Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, April 26, 2014

MILL: Utilitarianism (Was Job Utilitarian?)

Put yourself in Job’s place. You’ve lost your wealth, your children, even your health. Now you’re sitting in the city dump scratching at the boils and scabs covering your body. Your friends tell you it’s your own fault. Now ask yourself: am I happy? Of course not. Who would trade places with Job? I wouldn’t. I bet you wouldn’t either. Or the guy down the street, or the guy in the next state or the one clear across the world. Why is that? Why do all of us want to be happy? Why do all of us try to be happy? And if that’s what we all want and that’s where we put all of our efforts, then why aren’t we all happy? J. S. Mill thinks he can answer that.
Mill says “Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” That’s another way of saying that we don’t always do the things that make us happy. In fact, a lot of times we do the exact opposite. We do things that make us unhappy. Why? That’s a question for psychologists to answer. Great Books readers are more interested in what Mill means when he talks about happiness. He takes a very simple approach and defines his terms: “By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure…” This isn’t rocket science. Pleasure is good, pain is bad. Pleasure = good = happiness. Pain = bad = unhappiness. This is the basic Utilitarian view of the world.
So far so good. Now we can apply Mill’s principle to Job’s situation. Clearly Job’s pain increased more than his pleasure so unhappiness was the result. The problem comes when we try to compare degrees of pleasure and pain. Which is more pleasant, being rich or being a father? Which is more painful, losing your health or losing a child? Those questions weren’t just hypothetical questions for Job. They were real problems. Mill says “…utilitarian writers in general have placed the superiority of mental over bodily pleasures chiefly in the greater permanency, safety, uncostliness, etc., of the former; that is, in their circumstantial advantages rather than in their intrinsic nature.” Good. Mill has given us a solid foundation to work with.
But would Mill’s philosophy satisfy Job? Mill goes on to say, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.” Job was not a fool and he wasn’t a pig. According to the story Job was “a perfect and an upright man.” So. Mill’s Utilitarianism is a philosophy for human beings. But the question remains: is Mill’s philosophy one that could help Job in this particular case? Does it explain pleasure and pain in a way that could help Job?
Job was a human being and like all human beings he wanted to be happy. He knew both sides of Mill’s comparison of being an unsatisfied Socrates vs. a satisfied pig. More than most people, Job knew what it was like to be happy and what it was like to be unhappy. He had seen the best and the worst the world has to offer. What Job did not know was why God had allowed him to suffer. He did not know why bad things happen to good people. For Job the primary question isn’t how to be happy, but rather: what kind of god is God? Job didn’t want Utilitarian philosophy, nor Stoicism or Epicureanism or Transcendentalism. He didn’t want philosophy at all. Job wanted to hear it straight from the mouth of God Himself. John Stuart Mill was a remarkable man and a talented philosopher. He developed a fine philosophy. But he wasn’t God. Utilitarianism, with all its good qualities, was not a philosophy for a man like Job.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

BIBLE: Job (Talking About God)

Three friends come to comfort Job and talk to him. When they finally finish talking Job must feel worn out. The reader certainly does. Job and his friends talked about God, about the nature of God and about the nature of man. But it’s certainly not like a Great Books discussion group; it’s not a Great Conversation of give-and-take and sharing of ideas. It’s more like they lecture to one another. No one is really listening to what the others have to say.
Elihu finally has enough. Many readers feel the same way. Elihu says “I am young, and ye are very old; wherefore I was afraid, and durst not shew you mine opinion. I said, Days should speak, and multitude of years should teach wisdom.” Elihu is a likeable young man. He knows he’s still wet behind the ears and not ready to take part in heavy philosophical debates. And Elihu has also been raised to respect his elders, just as many Southern Americans have. “But there is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding. Great men are not always wise: neither do the aged understand judgment. Therefore I said, Hearken to me; I also will shew mine opinion…” It occurs to Elihu that these elders aren’t all that wise. They don’t know any more about God than he does. So Elihu feels “the spirit” moving within him (just as many Southern Americans have) and Elihu feels called to speak in the spirit.
So “Elihu spake moreover, and said… I will answer thee, and thy companions with thee.” Listen up you old geezers. Maybe you’ll learn something. Then he says, “Look unto the heavens, and see; and behold the clouds which are higher than thou.” Elihu uses simple and common experience to prove his point. Look up at the sky. See those fluffy white clouds? Everybody has seen fluffy white clouds. So what? Then comes Elihu’s inspired spirit speaking: “If thou sinnest, what doest thou against him? or if thy transgressions be multiplied, what doest thou unto him? If thou be righteous, what givest thou him? or what receiveth he of thine hand?” See those fluffy white clouds? You can’t move them. Try. Blow. Blow as hard as you can. See if they move. So if you can’t even budge one puny cloud, how can you even think about pushing God around? Or, turning things around; what can you give to God? What can you give that God doesn’t already have? “Thy wickedness may hurt a man as thou art; and thy righteousness may profit the son of man…” Now you may be able to punch out a guy at the bar or you may help out a buddy with twenty bucks, but can you either hurt or help God? No way.
Elihu may be the young kid on the block but he’s got a bright future ahead of him. At least until he gets old and gray. Then some new kid on the block will think Elihu’s ideas are old and stodgy. The new kid will come up with some new theory and Elihu will be old news. Is this the way it is when we talk about God? Does the latest theory knock the old theories over? Or do all the ideas just stand there all together in a row, gathering dust year after year? Here’s a novel idea: what if God speaks for himself? In the Book of Job, that’s exactly what happens. “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest?...” What can Job say? What can anyone say? How would Job’s three friends respond? How could Elihu argue with a tornado? Probably the same way Job did, “I uttered what I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.” In short, I don’t know what I’m talking about. This isn’t exactly a Great Conversation. But it may be the only way we can talk about God.

