Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, August 24, 2013

HOMER: The Iliad (Book 1)

Most of the books we read in the Great Books Series weren’t written in English. A few authors are American: John Dewey and Henry James, for example. Shakespeare and Chaucer were British. But most authors in the Great Books spoke and wrote in other languages. Chekhov and Tolstoy were Russian; Clausewitz was German; Machiavelli was Italian; Thucydides and Aeschylus were Greek. This week’s reading highlights another Greek: Homer. Except for some of the selections from the Bible, Homer’s Iliad is the oldest work in the Great Books Series. The Iliad was written around 700 B.C. The World Book Encyclopedia says that Genesis was written sometime between 1000-500 B.C. The Book of Job 600-400 B.C. and Ecclesiastes 400-300 B.C. Scholars don’t agree on dates but we do know these works came from much earlier oral traditions: Genesis somewhere between 2000-1500 B.C., the Book of Job circa 1600 B.C. and Solomon (“The Preacher” and supposed author of Ecclesiastes) about 965 B.C. In other words, these stories were handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation for several hundred years before they were finally written down. Homer’s Iliad falls into this category. The reader may ask: so what? Who cares when The Iliad was written? The main point here is these are very old stories. Many readers don’t particularly care when something was written and they may not care if it was written in the ancient Middle East or in 19th century Russia or in pre-historic Greece. But all readers care about the language used to tell the story. The Great Books Series are published for English-speaking readers. The Iliad has to be translated into a language that I can understand; otherwise, it’s (literally) Greek to me. But does the English translation matter? Some folks say no; others say it makes all the difference in the world. The Great Books Series, for example, chose the King James translation of the Bible. Why? They thought it was the best. A useful exercise may be to compare three translations of the opening lines of the Iliad and make our own conclusions whether translations matter.

Here are the opening lines of the Iliad from Richmond Lattimore (1951): “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians, hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls of heroes”

 Here are the opening lines of the Iliad from our Great Books selection by Robert Fitzgerald (1974): “Anger be now your song, immortal one, Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous, that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss and crowded brave souls into the undergloom”

 And here’s the newest translation by Robert Fagles (1990): “Rage; Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls”

 Translations do matter. Look at the first words of these three translations: Sing; Anger; Rage. The first step sets the tone for the rest of the journey. In all three translations the dead all end up in the same place: (1) the house of Hades, (2) the undergloom or (3) the House of Death. The story’s the same but the words chosen by the storyteller matter. It changes the whole tone of the story. Modern translators choose English words to tell us what Homer said in Greek. Homer chose written words to translate The Iliad for a new audience: readers. In that sense, Homer translated The Iliad long before Lattimore or Fitzgerald or Fagles. For Homer, translations do matter; and he was a master at it.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


