Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, October 31, 2015

HOBBES: Of Commonwealth (Of Bees and Men)

Our last reading was about politics.  Aristotle said the origin of government is a natural instinct common among men.  In this week’s reading Thomas Hobbes takes up the same theme but disagrees with Aristotle on key points.  Hobbes says “bees and ants live sociably with one another, which are therefore by Aristotle numbered amongst political creatures… some man may perhaps desire to know why mankind cannot do the same.”  This is a good question.  Other “political creatures” (bees for example) live in harmony with one another.  Why can’t people do the same?  Especially if Aristotle is right and government is a natural instinct common to all political creatures?  Hobbes lists several objections but basically rejects the whole idea that human government is in fact a natural instinct.  Hobbes believes human government is an artificial institution and begins when “men agree amongst themselves to submit to some man, or assembly of men, voluntarily, on confidence to be protected by him against all others.  This may be called a political commonwealth, or commonwealth by institution.”  Bees may live peaceably with their fellow bees by following their natural instincts but “men are continually in competition for honor and dignity which these creatures are not.”  We saw this clearly in The Iliad (GB3) when Achilles wanted personal glory and honor more than he wanted a Greek victory over the Trojans.  His pride was inflamed when Agamemnon took away his war prize.  In Achilles’ mind his war prize was his personal possession, his own private property, and Agamemnon was stealing it from him.  And to add insult to injury, Agamemnon wasn’t doing it for the benefit of the common good of the Greeks.  He was doing it because of their personal feud.  Hobbes makes the observation that “amongst bees the common good differeth not from the private.”  Karl Marx (GB1) and Adam Smith (GB2) both had strong opinions about the effects of private property on human society.  Is private property the source of conflict (as Marx says) or is it the source of communal prosperity (as Smith says)?  And it’s worth pondering how much the common good is affected by what political leaders do in their private lives.  Do private activities affect the public good?  Americans don’t agree on these points and neither do philosophers.  Why?  Hobbes says bees “having not (as man) the use of reason, do not see, nor think they see, any fault in the administration of their common business.”  Bees never worry about how they can improve the hive.  They just do what bees do.  They go about their business of patiently making honey and more bees.  They never steal, break into open rebellion or propose changes in administrative policy.  But men do all these things.  Why?

This takes us back to the original disagreement between Aristotle and Hobbes: “the agreement of bees is natural (Aristotle’s view); that of men is by covenant only, which is artificial” (Hobbes’ view).  So a seemingly abstract philosophical question (what is the origin of the state?) winds up being crucial in actually deciding practical questions.  What does it matter if the state is natural or artificial?  If the state is artificial (as Hobbes believes) then we might agree with Rousseau in The Social Contract (GB1) when he says: “children remain bound to the father only as long as they need him for self-preservation.  As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond dissolves.”  Under this theory families stay together only so long as it serves their own best interests.  Once children can fend for themselves the family continues only as a voluntary and artificial institution.  Thus, the political community under Rousseau’s theory is more like a contract.  Edmund Burke takes Aristotle’s side and disagrees with Hobbes and Rousseau.  In The Revolution in France (GB5) Burke says “Society is indeed a contract… but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement...”  He believes social bonds run deeper than any legal contract.  For Burke and Aristotle society is a natural organic whole and not the artificial institution described by Rousseau and Hobbes.  But this much they all agree on: men don’t live like bees.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Aristotle and Nature

Aristotle is interesting. But he raises questions about the nature of man which are not really addressed by his ideas on politics. I think Aristotle believes that man is a political animal, whose nature is to live within society and formulate laws by which rational men choose to live. That is all well and good. But he skips over the whole problem of what is really "natural" and how man fits into a scheme of nature while remaining apart from it. Because we know from political theory (Hobbes, for example), that man in a state of nature is not significantly more than an upright beast. We know that at some point in history, one portion of humanity decided to remove itself from the insecurity of nature (the so-called wilderness), and live instead within an enclosed space which we call a city. Without walls, no city can offer much protection from either bandits or beasts. So, it became "natural" for cities to establish boundaries which extended as far as the walls reached.

