Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, October 25, 2013

CHAUCER: Wife of Bath's Tale (Poetic Justice)

In the Great Books Adult Series there are about 47 non-fiction readings and 28 fiction readings, depending on how we define “literature” as a genre. No matter how we classify them it still seems the Great Books are heavy on non-fiction and light on fiction. In that view this isn’t a balanced collection. But if we break down non-fiction into philosophy, history and science, then we get a different picture. A rough estimate is 28 literary readings, 28 philosophy readings, 17 in history, and 2 in science. Two conclusions follow: (1) people like reading stories, and (2) they like to think deeply about things.
But do we like them mixed together? It might be simpler if we pick a single topic. Justice is a good topic to use for our experiment. How is Justice handled in the Great Books series? The last reading in the series is Plato’s Republic. Here’s a quote from Plato: “Meddling among the classes, of which there are three, and exchange with one another is the greatest harm for the city and would most correctly be called extreme evil-doing (injustice)… the money-making, military and ruling classes doing what’s appropriate, each of them minding its own business in a city, that would be justice…” This phrase sounds jarring to modern American ears: justice is when everyone minds his own business. We don’t consider civic participation to be “meddling” in other people’s business. Democracy requires that we be well informed and actively participate in governing ourselves. Plato doesn’t disagree that we should be well informed. He just questions “the People’s” ability to govern themselves. Plato has a different concept of Justice: until we learn to govern our own passions, how can we be good citizens? So Plato’s goal is to turn citizens on to philosophy and follow Socrates’ advice to “know thyself.” Many modern Americans think philosophy is intellectual navel-gazing and mostly just a waste of time.
Chaucer’s Wife of Bath presents a different challenge for modern readers. She’s funny. She doesn’t go about doing philosophy with question and answer sessions, the way Socrates does. Instead, she tells a story. It starts out like a fable from the Dark Ages, a time when merry old England “was a land brim-full of fairy folk.” But the Wife of Bath isn’t telling a sweet bedtime tale for children. Early in the story a rape takes place. And this is not just some unfortunate misunderstanding of he said-she said but “by very force he took her maidenhead.” Today we claim that rape is not a sexual act, it’s what we now call an act of violence. In fact, that’s exactly what the Wife of Bath called it too: “This act of violence made such a stir, so much petitioning to the king for her, that he condemned the knight to lose his head by course of law. He was as good as dead (It seems that then the statutes took that view).” Rape was a capital offence in medieval England. But here’s the odd twist to her story: “…the queen, and other ladies too, implored the king to exercise his grace so ceaselessly, he gave the queen the case and granted her his life…” Now we’re back to a different challenge to our modern sense of justice. Should justice be blind? The knight committed rape. The penalty for rape is death. Or, should justice be tempered with mercy? The queen (and other courtly ladies too) want clemency for the knight. What about the girl who was raped? What did her family and friends want? The story implies she wasn’t a “lady” but one of the lower-class girls. Plato would say: see; this is what happens when different classes start meddling with Justice. But that’s not the Wife of Bath’s point. Not by a mile. The young knight is, in fact, pardoned and an old woman turns young and beautiful. Then they get married and live happily ever after. Is this Justice? No. But it is great literature. Just like a fairy tale. Isn’t it interesting that Plato banished poets from his Republic? Chaucer was a poet.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

CHAUCER: Wife of Bath’s Prologue (Philosophy and Sex)

