Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Hobbes and the Free Market

What would Hobbes think about our present economic system?  Does market capitalism today represent a system of laws and regulations that protect man from himself (i.e., his worst impulses of fear, jealousy and greed), or does it represent the natural freedom which Rousseau felt is our birthright? If the natural condition of man is war against himself (a "state of nature"), then what is the alternative? Hobbes believed that men, out of fear for their lives or property, band together to form societies which impose a rule of law that makes possible a civilized state in which to live and prosper. Today, the great debate between liberals and conservatives is to identify the proper limits of government and whether it should or should not interfere with the business of the people. Since Hobbes and Adam Smith both agree that all men seek their own interest, the problem for democracy is to discover what political and economic arrangements will bring about the best outcome for the greatest number of people. However, even if economists can demonstrate that free market capitalism, with all its inequity, generates more wealth than a paternalistic welfare state, does that mean we are better off as a nation if we consider wealth as our primary goal? Rousseau would say no, as would Plato, Aristotle, and Saint Augustine. There are higher ideals to which we should aspire.

The classical model for success, exemplified by the Greek cities of Athens and Sparta, was for every citizen to pursue excellence, in both body and mind. The word they used to express this idea was "arete," a word for which we have no exact synonym in the English language. However, the word "virtue" comes close. For the Greeks, the pursuit of arete was part of the virtue of being a citizen. It encompassed such values as honor, courage, loyalty and wisdom. They believed these were the qualities that separated a civilized man from a barbarian. Yet, in our society today, it is obvious that a relentless pursuit of wealth has become divorced from any sense of arete. For a commodities trader on Wall Street, the acquisition of wealth is its own reward and needs no interference or regulation by government. For Hobbes, the institution of government is necessary to regulate the affairs of men. He felt that men, lacking trust in one another, and fearing for their lives or property, could never live together in society unless they were prevented from doing one another harm. Thus, a state of nature is a constant state of war in which no progress or human development is possible. Peace requires one man, stronger than all the rest, to restrain our worst impulses. Out of fear for their lives, a mob chooses one man among them to be a prince and to rule over them. Thus, people yield up their individual freedom in order to obtain the peace and security necessary for a better life. For Hobbes, the prince or monarch is the seat of government and bringer of laws which make possible a peaceful, orderly society which would otherwise not exist.

Rousseau disagreed with this version of history. He insisted that people were better off without government, and that it was government itself which corrupted men's souls. Adam Smith thought this was naïve. In order to protect one's property, one needed a system of laws backed by the authority of government. Otherwise, people would not trust one another and there could not exist such a thing as a "free market" in which to exchange goods and pursue the acquisition of wealth. The question we must ask ourselves today is whether a free and unregulated market is simply a new state of nature in which the powerful investor rules over the weak without any regard to moral limits. Unless people are guided by principles other than self-interest, can we ever be truly civilized?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

HOBBES: Origin of Government (Commonwealths)

Hobbes believes living in a true state of nature would be a dreadful experience.  Our lives would be miserable and short.  It would be every man for himself because as Hobbes puts it   …if there be no power erected, or not great enough for our security; every man will, and may lawfully rely on his own strength and art, for caution against all other men…  We would have to use whatever means at our disposal just for mere survival.  That’s why we band together for mutual protection and security.  How many people does it take for us to feel safe and secure?  That depends.  Hobbes says the multitude sufficient to confide in for our security is not determined by any certain number, but by comparison with the enemy we fear…  If there’s only one bad guy out there then three or four people would be enough to fend him off.  If it’s a whole band of bad guys then we’ll need more people.  If it’s a whole tribe or nation we’re afraid of then we’re going to need lots and lots of citizens to unite into one covenant with one another offering mutual aid and protection.  How do we accomplish that?  Hobbes calls lots of citizens united into one covenant a Commonwealth (or as he says in the title of his book: Leviathan).  In order to become a member of a Commonwealth we have to give up certain of our natural rights in order to obtain the security offered by civil government.  The citizen says, in effect: “I authorize and give up my right of governing myself, to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner.” This done, the multitude so united in one person, is called a COMMONWEALTH…  To repeat what Hobbes says about being in a state of nature …if there be no power erected, or not great enough for our security; every man will, and may lawfully rely on his own strength and art, for caution against all other men…  But now there IS a power erected great enough for our security.  That power is the Commonwealth (or the State).  And when we enter into a covenant with this Commonwealth we may NOT use our own strength and art for caution against all other men.  The State takes on the role of protecting us once we become citizens.  The State agrees to protect us not only from outside enemies but also from our neighbors, other members of the same Commonwealth.  Once we grant the State these powers our mutual strength is pledged to the same governing power.  And this becomes the source of an awesome power indeed.  In fact, Hobbes says this is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defence.  In Hobbes’ view this makes the power of the State so awesome that it becomes in effect a “mortal god” to its citizens and also to its enemies.  This may sound overblown and quaint to modern ears.  But consider our own United States government.  Ours is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” but its powers are vast.  Compare it with Hobbes’ view of government.  Hobbes believes that once the covenant is made the sovereign must be obeyed by all citizens.  Do all U.S. citizens have to obey the law?  Hobbes believes the minority party must also obey the sovereign who has been declared by the majority.  Does that hold true in the U.S.?  Hobbes believes all legal powers (i.e. the court system) belong to the sovereign.  Are there any private courts in the U.S.?  Hobbes believes only the sovereign has authority to wage war and grant peace.  Can Tennessee or Nashville (or me or you) go to war or make peace on our own?  Hobbes believes the sovereign will make all decisions regarding property laws and many activities of citizens.  The list could go on.  We don’t usually call our federal government a “sovereign” as Hobbes does but the effect is the same: an awesome power wielded by a small group of people over the rest of the citizens.  This may sound too oppressive.  But Hobbes also says the covenant is between the citizens themselves; the sovereign does not receive its power from the covenant but from the united force of its citizens.  This sounds much more like the American version of “We the People…”

