Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, November 30, 2015


John Locke had a theory of human nature and government that was very appealing to the colonists.  But these early American leaders were also hard-headed politicians.  They didn’t look at the world through rose-colored glasses and they saw clearly that the world may be a rational place as envisioned by Locke but it can also be a tough neighborhood.  Thomas Hobbes was a philosopher from the-world-is-a-tough-neighborhood school of thought.  His pessimistic philosophy helped balance out the more optimistic writings of Locke.  One of the most difficult questions facing the colonists was this.  Would the colonies be safer under the protection of England? Or would they be more secure if they protected themselves?  They decided they could do a better job themselves.  It was true the English government had provided a certain amount of safety, “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government.”  Hobbes believed revolution was one of the worst evils in the world.  The Founding Fathers countered that fighting against the English government was not only their right, it was their duty.  The colonists declared they weren’t revolting against legitimate authority.  They were merely restoring their lawful rights because “the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States.”  The colonists don’t want to become rebels but the King has left them no choice. 

The Declaration acknowledges Hobbes’ major point that the primary purpose of government is to provide security for its citizens.  Hobbes had a dim view of human nature.  He believed “men are continually in competition for honor and dignity” not to mention competition for money and land and everything else.  Hobbes believed only a strong government would be able to keep people under control and prevent them from attacking one another.  So the purpose of the state under his theory is first of all to preserve safety and order.  Without safety and order all the other rights aren’t worth anything.  That’s why the Founding Fathers were determined “to provide new guards for their future security.”  Their main goal, stated in the Declaration, is to prevent “the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States” no matter if it’s the King of Great Britain or anyone else.  Over and over again the Founding Fathers declare they tried to resolve the conflict with English government through peaceful means.  “We have warned them…we have reminded them…we have appealed to their native justice…we have conjured them…”  And the result?  The English “have been deaf to the voice of justice.”  The Declaration wants to make it perfectly clear.  Justice is on our side; the time for talk is over.  Now it’s time to fight for justice.

A question comes to mind.  If justice really is on their side, why do they need to declare it in a written document?  Why don’t they just fight it out and try to win their separation from England on the field of battle?  Because the Founding Fathers believed “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”  This belief is rooted in Aristotle’s theory of human nature and government.  Aristotle said “the first society to be formed is the village.  And the most natural form of the village appears to be that of a colony from the family…”  Two key concepts apply to the American colonies.  First, it’s “natural” for them to want government based on their own needs.  Second, they want to join the family of nations in the world.  So they declare openly to everyone the reasons why the colonies have to fight with England.  Aristotle said “the natural outcast is a lover of war.”  Americans aren’t lovers of war.  They just want to become members of the international family.


Our recent readings have emphasized three different views of human nature and government.  Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” showed us Abner Snopes.  Snopes fits the profile for Hobbes’ theory that men are by nature very selfish and aggressive creatures.  Chekov’s short story “In Exile” gave us the Tartar.  The Tartar fits the profile for Aristotle’s theory that men are social by nature.  John Locke thinks human nature “has a law of nature to govern it.”  This theory says men are reasonable by nature and therefore have individual rights which must be respected by everyone.  These three strands of political theory converge in possibly the greatest political document ever written: the unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America.

The Declaration relies heavily on Locke’s theory of government.  Locke thinks men are reasonable creatures so the Declaration tries to persuade readers with rational arguments to accept American independence.  The Founding Fathers wanted to base a new country on the firm foundation of law because, as Locke wrote, “reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind.”  In that sense the Declaration is the primary teaching manual for all American citizens.  It explains in simple terms the American view of human nature and government.  The Declaration claims government is only legitimate when it is based (in Locke’s words) on “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”  That’s why it begins with the words “When in the course of human events...”  Human events take place during specific times in history and affect specific peoples.  But the laws of Nature and the laws of God are universal and apply to everyone.  Any reasonable person, anywhere, anytime, can read this Declaration and understand what the American theory of government is all about.  So what is it exactly that the Declaration is declaring?                  
The Declaration says “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” and then lays out four distinct truths based on natural law that any rational creature can understand.  These truths are (1) we’re all created equal; (2) we all have a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; (3) the only legitimate government is one based on “the consent of the governed”; (4) citizens have a right “to alter or to abolish” any government which doesn’t respect the other three political truths.  Locke wrote his treatise on government with these political truths in mind.  He claimed first of all that everyone is equal in a state of nature because “all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.”  The colonists believed they were being denied equal power and jurisdiction to direct their own political affairs.  Locke also claimed that governments are formed when citizens “unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates, which I call by the general name, property.”  The colonists declared these liberties were not being safeguarded by the English government.  But they had to be careful about the way they used the term “liberty” because Locke also said the “state of liberty is not a state of license.”  The colonists wanted to form a new government based on “the consent of the governed” but not so Americans could then do whatever they wanted.  This document tries to give American citizens liberty without the license.  So it relies on Locke’s guidance that citizens must necessarily give up some of their natural liberty in order “to be regulated by laws made by the society” they live in.  We may not agree with every single law of the United States.  But in order to be American citizens we still have to obey those laws.  If we don’t like certain laws we can either work to get them changed, or we can leave.  That’s what the colonists wanted to do, leave.  This Declaration claims they tried over and over to get the laws of England changed to no avail.  Now they want to leave the political society of England and form one of their own.  The Declaration thus makes a very powerful argument based primarily on Locke’s political theory.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