Early in the history of civilization, there arose two kinds of people: those who roamed over the face of the earth searching for something to eat (or steal); and those who lived within cities. People who lived in cities soon figured out how to grow things so they developed agriculture. People who were constantly on the move (nomads, vagabonds, gypsies, etc.), figured out how to ride horses and made a living for themselves by stealing other people's food and taking whatever they wanted. They were basically hunters.

Aristotle seems to believe that only people who live in cities are "natural." Therefore, all other people must be unnatural. But this is silly. Insofar as people share a common origin, they are all natural.  As Rousseau would point out, what we have in common is the undisputed fact that human beings started out living in trees and eating fruit. Then, just like other monkeys, we climbed down out of the trees and figured out how to find food by walking from one place to another. Somewhere along the way, we got tired of just eating nuts and berries, and we developed a taste for meat. So, we figured out how to make spears and tools to help us kill other animals so we didn't have to rely on berries. At this point in time, I guess Aristotle would say that man was not yet civilized.  But he was very much a product of nature.  So, when and where did man begin to lose his connection with nature?  It seems to me that the first stage was our transition from climbing trees to walking about on the ground.  The next stage was when some men decided that living in cities was preferable to wandering around looking for food. So, the development of agriculture made living in cities possible, which also made it possible for man to separate himself from nature.

Once you have cities, you find out pretty soon that you need some form of government. Over time, customs evolve and laws are instituted.  The idea of a "good life" becomes associated with living in a city with all its rules and bureaucracy. But throughout history, there have always been people who feel suffocated by fences, rules, ordinances, laws and all the elements of bureaucracy. They prefer to live outside cities on their own. It wasn't just Genghis Khan who objected to living inside a walled city. The average American farmer used to prefer the open country to living inside metropolitan areas. What about all those people who were explorers and wanderers? The American cowboy living out in the wide open prairie. Many people (like Thoreau or Davy Crockett) would consider living inside a city as something less than natural. So, when Aristotle says that the "good life" is only possible within a republic or a city, he is really talking about a particular kind of good life.

The designation of what is "natural" versus artificial is quite arbitrary. Aristotle has a particular idea of nature but it is not the only possible version. Rousseau would argue that living behind city walls is about as unnatural as you can get. All man made laws are made out of convenience. The notion that man is "by nature" a taxpayer is pretty ludicrous. There is nothing natural about taxes. Nietzsche would say that only the weak man, who is incapable of feeding himself in the wilderness, would conceive of an arrangement whereby some men voluntarily give up a portion of their wealth (or as Adam Smith would say, their "produce") to a government agency to distribute funds (or social welfare) to their neighbor. What a strange idea!


All of these laws and institutions for justice are justified in the larger scheme or desire for the so-called "good life." Modern psychology would say that the concept of a "good life" is nothing more than our childish desire for things that we are not able to obtain with our own power. On the other hand, it is certainly true that most Americans have a much higher standard of living than people in Somalia or Afghanistan. You can only desire something if you believe that it exists.  If you are born into poverty and slavery, and everyone around you is in the same condition, its hard to believe that such a thing as freedom even exists. And yet, the idea of freedom persists even when the reality is gone. But is it natural to believe in freedom, or is it an idea that came into existence only when the practice of slavery was introduced? In other words, do our ideas and beliefs depend on some memory of an earlier condition in nature? Animals don't enslave one another. They eat one another for food. But only people believe in ideas like civilization, freedom, and good versus evil. Nevertheless, many people in the world today continue to oppose the idea of freedom; they embrace an ideology of slavery (or obedience) as being a natural condition for other people to bear. Aristotle himself defended the practice of slavery as being consistent with the natural order of things. So, it is not clear to me that Aristotle is a reliable authority for us on what is truly desirable or "natural" in life.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

ARISTOTLE: Politics (Taxes and Education)

In our last reading Ortega pointed out that “man by himself would never be a student, just as man by himself would never be a taxpayer.  He must pay taxes, he has to study, but he is by nature neither a taxpayer nor a student.”  Aristotle has a different opinion.  He thinks man is, by nature, a taxpayer.  And a student.  And many other things besides.  Paying taxes and studying may not grow naturally like an arm or a leg; but they are activities that develop within us as we grow and find our place in society.  Aristotle follows biology and believes in the principle that “what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature.”  For him government is not simply some abstract theory created by man.  Instead he says “the state is a creation of nature and man is by nature a political animal.”  A man may not particularly enjoy paying taxes or studying history but that’s the price we pay to live in civilized society with other people.  It’s not the only way to live.  A man may choose to live apart from society and become a pirate, for example.  But Aristotle thinks living in civilized society is the only place where a man can live a good life. 

