Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, July 27, 2013

CHEKHOV: Uncle Vanya (Act II)

A famous poem by Dylan Thomas begins like this: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In the second act of Uncle Vanya the Professor takes this advice seriously. He will not go gently, he won’t age gracefully and he wants everyone to know how he feels about it too. Here are the words used by the elderly Professor Serebrakoff to protest his fate: “It is funny that everybody listens to Ivan and his old idiot of a mother, but the moment I open my lips you all begin to feel ill-treated. You can't even stand the sound of my voice. Even if I am hateful, even if I am a selfish tyrant, haven't I the right to be one at my age? Don't I deserve it? Haven't I, I ask you, the right to be respected, now that I am old?” The professor complains that no one takes him seriously. He complains that he’s getting old. He complains that his legs hurt. He complains that the room’s too hot and he can’t breathe. In short, the professor has a hateful attitude. But his question is still a valid one: Even if he is a hateful, selfish tyrant; doesn’t he have the right to be respected? The answer may well be: no. At this point in the play even his own family is getting worn down by his constant demand to be the center of attention.

And the professor’s hateful attitude seems to be infecting everyone around him. His own wife Helena proclaims that “something is wrong in this house” as she talks to Uncle Vanya: “Your mother hates everything but her pamphlets and the professor; the professor is vexed, he won't trust me, and fears you; Sonia is angry with her father, and with me, and hasn't spoken to me for two weeks; I am at the end of my strength, and have come near bursting into tears at least twenty times to-day. Something is wrong in this house.” So Helena’s on the verge of tears, Sonia’s mad, the professor is being his old hateful self, and Vanya’s mother hates almost everything too. It doesn’t sound like anyone’s going gently in this house. Everybody seems to be elbowing all the others for attention and “respect.” This is not a pleasant home. Some people think this may be a fairly accurate description of modern civilization. Helena claims that she’s a shallow person but she does have this insight to share: “You are cultured and intelligent, Ivan, and you surely understand that the world is not destroyed by crime and fire, but by hate and malice and all this petty squabbling. You should try to make peace, not growl at everything.” Chekhov’s message to “cultured and intelligent” modern folks seems to be this: war and crime is bad but your real problem is, you’re bored with life and you treat each other badly. That needs to change.

And the one doctor in the play (Astroff) seems to agree with Dr. Chekhov’s diagnosis. Astroff believes that “a human being should be entirely beautiful: the face, the clothes, the mind, the thoughts.” Those are high standards and yet it seems to be the goal of truly cultured and intelligent people throughout the ages to cultivate truth, goodness and beauty. These represent excellence in the intellectual (truth), moral (goodness) and physical (beauty) realms. It is rare for one person to consistently achieve excellence in all three areas. Helena, for example, is beautiful; but something’s missing. Astroff tells Sonia: “Your step-mother (Helena) is, of course, beautiful to look at, but don't you see? She does nothing but sleep and eat and walk and bewitch us, and that is all. She has no responsibilities, everything is done for her; am I not right? And an idle life can never be a good one.” This is old school philosophy straight out of Aristotle. His philosophy of happiness is to develop our skills to the best of our abilities; to achieve ‘excellence’ intellectually, morally and physically. This is Aristotle’s definition of classical excellence: the good life and the happy life are the same thing. Chekhov’s characters aren’t happy because they’re not living good lives. And that’s what they’re really raging against.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

CHEKHOV: Uncle Vanya (Act 1)

In last week’s reading Clausewitz takes war for granted.  He believes war is a natural extension of natural human activity and is no more unnatural than politics or law.  But some readers might argue that if we could eliminate war then most of our other problems would be solved too; at least the self-inflicted problems.  If we didn’t spend so much money on wars then we could spend more on social programs.  That sounds nice, but it’s not true, says Chekhov.  Even people living in the most pleasant and peaceful conditions have problems.  In fact, it’s much more likely that we ourselves are the problem.  The story of Uncle Vanya shows that our problems aren’t caused by war and lack of money.  The problem is that we simply get bored and don’t know what to do with ourselves.  Then what (or who) do we blame?