Saturday, September 22, 2012

HOBBES: Origin of Government (Nature)

When the Hebrews left Egypt (in the book of Exodus) they followed Moses out into the desert.  Where were they going?  No one knew, not even Moses.  How long would it take to get there?  No one knew that either, not even Moses.  Why would someone follow a leader like that?  Hobbes would not.  That may be why the Lord chose Moses to lead the Hebrews and not a man like Hobbes.  For Thomas Hobbes the world is a dark and scary place.  Without the protection of government, even an oppressive government like Egypt, our lives would turn out badly, very badly.  Because (according to Hobbes) without the strong hand of a strong government to keep law and order, our world would be a world at war with itself; every man against every other man.  We would live more like beasts than men.  In a shortened version Hobbes’ “state of nature” would look something like this: in a world where every man is enemy to every man… there is no place for industry, no culture, no navigation, no building, no arts, no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.  Most of the things we enjoy and take for granted in civilized life simply would not be possible in a state of nature.  We would constantly be on the lookout for danger and ceaselessly searching for food and other necessities.  Our lives would be, in Hobbes’ famous phrase: nasty, brutish and short.  Outside of civilized society we’re doomed to live miserable lives.  Why does Hobbes think this way?  Many people today would disagree with him; many people disagreed with him in the past.  Rousseau, for example, held a more limited view of society: The most ancient of all societies, and the only one that is natural, is the family: …children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved.  When a boy is mature enough to survive on his own, it’s time for him to leave home and leave behind the rules of his mother and father’s household.  Rousseau thinks freedom means breaking away from any chains that hold us in bondage; just like the Hebrews did when they left Egypt.  That’s why Rousseau makes a statement like this one: Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.  This could not be further from what Hobbes thinks.  For Hobbes we’re not free if we’re living in a state of nature, we’re in constant danger.  So the rules of society should not be regarded as “chains” in the way Rousseau thinks of them.  On the contrary, rules and laws help keep us safe and we can only experience true freedom when we’re living in safety.  And Rousseau isn’t the only one Hobbes has strong disagreements with.  He also thought Aristotle’s ideas about natural masters and slaves were just flat wrong.  Hobbes had this to say on that subject: I know that Aristotle in the first book of his Politics, for a foundation of his doctrine, makes men by nature, some more worthy to command, meaning the wiser sort, such as he thought himself to be for his philosophy; others to serve, meaning those that had strong bodies, but were not philosophers as he; as if master and servant were not introduced by consent of men, but by difference of wit: which is not only against reason; but also against experience. For there are very few so foolish that had not rather govern themselves, than be governed by others…  Hobbes agrees with Moses and America’s founding fathers that a truly wise people would rather govern themselves, than be governed by others…  That’s why Moses tried so hard to persuade the Hebrews not to be governed by Pharaoh; and The Federalist Papers tried to persuade Americans not to be governed by the King of England.  This attitude displays a confidence that wise people can, in fact, govern themselves wisely.  But Hobbes also points out that such is the nature of men, that howsever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves.  Everyone thinks they’re wise.  It’s that kind of dangerous delusion that makes the world such a dark and scary place for Hobbes.    

