Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, January 26, 2013

LOCKE: Of Civil Government (War and Property)

In order to give a satisfactory explanation Of Civil Government Locke has to tackle some pretty big topics such as property, war, and law.  His theory of government is fairly clear and straightforward.  He says the reason men come together to form governments is for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates.  Virtually no one would disagree that men want to protect their lives and the lives of their families.  Few would disagree that they want to preserve their freedoms too.  But “estates” sounds rather like a bunch of wealthy people getting together so they can keep their fancy homes and cars and yachts.  This is not what Locke means by “estate.”  Personal possessions may be a better phrase to use.  Locke himself labels personal possessions by the general name “property.”  This is an important distinction.  Because when Locke goes on to discuss “property” he says though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a "property" in his own "person." This nobody has any right to but himself.  So in Locke’s definition a man’s most basic personal possession is his own body.  For Locke this is important because a man’s “property” can then be extended from his body outward through work (or what Locke calls “labour”).  Our personal rights (or civil rights as we would call them today) begins with our bodies and extends to the rest of our personal possessions: land or houses or money or whatever we can earn with the work of our hands.  And this is where Locke’s theory of government spills over into his theory of war.  Justification for war begins with self-defense for the preservation of our lives.  War is allowed because… it being reasonable and just I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction.  Locke believes that the law of nature is actually the law of reason.  When we’re attacked it’s not because it’s the “law of nature” for creatures to be aggressive and prey on one another.  These attackers must be fended off or destroyed precisely because they are not under the ties of the common law of reason, have no other rule but that of force and violence.  Sometimes brute force and violence are the only means we have of protecting ourselves and our property.  But the odds of being attacked by foreign forces aren’t very likely in modern America.  And even in countries where foreign attack is a real possibility, most of the time citizens have to go about their daily lives doing ordinary things like earning a living, finding a place to live, and feeding their families.  All of this is accomplished best if it can be done in an orderly way.  And that’s where Locke’s theory of law comes in handy.  He draws a distinct line in the sand when it comes to using the power of government to coerce its citizens.  For Locke the law is limited to the public good of the society.   But how can we know what the “public good” is?  The law, according to Locke, is a power that hath no other end but preservation, and therefore can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or designedly to impoverish the subjects.  This will help preserve the civil rights of its citizens.  Then we can establish public good by consulting the laws of nature.  And these laws of nature, as we have seen, are reasonable.  Furthermore, they are understandable by everyone: the law of Nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others.  Since these laws are available to all men who will consult them they also provide the best way for establishing the public good in a fair and equitable way.  No one man or small group of men should be able to circumvent these rational laws in order to establish their own arbitrary rules.  This would, in effect, be a state of war because it violates the law of nature (see above).  The main point Locke wants to make is that the fundamental law of Nature being the preservation of mankind, no human sanction can be good or valid against it.  Because property, war, and law are all inter-related we need a government based on the law of nature/reason for the common good of all.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

LOCKE: Of Civil Government (Introduction and State of Nature)

