Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

VIRGINIA WOOLF: A Room of One’s Own (Searching for Truth II)

The heroine in Virginia Woolf’s story (A Room of One’s Own) goes to the library in search of truth.  The logical arrangement of subject headings only baffles her.  So she develops her own research method by “making a perfectly arbitrary choice of a dozen volumes.”  Random selection is a kind of method.  But are her selections really arbitrary?  Woolf is motivated by Freudian theory and believes “it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”  The books chosen “arbitrarily” by the heroine leads, in her mind, to a submerged truth.  Or maybe it’s a personal demon.  She was (subconsciously perhaps) led to pick up a specific book entitled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex.  It was, the heroine says, “the one book, the one phrase, which had aroused the demon; it was the professor’s statement about the mental, moral and physical inferiority of women.  My cheeks had burnt.  I had flushed with anger… it was anger that had gone underground and mixed itself with all kinds of other emotions.  It was anger disguised and complex, not anger simple and open.”  Her own method of research had led to the discovery of her own truth: “professors (I lumped them together thus) were angry… why are they angry?” 

Why are these professors, all men, so angry?  The battle of the sexes is an old theme that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden in Genesis (GB1).  It’s also a major theme of A Room of One’s Own.  What makes this reading different is what lies beneath the surface (or “underground” as the heroine puts it).  There’s a deeper and more complex question than the relationship between men and women.  It’s the relationship of the reader (or researcher) to truth.  In the introductory notes Virginia Woolf says reading is a two-step process, the first step being “to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, the second to pass judgment.”  This story serves as a good test case. The original purpose in going to the library was the search for truth.  Now the question becomes, where is it?  There are three possibilities to help guide us in our search.  (1) The truth is out there and we can find it.  Our task is to find it and follow wherever it leads.  This is the path followed by Oedipus the King (GB5).  (2) The truth is out there but we can’t really know it first-hand.  The best we can do is view it from afar and try to follow it in our own lives.  This is the path followed by Kant using the compass of Conscience (IGB3).  (3) The truth is not “out there.”  It lies within us.  The best thing we can do is project our own truth onto the world around us.  This is the path followed by the heroine.  During her search she found the one book that crystallized truth for her.  Her anger was the compass pointing to that one book.

One other example may help in our own search for truth.  In his notes about Observation and Experiment (IGB1) the French scientist Claude Bernard said “observers must be photographers of phenomena… we must observe without any preconceived idea; the observer’s mind must be passive, that is, must hold its peace…”  He was talking about observing nature but we could apply the same method to literature.  Bernard’s advice is to let Virginia Woolf speak for herself and “as soon as she speaks, we must hold our peace; we must note her answer, hear her out and in every case accept her decision… we must never answer for her.”  Literary truth is not the same thing as scientific truth.  We can’t control variables and conduct experiments.  We can only “receive impressions with the utmost understanding.”  Those impressions are the key to literary truth.  Bernard says “it has often been said that, to make discoveries, one must be ignorant … it is better to know nothing than to keep in mind fixed ideas.”  The heroine doesn’t agree.  She wants to keep her fixed ideas.  And this is part of the charm of Woolf’s heroine.  She doesn’t care what Claude Bernard thinks.  He’s just a university professor.  A male university professor.     

Thursday, March 24, 2016

VIRGINIA WOOLF: A Room of One’s Own (Searching for Truth)

