Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, July 30, 2016

ROUSSEAU: The Social Contract (Freud’s Perspective)

Rousseau’s intention in this essay is to consider “men as they are and laws as they can be.”  The problem he tries to solve is this.  “Find a form of association that defends and protects the person and goods of each associate with all the common force, and by means of which each one, uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before.”  How can we live in security under a nation of laws and still retain all of our natural freedoms?  This is a tall order. 

Let’s start with “men as they are.”  What kind of people are we talking about?  What are our neighbors like, the people we have to live with every day?  Freud’s insights may help us here.  In Civilization and Its Discontents (GB1) Freud says “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us.”  In order to make life easier some people turn to intoxicating substances like booze or drugs.  That helps dull the pain of living.  Other turn to “illusions” found in the arts and create a fantasy world of their own.  Freud puts religion in this category.  Still others focus on their careers or get involved in politics or study science.  These folks may differ in their methods but their goal is the same: to escape from their problems.  What do they really want?  Freud asks what we all demand from life and his answer is simple.  Pleasure.  We’re driven by the pleasure principle.  We want to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  But we face a host of threats from three directions: our own bodies, the external world, and other people.  These are real threats.  Our bodies wear out and we get sick.  There are floods and earthquakes and tornadoes to deal with.  Foreign wars and domestic murders happen regularly.  Science and technology have alleviated some of these threats but they have not, in the final analysis, brought us happiness.  Love Thy Neighbor is a wonderful ideal but is unachievable.  Besides, if the truth is told, most of us are unlovable.  When all is said and done Freud thinks we should admit the truth: man is a wolf to man.

This is a grim view of the human condition.  But Rousseau’s task is to take “men as they are” and devise a system of government where they can live in peace without giving up their freedom.  How can this be done?  Rousseau starts with the premise that “man was/is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”  What we have to do now is preserve the freedom of citizens without constraining them by “chains” of oppressive laws.  Rousseau believes we all have a “common freedom” based on the common interests of the community as a whole.  This is the freedom which should be preserved.  Society can’t solve the whole laundry list of problems presented by Freud.  What it can do is set up a legitimate power to enforce those laws which will benefit all citizens.  In Rousseau’s opinion a government which oppresses its citizens is not legitimate.  He says “might does not make right, and one is only obligated to obey legitimate powers… Since no man has any natural authority over his fellow man, and since force produces no right, there remain only conventions as the basis of all legitimate authority among men.”  In nature our rights may come from God but in human societies our rights come from the establishment of social and political associations.  It works like this.  Each citizen agrees to give up “all his rights to the whole community… and since the condition is equal for everyone, no one has an interest in making it burdensome for others.”  This is a long way from Freud’s assertion that man is a wolf to man.  Freud’s man isn’t interested in making it burdensome for others either; he wants to have total power over them.  Rousseau disagrees with that view because he thinks “men are not naturally enemies.”  Our common interest overrules our private selfishness.  A man wants to live in society with others where “his faculties are exercised and developed, his ideas broadened, his feelings ennobled, and his whole soul elevated.”  This is Rousseau’s vision of society at its best.  Whether that’s the way men really are is debatable.  Freud doesn’t think so.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

FREUD: Civilization and Its Discontents (Conscience)

