Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Resistance is Futile (Unless You Have Science)

I think most readers have a pretty good handle on the problems raised by Ecclesiastes. Still, I have a small criticism in our using the word "chaos" when we really mean "change." All change is not chaotic. There is orderly (rational) change, such as the change from one political administration to another through a free election; and there is disorderly change through revolution.  But does Ecclesiastes really mean whatever we want it to mean ("a mirror to the world")? The underlying truth is that Ecclesiastes gives little comfort to those who are concerned about personal survival. Everything alive passes away. In the long view, which cosmologists take, even inorganic matter will disintegrate as the molecular bonds which hold it together weaken. But the ultimate fate of the universe lies trillions of years in the future. What most people are concerned with is more immediate. What happens to me tomorrow?

Ecclesiastes does not offer any real answers. It offers a point of view most closely associated with stoicism-- i.e., why worry about things which are beyond your control? Relax, be happy.

Ecclesiastes also does not address the root causes of injustice in the world. Even if good and evil were in perfect balance (which they are not), why is good unable to triumph over evil? Ecclesiastes has no answer for that. In fact, if you are starving to death, unable to find a job, or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (Sierra Leone), you may have a pretty rotten life, then die of Ebola. There is a high probability that no one will even remember you existed. You'll just fade away into nothingness.

So, if everything eventually disappears (including me), what's the point of doing anything? Ecclesiastes has no answer.  The point of view of Ecclesiastes is that we puny human beings are not able to see "the big picture" which God has devised. So we should just relax and enjoy our brief hour upon the stage.

On the other hand, science, which is very much a product of the Age of Reason, does not have all the answers either. But it has a strategy. The strategy is based on logic, reason, imagination and the scientific method. Science may also kill us  with our hubris and our lack of virtue. Unfortunately for those of us who live today, science may not find a solution for our mortality. But it provides a strategy that might pay off some day in the future. Three thousand years from now, Ecclesiastes will be perceived as a kind of mental illness. What Americans want are solutions to problems, not consolation. The authors of the Federalist Papers were not going to sit around and let the future unfold willy-nilly. Forget about "all is vanity and vexation of spirit." What kind of solution is that? Americans primarily believe in two things: freedom and work. You work to earn money and have a better life for yourself. We want answers, not sermons. The way I read it, Ecclesiastes does not offer us any answers other than "be thankful that life is not any worse than it already is." Great!  Tell that to the Jews in Auschwitz.

On the other hand, maybe Ecclesiastes has some useful advice to impart, if only we know how to make use of it.  But the fact of the matter is that Ecclesiastes has no explanation for why things are the way they are, and no solutions on how to make it better. At best, like Stoicism, Ecclesiastes is a methodology for handling despair. But all of life's problems are not mental. When you are starving, you can't survive on a positive attitude. You have to go out and find something to eat. This is what I find irritating about stoicism. It advocates a change in attitude, but it doesn't go to the root cause of misery. Science doesn't go to the root cause of misery either. You can have all the food in the world, along with all the treasure, and still be miserable. The pursuit of happiness is a never ending journey. But it begins with finding enough food to eat everyday, and freedom from violent death at the hands of scoundrels. This was the essence of Hobbes political philosophy. He believed that most people just want to be safe from harm. But the Founding Fathers knew better. They knew that Americans want freedom as well as security. But sometimes, it is difficult to have both.

In a metaphysical sense, freedom from non-existence is what most people really desire. (Would Christianity be as popular as it is without the promise of resurrection?) Sure, we want freedom, happiness, prosperity, and love, etc. But what is the thing most people want the most? More life. On the other hand, there isn't much point to life if you are miserable; but there isn't much point to happiness either, if you are dead. That's kind of a syllogism. Life without happiness = despair. Happiness without life = ???  This is the bitter reality that Ecclesiastes fails to address. Science does a much better job of identifying our basic needs. We want food and shelter, and we need life to get those things. And yes, it is true that Man may not live on bread alone, but he sure can't live without it either. Unless you believe in miracles. But that is another discussion.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

BIBLE: Ecclesiastes (Road Map for Life)