CHEKHOV: In Exile (Freedom and Happiness)

In Plato’s Apology (GB1) Socrates is convicted by a jury of Athenian citizens.  Then he’s given a choice between being exiled from Athens or receiving the death penalty.  “Would it not be possible for you to live in exile, Socrates, if you were silent and kept quiet?”  Socrates says no.  He will not accept exile and silence because “the unexamined life is not for man worth living.”  Is exile such a terrible punishment?  Chekhov’s short story In Exile gives flesh and blood to that question.  A Tartar recently exiled to Siberia sums it up best when he says “Bad!  Bad!  Surveying the landscape with dismay.”  “You’ll get used to it,” responds the old-timer Semyon.  “This is no paradise, of course.  You can see for yourself; water, bare banks, nothing but clay wherever you look…but the time will come when you’ll say to yourself: may God give everyone such a life.”  It may be significant that Semyon’s nickname is “Preacher.”  In Ecclesiastes (GB5) King Solomon is also called The Preacher.  And the wisdom taught by The Preacher is to find out from personal experience that “all is vanity (worthless, pointless).”  Is that true? 

In Siberia this is not just an abstract question.  Put another way: what makes life worth living, even in Siberia?  Semyon doesn’t have a problem with it.  He bluntly says “even in Siberia people can live.”  Maybe people can live there (although survive might be a more appropriate term).  But what the Tartar wants to know is, can people be happy there?  Aristotle answers this question quite nicely in his essay On Happiness (GB1).  The short answer is, no.  Semyon the Preacher says “I want nothing!  No father, no mother, no wife, no freedom, no house nor home!”  That may be good Stoic philosophy but it’s not Aristotle’s philosophy.  For Aristotle the key to happiness is not to want nothing, it’s to want the right things in the right way.  And he would call Semyon a “tribeless, lawless, hearthless one.”  This is no way to live, much less live the good life Aristotle has in mind.  On the other hand, Semyon may have a point.  They’re out in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do and plenty of time to do it in.  They’re barely one step above the raw state of nature described by Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke.  To get any meaning out of life these exiles must pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  One gentleman named Vasily Sergeich put it this way, “I want to live by my own labor, in the sweat of my brow, because I’m no longer a gentleman, but an exile.”  Ironically The Preacher in Ecclesiastes sums up his long quest for wisdom with this homely advice: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”  There doesn’t seem to be any work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in Siberia.  And what Semyon said may be true.  Siberia is no paradise.  But that doesn’t prevent Sergeich from trying to improve his life.  Sergeich’s response to the harsh Siberian exile is this: “Yes, Semyon, even in Siberia people can live.  Even in Siberia there is happiness.  Look, see what a daughter I’ve got!”  Semyon agrees she’s a fine young lady “But I think to myself…she withered and withered and wasted away, fell ill; and now she’s completely worn out.  Consumption.  That’s your Siberian happiness for you.  That’s how people can live in Siberia!”

Chekhov’s story uses the theme of Siberian exile to present two stark approaches to freedom.  John Locke said we give up freedom in a state of nature for the more restricted, but more secure, freedom of living in a political community.  Chekhov presents the opposite situation.  Semyon and Sergeich are driven out of their political community back into the state of nature in Siberia.  The only freedom they have left is the freedom to choose how they face adversity.  Semyon chooses resignation; to want nothing.  Sergeich tries to rebuild his family as a small community in the wilderness.  In Chekhov’s world freedom and happiness are both in short supply.      

Friday, November 13, 2015

LOCKE: Of Civil Government (Freedom and Equality)

Reading William Faulkner’s Barn Burning makes some readers stop and ponder.  Why do we prefer living in civilized society with other people under organized governments instead of just roaming around the world on our own, similar to Abner Scopes, free to do as we please?  Aristotle said we have a natural instinct to form families.  These family bonds then extend outward to form villages of like-minded families.  Only by establishing social relationships can we go on to develop those larger communities called cities which make the good life possible.  Hobbes disagreed.  He said governments are formed primarily out of fear.  We band together for protection against those who would do us harm.  By combining our forces we can defend ourselves against those most cunning and dangerous of predators, other human beings.             