John Stuart Mill wrote a great book called On Liberty (IGB 3-5).  The introductory notes say “Mill was a fervent egalitarian in private and in public life.  As a Member of Parliament he made the motion that the word ‘man’ be replaced by the word ‘person’ as the question of a woman’s right to vote was raised in legislative assembly for the first time in modern history.”  That was England 1867.  Fast forward to England 1928.  Virginia Woolf gave a couple of lectures on Women and Fiction at two women’s colleges.  She expanded on these lectures and published a book called A Room of One’s Own.  In this story a young woman receives a generous annual payment for the rest of her life from her aunt’s estate and she got this news “about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women.”  Her reaction is interesting.  She says “of the two (the vote and the money) the money, I own, seemed infinitely more important.”  This young woman valued economic freedom more than political freedom.  Would a young man come to the same conclusion?  The young woman is doing research on a topic entitled Women and Fiction.  She has a “swarm of questions.  Why did men drink wine and women water?  Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?  What effect has poverty on fiction?  What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?”  Armed with questions like these she goes off to do some “research in books which are to be found in the British Museum.  If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where… is truth?”  She wonders if truth can be found in the stacks of a library.  A modern researcher may wonder if truth can be found on the Internet.  She quickly gets off track.  The first problem she encounters is the sheer volume of information available.  She wonders “how shall I ever find the grains of truth embedded in all this mass of paper?”  A modern researcher may similarly wonder if the Internet is a help or a barrier in the pursuit of truth.  If we want information then search engines are a big help sorting through all the junk to get to the jewels.  But if we’re looking for wisdom then search engines might be a barrier to actually finding it.  We need a method of sifting through mountains of words and numbers.  We need a way to determine what’s true and what’s not.  There’s a big difference between the goal of Truth = Information and the goal of Truth = Wisdom.  And the young woman seems to sense this.  She says “the student who has been trained in research at a university has no doubt some method of shepherding his question past all distractions till it runs into its answer as a sheep runs into its pen… but if, unfortunately, one has had no training in a university, the question flies like a frightened flock hither and thither, helter-skelter.”  In modern America having university training is all important.  Socrates would not be qualified to teach a course in philosophy at a modern university. 
Without university training the young woman is bewildered by the vast resources of the library.  Anyone trying to do research on their own knows what she’s up against.  She wants to know why women are poor.  Where should she begin?  She tries looking up Women and Poverty in the card catalog and gets dozens of subheadings such as Conditions in Middle Ages of, Habits in the Fiji Islands of, etc.  First there wasn’t enough information; now there’s too much.  A university trained researcher calls this an Aristotelian system.  Take a complex problem.  Break it into simpler parts.  Re-define the problem and focus your research on that.  “Women” is too broad for research.  Women and Poverty is still too broad.  Concentrate on Women and Poverty in the Middle Ages or in the Fiji Islands, etc.  Voila.  See, this is what happens.  You ask a simple question, why are women poor?  And before you know it you’re off on a wild goose chase in Medieval Europe or the Fiji Islands.  America in 2016 isn’t England in 1928.  We use computers instead of 3x5 cards.  But the search for Truth is still confusing as ever.  Maybe even more.

Monday, March 21, 2016

TOCQUEVILLE: Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare (Community)

Alexis de Tocqueville agrees with John Locke that property ownership is fundamental to the formation of political societies.  Locke wrote that “the great end of men’s entering into society being the enjoyment of their properties in peace and safety…”  Tocqueville agreed and noted “in no other country in the world is the love of property keener and more alert than in the United States.”  But Tocqueville looked at America and also saw a deeper bond which held the United States together.  It was a strong sense of community.  This communal chain had one especially weak link and Tocqueville once wrote prophetically that “if there ever are great revolutions there, they will be caused by the presence of the blacks upon American soil.”  A civil war did in fact take place not long afterwards and it almost tore the country apart.

Aside from that catastrophe the United States has been the most stable democratic system the world has ever known.  It has been so stable that Tocqueville almost sounds prophetic when he proclaimed “I can easily, though vaguely, foresee a political condition, combined with equality, which might create a society more stationary than any we have ever known in our Western world.”  Except for the Civil War America has not been plagued with the conflicts that swept European democracies throughout the ages.  Tocqueville goes on to say that “one hears people say that it is inherent in the habits and nature of democracies to change feelings and thoughts at every moment.  That may have been true of such small democratic nations as those of antiquity. But I have never seen anything like that happening in the great democracy (America) on the other side of the ocean.”  What accounts for this relative stability of the American political system?  In Tocqueville’s view it’s because “men’s main opinions become alike as the conditions of their lives become alike… it must, I think, be rare in a democracy for a man suddenly to conceive a system of ideas far different from those accepted by his contemporaries.”  This uniformity of opinion creates a strong bond when citizens affirm the authority of the U.S. Constitution and have faith in the essential soundness and goodness of American political ideas.

