Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, August 25, 2012

DOSTOEVSKY: Notes from the Underground (Part 1)

Aristotle presents a world view that not all modern Americans agree with. But one thing Americans do share with Aristotle is an almost unbounded confidence in the power of education to transform people. We saw something of this Aristotelian/modern American confidence in John Dewey’s philosophy of education. If we can only teach people the right things in the right way then they would obviously become better people. No they wouldn’t says Dostoevsky. Why not? Because people aren’t machines. It’s not like you can just plug in the contents of Good Education in one end and Good Person will come out on the other. People aren’t made that way. Dostoevsky thinks our problem comes from the wrongheaded belief that we only act according to our own best interests. Is this true? Dostoevsky thinks not: I believe there is something wrong with my liver. However, I don’t know a damn thing about my liver; neither do I know whether there is anything really wrong with me. I am not under medical treatment, and never have been, though I do respect medicine and doctors. In addition, I am extremely superstitious, at least sufficiently so to respect medicine. (I am well educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious anyway.) The truth is, I refuse medical treatment out of spite. I don’t suppose you will understand that. Well, I do. How can you reason with a man like that? Here’s Dostoevsky’s point: sometimes people do things for the wrong reason but sometimes they do things for no reason at all. They just do it because they want to do it. Someone once said that Europeans think things through and then act on principles; Russians (like Dostoevsky) do what they want to do and then figure out the principles later, if they have time and feel like it. This is not what Aristotle had in mind when he wrote mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. And Aristotle isn’t the only one who thinks that way. Plato (Socrates) thought that people only choose evil because of ignorance. If they really knew what was good for them they would be good. No they wouldn’t says Dostoevsky. It sounds nice but it’s not true: these are just golden dreams… who was it first proclaimed that the only reason man behaves dishonorably is because he does not know his own interests, and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, he would at once cease behaving dishonorably and would at once become good and honorable because, being enlightened and knowing what is good for him, he would see that his advantage lay in doing good, and of course it is well known that no man ever knowingly acts against his own interests and therefore he would, as it were, willy-nilly start doing good. Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure innocent child! There you have it. Dostoevsky has just undermined the whole foundation of using reason as a guide for life. Or has he? Aristotle might respond that Dostoevsky got it half right. Sometimes people do things for no reason. After all, we’re biological beings with bodies, not just minds floating around in space; and since we’re biological beings we have biological needs. However (in Aristotle’s view) we shouldn’t be guided by biological needs. That’s what our minds are for. When we act against reason we’re actually no different than beasts that don’t have rational minds. Besides, Mr. Dostoevsky gave us a clue at the very beginning of his story when he openly admits that I am a sick man… When studying nature we should use healthy specimens. Clearly this is not a healthy human being. Dostoevsky might respond that he isn’t talking about health. He’s talking about human freedom. What separates man from beasts isn’t rational thought; it’s knowing that we can freely choose how to spend our lives. I may use reason as my guide and live an orderly life; but I may not. I may choose something else. I may choose to follow pleasure, or art, or faith, or just whatever appeals to me on any given day. Why is it better to follow some pre-made plan that pops out of my head? Here’s his great idea: you can’t get life out of a book; so I’m going to write a book on that theme. Dostoevsky may be a sick man but he’s a great writer.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

ARISTOTLE: Politics (Bk. 1, 8-13)

