Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, July 28, 2014

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS #1 (American Government 101)

In some ways Shakespeare’s play The Tempest is like reading Lord of the Rings or watching a Harry Potter movie. There’s lots of magic going on. There are wizards and witches with supernatural powers. Here’s a question: is that real life? Of course not. Similarly, Gonzalo (a character in The Tempest) lays out his idea of a perfect city or nation: no business, no law courts or colleges or income inequality; just one big happy civic family. King Alonso (a real politician in the real world) responds to Gonzalo’s dream: “no more; thou dost talk nothing to me.” Gonzalo’s utopian dreams amount to nothing in the real world. But why? Why can’t we live in a world like the one Gonzalo dreams of? That’s what The Federalist Papers are all about.
In The Tempest the wizard Prospero relied on magic to achieve his political objectives. Both the ancient Hebrews (Exodus, GB Series 2) and the ancient Greeks (The Iliad, GB Series 4) consulted the gods before making political decisions. The Federalist Papers have the more mundane task of setting up a practical government that can function in an imperfect world without the aid of magic or help from the gods. This first essay is an introduction outlining what the writers of the Federalist Papers hope to accomplish. They want to know “…whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” If we have to have government, let’s at least make sure we have the best one we can. That’s easier said than done. The Federalist Papers is our national treasure explaining why the art and science of government is so difficult. Someone once asked Albert Einstein, “Dr. Einstein, why is it that when the mind of man has stretched so far as to discover the structure of the atom we have been unable to devise the political means to keep the atom from destroying us?” Dr. Einstein answered, “That is simple, my friend. It is because politics is more difficult than physics.” This quote reminds us to read The Federalist Papers with careful attention.
Most Americans have never read them at all. Why should they? The purpose of The Federalist Papers was to persuade voters to adopt the proposed Constitution of the United States. We did that. So why should ordinary citizens still bother to read them today? After all, we have a President, Congress and Supreme Court to decide these things. But the greatest question posed in The Federalist Papers has still not been answered, even today. The biggest challenge American-style government represents is simply this: can ordinary people govern themselves?
The answer (at this point in history) is: so far, so good. 250 years later we’re still standing. It’s been shaky but we’ve made it work. Ordinary people made it work but there’s no guarantee American democracy will continue. In this essay (by Hamilton) we see the difficulties not only behind us but also those ahead of us: “…we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society.” Here we have another great political question: is there a “right side” and a “wrong side” to every political problem? Or are there only competing interests? What’s good for me seems right for me, but maybe not for you. So which side is “right” politically? What standards do we use? How do we solve political problems without splitting the whole country apart? The use of brute force historically decided these things, as in our own Civil War. We call it war if it’s between nations, civil war if it’s between citizens of the same nation. Is there a better way? Hamilton proposes “reflection and choice” as a better method than “accident and force.” The Federalist Papers is a blueprint for political reflection; so that’s what we’ll be studying the next few weeks.

Monday, July 21, 2014

SHAKESPEARE: The Tempest (Act V: Three Views of Man)

