Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, July 27, 2012

DEWEY: The Virtues (Wisdom)

Which virtue is the most important: moderation, courage or justice?  According to John Dewey, none of those.  Dewey places wisdom at the top of the hierarchy of virtues.  That’s because of all the habits which constitute the character of an individual, the habit of judging moral situations is most important, for this is the key to the direction and to the remaking of all other habits.  When Dewey wrote about justice he quoted Aristotle’s idea that the individual was to suffer according to his deed.  Dewey then proceeded to disagree with Aristotle, or at least bring him up to date.  The same thing happens when we consider their views on wisdom.  Dewey says possession (of wisdom) is a class idea and tends to mark off a moral aristocracy from a common herd.  Aristotle would agree that Dewey’s analysis is correct; but not Dewey’s conclusion.  Aristotle would look at wisdom this way: it distinguishes those who have it from those who don’t.  Is that a class system?  Maybe.  But Aristotle would go on to argue that having wisdom does indeed give a person an advantage in life.  The person without wisdom is at a disadvantage.  For Aristotle having wisdom is a good solid guide because it gives the wise man a moral compass to succeed along life’s path.  For Dewey it’s not actually having wisdom that’s important but “the desire and effort to discover the good.”   This kind of desire puts everyone on the same plane.  Not everyone can be an Aristotle because not everyone can actually attain wisdom and become wise.  But everyone can at least pursue it.  So the best democratic solution is a sort of nobody-gets-left-behind philosophy.  But Aristotle might respond: every art or applied science and every systematic investigation, and similarly every action and choice, seem to aim at some good… and he would claim that the good which Dewey is aiming for is not wisdom, but equality.  For Aristotle the goal of wisdom is not to stay on an equal level with everyone else.  He would put it this way: my goal is to pull people up to a higher plane of moral development and it’s true that some people won’t make it.  But your philosophy of equality, Mr. Dewey, tends to pull everyone down to a lower level.  Is that a wise thing to do?  Do you call that wisdom?  Aristotle would point out that democracy is very good at developing equality; but it’s not so good if you’re searching for wisdom.  Dewey might respond that wisdom, like all the virtues, changes with the times.  For Dewey, Aristotle has an old-fashioned and outdated view of wisdom.  Dewey says that Greek knowledge was mostly directly concerned with the affairs of their common associated life… knowledge about the city, its traditions, literature, history, customs, purposes… Now we have immense bodies of impersonal knowledge remote from direct bearing upon affairs…  Aristotle was only describing the world he knew then; we have to make our way in the world we live in now.  And we live in a very different world than the one Aristotle lived in.  Here’s the difference for Dewey: in the older sense (wisdom) is an attainment; something possessed.  In the modern, it resides in the active desire and effort, in pursuit rather than in possession…  Is wisdom something we actually get, or is it just a potential we’ll always be chasing after?  It makes a big difference and this whole discussion about wisdom goes back farther than Aristotle in the Great Books tradition.  At the very dawn of history we read these words from Elihu in the Book of Job: Job hath spoken without knowledge, and his words were without wisdom…  Job is suffering and he doesn’t know why.  He wants to understand but it’s beyond his ability to comprehend what it all means.  Elihu and Job’s friends aren’t helpful so Job answered (them) and said, No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you.  But I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you…  Job ends up turning away from human wisdom and takes his case directly to God.  Amazingly, God answers him: it’s beyond human ability to truly understand the world; so be content.  What kind of wisdom is that?  Three different versions of wisdom: Dewey, Aristotle, Job.  Take your pick. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

DEWEY: The Virtues (Justice)

