individual Freedom (excerpt from The Philosophy of Money)

Some Great Books authors are familiar to everyone: the Bible and Shakespeare.  Some Great Books authors are familiar to most people: Homer, Plato, Charles Darwin.  And some Great Books authors are familiar to a more limited audience.  Our last two readings, by David Hume and Alexis de Tocqueville fall into this category.  This time we discuss a selection by Georg Simmel.  Who?  Who is Georg Simmel and how did he find his way into the Great Books set?  Let’s examine one of his ideas and see if he qualifies to be in the Great Books.  Simmel believes that what we regard as freedom is often in fact only a change of obligations; as a new obligation replaces one that we have carried up until now, we sense that the old burden has been removed.  If I’m young and want to go to college I have to find a way to pay for it.  This is my burden, how to pay for college.  So I take out a student loan.  I found a way to pay my college tuition.  Problem solved; burden gone.  But as Simmel points out: Because we are free from the old burden, we seem at first to be completely free; until the reality of the new obligation sets in.  I feel like I’m free for a while but when I graduate I have to get a job and start repaying my loan.  This is my new obligation; freedom gone.  Simmel breaks down for us how personal obligations have traditionally been repayed.  Every obligation is generally resolved through some type of personal action: 1. Rights over a person (slavery, or forced labor such as a serf) 2. A specific product of a person’s work (beer, chickens, honey, etc.) or 3. Cash payment (the right to buy oneself out of a personal obligation by money).  Thus the development of money is a major contributor to the history of personal freedom; as Simmel describes it: The lord of the manor can demand beer or chickens or honey from a serf.  In this way the lord determines the activity of the serf.  But when the lord sets a monetary payment the serf can then decide how best to get the money to pay his debts and keep the beer and chickens and honey for himself. The historical connection between money and freedom is plain: the greatest step forward in the process of liberation and toward individual freedom is the development of a money payment system...  This process of liberation toward individual freedom is crucial for our development as human beings.  We may even view money as an important step in our human evolution.  Charles Darwin wrote that man is a social animal.  But Darwin’s emphasis was on mankind as an animal-being.  So Simmel looks at other interpretations of mankind: In view of the differences that exist in many respects between man and the lower animals, many people have tried to establish a specific difference that separates mankind from other animals.  Thus, man has been defined as the political animal, the tool-making animal, the purposeful animal, the hierarchical animal… maybe we should also add to the list that man is the trading animal.  After 2500 years of careful philosophical analysis we finally end up with a definition of man as “the business animal.”  This may seem bizarre at first but Simmel thinks money is a great step forward in our evolutionary process: Only money provides the technical possibility for an exact equivalence of exchange values.  Money is really nothing but the representation of the value of other objects; and there is virtually no limit to its divisibility or growth.  Consider this: let’s say you’re a shoemaker and I’m a shepherd.  Trading shoes for sheep is clunky.  How many shoes is one sheep worth?  That depends on the quality of your shoes and my sheep.  Plus, I only need one pair of shoes anyway.  What am I going to do with all those extra pairs of shoes?  It’s much easier for us both to carry around money.  That way we can be precise on what my sheep is worth and your pair of shoes is worth.  Simmel believes that business is the most basic (and in its simplicity a really wonderful) means for combining justice with changes in ownership.  Money is a great idea.  It gives us many more options about how we can live.  Simmel’s genius is to connect his ideas about money to our own notions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

TOCQUEVILLE: The Power of the Majority (Causes Which Mitigate the Tyranny…)

Democracy in America (excerpt from Volume I, Chapter 16).  The role of government has always been a hot topic with Americans.  The Federalist Papers tries to establish legislative, executive and judicial boundaries for a federal government before the federal government even existed.  By the mid-1830’s Tocqueville could make this observation about the size and scope of the “central government” of the United States: In the American republics the central government has never as yet busied itself except with a small number of objects, sufficiently prominent to attract its attention. The secondary affairs of society have never been regulated by its authority…  Fast forward almost two hundred years.  Some things have changed but Americans are still debating the boundaries of government.  This is a healthy debate and is actually a vital necessity in a democracy.  We need to have this talk and we need to do it in an open and honest debate.  The question in this reading selection is: who is qualified to participate?  The obvious answer for modern Americans: everyone.  We are all equal under the law and everyone’s voice should be heard.  Fine.  Let’s listen to everyone.  But Tocqueville thinks lawyers are uniquely qualified to articulate the values that should be embedded in American government.  Why?  Because Men (and women) who have made a special study of the laws derive from this occupation certain habits of order, a taste for formalities, and a kind of instinctive regard for the regular connection of ideas, which naturally render them very hostile to the revolutionary spirit and the unreflecting passions of the multitude.  People don’t usually associate “habits of order” and “a taste for formalities” with your average American.  And Americans generally don’t think of themselves as being governed by “the unreflecting passions of the multitude.”  This is just a small step up from mob rule.  But consider for a moment the ideal of Law versus the reality of law.  Americans think The Law should be fair for everyone.  Fair enough.  Pick up a volume of the U.S. Code or almost any law book.  After reading a few pages stop and ask: is this fair?  Who knows?  To confuse the issue even more, ask: what does all this stuff mean?  Again, who knows?  The answer: lawyers.  Maybe.  If lawyers don’t know, then judges.  If judges can’t agree, then the Supreme Court will tell us.  What’s going on here?  How can Americans debate about government if we can’t even understand the terminology?  Tocqueville seems to believe that Americans can debate all they want.  But the real work (decision-making) is really being done by lawyers and politicians.  Tocqueville writes that they are the masters of a science which is necessary, but which is not very generally known; they serve as arbiters between the citizens; and the habit of directing to their purpose the blind passions of parties in litigation inspires them with a certain contempt for the judgment of the multitude.  This is not a very flattering view; either of lawyers or of the American public.  Nevertheless, if it’s true then lawyers do have an overwhelming impact on the development of American society.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  That depends on your point of view.  Tocqueville paints a picture of lawyers as forming a virtual aristocracy of values within the midst of democratic sentiments.  He puts it this way: The more we reflect upon all that occurs in the United States the more we shall be persuaded that the lawyers, as a body, form the most powerful, if not the only, counterpoise to the democratic element.  Every red-blooded American tells him that democracy is a good thing.  But what they really mean is: democracy is a good thing (when “the American people” agree with me).  When the majority is on my side, I want to take a vote.  And whoever gets the most votes wins.  When the majority is against me, I don’t want a vote.  I want to pass a law.  This observation may be unfair to lawyers.  It may be unfair to the American people.  But it’s what Tocqueville saw when he visited the United States in the 1830’s. Ask yourself: are things different in America today?  Or was Tocqueville’s analysis basically correct?