Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, September 28, 2015

O’CONNOR: Everything That Rises Must Converge (How to Evaluate Literature)

Last week Claude Bernard explained how we use the tools of observation and experiment to evaluate physical phenomena.  What tools can we use to evaluate literature?  Flannery O’Connor probably put it best.  “When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell them to read the story.  The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully.”  If we want to know what a story is “about” we have to read the story and experience it ourselves.  Bernard said in order to be scientific “the observer’s mind must be passive.”  It’s impossible to read Flannery O’Connor’s short story with a passive mind.  What is this story about?  An ungrateful son?  Racism?  Many different interpretations are possible because Flannery O’Connor is a very good writer.  Here are a couple of examples how she uses literature to flesh out her themes and makes them come alive for our reading experience.

The theme of the ungrateful son.  Consider this sentence.  “Julian did not like to consider all she did for him…”  Why not?  Isn’t he grateful for his mother’s sacrifices?  “Everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him.”  Why does Julian get depressed when his mother finds contentment in the simple joys of life?  “It occurred to him that it was he, not she, who could have appreciated (the old mansion she grew up in)…all the neighborhoods they had lived in had been a torment to him; whereas she had hardly known the difference.”  Whether she lived in a mansion or in a run-down neighborhood it was all the same to her.  Why did this irritate Julian?  According to him “she lived according to the laws of her own fantasy world, outside of which he had never seen her set foot.”  He believed she lived contentedly in her own “fantasy world” while his own world of reality was bleak and lonely.  But what really irked him about his mom was “the dwarf-like proportions of her moral nature.”  In Julian’s eyes she was an outright racist.  She was just too dumb to realize it.  He, on the other hand, had been to college and was enlightened about the new racial landscape.  This is a pretty good picture of an ungrateful son.

The theme of racism.  Julian’s mom viewed the world through her own prism.  Instead of breaking light down into a few colors her own personal prism broke life down into a few classes of people.  Here’s how her prism worked: “…if you know who you are, you can go anywhere.”  (She said this every time he took her to the YMCA reducing class.)  “Most of them in it are not our kind of people,” she said, “but I can be gracious to anybody.  I know who I am.”  When she uses the phrase “not our kind of people” she’s not talking about black people.  She’s talking about other white folks in her YMCA class.  She can be gracious to them because that’s what people from her background do.  They act graciously toward their inferiors.  When she says “I know who I am” she’s really saying I know my place in society; I know how I should live.  And Julian’s mom applies this same equal opportunity cultural prism to everyone, regardless of race.  She says “I remember the old darky who was my nurse, Caroline.  There was no better person in the world.  I’ve always had a great respect for my colored friends.”  This is the kind of talk that makes Julian cringe.  But what about his own enlightened attitude?  The story tells us “he had never been successful at making any Negro friends.”  Why not?  Julian wants to make friends with black people because they’re black; and to get back at his mother.  Julian’s mother wants to make friends with black people because they’re people; and because she likes them.  Her racism is a mile wide but it’s only an inch deep.  Of course that’s just one personal observation.  Other readers may make different observations.  Claude Bernard’s method is scientific: observation and experiment.  Flannery O’Connor’s method is literary: observation and experience.

Friday, September 18, 2015

BERNARD: Observation and Experiment (for Non-Scientists)

In last week’s reading Tocqueville outlined how it was entirely possible (and even probable) that a new aristocracy would arise in America out of “the bosom of democracy.”  Two hundred years later he might revise his theory and show how modern American “aristocracy” is driven more by science and (new) technology rather than the old aristocratic standards based on land and/or manufacturing.  In this week’s reading we meet another Frenchman from the 19th century, Claude Bernard.  He’s very different from Tocqueville.  Bernard isn’t interested in culture and how politics works.  He’s interested in science and how Nature works.  Professional scientists may understand exactly what Bernard is talking about.  Many of us non-scientists will struggle with it.  After reading this selection on Observation and Experiment we may come away with more questions than answers.  We might begin with a simple question.  What is the purpose of science?  Then we might make a stab at a couple of simple answers.  The purpose of science is to understand Nature as it really is, on its own terms.  But how can we understand Nature on its own terms?  We can only understand things on human terms.  Ok, then how about this: the purpose of science is to express Nature in a system we can understand.  That sounds fine but leads to a troubling conclusion.  What we know then is a system we’ve developed ourselves.  How do we know the system accurately reflects Nature and not the nature of our own minds?