For the past three weeks we’ve been reading about Montesquieu’s principles of government. This week we meet a woman who doesn’t give a hoot about government. She’s not interested in how to be a good citizen but she’s very interested in men and women. This is a good place to look at one of the main criticisms of the Great Books program: it’s written entirely from a male perspective. In fact, all the writers in this series are white males; dead white males. In fact, all the writers in this series are dead white European (or American) males. The Wife of Bath helps tip the philosophical scales in the other direction. She’s something of a philosopher herself.
Imagine her sitting down with Socrates for a little chat. After a few minutes of Socratic dialogue she’d probably say something like: this philosophy’s not worth a fig in bed! And she’d be right. The Wife of Bath has the kind of wisdom that comes from experience. She didn’t learn about life by reading about it in a book or by talking with a wise man like Socrates. She learned about life by trying things out for herself. The Wife of Bath gets down to business and gives us her philosophy right upfront: “If there were no authority on earth except experience, mine, for what it’s worth, (and that’s enough for me) all goes to show…” Whoa. Right out of the gate she cuts through all the philosophical verbiage and gets to her main point: I don’t give a fig what Aristotle says about women or what Freud thinks about sex. I’ve had five husbands (so far) and I’m an expert on marriage. I’ve conducted some experiments of my own in the bedroom and what I’ve found out is… Put briefly, the Wife of Bath’s philosophy centers more on her body than her mind. Warning: before dismissing her theory of love, she’s no lightweight.
Let’s step back and look at the origins of Western philosophy. Socrates taught Plato and Plato taught Aristotle. But who taught Socrates? A woman named Diotima. In “The Symposium” Socrates says “it was she who taught me the philosophy of Love.” Diotima begins by asking, “Socrates, what do you suppose is the cause of all this longing and all this love? Haven’t you noticed what an extraordinary effect the breeding instinct has upon animals and birds, and how obsessed they are with the desire, first to mate, and then to raise their young?” The Wife of Bath would respond: now you’re talking. This is a philosophy I can understand. Diotima goes on to explain to Socrates that love begins “with the beauty of one individual body” and then moves on “to be the lover of every lovely body” and then “the beauties of the soul” and then “the beauty of laws” to the beauty of the sciences until finally “he will come upon one single form of knowledge, the knowledge of the beauty I am about to speak of… the final revelation… everlasting loveliness.” This is a long way from the Wife of Bath’s body-philosophy and way over her head but here’s the main point: she’s starting out at the right place. The journey to wisdom and everlasting loveliness is long but it starts right where we’re at now. The Wife of Bath is somewhere between the love of “one individual body” and love of “every lovely body.”
Diotima doesn’t speak for all women. In Flaubert’s story of “A Simple Heart” we get another perspective. Felicite isn’t motivated by sex. She has a different philosophy of love that doesn’t focus on her body. Felicite loved her parrot. “His name was LouLou. His body was green, the tips of his wings were pink, his forehead was blue, and his throat golden.” This philosophy of love is based on devotion to an ideal rather than a physical body. It takes a simple heart to find this kind of wisdom but in the end it too leads to a certain kind of everlasting loveliness. The Wife of Bath would say: you’ve got to be kidding. And Felicite is horrified by the Wife of Bath’s kind of love. Dead white males (especially Freud) need to stay out of that argument.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

MONTESQUIEU: Principles of Government (3: Corruption of Government)

In our previous reading Montesquieu laid out the various kinds of governments people can live under. An obvious question comes up. Which one is best? Just pick the best one and then try to live under that type government. But it’s not that easy. The answer about which one is best depends on many factors. To answer the question wisely we first have to know who the people are, who the rulers are, the climate and terrain of the country, and the peacefulness or hostility of neighboring countries. All these factors help us decide whether we need a republic (either democratic or aristocratic), a monarchy, or the emergency survival-mode option of a despotic government. Under the right conditions any of these governments can work. Under the wrong conditions any of them can fail. Montesquieu uses the term “corruption” to describe the failure of governments. What causes a government to become corrupt and fail? His theory is “the corruption of every government generally begins with that of its principles.” “Principles” means the spirit which ultimately drives a society.
For example, America is a democratic republic. Montesquieu says “virtue” is the spirit of democracy. Virtue in this sense doesn’t mean being goody-two-shoes. It means we all come together and try to achieve goals that support the common good. In America, equality is one of the pre-eminent virtues we think are good for our whole society. Many Americans feel that if we lose the drive to achieve equality, then we’re done for as a nation. The glue, the “virtue” that holds the country together is this common goal of equal status for all Americans. So it comes as a big surprise when Montesquieu says “The principle of democracy is corrupted not only when the spirit of equality is extinct, but likewise when they fall into a spirit of extreme equality.” How can this be? We can understand the decline of America “when the spirit of equality is extinct” but how is it possible that we can “fall into a spirit of extreme equality”? Can America (or any democracy) have too much equality? According to Montesquieu, yes there is such a thing as too much equality. And that is what will ultimately corrupt or destroy your government. How can that happen? Montesquieu says “When the people, incapable of bearing the very power they have delegated, want to manage everything themselves, to debate for the senate, to execute for the magistrate, and to decide for the judges.” Democracy fails when “the people” lose confidence in their Congress, their President, and their Supreme Court.
Many people don’t think America is a truly democratic republic. They think rich people run the country and we actually have an aristocratic republic. Even if this is true, America still has problems and can still be corrupted. Montesquieu believes “Aristocracy is corrupted if the power of the nobles becomes arbitrary: when this is the case, there can no longer be any virtue either in the governors or the governed.” When rules become arbitrary and government is used as a tool by a few people to profit at the expense of the rest, then that country is on the road to ruin. A country can also be destroyed if it tries to change too much, too fast. We don’t live under a monarchy but it may be instructive to note that Montesquieu thinks “Monarchy is destroyed when a prince thinks he shows a greater exertion of power in changing than in conforming to the order of things; when he deprives some of his subjects of their hereditary employments to bestow them arbitrarily upon others…” When a government starts taking away the traditions of the people, then that country is on the road to ruin. When a government starts showing favoritism for one city over another city; or one business over another business, then that country is on the road to ruin. Bad laws are bad for the country but arbitrary laws are worse. They’ll destroy it. For Montesquieu laws should preserve society, not send it on the road to ruin.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