But the uplifting political idea stated in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” also has a downside.  Political equality is the stated goal.  However, Tocqueville worries that “the general idea that any man whosever can attain an intellectual superiority beyond the reach of the rest is soon cast in doubt.  As men grow more like each other, a dogma concerning intellectual equality gradually creeps into their beliefs.”  In theory any American citizen can become President of the United States.  Can any American citizen therefore become another Plato or another Sophocles?  Tocqueville doesn’t think that’s likely in a democracy because “in aristocracies men often have something of greatness and strength which is all their own.”  In our recent readings Plato and Sophocles were great thinkers on their own terms and neither of them had much confidence in democracy.  Tocqueville explains that “in democracies public favor seems as necessary as the air they breathe, and to be out of harmony with the mass is, if one may put it so, no life at all.”  The modern era of social media seems to confirm his opinion.  Many young people today judge their worth by the number of “likes” they get on their cell phones.  Plato and Sophocles didn’t need “likes” to confirm what they were doing.  They already knew they were doing good work and didn’t need confirmation from fellow citizens.  In democracies popular culture is often an overwhelming influence and the average citizen thinks “he must be wrong when the majority hold the opposite view.”  Only very strong minds, in Tocqueville’s view, can swim against the tide of popular opinion and most Americans prefer the comforts of a community with shared values.  This is both America’s best strength and its worst weakness.

Friday, March 18, 2016

TOCQUEVILLE: Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare

In this excerpt from Democracy in America Tocqueville claims that grand revolutions aren’t likely to happen in America.  Why not?  For starters Tocqueville has this to say about Americans: “None of them has any permanent right or power to give commands, and none is bound by his social condition to obey.  Each man, having some education and some resources, can choose his own road and go along separately from all the rest.”  Americans are free to choose their own path, be it politics, religion or culture.  Why should they revolt?  Who would they be revolting against?  Themselves?  We might argue that many revolutions happen because of inequality of wealth.  Why don’t poor Americans just rise up and take some of that vast wealth?  Tocqueville observes that “among a great people there will always be some very poor and some very rich citizens.”  There have always been some very poor Americans and some very rich Americans.  But here’s the difference.  Tocqueville says “as there is no longer a race of poor men, so there is not a race of rich men; the rich daily rise out of the crowd and constantly return thither.”  In America the rich don’t always stay rich and the poor don’t always stay poor.  The hope of getting rich makes many poor people reluctant to overthrow the system.  The key, as Tocqueville sees it, lies in the concept of private property.  He says “any revolution is more or less a threat to property.  Most inhabitants of a democracy have property.”  Poor Americans may not own their own homes but most people do have cars or other valuable belongings.  They may not have everything they want but they want to keep the things they have. 

Then Tocqueville moves on to consider the middle class: “it is easy to see that passions due to ownership are keenest among the middle classes.”  Between these two segments of the population, the poor and the middle classes, “the majority of citizens in a democracy do not see clearly what they could gain by a revolution, but they constantly see a thousand ways in which they could lose by one.”  The hope of someday living a more comfortable life is a stronger motivation than risking everything and possibly losing it all.  America, more than most countries, has hitched its wagon to capitalism.  One American President said the business of America is business.  This may be a crucial factor in America’s caution in taking up revolutionary causes.  As Tocqueville sees it, “I know nothing more opposed to revolutionary morality than the moral standards of traders.  Trade is the natural enemy of all violent passions.  Trade loves moderation, delights in compromise, and is most careful to avoid anger… it makes them inclined to liberty but disinclined to revolution.”  The thing business wants most of all is a stable political, economic, and social environment.  This approach generally appeals to the middle and even to the lower classes because “no one is fully satisfied with his present fortune, and all are constantly trying a thousand various ways to improve it.”  So what do people want?

Karl Marx wanted revolution.  He once wrote that Labor “produces palaces for the rich, but shacks for the workers” (Alienated Labor, GB1).  And Max Weber made the observation (The Spirit of Capitalism, GB4) that “people only work because and so long as they are poor.”  He goes on to say that “a man does not by nature wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose.”  In Weber’s opinion people don’t necessarily want to be rich.  What they really want is leisure.  And this point isn’t lost on Tocqueville.  Countries undergoing revolutionary turmoil aren’t leisurely places to live.  But here’s the irony.  Neither are democracies.  Tocqueville says “indeed, there are few men of leisure in democracies.  Life passes in movement and noise, and men are so busy acting that they have little time to think.”  That’s what Tocqueville saw in America in 1831.

