Are we any better?

Gisela Striker

  • Shame and Necessity by Bernard Williams
    California, 254 pp, £25.00, May 1993, ISBN 0 520 08046 7

The Sather lecturers are invited by the Department of Classics at Berkeley, but they are not always Classicists in a narrow sense. Bernard Williams rightly and proudly points to the precedent of one of his teachers, E.R. Dodds, whose The Greeks and the Irrational, published in 1951, remains one of the glories of the series. When Williams says in the preface to his own lectures that he is not primarily a Classical scholar, this is not meant as an apology: it simply tells us that his perspective will be mainly philosophical, not philological or literary. In fact, Williams’s project belongs to a philosophical genre exemplified most famously by Nietzsche: comparing ‘the Greeks’, our ancestors, with ourselves in order to discover whether the differences between their moral outlook and our own should be seen as improvements. Williams is not looking for a simple answer – progress, or decline, or much the same. He wants to show, on the one hand, that the Greeks were sufficiently similar to us to make a comparison instructive; on the other hand, that where we take ourselves to have different and perhaps more refined conceptions, we may be either deluded or not as far apart as we might like to believe. In other words, comparing ourselves to the Greeks may have the sobering effect of showing us that we have not advanced all that much, and that we might do well to reconsider some of the moral ideas alleged by philosophers and theologians to mark a decisive improvement.

The Greeks of Williams’s study are those of the Homeric period and of fifth-century Athens: that is, the Greeks before Plato and before the beginning of systematic philosophy. His main sources are Homer and the tragedians, especially Sophocles. No one doubts that these authors can inform us about the ethical ideas of their contemporaries; but since, at least for the fifth century, there are other sources as well, notably historians and orators, the question arises: why not take examples from life? Williams’s reply is a bon mot: ‘what philosophers will lay before themselves and their readers as an alternative to literature will not be life, but bad literature.’ This is going too fast. Not all history writing is bad literature, and where it is good literature, as one might claim for Herodotus and Thucydides, it is still not literature in the sense of fiction. It is a pity Williams has so little to say about his choice of sources.

After setting the scene, Williams proceeds to discuss, in turn, the concepts of agency, responsibility and shame, and two sorts of necessity. He starts with a devastating critique of the portrayal of ‘Homeric man’ as primitive or childlike. He shows that scholars like Bruno Snell, in his very influential The Discovery of the Mind, who have claimed that Homer’s people lack a conception of mind or soul, and hence our conception of human agency, tend to assume there can be no clear way of describing human actions and decisions without the would-be explanatory concepts of soul/body dualism and the will as some sort of mental agency. As Williams puts it, ‘All that Homer seems to have left out is the idea of another mental action that is supposed to lie between coming to a conclusion and acting on it; and he did well in leaving it out, since there is no such action, and the idea of it is the invention of bad philosophy.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in