Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, April 27, 2013


Alas! poor Yorick.  -Hamlet (Act V, Scene One)

George Jones passed away this week. So what does that have to do with Great Books? Actually, his death has a great deal to do with Great Books. For those who aren’t familiar with who he was, George Jones was to country music sort of like what Alexander the Great was to Greek history or Julius Caesar was to Roman history. And to paraphrase one of George’s songs: who’s gonna fill their shoes? Men like these don’t come across the stage of history very often. And characters like Hamlet don’t come across the stage of drama very often. In this play Hamlet meditates on the ultimate end of all human beings, even people as great as Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar, or George Jones; or even me and you.

In Act V Hamlet is talking to his friend Horatio. They come across a couple of guys digging a grave. And Hamlet has this habit of daydreaming out loud about philosophical things. So naturally when he sees a freshly-dug grave his thoughts take off: what’s going to happen to us Horatio? Who knows what happens to us once we’re put into the ground? Even a man like Alexander the Great will dissolve into dust. And who knows if that dust won’t someday find its way back into this world to plug up a keg of beer? Think about it, Horatio, what would Alexander say if he came back and saw his body (or what was left of it) being used in a keg of beer at a rowdy college frat party? Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Is this what we’re born for, to wind up in a beer keg? Or take Julius Caesar. Not so many years after he was assassinated his body must have turned to clay. Now imagine some peasant digging up a clod of dirt outside his house and using it to patch up a hole to keep the cold wind out. That could be Caesar’s body for all we know. Is this what we’re born for, to be plaster against bad weather? How could Horatio answer such questions? How can anyone?

Hamlet may be a melancholy man, but he does have a point. Where will any of us be a hundred years from now? Maybe we can’t say for sure where we’ll be on a map. But one thing we know for sure is that we’ll all be dead. Thinking about that kind of stuff is enough to make anybody melancholy. So most of us, most of the time, either don’t bother thinking about it or push it out of our minds when thoughts about death intrude; which brings us back to George Jones and the Great Books. When someone dies, we can’t ignore it any more. Then what? Hamlet had the same problem we do. Most people have probably seen a drawing or a painting of Hamlet holding up a skull and saying: Alas! poor Yorick. Who’s Yorick? Yorick was the George Jones of the Danish court in Hamlet’s childhood. The Danes didn’t have country music for singers to sing about broken hearts and fools in love. But they had a court jester who did essentially the same thing. Yorick brought music and laughter and joy into the royal family and courtesans. But Yorick also brought the tough truths of life to them. Hamlet was seven years old when Yorick died. Hamlet still remembers riding on his back and the jokes and songs Yorick would make up. Now nothing is left of Yorick but a silent skull. Is this the final end of us all; even me and you and George Jones? Is this the cold hard truth about life? George Jones was confronted with the same cold hard truth and wrote a song about it for his own “court” of country music fans: “You don't know who I am /But I know all about you… I'm gonna say this just one time / Time is running out on you / You best remember me my friend / I am the cold hard truth.” Shakespeare couldn’t have said it any better. George Jones, 1931-2013, RIP.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


Tragedy is an imitation of an action… -Aristotle On Tragedy (Fifth Series, Volume 3)

One of the main advantages of reading the Great Books is that we get to read “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” The whole idea of the Great Books is to return to the texts that readers have preferred for the past 2500 years. Occasionally we get to read and compare the best of the best; sort of an all-star Great Books selection. In the Western tradition it doesn’t get any better than comparing notes on Aristotle and Shakespeare.

Aristotle had much to say about many topics and he took great pains to outline the foundational elements of drama in general and tragedy in particular. For example, how can we know a good tragedy from a bad one? For starters, Aristotle says a good tragedy has to have a certain noble magnitude and be expressed in noble language. A drug addict dying in a city gutter is sad but by Aristotle’s definition it’s not tragic. Why not? Because the drug addict doesn’t make a good tragic hero. Hamlet makes a good tragic hero because (a) he’s a prince of noble birth, and (b) he expresses himself well. The English language has become filled with Hamlet’s phrases such as: “To be or not to be…” or “what a piece of work is man.” So even though the drug addict may actually be a better person than Hamlet in some ways, the drug addict will never be a tragic hero by Aristotle’s terms.

