Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, May 24, 2014

PLATO: Symposium (Philosophy and Love)

Any beginning philosophy student will tell you that philosophy means love of wisdom. But ask what they mean by love or by wisdom and their answer may be as muddled as any ordinary person picked randomly off the street. Which leads ordinary people to ask an obvious follow-up question: why should ordinary people even bother studying philosophy? What good does it do? It’s hard enough to make a living and pay the bills without worrying about stuff like what is love? Or what is wisdom? What difference does it make? Can we even answer those questions?
Plato thinks so. At least he thinks we should try. Even if we get the answers wrong the effort itself will lead us down a path of self-understanding. And if it turns out that we really don’t know what love is or what wisdom is, at least we know that we don’t know. That’s a start. Plato’s Symposium sets the stage by laying out the basic problem facing philosophy out there in the “real world” of getting and spending: “…I don’t know anything that gives me greater pleasure, or profit either, than talking or listening to philosophy.” That’s one reason we should study philosophy: it gives us pleasure. J.S. Mill told us that the main goal in life is to increase pleasure and decrease pain. Of course Mill was also a philosopher. Does that count? Philosophers by definition get pleasure from studying philosophy but what about real people living in the real world? Apollodorus the narrator goes on: “But when it comes to ordinary conversation, such as the stuff you talk about finance and the money market, well I find it pretty tiresome personally, and I feel sorry that my friends should think they’re very busy when they’re really doing absolutely nothing.” Well, that right there’s a good reason why some people don’t like philosophy. That snooty attitude which basically says, I’m doing something important, thinking. You, on the other hand, are just wasting time making money. Apollodorus knows he’s being snooty and he knows how ordinary people react: “Of course, I know what you think of me; you think I’m just a poor unfortunate philosopher, and you’re probably right. But here’s the difference: I don’t think that you’re unfortunate, I KNOW you are.”
This kind of wrangling is not philosophy and it’s not what Socrates had in mind when he encouraged his listeners to follow the path of philosophy. To be any good, to do any good at all, philosophy has to make its own way in the real world. For Socrates that literally includes the hustle and bustle of the marketplace. That’s where the real action is. Philosophy has to meet people where they are and handle things nearest and dearest to our hearts. What’s any nearer and dearer to our hearts than love? We all know what love is, right? Wrong. Many of us don’t. Or we may think we know; we just can’t articulate it. But if we can’t express something in our own words do we really know what we’re talking about? That’s what Socrates is driving at. If our answers aren’t clear our thinking isn’t clear either. That’s what philosophy is all about.
Think about modern love songs. Love makes the world go ‘round. That’s not really a philosophy but it could be a starting point for Socrates to get his foot in the door. Maybe love doesn’t literally make the world go around but (he would ask) is love some kind of force, a force similar to the gravitational attraction between planets? Does it draw people together the way gravity draws things down to the earth? Here’s a quote from the Symposium: “There are two kinds of love: earthly and heavenly… The earthly Aphrodite’s Love…governs the passions of the vulgar… Heavenly love… is innocent of any hint of lewdness.” Oh, Socrates might say, we started off with love as just one thing, a kind of universal force, and now we’ve already split it into two different things. Is there really an earthly love and a heavenly love? What do you think? Socrates would ask with a twinkle in his eye. What DO I think? Now philosophy begins.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

ST. AUGUSTINE: City of God (Classifying the World)