In Act IV of The Tempest we saw a couple of extreme views of Man. One view saw Man as closer to the angels. The other view claimed Man was more of a beast. In Act V we’ll consider three alternative views of Man, or at least three different ways of approaching the human condition: (1) with pity, (2) with awe and wonder and (3) Man as creator of civilization.
First let’s consider Man from the outside looking in. How would mortal human beings appear to spiritual creatures? The spirit Ariel feels sorry for the humans who have fallen under Prospero’s magic spell. Ariel gives this point of view: “if you now beheld them, your affections would become tender.” Prospero is moved by Ariel’s concern: “Dost thou think so, spirit?” Ariel’s reply demonstrates the noble character that spirits can achieve: “Mine would, sir, were I human.” Ariel has feelings and he’s just a spirit. How much more should Prospero feel sorry for his fellow humans? Prospero admits “Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling Of their afflictions, and shall not myself, One of their kind, that relish all as sharply, Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?” Ariel pities human beings and he’s nothing but thin air. Prospero is “one of their kind” and knows how much human beings suffer. He has suffered much himself.
Greek tragedy uses suffering as the best means to help understand a fully human life. For example, Sophocles showed how blind we are in his characterization of Oedipus the King. Oedipus brought his terrible fate on himself. Or did he? Was his fate (or Prospero’s fate or our own) already marked out by the gods from the beginning? Or can we choose our own fate by studying nature and using the powers we discover there? Put another way, can science give us power over nature and fate? That’s what Prospero spends fifteen years trying to find out. And he has considerable success. But in the end Prospero doesn’t find the answers he’s looking for in science. So he gives up on going down that path. He simply says, “I’ll break my staff… I’ll drown my book.” Why does he do that? Why does he walk away from powers that took him so long to accumulate? Maybe because, like Oedipus, the answers he’s searching for aren’t found “out there” somewhere. Maybe the most essential truths for human beings are found not in the relationships of nature but in our own relationships to one another. Suffering is indeed an inseparable part of the human condition. But it’s only a part; it’s not the whole thing. Life as a human being is also a precious and (literally) wonderful experience. Miranda expresses this view when she exclaims, “O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't!” The wonder of so many “goodly creatures” (other people) should fill us with awe and wonder. Nature is full of marvels and studying science is indeed important. But nothing in nature is more marvelous than Man.
To get a sense of just how marvelous Man really is we need to consider people in their “natural habitat” of civilized societies. Consider our last few readings. There’s Diderot’s society of aristocratic snobs in 18th century France; Plato’s Greek drinking party in the Symposium; St. Augustine’s portrayal of the austerity of the early Christian church; or Mill’s Victorian England views of virtue. The varieties of human society can (and will) go on and on. In many ways these social cultures help form a Plato, a St. Augustine, a Mill or a Shakespeare. But great writers need great readers. This is where we come in. At the end of the play Prospero says “Let me not, Since I have my dukedom got And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell In this bare island by your spell; But release me from my bands…” We, as readers, have the same power over the books we read as Prospero had over the subjects on his island. We should use this power wisely.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Art of Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s play, the Tempest, begins with a storm and ends with a wedding. In between these two events unfolds another human drama of envy, revenge, love and reconciliation. But at the end of the story, what has really changed? One ruler of Milan has been exchanged for another. Caliban is still a rough creature, devoid of reason. Antonio and Sebastian show no signs of remorse for the trouble they have caused. The drama of human existence goes on much as it did before. So art has its limitations. For the true effects of this art can only be felt in the minds and hearts of the audience, not in the players who perform this drama upon the stage.

Some critics have surmised that the Tempest is a kind of swan song to Shakespeare’s career, a way of announcing his professional departure from the stage. If so, what kind of message is he leaving us? What moral or lesson do we take away from this final story? From Shakespeare’s earlier work, we have learned that greed and envy fester in the hearts of men, that good does not necessarily triumph over evil, and that the innocent always suffer. How can this final play (if indeed it is Shakespeare’s final play) add anything more to this legacy?

The setting of this play on an obscure island populated with magical creatures is a clue to its intent. The drama opens with a great storm at sea which threatens to overwhelm a ship full of men struggling to survive. Eventually, we learn that the storm was caused by Ariel, a fairy who owes a debt to Prospero.  Thus, right from the beginning of this play, the natural world is in collision with the supernatural.

Prospero, who is the rightful Duke of Milan, was overthrown and deprived of his title by his ambitious brother, Antonio. Quite naturally, Prospero feels cheated of his rightful place in the world. Twelve years ago, he and his young daughter, Miranda, were put on a small boat, towed out to sea, and then left to drift until their small provisions run out. Thanks to Gonzalo, luck, and magic (it is never clear which), they survive their journey and land upon this strange island far from the civilized world.