Freud’s mission in life was to place human psychology on a rational, scientific foundation.  In order to do this he wanted to account for all mental activity in a way that would preclude any divine influence.  One major phenomenon he had to explain was human Conscience.  Freud needed a rational explanation for “the origin of the sense of guilt.”  Why do we feel guilty when we do things we know are wrong?  Freud agrees that “a person feels guilty (devout people would say ‘sinful’) when he has done something which he knows to be ‘bad.’  But then we notice how little this answer tells us.”  Actually it tells us a great deal.  If most people call certain activities “sinful” then we already have a clue about both their religious values and the society they live in.  But Freud’s main point is well taken.  Why do they feel guilty?  Where do these feelings come from?  Freud puts it this way.  “How is this judgment arrived at?  We may reject the existence of an original, as it were natural, capacity to distinguish good from bad.”  Freud rejects the notion that we have an inborn “capacity” to know right from wrong.  Instead, he thinks society channels our inborn capacity for aggression and directs it inward, in the form of a superego, kind of a policeman and judge of the mind.  Thus we internalize the values of society.  What society determines is “good” becomes good in our minds, at least in our superego.  When we deviate from those “good” principles we feel guilty (or, if we’re religious, sinful).  Freud believes this acceptance of society’s conception of right and wrong is the glue that holds society together.  It’s what makes civilization possible.  And this feeling runs so deep that psychologically (according to Freud) “it makes little difference whether one has already done a bad thing or only intends to do it.”  We feel guilty if we even think about breaking social taboos and “This state of mind is called a ‘bad conscience’… Present-day society has to reckon in general with this state of mind.”

Modern society may indeed have to reckon with this state of mind but we’re certainly not the first generation to face this reckoning.  Immanuel Kant (Conscience GB1) dealt with the same issue but came to an entirely different conclusion.  For Kant “Conscience is an instinct to pass judgment upon ourselves in accordance with moral laws” and not just society’s values.  He did not believe moral laws were derived from society.  Some societies may in fact be good and have good laws but they can also be corrupt and have corrupt laws.  If we use society as our guiding foundation then how would we ever know if our conscience had not been corrupted too?  Kant thinks we need to build on a firmer foundation than the human mind, which is notoriously prone to error and self-interest.  So he proposes a different standard when he says “Conscience is the representative within us of the divine judgment-seat; it weighs our dispositions and actions in the scales of a law which is holy and pure; we cannot deceive it, and, lastly, we cannot escape it because, like the divine omnipresence, it is always with us.”  Kant finds in divine law a standard that is “holy and pure” and cannot be corrupted.  That’s why Kant believes “He who has no immediate loathing for what is morally wicked, and finds no pleasure in what is morally good, has no moral feeling, and such a man has no conscience.”  For Kant it’s important for us to listen to that small, pure voice within, even if society teaches us differently.  That’s because if “the verdict of natural conscience is in conflict with the verdict of instructed conscience, we must obey the natural conscience.”  The best education society has to offer cannot change divine law and Kant says “a cultivated mind need not be followed by a cultivated conscience.  Thus conscience is synonymous with natural conscience.”  Freud doesn’t believe in a “natural conscience” at all and their disagreement is not a trivial one.  Isn’t it interesting that two of the finest minds of Western Civilization can’t agree on how to answer one simple question: Why do we feel guilty when we do things we know are wrong?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

FREUD: Civilization and Its Discontents (Abraham and Freud)

A large portion of the book of Genesis focuses on the story of Abraham, who has long been considered the father of faith for generations of Jews, Christians and Muslims.  They hold him in great esteem because of what Sigmund Freud calls his “religious sentiments.”  Freud suggests that men like Abraham may be suffering from a form of mental illness.  As a psychiatrist Freud is interested in probing the mental state of believers and tries to analyze “the true source of religious sentiments.”  A question arises.  Who is best qualified to identify “the true source of religious sentiments”?  Psychiatrists?  Theologians?  Scientists?  Philosophers?  Ordinary people?  We have two texts.  What insights can an ordinary reader can gain by comparing them?