Monday, March 14, 2016

SOPHOCLES: Antigone (Reason and Law)

Early in this play Antigone has to decide whether to obey divine law and bury her brother Polyneices or obey civil law and leave him unburied.  She publicly proclaims she will follow “the immortal unrecorded laws of God” rather than the mortal recorded laws of Thebes.  What does she mean by that?  How does she distinguish between immortal laws that are eternal and man-made laws that are not?  What qualifies her to make that decision?  John Stuart Mill believed “an opinion on a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person’s preference.” (On Liberty, IGB3)  Antigone’s preference is to give her brother a decent burial.  Her feelings go beyond the boundaries of rational justification.  But as Mill points out “people are accustomed to believe… that their feelings, on subjects of this nature, are better than reasons, and render reasons unnecessary.”  In her own eyes Antigone doesn’t have to defend her decision and makes very little effort to persuade Creon.  She merely states that she’s taking the high road of moral justice and Creon is a moral moron.  This may make Antigone feel righteous but it doesn’t provide Polyneices a proper burial.  And it gets her into deep trouble with the civil authorities.  Creon may be wrong.  But everyone can at least understand Creon’s legal reasoning.  He says in plain words that Polyneices “tried to loot the temples of our gods, burn their images, and the whole State and its laws along with it!”  For those reasons Creon doesn’t believe Polyneices should be honored with an honorable burial.  Antigone disagrees.  It’s not the disagreement that gets Antigone into trouble.  It’s disobedience.  She can think whatever she pleases.  Antigone isn’t being punished for what she thinks; it’s what she does that gets her into trouble.  Even the Theban citizens think Antigone is stubborn like her father, Oedipus.  They say “like father, like daughter: both headstrong, deaf to reason!”  In Antigone’s mind reasons aren’t necessary.  She just feels she’s right in her bones and doesn’t try to justify her actions.  But her boyfriend and fiance Haimon tries a kinder, gentler approach.  He opens his speech to Creon on a conciliatory note.  “I am your son, father.  You are my guide.  You make things clear to me, and I obey you.  No marriage means more to me than your continuing wisdom!”  This is a good start. 

Contrast Haimon’s approach with the words Antigone used to describe Creon’s law.  “It was not God’s proclamation.  The final Justice that rules the world below makes no such law.”  We could say that Haimon’s approach is too timid, fawning upon the king’s pride, while Antigone’s approach is bold, to get in Creon’s face about it.  The question is which approach is more likely to work with a man like Creon?  Haimon thinks Creon can be persuaded by rational argument.  So he tries that tactic.  He starts out by noting that “Reason is God’s crowning gift to man, and you are right to warn me against losing mine.  I cannot say (I hope that I shall never have to say) that you have reasoned badly.  Yet there are other men who can reason, too; and their opinions might be helpful.  You are not in a position to know everything that people say or do, or what they feel…”  This is a very different tactic than the one Antigone used.  Antigone appeals to the idea of “good” as defined by the will of the gods.  Haimon appeals to reason.  Sophocles is presenting two very different concepts of law here, holding up two alternatives for consideration.  Should law be based on morality, doing the right thing, regardless of the outcome?  Or should it be based on utility, doing what works best for society as a whole so it can continue functioning in an orderly manner?  It’s a hard question.  And it’s interesting to see how Thebans respond.  At first they back Creon but later change their minds.  Haimon tells Creon what Thebes is thinking now.  “They say… Antigone covered her brother’s body.  Is this indecent?  She kept him from dogs and vultures.  Is this a crime?”  How can society solve tough political problems without tearing itself apart?  Our next reading by Tocqueville explains how America does it.

Friday, March 11, 2016

SOPHOCLES: Antigone (Natural Law)

Sophocles has written a masterpiece of a play centering on the tension between public law and private conscience.  It seems at first glance to be an easy read.  Locke wrote that “obedience is due in the first place to God, and afterwards to the laws.” (IGB3, p. 125)  And Socrates once said “I hold you in friendship and regard, Gentlemen of Athens, but I shall obey God rather than you.” (Plato, Apology, GB1)  Case closed?  Not so fast, says Sophocles.  Locke and Plato may be right.  But the case of Antigone is very complex.  Let’s examine the conflict between her and Creon regarding the burial of her brother.  Eteocles was supposed to alternate sharing the throne with Polyneices.  When Polyneices turn came Eteocles refused to step down.  So Polyneices gathered an army and marched on Thebes where both brothers were killed in battle.