Why is this?  Why can’t a pirate live a full and satisfying life?  According to Aristotle a pirate has his priorities wrong because “mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think is good.”  A pirate wants money, which is all well and good.  However, he wants to get it by robbing people, which is not good.  It may be good for him.  But it’s not good for everyone else.  That’s why we have government.  Aristotle admits that “governments differ in kind” and States come in various forms: monarchies or aristocracies or democracies.  But in Aristotle’s view they all have this much in common: “the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life.”  Everyone needs the basic necessities of life.  Beyond that we often disagree on what “the good life” consists of.  Some say this, some say that, and in this sense the Great Books program is one long discussion about what it means to live the good life.  But again Aristotle thinks we need to get our priorities right.  He says “The state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual.”  Does Aristotle mean the state is more important than me or my family?  Apparently so.  Using a biological example we can think of it this way.  The body can survive the loss of an arm.  But an arm can’t survive apart from the body.  The state can survive the loss of me or my family.  But we wouldn’t survive very long apart from the state. 

Think of Conrad’s “An Outpost of Progress” (IGB 1-15).  Kayerts and Carlier, like most of us, couldn’t make it on their own.  Nor, in Aristotle’s opinion, were we meant to.  Following the dictates of biology he believes “the final cause and end of a thing is best.”  That’s why a pirate can’t live a full and satisfying life.  The “final cause and end” of man is to live in a civilized political society.  A pirate doesn’t pay taxes or study or do any of those things which make us full participants in a political community.  A pirate, in Homer’s words, is a “tribeless, lawless, hearthless one.”  Man’s natural state is to live among neighbors, obey the laws of his country, and enjoy peace in his own home.  A pirate has no neighbor, follows no law, has no home.  Both Aristotle and Ortega agree that this is not the way to live a good life.  Modern Americans may have different views than an ancient Greek and a modern Spaniard.  But we face the same questions they faced: what is the good life?  What kind of education do our children need in order to live the good life?  And how much are we willing to pay for it?  These are tough questions which must ultimately be settled in the political arena.  They’re tough problems but not beyond our powers.  They’re precisely the kinds of questions Ortega thinks we should be asking.  And they’re precisely the kinds of questions Aristotle thinks we were born to answer.

Monday, October 19, 2015

ORTEGA: On Studying (Questions and Answers)

The Great Books program is based on the simple method of reading a book, asking a few questions, and then discussing those questions with others.  In this selection Jose Ortega y Gasset tells us that “no one can thoroughly understand an answer unless he has understood the question.”  The questions we ask about a reading are just as important as the answers we give.  Here’s an example.  Ortega says subjects like “metaphysics or geometry are here because men created them by brute force…”  Statements like this lead us to formulate questions.  Was geometry “created” by humans or did we “discover” geometric forms that had been there all along?  When we ask questions like these we feel like we’re on a quest for Truth.  But Truth is a slippery subject for Ortega.  He believes “we say that we have discovered a truth when we have found a certain thought that satisfies an intellectual need we have previously felt.  If we do not feel in need of that thought, it will not be a truth for us.”  Really?  Does that mean there’s one truth for me and another truth for you, depending on the “intellectual need” we feel at the time?  Does that mean truth changes every time my intellectual needs change?  Or does truth remain the same regardless of my personal intellectual needs?  These are questions that fall under the branch of philosophy called metaphysics, the study of the nature of reality.

