The Fragility of Goodness

by Martha Craven

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 382

In her first chapter, “Luck and Ethics,” Martha Nussbaum puts the reader on notice that her methodology in studying Greek ethical thought differs from the methods of other modern philosophers. She aligns herself with Aristotle’s methodology of reflecting on the views of “the many and the wise.” The writings that she subjects to scrutiny include some literature often not thought applicable to philosophic inquiry; in Nussbaum’s opinion, it offers breadth to her exploration. Nussbaum also says in this chapter that she intends to study the ancient tragic writers as Plato studied them, that is, by studying their content and style as revealing their concept of human excellence.

Nussbaum favors the insights of tragic works because they explore such themes as human goodness and external circumstances. Tragic works focus particularly on the vulnerability of human lives to fortune, the mutability of circumstances, and the existence of conflicts among commitments. Tragedies also present alternative conceptions and evolving complex patterns of deliberation. Unlike practical experience, tragedies and literature in general present carefully thought out themes and situations designed to present those themes. There is, however, continuity between tragic and poetic works and Greek philosophical writings. Plato’s philosophical search for a self-sufficient good life is motivated, Nussbaum says, by many of the same concerns seen in tragic works. She argues that in dialogues such as Prtagoras (c. 399-390 b.c.e.; Protagoras, 1804) and Symposion (c. 388-368 b.c.e.; Symposium, 1701), Plato examines self-sufficiency, human ambition, and contingency. In this first chapter, Nussbaum prepares the reader for the rich tapestry of voices offered in The Fragility of Goodness.

Although the themes of this work are developed in chapters that could be read as separate and complete essays sharing common concerns, Nussbaum often poses questions in one chapter and replies to these questions in another chapter. In different chapters, she also finds separate answers to the overall, formidable question of this book: how the effects of chance and luck influence the goodness of humankind. Each literary work is examined for its philosophical import and its ways of transmitting its meaning. Throughout her work, Nussbaum supplies the relevant history of ideas, philosophical traditions, and literary devices. She takes care to examine works in their context to show how the ancient Greeks would have seen these issues.

Human Choice

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In part 1, titled “Tragedy: Fragility and Ambition,” Nussbaum begins her discussion of the conflict between human choice and uncontrollable circumstances using Aeschylus’s Agamemnn (458 b.c.e.; Agamemnon, 1777). Agamemnon must decide between sacrificing his daughter or having his expedition of ships remain becalmed, without wind to propel them. Agamemnon’s options are, in Nussbaum’s opinion, descriptive of the interaction between external constraints and personal choice that is found in ordinary situations. What solution can be found to this dilemma?

In the next chapter, Nussbaum wonders whether a rational person could plan a life to avoid this conflict. She then examines her answer in the context of Sophocles’ Antigon (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729). In this work, the central characters attempt to ward off conflict and tension by restricting their commitments and love. Nussbaum examines the motivations of these attempts and their outcomes. Each character in the play is presented as molded to his or her decision, with attitudes of confidence and stability—supposedly safe from the damages of changes and chance.

In assessing each character’s attitudes and perspective, Nussbaum guides her reader through original Greek passages to illustrate subtleties of choices and motives. She apprises readers of what audiences of this time would think about these conflicts. She selects lines of the play, allowing readers to see for themselves what she has described. She examines individual images and metaphors in the play for insight into themes. For example, the state, so important in Antigone, is like a ship—built by human beings to subdue nature and chance. It also can be an instrument of control, which is the way the character Creon sees it. In his opinion, any opponent of the city should be suppressed. He accuses Antigone of being rigid in her beliefs (that she must obey the gods and bury her brother), but he is as rigid in his belief that he must kill anyone who disobeys rules of the state. At the end of the play, Creon understands the complexity of the city, composed of individuals and families having conflicting concerns.