Freud thinks the true source of religious feeling is found in “a sensation of eternity, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded; as it were, oceanic.”  He admits that “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself… From my own experience I could not convince myself of the primary nature of such a feeling.  But this gives me no right to deny that it does in fact occur in other people.  The only question is whether it is being correctly interpreted…”  Did Abraham experience this ‘oceanic’ feeling in himself?  We don’t know.  The text doesn’t tell us how Abraham felt.  It just says the Lord told him to “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee.”  How Abraham felt about leaving his home and moving to an alien land is left to the reader’s imagination.  All we know for sure is what the text tells us: “So Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken unto him.”  One insight we gain from this reading is that we can’t get into Abraham’s mind.  We can’t know all the nuances of his thinking or the deep psychological foundation of his motivations.  And this is precisely what Freud is interested in knowing.  All we can know for sure is what Abraham actually did.  The rest is conjecture.  Whether we have “correctly interpreted” the story is open for debate.  Which brings us to a second insight and another question.  Who should participate in this debate?  Is a man who has never personally experienced this “oceanic feeling” qualified to talk about religion?  Or does that very fact make him uniquely qualified to objectively interpret religion?  For his part, Freud says he’s “concerned much less with the deepest sources of the religious feeling than with what the common man understands by his religion.”  Does Freud think Abraham was a common man?  In a sense Abraham is not one of the common herd.  He’s immensely wealthy for one thing.  But he might be considered a common man in the sense he’s as mentally healthy as most normal human beings are.  He’s not perfect.  He shares the fears, aspirations and needs we all feel and he made mistakes.  What separates Abraham from most of us is this.  He doesn’t want to debate religion.  He wants to do what God tells him to do.  Maybe that’s the reason he was chosen for his mission.  Understanding God is his whole purpose in life. 

And that’s a third insight we can gain by filtering our reading of Genesis through Freud’s lens.  Freud says “the question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one… One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be “happy” is not included in the plan of “Creation.”  For Abraham God provides not only a “satisfactory answer” to the question of the purpose of life, it’s the only answer that brings peace of mind.  We don’t know if Abraham had an “oceanic feeling” but we do know he had a purpose in life.  This is simply unacceptable for Freud.  He says “by forcibly fixing them in a state of psychical infantilism and by drawing them into a mass-delusion, religion succeeds in sparing many people an individual neuroses.  But hardly anything more.”  Thus Genesis and Freud present two very different views of religion.

Monday, July 11, 2016

BIBLE: Genesis (Why Abram?)

The story of the Tower of Babel has several levels of meaning but one of its central themes is the role of language in human understanding.  Genesis emphasizes the importance of language when it notes that “the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”  God gave divine order to the world when He created natural law but Adam gave human order to the world when he started naming things.  Here’s a little thought experiment.  What if God had stopped creating and had rested after the third day?  That’s when the earth brought forth “grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree…”  What if the only living things in the world were plants?  Would words like truth, beauty and goodness have any meaning at all?  Can a tree know the difference between what is true and what is false?  Can a flower recognize its own beauty?   In a world where only plants lived do truth, beauty and goodness exist at all?  Genesis says yes.  God created light and divided the waters from heaven and earth.  But it wasn’t until plants started growing that “God saw that it was good.”  Isn’t light good?  Isn’t water good?  What’s different about plants?  This is how they’re different.  They’re alive.  Life is good because it brings animate objects into the universe.  Why is this important? 

Only animate creatures can discover what is true or good or beautiful.  It takes highly developed intelligence to follow a line of reasoning leading to that discovery.  When “God saw that it was good” we have a starting point to guide our thinking.  Can anything false be good?  Can anything good be ugly?  Can anything beautiful be bad?  By saying something is “good” God also lays the foundation for truth and beauty.  But to find them it’s crucial to use intelligence the right way.  That’s why Aristotle says “intelligence is the highest possession we have in us.” (On Happiness, GB1)  Using intelligence the wrong way leads men to sometimes claim that bad is good, false is true, and ugly is really beautiful.  That’s also the reason Kant says intelligence should be guided by conscience.  He believes “conscience is the representative within us of the divine judgment seat.  It weighs our dispositions and actions in the scales of a law which is holy and pure; we cannot deceive it and we cannot escape it because, like the divine omnipresence, it is always with us.”  (Conscience, GB1)Conscience keeps intelligence pointed in the right direction.