What is evil? For some folks defining evil is kind of like trying to define pornography. Here’s what one judge had to say about pornography:
“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description "hard-core pornography" and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” (Justice Potter Stewart) 
  The Jewish philosopher Maimonides tried to define evil in the 12th century. He wanted to go beyond the common-sense notion of “I know it when I see it.” Maimonides wanted to examine evil as a philosophical concept rather than an everyday experience. In everyday speech we can talk about the evils of poverty, the evils of cancer or the evils of war. But are these really evils? Maimonides would answer: yes and no. For Maimonides “evils are only evils in relation to something…” There’s not a tangible something out there somewhere, a thing that we can point to and call Poverty or Cancer or War. These things really exist. But they only exist “in relation to something” else. For poverty to exist there has to be money; poverty is not having money. For cancer to exist there has to be health; cancer is not having health. For war to exist there has to be peace; war is not having peace. So for Maimonides, evil is not having something; it’s NOT having something:
“evil is the privation of this thing or one of the states suitable for it… all evils are privations.”
 For example, cancer itself isn’t the evil. The evil comes in being deprived of something else, in this case good health. Maimonides puts it this way:
 “With respect to man, for instance, his death is an evil, since death is his nonbeing. Similarly his illness, his poverty, or his ignorance are evils with regard to him, and all of them are privations.”
On first reading this sounds like Maimonides is just splitting hairs. Medieval philosophers were famous for doing that. But if I’m the one with cancer then a philosophical definition of evil is useless to me. Who cares if the evil of cancer is a lack of health? As Maimonides says, evil is only an evil “with regard TO HIM” as a real person. In Tolstoy’s story The Death of Ivan Ilych, we see this philosophy in action. Ivan can understand the logic of mortality perfectly well. He just can’t understand the reality of his own death and his own non-being. Maimonides knows this. He knows that human beings are frail creatures. Like Chekhov in last week’s reading, Maimonides was also a doctor. He knew that this frail human body and mind of ours is part of the whole problem of evil. He goes on to say that
 “Great evils that come about between the human individuals who inflict them upon one another because of purposes, desires, opinions, and beliefs, are all of them likewise consequent upon privation. For all of them derive from ignorance. I mean from a privation of knowledge.”
 For Maimonides ignorance is the real evil. Some Great Books authors agree with Maimonides on this point. Socrates seems to think that we do evil only because we have a faulty notion of what good is. If we really know what good is then we will reject evil. Others disagree. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kurtz looks into his own heart and is horrified at what he finds. He’s not ignorant of the true nature of evil. He knows perfectly well what it is. In the dark and distant jungles of Africa he’s been seduced by it. His mind is still perfectly clear but his heart has been turned evil by dark forces. So does evil come from human ignorance or dark forces? These two definitions of evil are not just splitting philosophical hairs. They matter. If evil is merely human ignorance then education is the answer. On the other hand, if evil is an active dark force set loose in the world, we’ve got a whole different set of problems on our hands. Either way defining evil is a serious business. “I know it when I see it” is not good law; it’s even worse as a philosophical answer for evil.

Friday, August 09, 2013

CHEKHOV: Uncle Vanya (Act IV)

As this play comes to a close the reader is left to ponder what it really takes to live a happy life. An elderly art professor and his lovely young wife visit a quiet country estate for a few days. Everybody gets bored. Then for the first three acts all hell breaks loose.

In Act IV the professor and his wife decide to move back to the city and the life they much prefer. What has just happened here? What does it all mean? One of the few well-adjusted characters in the whole play probably sums it up best. Marina simply says, “I wish I'd never laid eyes on them.” Once the professor and Helena leave, all the other lives can get back to normal. Marina says,
 “Now we shall have things as they were again: breakfast at eight, dinner at one, in the evening we’ll sit down to supper; everything in order as decent folks do, as Christians like to have it.”
 For Marina the orderly life is the good life. It may be boring to scholarly professors and their pretty wives. But it’s a decent life. It’s the kind of decent, simple living that country folk appreciate; especially when it’s contrasted against the kind of life the professor and Helena live. Of course the simple country life isn’t for everyone. That’s why the professor and Helena want to pack up and get out so quickly. Uncle Vanya was fine living there until Helena got him stirred up. Once he saw her, he began to see his own life as boring, unfulfilling and futile. He was no longer satisfied just running the estate:
 “Oh, my God! I am forty-seven years old. I may live to sixty; I still have thirteen years before me; an eternity! How shall I be able to endure life for thirteen years? What shall I do? How can I fill them?”
It’s funny that he never before thought of life as just filling up time until he died. But he got a taste of the dissatisfaction the professor and Helena brought with them out to the country. Then he became infected with the same vague listlessness and unhappiness they felt. Soon Uncle Vanya wanted a new life. He wanted to really live, not just drone on keeping up an old worn-out farm. So he tells Astrov about his new hopes and dreams:
 “Don't you see, if only I could live the rest of my life in some new way! If I could only wake some still, bright morning and feel that life had begun again; that the past was forgotten and had vanished like smoke.”
Astrov quickly dashes these hopes and dreams: “What nonsense! What sort of a new life can you and I look forward to? We have no hope.”

This is bleak. But Astrov hasn’t given up hope for all mankind: “It may be that posterity, which will despise us for our blind and stupid lives, will find some road to happiness…”

Sonia has another view of life. Her conclusion is, “What can we do? We must live our lives.”

This is a grim philosophy and gets worse:

 “We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us.”

