Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act I (Jealousy)

In recent readings both Rousseau and Darwin took optimistic views of human nature.  Rousseau places his confidence in equality.  He says “since the condition is equal for everyone, no one has an interest in making it burdensome for others.” (The Social Contract, GB1)  Darwin places his confidence in Man’s social instinct.  He says “looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger…” (The Moral Sense of Man, GB2).  Shakespeare’s Othello gives a different opinion of human nature.  In this play Shakespeare explores one of the fundamental flaws in the theory of human progress: jealousy.  As the play opens Roderigo is jealous of Desdemona’s love for Othello.  Iago is jealous of Cassio’s recent promotion by Othello.  Brabantio is jealous because Othello has stolen away his daughter.  Othello is jealous of the culture and sophistication of the Venetians.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these desires.  Young men normally want a beautiful woman, not just Roderigo.  Ambitious men normally want better jobs with more power and higher social status, not just Iago.  Fathers normally want their daughters to be safe and secure, not just Brabantio.  And many a brutish man wants a good education and good manners, not just Othello.  Jealousy isn’t necessarily wanting something you don’t have, that’s normal; it’s pushing desire beyond the normal boundaries of law and even basic human decency. 

Each of these four men (Roderigo, Iago, Brabantio, Othello) has a character flaw that expresses itself in various ways.  Jealousy represents a breakdown of rational thought and makes each man do foolish things.  Roderigo wants to make love to Desdemona.  Because of jealousy he’ll spend everything he owns to get into bed with her.  Iago doesn’t just want Cassio’s position.  Because of jealousy he wants to destroy Othello for passing him over for promotion.  Brabantio says he only wants his daughter Desdemona to be safe and secure.  But what he really wants is for Desdemona to do as he says.  Because of jealousy Brabantio disowns her when he finds out she’s gone behind his back and married Othello.  Othello is a special case.  That’s why the play is named after him.  For starters, he’s a Moor living in Venice.  Not only that, he’s the brilliant military commander of the Venetian forces.  The Turks (or “Ottomites” as they’re called in the play) are set to attack Venetian strongholds in Cyprus.  Othello, a Moor, is asked to lead the Venetian fight against the Moors.  That’s when all the tensions in the play start converging.  Othello will be loyal to Venice but who will be loyal to him?  Will Desdemona be a loyal wife?  Brabantio plants the seed of jealousy in Othello’s heart when he says: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see; she has deceiv’d her father, and may thee.”  This could easily be dismissed as the rantings of a jealous father except for one thing, Iago.  Iago waters the seed of jealousy and it grows beyond the boundaries of Othello’s emotional capacities.  Othello may be a great commander of military forces and a good judge of how to make war on the battlefield.  But he’s ill-equipped to withstand the onslaught of Iago’s psychological warfare.  So Iago uses Othello’s own open-hearted nature against him as he plots his strategy: “the Moor is of a free and open nature, that thinks men honest that but seem to be so, and will as tenderly be led by the nose as asses are.”  The whole play revolves around a central question: why did Othello marry Desdemona in the first place?  It’s not a rational move.  Marriage is really not in his best interests and probably not in hers either.  As an outsider living in Venice is it really wise to go and marry a powerful Senator’s daughter behind his back?  By doing so Othello made an enemy of Barbantio.  Desdemona is disinherited.  Still, it’s possible they might have lived happily ever after; just not in Venice.  But once Iago fans the flames of Othello’s imagination they wouldn’t be able to live happily anywhere.  Jealousy is the key that unlocks the whole human tragedy.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

DARWIN: The Moral Sense of Man (Loyalty & Conscience 2)