Chekhov was a doctor himself and was very sensitive to the pains and struggles ordinary people have to endure. But he was also a realist and didn’t flinch from looking at life as it really is. This combination made Chekhov a shrewd observer of the human condition. On one end of the scale we have pessimists. The Doctor (Astrov) speaks for the pessimists. “MARINA: You were handsome and young then, and now you are an old man and not handsome any more. You drink, too. DOCTOR: Yes, ten years have made me another man. And why? Because I am overworked…could I help growing old? And then, existence is tedious, anyway; it is a senseless, dirty business, this life…” The doctor is a good man. He works hard. He helps as many sick people as he can. But he finds life boring. Existence is tedious. His life is tedious. “It is a senseless, dirty business, this life.” In just a few words Chekhov has summed up a common human experience. It isn’t just Americans who, in the words of Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” These well-to-do Russians have their own quiet desperation.

On the other end of the scale are the sunny-side optimists. If the pessimists can’t see any sunshine in life, the optimists refuse to look at the dark side. Telyegin speaks for this brand of optimism: “Do you know, Marina, that as I walk in the fields or in the shady garden, as I look at this table here, my heart swells with unbounded happiness. The weather is enchanting, the birds are singing, we are all living in peace and contentment. What more could the soul desire?” This sounds like a happy man to me. Kind of like a Walt Disney movie. But Chekhov isn’t writing a Walt Disney movie. There’s a dark side to Telyegin’s life: “My wife ran away with a lover on the day after our wedding, because I’m not handsome. I have never failed in my duty since then. I love her and am true to her to this day. I help her all I can and have given my fortune to educate the daughter of herself and her lover. I have forfeited my happiness, but I have kept my pride.”  Telyegin can only keep up his optimism at the price of losing his touch with reality.  

Surely the meaning of life is found somewhere between these two extremes of pessimism and optimism. Chekhov’s world is a bittersweet world. For these characters life is mostly bitter but with just enough sweetness to keep them going. Chekhov doesn’t say whether this little glimpse of tantalizing sweetness is a blessing or a curse. It just helps get them from one day to the next. Aristotle’s idea of happiness is achieving one’s full potential, not just getting by from one day to the next. Obviously the folks in this play will never achieve their full potential. Uncle Vanya sums up the Professor this way: “the man has been writing on art for twenty-five years, and he doesn't know the very first thing about it.” The Professor doesn’t know much about art or about his own life either. But he sure knows how to complain. And by the end of Act I Dr. Chekhov has already diagnosed humanity’s self-inflicted disease: you live badly, my friends.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

CLAUSEWITZ: On War III (Courage)

As we read through the Great Books it’s amazing how many times we can sense Socrates lurking in the shadows. And so it is with this week’s reading. Clausewitz says “In danger, which is the most superior of all moral qualities? It is courage.” Socrates would have been all over that one. We can almost hear him saying something like: I agree with you Mr. Clausewitz that courage is the most superior of all moral qualities. But that doesn’t tell us what courage is, now does it? Just so we can be clear in our minds, what is it that we mean when we talk about “courage”? And then we would be off to the races exploring various definitions of what courage actually is. (Socrates himself did a pretty good job describing courage in “The Apology” when he said “wherever a man stations himself in belief that it is best, wherever he is stationed by his commander, there he must I think remain and run the risks…”) Of course it isn’t Clausewitz’ intention to write a philosophical treatise on courage; he’s writing about war. Nevertheless, Socrates would have been pleased I think at the way Clausewitz handles the sub-topic of courage in relationship to war.

Clausewitz says: “Now courage is certainly quite compatible with prudent calculation, but courage and calculation are nevertheless things different in kind and belonging to different parts of the mind.” This is an excellent Socratic statement. Courage and prudence are certainly compatible. Only a man who faces danger wisely can be courageous. A man who faces danger foolishly can only display foolishness, not courage. But even though courage and prudence usually go together, they’re not the same thing. They are “things different in kind” to use Clausewitz’ phrase. And because they’re different kinds of things they belong to different parts of the mind. Courage requires firmness and willpower; prudence requires cool, clear thinking. Socrates would probably go on to develop this theme. How can we cultivate firmness and willpower in our own lives? What kind of training will help us develop an ability to think more clearly? Socrates was a true philosopher.