The book of Ecclesiastes can be read in different ways: as a mirror to reflect on past mistakes and failures; as a lens to look down the road to the future; as a road map to show us where we’re at right now. Past, future and present; Ecclesiastes covers the whole geography of life. That is, if we’re wise enough to read it wisely. The most famous section is the poetic section showing an appropriate time for everything under the sun. Wisdom may be simply this: do the right thing at the right time; nothing more and nothing less. Timing is everything. Is this poetic view of time fatalistic? In other words, should we read this section as if it says, things will happen. The universe is wound up like a clock and will run out in its own good time. We’re just cogs in a machine and there’s nothing we can do about it. All is vanity. Or, should we interpret time in a more optimistic way? Is the advice given here not fatalistic at all but a much more uplifting message: be patient. What goes around comes around. Your time will come. All will be well.
But all is not well. Not by a long shot. Why is life good to some people and not to others? Is it the luck of the draw? Do some people just get stuck being a bad cog in the machine of life? Or is it because some people put forth the effort needed to live better lives? Ecclesiastes offers a map to a better way of life. A man can navigate through his life without using a map. But Ecclesiastes says he has a fool for a navigator. The world is a tough neighborhood and we all need help getting through it safely. The Preacher is well aware of this and says, “I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart…” What does he mean?
Let’s take four examples and call them A, B, C, and D. But first let’s get our terms straight. What is “travail”? Merriam-Webster says, Travail: a difficult experience or situation, painful or difficult work or effort. “Sons of men” means all of us. “Exercise” is the act of bringing into play or realizing in action. Put it all together and it means all of us are born into a tough world. We didn’t ask to be here but here we are. And the kicker is this: one day we’re all going to die. Ecclesiastes asks one question: so what are you going to do about it? Now the four responses:
A. Doesn’t use the past as a mirror to reflect his mistakes and failures and he refuses to use books like Ecclesiastes as a lens to see a vision for a better life. He only lives for the here and now and rejects any kind of map. All will not be well with this man.
B. Uses the past as a mirror but gets stuck brooding on his past mistakes and failures. He can’t see the future because the past looks so dark. He lives facing backwards because his past haunts him. All will not be well with this man and Ecclesiastes cannot help him.
C. Never looks back. He wants to move on and forget the past ever existed. He wants to erase his mistakes and failures as if they never happened. Ecclesiastes says he has no roots and all will not be well with this man because he never learns.
D. Looks back at his mistakes and failures and tries to figure out what went wrong. Then he makes plans for a better life in the future. He may make more mistakes and failures but they won’t be the same ones over and over. All may not be well with this man either. But he’s got a better shot at happiness if he uses the map of Ecclesiastes.
To summarize. Ecclesiastes is a book and it’s also a map. Use it wisely. No matter where I’m at this book is a good starting point for the rest of the journey. No matter where I’m starting from I can always pick up this book and Ecclesiastes will tell me YOU ARE HERE...X.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

BIBLE: Ecclesiastes (Mirror to the World)

Ecclesiastes is the kind of book that can be used as a lens to see the world through the eyes of the Preacher, son of David, King of Israel. Of course this isn’t the only book we can use as a lens to see the world. If we use St. Augustine’s City of God as a lens we’ll constantly see a contrast between those living in the City of Man and those living in the City of God. If we use Karl Marx as a lens we’ll see a constant struggle between workers and business owners. But Ecclesiastes is more than just a book to read and see how the world looks through a lens; it’s also the kind of book that reflects back our own biases and preconceptions about living in a specific society at a specific time in history. Here are three timeless questions (and answers too!) taken from the book of Ecclesiastes: 1. What kind of world is this? 2. What’s worth doing? 3. What can I know? These questions affect every generation in every society. Let’s examine them further.
What kind of world is this? Ecclesiastes answers: it’s a world filled with chaos. “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh… The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full…” This is the kind of world we live in. It’s chaos. Nothing ever settles down. On the other hand, Ecclesiastes also says this is an orderly world: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die…” and so forth. The world is an orderly place. Things go like clockwork. People, like weather, come and go, “but the earth abideth forever.”
What’s worth doing in this kind of world? Ecclesiastes answers, nothing. The Preacher looked around him and said, “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” We can work hard and maybe even become wise but as the Preacher points out, “And how dieth the wise man? as the fool. Therefore I hated life…” On the other hand, life may not be so bad: “every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God…there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion.” What’s worth doing? Whatever we think needs doing. Just remember that whatever is worth doing is worth doing well. This is our lot in life. Be happy.
Well, what can I know? Ecclesiastes says there are lots of things we can know. He says, “I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly…” Chasing wisdom and madness and folly can take a whole lifetime. In fact, people have devoted whole lifetimes to studying science or art or taken up politics or devoutly followed a religion. The Preacher tells us “I said in my heart, Go to now…” and then he turned his whole mind and body and spirit over to chasing wisdom and madness and folly. What did he find? It all amounted to this: “In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” These were two bitter lessons he learned: (1) there are limits to how much the human mind can comprehend and how much the human body can experience and (2) we may find out things we wished we didn’t know.
So Ecclesiastes seems to straddle both sides of the fence on life’s most basic issues. For many readers this just won’t do. The book does give answers to life’s primary questions but these answers aren’t fully satisfactory to most people, especially people looking for either-or/black-and-white answers. That’s how Ecclesiastes serves as a mirror. If the reader asks: what kind of book is this? Ecclesiastes answers: what kind of reader are you? This is the mirror’s job.