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In part 2 of this book, “Plato: Goodness Without Fragility?,” Nussbaum examines themes, presented in several dialogues of Plato, that appeared in the first section. She notes the distinctions between presentations of her themes in tragedy as compared to dialogue form; the dialogue gives opportunities for examining different views and choices. Plato’s dialogue Protagoras is set in a time when Athenians thought that progress could eliminate ungoverned contingencies from social life. It was hoped that tuch (translated as “luck” or “what happens”) could be controlled by techn (translated as “human art or science”) or epistm Episteme usually translated as “knowledge,” “understanding,” or “science”). Socrates had confidence in techn because it stressed universal, teachable, and precise explanation. These features offered human control of unforeseen circumstances: universality and explanation order the past, teaching invites future progress, and precision yields accuracy. Both Socrates and Protagoras propose to teach techn. At the end of the dialogue, they agree that only a scientific techn of the type favored by Socrates can save the lives of human beings.

Plato’s Politeia (middle period dialogue, 388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701) is another opportunity for Plato to examine what is truly worthwhile in a human life; that is, what values will support self-sufficiency. After looking at several alternative lives, Socrates demonstrates that the life of the philosopher is the best human life. Plato finds that “true” pleasures are those chosen in harmony with true beliefs about value or worth, as opposed to those in which agents take part because they falsely believe them to have worth. In other words, only philosophic investigation will give truth. Philosophers alone can judge with the right criteria or from the appropriate standpoint; thus, the philosopher alone will know what values subject people to less risk and supply the most self-sufficiency: These are purity, stability, and truth. Correct beliefs remove the reason for fear. The good person attaches no importance to any external loss that is beyond the control of the rational soul.

Nussbaum questions Plato’s limited, and therefore unrealistic, portrayal of human activity. She states that the Republic underestimates the complexity of human appetites and aesthetic activity. Plato’s theory of values, she says, cannot use an ordinary human viewpoint but instead needs a transcendent viewpoint, from which no pressing human concerns can detract from clear reason.

Another example Nussbaum gives of Plato underestimating the complexity and importance of human activity (in this case, love) is found in the chapter on the Symposium. In analyzing Socrates’ relationship with Alcibiades, Nussbaum wonders whether eros can have any place in a life that is governed by practical reason. Socrates maintains that despite their needy and mortal natures, people can transcend through desire itself to the good. Alcibiades’ speech, however, shows the importance that passion has for human beings. Giving up the emotional component of love, Nussbaum says, is too much to ask. The safety from the contingencies of a love relationship sacrifices a quality of life that marks it as human.

Appearances and Human Experience

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These defects found in Plato’s project are not found in Aristotle’s. Plato refuses to rely on human understanding of experience for truth; Aristotle says that the phenomena of human experience are all we have. In defiance of Plato’s preference for the perfect god’s-eye viewpoint as the only reliable one for finding truth, Aristotle finds truth inside what humans say, see, and believe. Aristotle does not attempt to describe or interpret except in the human context, using human language.

In part 3 of this work, “Aristotle: The Fragility of the Good Human Life,” Nussbaum finds in Aristotle’s methodology a “rich account of philosophical procedure and philosophical limits.” His procedure first describes appearances relevant to the area under study. Next, he sets out any puzzles or dilemmas that arise from conflicting opinions about these appearances and asks for arguments for and against each side. After choosing a position, he analyzes the described phenomena to see if the position taken preserves them as true. Unlike for Plato, theory for Aristotle is integrated with the ways human beings live, act, and see. While discussing the truth of appearances as interpreted by humans, Nussbaum captures Aristotle at his most humorous and persuasive.To try to show that nature exists is comical; for it is obvious that there are many such [that is, changing] things. And to show the obvious through the obscure is what someone does who is unable to distinguish what is self-evident from what is not.

Thus, looking for a perspective outside appearances is, according to Nussbaum, both futile (because such a perspective is unavailable to humans) and destructive (because this perspective makes the human perspective seem unworthy). In seeking the good life, Aristotle, unlike Plato, is not looking for an intrinsic good severed from a particular human context. The values that constitute a good human life are plural and incommensurable—that is, one cannot measure freedom against wealth or height against musicianship. Each excellence is defined separately, as something that has its own value.

