Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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?


Blogger SMJ said...

If John Stuart Mill had only substituted the word "virtue" for "happiness," his utilitarian philosophy would be entirely consistent with the objectives of Christianity and the ideals of an enlightened middle class. The problem of using a concept like happiness as the goal of society is that it can be defined in so many ways. Happiness really belongs to the realm of psychology. The myth of the Delphic oracle ("know thyself") became a source for our long troubling obsession with enlightenment. The pursuit of ultimate truth (as both Nietzsche and Freud recognized) is a form of self-gratification. The Christianization of the western hemisphere simply transformed this obsession with happiness into a desire for immortality. The never ending pursuit of knowledge (or truth) has often been justified as a way of elevating or improving the human condition. Yet, it seems to me, the pursuit of knowledge only confuses the mind while elevating culture at the expense of virtue. But do we ever become better (i.e. "do the right thing") solely as a result of having more information? No. This is the fallacy of rationalism. As both Kant and Socrates would agree, good actions proceed directly from our capacity to judge wisely. Our capacity to judge is always informed by our proximity to virtue. So, the further we are from virtue, the more difficult it becomes for us to judge wisely. And learning how to judge wisely, it seems to me, ought to be the central objective of any school of education. Otherwise, we may be hopelessly distracted from our true destination, as Ulysses was by the song of the Sirens. And so we might ask, just what is our "true destination"? Ah, that is the real question, isn't it. That's why we are reading all these books in the first place. To discover our true destination, and to learn what we have to know (or what we have to do) in order to get there. That is the real, and the only useful, meaning to "enlightenment."

5/08/2014 8:02 AM  

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