Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Thursday, March 28, 2013


A few years ago there was a television program called Gilligan’s Island. Several people were stranded on an island for a long time. So they decided to put on a musical play to cheer up one of the castaways. What does that have to do with Shakespeare? Now we know that they took music from Bizet’s Carmen and set it with these words: neither a borrower or a lender be; do not forget, stay out of debt. Years later that music and these words still come rushing back when we read the lines: Neither a borrower nor a lender be… And many readers want to yell out, hey, I know that line! It’s from Gilligan’s Island! Shakespeare would be amused. And if he were alive today Shakespeare may very well enjoy watching episodes of Gilligan’s Island himself. He was that kind of writer.

In this play, for example, we find Lord Polonius giving advice to his son Laertes. Laertes is a young man leaving to go abroad, not much different from a modern student leaving home to go away to college; maybe as a foreign exchange student. Polonius starts off his speech with a short introduction: …my blessing with thee! And these few precepts in thy memory See thou character. Here’s one of the biggest problems for modern English readers of Shakespeare. We know the meaning of all the words. But somehow they don’t seem to go together. And these few precepts in thy memory See thou character. What does that mean in plain English? If we want to get the full eloquence and depth of thought from Shakespeare, then we have to stop and think. Polonius is giving his son some fatherly advice. Here’s one of his “precepts”: Give thy thoughts no tongue, Nor any unproportioned thought his act. Here’s another one: Beware Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee. And we’ll take one more: Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel...

When Polonius says these few precepts in thy memory See thou character what he means is this. Son, I’m going to give you some good advice. I want you to remember these precepts while you’re away from home. Not only do I want you to remember them, I want you to put them into practice. I want you to use these few precepts to mold your permanent character. So first of all, Give thy thoughts no tongue, Nor any unproportioned thought his act. Don’t blurt out the first thing that pops into your head. A grown man should know how to hold his tongue. Guard your thoughts and don’t go around doing things without first thinking about what you’re doing. Don’t go off half-cocked and get into fights. And here’s some advice about fighting: Beware Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee. Don’t go looking for a fight. But once you’re in one, finish it. Make sure the other guy knows not to mess with you again. And what if there’s more than one guy? You’re going to need some help. In a good bar fight make sure you’ve got some buddies you can count on. And Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel. Once you’ve got some solid buddies who will stick with you, make sure you stick with them. Polonius gives more advice and ends with a famous quote: This above all: to thine ownself be true. This needs no translation. Each reader must personally decide what it means to be “true to myself.”

Gilligan is a long way off from Hamlet. But Hamlet is classic Elizabethan drama; and Gilligan’s Island is, in its own way, classic American sitcom. In one classic episode of Gilligan’s Island these two classics briefly cross paths. What would Shakespeare think about that? He might like it. He might point out that “I once wrote a play about some castaways on an island. I think I called it The Tempest. But tell me a little more about this Gilligan character.”

Friday, March 22, 2013

MILL: On Liberty (III. Of Individuality…)

