Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Tempest: A Path to Virtue?

I have been thinking about a question which was raised at the last  meeting of the Nashville Great Books Discussion Group. The question concerns whether it is morally acceptable to manipulate someone in order to achieve a good result. Another way of putting this is to ask whether good can ever come from evil, or can nobility rise from something ignoble? One obvious example for our time is the controversy over torture. Is it ok to inflict pain and suffering on a few people in order to prevent a larger catastrophe, such as murder or a suicide bombing? Some of us are inclined to say “of course it is better for one person to suffer than many.” Morals are just abstract principles; people are more important than principles. Or are they?

When the question was first raised in our meeting, we did not attempt to define what exactly qualifies as manipulation. But here are a few examples in the play we are reading: Prospero using his influence over Ariel in order to cause a shipwreck to bring his brother to the island on which Prospero lives; Prospero coercing Caliban to do his bidding; Prospero imprisoning Ferdinand to discover whether he is worthy of Miranda; Prospero using magical spells on his own daughter, etc.

It is unclear to me how Prospero knew that his brother was on a ship at sea (prior to the storm), but nevertheless, he influences Ariel to manipulate the weather, causing the shipwreck. Prospero, we learn, has a plan for redemption.

But first, we ought to distinguish between manipulation and mere persuasion. The moral distinction is not so much in the objective as the means employed. In either case, you believe you are doing something beneficial, such as causing the son of your rival to fall in love with your daughter. Manipulation takes many forms. But all of these forms imply deception. When you manipulate someone, you conceal your real intentions from that person. This is why Plato abhorred the sophists. He believed that the power of speech was dangerous and could easily be abused, such as manipulating the unenlightened (those who are ignorant of the truth) to do things that are not in their best interest. Persuasion, on the other hand, makes use of reason to change people’s opinions.

Plato believed that logic and reason are better guides to moral conduct than emotion. We know that sophists, preachers and politicians all use rhetoric to change people’s opinions about something. Logic and reason can be tools of persuasion, but only to the rational. This is why Plato believed philosophy was superior to poetry, for it changes people’s minds, not simply their hearts.

Another argument against manipulation is that it undermines freedom and morality. The truth of this statement runs throughout human history, starting with the Garden of Eden, where we learn that the first lie was told by the serpent to Eve. The serpent told Eve that she would not die if she ate the fruit from the forbidden tree. He raised doubts in her mind as to what is real and what is not real. She soon learned, much to her sorrow, that not everyone can be trusted.

The second lie told in Genesis is when Cain says to God, “I know not where my brother is.” But lying to God is a poor strategy. God sees through all lies. But human beings lack God’s omniscience. A pessimist might say that the history of mankind is a history (if not a veneration) of deception, or as Harry Truman might say, “one damn lie after another.”

Take Iago, who manipulates Othello into killing his wife. Throughout the play, Iago whispers lies and innuendo into Othello’s ear and Othello, like Eve, is unable to distinguish the real and the true from what is untrue.

When Marc Antony gives his great speech at Caesar’s funeral, he manipulates the crowd into turning against Brutus. Just as earlier, Brutus himself was manipulated by Cassius into murdering Caesar. At the funeral however, Antony has his own political agenda. When He says, “I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke, but here I am to speak what I do know.” This is not the voice of humility, but a snake weaving its spell over an angry mob.

Of course, people lie to one another just as they lie to themselves whenever it is convenient to do so. This is nothing new. We even have a word for it in the English language: it’s called “self-delusion.”

The larger question to be explored is whether there are times when lying (or manipulation) is necessary and beneficial to mankind. Even Plato thought the ideal republic would need the support of a “noble lie.” But does any sane person believe that lying is actually good? Probably not. Yet many people think lying is sometimes necessary, even if it is not virtuous.

But the main topic here concerns manipulation, not simply lying. It is entirely possible to manipulate some people into doing something they don’t want to do, even without lying. But is it morally correct to do so? All propaganda is form of manipulation. It substitutes one version of reality for another.

When your version of the truth serves a political objective, then your story is no longer reliable because it has become a mere means to an end, an end which is not concerned with truth, but with bringing about a particular change in policy. Propaganda has always been a handy tool for suppressing the truth and spreading a political doctrine. But it has nothing to do with freedom.