Maybe Bernard can help us figure it out.  He says there are “two classes of conditions” called ideas and facts.  That’s fine.  But what does he mean by that?  What’s the difference between an idea and a fact?  And how do we distinguish between them?  Is gravity an idea or is it a fact?  What about evolution?  The theory of relativity?  Bernard says we need “two qualities of mind” to answer questions scientifically.  One quality of mind is that of observer.  Bernard says “the observer’s mind must be passive, that is, must hold its peace; it listens to nature and writes at nature’s dictation.”  That sounds easy enough.  But will two people observing the same phenomena necessarily “see” the same thing?  Compare two accounts of a presidential debate.  Obviously we need a standard method and language if we plan to study Nature; so we need to add another quality of mind.  Bernard calls this quality of mind “experimenter” and goes on to explain that “an experimenter’s mind must be active.”  But this presents another problem.  How do we know all this human activity won’t distort the phenomena we’re trying to study?

Let’s assume the observer’s report is accurate and the experimenter’s method gives us a true reflection of Nature.  Then what?  Bernard says “as soon as Nature speaks, we must hold our peace; we must note her answer, hear her out and in every case accept her decision.”  Now another question pops up.  Why?  Do we have to accept Nature’s “decision” as final or can we bend it to serve our own human needs?  And the questions keep on coming.  Bernard says “it is the scientific investigator’s (experimenter’s) mind that acts; it is the senses that observe and note.”  For the purposes of science, which is more important: the mind or the senses?  Bernard says we need both but goes on to make a curious statement: “we must give free rein to our imagination.”  Hm.  What is the role of “imagination” in science?  Is this the same kind of imagination we bring to poetry and drama?  Would this kind of imagination work just as well in another field of study, such as mathematics?  What about history?  Science is different from literature and mathematics and history.  It has different aims and uses different methods.  Bernard says scientific “hypotheses, unverified or unverifiable by experiment, would engender nothing but systems and would bring us back to scholasticism.”  But what is science itself if not a system?  And what’s wrong with scholasticism?  So many questions in such a few pages.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Future of Human Labor

Regarding the quote by President Coolidge, I think he was mostly right. I think the "business of America" is what most people do to earn a living. But earning a living is not the same thing as the abstract pursuit of wealth. Earning a living is how people pay their bills, which consists primarily in feeding themselves, finding shelter and acquiring the things necessary for a normal life. Anything beyond the basic necessities for life is often considered a luxury.  But most people (certainly most Americans) are not content with the bare necessities for existence. They want a higher level of comfort in their lives. Over time, as our economy has grown, our "pursuit of happiness" became associated (perhaps mistakenly) with a desire for physical comfort, i.e., leisure. Is comfort the same thing as luxury? Well, it can be. It all depends on how much comfort you feel you need in your life. The industrial revolution made possible the creation of wealth on a larger scale which made some people rich, while giving many other people the ability to acquire things which made life more pleasant, such as washing machines, televisions and cars.

