Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.04.19


Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity. Sather Classical Lectures, Volume 57. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Pp. xii + 254. $25.00. ISBN 0-520-08046-7.


Reviewed by Michael R. Halleran, University of Washington.

Originally presented as the Sather Lectures at Berkeley in 1989, Bernard Williams's Shame and Necessity takes its place alongside other famous Sather-based publications (most notably E. R. Dodds's The Greeks and the Irrational) for its probing examination of fundamental concepts in the ancient Greek world. Williams's interest, however, is not primarily in the ancient Greeks but in our relationship to the Greeks. While the implicit appeal of the ancient world is often the light it sheds on our own, W.' s approach is explicitly and aggressively comparative. This should be no surprise since W. is, by his own admission, not a Classicist but a philosopher. He is best known for his pioneering work on "moral luck" (his article of that name first appeared in 1976), his explorations of how fortune affects moral evaluations. And some of those issues reappear (naturally) in the present book. W. describes various types of necessity in the ancient Greek world, both those which appear to be external (the gods primarily) and that which come from within. Discussions of agency, responsibility, shame, necessary identities, and supernatural necessity structure the book. In short, W. offers an exploration of the basic ethical issues of the ancient Greek world, juxtaposed constantly with our own views. It is not, however, an easy book to read. W. is subtle and occasionally slippery, moving deftly among finely nuanced positions. W.'s style, on the other hand, is clear, at times elegant. He also approaches famous issues with a refreshing frankness (e.g.: "the boring controversy" [192 n.46] of whether Ajax' speech is a Trugrede, and "the unhelpful question" [133] about Agamemnon's choice in sacrificing his daughter as posed famously by one scholar). This is a very rich book, full of insights and destined to generate further discussion. All those interested in the ancient Greek world will want to read it -- and will profit from it.

In the opening chapter (the first of six), W. lays out his underlying concerns, methods, and aims. While praising the methods of cultural anthropology applied to the study of the ancient world, he explains that his own approach will place the ancients closer to our own. He is very critical of the common view, which he labels "progressivist", which holds that we in the modern world have "advanced" in our moral thinking from the Greeks, who had rather primitive notions of agency and responsibility. (Similarly the Greeks themselves, in this view, progressed from the archaic period to, say, Plato.) W. maintains that the differences between the Greeks and ourselves "cannot best be understood in terms of a shift in basic ethical conceptions of agency, responsibility, shame or freedom" (7). The error of the progressivist view lies in our own faulty understanding of both the Greeks and ourselves. The battle against this view is, in a sense, the essence of the book. W. seeks to defend the Greeks against the notion that they were primitive to us in their ethical outlook. At times he seems even to suggest that the Greeks were our superiors in their psychological and moral understanding. Literary texts, especially tragedies, provide W. with much of the material for his discussions; therefore he explains in the second half of this chapter the importance of tragedy to his thinking. Following Vernant (and others), W. describes the "historic moment of tragedy" and, at the same time, he refers to tragedy's ability to draw us into its ethical realm. In his initial consideration of the demonic in Greek tragedy (and in the Greek world) appears an explicit statement of the book's goals:

In other respects as well, the movement from the Greek world and from what is expressed in tragedy to our own consciousness will involve larger and more elaborate structural substitutions [than merely relocating the supernatural]. To understand these substitutions properly would be a large task, both historical and philosophical. In this book I hope to situate that task, and to help us, perhaps, to reach an understanding of our relations to the Greeks that will make clearer what the task means. (19)

Since moral agency requires an agent, W. begins his inquiry (chapter 2) with a discussion of views of the Homeric body promulgated chiefly by Bruno Snell, which are part of the progressivist view of the Greeks. Perhaps in this chapter W. betrays himself as an "outsider" (a very welcome one) in Classics, as he refers to Snell's ideas as still very influential. I can think of very few Classicists who would uphold these ideas and when I bring them up in classes, students have no truck with them whatsoever. Even so, W. has some interesting things to say about Snell's decompartmentalized man, taking in part a very commonsensical view ("[these interpretations] crumble in face of the authority of the poems themselves," 21). Allied with this common sense are W.'s typically subtle arguments. He begins by (re)establishing a Homeric idea of an integrated self; makes clear that there is in fact decision-making in Homer; and then moves on to ground intention and will in the poems. He correctly and importantly observes that what really strikes the modern reader of the poems as strange in this regard is that "[Homeric notions of action] did not revolve round a distinction between moral and nonmoral motivations" (41). He traces the prevalent modern notion linking theories of action to theories of ethics back to Plato and his tripartite soul in the Republic.