What is justice?  What are people talking about when they chant “we want justice?”  In order for us to understand one another we have to make sure we’re talking about the same thing.  Dewey says justice can be understood in three ways.  One form of justice is fulfillment of obligation; for example, if you lend me money you expect me to pay it back.  Another meaning of the word justice is fairness, equity, impartiality; lending laws need to be the same for everyone.  The third meaning of justice is the administration of law; the Department of Justice makes sure all borrowers and lenders are held accountable for their behavior.  This sounds simple enough; just make sure we enforce the laws fairly and justice will be served.  But justice can be an elusive concept and has a long tradition of discussion in the Great Books.  At the very start of human history, in the book of Genesis, there was only one law: 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.  Of course Adam and Eve did touch and eat of it.  Now what?  Or put another way: what is justice in this case?  First of all we need to ask, did they understand what they were doing?  Yes; they both tried to hide from God so obviously they knew it was wrong.  So what should their punishment be?  The law seems clear on this point: ye die.  But were there any extenuating circumstances?  Yes according to Adam; Eve tempted me.  According to Eve; the Serpent tempted me.  Now what?  How do we rule in this case?  Dewey says the just man is the man who takes in the whole of a situation and reacts to it in its wholeness, not being misled by undue respect to some particular factor.  What makes justice difficult is assessing the whole situation as Dewey describes.  There are good arguments that Adam and Eve should be punished according to the letter of the law.  They ate the fruit; they should die.  But there are also good arguments that their punishment should be lightened because they were only partially responsible.  They only ate the fruit because they were tempted.  The real criminal was the Serpent.  Justice has to weigh arguments on both sides.  Dewey says an equitable judge is one who makes no unjustifiable distinctions among those dealt with.  The key concept here is “unjustifiable distinctions.”  This isn’t much help in the Adam and Eve case.  Was their transgression “justifiable” or not?  That depends on your own subjective point of view.  Dewey points out that in ancient cultures the idea of justice was more clear-cut.  For example, Aristotle himself believed the individual was to suffer according to his deed.  In some ways Dewey disagrees with this notion: in the end… punishments inflicted should be corrective, not merely retributive.  For Dewey, revenge is never a good motive for punishment; that’s not justice.  He says every wrongdoer should have his due.  But what is his due?  Can we measure it by his past alone; or is it due everyone to regard him as a man with a future as well?  As having possibilities for good as well as bad?  This is a persuasive argument.  Isn’t it more humane to take the whole person into account and not just dish out cookie-cutter punishments?  This sounds good but Aristotle would disagree.  His argument would go something like this: let’s say you want to build a house and I agree to sell you lumber.  You pay me cash and the next day I bring you a big bag of acorns.  But I paid for lumber, you protest.  The lumber is in this bag, I reply.  The acorns will grow into big oak trees.  Then you can cut them down and make all the lumber you need.  Dewey claims we should consider a wrongdoer’s possibility for becoming good.  Aristotle agrees that most everyone has the potential to become a good person; just as every acorn has the potential to become lumber.  But an acorn isn’t lumber yet; and a wrongdoer isn’t a good person yet.  We have to judge the case before us right now, not some hypothetical case down the road.  This guy may turn out to be a good man but he also may turn worse.  Being a judge isn’t easy.  That’s why they need wisdom.  Dewey takes up wisdom in our next reading. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

DEWEY: The Virtues (Courage)

In Crito we read about a friend trying to talk Socrates into escaping from prison so he won’t be executed.  Socrates won’t hear of it.  So Crito gives several good philosophical reasons why Socrates should escape.  Socrates still says no.  Finally Crito begs him to think about his family and reconsider.  Socrates won’t give in.  Was Socrates stupid or just being stubborn?  Socrates may have been stubborn but he wasn’t stupid.  He knew exactly what he was doing; practicing courage.  As a self-professed philosopher Socrates made it his goal to practice virtue to the best of his ability and courage is one of the basic virtues.  John Dewey was also a philosopher and could appreciate what Socrates was doing.  Dewey points out that while love of excitement allures man from the path of reason, fear of pain, dislike to hardship, and laborious effort, hold him back from entering it.  In last week’s reading Dewey talked about how pleasure lures a man away from his chosen path in life.  But this week Dewey talks about the opposite problem: pain, or the fear of pain, keeping a man from staying on the path he has chosen.  Socrates made it his business to follow the path of wisdom.  Fear of dying is a powerful motivation to get off that path.  But Socrates didn’t seem to be afraid of dying; what he was most afraid of was abandoning philosophy.  So was Socrates really showing courage when he chose to die for philosophy?  Would it have been more courageous for him to abandon his beloved philosophy and continue to live so he could raise his sons?  Which is more important: to defend philosophy or give up philosophy and get up every morning and go to work and support my family?  How can we decide these things?  Dewey puts a high value on reason.  He says love of excitement allures man from the path of reason.  So for Dewey courage means following my reasoning power and keeping on this path of reason wherever it may lead.  But is following the path of reason (as Dewey is proposing) the same thing as following the path of virtue (as Socrates was doing)?  Dewey saw courage this way: Intensity of active interest in the good subdues instinctive shrinking from the unpleasant and hard which slackens energy or turns it aside.  Such energy of devotion is courage.  Socrates was certainly interested in pursuing good and did not shrink away when the going got rough.  Here was a man totally devoted to philosophy and he followed this path through to the bitter end.  But did Socrates’ courage come from his head (thinking things through) or from his heart (sheer willpower)?  Was Socrates just a little smarter than the rest of us or was he truly a more virtuous person?  We can become like Hamlet and spend too much time thinking and not enough time doing.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: your goodness must have an edge to it.  So Dewey’s approach is not to become a mere thinker but a practical doer: (There is) a common idea that moral goodness means loss of practical effectiveness.  When inner disposition is separated from outer action, wishing divorced from executive willing, morality is reduced to mere harmlessness.  Philosophers can become harmless daydreamers.  But Socrates would say those guys are just playing around.  Socrates wasn’t playing around when he said one ought not return injustice for injustice.  He was serious.  Jesus wasn’t playing around when he counseled us to turn the other cheek.  Their enemies weren’t playing around either.  Those were dangerous times and required courage.  Dewey says nowadays it takes courage just to go against the crowd: moral courage is devotion to the good in the face of the customs of one’s friends and associates, rather than against the attacks of one’s enemies.  It is willingness to brave for sake of a new idea of the good the unpopularity that attends breach of custom and convention.  We may also assume that it takes courage to risk unpopularity by defending the old ideas and upholding traditional customs.  So we end up with two brave people with good intentions pushing against each other.  Now what?  Should we go with the new idea or stick with the old one?  To answer that question we need to explore justice and wisdom.  Dewey will explore these virtues next.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

