Friday, December 14, 2012

John Locke: Concerning Civil Government; 2nd Essay

I previously blogged about John Locke and I read part of his second essay Concerning Civil Government at the time.  However, as part of the GBWW second year program, I am returning to take a closer look at this significant treatise on the the purpose and regulation of government. In the The Second Essay Concerning Civil Government, John Locke outlines the basis for political governments. Locke's ideas on the separation of powers dramatically influenced our Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution (although Montesquieu was more important for the latter).

Locke says that all men are created equal (that sounds familiar) and that no man has a natural right to govern (not popular among monarchists).  When we were living in a "State of Nature" before governments, we were all at war with each other - however, we were completely free to do whatever we wanted.  We gave up some of that freedom in exchange for a different type of freedom - freedom which comes from being secure in our property and personal safety.

In this new structure, we adopted a "Common Law" which allows everyone to have his fair share.  When you take more than your fair share, you are living outside the common law.  In affect, you have now returned to a "state of war" with everyone - just like being in the state of nature from where we came.  This is similar to the state of nature described by Thomas Hobbes (sans monarchist overlord).   If you want to live under a government, you must accept all the rules and the rule of the majority.  If, as John Locke states, you receive your father's property you must submit to the laws that gave him AND you that property.  Otherwise, you cannot accept it. 

He is your President - unless you want to live in a "State of Nature"
Significantly, Locke states that although laws may seem to make sense at the time, they may not make sense in the future, the past, or for different people.

 "Things in this world are in so constant a flux that nothing remains long in the same state...To what gross absurdities the following of custom when reason has left it..."

We need to change as time change - so do our laws (and perhaps our constitutions). This is probably something we might need to think about in our OWN laws and even our Constitution. 

Locke also discusses on length about the right to rule, especially when a group is conquered by another.  In every case, Locke states that the people must give their consent to be ruled.  No one can chose to rule another against his will and no one should allow it.  We can observe this in even modern history, with defeat of the Axis in WW2 (who surrendered ) compared to the recent wars in Iraq and Afganstan where the opposition did not submit to a new government.

For us, in our society, we must remember that if the "majority" has chosen a leader or made a law, we are bound to accept the majority rule.  To do otherwise is to throw yourself back into the STATE of NATURE - and you have forfeited all rights and privileges in our society. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cervantes: Don Quixote

There is an older gentleman in the village of La Mancha, who enjoyed reading tales of chivalry. He became so enamored with these stories that he saw himself as a knight errant, a man who rights wrongs and stands for truth and justice. His name was Quixada (or maybe Quesada or Quixana), but he called himself Don Quixote of La Mancha. 

Requiring a lady to hold dear and dedicate his noble deeds toward, he chose a local country girl, Aldonza Lorenzo, and gave her the name Dulcinea del Toboso. Every knight also needs a squire, so he convinced a local villager Sancho Panza to be his companion.  Sancho is reluctant, but Don Quixote promises him an island that he can govern in return for his services, and this tangible reward is enough to convince Sacho to follow Don Quixote. The contrast between these characters is one of the defining characteristics of this novel.  We have the heroic idealist and visionary compared with the practical man who values worldly needs.  They both need each other and we can imagine a role for both of them in our society (or in ourselves).

Don Quixote is a fun, exciting and a little thought provoking.  Filled with allegories, satire, slapstick and wit, it is easy to see why it is still popular.  This is despite its length (over 1000 pages), the number of characters (over 400) and the fact that there are side stories, stories-within-stories and the number of characters playing multiple parts as they either help Don Quixote, try and dissuade him, or play along with his fantasies.

Don Quixote sees windmills as attacking giants, a barber's bowl as a sacred helmet and a herd of sheep as an army on the march.  How can Sancho or anyone else follow, believe or tolerate him?  There are at least two ways.  First, Don Quixote convinces some people, such as Sancho, that "enchanters" are trying to deceive them, "...there is always a swarm of enchanters in attendance upon us that change and alter everything with us, and turn things as they please, and according as they are disposed to aid or destroy us".  The second is that people want to accommodate Don Quixote because they believe he is either harmless, that they find him enjoyable or that they think his wild fantasies of nobility, truth and justice are a welcome respite from the insincerity of real world.

When Don Quixote isn't possessed by the spirit of chivalry he can appear quite wise.  He gives sage advice and once tells Sancho that life is a play, with people playing the parts of kings, pontiffs, ladies and villains.  When it is over everyone is equal in the grave, just like actors who strip off their costumes at the end of a play (sounds like Shakespeare). 

