Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Antony and Cleopatra (Act IV)

Modern philosophy has many branches of knowledge and we have names for them, like ontology and epistemology.  The philosophy of being (ontology) and the philosophy of knowledge (epistemology) are no doubt important things for philosophers to know.  But are they essential for the rest of us?  Does an understanding of these things help us live better lives?  Shakespeare wasn’t a philosopher but he was interested in human questions.  Socrates was interested in human questions too; and like Shakespeare his questions covered ordinary human needs.  He wanted to know: what is courage?  What’s the difference between being brave and being stupid?  What is justice?  Is it a matter of being right?  Or does justice mean being fair?  Or is justice simply being strongest (might makes right)?  These are questions people grapple with in their daily lives.  Everyone is asking the same thing: how do I get along in this world?  Folks who read philosophy ask additional questions: how do I know what worked for Socrates will work for me?  Socrates tries to work things out in his head by talking back and forth with people.  Shakespeare shows people on a stage moving around in real (though staged) situations.  For example, we find Octavius Caesar opening Act IV of Antony and Cleopatra with these lines: He calls me boy; and chides, as he had power To beat me out of Egypt; my messenger He hath whipp'd with rods; dares me to personal combat, Caesar to Antony: let the old ruffian know I have many other ways to die; meantime Laugh at his challenge…  This is actually living out philosophy in a real (though staged) situation.  Would Octavius be brave to accept Antony’s offer to fight hand-to-hand, one-on-one, man-to-man combat?  Is that manly courage?  Octavius says: no, that wouldn’t be courage at all; that would be plain stupid.  Why?  Because even Antony’s own military aide (Enobarbus) confirms Octavius’ assessment of the situation: ANTONY: He will not fight with me, Domitius.  DOMITIUS ENOBARBUS: No.  ANTONY: Why should he not?  ENOBARBUS: He thinks, being twenty times of better fortune, he is twenty men to one.  Octavius has Antony vastly outnumbered.  Why would he give up that advantage and risk personal combat, Caesar to Antony?  Take another situation and see how philosophy works out in action.  Enobarbus abandons his service to Antony in this scene: SOLDIER: The gods make this a happy day to Antony!  ANTONY: Would thou and those thy scars had once prevail'd to make me fight at land!  SOLDIER: Hadst thou done so, the kings that have revolted, and the soldier that has this morning left thee, would have still follow'd thy heels.  ANTONY: Who's gone this morning? SOLDIER: Who! One ever near thee: call for Enobarbus, He shall not hear thee; or from Caesar's camp Say 'I am none of thine.'  ANTONY: What say'st thou? SOLDIER: Sir, He is with Caesar.  Antony can’t believe it.  His most trusted aide deserts him in his darkest hour just when he needs friends most of all.  What should be done to traitors like Enobarbus?  In The Divine Comedy Dante puts both Brutus and Judas Iscariot in the deepest circle of Hell because Dante thought betraying friends is the worst of all evils.  Brutus personally helped assassinate his friend Julius Caesar and Judas Iscariot personally sold out his great teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.  What does Antony do about Enobarbus?  An interesting exchange takes place: EROS: Sir, his chests and treasure he has not with him.  ANTONY: Is he gone?  SOLDIER: Most certain.  ANTONY: Go, Eros, send his treasure after; do it; detain no jot, I charge thee: write to him (I will subscribe) gentle adieus and greetings; Say that I wish he never find more cause to change a master. O, my fortunes have corrupted honest men!  Here we see Antony at his best.  He doesn’t blame Enobarbus for leaving; he blames Antony.  Socrates might have said: behold Antony the philosopher.  Wisdom comes to Antony at last when he sees what he truly is: a foolish man who squandered his empire.  But by then it’s too late and the damage can’t be undone.  Shakespeare may not know much about ontology or epistemology but he knows a thing or two about wisdom.

Monday, November 19, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Antony and Cleopatra (Act III)

