Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, February 25, 2013

THOREAU: Civil Disobedience

Henry David Thoreau begins his essay on government with this quote: I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least…" This sounds like a typical American view of government. Many Americans feel that way. But then Thoreau goes on to say: also I believe, "That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have… This is NOT a typical American view of government; in fact, this view cuts against the grain of almost every political philosopher we read in the Great Books. John Locke, for example, in his book Of Civil Government had this to say about a form of government where the majority rules: …when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community… it is necessary the body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority: or else it is impossible it should act or continue one body, one community… So Locke therefore accepts the idea that we should go along for the common good of the political community, even with governmental policies or laws we don’t necessarily agree with. Otherwise the whole thing falls apart.

Thoreau won’t accept that form of reasoning. Instead, he asks: Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? This is a good question. But it’s better as a philosophical or theoretical question than a practical political one. Sure, in an ideal world private consciences would decide questions of right and wrong. But as a practical matter how would this idea work? If I feel that some particular law is wrong but the majority says otherwise, what am I supposed to do? Rousseau would tend agree with Locke: obey the law. But he would think this way for an entirely different reason. Rousseau would go along with the majority because that is the General Will. The General Will is what holds society together. If I personally believe something different from the General Will then obviously my private judgment is mistaken. But Thoreau says clearly: follow your conscience, disobey the law. It’s better to stand up for what you believe in from your own conscience, even if you go to prison for it.

This sounds noble. However, in Crito Socrates says almost the exact opposite. Obey the law, even if you disagree with it. Here’s why: Do you think that a city can any longer exist and not be overturned, in which legal judgments once rendered are without force, but may be rendered unauthoritative by private citizens and so corrupted? …The “just” lies here: never to give way, never to desert, never to leave your post, but in war or court of law or any other place, to do what City and Country command. Either that, or persuade it what is just. Thoreau is a private citizen. Socrates thinks it’s good that Thoreau is pursuing the meaning of Justice. But he doesn’t think it’s good when Thoreau recommends disobeying the law. Thoreau might argue that Socrates was, in fact, following his own conscience when he chose to remain in prison unjustly rather than escape from prison like a common criminal.

So where does this all lead? It seems to just lead us toward more confusion. But this may be a kind of wisdom in itself: to know that we’re confused. Socrates would say: to know that we don’t know. But that doesn’t mean we should remain paralyzed by indecision. Thoreau says: to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. That may not be the definitive answer but it sounds like a good old-fashioned American attitude.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels (Death and the Great Books)

Gulliver learns a lot from a fantastic species of horses known as Houyhnhnms. They are super-rational creatures. This is the “rational” Houyhnhnm approach to death: If they can avoid casualties, they die only of old age, and are buried in the obscurest places that can be found, their friends and relations expressing neither joy nor grief at their departure; nor does the dying person discover the least regret that he is leaving the world, any more than if he were upon returning home from a visit to one of his neighbours. I remember my master having once made an appointment with a friend and his family to come to his house, upon some affair of importance: on the day fixed, the mistress and her two children came very late; she made two excuses, first for her husband, who, as she said, happened that very morning to shnuwnh. The word is strongly expressive in their language, but not easily rendered into English; it signifies, "to retire to his first mother." Her excuse for not coming sooner, was, that her husband dying late in the morning, she was a good while consulting her servants about a convenient place where his body should be laid; and I observed, she behaved herself at our house as cheerfully as the rest. She died about three months after.

Is this the way human beings act? Houyhnhnms express neither joy nor grief at their departure. This should lead us to reflect on the human way of dying. Here are some readings in the Great Books series that deal with the universal issue of death and dying.

Series One
Chekhov: Rothschild’s Fiddle - A Russian coffin maker reflects on his wasted life.
Conrad: Heart of Darkness - The very talented Kurtz dies in the backwaters of Africa.
Bible: Genesis - Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
Shakespeare: Othello - A jealous husband kills his wife, then himself, over love.
Sophocles: Antigone - A courageous sister follows her conscience to her death.

Series Two
Plato: Crito - Socrates explains why dying is preferable to escaping.
Euripides: Iphigenia at Aulis - A girl offers her own life so Greece can be victorious.
Melville: Billy Budd - A good man is framed by an evil man and hanged for it.