Sancho Panza doles out aphorisms, sayings, psalms and saws to grating regularity - and inappropriately - or at least Don Quixote thinks so.  Well, many are inappropriate, but they are quite entertaining.  It is probably Cervantes way of mocking people who spout such platitudes and call it wisdom.  

At the end of the book, Don Quixote dies in his bed, but shortly before he passes he renounces chivalry and comes to recognize his own delusions.  However, you get the feeling that everyone is sad seeing Don Quixote coming to his rational senses.  There was something magical and powerful about "Don Quixote" the knight errant.  The vision, the courage and the idealist.  He stands for justice and truth above all - and people love and respect that. All that is lost now - only the rational man is left.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote is one of the most famous and beloved characters in Western literature. An older man with a comfortable life, "Don Quixote" spends much of his time reading books on medieval chivalry. Eventually he imagines himself to be a knight errant in search of fame, honor and glory. Cobbling together some armor and mounting his tired horse, he sets off for (mis)adventure in this enjoyable and stimulating story. The tale of Don Quixote gave us phrases like "quixotic" (for something that is impractical or fantastic) and "tilting at windmills" (for attacking imaginary enemies).  Don Quixote is also called the first "modern novel" and is one of the most popular books of all time.

Battle of Lepanto
Miguel de Cervantes (1547 – 1616) is most well-known for writing Don Quixote, but he lived an exciting life long before he became a celebrated writer.  Born in the ancient university town of Alcala de Henares, in Spain, at a young age Cervantes joined the army to fight the Turks.  He fought in the decisive sea battle at Lepanto, which ended Ottoman naval supremacy in the Mediterranean.  At the Battle of Lepanto, Cervantes received three gunshot wounds, two in the chest and one which maimed his left hand for life. When his service in the army ended, Cervantes returned to Spain.  On the way there he was captured by Barbary corsairs, was taken prisoner, and kept as a slave in Algiers.  He tried to escape several times, but was only freed when his parents were able to pay his ransom. 

Back in Spain, Cervantes had constant money problems.  Unable to support himself and his family with his odd jobs, he eventually began to write to supplement his income. During his years of extreme poverty, Don Quixote first appeared.  It quickly became the most popular book in Spain and brought Cervantes international fame.  Surprisingly, Cervantes profited very little from his success and even in old age he remained quite poor.  He died on April 23, 1616, the same day as William Shakespeare.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Anna Karenina - How to find happiness

Anna Karenina is one of the most widely read and thoroughly studied books in the Western canon.   It is also a very long book, however, the story is nicely laid out in the first few chapters of the book:

Anna meets Vronsky; they fall in love.  However, Anna loves her son and doesn't want to lose him (which will happen if she divorces her husband).  Levin proposes to Kitty - he's initially rejected but then she later accepts him with open arms.  Stiva cheats on Dolly and she remains largely unhappy (or unfulfilled) the rest of the novel.

That is in the first 11 chapters - and there are another 237 chapters left.


To me one the most important things to discuss is the influence of society on our decisions and our happiness. In Russian society at the time, social structure, decorum, protocol and the perception of others played on a significant role on what one was allowed to do.  For Vronsky, as an army officer, an affair with a married women is a badge of respect to his comrades.  For Anna, it makes her a high society pariah and her husband a cuckold.  Anna can never have the normal life she had before - going to the opera causes a scene and people do not want to be associated with her.  All she has left in this world is her illicit lover.  When Vronsky shows the slightest wavering in his love for her, Anna gives up on life and throws herself beneath a train.  She cannot create her own definition of happiness without the affirmation of Russian society. 

Comparisons are often drawn between Madam Bovary and Anna Karenina.  What I remember from my reading of Madam Bovary was a woman who could not find happiness.  Like Anna, she eventually commits suicide.  However, Emma Bovary's death is tied more to ennui and a lack of purpose, although losing her lover does contribute.  Anna's death is more connected to her lover - and her relationship is more destructive to all the parties involved. 

Tolstoy seems to suggest that emotion, dominating rational thought, can be lead to one's downfall.  However, we also find that emotion may be the only way to understand life and death.  When Levin's brother is dying, Levin is paralyzed by his intellect.  His wife Kitty reacts with compassion and thoughtfulness to comfort Nicolai, and she does not dwell on the great questions of life and existence.  Emotion has a place in this world - it helps us deal with situations where rational thought cannot.  However, our emotions can also lead us astray if we cannot control them.