In section II of his essay Mill dealt with freedom of thought and discussion. Now he moves on to consider a different question: how should we live? This is one of those “permanent interests of man” that Mill mentioned in his Introduction. This is also one of the questions that the ancient Greek philosophers Plato (The Republic) and Aristotle (Ethics and Politics) spent much time on. Mill’s own opinion is that just as …human beings should be free to form opinions, and to express their opinions without reserve; …men should be free to act upon their opinions; to carry these out in their lives, without hindrance… But then Mill adds this provision: so long as it is at their own risk and peril. He wants to make a clear distinction between what we think or talk about and the things we actually do. Mill has also established that the freedom of discussion must include hearing both sides of the issue. Taking Mill’s advice we can proceed to examine the question: how should we live? Mill’s own opinion boils down to the simple formula that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. This sounds reasonable. No one wants to live like a robot. In some ways our individuality is the most important thing we own. So what can be the other side of the argument? Should we prefer conformity instead? That seems dull. The other side of the argument is not so much that we shouldn’t have individual personalities. The other side of the argument concerns the basic NATURE of our personalities. Where do they come from? Mill believes personality comes from within each individual, hence his preference for “individuality.” Following this line of thought, he believes there should be different experiments of living… Only then will our true selves emerge. Mill summarizes by saying: Where, not the person's own character, but the traditions of customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress. To follow the traditions of customs of other people is not developing our own personalities. We’re just following the crowd blindly. Putting it in simple terms Mill concludes that he who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice. The critic’s response to Mill’s philosophy might go something like this. Mr. Mill, you say that he who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice. Well that’s just nonsense. Of course he makes a choice. He makes a choice to follow the custom. He may just be lazy and take the easy way out. Then we would both agree.  But on the other hand he may have a well-devised strategy to live in the ways that his parents and his ancestors lived. He doesn’t think this is just blindly following the crowd. He believes the traditions and customs of his fathers have the advantage and the wisdom of experience behind them. Long ago they tried different experiments of living and they rejected the ones that didn’t work. We should learn from their mistakes and not repeat them. People who adopt new and untried ways are starting from scratch. They’re adopting a crap-shoot lifestyle. It may work out; but it may not. Many creative people (even philosophers) have gone down in flames experimenting with different lifestyles. And it’s a mistake, Mr. Mill, to think that we come into this world with personalities just waiting to blossom. On the contrary, our personalities are given shape and substance by the traditions and customs of the homes and communities we live in. We find not only wisdom, but happiness and contentment in the treasuries of our common heritage. For that reason we don’t share your notion of individuality. We believe the individual, by himself, is poor soil for growth. It needs the fertility of custom and tradition.

A critic may also have this closing question: what would Mill think about his own book being included in the Great Books of western tradition?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

MILL: On Liberty (On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion)

In the second part of his essay On Liberty John Stuart Mill talks about a topic dear to the hearts of all Great Books discussion groups: On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.  Mill tells us plainly where he stands and wants to explain why it’s a good idea to have free and open discussions on everything.  He says if all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.  Every man should have his say.  No subject is to be left un-discussed, and no stone left unturned, in mankind’s ongoing quest for knowledge.  This is clearly the way Mill thinks things ought to be.  The question for the Great Books reader is: what do other Great Books authors have to say about this kind of freedom?  This should be a no-brainer.  For most modern readers it  doesn’t even seem to be a serious question.  So it may come as something of a shock to learn that St. Augustine once said: Rome has spoken, the question is closed.  Augustine was Roman Catholic but the principle is the same for other orthodox believers too.  A similar Protestant notion might be “the Bible has spoken…” or a Jewish notion that “Yahweh has spoken…” The main point is: the question is closed.  There will be no further discussion on this question.  Now we have a problem.  There have been few people in history who were better educated or as intellectually gifted as J.S. Mill and St. Augustine.  But their opinions on this matter could hardly be farther apart.  How can this be?  We might look to Freud for a modern answer why Mill and Augustine are so different.  Freud believed that repressed desires lurk in our minds, beneath our consciousness, and we’re really unaware of what motivates us to do the things we do.  He believes pleasure and pain are what ultimately drive us.  In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud says very different paths may be taken in that direction and we may give priority either to the positive aspect (gaining pleasure) or to its negative aspect (avoiding pain).  Under this theory we might conclude that Mill may have subconsciously been using philosophy as a substitute for pleasure-seeking.  Therefore his personal philosophy would reflect an effort to free him from his own social and sexual timidity.  He would naturally want an intellectual outlet that would not be restrictive.  So (goes this theory) Mill was merely using Freud’s “positive aspect” to gain secret sexual pleasure from philosophy.  Augustine, on the other hand, may have been subconsciously using philosophy (or theology) as a check on his passions.  He had been rather wild in his younger days and therefore needed a philosophy which would restrain his unrestrained lusts.  Under Freud’s theory this was Augustine’s “negative aspect” or attempt to deny sexual pleasures that he was actually secretly longing for.  Well.  All that may be one way to read Mill and Augustine.  But there may be a better reading.  Maybe Mill and Augustine just had different goals.  Mill believes Augustine is living under a dead dogma, not a living truth; while Augustine believes Mill is using dead reason, not a living faith.  In his work The City of God Augustine wrote that there are two different realms in this world: the city of God and the city of man.  Augustine wrote that there are two cities, according to the language of the scriptures.  The one consists of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit.  In this view Mill inhabits the city of man.  The ultimate goal of a citizen of the city of man is to have a good life in this world.  So Mill puts his emphasis on the search for truth in this world.  Anything which inhibits that goal is rejected.  Therefore Augustine’s idea just retards human progress.  For Augustine, on the other hand, the ultimate goal is salvation.  A citizen of the city of God wants to make it to heaven.  Therefore Mill’s ideas just hinder our journey to heaven.  So there we have it: two men with two vastly opposing views produce two great books.  This is food for great discussions.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