And the quote given above gives us another clue why Hamlet is a tragic hero. By claiming that tragedy imitates action Aristotle is rejecting the idea expressed earlier in the play that “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” For Aristotle things don’t become good or bad by thinking about them, but by doing them (or in some cases by not doing them). Hamlet is a classic case of someone not doing the right thing. But he’s not the only one who doesn’t do the right thing in this play. Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother) and Claudius (Hamlet’s stepfather) both know that Hamlet is getting dangerous. And yet they don’t do much more than send for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find out what’s wrong with him. What are a parent’s duties in a situation like this? What should parents do when they know their adult children have become mentally unhinged? And speaking of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, what are their responsibilities to Hamlet as his friends? Do friends spy on their friends? Hamlet accuses them of abandoning their friendship with him in order to support Claudius, Hamlet’s stepfather and new King of Denmark.

And since we’re talking of kings, does Claudius have special obligations beyond those of a stepfather? Claudius is also a king. Hamlet says things to Claudius that may be considered rude or ill-bred for a child to say to a parent. But for a subject to say the same things to a king would be considered treason. And Hamlet himself is caught up in this double-bind. Why doesn’t he go ahead and follow the ghost’s instructions to kill Claudius? Hamlet doesn’t know himself. He has the motive, he has the means, and he has the willpower to do it. But somehow he just can’t go through with it. Many readers consider this to be Hamlet’s tragic flaw: he knows what needs to be done but he just can’t do it. Laertes is Hamlet’s opposite. Laertes returns from Paris hell-bent on seeking revenge. And he’ll have it too. No wasting time thinking about it. Laertes will move heaven and earth to avenge his own father’s death. Can Hamlet say that? No. And for many readers that makes it a tragedy.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


To be, or not to be: that is the question… -Hamlet (Act III, Scene One)

An email from the Nashville Shakespeare Festival for Shakesbeer 2013 started out with these lines: “To brew or not to brew, that is the question. After all; the empty vessel makes the loudest sound. Can one desire too much of a good thing? Of course not, and as good luck would have it, there are friends, Romans, countrymen who have lent us their beers!”

That’s clever advertising. In modern America “To be, or not to be…” (or variations on that theme) has become one of the most popular lines Shakespeare ever wrote. Even people who never read Shakespeare have heard “To be, or not to be…” Why is this line so popular with American audiences? For one thing, it’s concise; just the right size for an age used to getting news and philosophy in crisp little sound bites. There are six words in this phrase and they’re all short, easy words; none of them is more than three letters. This is what we nowadays call a second- or third-grade reading level. Virtually anyone can understand what these words say. But how many of us know what they mean? There are two sides to that question: what do the words mean for us, and also what did they mean to Hamlet? So, let’s move on to consider the first part: what do the words mean for us?

Maybe one reason Americans like this phrase so much is because it gives us a choice. And we’re a consumer-centric society: first class or coach? Chocolate or vanilla? Would you like to supersize that order? To be, or not to be? Having a choice is a good thing. But too much of a good thing may not be good. Too many choices can be overwhelming sometimes. Maybe Hamlet isn’t really mad (or crazy) after all. Maybe Hamlet’s real problem is that he’s simply overwhelmed with too many choices: his dad’s ghost, his mom’s remarriage, his feelings for Ophelia. Can Hamlet choose “not to be” Hamlet? Can he choose to ignore the influence of his father (or his father’s ghost)? Can he choose to ignore that his mother is in bed every night with his uncle? Can he choose to walk away from his romantic and erotic attraction to Ophelia? These are the kinds of questions that appeal to educated post-Freudian Americans. But they aren’t the questions that Hamlet was pondering in this play.