The human perspective is rich and complex. Although human beings reach out for understanding, as Aristotle says they do in Metaphysica (c. 335-323 b.c.e.; Metaphysics, 1801), Nussbaum agrees with Aristotle on the dangers of oversimplifying when theorizing. These dangers include hedonism, materialism, and mechanism. In wishing to control circumstances by techn, people may become estranged from that which they originally wished to control. People become strangers to some part of their lives.

Euripides’ Hecuba

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The epilogue concerns the tragedy Hecuba (Heklab, 425 b.c.e.; English translation, 1782); it is titled “The Betrayal of Convention: A Reading of Euripides’ Hecuba.” Euripides’ play concerns a mother’s betrayal and loss. Hecuba, the former queen of Troy but now a Greek slave, entrusts her youngest child to the care of a Thracian king, Polymestor, thought to be her friend. After the child is killed by this king, Hecuba finds revenge by killing Polymestor’s children and blinding him.

Hecuba is first seen as a strong woman, generous toward the needy and fair and loving toward her children. The deaths of many loved ones do not change her values; however, the murder of Polydorus brings about a reversal in her character. This crime is abhorrent because it is treason committed by a good friend, not the result of war. The crime is made real to Hecuba and the audience because she must see and handle the mangled dead child.

Noble Hecuba changes when she chooses revenge. Her revenge does not depend on any conventions of society; she frees herself from society’s restraints. At the end of the play, Hecuba has created an isolated and secure world for herself where justice or piety do not enter. The events of the play show that loss of morality by one person can destroy another person, even a good person. It also can destroy human relatedness and human language.

Throughout her entire book, but particularly in the section discussing Hecuba, Nussbaum shows clearly the fragility of human goodness. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had shown revenge as the project of base or deprived people, but Nussbaum claims that even the most noble of humans, when subject to the contingencies of nature or other people’s actions, may turn into monsters. Hecuba shows that noble characters are, if anything, more open to corrosion than base characters because they have relied on others’ goodness. Nussbaum’s claim is that Greek literature, on the whole, shows that the fragility of goodness poses risks that cannot be suspended without impoverishment of human life. This view challenges many readers’ beliefs about morality and goodness.


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Additional Reading

Cohen, Joshua, ed. For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. This work juxtaposes Nussbaum’s views concerning patriotism and cosmopolitanism with those of sixteen writers who respond to her views. Her call to regard all human beings as fellow citizens and neighbors is answered from various perspectives. Many of the contributors worry about trying to teach children the abstract concept of cosmopolitanism, which they cannot possibly experience. Some writers suggest that some terms, such as “patriotism” and “cosmopolitanism,” are either unclear, not possible to define, or not opposites; they call for refinements in terms. This book is an excellent resource for readers searching for clear argumentation on this provocative topic.

Frum, David. “Teaching the Young.” Public Interest, no. 131 (Spring, 1998): 105-109. Analyzes Cultivating Humanity and demonstrates that it reflects proof of a crisis in higher education. Frum notes and approves of the politicization of university curricula.

Hall, Ronald L. The Human Embrace: The Love of Philosophy and the Philosophy of Love: Kierkegaard, Cavell, Nussbaum. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. A comparative study of Søren Kierkegaard, Stanley Cavell, and Nussbaum.

McInerny, Daniel. “’Divinity Must Live Within Itself’: Nussbaum and Aquinas on Transcending the Human.” International Philosophical Quarterly 37, no. 1 (March, 1997): 65-82. Nussbaum fails in her attempt to defend transcendence as internal to human beings because she cannot justify a way of ordering the virtues in the absence of an extrinsic moral principle. According to McInerny, she does not appreciate the inherent relationships among virtues.

Melville, Stephen. “Just Between Us.” Philosophy Today 36, no. 4 (Winter, 1992): 367-376. Notes that the works of Jean-François Lyotard and Nussbaum are concerned with relations between ethics and aesthetics, though Lyotard is a humanist and Nussbaum an antihumanist.

Pappas, Nickolas. “Fancy Justice: Martha Nussbaum on the Political Value of the Novel.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 78, no. 3 (September, 1997): 278-296. Argues that Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice attempts to show the political value of the novel as potentially promoting the development of sympathetic imagination. Pappas suggests that Nussbaum’s attempt fails because she does not connect theoretical and practical imagination.

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