This is bleaker than Astrov. Americans might ask if we ever found that road to happiness that Astrov was speaking of? Or do we just trudge on like those unhappy Russians living out their dull lives in the country? We all have different philosophies of life and may see ourselves in these characters. The professor wants to sell the farm and seize the day. Dr. Astrov resigns himself to melancholy and plants trees so some future generation may have a happier life. Uncle Vanya wants to start a new life with Helena; but those are worthless daydreams. Sonia just wants to grit her teeth and get through life as quickly as she can. Only Marina seems relatively content with her dull life. For Chekhov the road to a happy life is a narrow one; with plenty of pot holes along the way.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

CHEKHOV: Uncle Vanya (Act III)

All Great Books have to start somewhere. In the selection from Genesis we start “In the beginning” and find God himself hard at work, creating the heavens and the earth. In “Uncle Vanya” we find an interesting exchange between Helena and Sonia regarding work. Helena confesses to Sonia: “I wonder why you’re not bored, buzzing away all day; don’t you get tired of it? I’m dying of boredom. I don’t know what to do.” Sonia is used to hard work and tells Helena: “There’s plenty to do if you want to… You could help run this place, teach the children, care for the sick; isn't that enough?” But that’s not the kind of work Helena wants to do: “I don't know anything about such things, and besides, they don't interest me. It’s only in novels that women go out and teach and heal peasants; how can I suddenly begin to do it?” This is an attitude Sonia can’t understand and she tells Helena so: “How can you live here and not do it?”

When it comes to work there’s a whole gulf of understanding (and skill) separating Sonia and Helena. Helena doesn’t think there’s much to do; Sonia thinks there’s plenty to do. Helena’s bored; Sonia’s busy. Helena only wants to do things that “interest me;” Sonia does things that need doing. Helena doesn’t have many practical skills; Sonia can sell flour, teach, nurse, plant, harvest, clean the house and do many other things to make life more pleasant. So what is the reader supposed to make of all this? What is Chekhov trying to tell us? In another Great Books selection called “Rothschild’s Fiddle” Chekhov also takes up work as a primary theme. What’s the purpose of work anyway? Obviously one purpose is simply to keep us alive. We have to pay the bills. In “Rothschild’s Fiddle” we find a man called Jacob reflecting on his life. His wife has just passed away and what does Jacob start thinking about? He thinks about how he wasted the last forty or fifty years of his life. Jacob was a coffin maker and he made good coffins too. But he just barely got by. Instead of making coffins he should have spent his time catching fish and selling them, playing the fiddle for a fee at special events, running a ferry, raising and selling geese… why, he could have made a lot of money if he had only worked the right jobs.

So what is Chekhov trying to tell us? Maybe the same thing in “Uncle Vanya” that he told us in “Rothschild’s Fiddle.” Maybe there IS a connection between work and happiness. One theory is “do what you love and the money will follow” (Helena). Another theory is to do whatever needs doing (Sonia). A third theory is to take the best-paying job regardless of how fulfilling the job is personally (Jacob). But Chekhov doesn’t seem to take any of these paths. Maybe he’s trying to tell us that there’s NOT necessarily a connection between work and happiness. Maybe happiness is found somewhere else altogether. Helena didn’t work and she wasn’t happy. Sonia worked hard but she still wasn’t happy. Jacob worked but it was in the wrong business and he wasn’t happy either. Come to think of it, none of the characters in Chekhov’s stories are happy. It doesn’t much matter what kind of work they do. The real problem goes much deeper than that. All these characters seem restless, unfulfilled, incomplete, and somewhat empty. They’re all looking for something they don’t have. This theme is a relatively modern phenomenon. It never comes up in Genesis or Homer’s “Iliad.” It’s true that Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath” is looking for something but she knows exactly what she wants; a husband. It’s not until Hamlet that readers begin to wonder whether it’s better “to be, or not to be.” For Adam and Eve “to be” is the correct answer. “To be” a hero is Achilles’ goal and the Wife of Bath wants “to be” a wife. There’s a definite pattern here; a connection between living and being and working. Dead or inanimate things don’t work. Only living beings work. Helena could watch God Himself at work: “Let there be light!” and ask Him: “don’t you ever get bored with all this creation stuff?”