Most of us remember back in school when teachers would say something like, “Now listen up, boys and girls.” Why did they do that? Why did they break down the class according to boys and girls? Why not, “Now listen up, all you tall ones and short ones” or “all you skinny ones and chubby ones?” No, the classroom world was broken down by boys and girls. In a previous reading John Stuart Mill broke the world down according to pleasure and pain. The more pleasure we have, the happier we are; more pain, less happiness. Julius Caesar had a different breakdown of the world in Shaw’s play about Caesar and Cleopatra. It doesn’t matter whether you’re born a man or a woman. Pain or pleasure is really beside the point. It doesn’t matter whether you’re personally happy or unhappy. It doesn’t even make much difference if you’re a Roman or an Egyptian. What really divides the world is this: you’re either a Great One or you’re one of the common crowd. One of the main themes in Shaw’s play is Julius Caesar’s attempt to turn Cleopatra from a common princess into a Great Queen.
St. Augustine also divides the world but he uses an entirely different principle. He says, “It has come to pass, that though there are very many and great nations all over the earth, whose rites and customs, speech, arms, and dress, are distinguished by marked differences, yet there are no more than two kinds of human society, which we may justly call two cities, according to the language of our Scriptures.” Only two? Does Augustine mean there’s Rome (the superpower of his day) and then there’s everyone else? No. He goes on to explain that “The one (city) consists of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit.” This seems simple enough at first glance. But it doesn’t take long to show us that it’s not as simple as it sounds. For example, how do we distinguish the ones who “live after the flesh” from the ones who “live after the spirit?” It’s not hard to tell the boys from the girls in class. And it doesn’t take long for us to see that Julius Caesar is a Great Man, different from other men. But classifying people by “flesh” and by “spirit” is a different story. That seems impossible.
It’s not impossible, says Augustine, “First, we must see what it is to live after the flesh, and what to live after the spirit.” Then he spends a long time explaining in patient detail what it’s like to live after the flesh and how that’s different from living after the spirit. The simplest explanation seems to be this one: “When, therefore, man lives according to man, not according to God, he is like the devil… When, then, a man lives according to the truth, he lives not according to himself, but according to God; for He was God who said, "I am the truth."” There are only two “cities” in Augustine’s world. Not one city being civilized Rome and the rest being the uncivilized world. But rather, one he calls the City of Man and the other is the City of God. These two cities co-exist, side by side, throughout the whole world. They co-exist but they’re always at war.
Why? As Augustine puts it, the City of Man lives according to man, not according to God. In his worldview this results from trying to build society on a false foundation. Men have been trying, over and over, generation after generation, to turn away from God and do things their own way. It won’t work; never has, never will, says Augustine. Why not? Any City of Man we can create on this earth will soon pass away and be gone, only to be replaced by another City of Man. The City of God will last, and has lasted, ever since the first man, Adam, walked the earth. Philosophers may disagree but Augustine says, “they only seek contention rather than truth.” The truth, as Augustine sees it, is that “We ought to consider this holy city (the City of God) only in connection with what God foresaw and ordained, and not according to our own ideas…”

Friday, May 09, 2014

SHAW: Caesar and Cleopatra (Books and History)

In an early scene of Shaw’s play, Caesar and Cleopatra, a man named Theodotus comes rushing onto the stage proclaiming: “The fire has spread from your ships. The first of the seven wonders of the world perishes. The library of Alexandria is in flames.” For book lovers this is one of history’s worst tragedies. For a Roman soldier the response is: “Psha! (Quite relieved, he goes up to the loggia and watches the preparations of the troops on the beach.)” Rufio (the Roman soldier) was afraid it was something important. But it turned out to be just a bunch of old books. And even Caesar’s response isn’t much different from a common soldier’s: “Is that all?”
Theodotus is tutor to Ptolemy, the boy-king of Egypt. His love of books is understandable. Rufio is a rough Roman commander of troops. His indifference to books is understandable. The most interesting character in this exchange is Julius Caesar. When Caesar asks, “Is that all?” Theodotus is shocked. He replies: “All! Caesar: will you go down to posterity as a barbarous soldier too ignorant to know the value of books?” In other words, are you going to let history treat you as just an ignorant soldier? Do you want to go down in history as a man no different from that barbaric Rufio over there? Caesar is calm but firm when he answers: “Theodotus: I am an author myself; and I tell you it is better that the Egyptians should live their lives than dream them away with the help of books.” This is why Julius Caesar is one of the truly great men in history. He goes straight to the heart of the issue. What good are books?
What good are books! For book lovers it’s heresy to even ask. What good are books! Books make life worth living. Can you imagine life without books? Theodotus puts it this way: “(kneeling, with genuine literary emotion: the passion of the pedant). Caesar: once in ten generations of men, the world gains an immortal book.” Writers like Aeschylus, Plato, and Thucydides are indeed very rare. Theodotus is passionate about preserving the best that has been written in the past. He sees it as our duty to pass this knowledge along to the next generation. We’re just one link in the long chain of history. It only takes one broken link to sever the whole chain from the long story of human civilization. Theodotus knows the link is now being broken. The famous Library of Alexandria is burning. How many masterpieces of literature, philosophy and history will be lost forever? Theodotus is eloquent trying to convey this tragic loss to Caesar. “What is burning there is the memory of mankind.”
History is surely something worth preserving; surely something we should all cherish, protect and maintain for future generations. Again Caesar surprises us when he says, no. “A shameful memory. Let it burn.” What? Let the memory of mankind go up in flames? Let it burn, says Caesar. With one last attempt, Theodotus screams “(wildly). Will you destroy the past?” Will you destroy history, Caesar? Caesar isn’t persuaded. He just says, “Ay, and build the future with its ruins.” For Caesar preserving the past isn’t as important as building the future.
The Great Books Series appeals to people like Theodotus. Theodotus has the soul of a scholar and a librarian. But many selections in the Great Books have been written by “men of the world” who were active in government, business and military affairs. Chaucer and Machiavelli worked in various government positions. Joseph Conrad was captain of a ship. Thucydides and Clausewitz were army generals. Alexander Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury and James Madison was President of the United States. Like many of these writers, Julius Caesar didn’t want to just read about history. He wanted to make history. So that’s exactly what he did.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

