Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, January 25, 2016

JOHN DEWEY: Habits and Will (Political Will)

Aristotle once wrote that happiness is “an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue.”  What do modern Americans think about such a philosophical definition of happiness?  Two quotes from two prominent politicians in today’s newspaper tell it best.  One politician said, “I’m not interested in ideas that sound good on paper but will never make it in the real world.”  Another one said, “The world needs less philosophers and more welders.”  How does American society reconcile philosophy (the love of wisdom) with the need to earn a living?  What we’re looking for is a practical philosophy with real world applications.  John Dewey is our man.  The introduction to this week’s reading says “John Dewey viewed philosophy as a means of studying the problems that arise in everyday life.”  How does practical philosophy work?  Dewey takes a quote from ancient Greek philosophy: “Aristotle remarked, the untutored moral perceptions of a good man are usually trustworthy, those of a bad character, not.”  That was Aristotle’s assessment.  Here was Dewey’s response: “he should have added that the influence of social custom as well as personal habit has to be taken into account in estimating who is the good man and the good judge.”  Dewey didn’t say Aristotle was wrong.  He just wanted to build on the philosophical foundation laid down by Aristotle.  By questioning old philosophical ideas we constantly update philosophy so it remains relevant in our own modern times.       

Dewey questioned the foundations of Aristotle’s philosophy.  So by questioning Dewey’s ideas we can build on his foundations.  For example, he begins his essay by talking about “bad habits: foolish idling, gambling, addiction to liquor and drugs.”  Here’s the question.  Why does Dewey think laziness, gambling and addiction are “bad” habits?  What makes them bad?  He tells us why: “A bad habit suggests an inherent tendency to action and also a hold, a command over us.  It makes us do things we are ashamed of, things which we tell ourselves we prefer not to do.  It overrides our formal resolutions.”  In other words, they are bad habits because we do not control them, they control us.  Here’s a follow-up question.  Are they still bad habits if I’m not ashamed of foolish idling, extravagant gambling or excessive drinking?  In other words, if these are the things I prefer to do?  Where does Dewey get the notion these things are wrong?  Does Dewey think the “influences of social custom” determine what’s good or bad, right or wrong?  Should we turn to the Bible for guidance?  Or do we just make moral decisions for ourselves and develop personal habits based on personal preferences and prejudices?  These are philosophical questions faced by ordinary people.  But they’re also questions politicians have to grapple with.  They have to consider political applications of philosophical ideas.  Can passing new laws do away with laziness, gambling and addiction?  Dewey says no, not unless we also change the underlying social conditions that cause laziness, gambling and addiction in the first place.  Other philosophers (and other politicians) think that’s putting the problem exactly backward.  They argue that the only real way to change society is to change the hearts of individual citizens first.  Dewey says “a man who can stand properly does so.”  But is it true that a man who can be good will be good?  Dewey says “only the man whose habits are already good can know what the good is.”  Can only good men know what a good society should be like?  What about everyone else?  Will people with bad habits ever really want a good society?  What if they just want to be lazy, to gamble and drink all day?  Should society provide support or infrastructure to satisfy these habits?  A new casino in town might provide revenue to improve education for local school children.  But it might also provide a place that encourages bad habits and crime.  What should we do?  This is politics.  At its best American politics is a healthy public debate about human nature.  At its worst it caters to our bad habits.  Politics is a community’s Will put into action.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

ARISTOTLE: On Happiness

In Gogol’s short story The Overcoat we read about a man named Akaky who “lived for his job… He worked with love.  There, in his copying, he found an interesting, pleasant world for himself.”  Here’s a simple question.  Was he happy?  Is finding an “interesting, pleasant world” for ourselves the same thing as being happy?  This week we turn to Aristotle and his thoughts On Happiness.  Aristotle believes Nature gives everything a natural function or purpose.  Let’s take Akaky as our example.  Aristotle says the proper function of Man is to live “an active life of the rational element.”  An “active life” is one where we actually do things.  But it has to be more than that.  To live a good life we need clear goals and not just be engaged in random activities.  Akaky gets up and goes to work making copies.  Then he comes home and has supper.  Then he practices making copies at home.  Then he goes to bed.  The next day he gets up and does the same thing, year in and year out.  Akaky has clear goals but the bar is set very low.  Is he happy?