So we know that Prospero has a personal agenda. He manipulates people to bring about a certain chain of events. Prospero wants revenge and he wants vindication. In and of itself, this may not be evil, but whatever it is, it certainly cannot be called virtue. And once you go down that road of lies and deceit, of changing reality and substituting your own version of the truth, where will you be?  You will not find peace. Instead, you will find yourself with Nietzsche, in a zone that is beyond good and evil, beyond justice, and beyond redemption. For the path of virtue requires sacrifice and the recognition that some wrongs cannot be righted, and some pain must be endured.

The other dimension of Prospero’s power is that, by manipulating others to do his will, he nullifies human freedom. Immanuel Kant said human freedom derives from moral choice, and without freedom we are simply products of nature, neither better nor worse than any other creature. This is why magic or supernatural power was not given to man. The gods of Homer reserved for themselves the right to such power. Man is the only creature who feels remorse, and this is his only path to redemption. But times have changed, and the old gods are no longer worshiped. With Prospero, Shakespeare shows us a new kind of man who will not go gently into the night. Prospero will use all the powers at his disposal to set things right. We accept his action because he intends to use his power for good. But shouldn’t we ask what are the consequences for freedom when man exceeds the limits that nature (or God) has placed upon him?

Monday, June 23, 2014

SHAKESPEARE: The Tempest (Act 1: True Selves and Society)

In our last two reading selections we had contrasting characters. Montaigne retired to his country estate to devote more time to books and thinking. His goal was to settle down and get to know himself better. Rameau’s nephew was a man who always wanted to be at the center of social life in Paris. He changed his personality as often as he changed his clothes. So who were these two men, really? Did they each have a “true” self? If so, how would they know whether they were living truly authentic lives or just creating them as they went along?
Shakespeare’s play The Tempest ties together some elements brought out by Montaigne’s essay Of Experience and Diderot’s short story about Rameau’s Nephew. Prospero had been Duke of Milan. But he loved books more than being Duke. So, much like King Lear, Prospero turned over all governing responsibilities to someone else. He still wanted to enjoy all the benefits of being Duke but without the burden of duties that came along with it. In a sense he wanted to retire and devote himself to study just like Montaigne had done. Prospero says, “The government I cast upon my brother… thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated to closeness and the bettering of my mind…” In other words, Prospero became something of a bookworm. But that was ok with him because as he put it: “My library was dukedom large enough.” So who was the real Prospero deep down inside? What was his true self? Was he (a) Duke of Milan or (b) a scholar or (c) both?
Prospero’s daughter Miranda had a different problem. She didn’t know who she was. Literally, she didn’t know who she was. She knew she was Prospero’s daughter. But Miranda had grown up on a deserted island and had no idea how to live and behave in proper human society. She’s not uncivilized by any means. Prospero had taken great pains with her education and manners. In that sense she was home-schooled right from the start. But there were no other kids to play with. So Miranda was like a blank slate. Prospero can form her personality without exposing her to the social problems and emotional shocks she would be exposed to in an urban society in Milan. Then who is Miranda, really? What is her true self? Does she really have any ideas of her own? Or is she just a creation of the father-teacher who is himself torn between being Duke of Milan or a bookworm? Do parents pass their own problems along to their kids? Miranda is fifteen years old with the innocence of a toddler. The first time she sees Ferdinand she says: “There's nothing ill can dwell in such a temple (Ferdinand’s body): If the ill spirit have so fair a house, good things will strive to dwell with't.” He looks good. He must be good. This is the way Miranda thinks.
This brings us to another major character in Act 1 of the play, Caliban. Caliban looks bad and he is bad. He’s not a beast but he’s not quite human either. Prospero calls him “a freckled whelp hag-born; not honour'd with a human shape.” In that sense Caliban exists in a kind of no-man’s land and doesn’t fit in anywhere. But he faces the same basic question everybody faces: who am I? Prospero is a Duke, a scholar, a father. Miranda is a daughter and a young woman falling in love. These are the ordinary roles taken on by ordinary people every day. But where does Caliban fit in? Can he be habilitated and civilized to live in human society? Maybe. So Prospero tries to teach him how and in return Caliban tries to rape Miranda. Caliban believes he’s the rightful king of the island and Prospero has stolen it from him. Oh, and he wants Miranda too. What is Caliban’s true self? In society, even a society of only three people, these competing selves have to find a way to live together.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