A big part of The American Dream includes going to college.  Many students take on loads of debt so they can further their education.  Why?  Do so many young kids really want to be highly educated?  No doubt many of them do; but no doubt many of them also just want a chance to make more money.  And many of them also want a job working in an air-conditioned office; with good benefits too.  This is not so far removed from Aristotle’s view in the ancient Greek world.  In Aristotle’s day, just as in our own, many people shied away from doing hard manual labor: those who are in a position which places them above toil have stewards who attend to their households while they occupy themselves with philosophy or with politics… Let somebody else clean the house and cut the grass.  I’m too busy studying philosophy or working the latest political campaign.  In other words: I have better things to do.  It wasn’t always this way.  Many American Presidents (think of George Washington and John Adams) worked hard with their own hands in their own gardens on their own farms.  They invested personal sweat and were pleased with the fruit of their own labors; apples and cabbages or peanuts.  But for Aristotle this was slave’s work.  It’s not that Aristotle thought he was too good to work.  It’s just that he had a different notion of what kind of work he ought to be doing.  He compares the purpose of human work to animals living in the natural world: …There are many sorts of food, and therefore there are many kinds of lives both of animals and men; they must all have food, and the differences in their food have made differences in their ways of life. For of beasts, some are gregarious, others are solitary; they live in the way which is best adapted to sustain them…  And this is the reason so many kids go to college.  They want to make a living in a way best adapted to sustain them for a lifetime.  They need to make money to buy food and pay their bills.  On this point John Adams was closer to Aristotle: they both knew where their food came from and it wasn’t the grocery store.  They also didn’t confuse having lots of money with being wealthy.  Aristotle puts wealth in its proper perspective with this observation: Originating in the use of coins, the art of getting wealth is generally thought to be chiefly concerned with it, and to be the art which produces riches and wealth; having to consider how they may be accumulated.  A modern college student thinks of wealth in terms of debit cards and ATMs rather than coins, but the principle is the same.  Aristotle examines this idea a little closer: wealth is assumed by many to be only a quantity of money, because the arts of getting wealth and retail trade are concerned with money. If I have enough money I can just buy whatever I need.  Normally that’s true.  But Aristotle again wants to keep things in perspective: Others maintain that coined money is a mere sham, a thing not natural, but conventional only, because, if the users substitute another commodity for it, it is worthless, and because it is not useful as a means to any of the necessities of life, and, indeed, he who is rich in money may often be in want of necessary food.  This is Aristotle’s point: what good is money to a man like Robinson Crusoe?  He was stranded on a desert island.  Money was worthless to him; what he needed was food and tools and shoes.  This is the whole point of getting wealth: to supply our basic needs for food, shelter and clothing.  And here’s where many people go wrong.  According to Aristotle some persons are led to believe that getting wealth is the object of household management, and the whole idea of their lives is that they ought either to increase their money without limit, or at any rate not to lose it. The origin of this disposition in men is that they are intent upon living only and not upon living well; and, as their desires are unlimited they also desire that the means of gratifying them should be without limit.  In today’s language we call this living beyond our means.  Making money is not the same thing as living well; for Aristotle living well means using money properly without waste.  Family budgets are good at this and the state is made up of families; so he calls this concept “politics.”

Friday, August 10, 2012

ARISTOTLE: Politics (Book 1, 1-7)

Look at a map and notice how people tend to cluster together in and around towns and cities.  Why is that?  What’s so great about living around other people?  Aristotle says we do it because it’s good for us.  We live better in a “political community” than we could do on our own.  Aristotle says every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. For example, many people move close to a city so they can find work.  They work so they can make money.  Then they use the money to buy the things they need to live.  That’s why people tend to cluster around towns and cities.  It seems like a reasonable way to live and most of us are content just to work, make money, and live out our lives enjoying the comforts a city can provide.  Aristotle wants to push this philosophy further: ...if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.  Money can buy us many things: breakfast, a house, tickets to the ballgame, shoes, insurance; the list goes on.  But money can’t buy us things like love, friendship, respect, good conversation…  For those kinds of things we need other people.  We also need opportunities to develop our social skills and fulfill the need for a higher purpose than just mere survival.  Political communities (such as cities) give us better opportunities to develop all these things.  And Aristotle doesn’t think political communities come about by random chance.  He believes communities develop organically through the natural development of the family unit: The family is the association established by nature for the supply of men's everyday wants…  But when several families are united, and the association aims at something more than the supply of daily needs, the first society to be formed is the village… and when several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life.  So there you have it; families, villages, and cities all form for the sake of the good life.  That’s why for Aristotle the city is an entirely logical and even biological process.  The city is an integral part of nature because if the earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For example, the nature of a man is not to be a baby, but to be a man.  The nature of a horse is not to remain as a colt, but to become a horse.  For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family.  Of course it’s easy to see how an individual person or a horse has been produced by nature.  We can see them with our own eyes.  But how do we know that an abstract concept such as a family or a city has been produced by nature?  For Aristotle, that’s easy too: the proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole.  Someone who lives totally alone is like a fish out of water or a creature out of its habitat because he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and yet he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all…  And this is another reason cities continue to stay in existence; because we don’t really want to be separated from law and justice.  We need law and justice in order to be fully human.  In Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad shows how bad things are without civilization.  We would live like beasts or be like the mob of soldiers in Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis.  It may sound strange to us these days but Aristotle thinks politics actually lets us live more like fully-developed human beings and less like beasts. 

