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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 philosophical texts as “of quite different sorts, bearing in quite different ways on human ethical questions.” But this, as she goes on to point out, “was clearly not the view of the Greeks.” Homer, Hesiod, and the poets of the tragic stage were in fact thought of as ethical teachers and Plato’s indictment of them sprang from his conception of them not “as colleagues in another department, pursuing different aims, but as dangerous rivals.” Nussbaum proposes to study the “works of the tragic poets as Plato studied them: as ethical reflections in their own right.”

She is of course primarily a distinguished student of Greek philosophy, editor of a difficult Aristotelian text, On the Motion of Animals, and author not only of the first full-length commentary on that text to be published since the thirteenth century but also of a series of essays on the philosophical problems it raises.1 But she is also the author of a remarkable article entitled “Flawed Crystals: James’s The Golden Bowl and Literature as Moral Philosophy” as well as a penetrating essay on Sophoclean tragedy, “Consequences and Character in Sophocles’ Philoctetes.”2 She comes, then, well equipped for a book which opens with chapters on Aeschylus and the Antigone of Sophocles, proceeds to discussion of Plato’s Protagoras, Republic, Symposium, and Phaedrus, follows this with five chapters on Aristotle, and ends with an epilogue devoted to Euripides’ Hecuba. This long, intellectually demanding, and richly rewarding book must be almost unique in its expert analysis of both tragic and philosophical texts.

Nussbaum’s argument is complex, occasionally technical, but always intelligible even for those who, like the reviewer, read Plato with pleasure as far as the Phaedrus, find the going tough in the Parmenides and Politicus, but get a second wind in The Laws. She recognizes that her chapter, “Rational Animals and the Explanation of Action” may “seem rather technical for the non-specialist reader, who might prefer to turn directly to the chapter’s concluding section (v), where the ethical implications of the explanatory project are described.” In a short preface she gives the reader a choice: “This book can be read in two ways.” Since after the introductory chapter, which identifies the problems to be discussed, each chapter is devoted, except in the case of Aristotle, to a single work—tragedy or Platonic dialogue—“readers can…feel free to turn directly to the chapter or chapters that seem most pertinent to their own concerns.” But the reader is also advised that “there is…an overall historical argument, concerning the development of Greek thought on our questions; this is closely linked to an overall philosophical argument about the merits of various proposals for self-sufficient life.”

Our questions” are those raised by the author’s stated purpose: to examine “the aspiration to rational self-sufficiency in Greek ethical thought: the aspiration to make the goodness of a good human life safe from luck through the controlling power of reason.” The word “luck” is a rough equivalent of the Greek word tuche—“rough” because tuche does not necessarily refer to “random or uncaused” events; tuche means simply “what just happens to a man” as opposed to “what he does or makes.” Goodness, on the other hand, is used by Nussbaum in a double sense: the ethical quality of a human life and also the happiness, the enviability of that life. Clearly, goodness of the second kind is vulnerable to luck; the Greeks in general believed, contrary to modern Kantian ideas, that the first—the ethical quality of life—was vulnerable also. For one thing, the constituents of a happy life—love, friendship, attachment to property—may be “capable, in circumstances not of the agent’s own making, of generating conflicting requirements that can themselves impair the goodness of the agent’s life.” And secondly there can be an inner conflict between a person’s aspiration to self-sufficiency and the irrational forces in his own nature—“appetites, feelings, emotions”—sources of disorder, of what the Greeks called mania, “madness.”

The attainment of complete immunity to luck would seem therefore to call for a renunciation not only of those vulnerable components of the good life that set it at risk but also a total suppression of the appetites and passions that might undermine a personal dedication to self-sufficiency. Even if such rigid self-control were possible for mere human creatures, the resultant life would seem, to most of us at least, limited and impoverished. And in fact it is only Plato, at the vertiginous height of his argument in Phaedo, Republic, and Symposium, who proposes “a life of self-sufficient contemplation, in which unstable activities and their objects have no intrinsic value.”

The tragic poets, however, especially Aeschylus and Sophocles, present us with human characters exposed to fortune through their pursuit of those genuine human values that put us at risk—responsibility to others, loyalty to a community, devotion to the family. Nussbaum offers an impressive analysis of the tragic dilemmas of two Aeschylean heroes, Agamemnon at Aulis and Eteocles at the seventh gate of Thebes: in each case a “wrong action [is] committed without any direct physical compulsion and in full knowledge of its nature, by a person whose ethical character or commitments would otherwise dispose him to reject the act.” Agamemnon, if he is to do his duty as commander of the expedition, must sacrifice his daughter; Eteocles, to save his city from destruction, must engage his brother in mortal combat. Agamemnon is placed by Zeus in a situation in which there is open to him no “guilt-free course.” Modern critics have found contradiction and illogicality in the Aeschylean view of tragic necessity, a criticism for which Nussbaum has scant sympathy. “Such situations,” she says, “may be repellent to practical logic; they are also familiar from the experience of life.”

In Sophocles’ Antigone the two principal characters attempt to avoid such dilemmas by “a ruthless simplification of the world of value which effectively eliminates conflicting obligations.” Creon rules out all loyalties except that to the city; since Polynices, though a member of Creon’s own family, has led a foreign assault on the city, he does not hesitate to order the exposure of his corpse, in spite of the fact that custom and religion assign him, as the only surviving male relative, responsibility for Polynices’ proper burial.

Antigone too has her strategy of “avoidance and simplification”; her exclusive loyalty is to family obligations, specifically “duty to the family dead.” Both of them come to grief, and though our sympathies are with Antigone the play clearly rejects the kind of rigid simplification of issues which inspired their actions. As Antigone is led off to her underground tomb, the chorus sings about others who have been similarly imprisoned, a song which Nussbaum, in a sensitive and convincing interpretation, sees as a repudiation of human action, a blind acceptance of passivity under the blows of fortune. The play seems to offer no escape from the choice between “Creon’s violence against the external and complete helpless passivity before the external.”

But this “paralyzing vision” is not the last word. In the speeches of Haemon and Tiresias a third possibility emerges, a prudent and intelligent moderation that makes it possible “to be flexibly responsive to the world, rather than rigid…a way of living in the world that allows an acceptable amount of safety and stability while still permitting recognition of the richness of value that is in the world.” Creon concludes in the end that “it is best to keep to the established conventions (nomous).” These are “the traditions of a community, built up and established over time” which “offer a good guide to what, in the world, ought to be recognized and yielded to.” They “preserve a rich plurality of values” though they “offer no solution in bewildering tragic situations—except the solution that consists in being faithful to or harmonious with one’s sense of worth by acknowledging the tension and disharmony.”

The second choral ode of the Antigone begins with a famous celebration of the technai, the arts and sciences which have brought man, step by step, from helplessness to mastery of his environment and his crowning achievement, the creation of the state. Techne, the song seems to suggest, is the instrument by which man can make himself immune to tuche. In the event this proves to be a delusion; the messenger who announces the deaths of Antigone and Haemon proclaims the omnipotence of tuche—“Luck raises and luck humbles the lucky and the unlucky from day to day”—and the only successful techne mentioned in the play is that of the prophet Tiresias who reads the signs of divine wrath and comes to warn Creon that he stands “on the razor-edge of luck.”

  1. 1

    Aristotle, De Motu Animalium. Text with translation, commentary, and interpretive essays (Princeton, 1978). Paperback edition with corrections, 1985.

  2. 2

    New Literary History 15 (1983), pp. 25–50; Philosophy and Literature (1976–1977), pp. 25–53.

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