DIDEROT: Rameau’s Nephew (Knowing Thyself)

In Montaigne’s essay on experience he says “I study myself more than any other subject…” He’s just taking Socrates’ advice to know himself better. Montaigne knowing himself better is a good idea because in his own way Montaigne is a philosopher. But is “know thyself” good advice for everyone? Denis Diderot wrote a short story about a man who gets to know himself very well. It’s a story about a man named Rameau who is the anti-Montaigne of literature. Rameau “is a philosopher in his own kind of way. He only thinks about himself. He doesn’t give a damn about the rest of the world.” This is not what Montaigne had in mind when he talked about knowing thyself; it isn’t what Socrates had in mind either.
Rameau is cynical about the kind of philosophy Socrates and Montaigne engage in. Rameau believes “We must have men, but not men of genius. No, my goodness, we don't need them. They're the ones who are constantly trying to change things.” Rameau thinks Socrates’ problem was always going around trying to change people’s lives. They didn’t like that. And look where it got him. It got him killed. That kind of philosophy, trying to change the world and make it better, never leads to success in the real world. Rameau says, “Who cares about life in a perfect of world if I'm not in it? … So let's just accept things the way they are.” Rameau’s verdict on philosophy comes to this: “Lord, may I never meet anyone more pigheaded than a philosopher.” And he ends by pointing out that “Virtue and philosophy isn’t for everybody.” He may be right.
Philosophy is not to Rameau’s taste. And neither is virtue. In his opinion, “Virtue is praised, but really it’s hated. People avoid it when they can, because it’s ice-cold and in this world we have to keep our feet warm.” This isn’t the way Socrates talked about virtue. And Rameau doesn’t have any better feelings about religion: “A lot of times devout people are harsh, touchy and unsociable. That’s because they’ve forced themselves to do something that’s unnatural. They’re in pain, and people in pain make other people suffer too.” This isn’t the way St. Augustine talked about religion. Rameau is pointing out something that many people know from experience: “I see a lot of decent people who are unhappy and a lot of happy people who aren’t decent.” This was also the experience of Job in the Bible story. Rameau doesn’t see any benefit in being decent or “virtuous.” Look what happened to Job.
But if Rameau is the anti-Montaigne of literature then the narrator of the story is the anti-Rameau. He doesn’t think Rameau’s view of life is healthy. In the narrator’s opinion “The true, the good and the beautiful will prevail in the end.” This is what Socrates thought too. “Their rightful place may be challenged at first, but in the end they’ll be acknowledged and admired by most people.” The narrator is more in line with Socrates’ thinking. The key phrase here is “most people.” In his own mind Rameau is not like most people. Montaigne’s goal was to be normal, like most people. The very thought of being normal is repulsive to Rameau. But Rameau may be more normal than he thinks. He admits “I want a good bed, good food, warm clothes in winter, cool in summer, plenty of rest, money, and other things that I would rather have given to me than to earn them by working.” Many people agree with Rameau. But Montaigne’s response would be the same as the narrator's response: “That’s because you’re a lazy, greedy slob, a coward with a rotting soul.” This is the very core of what Socrates and Montaigne were trying to do: maintain healthy souls and cure unhealthy ones. Rameau has an unhealthy soul, a rotten one. Socrates never wrote a book. Montaigne wrote a big book of essays. But Socrates and Montaigne agree on this point: “to compose our character is our duty, not to write books…”

Friday, June 06, 2014

MONTAIGNE: Of Experience (Kidney Stones and Philosophy)