MILL: On Liberty (Introduction)

John Stuart Mill is crystal clear when introducing what he wants to talk about in this essay On Liberty. He will discuss the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. This is a problem that goes all the way back to the earliest reading in the Great Books series. In The Iliad Achilles questions the authority of Agamemnon and the rest of the Greeks to take away what he has gained in their war on Troy. What right does society have to tell me what to do? What right does it have to take away anything that I’ve earned with my own labor? This is the core of the argument. And Mill gets right to the core of his answer: The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle… That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. In other words, the ONLY reason society can legitimately interfere with what I do is when I threaten another member, or members, of the community. Otherwise, I should be left alone to live as I please. Society should not interfere with my personal life, even if it’s for my own benefit. A man should be free to plan and live his own life according to his own standards. Mill says the government should have virtually no say in how I choose to live: He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. Mill’s principles are clear. The government shouldn’t force me to do some things and forbid me to do other things, even if it made me a better, happier, wiser person. The only question now is: what would happen if we put Mill’s theory into actual practice?

First of all, we have to be clear about who would be included in Mill’s theory, and who would not: we are not speaking of children… because children don’t have the capacity to think critically and understand the consequences of their actions. Their parents or some other responsible adult should make decisions for them until they’re old enough to make their own well-informed decisions. This makes sense. But then Mill goes on to say: for the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. This would be more controversial. Put in blunt terms: do civilized nations have a moral responsibility to take care of uncivilized nations? Mill thinks so: …Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. If we’re sure that citizens of another country aren’t capable of governing themselves then we should take steps to preserve and improve their social conditions until they’re capable of governing in a wise manner.

But other than those two exceptions Mill believes we should leave all other (adult) people alone: each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. In practical terms what would this mean regarding national health care? Would Mill disapprove of public schools? What about state-mandated test scores for students? Mill would stand his ground and say the government should stay out of it. Why? Because in the long run mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest. Americans believe strongly in the principle of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Mill seems to be calling our bluff. He asks: how much liberty can we be trusted with? He answers his own question: it’s not up to ME to decide how much freedom YOU should have.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Dewey's Notion of Habit

What is a habit?  It is an action performed in a particular way such that the repetition of the action is more or less predictable, without variation, and without a requirement for any particular thought prior to the act.  In other words, it is an act performed without the benefit of pre-cognition.  No action can be described as a habit if it is a singular occurrence. Yet, it is also true that not every act which occurs repeatedly is a habit.  Mechanistic motions which proceed automatically, like the hands of a clock, are not habits.

Habits, at least, initially, must be set into motion by an act of will. This is what separates habits from what are called  "conditioned responses." We form the habit of placing our keys in the same place so that we will not forget where they are when  we need them. It does not matter that we do this automatically.  The initial association between keys and location was done deliberately. Further thought about where our keys are located is not required because the pattern does not vary.

But all repetitions are not habits. If we are startled by a loud noise or some other surprise, our heart may skip a beat. This is a pure physiological response that occurs below the threshold of conscious experience. Not a habit.  It doesn't seem to me that Dewey makes this distinction between "habits" and ordinary acts that are repeated without cognition.