But what is holy and what is pure?  What is Kant talking about?  How can we understand words such as “God ended his work which he had made; and he rested”?  How can God “rest” from work?  How do we understand that kind of language?  This is where Abram enters the world stage.  Abram may not be the smartest guy in Ur but he knows the difference between good and bad, what’s true and what’s not and he knows his wife Sarai is beautiful.  God can work with that.  So God speaks to Abram and Abram not only listens, he does what God tells him to do.  This is God’s command: “the Lord said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee.”  This is God’s promise: “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing… in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”  Abram can’t fully understand what God is trying to do, at least not rationally.  But by experience he can dimly see what God wants from him.  And that’s enough.  Abram is not Aristotle and doesn’t try to reason his way to God.  He learns about God by living out the command and believing God will keep his promise.  This is not rational knowledge; it is understanding through faith and experience.  God didn’t choose Abram because of his high IQ.  Not everyone can follow Aristotle’s or Kant’s intellectual reasoning about God.  But anyone can follow Abram’s path to God by faith.

Friday, July 01, 2016

BIBLE: Genesis (The Tower of Babel)

Genesis gives an account of how the earth and everything in it came into existence.  But the real focus of the book is to tackle bigger topics: the nature of Man and the nature of God.  Genesis says Man is a creature prone to make mistakes.  Adam disobeyed God’s one commandment in the garden of Eden.  This shows Man’s rebellion against authority.  Cain killed his brother.  This shows Man’s propensity to commit violence.  Noah got drunk after the great flood.  This shows Man’s addiction to pleasure.  Rebellion against proper authority (or good government), the tendency to commit violence and addiction to pleasure pretty much sums up the source Man’s problems, even in the modern world.  We know it’s true from personal experience and by perusing daily news sources.  On this topic Genesis is fairly clear and easy to understand.

The nature of God is harder to pin down.  Genesis doesn’t try to prove the existence of God.  It just states as fact “in the beginning God…”  The question in Genesis is not whether God exists.  The question is what kind of God is this?  God told Adam “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.”  But Adam did eat of it and he didn’t die (at least not immediately).  Instead Adam was expelled from the garden.  What could God have meant by “thou shalt surely die”?  Cain murdered his brother and then lied about it.  So “the Lord set a mark upon Cain” and told him that from now on he would be “a fugitive and a vagabond” on the earth.  Why didn’t God kill Cain in response?  Wouldn’t justice best be served by doing to Cain what he had done to Abel?  So far God seems like an easy-going, lenient sort of god.  But later on when “God saw the wickedness of man was great in the earth” he sent a great flood and wiped out everyone except Noah and his family.  This seems like a vengeful sort of god.  What’s going on here?  What kind of God is this?  Easy-going and lenient, or vengeful?  The answer in Genesis is, yes.  This is a confusing answer.

The story of the Tower of Babel only adds to the confusion.  After the flood the earth was repopulated and many people came together in the land of Shinar.  They decided the best thing to do was to “build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”  This doesn’t seem unreasonable.  In fact, Aristotle (GB1) said politics is “the highest good attainable by action.”  These folks weren’t going to just sit around.  They wanted to build up civilization and enjoy the pleasures of living in an urban environment.  This seems like a worthy goal.  And yet God says “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language… let us go down and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”  What’s going on here?  What kind of God is this?  Does He want to confuse us even more?  Here’s a new topic taken up by Genesis.  The nature of Language.  What is language for?  And what do we mean when we use words like Man, God, Government, Pleasure and Justice?  That was the same question Socrates asked in his Apology (GB1) and other dialogs.  Even if we speak the same language, are we talking about the same thing?  Take the idea of Government.  Most people say they want “good” government.  But good government may mean one thing to me and something entirely different to you.  Are we even speaking the same “language” when we talk about Government?  And is our disagreement primarily about what Government is, or about what Good is?  Genesis, like Socrates, makes us think more deeply about what we’re saying.  Genesis says the world was created “and God saw that it was good.”   God saw a city and a tower under construction and it was not good.  Why?  What kind of God is this?  Genesis turns the question around.  What kind of people spend all their time and energy building cities and towers?