Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, February 29, 2016

KAFKA: A Hunger Artist (Art and Society)

John Stuart Mill praises the blessings of liberty and makes the case that society should spread those blessings as deeply and as widely as possible (Mill, On Liberty, IGB 3-5).  But Edmund Burke argues that “I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really received one… The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations.”  (Burke, Reflections, GB 5-11)  The main character in Franz Kafka’s short story has liberty and is free to choose his own path in life.  He chooses to be a Hunger Artist. 

Let’s set aside the hunger part for a moment.  Why do some people choose to be artists?  In the introductory material Kafka says “I believe we should read only those books that bite and sting us.  If a book we are reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head, then why read it?”  A Hunger Artist is a good example of Kafka’s theory.  It’s a story that should make every reader think more deeply about the nature of art.  The story says “we live in a different world now.”  Which immediately leads to a question.  Is the world really much different now than it was back in Kafka’s day (1883-1924)?  Some readers would reply, of course.  Not that much different, others would respond.  And both sides could back up their arguments.  Ask the question, but is art different now?  And we’d get pretty much the same responses for the same reasons.  The nature of art reflects the nature of the world.  People don’t always share the same worldview so how could they possibly share the same opinions about art?  The Hunger Artist is at the center of this controversy.  For some readers he’s a “suffering martyr” for art and for others he’s just another naïve artist wasting his life chasing dreams.  Kafka writes that “it was the children’s special treat to see the hunger artist; for their elders he was often just a joke that happened to be in fashion.”  The children and the elders were seeing the same “art.”  Why did the elders often think it was just a joke?  Is it because they had seen so many fads come and go?  Were the elders jaded to the ways of the world, while children still had enough purity and innocence of life to behold the wonders of art without trying to analyze? 

Kafka is on to something here.  He’s obviously trying to tell readers something that can’t be expressed in the format of a philosophical essay.  Instead, he wants to show us the nature of Art and the nature of Man in the form of a story.  It’s not an uplifting story; more like a blow to the head.  Here’s one example of Kafka’s prose style.  “Experience had proved that for about forty days the interest of the public could be stimulated by a steadily increasing pressure of advertisement, but after that the town began to lose interest.”  What does that tell us about “the public” and about the “pressure of advertisement” in the modern world?  Can true art find a home in such a world?  Or take another example.  In the story there’s a rule that the public fast can only continue for forty days.  Then the "performance" is officially over and the Hunger Artist must take some food for nourishment.  The Hunger Artists asks, why?  “If he could endure fasting longer, why shouldn’t the public endure it?”  It’s a good theoretical question and leads to a more practical one.  Is government in the business of setting limits on what can and what cannot be done in artistic performances?  Is censorship the government’s job?  Can true art find a home in such a world?  The theoretical question (what is art) gets tangled up with the practical problem of the blessings of liberty.  Is it really a blessing to be free to go buy tickets and watch “artists” voluntarily starving themselves to death?  We’d better be prepared to answer because, as Kafka writes, “Fasting would surely come into fashion again at some future date…”  Kafka is on to something here.  It’s not a pleasant vision.  But is it art?  Is this what we want?

Monday, February 22, 2016

KANT: On Conscience (Mill and Burke)

John Stuart Mill made an eloquent defense of civil (or social) liberty when he wrote, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (Mill, On Liberty, IGB 3-5) Except for safety issues everyone should basically be left alone to pursue their own private interests.  And only the individual citizen has the right to determine what those interests are.  But, we may ask, what if that “private interest” includes some kind of unhealthy addiction?  It doesn’t matter, Mill would answer, “his own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant” to interfere in his private life.  Each man must define what “the good life” means for him.  That sounds reasonable.  Who could be against that theory of liberty?  Edmund Burke, for one.  He believes “the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights… Men have no right to what is not reasonable and to what is not for their benefit.” (Edmund Burke, Reflections, GB 5-11) Restraint on private behavior is exactly what Mill is fighting against.  How can Burke come to the opposite conclusion?  Because Burke believes liberty is “an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity.”  We don’t live in isolation from one another and our lives don’t belong to us alone.  No man is an island.  We’re like a chain linking the past to the future.  Society not only has the right, it has the duty, to preserve the customs and traditions which have been given to us in trust.  We then hand them on to the next generation.  This is the only way to maintain (in Mill’s words) a “civilized community.”    

What are we to make of such a dispute?  Both theories sound good.  As one character says in Shakespeare’s King John “I was never so bethump'd with words.”  But when all is said and done, what should I do?  Should I rely on my own personal judgment?  Mill says “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”  That sounds good.  Or should I ignore personal biases and rely instead on the customs and traditions of my cultural heritage?  Burke says by “respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves.”  That sounds good too.  We have a choice between two options.  What should we do?  This is where Kant may help.  In this essay Kant takes on the issue of deciding between possible alternatives.  He uses positive law and natural law as guidelines.  Positive law is recognized by government and its citizens as the law of the land, whether we agree with it or not.  Natural law is recognized as the universal standard for determining right and wrong.  We may not know or understand every “positive” law but Kant believes we all know and we all understand “natural” law.  He says “natural moral laws must be known to all; they are contained in our reason.”  So Kant poses the question “what is a man to do when a positive and a natural law conflict?” 

