Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, January 27, 2014

SCHOPENHAUER: Our Inner Nature and the Great Books

An early advocate of the Great Books, Mark Van Doren, once said we should trust no philosopher who doesn’t relish his existence. Some readers may not trust Schopenhauer but we still have to take him seriously and take his philosophical questions seriously. He says “If we knocked on the graves and asked the dead whether they would like to rise again, they would shake their heads no.” Why should we trust a philosopher who doesn’t seem to relish his own existence? First of all, he read more and thought more and wrote more than most of us will ever hope to do. Secondly, we came to him; we read the Great Books hoping to learn something from them. And Schopenhauer was included in the Great Books for a reason.
Let’s try to put him in context with some other authors of the Great Books series. In Chekhov’s story about Rothschild’s Fiddle the main character reflects on his own wasted life. So many things he could have done; so many things he left undone. It’s a melancholy story of an unhappy man. Schopenhauer would say I told you so. Life is a bitter experience. But according to Aristotle that’s not our natural state. Everyone wants to be happy. We just don’t agree on what it means to be happy. Schopenhauer would point out, and Aristotle would agree, that some factors are within our reach but many things are beyond our control and keep us from being happy. We can cultivate our minds and exercise our bodies, for example. But we don’t choose the brains or the bodies we’re born with. We don’t choose our parents or the society we’re born into. And Aristotle admits that we can’t really call a man happy until we know how his life ends. Ivan Ilych died a painful death. Would we call him happy? Schopenhauer thinks the world is too chancy and pain is too prevalent for any rational person to think we should celebrate life.
Yet in the book of Genesis we read that God himself created the world and said it was good. Schopenhauer claims that’s not necessarily true. He says there are many things wrong with the world; maybe more things wrong than right with the world. So who are we supposed to believe, God or Schopenhauer? We must also note that Darwin presents a scenario where life can evolve without any help from God. Schopenhauer likes this idea. He thinks nature is careless about her creatures. Look how fragile life is and how many animals die or get killed every day. He thinks this shows and nature knows life will go on. One creature is killed and eaten by another creature so life can go on. And life will go on with or without us. For Schopenhauer it’s only our puny individual egos that keep us clinging to a life that, in his opinion, isn’t worth living anyway.
But most of us want to keep our egos. We have our likes and dislikes and that’s what makes us who we are. Giving up the ego-ness of “me” is hard to do. Few people are comforted by the idea of becoming a blob of animate but un-self-conscious life. It’s hard for most of us to accept Schopenhauer’s verdict that “Death is the painful untying of the knot that generation with sensual pleasure had tied…At bottom we are something that ought not to be; therefore we cease to exist.” Even a character as unlikeable as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man wants to keep on living. Why bother? Because death would put an end to sensual pleasure and any other kind of pleasure too. It’s a very human reaction to want to live, whether it’s for pleasure or glory or whatever. None of the soldiers killed in Homer’s Iliad wanted to die. They wanted to live. Schopenhauer mentions “the strong arm that three thousand years ago bent the bow of Ulysses.” Are men any different now than the ancient Greek and Trojan warriors? The advantage of reading Great Books is to gain various perspectives on life. Schopenhauer’s perspective is very different from most Great Books authors. Each reader must decide which ones to trust.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