Friday, September 19, 2014

BIBLE: Ecclesiastes (Literature and Logic)

Any time we read a work of fiction (a novel or a play or a short story) an obvious question always comes up: What is the author trying to say? What was Gogol trying to say when he wrote The Overcoat? We’ll never know for sure what Gogol was trying to say, any more than we can know for sure what Shakespeare was trying to say when he wrote Hamlet or King Lear. But there’s at least one thing we can know for sure. We can know for sure the impact the story had on us as readers. And we can bet that other readers took away different meanings than we did. The Overcoat is no different. No doubt many readers see Akaky as a pathetic figure, a loser who’s responsible for his own pathetic situation. Many other readers no doubt see Akaky as the victim of a cold and cruel society. Still others might read the story as a comedy; a dark comedy maybe, but still funny in a warped kind of way. Here’s the problem. None of these readers would argue that 2+2 does not equal four. 2+2=4. End of story. Yet they might argue for hours about the meaning of The Overcoat. How can this be? Two quick answers should suffice. One: literature is not mathematics. Two: in modern terms, different strokes for different folks.
Does that mean there are no standards for literature, the way there are standards for mathematics? No, but it does mean we have to use different methods for analyzing literature. We wouldn’t use literary methods to analyze a geometrical proof. One of the reasons people disagree about meaning in literature is because they bring different methods to the table. In geometry we can draw a straight line from one point to another. That’s the meaning of a straight line. We all agree on that point. But in literature we don’t all agree on the meaning of beauty. Is a straight line beautiful in the same way a poem or a short story is beautiful? Let’s phrase our question in slightly different terms. Gogol was an artist, not a mathematician. What is Gogol trying to say to us using literature as his method; what is it he could not say to us by using logic?
The Book of Ecclesiastes provides a perfect example of this intersection between literature and logic. In America Ecclesiastes is most famous from the popular song Turn, Turn, Turn sung by The Byrds in the 1960’s. And there is indeed a certain kind of beauty in the repetitious phrasing of these words from Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven… A time to be born, and a time to die…” There’s a powerful symmetry and a subconscious rhythm to repeating “a time to do X, and a time to do Y” over and over again. Symmetry and rhythm are two fundamental foundations of beauty in art. Deep in our minds there’s a hypnotic effect to understanding that two things are alike, side by side, in relation to one another; or, this sound was like the last one, and lasted the same amount of time. Relationships in space and time equal beauty. That’s one standard we use in measuring art.
But Ecclesiastes also has another standard for measuring beauty. How do we measure literary relationships between a story like The Overcoat and the poetry of Ecclesiastes? Here’s how. Ecclesiastes is a lens we can use to look at a character like Akaky with fresh eyes. For example, Akaky kind of stumbled along in life; he wasn’t the quickest guy in the office. Ecclesiastes says “the race is not to the swift.” Akaky was a weakling. Ecclesiastes says “nor the battle to the strong.” And Akaky’s mind wasn’t the sharpest one in the office. Ecclesiastes says “neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding.” In other words, Ecclesiastes turns logic on its head to give us a more poetic view of Akaky. All the guys in the office thought they were better off than Akaky. Ecclesiastes says they were all wrong because “time and chance happeneth to them all.” This sounds logical and cold; but in the literary sense, it’s beautiful.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

In Search of the Good Life

In Gogol’s short story, “the Overcoat,” we have the tale of a lowly bureaucrat, named Akaky, who aspires to nothing more in life than to do his work alone each day in silence; then, when he is done, to return home to his humble dwelling in which he lives out his days alone, without the distractions of a  wife, family, or friends, and not even a dog to keep him company. There he eats his meager dinner, alone, in silence, like a prisoner in solitary confinement, and fills the remaining hours of the day before he goes to sleep, by copying some document that he brought home from the office. This is the sum total of Akaky’s existence. Each day is a repetition of the one that came before, and despite what seems to us as a dreary, lonely existence, Akaky is content with his life. In fact, you might even describe him as happy, if by happiness you mean the absence of any stress or imagination or desire. He is a man without ambition and so he is perfectly content with his humble station in life. This makes Akaky  the perfect employee. He’s like a reliable machine: shows up punctually every day to do his work; never asks for a promotion, and always does exactly what he is told to do. Within his own tiny realm of existence, Akaky seems to be at peace. So is this Gogol’s idea of the one true path to serenity?

I don’t think so. It is difficult for any American today to read this story sympathetically and understand or agree with Gogol’s depiction of a stable, bureaucratic society filled with workers like Akaky. This man aspires to nothing in life but the role he is given at birth, as an impoverished, uneducated, and quiescent bureaucrat.  He may as well be a serf working under the Czar. But if all workers were as content as Akaky, there never would have been a revolution in Russia and the Czar would still be sitting on his throne. On the other hand, maybe Akaky is the model for a new kind of Russian who keeps his mouth shut, does his work, and makes no trouble for anyone.