Kant’s advice is to rely on our conscience.  He says “Conscience is an instinct to pass judgment upon ourselves in accordance with moral laws.”  Conscience may satisfy both Mill and Burke.  Mill thinks we alone can legitimately “pass judgment upon ourselves.”  Unless we’re actively harming others society has no right to judge our private actions.  Mill writes that “in that part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute.”  But Kant’s phrase “in accordance with moral laws” would appeal to Burke too.  Burke says “All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust, and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great Master, Author, and Founder of society.”  So whether we agree with Mill’s view, or lean toward Burke’s view, the key element is to act according to the dictates of conscience.  But, Kant warns, remember that “vices bring their own punishments.”  Mill and Burke would both agree on that.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

J. S. MILL: On Liberty (Freedom and Government)

In his essay On Liberty the English philosopher John Stuart Mill presents many ideas that remain fertile ground for Great Books discussions about the nature of freedom and government.  The subject of his essay is focused on “civil, or social liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.”  At one extreme is the idea of civil liberty expressed in Plato’s Crito.  In that dialog Socrates says if we think our country is on the wrong path then we should try to persuade it to change.  But he goes on to say that “if you cannot persuade your country then you must do whatever it orders… you must comply, and it is right that you should do so.”  John Stuart Mill takes up his position almost at the other extreme.  In Mill’s opinion whenever there’s a conflict between freedom and government there are very few times when “you must do whatever it orders.”  A citizen may legitimately be required “to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share in the common defense, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of society of which he enjoys the protection…”  Beyond that Mill thinks citizens should be free to pursue their own interests, in their own way.

Of course this tension between freedom and government is not unique to Mill or to England.  Mill acknowledges this when he writes that “the struggle between liberty and authority is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England.”  Mill did not choose these three countries at random.  These three streams, along with the establishment of Israel as an independent nation in the Old Testament, form the backbone of Western thinking about political freedom.  American ideas of liberty and government have been shaped primarily by those four sources.  And in the Great Books tradition Shakespeare’s plays often reflect the same tension between personal freedom and good government.  In the Great Books Series we read about Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, The Tempest and King Lear.  All those plays, in one way or another, are about individual people and their relationships to the broader social and political context in which they find themselves (literally) as actors.  But Shakespeare only states the problem in dramatic terms, he never solves it.  Mill thinks it’s time to solve the problem.

His solution is the political principle that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection.”  That principle is Mill’s solution to the problem.  But this solution leads to another problem.  Mill alludes to this when he writes, “The notion that the people have no need to limit their power over themselves might seem axiomatic when popular government was a thing only dreamed about…”  Now America has a government of the people, by the people, for the people.  But political theory is just daydreaming unless it can be put into practice.  How would Mill’s theory work in practice?  We need to determine if modern American government is, in fact, accurately reflecting the will of the people.  If it is, does that mean we need to expand the powers of government to protect the rights of Americans?  Or does it mean we need to limit its powers to get government out of the personal lives of Americans?  Both sides could claim they’re trying to put Mill’s theory into practice in the defense of liberty.  The question comes down to this; what is liberty?  And who gets to decide what it is?  Mills says “no two ages, and scarcely any two countries, have decided it alike; and the decision of one age or country is a wonder to another.”  So down through the ages and out across the world the Great Conversation continues.  Will Americans be remembered as being devout as the Hebrews, as creative as the Greeks, as sturdy as the Romans, as pragmatic as the English?  Time will tell.  And history will be the judge.

Friday, February 05, 2016

PLATO: Crito (Philosophy and Patriotism)

In last week’s reading we met a woman named Vera who set happiness as her goal in life.  This week we read about Socrates, who had virtue as his goal in life.  Of course he wanted to be happy too.  But what happens when those two goals come into conflict?  One of them has to give.  Crito believes Socrates was unjustly accused and convicted of a capital offense.  He’s come to try and persuade Socrates to escape.  Crito is worried that most people will think he didn’t try hard enough to save Socrates from execution.  Socrates makes an interesting reply.  “Why should we pay so much attention to what ‘most people’ think” he asks.  For Crito the answer is obvious.  And it’s a good lesson for modern American readers as well.  How can anyone live in a democracy and not be affected by what most people think?  Majority rules.  It’s worth pondering how much our own civic and moral values are affected by majority opinion.  Tocqueville wrote that the “tyranny of the majority” is in many ways even more tyrannical than the rule of a single despot.  Most of us do care what our friends and neighbors think.  Socrates won’t be swayed by majority opinion and doesn’t care what most people think.  He says “they cannot make a man wise or stupid; they simply act at random.”  This is not good news for our political system.  How can laws, even when passed by big majorities, make us better people? 