Aristotle would say, no.  It’s true that happiness involves activity and Akaky is active in the workplace.  But for Aristotle happiness means more than that.  It’s “an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue.”  We could make the argument that Akaky is pursuing excellence in his own chosen craft, copying letters.  Akaky is, in fact, an excellent craftsman of letters.  Aristotle would respond that’s not a sufficient foundation on which to build a happy life.  There’s more to life than work.  In Aristotle’s view Akaky is lacking many of the things necessary for true happiness: “good birth, plenty of friends, good friends, wealth, good children, plenty of children, a happy old age… health, beauty, strength…” and maybe even “fame, honor, good luck and virtue.”  That’s a pretty comprehensive list.  And totally idealistic.  Under those terms no one could ever be called truly happy.  Certainly Akaky could not.  Here’s the point.  Aristotle is presenting an ideal life of happiness, not the normal life.  We’ll fall well short of acquiring all those things listed as the building blocks of happiness.  But Aristotle thinks we’ll be happier in direct proportion to the extent that we do acquire and hold on to the things on that list.  Pursuing happiness, even if we don’t achieve it perfectly, is what we were born for.  That is the driving ambition of human beings according to Aristotle.  He says “all men aim at a certain end which determines what they choose and what they avoid.  This end, to sum it up briefly, is happiness.”  So in order to be happy we should habitually choose the right things and avoid the wrong things.  Akaky seemed happy for a while.  What went wrong? 

Aristotle would say that Akaky’s kind of happiness was built on a shaky foundation to begin with.  He had a job he enjoyed.  That was about all.  He had no family or friends.  He was reasonably healthy but he wasn’t handsome or physically fit.  He wasn’t famous, he won no honors and once his old overcoat wore out his luck ran out too.  In short, Akaky’s “happiness” relied on one thing and one thing only: his daily routine.  Once that daily routine was disrupted his happiness evaporated.  But we may ask what else could Akaky have done?  His old coat wore out.  He had to buy a new one.  We may argue that it was just bad luck that Akaky got mugged and his new coat was stolen.  Aristotle would respond that it wasn’t “just bad luck” that Akaky was out after midnight, drunk, in a strange part of town.  This was certainly not an example of “an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue.”  It was an example of Akaky choosing to do the wrong thing; an activity of his soul, his rational being, in conformity with foolishness.  Aristotle admits that being happy isn’t easy.  But it’s much harder if we make bad decisions.  In theory anyone can fulfill the “proper function” of a human being and become happy.  In practice very few people can live up to Aristotle’s high standards.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Fate of "Insignificant" People

It's hard to know what to make of this story by Gogol. Akaky Akakievich, the main character, is a simple man of humble means.
As a copy clerk, he barely makes enough money to keep himself alive. In today's economy, we would describe his condition as bare subsistence.  In other words, he is right at the edge of being a "street person." Although he has a job, he lives from paycheck to paycheck with barely enough to sustain life, but not enough to improve his standard of living. When his winter coat wears out, he is unable , or unwilling, to spend  the money to buy a new one. Instead, he spends only enough to patch the old one. But winters in Russia are severe. You cannot survive without a decent coat. So, when his old one finally wears out, his tailor tries to persuade him that he should acquire a new coat. Like Akaky himself, his old coat has finally become too old and decrepit to repair.

Eventually, the  tailor persuades Akaky to buy a new coat, far nicer than the old one he had, one that will keep him warm in the winter and give him a little style in his wardrobe. But, to Akaky's way of thinking, such a nice coat would be a foolish expense. He believes that people like him should always avoid luxury. Yet this time, Akaky listens to the tailor and is persuaded to order a new coat, much nicer than any coat he ever owned before. And what is the result of this new investment in fine clothing?

