Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure if there are no comments because it's over all your heads or because it's so bloody spot on (have I revealed myself as an Englishman sitting in Greece?) that it's redundant to comment. intelligent writing is never after four months it's about time someone said bloody spot on.

8/02/2013 12:14 PM  

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