SCHOPENHAUER: Our Inner Nature and Ivan Ilych

In last week’s reading Ivan Ilych was afraid to die. Maybe Ivan should have read The Indestructibility of Our Inner Nature by Schopenhauer first. Schopenhauer has many things to say but for Ivan’s sake we’ll focus on the fear of death. Socrates defined philosophy as “preparation for death.” Schopenhauer expands on this theme and says “Indeed, without death there would hardly have been any philosophizing… All religions and philosophical systems are primarily the antidote to the certainty of death.” Another philosopher, Epicurus, said “Death does not concern us,” with the explanation that when we are, death is not, and when death is, we are not. So if you’re a philosopher that should be an end of the matter.
But Ivan wasn’t a philosopher and neither are most of us. That’s why Schopenhauer has to lay out his philosophy in a little more detail for the general reader. He says “If what makes death seem so terrible to us were the thought of not-being, we should think with equal horror of the time before we were born… A whole eternity ran its course before we were born, that doesn’t bother us. On the other hand, we find it hard, nay, unendurable, that after the momentary intermezzo of an ephemeral existence, a second eternity should follow in which we shall no longer be.” Ivan would say that’s ridiculous. Before I was born I didn’t know any better. Now I do. You may call it a “momentary intermezzo of an ephemeral existence” if you want to, but I call it my life. Schopenhauer would answer “Should, then, this thirst for existence have arisen because we have now tasted it and have found it so delightful? As was already briefly explained above, certainly not...” Ivan would then respond: look you German know it all, that’s your opinion, not mine. Buzz off. You’re not helping me learn to die well; you’re just depressing me.
Schopenhauer has another angle “…death from old age is a gradual vanishing and sinking out of existence in an imperceptible manner. Little by little in old age, the passions and desires, are extinguished; the emotions no longer find anything to excite them; the mind always becomes weaker, its images fainter; impressions no longer cleave to us, but pass over without leaving a trace, the days roll ever faster, events lose their significance, everything grows pale. The old man stricken in years totters about or rests in a corner now only a shadow, a ghost of his former self. What remains there for death to destroy?” Ivan would say I’m forty-five years old. I’ve still got some good years left. And even when I do get old and weak, I’ll still want to live; even if I’m only a shadow of what I once was a shadow is better than nothing. Something (existing) is always better than nothing (not existing). Life is better than death, even in old age. When we get past a certain age we just drink vodka to bring back those old passions and desires.
Schopenhauer will try once more: “…the strong arm which, three thousand years ago, bent the bow of Ulysses is no more. No reflective and well-regulated understanding will regard the force which once acted so energetically is now entirely annihilated. So upon further reflection, we should also not assume that the force which bends the bow to-day first began with this arm…the force which earlier actuated the life which now has vanished is the same force which is active in the life which now flourishes.” Ivan would just stare at him for a moment. Then Ivan would say: that’s it; you’re a nut case, that’s what it is. Too much thinking has addled your brains. Here I am dying and all this German philosophy doesn’t help a bit. I’m standing on the brink of eternity, already half scared to death, and you play word games. We’re talking about death Mr. Schopenhauer, d-e-a-t-h. Read less philosophy, drink more vodka; then maybe you’ll understand why I’m afraid to die. But if I had to live your life, I might not mind it so much.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

TOLSTOY: The Death of Ivan Ilych (Science, Job and Socrates)

Is it really true that no two snowflakes are exactly alike?  Scientists tell us that "Some things in Nature are exactly alike.  For example, our understanding of elementary particles indicates that all electrons are exactly, precisely the same.  This is one of the cornerstones of quantum physics, and if you think for a bit you will see that this is a profound statement."  That’s all very well but what do snowflakes and quantum physics have to do with the death of Ivan Ilych?  

Science can answer the simple questions: are any two snowflakes exactly alike?  No.  Electrons can be exactly alike but not snowflakes.  But if we ask another simple question: what happens after we die?  Science can’t help us there.  Why not?  It’s not a scientific question.  In fact, when Ivan Ilych was dying science wasn’t much help to him.  When he knew he was dying Ivan “wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God.”  What answers can science give for these problems?  Ivan was asking things like "Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me here? Why, why dost Thou torment me so terribly?"  These are very human questions, even though "…He did not expect an answer and yet wept because there was no answer and could be none.”  What Ivan means is there are no scientific answers to these questions.  But men have been asking these questions long before science, long before Ivan Ilych came along.  They just didn’t look to science for answers.

