Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, March 31, 2014

GIBBON: Decline and Fall (Chapter 16: Roman Government and Religion)

Edward Gibbon considers it his “melancholy duty” as an historian to provide an accurate and reliable account of the past. Theologians may act as cheerleaders but historians must act as umpires, and Gibbon calls them as he sees them. It isn’t easy to see the past clearly. It’s like piecing together a puzzle and this principle is reflected in a balanced approach to history. Gibbon often uses the “on one hand-on the other hand” method. This is different from the method Herodotus used. Herodotus would hear a story and use it in his own history. He then left it up to the reader to determine which stories were valid and which ones weren’t.
This wasn’t Gibbon’s style. In chapter 16 he ponders why Romans responded in different ways at different times to the Gospel message of the early Christian Church. On one hand (Gibbon muses) “If we seriously consider the purity of the Christian religion, the sanctity of its moral precepts” and the way “the first ages embraced the faith of the gospel, we should naturally suppose, that so benevolent a doctrine would have been received with due reverence, even by the unbelieving world.” On one hand it seems like all Romans would respond positively to the Christian message. The good news of eternal life was only one of its attractions. Gibbon also believed that “the learned and the polite, however they may deride the miracles, would have esteemed the virtues, of the new (Christian faith).” Roman patricians were generally well-educated and sophisticated people. They could fully appreciate any religion that valued temperance, courage, wisdom and justice because these were also the ancient Roman virtues.
But then Gibbon stops to consider why other Romans actively persecuted the Christians. He says “If, on the other hand, we recollect the universal toleration of Polytheism…” What Gibbon is saying is that Rome was a huge empire. In the ancient world people worshipped many different gods. Romans were generally tolerant of religion and allowed many kinds of worship under its laws. As long as it didn’t interfere with good government Rome preferred to let local authorities handle local religious conflict. Since the Roman Empire was a veritable smorgasbord of religious beliefs, this was a wise and practical policy that generally preserved the peace.
Into this Roman world Jesus was born and eventually crucified by a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Then (according to the Christians) Jesus was resurrected in glory. This is where Gibbon picks up the history of Rome’s decline and fall. What happened? The Romans weren’t skilled mathematicians like the Babylonians and Egyptians. They weren’t great dramatists or artists like the Greeks. And they weren’t profound religious thinkers like the Hebrews or the sages of India. But it wasn’t for nothing that Rome built the most successful empire the world has ever seen. The Roman genius was military science, civil engineering, law and government. In these areas Rome excelled. What puzzled Gibbon was how the Roman gift of good government failed to solve the problem posed by the early Christians. Why were the emperors so perplexed by them?
Marcus Aurelius is a good example. Gibbon notes that Marcus was a humane man and a good emperor. But his Stoic philosophy made him loathe the Christian faith. Why? Apparently Marcus followed reason and nature as his guides for living a good life in this world. The gods, if they existed, were a mystery to Marcus and, in his opinion, to mankind too. The early Christian faithful didn’t just look on Jesus of Nazareth as a beloved teacher. To his followers Jesus was “the Christ” and was therefore “adored as a God.” Marcus considered this kind of worship as mere superstition. He believed it would gradually undermine Roman law and good government.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

GIBBON: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Ch. 15: Reading History)

For the past five weeks we’ve been reading Moliere. Moliere wrote plays. Now we move on to Edward Gibbon. Gibbon wrote history. Moliere wrote in French, Gibbon wrote in English. Now might be a perfect time to ask the question, how does the language of drama compare with the language of history? Does the dramatist write one way, the historian another? Or, to turn the question around, how is reading a play different from reading history?
The very first sentence of this selection gives a glimpse into the way Gibbon’s writing works: “A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman empire…” This is a fine example of polished English prose in the style of the 18th century. (By the way, so are The Federal Papers in the GB set.) Note how reasonable and calm the tone sounds: candid but rational. It seems balanced and mentally healthy to be “candid but rational” doesn’t it? Gibbon clearly wants to establish credibility with the reader. In one sense, reading history is kind of like reading science. How do we know we can trust what the author is saying? History writing is also like scientific writing in another sense. For instance, Gibbon tells us that we’re going to conduct an “inquiry” into the “progress and establishment of Christianity.” An “inquiry” sounds scientific and serious.
To be taken seriously the historian has to write well about what happened in the past. But he can’t just write history in a format like the periodic tables of chemistry. Compiling a list of mere facts would not only be boring, it’s not very helpful either. As readers we want to know, what does this mean? Reading history means we need to pay close attention to what the author is saying and also how he says it. Why is this important? Here’s an example from Gibbon. He says “The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity.” Gibbon’s language is so smooth and sounds so reasonable that we need to pause and ponder what it is he’s actually saying. Otherwise, we’re not even aware of its psychological impact. In this case, the theologian is portrayed as “indulging the pleasing task of describing Religion…” Without even realizing it, we’re lulled into a mental image of religious writers lazing around in a daydream. Now historians on the other hand (says the historian, Gibbon) are different. According to Gibbon “A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian.” What is this melancholy duty? “He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she (the Church) contracted in long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.” So the theologian is indulging a pleasing task while the historian is performing an unpleasant duty. See how this works? Gibbon implants these images in our brains: theology is easy (like drama), history is hard (like science).
Gibbon writes well. But are his images accurate? This is really the same question we asked earlier: how do we know we can trust what the author is saying? History is not science. Science can be independently verified. We can’t always verify what the historian says; we can’t go visit ancient Rome ourselves. But we can read other histories. Then we have to determine ourselves who we think is right. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides put it best when he wrote, “The way that most men deal with traditions, even traditions of their own country, is to receive them all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatever… On the whole, however, the conclusions I have drawn may, I believe, safely be relied on… we can rest satisfied with having proceeded upon the clearest data, and having arrived at conclusions as exact as can be expected in matters of such antiquity.” This is a good way to write (and read) history.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