Of course, here today in the United States we have our own government bureaucracy in which many people do mindless jobs without ever having an original thought of their own. The same might be said for any civil service job whether in China, India or Great Britain. But this is not how we started. The revolution was fought to establish a land of freedom and opportunity, where anyone willing to work, could improve his lot in life and, with a little luck, eventually prosper. Yet the mind of Akaky does not embrace any vision or desire for progress. So, we wonder is what happens to Akaky his own fault, or is it just bad luck? He was a man who never made friends or joined any society, and never participated in the life of his community, either in church or his own neighborhood. In other words, he lived his life in solitude. Even monks who abandon the larger world outside for the quiet life of a monastery are more social than Akaky.

What is Gogol trying to say in this story? Is he saying that if we all lived like Akaky, as solitary bachelors, doing our work each day in silence without the slightest degree of ambition, that our society will become more noble and just? I don’t think so.  There is no justice for Akaky until he dies and comes back as a ghost. Then, he takes matters into his own hands and gets his revenge by taking someone else’s coat.

Akaky represents the kind of man who is oblivious to everything around him. His attention is focused on the immediate task before him, and does not waver with speculation or worry about larger issues. To me, he exhibits the narrow vision of a man afflicted with cultural autism. Nor does he seem to have much of an interior life. If he was a Platonic philosopher building castles in the air, or Don Quixote looking for Dulcinea, we might understand his withdrawal from society and even applaud his solitude. But he is not on some noble quest for moral redemption. He is a simple man with no particular interest in anything other than his own work. Whatever he is, Akaky is not the kind of man that Hamilton and Madison had in mind when they argued for a new constitutional republic.

A republic stands or falls on the virtue of its citizens. Yet we are reminded that one of the meanings of virtue comes from the old Roman idea of devotion to one’s duty. But duty to what? And this leads to a different kind of question: what is our duty today? Should we be involved in the politics of the nation or should we just focus on our own careers? Other than just obeying the laws of the land, is anything further required of us?  What about God? Do we have a duty to God? And where was God when Akaky was robbed of his coat? When the ghost of Akaky gets revenge by stealing the coat from a prosperous bureaucrat, is this justice? Maybe Gogol is suggesting that justice is only possible in the hereafter.

If so, this is a very pessimistic view that most Americans will not accept, for it means that the Enlightenment premiss of freedom and justice through knowledge and literacy is a failed experiment. Then all we have left is commerce and the free market. On the other hand, if Akaky had more wealth, he could have just bought himself another new coat when his first one was stolen from him. So, the moral of this story must be that if we all have enough money, we can buy ourselves new coats whenever we feel like it, and the world will be a better place.

Is the story of Akaky and his coat a tragedy or a farce? I guess it depends on your understanding of justice. If justice means getting revenge for the indifference of petty bureaucrats,  then Gogol’s story is a comic farce. But if justice means a general respect for the dignity of human beings, then this story is a tragedy, although not in the classical sense. It is more like the tragedy of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which is what happens to all of us when our luck runs out and poverty and old age bring us to ruin. Unless you believe in ghosts and second chances, there’s not much consolation in being poor.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

GOGOL: The Overcoat (Homegrown Government, Part 2)