In this week’s reading John Locke brings a different perspective to the discussion.  His insight is that “the great and chief end of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.”  For Locke the desire to get and hold on to personal possessions is a uniquely human quality.  Many animals hoard food.  But only human beings want things like books and dining room tables and fancy clothes.  We not only want these things, we want to own them for ourselves.  And we don’t want other people taking them away from us.  In Gogol’s short story The Overcoat (GB4) a poor office clerk scrimps and saves for months to buy a luxurious new coat; only to have it stolen from him by thieves.  According to Locke this is the reason we have governments.  When thieves can steal someone else’s property we return to a state of nature.  When a man can burn down another man’s barn without being punished we return to a state of nature.  What is this state of nature?  Locke believes the state of nature is “a state of perfect freedom…a state also of equality.”  This sounds easy enough.  Until we start digging into the details.  What does Locke mean by freedom?  What does he mean by equality?  And these seemingly simply questions lead to more complex ones.  Does personal freedom ultimately result in social and economic inequalities?  Does the liberty guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution ultimately result in men like Major de Spain and Abner Snopes?

Locke helps us sort through this complex problem.  What does Locke mean by freedom?  He says the “state of liberty…is not a state of license.”  Men are free to “dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit” but they’re not free to do anything they please.  Why not?  Because “the state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law…”  Rational man lives by rational law and Locke says “it is not without reason that he seeks out and is willing to join in society with others.”  A civilized society has “an established, settled, known law, received and allowed by common consent to be the standard of right and wrong…”  That’s why Abner Snopes would only burn barns in the dead of the night.  He knew the common consent of the community.  Burning another man’s barn was wrong.  Snopes may have argued that it wasn’t fair for de Spain to have a home as big as a courthouse while the Snopes family has to share a two room shack.  Snopes doesn’t think this is equality and wants to help level the playing field.  So what does Locke have to say about this version of equality?  He thinks there’s political equality when “all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.”  Power and jurisdiction are the key terms.  Government will use the power of the law to protect Snopes two room shack just as much as it protects de Spain’s mansion.  In that sense they are equal.  Karl Marx (GB1) protests that this theory of government protects the rich and property should be redistributed for true equality.  In 19th century Russia that kind of thinking could land you in Siberia.  And that’s where our next reading takes place.

Justice and Civility

The Faulkner story poses some troubling issues for us as we try and get a handle on what is the meaning of justice. I think Hobbes would say that people like Snopes need to obey the law or be punished. Most of us would agree. But what happens when a large number of people start acting like Abner Snopes? That’s a violation of the social contract. Every man’s property needs to be respected and left alone. But Snope operates according to his own set of rules. That’s why we have prisons. He belongs in jail, but the legal system was incapable of dealing with him. That’s what leads to individuals taking the law into their own hands. Society breaks down when the law is incapable of controlling people who do not believe in or care about the principle of justice.

Snopes is a miscreant. He doesn’t really have a political philosophy. He just goes around doing whatever he pleases. He ought to be hanged, or at the very least be sent into exile. The principle of justice, the way it is interpreted by law, is limited to the definition of right and wrong as spelled out in the criminal code. That includes a proper observance of the rules for introducing evidence at trial. For a lawyer, justice only extends as far as the courtroom. Outside the court room, justice is only an abstract idea. But we are bound to stay within the limits of this flawed system. Otherwise, we fall back to the state of nature, where right and wrong are decided by power and strength alone.

What’s the moral of the story? True justice exists only in our minds. It is an abstract idea. Real justice is limited by our collective desire (and will) to minimize harm, which implies a measure of self-denial. We might feel better if we just said the heck with evidence, and just hanged Snopes from the nearest tree. But what happens when an innocent man is wrongly put to death? So we err on the side of compassion, or if not compassion, mere prudence. To avoid the greater harm, we accept the lesser evil.

What are the ingredients for a healthy community? Having a common set of values is a good place to start. Unless everyone buys into the same idea of civility, society cannot function, or it cannot function with any semblance of virtue. What is most disturbing to me about this story is that it reminds us that the many (in society) are always held hostage to the few (those without honor). No society can function well if Snopes are running around loose. Is that the price of freedom? To tolerate evil? What is more important? To have a good society, with all its restrictions, or to have a diverse society which tolerates all kinds of weird ideas and personalities. The good society might become boring, but it would be peaceful. The diverse (or “open”) society would never be boring, but it sure as hell would never be secure.