MOLIERE: The Misanthrope (Act V: Philosophy And Society)

As the curtain falls on The Misanthrope we’ve come full circle. In Act One, Scene One the “misanthrope” (Alceste) says “mankind has grown so base, I mean to break with the whole human race.” By the end of the play he says “I’ll flee this bitter world where vice is king, and seek some spot unpeopled and apart where I’ll be free to have an honest heart.” A lot has happened in the course of this play but Alceste remains the same at the end as he was in the beginning. The experience of life hasn’t changed him at all. Is this a vice or is it a virtue? Is Alceste just being a stubborn hater? Or is he following a principled and noble act of reason?
His friend Philinte tried to talk him out of leaving society in Act One and he tries again in Act Five: “I’ll readily concede this is a low, conniving age indeed; nothing but trickery prospers nowadays, and people ought to mend their shabby ways. Yes, man’s a beastly creature; but must we then abandon the society of men?” Philinte’s idea is that we should accommodate ourselves to the society we live in. He goes on to say that “Here in the world, each human frailty provides occasion for philosophy, and that is virtue’s noblest exercise.” This is exactly what Socrates did. The best place for philosophy isn’t in some academic tower or out in some lonely abandoned desert. Philosophy is something that goes on right here where we live now, in the marketplace, in our homes and out on our streets; even in the salons of France, philosophy can be found. But Philinte’s argument is lost and he’s wasting his breath. Alceste responds, “Sir, you’re a matchless reasoner, to be sure; your words are fine and full of cogency; but don’t waste time and eloquence on me. My reason bids me go, for my own good.” Note that Alceste doesn’t try to refute Philinte’s reasoning. He says MY reason bids me go. Question: If we’re guided by reason, then how can different men come to different conclusions? Alceste says his reason bids him go, “for my own good.” Here’s where the breakdown comes. Alceste believes it’s in his own best interest to leave society. Philinte believes it’s in his own best interest to be a part of society. Philosophers often disagree, even reasonable philosophers. Here the disagreement is about the basic understanding of what “the good” for man, as man, is.
We had an earlier reading on this theme in Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver found himself on a strange island with horses which turned out to be rational creatures. They could talk. They could reason. They were mannerly. And perhaps best of all, they were good. They didn’t steal, they didn’t commit murder or adultery, and they didn’t talk about other horses behind their backs. However, there were other creatures on this island called Yahoos. These were filthy, vicious, dangerous creatures and they turned out to be, much to Gulliver’s horror, human beings just like him. Here’s the connection between Gulliver’s Travels and The Misanthrope. Alceste looks at the French society around him and sees a bunch of Yahoos. What’s the point of trying to live a virtuous life around a bunch of Yahoos? Is it even possible to live a good life around this kind of people? Alceste thinks it is not possible here, so he wants to go somewhere else.
Philinte decides to stay, even knowing that he’s living with Yahoos. He believes “A heart well-armed with virtue can endure.” Maybe it can. But Yahoos are hostile to people who try to live good lives. Good men like Socrates (in Plato’s Apology) and Jesus (in the Gospel of Mark) decided to live amongst the filthy and vicious Yahoos, and the Yahoos killed them. In France philosophy was something of a polite parlor game. French society wasn’t filthy, but it was vicious. What does polite society do with men like Socrates, Jesus, or Alceste; men who won’t compromise? In our next reading, that was exactly the same question facing the Romans.

