Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

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.


Blogger SMJ said...

I think almost any group of rational people can benefit from a period of silence and serious self-reflection. I don't agree that people in general are friendly towards one another. People are inclined to be friendly only with other people that are perceived to be like themselves. Strangers are never welcome but are almost always viewed with suspicion. Alas, this is why the world is almost always divided into "us" and "them." Most of the time, friendship is only possible between members of one's own society or one's neighborhood, or one's family. Almost never between people who don't share the same basic values.

2/21/2013 12:48 PM  

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