The play opens shortly after the battle.  Antigone explains the situation to her sister Ismene: “Creon buried our brother Eteocles with military honors… but Polyneices, who fought as bravely and died as miserably, they say that Creon has sworn no one shall bury him.”  That’s Antigone’s side of the story.  Creon explains his side of the story to “the old men” of Thebes (probably acting in the role of senators): “Eteocles died as a man should die, fighting for his country… Polyneices broke his exile to come back with fire and sword against his native city and the shrines of his father’s gods, whose own idea was to spill the blood of his blood and sell his own people into slavery.”  Antigone and Creon have come to very different conclusions regarding the burial of Polyneices.  Antigone reasons like this.  Polyneices was my brother.  The gods say he deserves a decent burial.  Creon reasons like this.  Eteocles died defending his country.  The gods honor men like him.  Polyneices committed treason.  The gods do not honor men like that. 

Antigone claims she’s appealing to “the immortal unrecorded laws of God.  They are not merely now: there were, and shall be, operative forever, beyond man utterly.”  This is an appeal to what Locke called “the law of nature” in our last reading.  The laws of God are higher than the laws of man.  But Creon has a good counter-argument.  Maybe the gods are on his side.  Creon says “our Ship of State, which recent storms have threatened to destroy, has come safely to harbor at last, guided by the merciful wisdom of Heaven.”  The way Creon sees it, the gods protected Thebes from the treachery of Polyneices.  He asks if “the gods favor his corpse?  Why?  How had he served them?  Tried to loot their temples, burn their images, yes, and the whole State, and its laws with it!  Is it your senile opinion that the gods love to honor bad men?”  And (at least at this point in the play) public opinion is with Creon.  The Choragos, speaking on behalf of the citizens, chants “If that is your will, Creon, you have the right to enforce it.  We are yours.”

Later in the play public opinion turns against Creon.  Even his own son questions if Creon has made the right decision.  But readers need to ponder the relationship between justice and public opinion.  Creon could well be wrong.  But so could Antigone; and so could public opinion.  Antigone could have gone to Creon quietly at the beginning and tried to persuade him that it was not in Thebes’ best interest to deny Polyneices a decent funeral.  Instead she chose to openly and intentionally defy Creon.  And the law.  She pushes her disagreement past all hope of rational negotiation.  When Creon says “you dared defy the law” Antigone retorts “I dared.  It was not God’s proclamation.”  This is open defiance of the law with no hope for compromise.  Socrates, as usual, has some good advice.  Antigone must do what she thinks is right, but so should Creon.  Socrates says “if you cannot persuade your country you must do whatever it orders, and patiently submit to any punishment it imposes on you, and it is right that you should do so.” (IGB3, p. 61) 

Monday, March 07, 2016

LOCKE: A Letter on Toleration (Church and State)

John Locke claims “it is easy to understand to what end the legislative power ought to be directed, and by what means regulated, and that is the temporal good and outward prosperity of the society.”  Temporal good and outward prosperity is the secular goal of society.  But Locke goes on to say “It is also evident what liberty remains to men in reference to… the Almighty… obedience is due in the first place to God, and afterwards to the laws.”  Here we have what in modern terms is called the separation of church and state.  According to Locke each sphere has its own function.  The state is to provide for the temporal good and outward prosperity of its citizens.  The church is to provide for the eternal good and inward prosperity for the souls of its flock.  A question comes up and Locke asks it this way.  “What if the magistrate should enjoin anything by his authority that appears unlawful to the conscience of a private person?”  What if the faith of the church and the laws of the state come into conflict?  Locke says “I answer that if government be faithfully administered, and the counsels of the magistrate be indeed directed to the public good, this will seldom happen.  But if perhaps it do so fall out, I say that such a private person is to abstain from the actions that he judges unlawful, and he is to undergo the punishment, which is not unlawful for him to bear.”