Is government a product that’s custom-made, meant to fit the geography of a specific people? Would the same kind of government that works for Americans work for Russians too? The Federalist Papers were written with the understanding that people want life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Gogol’s short story The Overcoat presents the reader with a different view. Everyone wants a good life and everyone wants to be happy. In the Great Books readings only Schopenhauer argues otherwise (GB 4). Schopenhauer didn’t think life was necessarily good. He didn’t think happiness was all that great either. But Schopenhauer isn’t typical. All the other GB authors think life is good and happiness is good. What about liberty?
Everyone wants liberty, right? At first glance it seems that way. Who wants to be a slave? Exodus (GB 2) is about the Hebrews being led out of bondage in Egypt. The Persian Wars by Herodotus (GB 2) is about the Greeks fighting for freedom rather than becoming vassals to the Persians. In Gibbon (GB 3) we read about early Christians willing to face death rather than give up their freedom to follow the Gospel. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest (GB 4) Caliban chafed at having to serve his master, Prospero. It seems as if people can’t be truly happy unless they add liberty to life. Then we have life + liberty = happiness, right?
Maybe not. After reading The Overcoat we may want to take a second look and ask a different question: is slavery the only alternative to liberty? Few Great Books authors argue for absolute individual freedom. John Stuart Mill and Nietzsche go farthest. Mill (On Liberty GB 3) thinks people should have enough freedom to develop their own personalities in their own ways as long as they don’t hurt other people. Society should encourage this kind of freedom even if it’s eccentric. Nietzsche (GB 5) thinks great men seize their own freedom and create their own values. Great men don’t follow society’s pre-determined rules. Rules are for slaves or, only slightly better, for men who live like sheep and do as they’re told. Men like Akaky.
If complete liberty is at one extreme and complete slavery is the other extreme, what would we call the middle ground? There may not be an exact English word but several Great Books authors call it security. Akaky just wants security; for him life + security = happiness. Hobbes understands what Akaky wants. In Origin of Government (GB 2) he argues that without security life becomes nasty, brutish and short. Hobbes thinks we should gladly trade a little personal freedom for a lot more personal security. Rousseau also gets it. In The Social Contract (GB 1) he says we voluntarily surrender some of our rights and liberties. That doesn’t make us slaves, it makes us citizens and government is really just the General Will of all its citizens.
These are just a few ideas about liberty, slavery and security. They were taken from ancient Hebrews and Egyptians and Greeks, from Romans and early Christians, and more recent versions of the English, German and French peoples. These ideas bring us back to the original question: is government a product that’s custom-made, meant to fit the geography of a specific people? Government is obviously a universal phenomenon. Every nation has to have a government. But it’s not so obvious that the desire for freedom is also universal. To repeat: Akaky wants security more than he wants freedom. He wants a warm overcoat more than he wants a cold abstract concept. Akaky is a simple man but he may be wise in this sense: it gets cold in Russia. It’s a tough environment. Russians may need a tough government just to survive; kind of a custom-made government, one just for Russia and people like Akaky.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

4-15 GOGOL: The Overcoat (Homegrown Government)

After reading The Federalist Papers many readers likely paused to consider what kind of government works best for America? A related question should be considered in this week’s reading: would the government that works best for Americans work just as well for other peoples too? In Gogol’s story “The Overcoat” we meet a low level Ukrainian-Russian clerk. Akaky Akakievich is not the kind of guy who sits around reading The Federalist Papers or any other book. Today we would call him a couch potato. Akaky’s lifestyle is virtually non-existent; there’s no style to it. He goes to work, comes home, eats a quick dinner and goes to bed. The next day he gets up and does the same thing all over again. He doesn’t go out. He has no friends. He has no hobbies. He copies letters; that’s pretty much it for Akaky Akakievich.
After reading The Federalist Papers about the theory of government now is a good time to examine the practical effects of government. For starters, Akaky is a government employee. Today we call it civil service. He’s only one tiny cog in the vast bureaucratic machinery of the state. Here’s a question: is the purpose of government to provide jobs for people like Akaky? It doesn’t pay much but without this simple job as a copyist Akaky would have a hard time making a living. He would have a hard time surviving the cold St. Petersburg winters. A job, even a simple job, gives Akaky something to do, somewhere to go, someone to be every day. It gives him an identity. Gogol writes, “Directors and all sorts of chiefs came and went, but (Akaky) was always to be found at the same place, in the same position, and in the same capacity, that of copying clerk.” This would drive most people crazy, but not Akaky, “He worked with love. There, in his copying, he found an interesting, pleasant world for himself.” We may want to feel sorry for him but how many of us find “an interesting, pleasant world” in our own jobs?
It sounds like Akaky was reasonably happy in nineteenth-century St. Petersburg, Russia. Now let’s return to our original question: what kind of government works best for America? We claim we want a government dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In “The Overcoat” we read that Akaky “never gave a thought to his clothes… Never did he pay any attention to what was going on around him in the street… He never noticed the taste (of his food)…” Is that what Americans want? Is that the kind of citizen The Federalist Papers had in mind? Is that the kind of man Madison and Hamilton wanted to create with a new constitution? What would Akaky think of The Federalist Papers and the thrill of creating a whole new country? We don’t know for sure but we can guess from this quote in the story: “At the word “new” Akaky Akakievich’s vision became foggy and the whole room began to sway.” Akaky was a good copy clerk but he would not have made a good Founding Father.
On the other hand, how many Americans would have made good Founding Fathers? Madison and Hamilton were unusually talented Americans from the top drawer of life. Akaky lived at the bottom of the heap. His fellow co-workers tormented him constantly. In modern terms we would say they bullied him. Akaky never fought back. He would just say, “Let me be. Why do you do this to me?” Good question. Maybe it’s just human nature. But to go back and quote James Madison from Federalist Paper 51: “what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” Is the purpose of government to stop bullies? On the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty are inscribed the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” Question: could a man like Akaky, a man with a Russian heart, ever be truly happy in America? Or is government a product that’s custom-made, meant to fit the geography of a specific people?