When someone breaks the law it’s possible that they can be arrested by the police, tried by the courts and sentenced to serve time in jail; or in some cases even get the death penalty.  But if I catch the same person doing the same thing it’s against the law for me to lock them up in my basement.  Why is that?  Because I don’t have the authority to arrest anyone, much less lock them up in my basement.  So who (or what) gives the government the right to do it?  This is just one of the questions John Locke considers in his great book Of Civil Government.  According to Locke only the government has the authority to imprison people because only the government has legitimate political power.  And what exactly is the government authorized to do with this political power?  Locke says there are three primary responsibilities of government: Political power, then, I take to be (1) a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, (2) for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and (3) in the defence of the common-wealth from foreign injury.  So these are the three primary objectives of government: make our laws, preserve our property, and protect us from foreign invasion.  But then Locke goes on to conclude his list of government’s responsibilities with one very important qualification: all this only for the public good.  Why only for the public good?  This sounds reasonable to us only because we live in the twenty-first century.  But it was not at all clear in Locke’s time or before that.  So Locke has to make the reader understand why political power can only be legitimately used for the public good: To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in… In other words, Locke wants us to go back to the beginning.  What were things like in a state of nature, before there ever were such things as governments and police departments and armies?  Locke believes that a state of nature is a state of perfect freedomThat sounds good.  We like freedom; therefore perfect freedom must be even better.  In Locke’s state of nature men are free to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.  Sign me up.  It sounds like I can do whatever I please in this state of nature.  Why would anyone ever give up perfect freedom to live under the burden of laws and regulations of a city or a state?  There are many reasons.  Maybe I don’t want to be lonely; maybe there’s better economic opportunity.  But mostly it’s for safety and security.  Some people may want to take my stuff or hurt me or even kill me.   That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.  Locke believes that the state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it… This law of nature is universal.  Everyone can understand it.  And that law is this: no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.  That’s why I can’t just lock someone up in my basement whenever I feel like it: because it’s against the law of nature and the law of reason.  My perfect freedom doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want.  My freedom is perfect only in the sense that every other person has the same freedoms that I have.  No more, no less.  My freedom is perfect because it is perfectly symmetrical with yours.  Americans refer to this concept as the freedom of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  John Locke called it life, health, liberty, or possessions. These are all things everyone wants and they’re the minimum things everyone should have.  Government should guarantee all its citizens at least these basic benefits of living in society.  Living in a well-governed civil society is much better than living in a state of nature.  This is the public good that Locke is talking about.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

HERODOTUS: The Persian Wars (Book Eight)

After the Persian Wars both sides were pretty banged up.  It’s amusing when Herodotus says that the Persians were too badly scared to risk sailing west of Samos and the Greeks did not dare to sail east of Delos.  In other words, the Persians didn’t want to get too close to the Greeks again and the Greeks didn’t want to get too close to the Persians either.  They both kept their distance.  So what did all this fighting and killing accomplish?  If nothing else, we have a theory of history developed by Herodotus.  Reading the Persian Wars is different from reading, say, Exodus.  In Exodus we learn a great deal about Moses and the Hebrews but very little about Pharaoh and the Egyptians.  The whole purpose of Exodus is to explain God’s plan in delivering the Hebrews from bondage, not to give a balanced historical account of events from both perspectives.  But in the Persian Wars Herodotus explores the motives and strategies of both sides.  And he does so in an even-handed way.  There are no good guys and bad guys in this story.  Unlike Pharaoh in Exodus, the main characters in the Persian Wars talk and act like real people.  One of the most fascinating characters is Themistocles.  Herodotus claims Themistocles had the highest reputation of the Greek commanders…  And the Greeks may very well have lost the war without him.  But the way he went about it won’t endear him to many readers.  Early in the war the Persians had a huge fleet off the coast of Euboea.  Greeks lived on that island and the only thing standing between them and the Persians was a loosely-knit Greek navy composed of ships from several neighboring city-states.  Euribyiades was one of the naval commanders and prepared to leave the Euobeans on their own.  So the Euboeans begged Eurybiades to stay at any rate long enough to allow them to move their children and servants to a safe place.  Eurybiades refused.  So the Euboeans went to Themistocles, the Athenian commander, and by a bribe of thirty talents persuaded him to make arrangements that the Greeks would stay and fight on the coast of Euboea…  Bribes apparently weren’t unusual in those days but this was still a lot of money.  The Euboeans paid Themistocles about $750,000 to protect them.  So what does Themistocles do with the money?  He bribed two of the naval commanders into staying: Adeimantus (3 talents) and Eurybiades (5 talents) yielded to bribery and the Euboeans got their wish.  What happened to the rest?  Themistocles kept the rest of the money himself.   War may be hell but it was very good for Themistocles.  He made over half million dollars on this little deal and he made more later on.  Herodotus doesn’t tell a moral story about an unselfish Greek hero delivering his people from the threat of Persian bondage.  Quite the opposite; Themistocles more or less robs his fellow Greeks: Themistocles, always greedy for money, sent demands to the other (Greek) islands… and he extorted money from the islanders.  The other commanders knew nothing of these proceedings.  Is this what they called leadership in those days?  But again, to give him his due, the Greeks would probably not have beaten back the Persians without Themistocles.   A far more likeable character is a Persian advisor named Artemisia.  She gave the best advice in the whole book when she told Xerxes: what pressing need have you to risk further actions at sea?  Have you not taken Athens, the main objective of the war? …If you rush into a naval action my fear is that the defeat of your fleet may involve the army too.  And she was right.  Xerxes should have just said “mission accomplished” and headed back home.  The naval battle was a disaster for the Persians, just as Artemisia had warned.  Without Herodotus we never would have heard of her.  Or any of the other fascinating characters we run across in the Persian Wars.  Herodotus long ago set high standards for historians because he was a good writer and a great storyteller.  History has never been the same.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