MOLIERE: The Misanthrope (Act IV: Love Is Blind)

Love is blind. You’ve probably heard that one before. Pop quiz: who said it? Hint: whenever you’re asked who said something and you don’t know, guess Shakespeare. He said so many things that eventually made their way into common English usage. In this case, you would be correct. Shakespeare did write that love is blind, several times. It appears in three of his plays, including Two Gentlemen of Verona, Henry V and The Merchant of Venice. “Love is blind” seems to be a universal proverb, probably because love is a universal phenomenon common to all human cultures. Everyone, everywhere, at some point, falls in love and gets a broken heart. All human cultures confirm this. Here’s confirmation from Brazil: Love is blind, so you have to feel your way. Here’s a Danish proverb: Love is blind and thinks that others don’t see either. My personal favorite is the one from Mexico: Love is blind, but not the neighbors.
In the fourth act of The Misanthrope, Moliere doesn’t explicitly come out and say love is blind. But he does something better: he shows it to us and lets us see how it works. It goes like this. Alceste is in love with Celimene. Now any fool can see that Celimene is the last person Alceste should be in love with. Alceste knows this himself but, what can he say, love is blind. He loves her anyway. And here’s the weird thing, Eliante (Celimene’s cousin) knows that Alceste is in love with Celimene, but she loves him anyway. Go figure. And to make matters worse, Alceste’s friend (Philinte) knows all this. He knows that Alceste loves Celimene and he knows that Eliante loves Alceste. This is what makes it strange: Philinte, even knowing all this, has fallen madly in love with Eliante! What’s going on here? To quote Shakespeare: love is blind.
This situation is like another old saying: the blind leading the blind. Pop quiz: who said that? No, it wasn’t Shakespeare. (That trick doesn’t work every time.) This old saying was taken from the Bible. But the meaning applies well in this play. None of these characters seem to be able to choose who they fall in love with. Even when they know it’s crazy, they can’t help it. Alceste puts it best when he says: “I know that love’s irrational and blind; I know the heart’s not subject to the mind, and can’t be reasoned into beating faster; I know each soul is free to choose its master…” Alceste may be right, but he could be wrong. Each soul may be free to choose its own master, or it may not. If love really is irrational, no amount of reasoning will persuade the heart otherwise. If love really is blind, no amount of insight will persuade the heart otherwise. Why? In Moliere’s opinion, it’s because the heart is not subject to the mind. Regardless of what Plato or Aristotle say about the mind ruling the body, when it comes to love all that philosophy stuff goes out the window. Passion takes control. Philosophy is good in its place and Alceste is something of a philosopher himself. But when he sees Celimene… he can’t help himself. He loves her. And he loves her in spite of the kind of woman she is. Celimene represents everything Alceste is against as a philosopher. On the other hand, as a lover Celimene represents everything he wants. And it’s driving him crazy that she’s flirting with other men.
As we said before, any fool can see that this won’t turn out well for Alceste. Celimene isn’t his type. He wants to get away from it all and live like a hermit, except with Celimene by his side. For her part, Celimene is most alive when she’s in a social group gossiping about friends and neighbors, the very thing that Alceste detests. In Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra, Mark Antony is destroyed by a similar love for Cleopatra. Her hedonistic Egyptian ways are diametrically opposed to the old stoic Roman virtues. But Antony can’t help it, he loves her. And so from one generation to the next, Moliere and Shakespeare show us that love is blind.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

MOLIERE: The Misanthrope (Act III: Conflict Resolution)

One of the hot topics in modern America is “conflict resolution.” How can people disagree with one another without being disagreeable or, worse, coming to blows over their conflicting ideas? A good Great Books discussion group can help. Reading great classical works lets us see how other people in other ages dealt with conflict resolution. Moliere was four hundred years ahead of his time. In Act III he not only deals with conflict resolution but he does it in an equal-opportunity kind of way. He shows how both men and women handle aggressive behavior in polite society. They would never dream of physical assault. That would be in bad taste. But they put on their verbal boxing gloves and have at it. Scene One deals with the men: Clitandre versus Acaste. Scene Five deals with the women: Arsinoe versus Celimene.
Let’s deal with the guys first. In this matchup the fight is over the grand prize: the love of Celimene. Acaste starts out by telling us how wonderful he is: “when I survey myself, I find no cause whatever for distress of mind. I’m young and rich; I can in modesty lay claim to an exalted pedigree; and owing to my name and my condition I shall not want for honors and position.” He goes on to say that he’s also brave and witty and has excellent taste “at the theater” and he can “generally be known as one who knows.” Besides, all the fair ladies practically worship him. Well. Acaste would feel right at home in New York or Washington or Hollywood. But Clitandre has a counter-punch up his sleeve: “if so many ladies hold you dear, why do you press a hopeless courtship here?” The “hopeless courtship” is of course Celimene. Clitandre’s main point is this: she doesn’t love you, she loves me. Guys have been having this argument since… basically forever. There’s more back and forth verbal punching and counter-punching but the argument finally ends with the equivalent of a barroom bet. Clitandre says “let us have an armistice and make a treaty. What do you say to this? If ever one of us can plainly prove that Celimene encourages his love, the other must abandon hope, and yield, and leave him in possession of the field.” Winner takes all. Isn’t that much better than a fistfight? Acaste agrees: “Now there’s a bargain that appeals to me; with all my heart, dear Marquess, I agree.” So that’s the way it’s done in polite society. They shake hands and it’s a deal. Conflict resolved.
Now for the main event: the ladies. Clitandre and Acaste may think they’re tough guys but they’re mere lightweights compared to Arsinoe and Celimene. There’s an old saying that a gentleman never insults anyone, unless it’s intentional. With these two refined ladies the insults are not only intentional, but done with extreme malice. Before Arsinoe even comes on the scene Celimene is warming up: “her poor success in snaring men explains her prudishness. It breaks her heart to see the beaux and gallants engrossed by other women’s charms…” This is hitting below the belt… “so she’s always in a jealous rage against the faulty standards of the age. She lets the world believe that she’s a prude to justify her loveless solitude.” Celimene is clearly a heavyweight champ. Do not mess with this woman.
To make a long story short, Arsinoe never has a chance. She starts out well enough: “I have hastened to your door to bring you, as your friend, some information about the status of your reputation.” Arsinoe hates to tell Celimene this but, as her friend, she feels she’s obliged to be honest: your reputation, Celimene, is trashed. Celimene listens quietly and then it’s her turn: “I’m very much obliged to you for this; and I’ll at once discharge the obligation by telling you about your reputation.” The rest is not a pretty sight. Arsinoe pretty much ends up fleeing from the scene. And the winner is… Celimene with a first round KO. Conflict resolved. French style.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