Actually, in a state of nature Snopes would be killed off fairly soon. Because Snopes can only victimize the innocent. In a raw state of nature (“red in tooth and claw”), no one is innocent. The innocent get killed off right away. What remain are the strong and the clever. Snopes is neither strong nor clever. He’s just a bully. Like all bullies, he terrorizes those weaker than himself. But in a state of nature, where strength overcomes compassion. there would be plenty of bullies stronger than Snopes.

Unfortunately, in a state of nature, the innocent are forever at the mercy of the strong. So, unless the strong are feeling merciful, then the innocent have no chance. The innocent have no one but the virtuous to help them. But in a state of nature, does virtue even exist? For me, that is the real question. By renouncing violence and cruelty, society transforms human nature (with all its capacity for sin) into virtue. Something tells me that Saint Augustine would say yes. But only if society itself is transformed into a Kingdom of Grace. And as far as I can tell, we are nowhere close to being a Kingdom of Grace. In the mean time, the best that we can achieve is to construct a republic based on law and civility.

But that still leaves a question about law itself. Can any law, in any republic, ever be better than the people who make that law? Can we rise above the limits of human nature? Isn't that the question which Plato asked in the Republic? Can human society ever be virtuous, or are we bound to repeat the mistakes of the past? Hobbes tells us that without a strong sovereign to lead us, we all become like Snopes. So we need to yield a little of our freedom in exchange for the promise of safety and a hope for a better world. But the laws we create can never guarantee our future happiness. They simply insulate us from the disease of solipsism, so that we do not become exiled into the same realm of darkness which clearly enveloped Snopes.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

FAULKNER: Barn Burning (Abner Snopes and Justice)

We’ve been considering a couple of theories about the origin of political communities.  Aristotle thinks governments were formed as a natural extension of family units.  Hobbes thinks governments were formed as a contract between all the members of society.  William Faulkner’s short story about barn burning poses a dilemma for both theories.  Aristotle and Hobbes presented their cases as the ideal situation.  But real life is less than ideal.  Faulkner’s story makes us pause to consider what happens when people don’t live according to theories.  Abner Snopes is not a good father and he’s not a good neighbor.  He refuses to acknowledge any family connection to or social contract with the larger community.  He makes up his own rules and lives by his own theories.  What should society do with a man like that?

The story begins with a Justice of the Peace trying to sort out a personal feud between Mr. Snopes and his neighbor Mr. Harris.  The judge asks “what proof have you, Mr. Harris?”  Mr. Harris tells a story about Snopes’ hog getting into his corn and one thing leads to another until finally someone brings Harris a message from Snopes that “wood and hay kin burn.”  Mr. Harris continues by telling the judge “that night my barn burned.  I got the stock out but I lost the barn.”  The judge is sympathetic but rules “that’s not proof.  Don’t you see that’s not proof?”  There’s little doubt Snopes burned Mr. Harris’s barn.  But there’s nothing the judge can do about it.  So he presents his final judgment.  “This case is closed.  I can’t find against you, Snopes, but I can give you advice.  Leave this county and don’t come back… Take your wagon and get out of this county before dark.  Case dismissed.”  The judge did what judges are supposed to do.  He followed the rule of law handed down to him by society.  His role (the “contract” he had with his community) was to enforce that law, not make up his own mind about what was fair.  This scene brings up once more a fundamental question raised in many Great Books readings: what is justice?  Is the primary purpose of justice to protect the innocent and punish the guilty?  Or is justice the process of protecting the rights of all parties, no matter if they’re innocent or guilty?  The ideal answer would be: both.  But real life is less than ideal.  So we’re still stuck with the same question.  What should society do with a man like Snopes?

Philosophers and legal scholars can debate theories of justice.  But ordinary Americans have to live with “neighbors” like Abner Scopes.  Do we count on police and the court system to protect family and property?  Or do we take our own precautions to protect ourselves from the Abner Scopes of the world?  What should we do?  The question is more practical than philosophical.  One thing we can do is turn to Great Books for advice.  Aristotle’s advice would be to concentrate on family life.  He thinks the family is the basic building block of the community.  Good fathers build good families.  Dysfunctional families result in dysfunctional communities.  Abner Scopes is like a disease in the body politic and the Snopes children need better role models or the cycle will continue.  Public policy should focus (much like a physician) on growing healthy communities.  Hobbes would advise us instead to look for strong rulers and strong judges who will protect the community from men like Abner Snopes.  The judge in this story merely punted the problem over to the next county and another judge.  If we don’t take firm action against men like Snopes then life in our own community will become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Hobbes thinks Aristotle’s family therapy plan simply will not work.  Snopes is a tyrant to his own family and demands unquestioning obedience but shows nothing but contempt for other families.  Faulkner’s Barn Burning story doesn’t solve the problem of justice but Abner Snopes rivals Dostoevsky’s Underground Man as literature’s Anti-social Man.