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

EURIPIDES: Iphigenia at Aulis

Western literature begins with a war story.  Homer’s Iliad tells how the Greeks and Trojans fight over Helen and her “beautiful face that launched a thousand ships.”  What were those ships doing before they sailed to Troy?  They sat stranded in the Greek port of Aulis waiting for the wind to blow.  We sense what sort of writer Euripides is when he says: Something goes wrong between a man and the gods and his whole life is overturned.  In this case it’s Agamemnon, the Greek commander, whose life is overturned.  He’s been chosen to lead the war expedition against Troy.  But the gods intervened.  Those ships won’t go anywhere unless the wind blows and fills their sails.  And that’s not going to happen unless the gods are satisfied.  What do they want?  Agamemnon speaks bluntly: There is only one hope of our going, according to Kalchas the prophet.  Iphigenia, my daughter, must be sacrificed to Artemis, the deity of this place.  The gods don’t command that Iphigenia be sacrificed.  They only say that IF the Greeks want to sail to Troy they must sacrifice Iphigenia first.  The choice is left up to them.  This creates the moral dilemma for the Greek army: should an innocent Greek girl die so we can plunder the Trojans?  Helen is just an excuse; what the Greeks really want is the riches of Troy.  How far will men go in order to get rich?  Euripides is pessimistic about mankind; nothing restrains their quest for money and power.  Ambitious people will even sacrifice their own sons and daughters on the altar of war; and for what?  This is Euripides’ question.  It’s not that Agamemnon isn’t a good father; he is.  He truly loves Iphigenia; but he loves political power too.  This is what makes him suffer.  Agamemnon can’t have both; so which is he willing to give up?  He’s a king but he’s also a man.  One of his advisers plainly tells him: Atreus did not sire you, Agamemnon, into a world of pure happiness.  You must expect to suffer as well as rejoice, since you’re a man.  And the gods will see to that, whether you like it or not…  Life is hard and no one, rich or poor, gets through life without suffering.  Still, we avoid it as much as we can.  At first Agamemnon chooses power.  Then he changes his mind: What I have done is wrong, and I want to undo it.  How does Agamemnon (or any of us) know what’s right and wrong?  He (and we) struggle with conflicting values but at every step I’ve tried to see the right way to act.  The rest of the Greeks almost unanimously think it’s alright to sacrifice Iphigenia.  In fact, they practically demand it.  So Agamemnon doesn’t have much choice.  Even if he wants to change his mind, the army won’t let him.  They would most likely kill him, then sacrifice Iphigenia, and maybe even kill the rest of his family too.  So Agamemnon blames the gods: Almighty gods, how helpless you have made me now!  There is nothing I can do.  But Socrates might say: oh yes, there IS something you can do.  Resist mob mentality.  Refuse to cooperate with injustice.  Fight against it.  They may kill you but they can’t rob you of that noble part which practices moderation, courage, justice and wisdom.  But Agamemnon is not Socrates.  It’s takes a young, innocent girl named Iphigenia to teach the Greeks what nobility means.  Iphigenia accepts her fate because it’s best for Greece.  She dies so other Greeks can stay free.  This is noble.  Besides, she says I am going from this world to another destiny, another home.  Where is she going?  It’s comforting to think that she’s going to a place where bad people are punished and good people are rewarded.  A messenger says: It is plain that your daughter has been taken up to heaven… No living man can tell what the gods will do, but they save those whom they love…the girl is alive in heaven with the gods.  But is that true?  Iphigenia’s mother asks How can I be sure, how can I know that this is not all a lie, made up to silence my bitter grieving?  The truth is: we can’t know.  We’re human beings, not gods.  Human beings suffer.  The wisdom Euripides passed on to the ancient Greeks was one simple truth: we all must suffer; and for what?  For all of our modern science and technology have we moved one inch closer (in 2500 years) to answering that question?