Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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.

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