One of the complaints about the Great Books is that they’re old and not really relevant for life in the modern world.  This complaint may say more about the reader than it does about the Great Books.  Let’s see if we can find relevant material for America in the 21st century by using Antony and Cleopatra as an example.  Here’s a quote from the play: …learn this, Silius; better to leave undone, than by our deed acquire too high a fame when him we serve's away. Caesar and Antony have ever won more in their officer than person…  What’s the meaning of this passage?  Consider the American office environment.  Are there any departments in business or government where assistants do all the work and the boss gets all the credit?  Do managers like having superstars on their staff or do superstars threaten their own careers too much?  Marc Antony says: …if I lose mine honour, I lose myself…  What does Antony mean when he talks about his “honor”?  Does it mean the same thing to him as it does to modern Americans?  How does someone go about earning “honor” by working in an office cubicle?  Or let’s say you’re a politician and get caught having an affair.  What is the “honorable” thing to do?  Is the honorable thing to simply resign or is the honorable thing to stay on the job and fulfill the commitment you’ve made to the voters?  Take another example.  Caesar looks dimly on Antony’s affair with Cleopatra and says he hath given his empire up to a whore…  Have there been any businessmen or politicians or military leaders lately who have thrown away careers because of poor judgment in personal relationships?  Did that sort of thing end after Antony and Cleopatra?  But the lessons from this play don’t just apply to those working at the top.  Bad executive decisions also have consequences on mid-level managers.  Suppose the CEO or Director of a department makes not just a bad decision but a disastrous decision.  What does an honest mid-level manager do then?  Antony’s mid-level manager is named Enobarbus.  Here’s how Enobarbus handled Antony’s mistake: Mine honesty and I begin to square.  A modern American version might say: well, now I really have to face up to the facts.  The loyalty well held to fools does make our faith mere folly…  I want to stick with my boss but boy did he screw things up this time.  It would be dumb for me to stay on with this company.  On the other hand he that can endure to follow with allegiance a fall'n lord does conquer him that did his master conquer and earns a place i' the story.  Maybe I should stick it out.  It’s not the end of the world and maybe we can turn things around and everything will be ok again.  Besides, staying loyal to the boss and the company may pay off later in my career.  That’s the modern American paraphrase.  Even today that's one way to make a  career decision.  Here’s the other way.  This (by the way) is also from Enobarbus: Now he'll outstare the lightning. Let’s say the boss has screwed up and now he’s really determined to patch things up, no matter what it takes; even if he has to outstare the lightning. How does someone go about “outstaring the lightning” anyway?  But we get the idea.  The boss has come unhinged.  He may be determined but he’s not acting rationally.  This isn’t good because to be furious, is to be frighted out of fear; and in that mood the dove will peck the estridge (ostrich)…  If the boss is furious he can’t see straight.  In that mood he may take on problems ten times his size with zero chance of success because he can’t see that the end result will be disaster.  This is especially bad because when valour preys on reason, it eats the sword it fights with.  There are times when courage is needed but there are also times when cool thinking is needed.  If the boss is furious he can’t think straight.  And in that situation no matter how brave he is the results will not be good.  Therefore, I will seek some way to leave him.  In other words, it’s time to quit this boss and this company.  I’ll just cut my losses and move on.  Those are just a few of the lessons from this play.  Here’s the conclusion: Shakespeare may be old but he’s never out of date.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Antony and Cleopatra (Act II)

Here’s one of the great philosophical questions of all time: Do the gods reward good and punish evil?  One of the reasons Antony and Cleopatra is in the Great Books is because it tries to answer that question.  Here’s what the play has to say: POMPEY: If the great gods be just, they shall assist the deeds of justest men.  This is a clear answer, mostly.  IF the gods are just THEN they will reward good men and punish bad men.  But this kind of “if-then” answer isn’t always clear in real life.  Sometimes it certainly looks like good men aren’t in fact rewarded for their good deeds and many times bad men are certainly NOT punished for their evil ones.  So how are we to explain this?  Is Pompey simply wrong?  One of his aides tries to give a more in-depth explanation: MENECRATES: Know, worthy Pompey, that what they do delay, they not deny… We, ignorant of ourselves, beg often our own harms, which the wise powers deny us for our good; so find we profit by losing of our prayers.  This answer doesn’t really disagree with Pompey’s assessment that the gods will help us if we’re good.  But it does put a different spin on things.  First of all, we shouldn’t think that judgment from the gods won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet.  There may be good reasons why justice is delayed but that doesn’t mean it will be denied forever.  We’re only human and see things from a human perspective.  In fact, we see things from an intensely personal human perspective.  Our beliefs have been shaped by our own personal experiences.  From a divine perspective this makes the human concept of justice flawed.  And that’s why it seems like the gods don’t always answer prayers, even from good people.  We ask for the wrong things at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.  We beg often our own harms, which the wise powers deny us for our good.  We’re like children asking for more cake or candy.  This isn’t a definitive answer to the question “do the gods reward good and punish evil?”  But it’s a pretty good answer; especially since this is drama and not philosophy.  Which brings up another good question: why is this particular question coming up in this particular play?  Here’s why.  Antony wants Cleopatra.  He wants her like children want cake or candy.  The gods may well say no to our prayers.  Then what?  In fact, the way things are going in this second act of the play, it looks like that’s what the gods ARE telling Antony.  No; request denied.  He suddenly finds himself married to Octavia and Octavia is the sister of Caesar, one of the most powerful men in Rome.  Going back to see Cleopatra is not a good idea.  Anybody can see that; anybody except Antony.  This exchange takes place between a couple of aides to Caesar and Antony: MENAS (a friend of Caesar’s): Now Antony must leave her (Cleopatra) utterly.  Now that Antony has married Octavia he’d better settle down; Caesar is keeping an eye on them both.  --DOMITIUS ENOBARBUS (a friend of Antony’s): Never; he will not: age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety: other women cloy the appetites they feed: but she makes hungry where most she satisfies; for vilest things become themselves in her: that the holy priests bless her when she is riggish (wanton).  Antony can’t give up Cleopatra and for a good reason.  She’s worth taking chances.  The priests themselves can’t resist her.  --MENAS: If beauty, wisdom, modesty, can settle the heart of Antony, Octavia is a blessed lottery to him.  Antony is lucky to get a woman like Octavia.  She’s got the good old-fashioned virtues of a Roman wife: beauty, wisdom and modesty.  Enobarbus still isn’t convinced: Octavia is of a holy, cold, and still conversation.  Menas can’t believe it: Who would not have his wife so?  Isn’t this what all Roman husbands want?  And so we circle back to our original question: do the gods hand out rewards and punishments?  If so, is Cleopatra Antony’s reward or his punishment?  Regardless of the gods or of the consequences, Antony will to his Egyptian dish again…even if there’s hell to pay.  And this is one of the lessons from the Great Books, over and over again we hear this message: knowing what is good for us is one thing; doing it is a different matter.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Antony and Cleopatra (Act I)