MONTESQUIEU: Principles of Government (2: Three Kinds of Government)

In Federalist Paper #15 James Madison asked a simple question: “Why has government been instituted at all?” Philosophers, historians and theologians have been trying to answer that one since the dawn of history. Why do we have government? Different authors give different answers. This shouldn’t surprise us. People just prefer different kinds of things. For example, Hobbes says government is the best solution to our problems. Rousseau says it’s the main source of our troubles. Who’s right? Montesquieu tries to get at the root of the question: why do we have government? To begin with, he says “There is this difference between the nature and principle of government…” The nature of a government is how it is constructed; the principle of a government is why people follow it. In Montesquieu’s words “One is its particular structure, and the other the human passions which set it in motion.” It’s kind of like a car. The nature of government is like the chassis, the body, and the engine. The principle of government is like gas. Montesquieu believes that the “principle” of a government is really what makes it go.
So what supplies the gas to make a government go? Montesquieu says it depends on the nature (or kind) of government you have. In its simplest form government can be ruled by the many, the few, or by one single ruler. Rule by the many (what Montesquieu calls “the collective body of the people”) includes the type of republic we call democracies. Aristocracy is rule by the few. It’s also a republic but is governed by a few particular families. Rule by one can be either (a) a constitutional monarch where one prince holds supreme power “but in the execution of it should be directed by established laws” or it can be (b) “a despotic government, where a single person should rule according to his own will and caprice.” Monarchs have to abide by certain laws. Despots can do pretty much whatever they want to do. These are the basic “natures” or structures of government. Montesquieu thinks each one needs a particular kind of gas to work.
The gas for democracy is virtue. Montesquieu thinks virtue is what makes democracy tick. But exactly what does he mean by virtue? And is there really a link between virtue and successful government? Let’s take a step back. In an earlier reading Aristotle said that “Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” Is there really a link between happiness and virtue? Are they talking about the same thing here? Possibly. Both Montesquieu and Aristotle believe that man is a social creature by nature. A man who tries to live up to certain virtues will, by definition, be a good citizen BUT (and this is important) this rule only applies to democracies. Montesquieu is talking about political virtue as the gas that runs the system.
In an aristocracy a different kind of gas would be needed: moderation. Why? Aristocracies are very competitive. A few particular families run the whole show. But no individual family is strong enough to have complete control. In the Iliad we found Achilles and Agamemnon locked in what was essentially a bitter political power struggle. Neither side showed the kind of moderation that was needed to make this aristocratic government work smoothly. If Agamemnon had been king of all the Greeks, then things would be different. The kind of gas needed to run a monarchy is different too: honor, not moderation, is what’s needed. Why honor? A constitutional monarch has no rivals. His lock on power is already assured by law. But this law also serves as a check on his political power. A constitutional monarch has to obey the laws too, just like any other citizen. The difference is this: he’s king, you’re not. These rules don’t apply to despotic kings. Despots can do pretty much anything they please; if citizens don’t like it, tough. The gas that runs despotism is fear. Xerxes was this kind of ruler in Herodotus’ history of “The Persian Wars.”
So why do we have government? Virtue, moderation, honor, and fear are four great answers.