Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.10.06

Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness. Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. (Revised edition).   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2001.  Pp. xliv + 544.  ISBN 0-521-79126-X.  £50.00/$80.00.  ISBN 0-521-79472-2.  £17.95/$27.95.  

Reviewed by Patrick O'Sullivan, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ
Word count: 3484 words

Having not read the first edition of this widely-discussed book when it first came out over fifteen years ago, this reviewer welcomed the opportunity to acquaint himself with the work in 'revised' format when it was released last year. The extent of the revisions, however, is restricted to a new preface in which Nussbaum (henceforth N) tells us how her more recent thinking on Stoic political philosophy has affected her current view of the book. The text itself, as she acknowledges, is unchanged from the 1986 edition. This is somewhat disappointing, since it seems that there are plenty of places in the book for discussion of Stoicism, which conceivably is a natural extension of various issues as dealt with by N -- for instance, her treatment of Socratic ethics and its legacy in the ancient world. At the same time I felt an editorial scalpel could have been wielded more efficiently in places, particularly in regard to the end-notes and Chapters 8 & 9 on Aristotelian orexis and rationality. Had this been done, sufficient room could have been made available to incorporate within the text N's revised thinking. This would also make the adjunct 'Revised Edition' (more) justified.1 Another disappointment is that the bibliography is not updated at all since 1986, except for three instances I noted, apart from when N has cited her own post-1986 work. So the book cannot be said to serve as a useful source for the most recent thinking in the areas discussed by N. That said, the book is ambitious and long enough as it is -- or was -- and still provides us with many interesting insights and suggestions, along with more problematic readings. And N's book is rich enough to warrant further discussion, notwithstanding the critical attention it first received and despite the lack of a more thorough revision, which this reviewer was hoping for. In this review, I do not have the space to discuss all the noteworthy features of such a detailed and lengthy book. The following piece, then, will give an outline of its contents and attempt to make some observations of interest which do not appear to have been made before.2

The general scope of N's inquiry is to pursue Greek responses to the problems of living a good life and making the right ethical choices in a world where chance and events beyond our control can shatter the very foundations of all we hold dear or force us into insoluble crises. She looks for her answers primarily in select tragedies of Aeschylus (the Septem, and the Agamemnon), Sophocles' Antigone, and the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, with an epilogue on Euripides' Hecuba. Simply put, N's overarching way of handling these texts is to see a trajectory of ancient thought involving three essential stages. Firstly, she sees that tragedy places importance on the contingent factors of our lives -- our relationships with loved ones and friends, our wish for power and success in the world, and so on; for her, tragedy's typically complex treatment of these issues leads to a 'learning through suffering' and conveys a sophisticated ethical world-view. Secondly, on N's reading, Plato challenges this view, most potently in the Protagoras, Phaedo, Republic and Symposium, to focus on a complete self-sufficiency, devoted to a more abstract, yet supposedly permanent Form of truth, which is independent of human relations or the vicissitudes of life. To borrow N's terminology this involves the attainment of 'goodness without fragility'. Here it seems was scope for a treatment of Stoicism as an extension of such evidently austere Socratic ethics, but none is to be found. In any event, N argues that Plato modified and 'softened' this ethical austerity in the Phaedrus, where profound love between human beings is accorded significant value. Finally, in N's approach, Aristotle emerges in the light of Plato's attacks and offers a sophisticated defence and development of the older view, so that one can aspire to real virtue and the good life on a human level with all the complexities and limitations this might involve. There is something distinctly Hegelian in all this, and it is no coincidence that N adopts a modified Hegelian approach to the Antigone (pp. 63ff). But it would appear that Hegel's general thesis-antithesis-synthesis theories have influenced her more deeply than she seems to be aware. This, to be sure, leads N to a number of suggestive insights and connections in places, and I am in full sympathy with N's method of reading tragedy as a vehicle for intellectual history with profound effects on Plato, Aristotle and other philosophers. But there are also considerable distortions and difficulties in her readings of these varied texts which, at times, seem largely attributable to her rather procrustean scheme of inquiry.

