Do not disturb

Bernard Williams

  • The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics by Martha Nussbaum
    Princeton, 558 pp, £22.50, June 1994, ISBN 0 691 03342 0

This is a book about therapeutic philosophy, the philosopher as doctor. It is a historical work, concerned with the schools of philosophy that developed in the Hellenistic period, the period in which, after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, Greek culture adapted itself to existing in the large and loosely organised states that took the place of the independent city-states in which most Greek life had gone on in the Classical period. These schools continued to develop and to have influence in the Roman world, and indeed some of the principal sources on which Martha Nussbaum draws in her rich and interesting book were written in Latin. It is a work of scholarship, with many references and exegetical notes, but Nussbaum makes it very clear throughout that she regards the issues raised by these ancient styles of philosophy as urgent for us, and she sets out her claim for this in a fluent, unpedantic, and sometimes emotionally urgent style which invites us to get close to what these long dead teachers may have had at heart.

Hellenistic philosophy is often called ‘post-Aristotelian’ philosophy, and Nussbaum takes Aristotle (who died a year after Alexander) as the starting-point, setting out his ethical outlook as a kind of bench-mark. She claims for him, as she has in many other writings, a rather more open-minded and exploratory humanism than some people find in him; and she gives reasons for starting from him rather than from what one might have thought the more obvious choice of Plato, the true parent of therapeutic philosophy. She then leads us through the arguments, aims and procedures of the Epicureans, the Sceptics and the Stoics. It is rather sad, as Nussbaum herself says, that she has not given us the Cynics, a movement (if it amounted even to that) of ill-behaved malcontents, represented by the famous figure of Diogenes, who is said to have lived in a barrel and to have told Alexander to get out of his light. She may be right in saying that we know too little for them to fit into her plan.

Nussbaum introduces a character who is imagined as moving between the various schools of philosophy, a young woman named Nikidion whom Nussbaum has retrieved from an ancient source in which she is mentioned as one of several courtesans with whom Epicurus was said by an enemy to have had a relationship. Despite this promising start, it must be said that Nikidion is a slightly creaky device who barely earns her keep in the narrative, since there is not much that can be kept constant about her as she takes up one course of therapy after another over the centuries. (At the beginning, when she is in Aristotle’s school, she has to be a man, since he made his views about women as thinkers excessively clear.)

Nikidion takes part in the educational procedures of each school, always being offered one or another philosophical therapy for her passions, her fear of death, her trivial attachments, or (in the case of the Sceptics) her mere desire to know anything at all. What exactly has to be cured is somewhat different in each case, and Nussbaum skilfully brings out ways in which the concerns of each school define both a distinctive mode of treatment and a distinctive conception of what needs treating. In all the schools, however, what the pupil is thought to need and is taken to be seeking is peace: ataraxia, as it was called, freedom from emotional disturbance. This objective itself Nussbaum, not surprisingly, finds problematic. Equally problematic is the idea that it can be pursued by philosophical means.

Nussbaum’s account is given largely in terms of philosophies: most of the material consists of reconstructions of what was taught by teachers who had these various allegiances. The reconstruction is itself a very difficult undertaking. No work by any of the leading figures survives except in fragments, and we rely on reports or on works which may be complete – and indeed, in the case of Lucretius’ poem, which is a main source for Epicureanism, outstanding – but which are not direct products of the schools. Moreover, the ‘schools’ themselves are to some extent the construct of people, in the ancient world and more recently, discussing views which were handed on, modified and mixed together over long periods of time. These technical problems are well-known, and Nussbaum both points them out and addresses them resourcefully, even if the result is perhaps to make contrasts between the different approaches rather starker than they should be.

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