The Great Books are mostly about life’s great subjects. In the past few weeks we’ve read about the nature of love (Symposium), the difference between the human (City of Man) and the divine (City of God), and the best ways to use military and political power (Caesar and Cleopatra). In this selection Montaigne spends a few pages talking about kidney stones. This is in the Great Books? How did kidney stones sneak into the Great Books?
Actually the topic of kidney stones didn’t just sneak in through the back door so to speak. Montaigne puts them there on purpose. He brings them right through the front door and holds them up for us to meditate on. No topic is too remote or mundane for Montaigne’s brand of philosophy. He talks about everyday life and gives new layers of meaning to everyday things. What we eat is important. How much sleep we get is important. How we deal with being sick is important. Kidney stones are part of life. Pain is something we deal with whether we like it or not. How we deal with pain (and its close cousin, pleasure) determines how we deal with the rest of our problems in life. And if that isn’t a proper subject for philosophy, then what is?
In that sense Montaigne is one of the best philosophers. He knows from personal experience how painful kidney stones can be. So what? We all know about pain from personal experience. Some of us even know about kidney stones from personal experience. What makes Montaigne so special? What sets Montaigne apart is the way he takes fairly common experiences (such as kidney stones) and uses them as subjects for meditations on philosophy. He once wrote an essay called “To Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die.” In this section on kidney stones Montaigne meditates on the relationship between disease and death. He says, “You do not die of being sick, you die of being alive. Death kills you well enough without the help of illness.” In Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan Ilych” we read about a man dying a very painful death. The terrible thing about Ivan is that he wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a particularly good man either. He was just an ordinary guy like the rest of us. Like the rest of us, that’s the part that disturbs many readers. Ivan could have been me! Who knows, that might BE me in a few years. Or sooner!
Death is a basic human fear. And dying a painful death is even worse, for a very good reason: it hurts more. Who would ever voluntarily choose more pain? That’s why Montaigne says whenever we get something like a kidney stone “Nature is bearing and pushing you into that glorious school (of disease and pain and death) which you would never have entered of your own free will.” Pain is nature’s wake up call, not only to the body but also to the spirit. Pain is a kind of “school” which we would never enroll on our own. Montaigne goes on to say that pain “…by warning and instructions repeated at intervals, intermingled with long pauses for rest, as if to give you a chance to meditate and repeat its lesson at your leisure.” This is starting to sound a little bit like philosophy. He goes on, “To give you a chance to form a sound judgment and make up your mind to it like a brave man, it sets before you the lot that is your condition, the good and also the bad, and a life that on the same day is now very joyous, now unbearable.” This sounds a lot like philosophy. Remember Montaigne’s essay “To Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die.” Montaigne says having kidney stones makes him feel like he’s dying. And he goes on to say that “If you do not embrace death, at least you shake hands with it once a month.” In Montaigne’s opinion, both kidney stones and philosophy give good lessons for life. Whether we’re going to the hospital to have a kidney stone removed or going to a college classroom for Philosophy 101 Montaigne’s advice is the same: “Just bear it, you need no other regimen.”

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Thoughts on Plato's Symposium

All definitions of philosophy are inadequate. But defining philosophy as "the love of wisdom" is particularly irksome because it substitutes two concepts: love and wisdom, neither of which are well understood, for the vagueness of one. The imprecision of philosophy always disturbs people who approach the subject as something that ought to provide clear answers to difficult questions. But this is a losing game. Philosophy cannot provide solutions to problems in the way that engineers, accountants, or lawyers do.  Like theology and art, philosophy operates on the perimeter of human experience. It is something we turn to when the immediate demands of life are satisfied. The pursuit of wisdom, which is the ordinary business of philosophy, is therefore relegated to a leisure activity, something we pursue when the mood strikes us. But for certain people, like Socrates, philosophy is a full time occupation. This is because the essence of philosophy is to learn how to think correctly about things that matter, especially ideas pertaining to things you cannot control, such as life and death, or eternity. The Greek mantra "know thyself" identifies the source of most human difficulty--our failure to understand our own mind, and to know what it is we are really seeking. Philosophy is an inward journey toward self-awareness. But unlike theology or psychiatry, it offers no program for redemption, and provides no therapy to ward off unhappiness.

The Symposium is a discussion about love, and it is certainly true that many tears and much blood has been shed because of our inability to understand love. Of course, there is no guarantee that human misery will diminish because we have a better understanding of the subject. But the desire for wisdom and happiness are different objectives. Most people settle for happiness or pleasure at the expense of truth. But this is why Socrates is not like the rest of us. When he hears the oracle at Delphi, he doesn't just turn away. He listens and obeys, just as Abraham did when God spoke to him. But the search for truth takes many forms. It starts with an act of submission: Abraham listens to God and obeys his commands; Socrates listens to his daemon which guides him in his search for truth, just as Dante was guided by Virgil into the underworld.  Likewise, the goal of every philosophical journey is to travel from darkness (human ignorance) into the light of truth.