In dealing with Aeschylus (Chapter 2), N focuses on the parodos of the Agamemnon in which the Mycenaean king is described by the chorus as acceding to the sacrifice of Iphigeneia. The ethical conflict suffered by the king involves a clash between the demands of family and those of public life, and a similar conflict confronts Eteocles, as he knowingly goes out to face his brother in mutually fratricidal combat in the Septem. N sees that Aeschylus presents the dilemmas confronting Agamemnon and Eteocles as ultimately irresolvable. She draws a contrast between this 'Aeschylean' view and Kant's attempts to make ethical contradiction an impossibility -- a contrast that generally seems to inform her subsequent treatment of Platonic ethics as a reaction to that in tragedy. N sees something to be gained in Aeschylus' scheme, essentially through the chorus' experience and, by extension, that of the audience, namely, the concept of pathei mathos (mentioned by the chorus: Ag. 177; cf. 250). For N this 'learning through suffering' enables us and the chorus to do justice to a many-sided conflict and make enriched deliberations of thought and feeling which the characters themselves were not capable of (esp. pp. 44-6). Both Eteocles and Agamemnon, on this reading are deluded in denying the humanity of their victims (brother and daughter, respectively), and N sees Eteocles as morally flawed in failing to engage in 'truthful imaginative seeing' (p. 43) regarding Polyneices' nature.

But one may object on many levels. Firstly, N pays too little attention to the fact that both characters are operating under a curse. This is not to say that all their actions are predetermined, but this fact surely needed fuller treatment if we are to understand the nature of their dilemmas. Secondly, Eteocles is not alone in denouncing his brother. Unequivocal condemnation of Polyneices as an attacker of his native city comes from the prophet Amphiaraus, reluctantly drawn into the conflict and an unimpeachable character in Aeschylus' account (568-625, esp. 580-9). Also, Eteocles does acknowledge the evil of fratricide, but sees it as inevitable as his final words show: 'When the gods send evils (kaka) you cannot escape them' (719). Arguably, his tragic despair seems all the more moving for showing that he understands what the chorus cannot. This chorus, we should remember, are hardly neutral observers of action in the play; rather for much of it they are the panic-ridden women whose outbursts threaten to undermine the city's ability to defend itself, as Eteocles brutally points out to them in a series of (in)famously misogynistic rebukes (182-286). These women are vulnerable and pitiable, fully understanding the horrors that await them should Thebes fall, and Eteocles seems to treat them harshly even as he ensures their protection. But can they -- or any character -- be considered even remotely as the ethical mouthpiece of the poet? If anyone has 'learnt' anything (and I'm not sure that we have to look at it in such terms anyway), surely this is Eteocles, horrible though his discovery is, that the fulfillment of the curse is at hand. All the chorus can do is attempt to stop a doomed man from fulfilling his destiny and lament their failure; interestingly in the long threnody that ends the play, Eteocles is never singled out as more morally culpable than his brother. At no stage does the chorus say that it all could have been avoided if only they had got their priorities right.

As for the Agamemnon, in what sense can the chorus be said to have learnt anything? They continually grope in ignorance after the parodos in welcoming their king after Troy's destruction and in singing gladly of his success, which replaces their former hostility towards him, as they admit (799-810). Elsewhere, they almost seem comical when confronted by Cassandra who tells them the whole appalling history of the house of Atreus, which will continue to spill its own blood now and in the next generation. Their reaction to Agamemnon's cries for help even more emphatically underlines their own ineffectual presence, making the murder scene such easy fodder for Housman to parody in his famous 'Fragment of a Greek Tragedy'. I don't wish to underrate the chorus, but my point is that N's treatment of them as some kind of normative voice even in just two Aeschylean passages is at times arbitrary and blind to the broader contexts of each drama. Moreover, subjecting the main characters as she does to an Aristotelian ethical scrutiny misses out on a number of issues as well as being anachronistic. Questions of guilt, pollution and responsibility raised by these dramas are skewed as a result of N's approach and needed better treatment, for these issues persisted in the intellectual life of fifth-century Athens, as the rest of the Oresteia (virtually ignored by N) demonstrates. In fact they recur as social and political issues, as is evident from Antiphon's second tetralogy (3a.2; 3c.7-8, 11-12, etc.), Thucydides' treatment of curses and polluted figures, including Pericles (1.126-35), and Plutarch's record of the discussion between Pericles and Protagoras (Pericles 36.3). Further methodological problems betray themselves elsewhere in N's approach when she describes tragedy as offering an alternative to and 'disagreement with' the Platonic view (p. 46), as if the fifth-century dramatists were responding to the fourth-century philosopher.