G. B. SHAW: Caesar and Cleopatra (Prologue)

John Stuart Mill laid out a philosophy of life that placed happiness as the center piece of all human effort. This was a philosophy that appealed to most people living in Victorian England. George Bernard Shaw must not have been one of those people; at least that’s the impression we get from reading his prologue to the play Caesar and Cleopatra.
Mill’s philosophy can be summed up this way: “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.” Then Mill goes on to say (later in his essay): “If it be a true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and that this was his purpose in their creation…” And of course this is exactly what most people living in Victorian England believed at the time. But Shaw presents a rather different picture of the gods. What if God doesn’t desire, above all things, the happiness of his creatures? What if the gods really don’t like us all that much? Shaw has the Egyptian god Ra speak to the audience before this play begins. He says, “Peace! Be silent and hearken unto me, ye quaint little islanders… I am Ra, who was once in Egypt a mighty god…” In this short passage Shaw manages to do a couple of things well. First, by calling the audience “ye quaint little islanders” he punctures Victorian pride in their own accomplishments. (Although, to be fair to the audience, think how much Victorian England did accomplish. Here are just a few quaint little islanders of Victorian times: Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Darwin, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Wordsworth, the list goes on and on.) The second thing Shaw does is puncture their faith in a God who is a father figure and wants us to be happy. Ra wants no such thing. He doesn’t love us at all. Also, note that Ra was ONCE a mighty god. Shaw implies that gods, like people, can fall from power.
Speaking through the mouthpiece of Ra, Shaw lectures his English audience that they are not as mighty as they think they are. Many ancient peoples accomplished more than they did. Ra continues by saying, “Ye poor posterity, think not that ye are the first. Other fools before ye have seen the sun rise and set, and the moon change her shape and her hour. As they were so ye are; and yet not so great; for the pyramids my people built stand to this day.” The problem of modern people is a misplaced confidence in our own superiority over ancient peoples. Technological advances make us think we must also be better in other ways too. Shaw wants to make clear that this is not true. Not only were the ancient Egyptians better than us but the ancient Romans were too. This play will show in what ways they were better than us and in what ways they too were fools.
Ra gives a little prelude to what’s coming: “And thus it fell out between the old Rome and the new, that Caesar said, "Unless I break the law of old Rome, I cannot take my share in ruling her; and the gift of ruling that the gods gave me will perish without fruit." But Pompey said, "The law is above all; and if thou break it thou shalt die." Then said Caesar, "I will break it: kill me who can." And he broke it.” Would a Victorian gentleman like John Stuart Mill talk that way? No. He wouldn’t act that way either. England was good at making what Napoleon called a nation of shopkeepers. For Shaw, utilitarian philosophy is a philosophy for shopkeepers and the only thing worse than a shopkeeper is an arrogant shopkeeper; why would Victorians pay money to see this play?