Adam Smith talked about the social organization of labor. Thanks to the industrial revolution and its compartmentalization of labor, the factory became a more efficient system for producing goods than the old pre-industrial arrangement based on individual craftsmanship. With machines, you no longer needed skilled labor to do many of the jobs which could now be done faster through automation. Unfortunately, we learned that repetitive behavior and treating people like machines leads to boredom and the loss of pride in one's work. This results in higher absenteeism in the workplace. Today, many employees no longer feel any loyalty to their work or their employer because they know that they can be easily replaced by other non-skilled workers. This results in a downward spiral of low self-esteem, absenteeism and a steady decline in quality control. This trend was famously exposed in the American auto industry in the 70s when Japan started bringing its cars into the American market. Japanese cars demonstrated a higher level of quality for less money than American cars. Within 10 or 15 years, Japanese cars dominated the American market. Some of this can be explained by saying that the price of labor was cheaper in Japan. But the Japanese also proved to be more innovative in their systems management. The relationship between employer and employee is completely different over there.

In a mechanized economy where manual labor is increasingly generic and disposable , will competition result in an aristocracy of labor or its eventual demise? The old Greek term "arete" (excellence) referred to the art of doing things well. Pride in one's work was expressed in the craftsmanship of the finished product. But when manual labor today is reduced to flipping switches to activate machinery, there doesn't seem to be much room for either pride or virtue to be associated with work. Work then becomes simply a means toward a paycheck, which doesn't seem to inspire anyone to rise above the mediocrity of manufacturing goods and selling them at the lowest possible price. Of course, it is possible that machines will continue to improve both in efficiency and quality until the products of human labor will become much too expensive or perhaps not even worthy of being marketed. In this technological future,    when machine made objects are perfect and superior to anything a human being could do, what role will humans play in the manufacturing process?

Monday, September 14, 2015

TOCQUEVILLE: How an Aristocracy May Be Created by Industry

In this week’s reading Tocqueville begins by stating “I have shown how democracy favors the development of industry (by multiplying without limit the number of those engaged therein).”  Does this mean democracy (American style) is primarily an economic system or a political model?  President Calvin Coolidge once said the business of America is business.  Was he right?  Or is the “business” of America to build a democratic form of government?  Tocqueville was interested in what the industrial revolution was doing to society.  He wrote “the man is degraded as the workman improves.”  Factories were taking the place of farms and family-owned shops.  Factory work is repetitive. Tocqueville thought it stunted a worker’s human potential.  But farming and small retail shops take lots and lots of work hours.  What if factory jobs significantly reduced the number of hours needed to earn a living?  Couldn’t factory workers use those extra leisure hours to expand their human potential?  By reading Great Books for example?  That was the original vision of the Great Books program.  They envisioned factory workers and other ordinary people reading and discussing the classics in Great Books groups across the country in libraries and homes.  Tocqueville might respond, in a good way: only in America.

But he seemed less approving of America’s industrial policies.  He said, “An industrial theory stronger than morality or law ties a worker to a trade, and often to a place, which he cannot leave.”  Is that true today?  In a rapidly changing economy American workers may have the opposite problem.  They’re often forced to change jobs or careers and move to another city to find work.  Of course “morality” can also tie workers down.  A man may feel obligated to take over his father’s business.  Or he may choose to stay in his hometown at a lower paying job because that’s where his family has lived for generations.  These aren’t the kind of people Tocqueville has in mind.  Those poor Russian dock workers in our last reading (Chelkash) were stuck.  There was no other work they could do and they had nowhere else to go.  These were the workers he was talking about.  What should we do about people on the bottom rungs of society?

That problem is still with us today.  Tocqueville says “at the same time industrial science constantly lowers the standing of the working class, it raises that of the masters.”  Today we call it income inequality.  Economists still ponder questions such as these.  In what way does “industrial science” lower the standing of the working class?  Does it seem reasonable that all classes would benefit from increased production and wealth?  Who’s going to buy all those extra goods and services our economy produces?  Tocqueville’s main point was this.  “It would thus appear, tracing things back to their source, that a natural impulse is throwing up an aristocracy out of the bosom of democracy.”  This is an interesting observation and leads to an interesting question.  Which is more “natural” to the human condition: aristocracy or democracy?  If the answer is aristocracy then the American experiment in government will naturally find its way back to the more normal human condition of an aristocratic society.  Or it may be that there is no “natural” form of government.  Democracy may work for some people in some times and places but not for other people in other times and places.  Tocqueville seems to take this view when he writes “the more I see this country (America) the more I admit myself penetrated with this truth: there is nothing absolute in the theoretical value of political institutions, their efficiency depends almost always on the original circumstances and the social condition of the people to whom they are applied.”  Political institutions that work in America may not work somewhere else.  And our original question remains.  Is the primary business of America business or is it government?  Two hundred years after Tocqueville we’re still working it out.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