N's reading of the Antigone (Chapter 3) is more satisfying, though it involves a considerable, and acknowledged debt especially to scholars such as the late Charles Segal. Here again the conflict is reduced to the family versus polis, and N offers a more plausible account of some of the main issues in the drama, which fit better with the general aim of her inquiry than did her reading of Aeschylean drama. While generally seeing that Antigone's position is upheld by Sophocles as more correct than Creon's, N does suggest that she is not altogether blameless. For N, the 'lesson' to be learned is that problems of the polis should be resolved by less intransigently held views, and a model for civic behaviour can be found in the figures of Haemon and Teiresias, who urge Creon to be more moderate and flexible. In the advice of these two N sees a proto-Aristotelian approach to the conflict confronting Antigone and Creon, so that the kind of practical rationality she ascribes to the philosopher is seen to be implicitly promoted already by Sophocles (esp. pp. 80-2). This, however, has the unfortunate effect of divesting the play of much of its great emotional power and would tend to make these minor figures the most important in the drama. Moreover, they do not simply offer Creon a chance to moderate his stance. They openly tell him he's wrong, defying both gods and justice (635-765, esp. 743-7; 988-1080); and Haemon commits suicide in protest. Even if, as N shows, Antigone can be seen to be an imperfect character, she can still command our full sympathy, even on Aristotelian terms. Indeed, he points out in the Poetics (1453a7-12) that it is precisely such figures, who are not necessarily 'pre-eminent in virtue and justice', who are capable of arousing our sympathy in the first place. In any event, one could easily see that Creon's brutally intolerant behaviour gives Antigone little choice but to act the way she does, and that looking for flaws in her character misses the point, given the extremity of the crisis that she faces. Again, looking at it even on Aristotelian terms, we can note that the philosopher tells us tragedy is more concerned with praxis than ethos (Po. 1450a15-24).

N's chapters (Chs. 4-7) on Plato offer a rich and often attractive reading of a number of dialogues, in which the philosopher is seen to proffer a vision of living the good life without fragility and avoiding the pitfalls connected to the supposed tragic view. In this section N's scheme offers a coherent approach to some influential Platonic dialogues and brings to light many important issues in them. N sees a development of Socratic/Platonic thought where the avoidance of ethical conflict is achieved by quantifying all ethical value in terms of one simple goal or criterion: in the case of the Protagoras, pleasure (hedone). From here N focuses on Socrates' 'rational life plan' in the Republic (Chapter 5) and makes some valuable points about aspects of its political theories designed to eliminate conflict between polis and family (hence the dissolution of the latter). However, her treatment of this vastly complex work is oddly structured, shifting variously from books 9 to books 5, 2 and 3 (very briefly), and returning to book 9 with its focus on desires and the unjust soul. She says very little on Plato's reception of epic and tragedy; one might have expected much more on this, given the scope of her book. And her treatment of Plato's response to the idea of poetry as a form of education is also very brief (pp. 157-8), even though she acknowledges that more than half of the Republic is taken up with theories of education. The concept of complete self-sufficiency and attainment of permanent wisdom through a philosophical Eros climaxes, so to speak, in Diotima's speech in the Symposium (Ch. 6). The picture of Eros offered here involves a gradual ascent whereby desire for earthly pleasures and individuals is replaced by desire for Beauty itself, a Form which is free of the normal contingencies that beset erotic encounters in ordinary human lives. N suggests that Alcibiades' (almost) literal gate-crashing and bravura performance in his erotic encomium of Socrates is, for all its appeal, ultimately condemned by Plato, who offers us a stark choice between two mutually exclusive types of desire (pp. 195-99). But can Plato's own views be so readily extracted from such a work? In fact this question could apply to all of N's readings of Plato, whom she presents as a great reactionary to tragedy. She seems to assume his views can be easily identified with those put into the mouth of Socrates (or Socratic figures), an assumption that recent scholarship -- which could have been taken into account in an 'updated' edition -- has rightly challenged.3

N attempts to rehabilitate or mitigate aspects of Platonic philosophy with her discussion of the Phaedrus, in which some philosophical value is accorded to the Eros felt between two people (Chapter 7), and offers a useful analysis along the way. However, her conjecture that this apparent volte-face was due to Plato's alleged love for Dion (pp. 228ff) is about as convincing as most other ancient biographical conjectures, and could have been avoided altogether if she had been more willing to see that ideas ascribed to Socrates in Platonic dialogues need not be those of the writer himself. N also at times oversimplifies Plato's attitude to the role of emotions, appetites and desires -- which can be equated with the epithumetikon -- within the Republic. And it is interesting that some of these oversimplifications occur in her chapter on the Phaedrus, as if she is attempting to (over)stress polarities between these two dialogues. In places (p. 152, 222, 307, n. 44, 474-5, etc.) N speaks of Socrates' hostility to the epithumetikon and desires generally and implies their dispensibility in the Republic, but it should be noted that these elements are more complex in places. At Rep. 8.558d-e, some desires are acknowledged as being both beneficial and necessary, and at Rep. 9.580d all parts of the soul, including the logistikon (the intellectual, rational faculty) itself, are designated as having desires (epithumiai) and controls (archai). Moreover, the tripartite psychological scheme drawn up in Rep. 4 allots an essential place to the epithumetikon, which Plato wishes to be rid of no more than he does the artisan class in his political theorising in the Republic. These two psychological and political elements are, of course, analogies for each other and each has its own function to fulfill, as part of the concept of justice espoused in the Republic (Rep. 4.433a-b, 441e-442b, 443a-444a, 444d). In the Republic, the real danger of the epithumetikon is not the fact of its existence, but rather its propensity to exceed its limits; strict control of it, not its elimination, is a crucial factor in enabling us to lead a just life.