Locke clearly believes that “obedience is due in the first place to God, and afterwards to the laws.”  But he’s not willing to claim that the private conscience is always right.  I may think that a certain law passed by the legislature and verified by the judiciary is wrong.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is.  I could be wrong.  Even if I am honestly trying to follow my conscience, my judgment may not be right.  In an earlier reading Kant said our “conscience is an instinct to pass judgment upon ourselves in accordance with moral laws.”  Let’s say the legislature passes a law I think is not only wrong, it’s immoral.  Should I obey it anyway?  My conscience passes judgment and says no.  The church (in the form of my conscience) has made its judgment.  The state (in the form of the legislature and judiciary) has made its judgment.  The separation of church and state has been breached and there’s an open conflict.  Now what?  Locke asks “who shall be judge between them?  I answer, God alone.” 
God alone is judge, that’s clear enough.  To the state belongs the things that are Caesar’s; to the church belongs the things that are God’s.  Locke tries to make a distinct separation of powers when he says “the political society is instituted for no other end, but only to secure every man’s possession of the things of this life.  The care of each man’s soul, and of the things of heaven, which neither does belong to the commonwealth nor can be subjected to it, is left entirely to every man’s self.”  The things of this life belong to the state; the things of heaven belong to God.  We shouldn’t confuse the two.  And Locke does try to make a clean distinction between political freedom and freedom of religion.  He says “I mean for their religion which, whether it be true or false, does no prejudice to the worldly concerns of their fellow-subjects.”  Locke sets boundaries to limit the power of government over both the political and religious freedom of citizens.  The government cannot, and should not, try to determine what is true or false in the realm of religion.  But it can, and should, determine the public good in the realm of the state.  If my religious belief is in conflict with the government’s determination of the public good, then we have a problem.  What should I do then?  Which is more important, my own peace of mind or the public peace?  This is a question Sophocles explores more deeply in Antigone, our next reading.  (Preview: Locke thinks Antigone was right.  He says “the principal and chief care of every one ought to be of his own soul first, and, in the next place, of the public peace.”)   

Saturday, March 05, 2016

LOCKE: Of the Limits of Government (Hunger Artist Test Case)

In our last reading (Kafka, A Hunger Artist) we faced this situation.  A man voluntarily chose to live in a cage and starve himself to death.  It should be noted that this took place in a public arena, in full view of a public audience.  A question arises.  Should the government step in and prohibit this type of activity?  That’s one of the questions Locke tries to answer in this reading about the limits of government.  Would he have prohibited the Hunger Artist from starving himself?  Locke starts out by defining the primary function of government.  He says “The great end of man’s entering into society is the enjoyment of their properties in peace and safety.”  For Locke the government’s main purpose is to protect us and secure our belongings.  All other government functions are, in his view, secondary and optional.  We can, as a free society, choose to have our government perform other tasks.  But we cannot choose to hand over absolute power.  Why not?  Locke says the utmost bounds of power must be “limited to the public good of the society.”  Back to our Hunger Artist.  Is it in the public interest to prohibit his “performance”?

In this particular case Locke wouldn’t worry too much about the public interest because it isn’t power itself that he fears.  He knows every government must have enough power at its disposal to achieve its ends.  What Locke fears is arbitrary power.  There’s a big difference between legitimate power wielded by government under established law and the illegitimate or arbitrary power that follows no set of rules.  Under this theory Locke would prohibit the Hunger Artist’s performance.  But didn’t he himself say that governmental power must be limited to the public good?  If the Hunger Artist chooses to starve himself to death, what business is it of the government’s?  Locke responds that “nobody has an absolute arbitrary power over himself, or over any other to destroy his own life, or take away the life or property of another.”  The key term here is arbitrary.  No man has a right to arbitrary power, not even over himself.  Locke disagrees with John Stuart Mill when Mill claims “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”  Locke is more closely aligned with Edmund Burke’s notion that we do not have a right to what is not reasonable.  Starving one’s self to death is not reasonable for the individual nor is it desirable for society.  Burke may believe this.  But why does Locke agree?  And how would we know when our liberty or our desire is in fact reasonable?

The answer is, by consulting Natural Law.  Locke says “the obligations of the law of nature cease not in society… the law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men.”  In other words, we don’t leave behind the laws of nature when we enter into society.  But we must be careful to implement them according to their proper ends.  Locke says “the law of nature being unwritten, and so nowhere to be found but in the minds of men, they who through passion or interest shall miscite or misapply it cannot so easily be convinced of their mistake where there is no established judge.”  If natural law is “nowhere to be found but in the minds of men” then civil law must make social expectations more explicit.  Law must be written down and codified so citizens will know what is expected of them.  For Locke the purpose of civil law is to make sure natural law is implemented properly in society.  And to accomplish this goal society establishes a legislature to make legitimate laws and a judiciary to make sure they’re applied properly.  In the case of the Hunger Artist either the legislature failed to do its duty (pass a law prohibiting public suicide by starvation) or else the local judge failed to enforce the law (if there was already a law on the books).  Not everyone agrees.  Mill, for example, stresses that legislative power must be limited to the public good.  Locke agrees with that.  But they disagree on the relationship between private conscience and the public good.  Locke’s Letter on Toleration explains why.