Yet, if wisdom is the light of truth, then what can we possibly make of love?  Over and over in the annals of literature, we find that love and passion are the cause of much trouble for mankind. Our quest for truth is compromised and diverted by the desires and temptations of the flesh. Thus, for Plato (and later for Saint Paul), love takes two forms, one which is transitory and the other which is eternal.  The transitory form of love is derived from the pleasures of the body which are but a physical expression of love; while the eternal and incorruptible form of love is spirit, which is akin to a state of rapture or ecstasy. In the Symposium, all definitions of love offered by the various speakers prove inadequate. Even Socrates is unable to give a satisfactory description. He resorts to a story which is always the result when the intellect bogs down, unable to grasp the fundamental powers which move us. Thus, logic and reason yield to poetry and myth, for our souls  aspire to something finer which cannot be confined or relegated to mere earth. Love is the soul's desire to unite the eternal with the transitory, to transform the substance of ordinary life into something beautiful and worthy of God. This, for Socrates, is the real mission of philosophy and its only justification. It's not about the accumulation of knowledge or facts. The pursuit of wisdom has a transformative power to unify beauty and truth, like Wordsworth seeing the world in a grain of sand. As if by some strange alchemy between will and desire, our humanity is transformed and elevated by the mere pursuit of something divine.

-- SJ

Monday, June 02, 2014

MONTAIGNE: Of Experience (Books and Knowing Thyself)

Of all the selections in the Great Books Series this may be the best example for reading books and talking about them with other people. Reading Montaigne is like having a one-sided conversation with another living person. Even though we can’t speak back to him we can “listen” to him by reading what he has to say. And his writing has a very conversational tone. We soon get to know him on a personal level; much better than most of the other authors in the GB series. So who is this Renaissance Frenchman and what does he have to say to modern Americans? Plenty.
Montaigne quotes liberally from the classics throughout this essay. But he begins with his own opinion, not a classical quote. Montaigne believes that “There is no desire more natural than that of knowledge.” He agrees with Aristotle that man by nature desires to know. And he agrees with Aristotle that reason is a good teacher. But Montaigne also believes we should do whatever it takes to become wise. Reason can only carry us so far: “We try all ways that can lead us to knowledge; where reason fails us, we use experience, which is a weaker and less dignified means.” Montaigne admits that personal experience is “a weaker and less dignified means” of getting at the truth. Reason would be better. But because we’re weak creatures we should use every means at our disposal. We need all the help we can get. That includes using both reason and personal experience as guides. Montaigne also suggests a couple of other helpful guides for good living: (1) read good books and (2) follow the Greek proverb to “know thyself.”
Reading good books may seem like an obvious path to wisdom. But it isn’t. Plenty of people who’ve read lots of books aren’t wise. In fact, the opposite may be true. It’s like the old saying; they don't have the common sense God gave a goose. And the more they read the worse it gets. Montaigne noted this phenomenon too. He believes “It is evident from experience that too many interpretations disperse the truth and shatter it.” Some folks have read so many books that by now they’re not even sure what they think any more. Good teachers and good writers make things clearer. Montaigne says “Aristotle wrote to be understood; if he did not succeed, still less will another man…” Reading Aristotle is one thing. Reading books about Aristotle is a quite different thing. Montaigne thinks reading Aristotle himself is better.
And that’s where Montaigne’s advice to “know thyself” comes into play. He says “It is more of a job to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the things, and there are more books about books than about any other subject…” It’s better to read Aristotle and think hard about what he’s trying to tell me; rather than read commentaries about what someone else thinks Aristotle means. According to Montaigne “The world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is a great scarcity.” Scholars may need to find out what other scholars are writing. But most of us have our hands full just trying to see how Great Books fit into our own lives. This is where Montaigne gets very personal and very honest. He admits that “I study myself more than any other subject…” We may think Montaigne’s life was special. Not true, says Montaigne. Every life is worth examining; especially if it’s your own. Montaigne says “The life of Caesar has no more to show us than our own; an emperor’s or an ordinary man’s, it is still a life subject to all human accidents. Let us only listen: we tell ourselves what we most need.” No one else can do it for us. We must decide for ourselves when to read books and when to “read” our own lives. Not every Great Book will appeal to every reader. But every life is worth examining, especially when it’s your own. To each his own, or, as Montaigne says, “for every foot its own shoe.”