Which brings us to a second crucial question.  Socrates tells Crito “Let us look at it together, my dear fellow; and if you can challenge any of my arguments, do so and I will listen to you.”  Here’s the question.  Are we more likely to find wisdom in community with others or as individuals?  We may think we know right from wrong.  Crito did.  He saw nothing wrong with fighting injustice.  In fact, Crito thought escaping was the right thing to do.  Socrates takes this opportunity not so much to listen to Crito’s arguments as to educate him about the real value of philosophy.  Socrates asks one of the classic perennial philosophical questions.  “Do we say that one must never willingly do wrong, or does it depend upon circumstances?”  This is not an easy question to answer.  And Socrates takes it a step further by adding “one ought not to return a wrong or an injury to any person, whatever the provocation is.”  Remember majority opinion?  Let’s take a modern example.  Consider affirmative action laws.  Is it “right” that one whole class of people has to pay the price for things that happened before they were even born?  On the other hand is it “wrong” to level the playing field for those who have been disadvantaged by past wrongs?  There are good arguments on both sides.  Should majority rule decide these things?

Socrates says “between those who do think so and those who do not there can be no agreement on principle; they must always feel contempt when they observe one another’s decisions.”  Of course Socrates wasn’t talking about affirmative action programs but the lesson is the same.  Political disagreements can turn ugly.  Both sides view the other side with contempt and it’s always tempting to break laws we believe are unjust.  Socrates wants us to pause and consider what we’re saying.  He envisions The Law asking, “Do you imagine that a country can continue to exist and not be turned upside down, if the legal judgments which are pronounced in it have no force but are nullified and destroyed by private persons?”  Socrates comes down hard on this point.  He says if you think a law is unjust you should try to get it changed, legally.  But “if you cannot persuade your country then you must do whatever it orders…if it leads you out to war, to be wounded or killed, you must comply, and it is right that you should do so…both in war and in the law courts and everywhere else you must do whatever your country commands.”  Most Americans won’t like this philosophy.  Socrates doesn’t care what most people think.  He just wants us all to think more deeply about what it means to love wisdom and to love our country.

Monday, February 01, 2016

MARY LAVIN: Happiness

Aristotle and John Dewey had their own theories about habit and its relationship to happiness.  Mary Lavin tells a story about a woman named Vera who lived out her own theory of happiness.  We read at the beginning of the story that Vera’s “theme was happiness: what it was, what it was not; where we might find it, where not; and how, if found, it must be guarded.  Never must we confound it with pleasure.  Nor think sorrow its exact opposite.”  That was her theory.  And Great Books readers might consider if happiness is really everyone’s basic “theme” in life.  Aristotle thought so.  He believed everything has a natural “end” or purpose for being.  What is the “end” of a human being?  Aristotle said “this end, to sum it up briefly, is happiness and its constituent parts.”  We were born to be happy and to seek happiness.  John Dewey took this line of thought a step further and connected our search for happiness with our daily habits.  He believed habits have a strange power over us.  He wrote that “a habit has this power because it is so intimately a part of ourselves.  It has a hold upon us because we are the habit.”  These two philosophical ideas set the stage for our current reading.

Vera (whether she knew it or not) followed Aristotle’s theory that happiness and pleasure are not the same thing.  Life certainly wasn’t always pleasurable for Vera but she strongly insisted she was happy.  She told her daughters “I had a happy life.”  And if Vera did, in fact, have a happy life it was primarily her own doing.  One of the daughters related that “our grandfather had failed to provide our grandmother with enduring happiness.  He had passed that job on to Mother.”  “Mother” was Vera.  And Vera’s own mother wasn’t happy so happiness wasn’t something Vera inherited.  She had to work for it.  We may question whether happiness is an enduring quality or if it comes to us in fits and starts.  Another question is whether it’s possible for one person to “pass on” happiness to someone else.  It didn’t seem to work for the grandmother.  She lived her life by the “if only” philosophy.  She would always preface her pleasures with “if only” this or “if only” that, then things would be better.  In quest of perfect happiness she rejected the kind of happiness that would be good enough for most people.  Vera did inherit this quest for happiness from her mother.  Vera worked hard at finding and keeping it.  Her own daughters began wondering about Vera’s theory of happiness: “What was it, we used to ask ourselves; that quality that she, we felt sure, misnamed?  Was it courage?  Was it strength, health, or high spirits?”  If they read Aristotle they would know none of these qualities is happiness itself.  But all of them are “constituent parts” of happiness.  Aristotle’s Happiness includes qualities such as “good birth, good friends, wealth, good children, a happy old age, also such bodily excellences as health, beauty, strength…”  By this definition Vera was, in fact, happy.  She had these things.

But how deep was it?  Her daughter says “one evening when Father Hugh was with us, our astonished ears heard her proclaim that there might be a time when one had to slacken hold on it, let go, to catch at it again with a surer hand.”  Father Hugh was Vera’s counterbalance.  Vera didn’t think Father Hugh was happy.  He replied “That’s simply not true Vera.  It’s just that I don’t place an inordinate value on it like you.  I don’t think it’s enough to carry one all the way.  To the end, I mean, and after.”  Father Hugh had a different theory of happiness.  For Father Hugh it was not the ultimate good.  He wanted something higher that would carry him through “to the end, and after.”  What was that something?  It was religion, a factor not considered essential in either Aristotle’s philosophy or John Dewey’s.  And that brings to mind a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Mary Lavin finds happiness in literature, not philosophy.