Friday, September 05, 2014

FEDERALIST PAPERS Summary: Government and the Great Books

Let’s start at the beginning. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” (GB Series 1). Wait. Not that far back; just back to the start of our own country. As an eloquent writer once put it: “In the beginning, when the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1789, the charter for a national government included three obligations: (1) to ensure the safety and welfare of its citizens; (2) to defend their liberty; (3) to preserve the peace and tranquility of the nation. Safety, liberty and peace.” (SMJ) These are all good goals. But are they the only ones we could have used to build a new nation from scratch? No. The Great Books include other ideas too.
One of the oldest foundations for a nation is based on the gods or God. This was the powerful idea we find in the book of Exodus (GB Series 1). The Egyptians built a very wealthy and successful civilization based on several prominent gods and had a strong Pharaoh as the god’s executive authority on earth. Then Moses came along to lead the Hebrews out of bondage to the Egyptians. What forged the Hebrews together was a new and powerful idea: monotheism. Hebrew faith includes only one God, the sole creator and sustainer of the universe. Jewish civilization was founded on this one simple idea. But whether it’s an Egyptian or Hebrew idea, the purpose of government in Exodus is the greater glory of God. The idea of secular government, a wall of separation between church and state, would never occur to these people.
A different purpose of government is envisioned by Aristotle. In his selection On Happiness (GB Series 1) he doesn’t address the problem of monotheism or polytheism. There may be one God. There may be many gods. Or there may be no gods at all. But what Aristotle’s interested in is life as it is here and now, on this earth. For Aristotle the purpose of government is to give us a better way of life. Living in organized society opens up opportunities we would never have if we lived outside of society. For Aristotle the most important function of government is to provide a framework so we can develop our human talents and human virtues. We can never be happy (in fact we can’t even be fully human) unless we interact freely with other citizens.
But in order to be happy we have to be alive. Dead people aren’t happy. Under this scenario the primary purpose of government is to keep us alive. All that other stuff, developing our talents and virtues, getting right with God, won’t happen unless a government can first protect its citizens. This was the main point Thomas Hobbes (Origin of Government, GB Series 2) wanted to make when he said that without government life would soon become “nasty, brutish and short.” That doesn’t necessarily mean we should try to survive at all costs. There may be conditions where life wouldn’t be fit to live. The question the Melians faced in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (GB Series 3) was this: are we willing to live as virtual slaves to the Athenians? Their answer was, no; and their government chose death rather than slavery.
We could go on. In Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (GB Series 4) the purpose of government is personal glory. In Mill’s Utilitarianism (GB Series 4) it’s individual liberty. In Weber’s Spirit of Capitalism (GB Series 4) and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (GB Series 2) the purpose of government is material well-being. All of these ideas may be contained within the larger context of the Federalist Papers; to defend the principles of good government. But perhaps the greatest test of any government is a very simple one: how does the average citizen live? What is their overall quality of life? It’s good to have good government and all that; but sometimes a man just wants a nice warm overcoat. And that’s what we’ll be looking at in our next reading.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

FEDERALIST Papers 70 (Justice and Power)

In Federalist 51 James Madison wrote that “Justice is the end of government.” Now in Federalist 70 Alexander Hamilton writes that “Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.” Why is “energy in the Executive” so important? Strong leadership is an essential component of governing well. And Hamilton says “It is essential to the protection of the community…to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property…to the security of liberty…” Evidently Madison thinks justice is the purpose of government but it sounds like Hamilton believes the purpose of government is security. Are justice and security just different words for the same thing? Let’s examine Justice and (executive) Power in relation to another Great Books reading.
Justice and Power are primary themes in the story of Billy Budd (GB Series 2). Billy is a good sailor and an all-around good guy. His only enemy is the ship’s Master at Arms, Claggert. Claggert has it in for Billy from day one. We never know why. Claggert probably doesn’t even know himself. But halfway through the story Claggert falsely accuses Billy of mutiny. Out of frustration Billy hits Claggert and accidentally kills him. Then the case goes to Captain Vere. Vere’s assistants all believe Billy is innocent. The crew believes Billy is innocent. But facts are facts. Billy killed Claggert. The penalty is death. Vere likes Billy but Vere is also the Captain and must make his legal decisions based strictly on the facts of each case. In the end Vere has Billy executed, knowing his decision would be unpopular. Many readers believe an INjustice has been done, not justice. But for Vere, Justice isn’t always fair.
What does all this have to do with the Federalist Papers? When Madison writes “Justice is the end of government” does he mean that government should insure an outcome everyone thinks is fair? Or does he mean the legal process should function properly, regardless of subjective feelings such as fairness? Most readers believe Billy got a raw deal. But they can’t deny he got a fair trial. Within the context of Federalist 70 the point is this: Vere was a strong leader. He didn’t use his authority for his own benefit. He didn’t use power so things would turn out the way he thought they should turn out. Captain Vere used the authority granted him to do the job he was given to do; which was, to run a tight ship.
Leaders with executive authority must be willing to (literally) execute, if that’s what the situation calls for. This is hard and that’s why very few people qualify for this level of leadership. The President of the United States can’t afford to be a weak leader. Hamilton put it this way: “A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.” It makes no difference whether we think the purpose of government is justice or if we think the purpose of government is safety and security; either way, bad government flunks the test. And a weak President is sure to lead to bad government. This leads to an interesting question: which is more important, the formal structure of a government, or the way it is actually administered?
The Federalist Papers would answer, both. We can’t alter the structural foundation of the Constitution without altering its administration. The President needs enough power to do the executive’s job but not so much power to be able to take over the whole governing apparatus. That’s the problem facing the Founding Fathers. How do we walk this fine line? Hamilton has his own opinion in the matter. He says there’s a “maxim of republican jealousy which considers power as safer in the hands of a number of men than of a single man…” That’s what many people wanted to do; distribute power in the hands of several people. Hamilton doesn’t agree with that approach: “…But I do not think the rule at all applicable to the executive power…it is far more safe there should be a single object for the jealousy and watchfulness of the people…” His argument is this. If power is disbursed equally through several people then when something goes wrong the blame will also be disbursed. We won’t know who to hold accountable and every problem will become, in contemporary terms, a “systemic problem.” In other words, no one is to blame. It’s the system’s fault. For Hamilton that won’t do. He wants a strong leader who can make the tough decisions; especially unpopular decisions. He wants someone like Captain Vere at the helm who can handle both justice and power without letting personal feelings sink the ship of state.