In the final major section of the book (esp. Chapters 10-12), N sees Aristotelian ethics as an anthropocentric attack on Plato's idealising scheme (p. 291); that is, Aristotle articulates a conception of life devoted to the contingencies of love, politics and other social activity. N sees these Aristotelian concerns as a natural extension of his treatment of orexis in animals (Chs. 8 & 9); this is attractive, but could have been dealt with far more succinctly in my view. She understands Aristotle to be offering a sophisticated account of the non-commensurability of values that are qualitatively different -- a claim that she supports with a discussion of Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, Poetics and Rhetoric. For N, Aristotle posits the essential vulnerability of eudaimonia, which can nevertheless have real value, albeit within a human, cultural context. There is much of value in N's readings here, as she demonstrates how features of Aristotelian eudaimonia are actually dependent on human institutions, rather than existing despite them. Thus, the polis provides goods for a person that would be otherwise unattainable; Plato's ethical framework is seen to be significantly impoverished as a result. Although N never goes so far as to state it explicitly, her reading of Aristotle's species-oriented ethics conceivably shows him to be more Protagorean than generally recognised in that for both sophist and philosopher man is indeed the measure of all things. Aristotle can thus be understood to be reviving not just a supposedly tragic view, but one also that owes considerable debt to sophistic thinking. N struggles with Aristotle's views on theoria in Book 10.6-8 of the EN (pp. 373-77), which arguably come closest to Plato's idealising notions of ethical value in positing a life of contemplation as the highest good. She attempts to see these thoughts as somehow exceptional (cf. also p. 496 n. 37) and tries to mitigate their role in Aristotle's thought. Primarily this would seem to be because they do not fit in with her overall scheme, in which it appears that Aristotle must be made to appear anti-Platonic wherever possible. But there seems little reason not to see Aristotle's remarks on theoria as important in his ethical thinking, and if this poses for us a contradiction or paradox, we may have to adjust our theoretical approach to the material accordingly.

While aspects of N's overall method remain problematic, I did profit from many of her readings in places. But I am not always convinced that the questions N asks of the texts she discusses are as central to them as she seems to think. Due to the ambitious compass of her work, N has left herself vulnerable as she deals with material in ways which are sometimes genuinely illuminating and insightful, at other times unsatisfying and misdirected. The inadequacies of Aristotle's approach to non-Sophoclean drama, for instance, have long been noted,4 and N's Aristotelian reading of the Hecuba is open to objection on various levels.5 Moreover, it is rather odd that a book devoted to Greek ethical thinking has so little to say about concepts of justice, surely the prime focus of Plato's Republic. Various issues which N's book touches on have moved on since its first appearance, and in this 'updated edition' opportunities to incorporate more recent work have been missed. Yet, over fifteen years since its first appearance, this work is still of interest to literary critics, philosophers and intellectual historians alike. Many will find much to disagree with between its covers, but this should not obscure the value it holds. For there will be found much to stimulate further worthwhile thought in areas of scholarly inquiry too often arbitrarily isolated from each other. The significance of N's work lies not least in showing some of the benefits to be gained from a more unified treatment of these areas than the trend for academic hyper-specialisation usually allows. Various caveats notwithstanding, N's book still has much to offer.


1.   On the cover and spine we find the words 'Updated Edition', while the title page calls it a 'Revised Edition'. It seems to me to be more accurate to describe the new publication as a reprint with a new preface.
2.   Criticism of the philosophical content of the book can be found in T. Irwin's review Journal of Philosophy (1988) 376-83; M. Heath largely focuses on N's treatment of the Hecuba in his review CR n. s. 37 (1987) 43-7.
3.   E.g., G. A. Press (ed.), Who Speaks for Plato? Studies in Platonic Anonymity Lanham, 2000.
4.   See, for instance, J. Jones, On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy (London, 1962), esp. Section 1.
5.   See Heath, note 2.

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