Thursday, September 13, 2012

BIBLE: Exodus (Wilderness)

In the first half of Exodus we find the Hebrews living in bondage in Egypt; in the second half they wander around in the wilderness.  They’re free from bondage to the Egyptians but they’re far from being free from trouble.  In fact, their troubles are just beginning.  They find out that obligations and responsibilities come with freedom.  And they learn the hard way, through personal experience.  Is freedom worth it?  Many of them don’t think so.  They want to turn around and go back to Egypt.  At least they had food and security there.  In the wilderness they constantly worry about where their next meal is coming from.  They worry about finding water.  They worry about thieves and hostile tribes.  It seems like a hopeless struggle and yet somehow Moses holds them together as a people and leads them to the Promised Land.  Sort of.  Moses never actually makes it the whole way.  Neither do the vast majority of the Hebrews who originally left Egypt.  It was their sons and daughters who inherit the Promised Land.  So what lessons can the modern reader draw from this story?  One way is to draw from our experience of modern American life.  Viewed from this perspective readers may conclude that God wants us to move away from big cities and live in the suburbs.  God wants the Ten Commandments posted in public buildings.  God wants the U.S. to support Israel.  This would be a rather limited view of the text.  A better way to read Exodus might be to draw lessons from other Great Books and not from the limited experience of a modern American.  For example, in Notes from the Underground we find this passage: I’m not anyone’s slave: now I’m here but I shall be gone soon and you won’t see me again.  I can shake it all off and be a different man.  But you; why you’re a slave from the very start.  Yes, a slave!  You give away everything.  All your freedom.  And even if one day you should want to break your chains, you won’t be able to: you’ll only get yourself more and more entangled in them.  The chain of slavery that Dostoevsky is speaking about is prostitution and the prostitute’s name is Lisa.  Lisa has become a prostitute so she can live in relative comfort.  She has a warm place to stay (which is very important during Russia’s bitterly cold winters); she has plenty of food; she has security.  What she doesn’t have is her freedom.  How is that different from the Hebrews living in Egypt?  Or take this passage from Aristotle’s Politics: 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… How can the Hebrews possibly “occupy themselves with philosophy” when they’re busy making bricks for Pharaoh?  Who has time for philosophy?  They’re too busy being slaves.  In another section Aristotle asks: …is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.  From this passage the Hebrews might conclude that they’ve been marked out for subjection from the hour of their birth.  The sooner they accept it, the better.  But the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has a different vision for the Hebrew people.  You’re not slaves, He says.  Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself.  Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.  A kingdom of priests.  An holy nation.  This is a very different vision than Pharaoh’s or Aristotle’s.  Many questions remain: Why Moses?  Why the Hebrews?  The Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiffnecked people.  How is being stiffnecked different from having a hardened heart like Pharaoh?  God only knows; not Pharaoh or Aristotle. 

Saturday, September 08, 2012

BIBLE: Exodus (Egypt)

Suppose someone pulled the book of Exodus off the shelf and asked: what kind of book is this?  One person may answer: literature, great literature.  Exodus is an adventure story along the lines of Lord of the Rings.  It has some great moral lessons too but it’s basically an adventure book.  Someone else may respond: no, you’re wrong.  This is a history book.  There may be some great adventure stories in there but those stories are true.  They really happened.  A third person may join in and say: you’re both wrong.  This book is a biography.  Just look at how it begins:  And Pharaoh's daughter said unto her, Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages. And the woman took the child, and nursed it.  And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses…  It’s the story about the great leader of the Hebrew people, Moses.   Exodus is clearly a biography of Moses.  It may be slightly exaggerated (like the story about Washington chopping down the cherry tree) but so what?  Read Plutarch’s Lives.  Great biographies present life models we should copy and Moses is one of the great role models of all time.  And yet a fourth response might be: Exodus is taken from the Bible, the word of God.  Exodus is a sacred text.  So how do we respond if someone asks what kind of book is Exodus?  Why is it so hard to classify this book with any degree of certainty?  Because it’s the kind of book that either brings people together or splits them apart.  For example, Exodus is full of miracles.  Here’s one: the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.  What is the reader to make of a burning bush that doesn’t burn up and even speaks to Moses?  Here’s another one: And the LORD said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod. And he said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it.  Is this a stick or a snake?  What kind of trick is “the Lord” pulling on Moses?  Why a snake?  A third example: Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.  And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.  What is the reader supposed to make of all these “miracles?”  Just as people give different answers about the kind of book Exodus is supposed to be, they give different answers regarding miracles.  One answer is: it’s just a story; none of this stuff really happened; miracles have about as much reality as unicorns.  Or a second answer: there are no miracles, just badly-understood science; there probably were some actual events taking place but there’s a rational and natural explanation for each and every one of them; back in those days people weren’t very scientific.  Or a third answer: that’s ridiculous; these stories are true and God was behind it all; miracles from the Lord are a crucial part of the whole message of the book; either you believe it or you don’t.  Those examples show how people can be in strong agreement or severely divided when interpreting Exodus.   In the final analysis a basic question comes to mind: what kind of “Lord” is this?  One reader may say: a mean-spirited and unfair god.  Innocent Egyptians suffered for no good reason.  What kind of god would punish innocent people?  Another reader may answer: a loving and caring God.  He delivered the Hebrew people out of bondage into freedom.  Other questions: why would a “god” pick Moses, a murderer, to be his messenger?  Why did he pick the Hebrew people, who were stubborn and rebellious?  How is this God different from Egyptian or Greek gods?  In short, Exodus is the kind of book that seems easy to understand on first reading and then gets deeper each time we read it.  As we grow older we draw more mature lessons from it.   Exodus “grows” along with us.  Is it history?  Adventure?  Biography?  Literature?  Sacred text?  All of them; it’s a Great Book.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