This is the background of the play. The action of the play is designed to bring about a certain resolution to Prospero’s predicament. Yet Prospero’s imprisonment on this primitive island has resulted, to some degree, from his decision to withdraw from the affairs of men, and his  political responsibilities in Milan. The truth is that Prospero does not care much for government. The problems of governing are much less interesting to him than his books on magic and philosophy. So he appoints his brother, Antonio, to handle the daily affairs of his office which allows Prospero to focus on what really matters to him: the ability to control or subdue nature.

Right from the beginning we have a central conflict between things in opposition: the real or natural world (the world of matter) vs. the imaginary world we aspire to (the world of spirit). I use the term imaginary to describe the realm of ideas which primarily exists in the mind (and is codified in books). As we will see in this play, the island which Prospero inhabits is a Twilight Zone kind of intersection between the natural and the supernatural.

Whether or not Prospero’s attraction to magic is a form of philosophical seduction is not exactly clear. What we soon learn is that Prospero feels a great injustice has been done to him. The kingdom of virtue (which perhaps only existed in his mind) has been violated and he plans to set it right. To accomplish his objective, he needs the service of Ariel, a spirit endowed with magical powers who is in his debt.

The society of men to which we are all accustomed is predominantly a world of politics fueled by ambition. This is the world of Antonio, Sebastian, and Alonso. But this world now collides with an imaginary world (the sphere of virtue) which exists predominantly in Prospero’s head. Here on this remote island, far from the daily affairs of Milan, Prospero plays the part of the magus or artist who manipulates the elements of his drama to suit his own design.

Thus, it is not extravagant to compare Prospero’s use of magic with the realm of spirit, for these are the elements of transformation. In his mind, Prospero has an idea of the way the world should be. It is an image of truth and virtue which exists only in the mind of the idealist, and corresponds to a certain Greek idea of moral perfection.

To me, Prospero is attempting to reconcile the domain of matter (politics) with the domain of spirit (virtue). But it is unclear to me whether these elements can ever be successfully combined. Yet, if such a transformation is possible, I believe it must occur within the domain of art. This might be Shakespeare’s greatest trick, for I believe all great art is a form of deception. It inspires us to believe that the boundaries of human experience can be transcended. Thus the world of magic (or supernatural) connects the rational to ordinary experience, or to put it another way, mind is now connected to matter. This is why Prospero orchestrates the romance between Ferdinand and Miranda. It isn’t about revenge; it’s about redemption. It’s about elevating man’s spirit over his flesh. And love is the force which Prospero uses to bind the spiritual to the material. In this way, he reconciles the domain of matter with the domain of spirit which is a form of transcendence that only art and revelation can aspire to.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

SHAKESPEARE: The Tempest (Act IV: Two Views of Man)