Monday, April 14, 2014

BIBLE: Job (Silence and The Great Conversation)

“When Job's three friends heard of all this evil that was come upon him, they came every one from his own place; Eliphaz the Temanite, and Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite: for they had made an appointment together to come to mourn with him and to comfort him.” One lesson from the Great Books is the simple message that there’s a time for everything. Ecclesiastes (GB Series 5) says: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens… a time to be silent and a time to speak.” Job’s friends should have read Ecclesiastes. They didn’t know when to speak up and when to shut up. Wisdom knows when…
Knows when to speak up. In The Apology (GB Series 1) Socrates takes the practical approach and responds to his accusers: “Very well then. A defense is to be made, Gentlemen of Athens. I am to attempt to remove from you in this short time that prejudice which you have been long in acquiring.” Socrates then tries to persuade a “prejudice” jury that he’s innocent of the charges against him. His defense speech is one of the masterpieces of philosophy.
Knows when to shut up. Sometimes not responding is the best thing to do. In the Gospel of Mark (GB Series 3): “The chief priests accused (Jesus) of many things: but he answered nothing.” What good would it do? His accusers had already decided. Jesus would be executed. Arguing with them was pointless, so Jesus went to his death quietly as a sacrificial lamb.
Socrates and Jesus used different strategies but they were both executed and most people agree both cases were unfair. So where is the wisdom? And what does all this have to do with the Book of Job? Job’s friends all seemed wise, as long as they didn’t say anything. They just sat in silence and mourned with Job. This was the wisest thing they could do. It wasn’t until Job spoke first that they felt free to speak up too. And since Job had spoken so openly and freely, so did they. And they let him have it. His good friend Eliphaz said: “Behold, thou hast instructed many, and thou hast strengthened the weak hands. Thy words have upholden him that was falling, and thou hast strengthened the feeble knees. But now it is come upon thee, and thou faintest; it toucheth thee, and thou art troubled…” In other words, you (Job) were good at helping other people handle problems; now you can’t even handle your own. Another good friend, Bildad, says: “Doth God pervert judgment? Or doth the Almighty pervert justice? …if thou wert pure and upright; surely now he would awake for thee.” In other words, God is good. If you’re as good as you say you are then God would help you. So you must have done something wrong. Finally, his friend Zophar says “God exacteth of thee less than thine iniquity deserveth.” In other words, you (Job) deserve worse than you’re getting. Some help these friends are. They’ve gone from saying Job’s not such a bad guy; to saying he might be a bad guy; to saying he’s a really bad guy. Their “comfort” goes from bad to worse to worst.
Great Books readings and discussions aren’t always comforting. Some ideas in some of the books make us uncomfortable. The Book of Job is one of those books. Zophar may have been a bad friend to Job but he’s a good gadfly for us, like Socrates; and he’s a good teacher, like Jesus. He asks Job (and us) a simple question: “Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know?” What can we do? What can we know? These are good questions. Sometimes it helps to talk things over with other folks; sometimes it’s best just to ponder these things in the silence of our own hearts. Wisdom knows when to speak up and when to shut up.

Monday, April 07, 2014

BIBLE: Job (Happiness and Justice)

