Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

BIBLE: Genesis (Noah and the Flood)

The creation of heaven and earth went smoothly at first, all according to plan, because “God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.”  “Every thing” doesn’t seem “very good” now.  What happened?  Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden of Eden (which was, in fact, very good) and things started going downhill from there.  Soon “men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them.”  Sons too.  Genesis goes on to say that “the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.”  Who were these “sons of God”?  Angels is one interpretation.  Ancient mythologies are full of divinities interacting with, and even procreating with, humans.  In the Iliad (GB3) Achilles is the son of a nymph (a minor nature goddess) and a human father.  Helen of Troy is the daughter of Zeus and a human mother.  But the tone of the story in Genesis doesn’t suggest that the sons of God were angels.  We’re told that after Cain killed Abel he “went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod.”  Then Adam and Eve went on to have another son named Seth and to Seth “there was born a son; and he called his name Enos: then men began to call upon the name of the Lord.”  The story may be suggesting that “the sons of God” were from the line of Seth and they “called upon the name of the Lord” while the “daughters of men” represented the line of Cain and did not.  This could be interpreted that believers intermarried with non-believers and after several generations human culture was rotten to the core.  Genesis says “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” 

The God of Genesis is not a blind force but more like a “person” who can see into the hearts of men.  He can see their wickedness and be grieved by it.  A heart that feels grief can also feel anger: “And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth… for it repenteth me that I have made them.”  The wickedness of Cain and his children triumphed over the goodness of Abel and sons of Seth.  Or so it seems.  “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.”  Who was this Noah and why did he find grace in the eyes of the Lord?  Genesis says “Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.”  His life was a stark contrast to the rest of human culture, where “the earth was filled with violence.”  Cain’s tendency to violence had been passed down to his offspring.  The result was the kind of world Thomas Hobbes spoke about in Leviathan (GB2) where life becomes nasty, brutish and short.  This is also the kind of world Genesis implies when it says “God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth.”  The only way to cure that much corruption is a thorough cleansing with clean water.  So God told Noah “Make thee an ark of gopher wood… every thing that is in the earth shall die.  But with thee will I establish my covenant, and thou shalt come into the ark.”  Noah and his family were the only humans spared by the great flood sent to wash the planet clean again.  It was a fresh start so “Noah builded an altar unto the Lord… and offered burnt offerings on the altar.”  This reflects the sacrifices made by Abel in the garden of Eden.  “And the Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”  If the story had ended there it may have been a happy ending.  But it didn’t stop there because “Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken...”  Why are we told that?  Maybe because if “perfect” men like Adam and Noah can fall prey to evil, what about ordinary people?  If gold rust what shall iron do?  That’s how Genesis portrays the human condition.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

BIBLE: Genesis (Cain and Abel, Marx and Freud)

Even though they lived in the lush garden of Eden, Adam and Eve didn’t stay obedient to the Lord God.  As punishment for their disobedience God proclaimed that “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” and they were driven from the garden.  From that point on people have had to earn their bread by the sweat of the brow.  Years pass.  Adam and Eve become the parents of two boys.  We’re even told their occupations.  “Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.”  Human economics had a division of labor right from the start (see Adam Smith, The Division of Labor, GB2).  This is the kind of story that grabbed Marx’s attention.  Shepherds and farmers can, and often do, come into economic conflict.  It happened in the settling of the American West, for example.  Shepherds (cowboys) want open ranges where sheep (cows) can freely graze.  Farmers want fields (often fenced off) where they can plant crops.  For Marx economics in the form of labor is the primary source of human conflict.  Adam and Eve originally enjoyed work in the garden of Eden.  Cain and Abel worked because they had to.  They had to work in order to eat.  In that sense work is “alien” to Cain and Abel (and to us) in a way that wasn’t alien to Adam and Eve.  Marx poses this question: “If the product of my labor is alien to me and confronts me as an alien power, to whom does it belong?  If my own activity does not belong to me but is an alien, forced activity, to whom does it belong?  To a being other than myself.  And who is this being?  The gods?”  (Alienated Labor, GB1)  Genesis says actually yes, it does: “And in the process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord.  And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof.”  Marx was asking a rhetorical question.  He doesn’t believe there are any gods to sacrifice to.  Therefore, the product of our labor belongs to us alone.  Cain may have believed this too because Genesis says “the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.”  God rejects Cain offering the fruits of his labor.

