The Theater of Ethics

The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy

by Martha C. Nussbaum
Cambridge University Press, 544 pp., $19.95 (paper)

There is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” says Plato’s Socrates, as, in Book X of the Republic, he reconfirms his decision to banish Homer and the tragic poets from his ideal city. And indeed it is true that long before Plato such philosophers as Xenophanes and Heraclitus had inveighed against the poets for, among other things, their presentation of gods engaged in unjust or immoral activities. Poets working in what Plato called the imitative poetic media, epic and tragedy, were of course unable to reply in kind (though some passages of tragic lyric reflect a critical reaction to current philosophical speculation), but Pindar complained that the natural philosophers (tous physiologous) were “harvesting the fruit of wisdom unripe.”

Later on Aristophanes put on stage a scurrilous caricature of Socrates, and Plato himself was a favorite target of the comic poets when his Academy became a philosophical center in Athens. We have a fragment from a play of Epicrates, for example, which presents Plato and his students trying, without much success, to “distinguish” (a Platonic technical term) between “the life of animals, the nature of trees, and the species of vegetables.” And in a comedy by Amphis a slave says to his master: “What good you expect to get from this, sir, I have no more idea of than I have of Plato’s ‘good.’ ”

This “quarrel” between poetry and philosophy tends to manifest itself also in modern scholarly and critical approaches to the two adversaries. Literary surveys of classical Greek culture usually pay too little attention to philosophical texts—and vice versa. Scholars who are not philosophically trained or inclined usually confine their reading of Plato (as Martha Nussbaum slyly remarks) to the early and middle dialogues, where dramatic and poetic elements are given full play; as for Aristotle, they rarely venture outside the Poetics, the Rhetoric, and the Nicomachean Ethics. Students of philosophy, on the other hand, often seem unaware that many of the problems discussed by ancient philosophers, especially in the ethical field, are also posed, in a different but no less valid form, by lyric and especially by tragic poets.

An extreme case of such disciplinary tunnel vision is the second volume of Michel Foucault’s Histoire de la sexualité, recently published in English translation under the title The Use of Pleasure. Its subject is the “problematization” of sexual behavior in classical Greek culture but its evidence is drawn exclusively from the writings of Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, and the Hippocratic physicians. It does not seem to have occurred to Foucault that for an understanding of the ways sexual behavior was conceived of in classical Greece, tragedies such as Sophocles’ Women of Trachis and Euripides’ Hippolytus and Medea, to cite only three of the relevant examples, might be just as revealing as the strictly homosexual erotic theorizing of Plato’s Symposium.

Foucault’s Olympian indifference to the evidence of tragedy is perhaps unique, but it is nevertheless “customary,” as Nussbaum puts it, to regard tragic and …

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