Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

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.


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