Hamilton and Executive Authority

It is useful, at times, to review what we believe is the actual purpose of government. In the beginning, when the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1789, the charter for a national government included three obligations: (1) to ensure the safety and welfare of its citizens; (2) to defend their liberty; (3) to preserve the peace and tranquility of the nation. Safety, liberty and peace. Beyond these limited objectives, the government under our constitution was neither empowered nor encouraged by the people to act. This is a common view of the original contract established between the people of the United States and the institution created to preserve their freedom. Today, it seems to me, the greatest fear by many Americans is not from any external threat or invasion by a foreign power,  but from a dereliction of duty or an abuse of power by our own elected representatives (especially the one occupying the White House). There seems to be a growing concern among many people about the size and cost of federal government, along with a general mistrust and suspicion of its motives. It is right to ask from what source this current fear and loathing of government derives.

First, we ought to recall that republican government rests upon a presumption of justice whose meaning is derived from an underlying theory of morality. Socrates taught the youth of Athens that a good life is not merely defined by pleasure. Rather, it is the attainment of eudaimonia, which is a Greek word meaning happiness in accordance with virtue. Of course, like many philosophical concepts, eudaimonia is burdened with the weight of abstract ideas. In other words, how does a general idea of the good apply in everyday life? The problem for Hamilton and the other Federalists is how to persuade a majority of the people that adopting a new constitution will actually make life better, rather than continue along as a loose confederation of states.

There is no denying that over time, the size and scope of our government has expanded to comply with the needs of a growing population. One fact, often overlooked, is that the federal power of government exists mainly to arbitrate disputes between individual states. These kinds of disputes, whether involving trade or boundaries, are usually resolved through rulings from the Supreme Court. The other principal duties of the federal government include the protection of its people from hostile actions by enemies, both foreign and domestic, and to facilitate commerce between states and other nations.

According to Hamilton, in a constitutional republic, one person will always attract more attention, and be the source of more praise and criticism than any other individual in public service. That person is the President. Hamilton spends a lot of time reassuring his readers that the executive branch of the proposed government will have none of the arbitrary powers of a king.  Nor will his powers exceed those of a state governor who is eligible, in some states, for re-election on an indefinite basis. As to the President’s command of the armed forces, his power is contingent upon “such part of the militia of the nation as by legislative provision may be called into the actual service of the union.” In contrast, Hamilton mentions that the governor of New York already has such power at his disposal, without any obvious signs of distress or infringement upon the liberty of its people. Additionally, the President has no power of the purse, and no means by which to pay a standing army without the consent of the legislature.

Nor can a President pardon himself if accused of high crimes and misdemeanors, which, Hamilton suggests, is a power enjoyed by all monarchs, as well as the governor of New York. Additionally, the President cannot adjourn the national legislature as befits his will, but is limited to the single case of establishing the time of adjournment. Nor does the President have the legal authority to make treaties with other nations, on his own recognizance, without the approval of Congress.  Nor can the President nominate and appoint ambassadors, public ministers and judges of the Supreme Court without the advice and consent of the Senate.