When Ivan says "Go on! Strike me! But what is it for? What have I done to Thee? What is it for?" he’s asking the same question Job asked in the murky ages of the past.  Why am I hurting?  What have I done to deserve this?  Job was talking directly to God and God gave Job a direct answer.  The problems of helplessness, loneliness, and cruelty are problems science can’t solve.  Maybe there is no solution.  God’s answer to Job wasn’t really a solution.  God’s answer came in the form of questions directed right back at Job: where were you when I made the world?  Basically God asks Job: who are you to question me?  You’re in over your head.  That answer isn’t good enough for most people.  But it was good enough for Job.  His whole life was based on unshakeable faith in God.  Even though he couldn’t understand what was going on, Job never wavered in his belief that God is good and everything happens for a reason.  This is the kind of faith that most people, including Ivan, don’t have.  Job has much to teach Ivan about faith.

Science turns to nature for answers; religion turns to faith; but philosophy turns to reason.  Reason was the brand of philosophy practiced by Socrates.  When Ivan calms down and thinks rationally about dying “he grew quiet and… became all attention.  It was as though he were listening not to an audible voice but to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts arising within him.”  God spoke to Job out of a whirlwind but Socrates (and Ivan) have to listen for the small, still voice of reason.  This is where the voice of reason begins, by asking: what is it you want?  This is also where philosophy begins.  Ivan is just an amateur so his answer is the answer of an amateur philosopher: “I want to live and not to suffer.”  A more seasoned philosopher like Socrates would point out that mushrooms are alive.  And they don’t suffer.  Of course that’s not what Ivan wants.  He wants to go on living as he was living before.  Really?  And what was that like?  The voice inside the mind asks probing questions; the kind of questions Socrates asked.  He would ask why snowflakes never suffer; they just melt away and don’t ask questions.  But Ivan is a man.  He would ask Ivan how a man should live.  Men turn to science, religion, or philosophy for answers.  Men turn to quantum physics, or Job, or Socrates.  Snowflakes just turn into water.  If you think about it for a bit you will see that this is a profound statement.
-- Ron Perry

Monday, January 13, 2014

TOLSTOY: The Death of Ivan Ilych (Ivan and Shakespeare)

Ivan Ilych is dying.  He keeps hoping beyond hope that his pain will go away and somehow he’ll get better.  Why is he caught so unprepared to die?  Students of the Great Books may want to inquire about Ivan’s reading habits.  The story goes that “After dinner, if they had no visitors, Ivan Ilych sometimes read a book that was being much discussed at the time…”  Maybe if he had read more Great Books he would have been better prepared to face death.  In the Great Books Program only Shakespeare and the Bible have readings in all five series.  Let’s look at these five Shakespeare plays to see if they could have helped Ivan.

Series 1.  Othello. On the surface there doesn’t seem to be much Ivan can learn from Othello about pain and dying.  Othello had a different problem, jealousy.  But Othello and Ivan have this much in common.  They will never have peace and contentment again.  Once Othello gets it into his head that his wife (Desdemona) has been unfaithful to him, he says: “I had been happy if the general camp, Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, So I had nothing known. Oh, now forever Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!”  Once Ivan finds out he has an incurable disease he can also say “farewell tranquil mind” forever.

Series 2.  Antony and Cleopatra.  Again there doesn’t seem much in common.  What does Ivan have to do with ancient Roman and Egyptian/Greek lovers?  Near the end of the play Cleopatra says “My desolation does begin to make a better life. 'Tis paltry to be Caesar; not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave, a minister of her will: and it is great to do that thing that ends all other deeds…”  To be Caesar and rule the whole world is a very great thing.  But even Caesars die.  This Caesar is just a “minister” of Fate and Fate has been unkind to Cleopatra at the end.  Now she has firmly decided she will not submit to Caesar.  How can she avoid it?  When she says “it is great to do that thing that ends all other deeds” she has already decided to take Fate into her own hands.  “That thing” is suicide.  Suicide is the only noble option available to her.  Ivan has the same option.  Or does he? 

Series 3.  Hamlet.  One of the most famous lines in all of English literature is “to be, or not to be.”  Ivan is horrified by the idea of dying.  Hamlet was also worried about what happens to us after we die; but for a very different reason.  For Hamlet it’s not so bad if death is just an eternal “sleep” because we will be totally obliterated.  But to sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there’s the rub.  What if (as we read in Dante’s Inferno) there really is divine punishment for suicides?  Ivan faces the darkness and thinks “There was light and now there is darkness.  I was here and now I’m going there!  Where?”  Ivan doesn’t know.