Romeo and Juliet may have been Shakespeare’s most famous pair of star-crossed lovers.  But they were young and inexperienced at the game of love and the game of life.  They were just getting started and were amateurs.  Antony and Cleopatra knew how both games were played and were masters at it.  They were much more experienced as lovers and much more powerful as political and military leaders of Rome and Egypt.  So the question comes up: was the love Romeo felt for Juliet the same kind of love that Antony felt for Cleopatra?  Or were these two love affairs conducted on totally different levels, motivated by totally different needs?  Another way to put the question: are all love affairs basically the same or is each one unique and special in its own way?  Antony certainly had more responsibilities than Romeo.  As the play begins we hear Antony’s soldiers complaining that this dotage of our general's/O'erflows the measure: those his goodly eyes,/That o'er the files and musters of the war/Have glow'd like plated Mars, now bend, now turn,/The office and devotion of their view/Upon a tawny front… Take but good note, and you shall see in him./The triple pillar of the world transform'd/Into a strumpet's fool… When Romeo falls in love and is transform'd his buddies just roll their eyes; but when Antony falls in love and is transform'd the men under his command are concerned for his safety and theirs too.  When Juliet flirts with Romeo her parents might get upset; but when Cleopatra flirts with Antony the whole fate of Egypt hangs in the balance.  Another crucial difference is this: Juliet’s father had forbidden her to see Romeo because he was a Montague and she was a Capulet.  This was the big hurdle in Romeo & Juliet.  But in Antony and Cleopatra we have a different kind of problem: Antony is married to another woman.  Juliet’s relationship with her father may have been shaky but she trusted Romeo completely.  She had complete confidence in that relationship.  Cleopatra’s relationship with Antony was not as confident.  She confronts Antony bluntly: Why should I think you can be mine and true… Who have been false to Fulvia?  Cleopatra is shrewd and this is a very good question.  Can a man who’s been unfaithful to his wife be trusted in other areas of his life?  Can we trust him as a business partner, for example? This is a very practical question.  Some people think sex and business are two totally separate spheres.  Adam Smith pointed out in Wealth of Nations that it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love…  Why should I care about a man’s love life as long as his widgets are cheap?  Under this theory what we do in private is irrelevant to what goes on in the marketplace.  But Aristotle had a different view.  He believed that the family is the association established by nature for the supply of men's everyday wants…  So for Aristotle it’s natural that when families are torn apart the whole community suffers and business suffers too.  Antony’s soldiers agree with Aristotle.  They don’t think Antony can keep his private affairs separate from his public duties.  And apparently Antony’s “business partner” (Octavius Caesar) doesn’t think so either: Antony, Leave thy lascivious wassails… Let Antony’s shames quickly/Drive him to Rome: 'tis time we twain/Did show ourselves i' the field; and to that end/Assemble we immediate council: Pompey/Thrives in our idleness.  Octavius is younger than Antony but has this advice: there’s a time to play and a time to work.  Now is the time to work.  We need to combine our resources and turn them against our enemy, Pompey.  Leave Cleopatra alone.  Every day you’re with her Pompey gets stronger.  Antony knows all this.  War is his business.  And as a businessman he knows it’s time to get down to work.  But as Cleopatra’s lover he also has a hard time getting back to Rome’s business.  Antony is just as smitten with Cleopatra as Romeo was with Juliet.  Money and power are strong incentives but for men like Antony (and Romeo) love is the strongest incentive of all.