Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, December 29, 2014

FLAUBERT: A Simple Heart (Kant and Flaubert)

The introduction to our reading of Kant said “Kant taught and wrote about a broad range of subjects, including metaphysics, logic, ethics, geography, anthropology, mathematics, physics, astronomy, geology, meteorology, and fireworks.”  The man was a walking encyclopedia.  He didn’t write simple books on How to Live a Good Life in Twelve Easy Steps.  The work we just read was called The Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals.  Kant was an intellectual giant.  On the other end of the scale we have a character named Felicite in this week’s reading from Flaubert: A Simple Heart.  The introduction to this week’s reading says Flaubert “enjoyed writing simply and naturally.”

In some ways Flaubert is Kant’s opposite.  Flaubert wrote fiction; Kant wrote philosophy.  In Flaubert’s story there’s a geography book “that showed scenes from various parts of the world… Paul explained the prints to Felicite.  That was all the book learning she ever had.”  So Felicite was illiterate; Kant was a college philosophy professor.  And of course Felicite is a fictional character and Kant was a real person.  But there’s a good reason why the Great Books Series follows up Kant with Flaubert.  Kant and Flaubert both agree having a good will is important.  Every good action is based on the premise that there are good intentions behind the action; it’s not just an accident.  But Kant puts his emphasis on the mind; Flaubert on the heart.  Does it really make much difference?  Yes it does. 

Kant’s ethical guidelines have the precision of mathematical certainty.  They give us a solid framework to develop and build up a strong ethical theory.  But what about people like Felicite?  She doesn’t think deeply like Kant thought.  She can’t even read.  Is she just out of luck?  Can she be a good person anyway?  Of course, says Flaubert.  How?  Felicite can be a good person because she has “a simple heart.”  That’s Flaubert’s fictional term for a good will.  Flaubert doesn’t try to prove morality to us as if life needs some sort of mathematical proof.  He shows us a good life instead.  He simply tells the story of Felicite’s life and lets us draw our own conclusions.  Kant wants to convince us intellectually.  Flaubert wants to move us emotionally.  These are two paths, two different strategies, but they have the same goal.  They teach us how to be better people. 

This is an old contrast in the Western tradition going all the way back to Plato and Aristotle.  Is ethics more like mathematics or more like biology?  Plato took mathematics as his model.  In his dialogs Socrates is constantly prodding his students for greater and greater precision in their thinking.  He’s trying to get them to conform more precisely to a perfect form of the good.  Aristotle used biology as his model.  He wanted precision too; but only as much precision as the subject would allow.  And ethics won’t always allow black and white answers.  In this sense Flaubert was more like Aristotle.  In their view a good will isn’t like a set value in a mathematical equation.  It’s more like a seed that grows and develops.  It’s always planted in a specific environment and has to be nurtured with good habits.  In this view virtue is organic.  Living a good life isn’t like solving a mathematical equation.  It’s more a matter of responding in the right way to surrounding circumstances.  Kant was using an ideal universal model that he believed would apply in all times and all places.  Flaubert was using a very human model of an illiterate peasant woman living in 19th century France.  These are two paths with one goal: a good life.


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