DEWEY: The Virtues (Temperance)

In this week’s reading John Dewey makes the observation that The Athenian Greek was impressed with the fact that just as there are lawless, despotically ruled, and self-governed communities, so there are lawless, servile, and self-ruled individuals. We might be impressed with the same question: why are some cities failing while other cities are thriving?  Why do some people fail at life and others succeed?  Dewey believes the old-fashioned virtue we now call temperance is a common factor in succeeding and thriving in life.  He says temperance is not the same thing as just not drinking too much alcohol.  Temperance is a philosophy of life; an attitude about living well.  Classical Greeks thought temperance in mind and body reflected harmony and order in the universe; and harmony and order meant beauty to the Greek.  Uncontrolled passions destroy that beauty.  Then Dewey shows how the virtue of temperance  changed in the ages that followed: Through the Christian influence… Passion is not so much something which disturbs the harmony of man’s nature or which interrupts its orderliness as it is something which defiles the purity of the spiritual nature.  In the Christian view temperance leads to beauty too but it’s a beauty of spirit rather than harmony of mind and body.  The goal is still the same. People who govern their passions are generally the people who succeed best in life; people who cannot govern their passions generally fail.  Communities (whether small towns or large nations) represent this same principle on a larger scale.  Communities which can govern themselves well will succeed; those communities which can’t will fail.  This sounds simplistic and life is rarely lived out in such black and white terms.  Dewey is well aware of that fact; people without passions wouldn’t be people at all.  So he takes into account our inborn desires and passions.  The goal is to use our passions well, not destroy them.  We don’t want to kill off all the innocent passions which make life worth living; we only want to keep harmful passions from taking over completely.  Dewey puts it this way: Self-control… is not (a desire or passion) which has to be checked (much less eliminated).  It is rather that tendency of desire and passion so to engross attention as to destroy our sense of the other ends which have a claim upon us… Having a little fun sometimes is not the problem; having fun is necessary to be fully human and healthy.  But wanting to have fun all the time sets us up for failure.  We also have other responsibilities in life.  So Dewey claims that …The underlying idea in temperance is then a care of details for the sake of the whole course of behavior… There’s a time to have fun and a time to work; and work means paying attention to all the little details that lead to a successful life.  Laxness in conduct means carelessness… Things start falling apart if too many little details aren’t taken care of.  Dewey concludes that to live in the sense of the larger values attaching to our passing desires and deeds is to be possessed by the virtue of temperance.  Desires will come and go.  That’s why Dewey believes there are larger values in life than just having fun.  There are some things we should naturally want to accomplish.  That’s true not only for a person, but also for a city, or a whole nation.  Those people, cities, or nations who can temporarily set aside their desires for instant gratification will be rewarded in the long run with bigger rewards, the “larger values” that Dewey is talking about.  Temperance helps because trivialities and superficialities entangle us in a flippant life.  We can spend years chasing after all the fun things because each one as it comes promises to be thrilling… But when the thrill is gone there are still bills to be paid.  Here’s the irony of temperance: Those who are prone to reflection upon results are just those who are least likely to be carried away by excitement… People who can govern themselves will do just fine.  But for those who are carried away habitually by excitement, the disease and the inability to take the cure (remedy of reflection) are the same things.  These people will not do fine.  Temperance is the key to success according to Dewey.