His fellow clerks, who have always made fun of him, take notice of his new stylish coat and invite him to a party. Now, for the first time in his life, Akaky changes his routine. He goes out and socializes and drinks a little vodka. He gets tipsy. He enjoys the attention and respect his new luxurious coat has brought him. Then, as he makes his way home after the party, he is robbed of his new coat and is left to freeze in the bitter cold.

Akaky is devastated. When he goes to the police commissioner for help in recovering his coat, the commissioner acts as though he cannot be bothered with such trivial business. Akaky is on his own. He feels that a great injustice has been done to him, and yet no one seems to care.  Soon after this, Akaky becomes sick and dies. Afterwards, his ghost haunts the city, robbing people of their own coats, and creating fear and outrage in all the people who failed to help Akaky when he was still alive. So, is this tale a tragedy or a comedy?

What is the moral of the story?  Is Gogol saying that life is unfair and we should just accept our fate and move on? There doesn't seem to be any real solution to Akaky's problem. He lived a very humble life. Did his luxurious new coat contribute to a premature death? Is it better to be humble, live in solitude and be content with a meager existence? Or is there something fundamentally wrong with a society that ignores people like Akaky? Did the commissioner or any other bureaucrats have an obligation to help Akaky recover his stolen coat? What is society's obligation to the poor? Is there ever any obligation to help working class and poor people or is it just every man for himself? Is all life worth preserving, or are some lives worth more than others? Gogol doesn't answer these questions.

The myth of the American dream has always been aspirational. We believe in the idea of raising ourselves through sustained, honest hard work. But what happens when the dream fizzles out and we remain stuck in the same place, unable to rise to a better way of life? Does anyone, our neighbors or even our government, have a responsibility to help us improve our lives? Or, is it better to just stay where we are and not try to elevate our position in life? Isn't that the fate of all insignificant people? To remain where they are, doing what they do, over and over, and never challenging the system or questioning their place in the world?

Saturday, January 09, 2016

GOGOL: The Overcoat (Insignificant People)

Nikolai Gogol once wrote that “The Russian is more frightened of his insignificance than of all his vices and shortcomings.”  Modern American readers may want to ponder if the same is true of us today.  We have about 323 million citizens.  A few of them may have some of the same “vices and shortcomings” Gogol was talking about.  But in a land where “all men are created equal” every citizen (all 323 million of them) is guaranteed certain rights.  No one, in theory, is insignificant.  What Gogol wants to do in this short story is examine a man who is considered, in the grand scheme of things, insignificant.  Akaky Akakievich is a low ranking clerk in a huge departmental office.  And Gogol points out that “There is nothing touchier than departments, regiments, bureaus, in fact, any caste of officials.  Things have reached the point where every individual takes an insult to himself as a slur on society as a whole.”  Americans may again want to pause and consider how Gogol’s writing reflects on our own society.  Some things are different.  We don’t, for example, have an official caste system like they had in 19th century Russia.  Modern Americans are much more sensitive to issues related to race and sex.      

But Gogol could have written his story today with much the same effect.  Akaky wasn’t much concerned about the politics or office gossip of his day and if his story was written now he wouldn’t care to discuss racial or sexual preferences or politics or religion.  Or anything else.  He just wanted to do his job and be left alone.  His job was copying letters.  And he was good at it.  In many ways he was an ideal employee.  He didn’t drink.  He didn’t take many sick days.  He didn’t complain.  He didn’t ask questions.  He just made excellent copies with no mistakes. 

In fact, Akaky “lived for his job… he worked with love.  There, in his copying, he found an interesting, pleasant world for himself.”  An excellent bureaucrat if there ever was one.  So what was the problem?  In short, “Never did he pay any attention to what was going on around him…”  Excellent bureaucrats can eventually turn into dull people.  William James (IGB2: Habit) put it this way.  “As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the practical and scientific spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work.”  For Akaky those “hours of work” turned into days, then weeks and months and years “until after awhile people began to believe that he must have been born just as he was, shabby frock coat, bald patch, and all.”  Plain, dull, insignificant Akaky. 