Metaphysics sounds like a field of study best left to scholars.  But Ortega doesn’t think so.  He says “in order to truly understand something, and most of all metaphysics, it is not necessary to have what is called talent or to possess great prior wisdom… what is necessary is to have need of metaphysics.”  And Ortega believes we all need metaphysics.  An obvious question follows.  Why should I study metaphysics?  Because, says Ortega, “one needs precisely what one does not have, what is lacking, what is not existent, and the need, the demand, is that much stronger the less one has…”  Ortega thinks the less I know about metaphysics the more I really need it.  This is a paradox.  If I’m looking for some Truth I don’t already know then how do I know when I’ve found it?  Ortega says “Truth, for the moment, is what quiets an anxiety in our intelligence.”  Truth, at least for the moment, will satisfy the need I have to answer my own question.  But in order for it to be a Truth for me it has to be an answer to my own personal question.  Answering questions for an exam at school doesn’t count.  In Ortega’s opinion exams never lead students to discover their own Truths.  He says “the student is a human being, male or female, on whom life imposes the need to study subjects for which he has felt no immediate, genuine need.”    

In a typical classroom “the typical student is one who does not feel the direct need of a science, nor any real concern with it, and who yet sees himself forced to busy himself with it.”  The typical student studies geometry, for example, not because he’s really interested in learning about forms.  He studies geometry only so he can pass the next geometry test.  Now consider an adult who is long since out of school and well out of reach of weekly exams.  A question has been bothering him.  The question is this.  In a rapidly changing world is there anything at all that’s permanent and stable and enduring?  This is a classic question of metaphysics, the very subject Ortega says we all need to study.  Studying geometry may not give us the definitive metaphysical answer we’re looking for.  But contemplating the eternal nature of triangles is the sort of thing that somehow “quiets an anxiety in our intelligence.”  And Ortega believes it’s important for us to keep formulating these questions for ourselves throughout our lives.  Ortega is concerned that “generation after generation the frightening mass of human knowledge which the student must assimilate piles up.”  The subjects keep piling up and the exams keep getting longer and longer.  Ortega’s antidote is this: ask your own questions, find your own answers.      

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

CONRAD: An Outpost of Progress (Kayerts and Kurtz)

An Outpost of Progress makes a good counter-balance for Joseph Conrad’s other story in the Great Books series: Heart of Darkness (GB1).  In Outpost of Progress we meet a weak man named Kayerts. In Heart of Darkness we meet a strong character named Kurtz.  If Kurtz represents the flower of Western civilization then Kayerts represents the weed of Western civilization.  Kurtz is well-educated, confident and independent.  All he needs to survive in the wilderness is his rifle and a canoe.  Kayerts is just the opposite.  He has no business being so far away from home in a remote outpost in a country that’s so foreign and so alien to him.  And yet in one crucial way these two very different men are alike.  The wilderness destroys their souls.  In Heart of Darkness we read about Kurtz: “The wilderness…had caressed him, and lo! He had withered; it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation.”  In Outpost of Progress Kayerts hears “the great silence of the surrounding wilderness, its very hopelessness and savagery seemed to approach them nearer, to draw them gently, to look upon them, to envelop them with a solicitude irresistible, familiar, and disgusting.”

Kayerts and Kurtz have this much in common: they’ve both come to the wilderness to make money because of women back home.  Kurtz to build a nest egg so he can marry his fiancé in proper style; Kayerts so he can support his daughter financially.  But after they’ve been in the wilderness awhile money and women fade into the background.  Then they come face to face with who they really are; what Aristotle calls Character.  The result is not pleasant.  In The Social Contract (GB1) Rousseau theorizes that man is naturally good.  Conrad doesn’t agree.  Conrad sees man as a dark and dangerous creature.  In a state of Nature men aren’t noble savages; they’re just plain old savages.  Civilization for Conrad is merely a thin veneer covering the natural savagery of men.  Once they’re away from the safety and comforts of home their savagery is let loose.  Conrad’s view of the world is therefore dark and pessimistic.