In the early part of this essay Darwin tries to establish the fact that loyalty to the group is a biological trait which helps a species survive.  This seems logical when applied to social animals and especially when it applies to humans.  Being loyal to one’s family, community and country is a basic ingredient for social cohesion.  It’s the glue that holds society together and is a fundamental principle for Rousseau’s Social Contract (GB1).  On a societal level it’s crucial that we follow the laws and customs of our neighbors.  But on an individual level why should I do what’s best for the community rather than what’s best for me?  One instinct tells me I should be a good neighbor and follow the golden rule because we’re all in this together.  Another instinct tells me I should put my own interests first because in the real world it is survival of the fittest.  Which instinct should I follow?  Darwin put the question this way: “Why should a man feel he ought to obey one instinctive desire rather than another?”  Great Books authors disagree on this point.  Kant and Aristotle come down on the golden rule side.  Kant because we should always act as if our actions were universal and ask what would happen if everybody did it?  Aristotle because we’re social animals by nature and loyalty to our family and community develops natural virtue.  Felicite in Flaubert’s A Simple Heart (GB5) is a good example.  Machiavelli and Nietzsche come down on the other side.  Machiavelli because leaders must sometimes be willing to break rules, even the golden rule.  Nietzsche because following the herd is for weaklings and the golden rule was invented by weaklings to protect themselves from stronger, better, more independent men.  Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (GB1) is a good case study.  So is Snopes in William Faulkner’s Barn Burning (IGB2).  Darwin has stepped into a hornet’s nest.   

What’s at stake here is the moral sense of Man.  As far as we know only human beings are capable of making moral decisions and having either a clean or a guilty conscience.  Darwin approaches the problem from a biological perspective and says “We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower animals have this capacity… But in the case of man, who alone can with certainty be ranked as a moral being, actions of a certain class are called moral…”  According to Darwin human beings are moral beings because of biology.  We have natural instincts to live in social units and after long generations of natural selection we have developed a very complex moral culture that is best suited to adapt and thrive in our environment.  But there’s still room for improvement.  Darwin believes “The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.”  Freud thinks this is impossible and even psychologically damaging because at bottom we’re irrational creatures driven by impulses we’re not even aware of, much less in control of.  And in our next reading Shakespeare has Iago give a little speech that demonstrates the depth of depravity that lurks in the human heart: “Virtue! a fig! 'tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce… why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions: but we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts…” (Othello, Act I, Scene 3)  For some folks Reason is a weak weapon to use against raging carnal lust.  Still, Darwin has a Victorian gentleman’s optimism that things will get better, that we’re making progress: “Looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger…”  That was 150 years ago; a mere blip in the slow, slow process of natural selection.  In our next reading we’ll see how Shakespeare handles this question of loyalty and conscience. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

DARWIN: The Moral Sense of Man (Loyalty & Conscience)

This week’s selection is taken from Charles Darwin’s book with the popular title of The Descent of Man.  The full title is The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.  Our current reading is taken from Chapter 4 “Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals (continued, Part 1).”  It’s interesting that Darwin chose to call his book The Descent of Man rather than The Ascent of Man.  Presumably Darwin wants to emphasize the point that we are descendants of more primitive forms of species.  In this section he wants to focus exclusively on the moral sense of man because “of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important.”  Right from the start we’re faced with a dilemma.  Is conscience a topic suited for science or is it best studied as a branch of philosophy?  Is science equipped to deal with questions of morality?  The key may lie in the way Darwin uses the word “sense” as a framework for describing moral behavior (as in the moral “sense” of man).  This is a bold attempt and he admits “as far as I know, no one has approached it exclusively from the side of natural history.”  “Natural history” is what we now call science.

How successful is Darwin in separating scientific fact from philosophic speculation?  It’s a daunting task and the results are mixed.  Sometimes he falls short.  For example, Darwin says the word “ought (or duty)… is the most noble of all the attributes of man.”  Is “noble” a scientific term?  Can a “noble” trait be quantified or tested by experiment?  In another section Darwin talks about “the blackest fact in natural history.”  On a scientific level are some facts dark and ominous while other facts are bright and inspirational?  Here we should pause to consider a related question.  Is it the job of science to make value judgments?  Or should science be value-neutral by merely observing and describing what takes place?  Claude Bernard helps shed light on this question in his essay on Observation and Experiment (IGB2).  He says scientists “must be at once observers and experimenters.  Observers… purely and simply note the phenomena before their eyes and… must observe without any preconceived idea; the observer’s mind must be passive.”  An experimenter, on the other hand, must “experiment with a preconceived idea.  An experimenter’s mind must be active.”  These two approaches “correspond to different phases of experimental research.  The observer does not reason, he notes; the experimenter reasons and grounds himself on acquired facts, to imagine and induce rationally other facts.”