HERODOTUS: The Persian Wars (Book Seven)

Scholars refer to Herodotus as “the father of history.”  How can that be?  Did nothing important happen before Herodotus came along?  Was there no history before him?  What about Egypt and our reading of Exodus?  The whole Exodus story happened long before Herodotus was born.  We’ll leave the “father of history” questions for professional scholars.  But amateur readers would do well to ask questions.  What use is history anyway?  Is it like reading literature or more like studying science?  What good does reading history do?  More specifically, what good does it do ME?  Herodotus may not answer all these questions but his history of The Persian Wars gives us a good place to start.  Let’s see what we can find out from Mr. Herodotus.  Xerxes is a Persian king and has called a meeting with his top leaders.  He tells them that We Persians have a way of living which I have inherited from my predecessors and propose to follow… this is what I intend to do.  I will bridge the Hellespont and march an army through Europe into Greece.  He has a grand strategic plan: I shall pass through Europe from end to end and make it all one country.  Let’s stop there for a moment and reflect.  Is this a good idea?  Would Europe be better off if it really were all one country and not divided up into dozens of smaller ones?  Isn’t that basically what they’re trying to do, even today, with the European Union?  Xerxes wants to hear what others think of his plan.  Mardonius, an advisor (and Xerxes’ cousin), likes the plan: Have we anything to fear from them?  The size of their army?  Their wealth?  The question is absurd; we know how they fight; we know how slender their resources are… Well then, my lord, who is likely to resist you when you march against them with the millions of Asia at your back, and the whole Persian fleet?  Believe me, it is not in the Greek character to take so desperate a risk.  This attitude can be found on every committee.  Let’s do it. There’s no consideration of any possible downside, just a rosy prediction that everything will go smoothly.  On the other end of the scale are people like Artabanus, another advisor (and Xerxes’ uncle) who see nothing but gloom and doom ahead.  Artabanus says It is my duty to tell you what you have to fear from the Greeks.  You have said you mean to bridge the Hellespont and march through Europe to Greece… These Greeks are said to be tough fighters… suppose they were to succeed in one area alone; suppose they fell upon our fleet and destroyed the bridge?  Then, my lord, you would indeed be in trouble… I urge you therefore to abandon this plan; take my advice and do not run any such terrible risk when there is no necessity to do so.  Let’s put ourselves in Xerxes’ shoes.  What should we do?  Who do we listen to?  This is one purpose of reading history: Decision-Making 101.  Both sides made their best case: one for going to war with Greece, the other for staying home in peace.  Now the decision is left to us.  In real life Xerxes made the final decision and had to live with the consequences of that decision.  Reading history gives us a chance to see how those decisions played out.  In this case, the advice of Artabanus turned out to be the best advice.  The Persians should have stayed home.  Instead, they marched through Europe on down into Greece and the rest, as they say, is history.  This is where 300 brave Spartans made their famous stand at the pass of Thermopylae.  Herodotus thought this was a story worth telling.  And ever since then thousands of history lovers thought this was a story worth reading.  So, is history like literature?  Yes, if the historian can write well.  Is it like science?  Yes, if the historian follows facts without bias.  But is it even possible for a historian to study the past and not bring at least some pre-conceived values to the table?  Herodotus himself says: My business is to record what people say, but I am by no means bound to believe it.  And that may be taken to apply to this book as a whole.  Good for him.  The “father of history” should feel that way.