Some folks think the glass is half full. Other folks think the glass is half empty. Ho-hum. But here’s a related question: is Man (generic humanity) more like the angels or closer to the animals? For questions offering two extremes the answer is usually either (a) neither or (b) both or (c) somewhere in between. And that’s (sort of) the answer we find in Act IV of The Tempest. If this sounds confusing, it is. Shakespeare never settles for an easy answer when he can squeeze dramatic tension out of opposing viewpoints. Let’s consider each of these viewpoints in turn and try to determine what Shakespeare himself thought was the correct answer.
First let’s consider the proposition that Man is more like an angel. Here’s the full text for that proposition: “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack (cloud) behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.” This is Prospero speaking but notice what he’s NOT saying. He’s not saying that Man is good therefore he’s more like the angels. Besides, the Bible says there are bad angels as well as good angels. The serpent in the Garden of Eden was a bad angel. No, what makes Man more like the angels is his spirit. Other animals may have fundamental thinking and reasoning abilities. But only Man has the ability to dream dreams of past and future times and create a vision for a better way of life.
In Act IV of The Tempest we get a play within a play where all the actors are pure spirits. Prospero calls forth the spirits of three ancient Greek goddesses (Iris, Ceres and Juno) to perform a dance. When the dance is over Prospero dismisses them and says, “Our revels now are ended…” etc. The spirits have gone away. What happened to them? Prospero says they “melted into air, into thin air.” That’s why many people don’t believe in spirits. It’s all make-believe, like seeing actors on a stage. Not real. Shakespeare is aware of that too. But he points out that spirits and actors aren’t the only things that melt into thin air. Even things we think are most real in the world, things like towers and palaces and temples, will all eventually dissolve like clouds in the sky. And nothing will remain. Where is Priam’s Trojan palace, for example? Long gone. But The Iliad remains. The idea, the dream of Priam’s Trojan palace, lives on in our imaginations every time we read The Iliad. So which is really stronger; Priam’s palace or the vision of Priam’s palace? We dream. That’s why Man is more like the angels.
But the second proposition says that Man is more like the animals. Prospero argues for this view when he says, (Caliban is) “A devil, a born devil, on whose nature Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains, Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost; And as with age his body uglier grows, So his mind cankers.” Man is no angel. We’re physical creatures just like all other animals on this earth. We’re all born with an inclination to want to do the things we want to do, when we want to do them. And it’s only natural for physical creatures to want physical things. So when Caliban tries to rape Miranda it’s not just some random defect in his character. No. According to Prospero Caliban is “a born devil.” Rape is simply the kind of thing devils do, and animals too. It’s Caliban’s animal-nature to want to reproduce and people the island with little Calibans.
Those are the two basic viewpoints of Man expressed in Act IV of The Tempest. So what did Shakespeare think? Shakespeare probably thought mostly about selling lots of tickets.

Monday, July 07, 2014

SHAKESPEARE: The Tempest (Act III: Hauling Logs)

The glass that’s half empty vs. the glass that’s half full is a puzzling example of a common question: how can two people look at the exact same thing and come up with two exactly opposite views? One simple answer is they bring their personal views with them to the table. If a man is already pessimistic he’ll see a half empty glass. But if a man is optimistic he’ll see a half full glass. Their views are well established before they ever see the contents in the glass.
A similar phenomenon takes place in The Tempest. But instead of a half empty or half full glass we have two men carrying wood. What they’re doing isn’t as important as their respective attitudes toward work. One of them says, “A plague upon the tyrant that I serve! I'll bear him no more sticks, but follow thee, Thou wondrous man.” That’s Caliban speaking. The tyrant is his master, Prospero. Caliban hates Prospero and wants to follow a new master; the “wondrous man” Stephano. Carrying wood for Prospero is humiliating. Why would it be any less humiliating to carry wood for Stephano instead? Because Caliban chooses to follow Stephano.
The other wood carrier is Ferdinand. And he’s carrying wood for the same guy, Prospero. Yet his attitude is almost exactly the opposite of Caliban’s attitude. Ferdinand rather enjoys this work. What’s the difference? Is Caliban a pessimist and Ferdinand an optimist? No. There’s a different reason why Ferdinand has a bounce in his step as he hauls his logs. He says, “I must remove some thousands of these logs and pile them up, upon a sore injunction: my sweet mistress weeps when she sees me work, and says, such baseness had never like executor. I forget: but these sweet thoughts do even refresh my labours, most busy lest, when I do it.” In plain English, Ferdinand is in love. Carrying logs is easier when he’s doing it in order to get a “sweet mistress” like Miranda. What it all boils down to is this: Caliban believes he’s working under compulsion; Ferdinand believes he’s working under his own free choice.
The Tempest is a play that has a long ago and far away feel to it. After all, how many of us will ever be shipwrecked on a deserted island? But there’s a question here that applies just as much to life in modern America as it applied to life in Shakespeare’s England. The question is this: how do we feel about our work? Is it just constant drudgery? Or is it something we do willingly, with pleasure? Most people have to work for a living. And work takes up a large part of each day. It doesn’t matter if we’re hauling logs or sitting in front of a computer or driving a truck. The principle is the same. We’re either (a) doing what the boss says because we have to work to make a living, or (b) we choose to work even if we didn’t have to. These are two very different motivations. Caliban represents choice (a). Ferdinand represents choice (b).
Another question comes up. How do we define “work” as opposed to some other activity? Hauling logs is a prime candidate for a work activity. Who wags logs around for fun? Who moves logs from one pile to another just for the sheer pleasure of moving logs? Log hauling is definitely work. Many other activities aren’t quite as clear. Miranda says, “My father is hard at study; pray now, rest yourself: he’s safe for these three hours.” Prospero is going to be busy studying for the next three hours. Does that count as work or fun or something in between? Studying for a calculus exam may count as work. Caliban says, “I am subject to a tyrant, a sorcerer...” A calculus student may say, “I am subject to a tyrant, a math professor…” What about an old man (Prospero) studying philosophy? Is philosophy work or play? That’s a bit like asking: is the glass half full or half empty? For some, philosophy is play; for others, drudgery.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