Series 4.  The Tempest.  It’s hard not to be self-centered when you’re dying.  What else matters then?  But Ivan may have used his time to reflect on what Miranda said toward the close of The Tempest: “How many goodly creatures are there here!  How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in't!”  What a world this is.  Ivan might have taken time to figure out just what it all meant and where he was going next. 

Series 5.  King Lear.   Lear says “I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness… then, let fall your horrible pleasure…”  Nature is stronger than we are.  You can’t reason with storms or argue with cancer.  We’re frail human beings.  Accept it.  Ivan could have learned all this wisdom from reading Shakespeare.  Or maybe in the face of pain even Shakespeare fails.                                    -- Ron Perry 

Monday, January 06, 2014

TOLSTOY: The Death of Ivan Ilych (Ivan and Aristotle)

Life has a beginning, a middle and an end. Common sense tells us that every good story also has a beginning, a middle and an end. Aristotle agreed. But that doesn’t mean every good story has to actually start at the beginning of the tale. Homer began his story of the Iliad right in the middle of the Trojan War. And Tolstoy begins his story about The Death of Ivan Ilych after Ivan has already died. In other words, Tolstoy begins his story at the end. Can he do that? Well, he did it. It’s his story. Was it a success? Aristotle believes the ingredients for a successful story is this: “Plot is the first essential; the very soul, as it were, of tragedy. Character comes second.” Aristotle says a good plot and well-defined characters make for good literature. The plot of Tolstoy’s story could well be the plot of everyone: we’re born into this world, struggle to find our place among other people in society, and then we leave this world behind. End of story. Tolstoy got the plot right. How well did he do defining the life of this character named Ivan Ilych?
Chapter 1. “Ivan Ilych has died!” Well that takes care of that. Ivan Ilych is dead. What’s left to tell? By starting at the end of Ivan’s life Tolstoy gives the reader an invitation to ponder a basic question: What is the proper human response to suffering and death? The reason the question is so important is because this is what, one day, we all face. Then why, just like Ivan’s family and friends, do we have such a hard time dealing with suffering and death? Tolstoy gets to the heart of the issue by picturing Ivan in his casket: “…as is always the case with the dead, his face was handsomer and above all more dignified than when he was alive. The expression on the face said that what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly. Besides this there was in that expression a reproach and a warning to the living.” What is this reproach and warning to the living? Now we’re ready to go back and start the story at its proper place, in the beginning.
Chapter 2. Tolstoy gives the reader a hint about the response we should have toward suffering and death: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” Make no mistake: suffering and death are terrible things. But they will come anyway, regardless of how we try to avoid them. Ivan spent his whole life pursuing a pleasant life. He wasn’t a bad guy. Nevertheless, at the end he still suffered terribly. Aristotle had this to say about that: “Happiness requires completeness in virtue as well as a complete lifetime. Many changes and all kinds of contingencies befall a man in the course of his life, and it is possible that the most prosperous man will encounter great misfortune in his old age…” Ivan Ilych died in great pain at the age of forty-five. Would anyone looking at Ivan in his coffin really think: here lies a happy man? No.
Chapter 3. Dead people are neither happy nor sad. They’re just dead. But there were times in life when Ivan had been happy: “Ivan Ilych had unexpectedly obtained an appointment… giving him five thousand rubles salary… Ivan Ilych was completely happy… after a stumble, his life was regaining its due and natural character of pleasant lightheartedness and decorum.” And that may be a clue to the reproach and warning to the living. There’s nothing wrong with pleasant lightheartedness and decorum. Aristotle says when we talk about the good life “we do not mean a man who lives his life in isolation, but a man who also lives with parents, children, a wife, and friends and fellow citizens generally…” Ivan had all of these. But life was just beginning; the middle was yet to come. And the end too.