To be clear, not all bureaucrats and government employees turn into dull people.  Akaky’s personality just gravitated naturally toward order and routine.  Maybe excessively so.  In modern America he would be diagnosed with some sort of personality disorder.  Here’s the point Gogol was trying to make.  Akaky’s co-workers thought of him, and treated him, as insignificant.  And most readers probably think he led a dull life.  But Akaky didn’t think so.  He was poor but he was happy.  “Having written to his heart’s content, he would go to bed, smiling in anticipation of the morrow, of what God would send him to copy.  Thus flowed the life of the man who, on a yearly salary of four hundred rubles, was content with his lot.”  (Footnote: Gogol died in 1852.  As a comparison, $400 of 1852 U.S. dollars would be worth $12,500.00 in 2015.  As another comparison, the 2015 U.S. Federal Register lists the poverty level for a one person household at $11,770.)  Can anyone be truly happy living on $12,500 a year?  Apparently so.  “When everyone else was trying to have a good time, Akaky Akakievich was not even thinking of diverting himself.”  But nothing lasts forever.  When Akaky’s old coat wore out he had to get a new one.  “At the word ‘new’ Akaky Akakievich’s vision became foggy” and his contented life was gone forever.  Gogol’s writing is both tough minded and tender hearted.  So his message is both bitter and sweet.  Many people do, in fact, live dull lives.  But they are not insignificant. 

Monday, January 04, 2016

WILLIAM JAMES: Habit (Happy New Year)

William James knew all about Americans and their annual habit of making New Year’s resolutions.  He also knew that most of those resolutions fade away before February.  In this essay he examines why old habits are so hard to break and gives some good advice on making, and keeping, new ones.  His ideas are based partly on good old American self-help pragmatism and partly on meditations about the universal human condition.  James makes the observation that “Men grown old in prison have asked to be readmitted after being once set free.”  This is strange but true.  It has been well documented that some inmates eventually become so institutionalized they have a hard time adjusting to life outside prison walls.  Their daily habits behind bars finally forge bars in their minds too, making it nearly impossible for them to escape their daily routines.  And what is true for inmates living in prison is also true for average citizens living in the work-a-day world.  Most of us get up in the morning, take a shower, have breakfast, brush our teeth, and then go to work.  Our work usually consists of doing the same general tasks day in, day out, year after year.  This may sound bad but James believes regular habits help hold people together.  He puts it this way: “Habit is the enormous flywheel of society, its most precious conservative agent.”  Many workers dream of escaping from earning a living, what we sometimes call the rat race, as if all we’re doing is running aimlessly on a treadmill.  A man may be justified in wanting to escape pointless routines.  But James (speaking both as a psychologist and as a philosopher) cautions that “On the whole, it is best he should not escape.  It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.”  For James it’s not necessarily our jobs that are wrong; it’s our habitual way of thinking.  Most of us don’t need New Year’s resolutions.  We need to be re-educated.

James gets straight to the point.  “The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.  It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund.”  It’s a good thing we don’t start each day by planning out how we’ll take a shower or how we’ll brush our teeth.  We just do it.  We’ve done these things so many times it’s become second nature to us.  For James this is a good thing.  He says, “The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.”  Personal hygiene is just routine maintenance and we should be devoting most of our mental efforts to better things.  We shouldn’t have to deliberate over routine daily duties and James suggests “If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my readers, let him begin this very hour to set the matter right.”  The little daily duties we perform (often without thinking) are important in the formation of character because these habits soon become “set like plaster, and will never soften again.”  That’s why New Year’s resolutions are so hard to keep.  It’s easy to say “I will (whatever my resolution is)” on December 31.  It’s much harder to actually do it in January.  The plaster of personal habit has already hardened and can’t be molded into a new shape without breaking off the old plaster first.  But it’s vitally important to make the effort because, as James says, “We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.  Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar.”  Drop by drop characters are fashioned.  Pragmatists believe (and it’s inherent in the Declaration) that men are responsible for their own destinies.  James believes “The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells us, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way.”  William James thinks it’s hard, but not impossible to break bad habits and form new, better ones.  His Happy New Year message is this: good luck with those U-turns.