Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, September 30, 2016

HUME: Justice (Natural or Artificial?)

This selection is a chapter taken from Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature.  It’s hard reading and leads many readers to more questions than answers.  Maybe that was Hume’s intention.  He’s pretty clear where he stands on the question of justice; it’s mostly “artifice or contrivance.”  Hume believes “our sense of every kind of virtue is not natural, there are some virtues that produce pleasure and approbation by means of an artifice or contrivance, which arises from the circumstances and necessity of mankind.  Of this kind I assert justice to be.”  This sounds like justice is a relative term to Hume.  It’s not arbitrary but arises from the particular conditions of society.  Hume goes on to say that “though the rules of justice be artificial, they are not arbitrary.  Nor is the expression improper to call them laws of nature, if by natural we understand what is common to any species, or even if we confine it to mean what is inseparable from the species.”

Let’s try to unpack what Hume means by all this.  He starts from the outside, what we can see with our own eyes.  “When we praise any actions, we regard only the motives that produced them… the external performance has no merit.  We must look within to find the moral quality.”  For Hume the important thing is not what someone is doing, but why they’re doing it.  He uses this example: “suppose a person to have lent me a sum of money on condition that it be restored in a few days… what reason or motive have I to restore the money?”  Kant tries to answer that very question in First Principles of Morals (GB5).  He says suppose a man “finds himself forced by necessity to borrow money.  He knows that he will not be able to repay it, but sees also that nothing will be lent to him unless he promises stoutly to repay it in a definite time.  He desires to make this promise, but he has still so much conscience as to ask himself: Is it not unlawful and inconsistent with duty to get out of a difficulty in this way?  Suppose, however, that he resolves to do so, then the maxim of his action would be expressed thus: When I need money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know that I can never do so.  Now this principle of self-love or of one’s own advantage may perhaps be consistent with my whole future welfare; but the question now is, Is it right?”  We’re right back to the question of justice.  For Kant justice is a universal law.  The standard we should use to determine right from wrong is to ask ourselves: what if everyone did it?  What if everyone borrowed money with no intention of ever paying it back?  Kant believes universal law is the natural foundation for virtue.

Hume thinks that may be true for a man “trained up according to a certain discipline and education.  But in his rude and more natural condition, if you are pleased to call such a condition natural, this answer would be rejected as perfectly unintelligible and sophistical.  For one in that situation would immediately ask you: Wherein consists this honesty and justice, which you find in restoring a loan?”  In modern terms Hume seems to be saying: show me the money, show me justice.  He doesn’t share Kant’s optimism that people will do the right thing, once they know what the right thing is.  Instead Hume says “self-love, when it acts at its liberty instead of engaging us to honest actions, is the source of all injustice and violence.”  And besides, Hume continues, “there is no such passion in human minds as the love of mankind.”  We’re selfish creatures and “the sense of justice and injustice is not derived from nature, but arises artificially, though necessarily, from education and human conventions.”  Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter.  Hume says justice is a virtue.  Can virtue be taught?  This was a question Socrates was keenly interested in.  He might ask Hume: what do you mean by virtue and justice?  You claim the rules of justice are artificial but they’re not arbitrary.  What do you mean by that, exactly?  Hume is one of the few people who would really be able to talk with Socrates.      

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act V (Knowing Good & Evil)