For Hamlet “To be, or not to be…” is to be taken literally. In the end is life worth all the troubles we have to endure? Not only will time eventually ravage our bodies and our minds as we grow old. Long before that happens we’ll have to put up with a whole host of embarrassing or infuriating problems. Powerful people will often treat us badly. We will be disrespected by many. We may be spurned by lovers who lose interest. Or unjustly accused of crimes we didn’t commit. Sometimes it seems as if our lives are created more by chance than by choice. Is life worth all this trouble? Hamlet wonders if it wouldn’t be better to die, to sleep. To sleep peacefully would be the final relief from this world of woe. But on the other hand, Hamlet ponders, what if that sleep isn’t peaceful after all? What if it’s even worse than this world we’re trying to leave behind? What if it’s like hell? What if it IS hell? Ay, there’s the rub (another famous Shakespeare phrase). To use an old American phrase, for Hamlet to take his own life may be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. So Hamlet chooses “to be.” Despite all its troubles, his own troubled life is the role Hamlet was meant to play. This is the hand he was dealt; this is the hand he will play.

Saturday, April 06, 2013


…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so… Hamlet (Act II, Scene Two)

One of the main themes in Hamlet is the relationship between thought and action; between thinking and doing. Here we have a summary of Hamlet’s problem: he thinks too much. And he seems to think that more thinking will solve his problems. There’s nothing wrong with thinking seriously about problems. In the Great Books tradition Socrates encouraged us to think more deeply. Aristotle taught us how to think more clearly. John Stuart Mill tried to persuade us to think more freely. This back-and-forth swapping of ideas has been called The Great Conversation. But Hamlet somehow keeps getting caught up inside his own head. He doesn’t have any real conversations with the other characters in this play. They’re just blank screens for him to project onto and reflect his own inward thoughts. But let’s back up for a moment and consider the proposition that there’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Two questions: What does that mean exactly? And, is it true?

In the Great Books Conversation there are two opposing opinions on this topic. One opinion is that thinking does, in fact, lead us to a better understanding of good and evil. The argument goes something like this: we’re human beings. We live in this world. It’s the only world we know. Values are created BY human beings FOR human beings. There may be other rules for creatures living in heaven, but those would be rules for heavenly creatures such as angels, not for people. We human beings must forge our own human understanding of what good is and what evil is. The motto for this outlook is: Man is the measure of all things. Therefore, we all must define good and evil for ourselves. Our reading of Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche holds this view. Zarathustra doesn’t sit around thinking about his problems or pondering the meaning of good and evil. Zarathustra dares to go out into the real world and creates his own values as he goes.

That’s one approach to life: I make up my own mind and determine for myself what’s right and wrong. The other approach is that some things are right or wrong regardless of my opinion or yours or Zarathustra’s. Zarathustra may well have been right in his opinion. But he also could have been wrong. How would we know? Human beings are fallible. Sometimes we have good intentions and still get things wrong. So how do we know for sure how to do the right thing? In our reading of Exodus Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments written, literally, in stone. As if to say, these are rock-solid values. You can always count on these. Why? Because these values come straight from the hand of God. Human beings are confused and change their minds a lot. God is never wrong. And he never changes. To substitute my own puny understanding of the universe instead of God’s is hubris. You have your opinion, I have mine, that fellow has his. But in the end there’s only one thing that endures, and it’s not Zarathustra. It’s God.

Between these two world views stands Hamlet. His father’s ghost has asked Hamlet to kill his uncle. But also in Hamlet’s mind is the commandment Thou shalt not kill. So Hamlet is caught in the middle. Murder is wrong but how can he say no to his own father?  Does he really have freedom to choose or does he just think he does?  For Hamlet all this thinking feels a lot like being in prison.  For us it's just another part of The Great Conversation.