Series Three
Shakespeare: Hamlet - To be, or not to be, that is the question.
Bible: Gospel of Mark - The crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
H. James: The Beast in the Jungle - Two people pass through life not realizing what love is.
Tolstoy: The Death of Ivan Ilych - A painful end leads Ivan to forgiveness and peace at last.

Series Four
Euripides: Medea - A mother kills her two boys to get back at her husband.
Gogol: The Overcoat - A shy office clerk has bad luck after his coat wears out.

Series Five
Bible: Ecclesiastes - A time to be born, and a time to die…
Kafka: Metamorphosis - Turning into a bug is an odd ending for a normal guy.
Dante: The Inferno - A trip through hell shows what may await some of us.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels Part iv A voyage to the… Houyhnhnms (Part 2)

One of the advantages of reading through the Great Books Series is to get some ideas we can use in real daily life. This holds true even if the book was written long ago; or written in a country far away; or even if it was written about a place that never existed. We can still pick up some good solid wisdom about how to live well. Gulliver’s Travels is a good example how the reader who pays close attention can come away with some real insights. Let’s make a test and see if it works. Our test case is a Great Books group. A book discussion group has a simple format: read a book and then meet to discuss it with other folks who have read the same book. What insights does Gulliver’s Travels have for the typical book discussion group? Houyhnhnms didn’t have books. They were horses. But they were highly intelligent horses. They could talk and they did have lively discussions.

Insight #1 from Gulliver’s Travels: Who should do the talking; and how much? The Houyhnhnms have a notion, that when people are met together, a short silence does much to improve conversation. Silence seems like a phrase that doesn’t belong with lively discussion. And yet the narrator of Gulliver’s Travels says it works: this I found to be true; for during those little intermissions of talk, new ideas would arise in their minds, which very much enlivened the discourse. Maybe sometimes we talk too much. A little silence may go a long way in helping us recollect our thoughts. Which leads to a related question: what kinds of things should we be talking about in book discussion groups?

Insight #2 from Gulliver’s Travels: What should we talk about? Their subjects are, generally on friendship and benevolence, on order and economy… Houyhnhnms were horses but they were rational horses. And usually they would talk about things they all shared in common. Most horses tend to like other horses. People are like that too; and they usually have the same kinds of problems, like the same kinds of foods, and share many of the same interests and hobbies. This is a solid foundation for talking about friendship: how do human beings relate to other human beings who share the same interests? Aristotle had a whole section devoted to the different kinds of friendships there can be. He talked about friendships where people are just there to share a good time (drinking buddies); friendships where people can benefit from one another (a business partnership); or friendships where people have only the best interest of the other person in mind (true friendship). Few people would have been able to keep up with a discussion of the nature of friendship with Houyhnhnms. Aristotle was one of those people; would our book group be able to keep up?

Insight #3 from Gulliver’s Travels: Stick with a book everyone in the group can understand. Sometimes, for instance, the Houyhnhnms would talk about the visible operations of nature, or ancient traditions. In our terminology, they would often talk about science and history. But if someone hasn’t taken college courses in mathematics and physics, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll be able to discuss the theory of relativity. However, anyone can discuss the visible operations of nature such as the changing of the seasons because it’s a common experience that we have all participated in.

There are many other insights: the Houyhnhnms talked about the limits of virtue; upon the unerring rules of reason, or upon some determinations to be taken at the next great assembly: and often upon the various excellences of poetry. This is a good sample for any book group.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels (Part IV/A voyage to the country of the houyhnhnms)

One of the advantages of reading through the Great Books Series is the opportunity to compare authors. This is a helpful way of clarifying in our minds exactly what someone is saying and what they are not saying. In our last reading, for example, John Locke presented his case for pursuing a rational life. He said 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… If we look to nature to guide us then we’ll find the path to a rational life. In Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift shows us what this sort of rational life might look like. It doesn’t much matter if the creature is a human being or a horse. The guiding principle is the rational life.

Swift demonstrates this principle by making horses the rational creatures in an imaginary country of Houyhnhnms. The word Houyhnhnm, in their tongue, signifies a HORSE, and, in its etymology, the PERFECTION OF NATURE. We human beings consider ourselves to be at the absolute top of the scale of nature too. If horses were highly rational creatures would they not do the same? Locke’s definition of the law of nature as “reason” makes perfect sense if we think that the more rational we are, the more perfected we become. And living a rational life surely beats the alternative. Swift shows the reader what a non-rational life might look like: …as to those filthy Yahoos, although there were few greater lovers of mankind at that time than myself, yet I confess I never saw any sensitive being so detestable on all accounts; and the more I came near them the more hateful they grew, while I stayed in that country. Yahoos are us. That is, Yahoos are human beings without the benefit of being guided by rational principle. This is what Hobbes warned us about: living outside of civilized society means living lives that are short, nasty, and brutish. These Yahoos prove it. It’s much better to turn to Reason and let government guide us back to the relative comforts of town and city life. That’s the place where wealth and the arts can flourish.