But Clausewitz was a military general. His aim was to cultivate a certain kind of courage and develop a certain kind of prudence. He’s not interested in courage and prudence as philosophical theories. He’s interested in how these qualities can be applied to the art of war. Clausewitz believes that “The art of war has to do with living and with moral forces; from this it follows that it can nowhere attain the absolute and certain; there remains always a margin for the accidental…” Courage and prudence are certainly fundamental moral forces. So any theory of war has to include these forces as well as physical forces such as how many soldiers the enemy has. But courage and prudence are also what Clausewitz calls “living” forces. They’re not just abstract philosophical theories. They’re moral qualities which affect real life situations like war. War isn’t fought in a book; it’s fought in real life. And here once more we come face to face with the ghost of Socrates.

Socrates never wrote a book. We only have Plato’s version of what he said. So we may want to ponder for a moment; why is that? Maybe he thought books can’t take the place of real life. Books can tell us many things. But they can only tell us the same thing over and over. We can’t question a book the way we can question a real person. And for Socrates the whole point of life was to go around talking about subjects like courage and prudence and war. The whole point of Great Books is to read them and then talk about them with other people. Clausewitz provides a golden opportunity to talk about courage and war.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

CLAUSEWITZ: On War II (Studying War)

In his treatise “On Happiness” Aristotle said “Our discussion will be adequate if it achieves clarity within the limits of the subject matter. For precision cannot be expected in the treatment of all subjects alike…” Readers of Clausewitz might do well to ask: how much clarity and precision can we reasonably expect to find on the subject of war? In this week’s reading Clausewitz approaches the subject of war from several different angles.

Clausewitz claims that “War is never an isolated act. The will is no wholly unknown quantity: what it has been today tells us what it will be tomorrow. War never breaks out quite suddenly, and its spreading is not the work of a moment.” From this perspective war sounds like a branch of psychology. This may seem a little strange but the U.S. Department of Defense has a whole branch of operations dedicated to PSYOP programs. PSYOP deals with the psychological aspects of war by breaking “the will” of the enemy and reducing their mental strength to resist.

Of course all the mental strength in the world won’t help if a country doesn’t have the physical strength and resources to fight. What exactly are those physical resources? Clausewitz believes the three basic elements of war are these: (1) military force, (2) the country (geography), and (3) allies. Reading Thucydides tends to confirm Clausewitz on this. The Athenians dealt quite differently with two island enemies, Mytilene and Melos. They spared the Mytilenians but destroyed the Melians because the Athenians calculated that (1) Mytilene was much harder to defeat, (2) Melos was much closer to home, and (3) the nature of their alliances with Sparta.

These factors make war seem like a cold and calculating business. In some ways it is; but in some ways it is not. Clausewitz points out that “The result of war is never absolute: the probabilities of real life take the place of the extreme and absolute solutions demanded by theory.” Real life, including war, isn’t mathematics. We can control a mathematical equation. We can’t always control what will happen in a war. Clausewitz says “the actual situation supplies the data for (1) determining what is to be expected” and (2) “the unknown which has to be discovered.” This sounds suspiciously like an algebraic equation such as 2x=y, where x and y are variables. If we know what x is, we can solve the problem; if we know what y is, we can solve the problem. But how can we know for sure what the variables of war will be? Do we know what the weather will be like? Do we know how strong the enemy’s will to resist will be? Do we know how strong our own country’s will to win will be? No, we don’t.

So let’s look at the second part of Clausewitz’ theory and try to factor in “the unknown.” Armies always confront the unknown. Sometimes fighting it out is the only way to find out what x is or what y is. Because some things are unknown and aren’t “discovered” until the fighting starts. Is it worth going to war to find out? How far are we willing to go? Clausewitz says “it is left to the judgment to determine the limits of effort.” One of the basic questions of history is always: whose judgment? Who determines a country’s limits in waging war or seeking peace? In Thucydides the Melian leaders wouldn’t let the Athenian envoys speak directly to the people. They didn’t want the Athenians running a PSYOP program and demoralize the Melians. But Clausewitz would have told the Melians: you will lose. And he would have told them why: the calculations of war just don’t add up for you. Clausewitz shows that we can’t always predict war with mathematical precision; but war isn’t just blind chance either. Aristotle would say that in studying the subject of war this is about as clear an explanation as we’re ever going to get.