This play can be read as a long meditation on the nature of evil.  If we try reading it that way then what message is Shakespeare trying to give us?  One message is this.  We can understand evil.  We may not like it but at least we know what it is.  Our reading of Genesis (GB1) took up this theme in the Garden of Eden.  The Lord God said 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.”  The serpent said just the opposite to 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.”  Adam and Eve already knew what good is.  Their world had already been proclaimed good by God.  They don’t know what evil is but they can find out, if they really want to know.  The decision is theirs but here’s the catch.  It’s an irrevocable decision.  Once they know what evil is they can never un-know it.  Othello reflects this kind of destructive knowledge in Act III when he says “I had been happy… So I had nothing known.  O! now, for ever farewell the tranquil mind; farewell content!”  Othello was speaking of jealousy and jealousy is just one of the many faces of evil.  At its core evil is the enemy of tranquility and contentment.  This is a kind of death of the spirit.  Evil resurfaces in Genesis directly following the story of Adam and Eve’s decision to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Their eldest son Cain is jealous of Abel’s relationship with the Lord God.  So “Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.”  The same sort of evil jealousy seems to be behind Iago’s vendetta against Cassio.  Iago wants to destroy Cassio the same way Cain wanted to destroy Abel.  Why?  What had Abel and Cassio done to deserve such hatred?  Nothing.  They were basically good men and evil is the enemy of the good.  In Act V Iago expresses why he wants to destroy Cassio: “if Cassio do remain, he hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly.”  Cain felt the same way about Abel.  Seeing beauty and excellence in others can be motivation to change and try to live better lives ourselves.  This is what good is.  On the other hand beauty and excellence can make us feel ugly by comparison.  Then we may plot to tear down others and either destroy them or try bringing them down to our level.  This is what evil is.  Knowing evil on an intellectual level makes us better equipped to fight against it. 

Another view of evil is that it is beyond human comprehension.  We can see its effects but we can never fathom the depths where evil originates.  In this play the effects of evil are strewn all over the stage.  Evil (in the form of Iago) is the root cause of disorder and chaos:  Othello murders his wife.  Cassio gets drunk and almost loses his military career.  Roderigo loses most of his wealth and almost loses his life trying to satisfy his lust for Desdemona.  Desdemona is murdered by her husband.  Emilia is an unwitting accomplice to that murder by agreeing to commit simple theft.  Evil (in the form of Iago) caused all this.  How does Iago try to explain his actions?  Othello asks the perennial question when people are confronted with an evil they cannot understand: why me? “Why hath he thus ensnar’d my soul and body?”  Think of Job (GB4).  He wanted answers to the same question.  Iago gives the perennial answer, the same answer evil always seems to give.  “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know.” 

A third view is this.  We can know evil and yet not resist it through the intellect.  Iago was plenty smart but smart didn’t help him resist evil.  Faust was the smartest guy in town but still made a deal with the devil. (Faust GB5).  Kurtz (Heart of Darkness GB1) was a product of the best education Western civilization had to offer and he still followed evil to its bitter end.  In this view the intellect may merely become more fertile ground where evil can flourish. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act IV (Marriage and Politics)

Early in the book of Genesis we read “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”  In Act I of Othello Desdemona leaves her father and cleaves to Othello as her husband.  A similar situation happens in Act I of King Lear (GB5).  King Lear asks Cordelia for a public declaration of her love for him.  She replies “I love your majesty according to my bond; nor more nor less.”  What Cordelia is saying is that she loves Lear as a daughter should love her father.  Some day she will have to share her allegiance and “cleave unto” a husband: “Good my lord, you have begot me, bred me, loved me: I return those duties back as are right fit, obey you, love you, and most honour you. Why have my sisters husbands, if they say they love you all? Haply, when I shall wed, that lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry half my love with him, half my care and duty: sure, I shall never marry like my sisters, to love my father all.”  So it is in Othello.  When Desdemona leaves her father she’s following a plan long established by Genesis in the religious tradition of Western civilization. 

The secular tradition of Western civilization also views marriage as the basic plan of society.  Families are the fundamental building blocks for the whole political structure.  Aristotle (Politics GB2) says “In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue… Out of these two relationships between man and woman, master and slave, the first thing to arise is the family…”  Master and slave?  This political dynamic within the marital relationship has been the cause of much grief between many husbands and wives.  Love is fine but who gets to make the final decisions?  That’s the question the Wife of Bath asks in The Canterbury Tales (GB3) and here’s her conclusion “If there were no authority on earth except experience, mine, for what it’s worth, (and that’s enough for me) all goes to show that marriage is a misery and a woe.”  She had gone through five husbands and every marriage had been a battle for supremacy.  But in spite of her own bad experience she would still welcome the opportunity to have a go at a sixth marriage.