The world can be a dark place.  But that’s not the whole story.  Great Books offers a broad range of alternative views and we can see the contrast most clearly in Plato (GB 1,2,4,5) and The Gospel of Mark (GB 3).  Socrates and Jesus were very different men than Kayerts and Kurtz.  Money wasn’t much of a factor in the lives of Socrates and Jesus.  And they never travelled very far from home, much less venturing deep into barbarian or pagan territories.  Their mission was not to bring the light of civilization and transform the darkness of ignorance in foreign peoples.  Their mission was to transform the darkness of their own people.  In some ways this was a much harder task and it ended up getting them both killed.  But Socrates and Jesus knew that the real darkness isn’t “out there” somewhere; it’s closer to home, in the human mind and heart.  Kayerts and Kurtz didn’t bring the light of civilization to an uncivilized people. They brought their own personal darkness along with them but didn’t know it until the very end.  Socrates believed the worst kind of ignorance is thinking you know something you really don’t know.  Kayerts thought he would make a good station manager at a remote trading outpost.  He was wrong.  Ten of his employees were sold into slavery and he killed the assistant manager himself.  Jesus’ worst enemies weren’t ignorant fishermen; it was the highly educated Pharisees.  Kurtz thought he had an enlightened view of the world and could use commerce and law to enlighten others.  He was wrong.  Kurtz used commerce as a means to gain personal power and became a brutal tyrant without regard for law, justice or even basic human decency.  Great Books tell all; the good, the bad and the ugly.  Conrad tells good stories with bad endings about people living ugly lives.

Friday, October 02, 2015

ROGER FRY: An Essay in Aesthetics (Why Art?)

In the past couple of weeks we read about two different ways to look at life.  Claude Bernard showed us how to look at life scientifically through observation and experiment.  Flannery O’Connor showed us how to look at life through the experience of literature.  Now Roger Fry wants to tell us how to experience life by looking at art.  Who?  According to the introductory notes Roger Fry “abandoned the scientific career for which he had been trained and resolved instead to devote himself to painting.”  Can a mind trained in science use the same skills to analyze art?  Fry himself admits “I have never believed that I knew what was the ultimate nature of art.”  Plato would approve of this statement.  But he would go on to ask: then what makes you qualified to write an essay on it?  Please share with us this wisdom you have gained.

Fry may not know everything about art but he knows more than most of us.  He begins by quoting “an eminent artist” who defines the subject this way: “the art of painting is the art of imitating solid objects upon a flat surface by means of pigments.”  This is a very objective definition that should appeal to Fry’s scientifically trained mind.  And it does.  But not totally.  Fry responds that the definition “is delightfully simple, but prompts the question; is that all?”  No, it’s not.  The art lover in Fry is searching for something more, a deeper meaning of art.  Why would people flock to art museums merely to look at colored pigments on a flat surface?  There must be more to it than that.  Fry turns to philosophy and finds “Plato, indeed, gave a very similar account of the affair, and himself put the question; is it then worth while? …he decided that it was not worth while, and proceeded to turn the artists out of his ideal republic.”  So much for philosophers and art.  But in spite of Plato’s opinion Fry still thinks art is worthwhile.  He says we have to start “with some elementary psychology, with a consideration of the nature of instincts…”  When we see a wild bull in a field we set off the nervous mechanism which results in fight or flight… which sets off another emotion which “we call the emotion of fear.”  Fear can be a good thing.  It helps us survive in a dangerous world.  We should be afraid of wild bulls because they’re bigger and stronger than we are and can kill us.  But in addition to the survival instinct Fry thinks we also have a kind of natural “instinct” for art.  He says “man has the peculiar faculty of calling up again in his mind the echo of past experiences of this kind, of going over it again, ‘in imagination’ as we say.  He has, therefore, the possibility of a double life; one the actual life, the other the imaginative life.”  Looking at a painting of a wild bull isn’t the same thing as meeting a wild bull in a field.  This is one reason people flock to art museums; it’s safer there.  Fry claims when we look at art “we become true spectators, not selecting what we will see, but seeing everything equally, and thereby we come to notice a number of appearances and relations of appearances, which would have escaped our notice before.”  If we’re busy running away from a real bull, for example, we won’t notice (or much care about) all the delicate details.  But if we’re looking at an imaginary bull in a painting we can stand and look all day if we want.

So Fry says there’s a big difference between “actual life” in the world and the “imaginative life” of the artist.  This is his own definition of art: “art is an expression and a stimulus of this imaginative life… (it is) the chief organ of the imaginative life.”  Art brings the imagination of the artist to the surface so other people can see it too.  And Fry thinks “it is only when an object exists in our lives for no other purpose than to be seen that we really look at it.”  People go to art museums precisely to look and experience the rich imaginative life of the artist.  Fry thinks these shared human emotions are the key to appreciating fine art.  Scientists work hard to keep their emotions out of the picture.  Not so with art.  Fry says “art appreciates emotion in and for itself.”