To any reader of Homer or tragedy, it is evident that the ancient Greek notions of the relationship between intention and responsibility are configured differently from ours. At the same time it would be mistaken to suggest, as sometimes is suggested, that this relationship is fundamentally incompatible with ours, to say that the Greeks in forming ethical judgments ignored intention, while we prize it above all else. In exploring notions of responsibility (chapter 3), W. finds the four elements needed for a conception of responsibility (cause, intention, state and response) already in Homer and he begins his further inquires from that starting point. The Tetralogies ascribed to Antiphon provide W. with grist for his mill. The Greek notion of pollution (miasma) also is important for W., as it shows that "no conception of responsibility confines response entirely to the voluntary" (66). Oedipus' tale, especially as told in the Colonus, allows W. to bring out the limited role of intention in constructing our evaluations of ourselves (and others). Although Oedipus can claim ignorance, self-defense (and retribution), and divine intervention, he still must live with the fact that he committed those terrible crimes. As W. observes, our own notions of responsibility are not so incompatible with these. The differences in our legal system reflect not a significantly different notion of responsibility but of law. Of course, any discussion of responsibility for the Greeks must include the gods, external and powerful agents capable of causing mortals to act in ways they regret. W. includes a brief commentary on the paradigmatic example of Agamemnon in his "apology" in Book 19 of the Iliad, when the leader of the Greek troops explains that when he dishonored Achilles he suffered from ate, that Zeus took away his wits, but that he still must make amends to the slighted Achilles.

To describe Greek culture as a "shame culture" is part of the progressivist view in which there was an eventual advance to guilt. W. takes aim at the common views of shame and guilt in Greek culture, choosing as his starting point Sophocles' Ajax, when the hero asserts at the conclusion of his so-called "deception speech" that he is going where he must go (POREUTE/ON, 690). W. proceeds from Ajax to notions of shame, which, he rightly insists, involves an imagined and internalized other, and not just any "other", but one around whose expectations one lives. Ajax "must go" because he cannot, under his circumstances, bear the gaze of those whom he respects, and thus he cannot live with himself. On the distinctions and overlap between shame and guilt, W. is very interesting. (Some of his thoughts he holds for an appendix, "Endnote One," 219-23.) He offers a stimulating philosophical and psychological discussion in which he tries, in essence, to rehabilitate the value of shame. W. writes, "[Guilt] cannot by itself help one to understand one's relationship to those happenings [wrongs done, etc.], or to rebuild the self that has done these things and the world in which that self has to live. Only shame can do that, because it embodies conceptions of what one is and of how one is related to others." (94) Greek society did not lack a notion of guilt, in W.'s view, but rather "they did not make of those reactions [that we associate with guilt] the special thing that they became when they are separately recognised as guilt" (91). Again, the Greeks are not found wanting.

The necessity created by the internalized other's view was one kind of necessity in the Greek world. The divine hand was another, but before describing this, W. discusses coercion, in particular slavery, that is, how "the ways in which one was treated, one's ethical identity, might depend on a chance" (106). This chapter is the least successful in the book. While it obviously ties in well with W.'s interest in moral luck, the discussion here bears less fully on the central topics of the book. Even so, W. has several useful observations. Most important for his general discussion is his insistence on the Greeks' recognition of the arbitrary nature of slavery. The painfully expressed memories of several figures in tragedy point to the fact that for the Greeks slavery was paradigmatic of arbitrary and unpredictable change. Here, too, W. defends the Greeks, but not Aristotle, for their views on slavery, concluding that "the main feature of the Greek attitude to slavery was not a morally primitive belief in its justice, but the fact that considerations of justice and injustice were immobilised by the demands of what was seen as social and economic necessity." (125) But this defense seems feeble in the face of the continued acceptance of this acknowledged unjust practice in the ancient Greek world, especially in the context of such a comparative argument.

W. takes up supernatural necessity (gods, fate, oracular pronouncements, etc.) in the book's final, and longest, chapter. He begins with the notorious crux of Agamemnon's dilemma at Aulis as portrayed by Aeschylus, and goes on to talk about the dilemmas of, inter alios, Orestes, Eteocles and Ajax (from a different point of view), before moving on to a discussion of ananke in Thucydides and finally to a general consideration of the issues raised in this chapter and in the book. W.'s attachment to the pre-Platonic Greek view of the world comes out strongly in the conclusion of this chapter. He outlines how Plato, Aristotle, and then Christianity and, much later, the Enlightenment have shaped our outlooks. He sees a crucial difference in the formulation of basic questions; he rejects the progressivist's contrasts of rational and prerational, religious and secular, and replaces it with (or at least puts alongside it) the question of whether there is any coherence or pattern in the world that humans can discern. W. goes on to assert that our time is uniquely suited to appreciate the archaic and fifth-century Greeks. "More particularly, we are like those who, from the fifth century and earlier, have left us traces of a consciousness that had not yet been touched by Plato's and Aristotle's attempts to make our ethical relations to the world fully intelligible." (166)