Reading the Book of Job is hard. It’s not hard to understand what’s happening in the story. But it’s hard to know exactly how to respond. It’s an understatement to say Job has a run of bad luck. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Job once had it all and now has nothing, not even his health. So where does he go from here? How do we respond to a man who has lost everything? How did Job’s friends respond? We’ll find out later what they have to say. But what if Job didn’t turn to friends for support? What if he turned to the Great Books instead? How would the Great Books tradition respond? Let’s consider a couple of possibilities.
In our last reading we talked about Rome and religion. One of our earlier readings was the Gospel of Mark. These readings are related. The basic message of the early Christians is that all of us are sinners. Everyone needs salvation. This includes Job. No one, not even Job, can earn his way to happiness. Happiness is a free gift from God. This is the basic gospel message spread by the early Christian Church. But ancient societies were grappling with the problem of happiness long before Christ. One of the greatest philosophers once wrote: “Now if there is anything at all which comes to men as a gift from the gods, it is reasonable to suppose that happiness above all else is god-given; and of all things human it is the most likely to be god-given, because it is the best.” (Aristotle, On Happiness, GB First Series, Vol. 1) Job had sons and daughters. He had sheep and camels and oxen and a great household. But the greatest gift Job had, the greatest gift anyone can have, is happiness. Why is happiness the greatest gift? Happiness is the greatest gift because, as Aristotle put it so simply, “it is the best.” We want everything else for the sake of being happy. That’s why it’s the best gift the gods can give us.
But here’s the problem with happiness: it never lasts. Christmas make us happy, for a while. Birthdays make us happy, for a while. There doesn’t seem to be anything that makes us permanently happy unless, as Aristotle says, the gods give it to us. And in Job’s case the reverse is true. The gods seem like they’re in a conspiracy to take away his happiness. Is that fair? Justice is one of the great themes running through the Great Books. The earliest GB author, Homer, gives some insight how a man like Job can fall from happiness to misery: “Among the gods, who brought this quarrel on? Apollo, the son of Zeus. Agamemnon angered him, so Apollo made a burning wind of plague rise in the army: rank and file Greek soldiers sickened and died for the ill their chief (Agamemnon) had done in despising a man of prayer. This priest, Kryses, had come down to the ships with gifts, no end of ransom for his daughter…” (The Iliad, GB Third Series, Vol. 2). The Greeks disrespected Apollo’s priest, so Apollo punished them. The gods can do that because they’re gods and we’re not. We have to endure plagues sent from the gods or else find some way to placate them. That was the typical ancient view of justice.
What makes Job’s case seem unfair is that he had not disrespected the gods (or, in this case, he had not disrespected God, because Job was a monotheist). In fact, Job had gone out of his way to please God. But he still lost his happiness. Why? Readers know Job hasn’t done anything wrong. Even God says so. But we judge from a human perspective. Job doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong and neither do we. However, divine justice may be different from human justice. If, as Aristotle says, the gods can give happiness then they can take it away too. This may not seem “fair” but as Job admits, “What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” Good and bad get all jumbled up. Homer essentially says the same thing. Maybe Job should have a long talk with Aristotle and Homer about happiness and justice.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

BIBLE: Job (Prologue: Heaven and Earth)

Here’s something to think about: the ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t know about the Book of Job. How many Greek and Roman authors ever mentioned Job? In our last selection Edward Gibbon covered the persecution of the early Christians in the Roman Empire. Of course they weren’t the first ones to suffer for their faith and they won’t be the last. Long before the Roman Empire came along a man named Job suffered greatly because he “was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.” Those facts alone would have made him stand out, in any culture, at any time in history. For starters he was “the greatest of all the men of the east.” This is a clue that Job was not Hebrew. He was, however, a monotheist; he believed in, and was faithful to, one God. That stands in stark contrast to the polytheism of most of the ancient world. In short, Job was a good and righteous man. How do we know?
The Bible tells us so: “the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?” Job didn’t just appear to be a perfect and upright man. He really was perfect and upright; in all the world there was no one like Job. That was the situation on earth. Meanwhile, back in heaven, trouble was brewing because “Satan answered the LORD, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side?” A picture starts to form. The Lord looks at Job and sees a good man. Satan says, sure he’s good. I’d be good too if I had all the stuff he has. So they make a sort of divine bet. Satan says “thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.” Take away all those blessings you gave Job and he’ll turn to other gods.
There’s plenty to think about even at this early stage of the story. Was Job a real person? What kind of God is this? Is he like Zeus? What is Satan (a heavenly creature) doing on earth spying on Job? And there’s plenty of room for discussion. What is this story about? Is it an explanation of why bad things happen to good people? Or is it really just the opposite: a non-explanation, one more example of immortal gods bullying mortal man; not much different from polytheism? Is this a story about sharing pain and knowing we’re not alone in our suffering? The Bible says the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Was Job a wise man or just a shrewd businessman, calculating costs and benefits? Is it divine wisdom to fear this version of God, or is it more of a pragmatic strategy for surviving in this world? There are no correct answers to these questions. We’re no closer to answering them now than people could way back in Job’s day. That’s what makes this book a timeless classic.
Job’s situation still resonates in the modern world. We don’t write on stone tables or papyrus, we use Word documents or email instead. We don’t ride camels and donkeys, we drive cars and fly in jet planes. But we still feel pain, just like Job did. We suffer setbacks, just like Job did. We still get sick, just like Job did. And God is still mysterious; just as mysterious he was to Job. What most of us don’t do is express our human condition as eloquently as Job. When Job loses everything he owns he doesn’t say woe is me. He doesn’t kill himself. He doesn’t blame God or someone else. He merely states the facts: “Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away.” Job knows that this side of heaven is earth, and everything on earth passes away. This is the lesson Job learns the hard way: what happens on earth soon passes away; what goes on in heaven is none of our business.