How does Shakespeare handle this perennial human predicament of the battle of the sexes?  In Act IV of Othello Desdemona and Emilia ponder the pros and cons of marriage.  Specifically, Desdemona wonders how wives could ever be unfaithful: “O these men, these men! Dost thou in conscience think, tell me, Emilia, that there be women do abuse their husbands in such gross kind?” Emilia assures her that there are such women.  Then Desdemona asks “wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?”  Emilia’s response is interesting.  She says “the world is a huge thing; ‘tis a great price for a small vice.”  What Emilia calls “a small vice” has sent Othello into a murderous rage.  Iago has thoroughly convinced him that Desdemona has been unfaithful.  Desdemona is as good and as innocent as Cordelia was in King Lear.  Emilia is more like the Wife of Bath when she says “Let husbands know their wives have sense like them: they see and smell and have their palates both for sweet and sour, as husbands have. What is it that they do when they change us for others? Is it sport? I think it is: and doth affection breed it? I think it doth: is't frailty that thus errs? It is so too: and have not we affections, desires for sport, and frailty, as men have? Then let them use us well: else let them know, the ills we do, their ills instruct us so.”  For Emilia men and women aren’t very different.  So both she and the Wife of Bath use feminine power to counter masculine power.  Although there’s no evidence either of them were unfaithful, they let it be known they can give as good as they get.  Desdemona and Cordelia take a softer, gentler approach.  They never threaten to retaliate and prefer building trust for mutual conflict resolution.  In that sense marriage is like politics on a much smaller scale.                

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act III (Lessons in Language)

In Act II Iago tells Cassio that “reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving: you have lost no reputation at all, unless you repute yourself such a loser.”  In Act III Iago tells Othello that a “good name in man and woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls: who steals my purse steals trash; ‘tis something, nothing; ‘twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands; but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”  When he’s talking to Cassio reputation means nothing; with Othello reputation becomes one of life’s most important possessions.  Well, which is it?  In Act I Iago admits to Roderigo “I am not what I am.”  In Act III when he’s with Othello he says “Men should be what they seem.”  Well, which is it?

Who is Iago, really?  What makes him tick?  It’s possible in his own mind and in his own way Iago sees himself as pursuing justice.  How can this be?  Here we might turn back to Plato’s Apology (GB1) for guidance.  In that selection Socrates defends the pursuit of eternal Truth against the Sophists.  Socrates believed there were eternal truths that don’t change in the ebb and flow of human affairs.  What’s good stays good in all times and in all places.  The Sophists, on the other hand, believed very much along the lines of Rousseau’s thinking in his Social Contract (GB1).  According to Rousseau and the Sophists “conventions” (human laws, institutions, and customs) are all man-made.  Therefore Man is the measure of all things.  All conventions were designed to make life better for human beings.  When they no longer serve this purpose they can, and should, be changed.  It all sounds very logical but also, according to Socrates, is very wrong.  For Socrates Man is not the measure of all things.  We shouldn’t try to shape reality according to our own transient needs.  Instead we should try to shape our lives according to an order established by Nature.  This is the only reality we’ll ever find.  How does Iago fit into all this?  In his own mind Iago thought he had been passed over for honors that rightfully belonged to him.  This was not due to some divine intervention.  If that were the case then Iago would have to be reconciled to his fate, much as Job was reconciled to his fate in the Book of Job (GB4).  The Lord spoke to Job directly out of a whirlwind but God apparently never crosses Iago’s mind.  God is mostly absent in Othello and there is no divine justice in this play; there are only frail human beings striving for power and struggling to survive the intrigues and deceptions of the world.  Iago did what he had to do and just used the means available to him to achieve his goal.        