In contrast to the limitations of a democratic republic, all of these powers and actions are available to a monarch such as King George III, and to a state governor of New York. Thus, Hamilton is offering the public reassurance that the powers given to a President will not infringe upon the liberty of the people, nor is the President above the law or immune from prosecution if he assumes more authority to himself than is granted to him by the people and the Constitution  he serves.

It is, perhaps, asking too much to imagine ourselves as prospective voters in 1788. For one thing, there was a lot less democracy two hundred years ago than there is today. Only 1.3 % of the people even cast a ballot. (total population: less than 3 million) There were no political parties. (The Federalists and the Anti-Federalists were not parties but temporary coalitions organized for the purpose of supporting or defeating the Constitution.) Due to gender & property requirements, a lot of people were not eligible to vote at all. Since then, a lot of history has gone under the bridge, not the least of which have been, a bloody civil war, two world wars, and a series of debilitating economic depressions. The size and scope of government have grown as the population has increased and the expectations and demands of the people have likewise risen. In all this time, have we managed to lose sight of the original intentions of our Founding Fathers? Could Hamilton ever imagine that our national government would evolve into a great welfare state, funded by ever higher taxes, and divided by political parties whose only agenda is to elect members of their own party, and to block any legislation, appointments or proposals by the opposing party? Democracy today has mutated into an ideological struggle between factions and special interests, fueled by corporate money and a zealot’s desire to have things his own way. There seems to be no room any longer for political dialogue because negotiation and compromise are considered to be acts of betrayal and the rudiments of surrender. The question before us now is whether democracy can even survive, much less flourish, without a common understanding, or love, or even a memory of that wonderful Greek word eudaimonia.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

FEDERALIST PAPERS 69 (The Great Books and Leadership)

In Federalist Paper 69 Alexander Hamilton defends the “executive authority” laid out in the U.S. Constitution. We call this executive authority our President. Hamilton says, “The first thing which strikes our attention is, that the executive authority, with few exceptions, is vested in a single magistrate.” Hamilton is concerned that other Americans will be concerned about too much power being granted to this “single magistrate.” And he’s right. There is cause for concern when too much power is granted to any single individual. Americans may think: we just fought a war to throw off the domination of a king. Now it looks like we’re only exchanging an old foreign king for a new American king. Hamilton takes great pains to distance the idea of a President from the idea of a king. He says there’s no more resemblance of an American President to an English king than there is of the President’s “resemblance to the Grand Seignior, to the khan of Tartary, to the Man of the Seven Mountains, or to the governor of New York.” If we’re going to have a government at all then someone has to be in charge. It doesn’t matter if we call our leader President, or king, or Grand Seignior (a member of the landed gentry of Canada), khan, governor, or The Man. The question is: how much power does “someone” need to get the job done? That’s what Federalist 69 is about: the power of the President. We’ll briefly consider three selections from the Great Books on this theme of power in the executive authority.
First let’s consider what could happen if the executive authority has too much power. In Heart of Darkness (GB Series 1) we read about a remarkable character named Kurtz. Kurtz goes deep down the Congo River, far out of reach of the law, to make his fortune in the ivory trade. Without any law to check him Kurtz soon turns into a cruel tyrant and starts ruling over the natives like some sort of god. He puts human skulls on stakes around his headquarters. These skulls are a reminder that Kurtz is in charge. He is the executive authority. And if you get out of line this is what could happen to you too. Rule by terror is one form of executive authority.
On the other end of the spectrum is what can happen if the executive authority has too little power. Shakespeare’s King Lear (GB Series 5) is a good example. Lear wants to be king but he doesn’t want all the burdens and responsibilities that go along with it. He only wants the benefits. So he abdicates his “executive” power to his two daughters and their husbands. He only retains the title of king without the power to go along with it. When events begin to go bad in his (former) kingdom Lear discovers he’s powerless to do anything about it. Without military or police power Lear can do nothing to stop the bad guys (and his daughters) from wreaking havoc on his (former) loyal subjects. Chaos comes when there’s too little executive authority.
A third example of executive authority can be found in The Iliad by Homer (GB Series 3). In the Heart of Darkness Kurtz didn’t need any help; he was a one man show. King Lear needed lots of help but he couldn’t get it. In The Iliad King Agamemnon is somewhere in the middle. He’s the top commander of the Greek army. But Agamemnon needs the cooperation of other Greek commanders to remain in charge. Without their help he can’t control his own army, much less defeat the Trojans. Agamemnon is a “commander” who can only command up to a certain point. If he crosses that line then the other Greek commanders may decide to pack up and go home. The third form of authority is not an absolute power to rule by terror; nor is it an inability to get anything accomplished at all. In America political power relies on subtle coercion and persuasion. This is the kind of limited power Hamilton is talking about. In America Presidential executive authority is a delicate balancing act. Not too much; not too little; but just right.