The difference between "good" habits and "bad" is presumably the nature of the outcome, and whether the habit is conducive to our health and happiness or not.  Dewey says "only the man whose habits are already good can know what the good is." Is this really true?  It would seem that Dewey has put the cart before the horse.  If we have no idea of the good in our mind then our discovery of it is left to chance.  This implies that our habits are created willy-nilly, without the benefit of a moral compass. If we decide to do something and it turns out badly, then do we really expect the outcome to improve if we keep doing it? Of course not. That is the definition of insanity: to keep doing the same thing over and over (a habit) while expecting a different outcome.  If reality functioned that way then science would be impossible. All probability is derived from the expectation of certain outcomes from particular conditions. If you want a different outcome, then you must vary one of the conditions. To say that we must do good before we can know good is strange indeed, considering that for many of us the belief that good exists (or is possible) is the very thing that motivates us to find it.

Friday, March 01, 2013

DEWEY: Habits and Will

John Dewey is one of only a handful of Americans included in the Great Books. It’s always interesting to ponder this question: how well do American ideas and values hold up when we compare them with some of the classic texts of Western tradition? In this week’s reading, for instance, we can tackle the question of personal identity. What is it that makes “me” me? John Dewey takes a shot at answering that question. He thinks we’re composed of our habits. Dewey says it’s really very simple…we are the habit. That’s a very interesting definition of me: I am my habits; the good ones, the bad ones, and the ones I don’t even know about. Then Dewey goes on to say that all habits are demands for certain kinds of activity; and they constitute the self. In other words, we are what we do. That makes sense. It sounds American. It describes human life without going into a bunch of mumbo jumbo. But Aristotle views things from an ancient Greek perspective and he has this to say about Dewey’s perspective: We must not follow those who advise us to stick to human thoughts; they say since we’re only mortal men, we should have mortal thoughts, as mortals should. Dewey’s common sense philosophy doesn’t meet Aristotle’s requirements. Why? Because (Aristotle says) we should try to become immortal as far as it is possible and do our utmost to live in accordance with what is highest within us. Aristotle agrees with Dewey that habits are important. And they both agree that all men are mortal. But Dewey seems to be saying we should aim for things which are achievable; Aristotle says we should aim for things which are highest. This is the difference between American and Greek democracy.

We can also compare Dewey on another question: where do ideas come from? Dewey has an answer. And that answer has its foundation in, you guessed it, Habit. Remember, we ARE the habit. So it seems natural that’s where ideas come from too. He says …a wish gets definite form only in connection with an idea, and an idea gets shape and consistency only when it has a habit back of it… Habits generate the ideas. Dewey goes on to say: Ideas, thoughts of ends, are not spontaneously generated. There is no immaculate conception of meanings or purposes. In other words, ideas don’t just pop out of nowhere. They’re connected to our habits. This is crucial. Here’s why. Dewey believes that Reason pure of all influence from prior habit is a fiction… So what? Well, consider what Kant says about conscience: Conscience is an instinct to pass judgment upon ourselves in accordance with natural laws. It is not a mere faculty, but an instinct… If our conscience is molded strictly by habits, the way Dewey believes, then we’re all products of our environment. The way we’re raised is who we become. But if Kant is correct then we all have an inborn instinct to determine our own destiny, regardless of how we’re raised. That’s a big difference. Dewey says those who attack the notion of thought pure from the influence of experience, usually identify experience with sensations impressed upon an empty mind. Kant is from the “pure thought” school, as Dewey puts it. Henry Adams (another American) in The Education of Henry Adams does a good job showing how the “experience” school works: He first found himself sitting on a yellow kitchen floor in strong sunlight. He was three years old when he took this earliest step in education; a lesson of color. The second followed soon; a lesson of taste… he remembered quite clearly his aunt entering the sickroom bearing in her hand a saucer with a baked apple. John Dewey says ideas don’t just pop into our heads. We have to personally experience what yellow is, what a baked apple is. This conversation could go on but we’re still left with our original question: how do American ideas stack up? In the end each reader must decide for himself if Dewey can stand beside Aristotle and Kant.