That kind of interpretation is being too kind to Iago.  He knows exactly what he’s doing and he also knows it is evil.  That’s why he deliberately cloaks his actions and deceives everyone around him.  He knows how to use words to get what he wants.  In Act II Iago says “good wine is a good familiar creature if it be well used.”  The same can be said for language.  According to Darwin (GB1) language unveils our human sympathies and reinforces basic communal instincts, but only if it be well used.  Iago uses language to tear down, not to build up.  In Dante’s Inferno (GB5) the deepest levels of Hell are reserved for those who deliberately deceive and destroy family, friends, or country.  Dante was a poet and knew how words can be used to break down the bonds that hold civilization together.  For Dante, men like Iago won’t be accepted into Paradise, or even Purgatory, in the next world and pose a real danger to society in this one.  He’s the kind of guy Freud warned us about in Civilization and Its Discontents (GB1).  Shakespeare knew how to use words well.  He also had sympathy for basic human decency and showed it to us in drama, in a way no philosophical or theological language could ever express.

Monday, September 05, 2016

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act II (Happiness, Alcohol & Reputation)

Act I of Othello showed us how jealousy is one of the most common motivations of human behavior.  It’s one of those subconscious motivators because it affects our actions in ways we’re not even aware of.  Freud talks about this in Civilization and Its Discontents (GB1).  Shakespeare is a master dramatist but he’s also a master psychologist and a philosopher too.  Act II shows three more common motivators which drive human behavior: happiness, alcohol, and reputation.     

Aristotle says we all want many things out of life but “happiness is something final and self-sufficient and the end of our actions.” (On Happiness, GB1)  Happiness is the main goal and everything else we do is just a means to try to get and hold onto the state of being happy.  In Act II Othello has achieved this state.  He tells Desdemona that fate has blessed him: “If (I) were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy, for I fear my soul hath her content so absolute that not another comfort like to this succeeds in unknown fate.”  Othello’s right.  If he had died at that moment he would have died a happy man.  But it was not to be.  “Unknown fate” would begin to intervene that very night in the form of a devious plan by Iago to dismantle Othello’s happiness.  Aristotle warned that happiness must be measured in terms of a complete life because “one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one sunny day; similarly, one day or a short time does not make a man blessed and happy…”  Othello’s bright joy quickly turns into dark despair.

Cassio’s happiness is also short and sweet, though for a different reason than Othello’s.  Cassio is not undone by the virtue of love but by the vice of alcohol.  Iago comes to him after the Venetian victory and says “come, lieutenant, I have a stoup of wine…”  Cassio knows he can’t handle his liquor and replies, “Not to-night, good Iago; I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking: I could well wish courtesy would invent some other custom of entertainment.”  As Othello’s second in command Cassio needs to keep a clear mind.  Liquor both clouds the mind and impairs the ability to act rationally.  A good example in Great Books is Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. (Notes from the Underground, GB3)  At a social outing he drinks too much, gets angry at his companions, and starts brooding, “Now is the time to throw a bottle at them, I thought, picked up the bottle and… poured myself out another glass.”  Cassio also gets angry but instead of having another glass he gets into an altercation that was pre-planned by Iago.  This results in him being relieved of his command and publicly shamed with loss of his reputation. 

Once he’s sobered up a bit Cassio is mortified by what he’s done.  He cries to Iago “O! I have lost my reputation.  I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.  My reputation, Iago, my reputation!”  For Cassio reputation is everything.  Iago tries to comfort him (falsely) by claiming that “reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.”  The old Roman general Marc Antony seems to agree with Iago.  In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (GB3) the soldiers observe that “this dotage of our general’s o’erflows the measure… and is become the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy’s lust.”  The “gypsy” is Cleopatra and Antony has ignored his official duties to carouse with her in Egypt.  But unlike Cassio, Antony doesn’t care what people think. “Let Rome and the Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the empire fall!  Here is my space.  Kingdoms are clay.”  These are two vastly different interpretations of reputation.  One side says personal reputation is everything and without it we’re no better than beasts.  The other side says personal reputation means nothing.  Shakespeare’s genius is using language to make both sides sound reasonable.  The philosopher takes sides.  The dramatist’s job is to show the many sides of what it means to be human.