MOLIERE: The Misanthrope (Act II: Moliere’s Mirror)

Reading great works from the past can be like going to a museum. We can examine the text as a museum piece or some kind of historical document; something far removed from our daily lives. We can read Moliere’s play about The Misanthrope like that. We can look at it as a relic from the past; appropriate primarily for understanding aristocratic social etiquette in 17th century France. We can read passively and soak up information, then put away the play and get on with real life. Or, as a second way to read, we can read it as a text that still has bearing on life as it is lived in 21st century America. But if we read it this way we have to be active readers.
Act II gives us a good opportunity to practice our active reading skills. At a social gathering the socialite Celimente is giving out her opinions about mutual friends who are not present at the party. As we read her assessments we can become active readers by asking ourselves one question. Here’s what Celimente has to say about… Cleonte: Behaved like a perfect fool… has he no friend to counsel him? The question I should ask myself is: Do I know anybody like that? Old Damon: He’s a wondrous talker, and has the power to tell you nothing hour after hour. Do I know anybody like that? Timante: A man of mystery… who moves about in a romantic mist on secret missions which do not exist. Do I know anybody like that? Geralde: He mixes only with the titled class and fawns on dukes and princes… the man’s obsessed with rank. Do I know anybody like that? Belise: Owing to her dry and faint replies, the conversation wilts, and droops, and dies. Do I know anybody like that? Adraste: Has a gigantic passion for himself. He rails against the court and cannot bear it that none will recognize his hidden merit. Do I know anybody like that? Cleon: It’s Cleon’s table that people come to see. He gives a splendid dinner… But must he serve himself along with it? Do I know anybody like that? Damis: He works too hard at cleverness… He scolds at all the latest books and plays, thinking wit must never stoop to praise. Do I know anybody like that?
If I can answer yes to one or more of these questions, then for me, as a reader, Moliere moves beyond being a writer only relevant for academic histories. He has now moved into the realm of being a shrewd commentator on human nature. And it is an article of faith for many Great Books readers that human nature doesn’t essentially change from one age to the next. The actors may change clothes but the human heart still has the same desires it had in the age of Homer or Moses. In Act I Philinte says “men are knavish, selfish and unjust.” Was that true in 17th century France but has ceased to be the case in modern America? We can do a spot check by asking ourselves: do I know anybody who is knavish, selfish and unjust? If I do, then Moliere’s play applies just as much to me as it did to his audience four hundred years ago.
In evaluating Celimente’s own evaluation of her “friends” we can ask a deeper question which will make us even more active readers of the play: am I like that myself? This is the question that makes Moliere’s play stand out and deserve a place in the Great Books. He’s not just holding up a mirror to 17th century French society. He’s holding up a mirror for me and you. The reflection may not be very flattering. It forces us to think back. Have I ever in my life behaved like a perfect fool (Cleonte)? Have I ever talked too much (Old Damon)? Have I ever pretended to be something I’m not (Timante)? Have I ever fawned over rich people or famous actors, writers or musicians (Geralde)? And so forth. Moliere isn’t scolding the reader. He’s much too polite to do that. But he tells us, delicately and with humor, that we’re not perfect. Moliere points out imperfections without scolding. Instead, humor is Moliere’s mirror.