SHAKESPEARE: The Tempest (Act II Gonzalo’s Dream)

When it comes to government are Americans optimistic or pessimistic? Is the glass half full or half empty? On one hand we have idealistic goals like those expressed in Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. On the other hand, recent polls show Americans at an all-time low regarding confidence in government. These two facts don’t seem to match. So which one is right? Act II of Shakespeare’s Tempest may give us some insight into this question. Gonzalo is an advisor to King Alonso of Naples. Gonzalo is the eternal optimist. Alonso’s brother Sebastian is the pessimist. Shakespeare is showing us that the current American dilemma is nothing new. There have always been optimistic citizens and pessimistic citizens. The names and faces and places may change but the sentiments they express stay the same. So let’s listen to Gonzalo and Sebastian for clues to our own problems.
Gonzalo starts out by saying “Had I plantation of this isle, my lord…And were the king on't, what would I do?” This is the core of Gonzalo’s meditation: what would I do if I had political power? Sebastian answers cynically, “'Scape being drunk for want of wine.” That sets the stage for both sides to express their views. Gonzalo begins by telling how he would use the executive power of king or president: “I' the commonwealth I would by contraries Execute all things.” In Shakespeare’s day “contraries” meant to rule in opposition to what was expected from a Renaissance ruler. And Gonzalo’s political ideas would no more work in his day than they would work in ours. But it’s interesting for him to lay out his dream of a virtuous republic. It shows how much we also dream in our own American-style version of a virtuous republic.
For starters Gonzalo says, “no kind of traffic would I admit.” This can be taken two ways: (1) traffic in the sense of vehicles clogging the streets, or (2) traffic is also an old term for conducting business. In Gonzalo’s world there would be no traffic jams and no shady bourgeois business deals. There would also be “no name of magistrate.” In Gonzalo’s republic there would be no need for policemen to arrest criminals or for judges to judge them; presumably because everyone would live virtuous lives according to nature. And “Letters should not be known” since there would be no further need of universities or literary culture to teach us how to live. Everyone would be living virtuously anyway. And living according to nature means there would be plenty for everyone to go around: “riches, poverty, and use of service, none.” No one would take more than they wanted and no one would want more than they needed. According to Gonzalo all the citizens in his realm would have enough to be happy but not so much that it would make them greedy for more.
And since men would be naturally honest there would also be “no contract, succession, Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none.” A Bourn is a limit or boundary marker. In Gonzalo’s world we won’t need markers designating private property. Everything would be held in common. No need for complicated contracts because no one would try to cheat anyone else. A man’s word would be his bond. There would also be “No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil” because commodities like these lead to greed or envy and would corrupt the commonwealth. All this is too much for Sebastian and he sarcastically pays homage to Gonzalo’s dream: “God save his majesty!” Gonzalo’s dream may well be unattainable. But so was Lincoln’s and so was King’s. They all dreamt of a land where everyone would live in peace with his neighbor. Is that too much to ask? In a few weeks we’ll read how the Founding Fathers dealt with this same dream in The Federalist Papers. They didn’t just want to dream about it; they wanted to make it happen.