DOSTOEVSKY: Notes from the Underground (Part 2)

Notes from the Underground begins with the main character informing the reader that I am a sick man.  I am a spiteful man.  No, I am not a pleasant man at all.  He’s telling the truth.  This man is probably the most unlikeable, self-absorbed character we’re ever likely to find.  So why would anyone spend three or four hours listening to this guy go on and on about his problems and his worthless life?  Because Dostoevsky has an important lesson to teach.  The message is this: reason is not what separates man from beast; it’s love.  We can’t grasp that kind of message with our brains; it has to touch our hearts.  And only literature, great literature, is capable of doing that.  We look at nature and see how even cats love their kittens and dogs love their puppies, etc.  But Dostoevsky presents a uniquely human problem: anybody can love kittens and puppies but who will love this man?  He’s despicable, unlovable.  Dostoevsky want us to pause for a moment and ask ourselves: how did he get that way?  He didn’t come into this world as a despicable and selfish grown man.  Here was his unpromising start in life: I was sent to the school by some distant relations of mine on whom I was dependent and of whom I have not heard anything since.  They dumped me there, an orphan already crushed… He doesn’t have the supporting love of a family but at least he’s with kids his own age.  School doesn’t go well either: I did not find it at all easy to make friends with people as they did to make friends among themselves.  I at once conceived a bitter hatred for them and withdrew from them all into my own shell of wounded, timid, and excessive pride.  Their coarseness appalled me…  I could not help looking on them as my inferiors. This is the painful confession of an outsider who desperately wants to be accepted by his playmates.  He’s not.  So he does what many shy people do, he turns to books instead: …To escape their ridicule I purposely began to apply myself more diligently to my studies and was soon among the top boys in my form.  This did make an impression on them.  Moreover, they all began gradually to realize that I was already reading books they could not read, and that I understood things (not included in our school curriculum) of which they had not even heard.  They looked sullenly and sardonically on all this but they had to acknowledge my moral superiority… He’s not, in fact, morally superior to his classmates.  He’s just well-read and intensely lonely.  And books aren’t enough for a fulfilling life: In the end I could no longer stand it myself: the older I became, the more I longed for the society of men and the more I was in need of friends.  Many people limp through adolescence bruised but not scarred for life.  They move on smoothly into adulthood.  This guy couldn’t make a smooth transition: I was only twenty-four at the time. My life even then was gloomy, disorderly, and solitary to the point of savagery.  I had no friends or acquaintances, avoided talking to people, and buried myself more and more in my hole.  At this point most young men go out in search of a companion, a soul mate, hopefully a good woman who will understand and love him.  Not this guy.  He’s honest enough to admit that I could not possibly have loved anyone because, I repeat, to me love meant to tyrannize and to be morally superior.  I have never in my life been able to imagine any other sort of love… He has his chance with a young woman named Lisa.  He almost lets her come into his life and (literally) re-form his heart: (Lisa) had not come to listen to my pathetic speeches at all, but to love me, for it is only in love that a woman can find her true resurrection, her true salvation from any sort of calamity, and her moral regeneration, and she cannot possibly find it in anything else… The truth is both these people need resurrection, salvation and moral regeneration.  They need each other; he needs it even more than she does.  But he lets his chance slip by.  He’s too far gone: I longed for her to disappear.  I longed for “peace.” I wanted to be left alone in my funk-hole.  Dostoevsky’s message is old and simple: we must love one another.  Why?  Because…we are all cripples, every one of us; more or less…and love is the only known cure for that kind of disease.