But before we go full speed ahead and fully adopt that lifestyle we should pause and ask a few questions. First of all, is Reason really the PERFECTION OF NATURE? If a thing is perfect then it can’t be improved. Houyhnhnm society is much preferable to living with the Yahoos. But is it perfect? No. Here’s one flaw. This perfect society is totally susceptible to fraud and deceit. Houyhnhnms believe (correctly I think) that the use of speech was to make us understand one another, and to receive information of facts; now, if any one said the thing which was not, these ends were defeated, because I cannot properly be said to understand him; and I am so far from receiving information, that he leaves me worse than in ignorance; for I am led to believe a thing black, when it is white, and short, when it is long. It’s inconceivable to them that anyone would “say the thing which is not.” So that’s exactly what their enemies would do. Another flaw (in my opinion) is that …the inhabitants have not the least idea of books or literature; nor, for that matter, any of the other arts. They’re content to live in a state of nature. But as someone once said: art is man’s nature. We wouldn’t feel at home in a world without books and art and music. Finally among the Houyhnhnms, the white, the sorrel, and the iron-gray, were not so exactly shaped as the bay, the dapple-gray, and the black; nor born with equal talents of mind, or a capacity to improve them; and therefore continued always in the condition of servants, without ever aspiring to match out of their own race, which in that country would be reckoned monstrous and unnatural. In their country it’s perfectly acceptable (because it’s reasonable and natural) that some should be servants and others should be masters. Is that what Americans want?

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

LOCKE: Of Civil Government (Politics and Human Rights)

Because we’re American citizens we all have certain basic rights. But where do these rights come from in the first place? This is an important question. One line of thinking goes like this. Our civil rights are outlined in the United States Constitution and further clarified in court cases. Under this theory civil rights have been granted to us by government. A second theory goes like this. Our rights come from directly God, not from any human government. Which theory is right?

John Locke says that men being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions… This sentence makes Locke sound like he believes rights are granted by the state. And that makes sense to many Americans. We do feel that Americans are all equal, at least under the law. No American citizen can kill another citizen; or injure them; or confine them against their consent; or steal from them. These are written into American law and enforced by local, state and federal governments. But then Locke goes on to say for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another's pleasure. These sentences place Locke squarely on the side of those who believe that basic human rights are God-given, not government-granted. So Locke appears to be straddling the middle of two theories. He seems to be saying that basic human rights do, in fact, come straight from God. But certain civil rights are, indeed, granted to us by our government. Locke helps us understand this better by breaking down our rights into two categories.

The first category is ruled by natural reason, which tells us that men, being once born, have a right to their preservation, and consequently to meat and drink and such other things as Nature affords for their subsistence… Nature has given us reason and we use it as a reliable guide in conducting our daily affairs. Governments provide legal guidelines for its citizens. But these guidelines change according to the circumstances of the times. Once upon a time Americans didn’t have a legal right to buy liquor; now we do. Times change, laws change.

But Locke thinks there’s another category of rights which can’t be changed. This second category is "revelation," which gives us an account of those grants God made of the world to Adam, and to Noah and his sons… These God-granted rights are permanent. They can’t be handed out by government; they can’t be taken away by government. It’s true that some nations take away the civil rights of its citizens every day. But Locke would reply that these aren’t legitimate powers. Locke says that the great and chief end of men’s… putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property. One of the most primary functions of legitimate government is to protect the property of its citizens. A government which takes away private property is not acting for the common good of all its citizens. And Locke goes to great pains to stress that these permanent rights apply primarily to things which we all have in common. This is the real basis for community. Because as Locke understands political theory it is very clear that God, as King David says (Psalm 115. 16), "has given the earth to the children of men," given it to mankind in common. For Locke this declaration is the foundation of all basic human rights. All human beings are born with God-given rights. Governments are free to add more rights but they can’t take these away.