How did Cain feel about that?  This is the kind of question that interested Freud.  Genesis says “Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.”  For Marx economic relationships are the primary motivation of human action.  For Freud it’s psychological relationships.  He says “An important feature of civilization is the manner in which the relationships of men to one another, their social relationships, are regulated.” (Civilization and Its Discontents, GB1)  We have to regulate social relationships because “Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness.”  In Genesis these regulations are absent and innate human aggressiveness reaches a lethal level: “And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.”  Cain was angry at God.  Then why did he kill Abel?  Because he couldn’t kill God.  So he struck Abel instead.  This doesn’t surprise Freud.  We often transfer anger from the primary cause to a weaker secondary object.  Nor is he surprised when Cain tries to cover up the murder.  “And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother?  And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Why did Cain feel guilty?  Freud describes “the origin of the sense of guilt… a person feels guilty (devout people would say “sinful”) when he has done something which he knows to be bad… How is this judgment arrived at?  We may reject the existence of an original, as it were natural, capacity to distinguish good from bad.”  The story of Cain and Abel puts this question on trial.  Freud rejects the idea that we have a “natural capacity to distinguish good from bad.”  Genesis says the opposite.  Cain knew what he was doing, knew it was bad, but did it anyway.  Just like mom and dad before him.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

BIBLE: Genesis (Adam and Eve, Freud and Marx)

Genesis deals with the creation of heaven and earth.  We’re told that “the Spirit of God moved” and everything in the universe came into existence.  How did it happen?  “God said, let there be light: and there was light.”  God didn’t think about light and then somehow it came into existence on its own.  He spoke it into existence.  Then an interesting thing happens.  “God saw the light, that it was good.”  God didn’t say light was good.  He saw that it was good.  Somehow this Spirit, which doesn’t have a mouth, can talk.  This same Spirit, which doesn’t have eyes, can see.  This is exactly the sort of thing Freud complains about when he says “the common man cannot imagine God otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father.” (Civilization and Its Discontents, GB1)  Freud thinks religion takes a human image and projects it outward onto some vague Cosmic Being with enormous power.  That’s the opposite of what Genesis says: “God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”  Freud says Man created “god” in our image.  Genesis says God created Man in his image.  Freud’s view is humanistic and thinks Man is the measure of all things.  Genesis is theistic and teaches God was at the beginning of creation and remains at the center of all things. 

Marx has a similar complaint but with a slightly different emphasis.  In Genesis God says to Adam “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”  That’s not what the serpent says.  He tells Eve “Ye shall not surely die.  For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”  These are two very different messages.  Adam and Eve are given a choice between good and evil.  They choose wrong and their decision is called The Fall of Man because according to Genesis that’s how evil came into the world.  This is exactly the sort of thing Marx complains about when he says “theology explains the origin of evil by the fall of man, that is, it asserts as historical fact what it should explain.”  Marx wants rational explanations and rejects Genesis because he doesn’t think it is an “historical fact.”  Somewhat like Adam and Eve, readers are left to choose between a poetic story and Marx’s preference for rational analysis.      

Given two starkly different alternatives how should GB readers choose?  Compare notes.  The GB method is to consider alternatives by comparing what other GB authors have to say.  Aristotle wasn’t talking about Genesis but he had this to say: “if it is true that intelligence is divine in comparison with man, then a life guided by intelligence is divine in comparison with human life. We must not follow those who advise us to have human thoughts, since we are only human, and mortal thoughts, as mortals should.” (On Happiness, GB1)  This quote doesn’t suggest that Genesis was right or Freud was right or Marx was right.  Aristotle is merely emphasizing how important it is to use our intelligence wisely.  Reason is a powerful tool.  That’s why Marx thinks we should use it to explain things rationally.  Genesis agrees that Reason is powerful but for that very reason we should be careful how we use it.  Power can be intoxicating and lead us down the wrong path.  Genesis tells us Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise.”  Health, beauty and wisdom look like good things.  What rational person is against health, beauty and wisdom?  Marx and Freud both think Man is the measure of all things but Genesis says God’s way is best.  Augustine (City of God, GB4) says one path (Marx and Freud) leads us to the City of Man and the other (Genesis) leads to the City of God.  Which way is best and how can we be certain?  In the Great Books nothing is certain.  We can’t even be certain that nothing is certain.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

BIBLE: Genesis (Creation, Marx and Freud)

This week’s selection (Genesis) is taken from the Bible and sandwiched between readings by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.  What did they think of the Bible?  Let them speak in their own words.  Marx wrote that “the gods are fundamentally not the cause but the product of confusions of human reason.”  Freud said “The origin of the religious attitude can be traced back in clear outlines as far as the feeling of infantile helplessness… what the common man understands by his religion… assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life… the common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father.”  That’s a good sample of the way they think.  But how should “the common man” (i.e. Great Books readers) think about God and the universe?  What can we learn from reading Genesis? 

First we learn how time, space and matter came to be.  The Bible begins, literally, in the beginning.  “In the beginning (time) God created the heaven (space) and the earth (matter).”  That was the beginning of the universe.  It didn’t spring into existence by some random cosmic explosion caused by the blind forces of nature.  The universe was created, according to a set plan, by God; not by blind forces of nature, or by anthropomorphic gods (plural, polytheistic beings) but by one God (a single, monotheistic Being).  Before creation “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”  How can the human mind understand absolute nothingness?  Human experience is impossible without time, space and matter so there’s no way Genesis can penetrate the veil that covers what happened before “the beginning.”  But it does answer the question why is there something instead of nothing?