W. relies very much on literary texts for his description and evaluation of Greek ethics. This approach, while fraught with certain methodological problems, has also borne much fruit over the years. I conclude this review with some comments on one specific passage he considers, selected exempli gratia, and then raise general reservations on his use of tragic texts. W.'s analysis of Aeschylus' portrayal of Agamemnon's dilemma yields several astute observations, especially on the famously vexed question of the meaning of "he put on the harness of compulsion". But some of his observations seem to ignore the narrative and rhetorical structures of the song in which this description is enmeshed. First, a small point. W. writes, "[Agamemnon] understands only too well that Artemis has brought it about that if he sacrifices Iphigenia, the fleet can sail, and if not, not (135)." The narrative Aeschylus presents is not, in fact, that simple. That it is Iphigenia's blood that needs to be shed is never asserted by Calchas. Calchas' interpretation of the omen (the successful capture of Troy) -- and what he fears he may mean (Artemis demanding another sacrifice) -- is followed at once by the so-called hymn to Zeus (160-83), after which the chorus turns back immediately to Agamemnon with these words "And then the senior chieftain of the Achaean ships, blaming no prophet, letting his spirit go with the sudden blasts of fortune..." (Lloyd-Jones's trans.) Agamemnon draws his own inference and, we are told, raises no objection. The king's ready acceptance of his reading of Calchas' words is highlighted by the implicit contrast of how, e.g., the character Agamemnon responded to the prophet in the opening of the Iliad. This leads to another observation. W. suggests that the chorus offer no criticism of Agamemnon's decision, preferring instead A. A. Long's view, cited at 210 n. 13: "What the audience surely feels, as the principal characters face their predicaments, is the inadequacy of any language, moral sententiousness especially, to do justice to their loss and ruin." The limitations of language in general in this trilogy is now a well-studied topic, but, while the audience may feel that here (we can, of course, in any case, only conjecture about their feelings), they might also be led to a critical view of Agamemnon's actions by the rhetoric of their presentation. In addition to the comments made above, we should consider, e.g., the structure of Agamemnon's words quoted by the chorus at 206ff. While the repetition, with ME/N / DE/, of BAREI=A ME\N KH/R ... BAREI=A DE/ implies an equal choice, the emphasis (twelve words to three) and the horror given to the second alternative, certainly weigh the balance of sympathy heavily on one side.

BAREI=A ME\N KH\R TO\ MH\ PIQE/SQAI,
BAREI=A D' E|) TE/KNON DAI/CW, DO/MWN A)/GALMA,
MIAI/NWN PARQENOSFA/GOISIN
R(EI/QROIS PATRW/|OUS XE/RAS.
PE/LAS BWMOU=· TI/ TW=ND' A)/NEU KAKW=N; (206-11)
Agamemnon is confronted with an awful dilemma, one for which words may seem inadequate, but what words there are suggest that he in some sense made the wrong choice.

In addition to the different types of "necessity" W. describes, there are at least two other types in Greek tragedy, only the first of which W. even touches upon: the "necessity" of the tradition and that of the internal dynamics of the drama. Mythological tradition was rarely, if ever, monolithic, but at the same time some features of the stories are essential if the stories are to have any meaning. Agamemnon must at least attempt to sacrifice his daughter (she might be saved at the last minute by Artemis or made "deathless" by the goddess after the sacrifice); this is the essence of this part of the tale. Oedipus must always kill Laius; without this action there is no story. There is also what one might call the internal necessity of any given literary work, a necessity at times related to the necessity of tradition. A Greek tragedy, for example, having moved in a certain direction, cannot very easily, if at all, retreat. The expectations generated within even, say, Medea, that someone will break the impasse Medea imagines for her plans of vengeance (no place to go after murdering the king) cannot be frustrated for long. Aristotle's assertion (assuming that he is referring to Medea) that Aegeus' appearance is alogos is perhaps correct, but only in respect to the identity of the character; some such person must end the impasse. (Richmond Lattimore explores many such internal necessities in his small and valuable Story Patterns in Greek Tragedy.) It would have been interesting and valuable if W. had considered these necessities, along with those he does consider, more fully in his treatment of (selected sections from) the tragedies. Such a synthesis would have been fairer to the complexities of these tragedies and would have produced a richer picture of the ways these dramas explore moral concerns.