GORKY: Chelkash (Virtue and Freedom)

In our last reading Adam Smith (Intro GB1) claimed “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another… is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals.”  This tendency is deeply ingrained.  Whether we live in Scotland or America or Russia it’s common for people to ask what we do for a living.  In this Russian story by Gorky a young country bumpkin named Gavrilla drifts into a port city and meets a streetwise older man named Chelkash.  Gavrilla asks, “‘What are you, a cobbler, or a tailor, or what?’  ‘Me?’ Chelkash mused awhile and then said: ‘I’m a fisherman.’”  Chelkash is not, in fact, a fisherman.  He has another occupation.  Human beings may have an inclination to “truck, barter, and exchange” goods and services.  But some human beings have a strong inclination to engage in another occupation: stealing (which gives a special twist to the term “free market”).  Chelkash is a professional thief.  And he’s a very good one.  Two questions come to mind for this story.  Can a thief be a virtuous man?  Do we choose our occupations and lifestyles or do they choose us?

Let’s consider the social and economic conditions these two characters lived in.  “‘Here’s what I’m up against,’ (said Gavrilla). ‘My father died without leaving anything much, my mother’s old, the land’s sucked dry.  What am I supposed to do?  I’ve got to go on living, but how?’”  Most young men at some point walk in Gavrilla’s shoes and ask the same question.  What am I supposed to do?  How am I going to earn a living?  These are important questions because the answers determine the options for navigating through life.  A person’s occupation isn’t the only factor in living a good life but it’s an extremely important one.  In Adam Smith’s mind a philosopher isn’t much different (considered strictly as a human being) from a “common street porter.”  But a man who teaches Plato and Aristotle at a university surely has more options than a man who loads and unloads luggage for a living.  What options does Gavrilla have in this story?  He can load and unload freight on the docks; which is hard work for low wages.  Or he can become a thief like Chelkash; dangerous work for high wages.  Or he can go back home.

What should Gavrilla do?  Could Great Books help him?  Here are three samples from earlier readings.  William James (Intro GB1) wrote “A man’s fame, good or bad, and his honor or dishonor are names for one of his social selves… What may be called ‘club-opinion’ is one of the very strongest forces in life.  The thief must not steal from other thieves.”  This would have been useful information for Gavrilla after a heist.  It’s ok for Chelkash to steal from other people; but it’s not ok for Gavrilla to steal from Chelkash.  Socrates would have a field day with this notion of honor among thieves.  He would ask what kind of virtue is this.  In The Republic (GB5) he said most people want more than they really need and that’s when a small community with simple needs starts running into trouble.  What does Gavrilla really need?  Adam Smith (Intro GB1) gave this formula for people to get the things they really do need: “you give me that which I want and I’ll give you this which you want.”  The trouble begins when that simple formula is changed to a worse one: give me that which I want or I’ll either take it from you or kill you.  The Athenians used this tactic to get what they wanted from the Melians (Intro GB1).

Short summary.  A young man comes to town looking to improve the limited “social self” options he had back home on the farm.  In town has a chance to make money; big money.  He can get rich.  But to get it he has to abandon his core values and his good and simple life.  He'll never be the same and he’ll never be able to go back “home” again.  Is it worth it?  No one can answer that question but Gavrilla; not even Great Books can tell Gavrilla what kind of man he is.