Darwin attempts to bridge the gap between the two approaches.  He’s made careful notes about his vast observations of nature.  He talks about the habits of rabbits, sheep, birds, seals, monkeys, horses, cows, wolves, pelicans, and baboons, among others.  As an observer Darwin knows what he’s talking about.  But as an experimenter Darwin is working with a big disadvantage.  How can he “experiment” with processes which can take millions of years?  What he tries to do is take things as they are now and work backwards.  His “preconceived idea” is a simple one.  Things as they are now are the result of millions of years of natural selection.  Species which can adapt to changing conditions will thrive and flourish.  Species which cannot will wither away and become extinct.  It’s relatively easy to see how giraffes with longer necks will tend to survive.  It’s harder to see how a trait like “conscience” can help a species survive.  Darwin “grounds himself on acquired facts” by observing the examples of social animals.  By noting the fact that they “warn one another of danger” he makes the imaginative leap that loyalty to the group is a trait which helps a species survive.  We can’t really set up an experiment to test if this hypothesis is true but it seems reasonable.  The question for modern readers is whether traits like loyalty are transmitted genetically or by what Rousseau called “convention.”  We’re still working on that.

Monday, August 08, 2016

ROUSSEAU: The Social Contract (Public Policy)

Reading Rousseau’s essay on The Social Contract is both an inspiration and a problem for modern American readers.  The Social Contract is the foundation of all legitimate government based on the “general will” of its citizens.  Rousseau believes “the general will alone can guide the forces of the State according to the end for which it was instituted, which is the common good… it is uniquely on the basis of this common interest that society ought to be governed.”  This theory of government is an inspiration for people who want government of the people, by the people and for the people.  But what sounds good in theory presents some problems when trying to figure out how to put it into practice.  How does Rousseau’s theory hold up under closer examination?  For starters, why should we follow the general will?  Because, as Rousseau says, “the private will tends by its nature toward preferences, and the general will toward equality.”  That may be true but here’s the problem.  What Rousseau calls “preferences” other folks call freedom.  And they worry that personal freedoms may get submerged under the power of the general will.  Tocqueville calls this state of affairs the “tyranny of the majority.” (Democracy in America, GB1)  Equality may indeed be a worthy political goal.  But does following the general will (in the name of “equality”) have a levelling effect on society as a whole?  Socrates did not share Rousseau’s trust in the judgment of “the many” in his Apology (GB1).  Rousseau thinks “the general will is always right and always tends toward the public utility.”  Was the general will right in Socrates’ case?  Was it in “the public utility” for the Athenians to execute Socrates?  If they wanted to preserve the peace, then yes, maybe it was.  But if they wanted to pursue the truth, then no, it wasn’t.  The vote for execution was very close, which leads to another problem. 

How do we determine the general will?  Rousseau is aware of this problem and tries to resolve it partially by stating “In order for the general will to be well expressed, it is therefore important that there be no partial society in the State, and that each citizen give only his own opinion.”  What does this mean exactly?  The American Founding Fathers were also concerned about the power and divisiveness of what they called “factions” (Federalist Papers, GB4).  Would Rousseau think modern political parties are a bad idea?  Would he consider the Amish people to be a “partial society” and banish them from living in America?  Tocqueville actually admired the American’s knack of forming local “associations” to take care of local situations and problems.  And Rousseau says each citizen must give up “only that part of his power, goods, and freedom whose use matters to the community; but it must also be agreed that the sovereign alone is the judge of what matters.”  In the United States would Rousseau consider “the sovereign alone” to be the federal government alone?  If so, then how does federal government represent the general will, whereas local government does not?  This matters a great deal when it comes to establishing public policy.  For example, Rousseau says “every authentic act of the general will obligates or favors all citizens equally so that the sovereign knows only the nation as a body and makes no distinctions between any of those who compose it.”  It makes sense that federal government can look after the common good of the whole country better than any state or local government can do.  But this leads to another problem.  If the general will “favors all citizens equally” then what would Rousseau think of federally-sponsored affirmative action programs?  Would he approve of programs designed to create more equality?  It can be argued from a Social Contract perspective that these kinds of programs do contribute to the common good.  But it can also be argued that these programs create a sort of “partial society” where the State is partial to one group of citizens over another.  Reading The Social Contract is a good way to understand certain aspects of political theory.  Turning that theory into public policy can be problematic.