The second thing we learn is that there is order in the universe because, as Genesis puts it, “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”  Hovering over a dark and impenetrable nothingness (the face of the waters) there is an intelligence at work (the Spirit of God).  This “Spirit” moves throughout the cosmos and brings things into existence.  It brings order out of chaos.  It lays down laws with mathematical precision.  Genesis presents us with a universe more like a mind than a physical substance, more like an idea than a thing, more like a Word than anything else we know.  God breaks the eternal silence.  He speaks and things start happening.  That sounds too mystical or superstitious for some readers.  For Marx it’s just one more example of human confusion about the nature of “gods” and the universe we actually live in. 

Other readers think Genesis is too simplistic, especially verses like “God said, Let there be light; and there was light.  And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”  We’re shown how God works.  How he brings order out of chaos; not by uniting things that already exist (that would be transformation, not creation).  God brings new things into the light of creation out of primordial darkness and proclaims light is good.  So is the sky and the birds, the sun and the moon, stars, the earth and all plants and animals, the sea and fish of all kinds.  We’re surrounded by good things.  For Freud this is all nonsense, just one more example of “infantile helplessness” when encountering a cold universe that’s indifferent to human suffering.  But some Great Books authors (Augustine, Dante, and Kierkegaard, for example) don’t see Genesis as a misguided book for childish readers.  They see it as a guide for wisdom.  They fear most what Marx and Freud both preach, a universe without God.  They fear a return to the primordial chaos before creation.  Another Great Books author (Job, GB4) describes what that would look like: “A land of darkness, as darkness itself; and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is as darkness.”  That’s what a universe without God looks like.  

Saturday, June 04, 2016

MARX: Alienated Labor (A Theology of Work)

Alienated Labor would be found in the Economics section on the shelves of your local public library.  This makes a lot of sense because Karl Marx begins his essay by stating that “Wages are determined by the bitter struggle between capitalist and worker.”  Wages certainly sounds like a topic for economics.  In Marx’s opinion “the normal wage is the lowest which is compatible with common humanity, that is, with a bestial existence.”  A bestial existence?  It’s here that Marx starts veering off from a discussion strictly about economics.  He has a deeper subject in mind and it disturbs him deeply.  What really troubles Marx is the human condition; specifically, how work degrades the human condition of the worker.  He says “Rising wages awake in the worker the same desire for enrichment as in the capitalist, but he can only satisfy it by the sacrifice of his body and spirit.”  Most human beings have to work for a living.  They want a better life but since they have to work for wages they sacrifice “body and spirit” in order to get ahead.  Marx’s point is this.  They don’t get ahead.  They only become more degraded “Since the worker has been reduced to a machine, the machine can compete with him.”

Workers can be replaced by machines and lose even those wages necessary for a bestial existence.  How could this happen?  Marx says “Let us not begin our explanation, as does the economist, from a legendary primordial condition.  Such a primordial condition does not explain anything; it merely removes the question into a grey and nebulous distance.  It asserts as a fact or event what it should deduce, namely, the necessary relation between two things.  For example, between the division of labor and exchange.  In the same way theology explains the origin of evil by the fall of man; that is, it asserts as a historical fact what it should explain.”  Marx has moved from economics to his real target, theology.  Why are things the way they are?  Why do we work so hard and get back so little?  The Fall of Man is no answer for Marx.  It infuriates him.  He thinks religion is “the spontaneous activity of human fantasy, of the human brain and heart” and all these stories about “alien activity of gods or devils upon the individual” are in reality just a psychological trick to keep wages low and workers subservient.  Marx rejects religious answers concerning the cause of our problems because “the gods are fundamentally not the cause but the product of confusion of human reason.”  Marx is on a quest to dispel that confusion.

The counterargument for Marx’s theology isn’t Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (GB2) but Max Weber’s The Spirit of Capitalism (GB4).  Weber speaks for those who believe religion does have answers about why we work and what we work for.  He says “Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs… it expresses a type of feeling which is closely connected with certain religious ideas.”  How is work connected with religious ideas?  Weber explains.  “For the saints everlasting rest is in the next world; on earth man must, to be certain of his state of grace, “do the works of Him who sent him, as long as it is yet day.”  Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God, according to the definite manifestations of His will.  Waste of time is thus the first and in principle the deadliest of sins… every hour lost is lost to labor for the glory of God.”  Weber goes on to say “The differentiation of men into the classes and occupations established through historical development became for Luther a direct result of the divine will.  The perseverance of the individual in the place and within the limits which God had assigned to him was a religious duty.”  This is exactly the kind of talk that infuriates Marx.  He can’t understand why workers willingly give up leisure and become reconciled to boring occupations because of some grey and nebulous “divine will.”  Our next reading (Genesis) gives the other side of the story.