Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.