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.

This problem, of reconstructing the philosophies, is the same for everyone concerned with these subjects. However, Nussbaum has another problem which is specially severe for her, since she wants to emphasise the work of the various teachers as a therapeutic practice, and this raises the question of how the philosophy when it has been reconstructed – the typical questions, doctrines and arguments that these various groups or traditions elaborated – might at any given time be related to such a practice. In part, this is a question of how the teachers conducted themselves, of how and under what conditions someone seeking such a therapy might be treated. Nussbaum does tell us a little, where there is something to be told, of how the fictional pupil Nikidion might be received and addressed, but most of this has to be constructed from the evidence for the philosophies themselves, and there is hardly any social or cultural material in her book to give us a sense of people who really might have sought a therapy from such teachers, or of what they might have had in mind.

The Therapy of Desire does not aim to give, and granted its scope and its plan, it could not have given, the kind of picture that Peter Brown has given, in his life of Augustine and other books about early Christianity, of what it was like to be someone at a certain date in Alexandria or in Carthage, wondering what to believe. It is not, in that sense, a work of history, as distinct from the history of philosophy, and it is no reproach to it that it is not. However, this does mean that great weight is thrown on the account of the philosophies to make it clear what therapeutic needs they might be thought to meet; and this is not a weight the account can always bear.

In these respects, the most successful treatment is that of Epicureanism. Here, there is some evidence, if indistinct, of a ‘therapeutic community’ which an aspirant might join. It sounds rather familiar in some ways, with advertisements (perhaps) and an exaggerated respect for the master. Equally, of course, there will have been many people who were interested in Epicureanism and influenced by it without belonging to any such group. In this case, too, it is clearer than in any other case what exactly philosophy, as such, was supposed to do for the patient. Nussbaum reminds us that if it is to be distinctively philosophical, a therapy needs to give an important place to rigorous argument and intellectual analysis. The Epicureans do well in this regard, because they thought that our fears and our obsessions were grounded in false beliefs, about death, the gods, and our relations to our and others’ bodies, and that philosophy could defeat those beliefs, by showing clearly that religion was an illusion and death nothing to be feared. Nussbaum works well with these arguments, and in the most brilliant chapter in the book, gives a compelling reading of Lucretius’ extraordinary treatment of sex, a reading which at once assembles an argument, shows why the argument is relevant, and allows the poetic voice its role in delivering the treatment.

Things go less easily with the Sceptics. There are some historical complexities which Nussbaum has reasonably left to one side, and she concentrates on the extreme or ‘Pyrrhonian’ scepticism which is presented in the works of Sextus Empiricus. Sextus has had an immense influence in delivering some of the thoughts of ancient Scepticism to the modern world. However, his work is an assemblage of very varied material, some parts of it more philosophically interesting than others. Moreover, it is not clear how exactly his books are related to teaching or to any therapeutic practice.

Indeed, there is a well-known problem of what, in any case, a practice of Sceptical teaching could coherently embrace. Pyrrhonians thought (more or less) that the aim of ataraxia would be reached by not assenting to anything, including that claim itself, and its tradition, reported by Sextus, includes the famous images that were supposed to capture this paradoxical outlook, such as that of the purgative that purges everything from the body including the purgative itself, and the story of the painter Apelles who, despairing of capturing the effect of a horse’s breath, threw his sponge in irritation at the picture, thus getting that very effect.

Nussbaum relentlessly forces the Sceptics into admitting that if they are in the business of therapy (and she shows that some, at least, did think of themselves in such terms), then the one belief they cannot avoid is that the Sceptical method will favour ataraxia. She expresses some concern that they were willing, in order to encourage unbelief, to use some very bad arguments. She quotes a passage from Sextus (who was himself probably a doctor) called ‘Why the Sceptic sometimes deliberately puts forward arguments which are weak in persuasive power’, in which he proposes that, just as the doctor will not give a patient an overdose but the weakest remedy that will meet the condition, so the teacher will give the pupil the weakest argumentative remedy that will knock out the obstacles to unbelief and hence to peace. But the assumptions behind this argument are extraordinary. ‘Strong’ medicine is dangerous medicine, treatment which may have bad side-effects. If arguments are medicine, strong arguments – that is, sound ones – are not strong medicine, in this sense, but good medicine, and it is the weak arguments that are likely to make people ill. Of course, the Sceptic might say that the illness is belief, and strong arguments induce more belief than weak ones. But even if that were true, which it is not, it would merely underscore the point that the whole idea of using arguments as a Sceptical therapy for belief is ineliminably paradoxical; and by now, I think it must be admitted, rather tediously so.

If someone really did think that inner peace was the overriding imperative, and that it could be reached only through giving up the desire to know – to know anything at all – he would not try, much of the time, to get his pupil into the desired state by arguments, or if he did, it would be clear that they were used only to bewilder. His way would be more like that of a Zen master. Nussbaum has some such thought to hand when she appropriately mentions those in the late Sixties who indeed wanted to drop out of belief, but it raises a question for her procedure. She very much wants us to take each of her therapists seriously, and she very much does so herself, but it is hard now to take ancient Scepticism seriously as a therapeutic enterprise, even if its puzzles (which Descartes already called ‘yesterday’s cabbage’) can still reasonably provide material for an academic and non-sceptical activity, the theory of knowledge, which is not the stuff of therapy.

The Stoics should be the most heavyweight of the three schools. Stoicism lasted in many variants over a very long time, it had substantial public expressions, and it passed on an extensive legacy, good and bad, to the modern world, in such forms as a gritty moralism of inner intention and a belief in human equality. Yet as it emerges here, it is also hard to take seriously, at least as a therapy. It is not that, like Scepticism, it should have given up on philosophy altogether if it was aiming to be a therapy, but rather that one is left unclear what philosophy it invites one to accept. The Stoics thought that the passions should be extirpated altogether. At the end of her account, however, though Nussbaum writes well about their complex theories of the emotions, we are not finally enlightened about why they thought this, or quite what it was supposed to involve. This is because there is no coherent account of the value of the things that typically arouse the passions. The Stoics held that everything except virtue and reason was adiaphoron, ‘indifferent’. Nussbaum tries to argue that this need not mean that those other things have no value at all, but she finally admits defeat. Without some credible account of this, Stoicism seems attached to a lethal high-mindedness which we can hardly recognise as the materials or the goal of a therapy.

There remain some problems, as well, about the way in which Stoicism saw rigorous philosophy. These emerge as rather more severe than they need because Nussbaum puts closely together doctrines from Greek and Roman Stoicism and lays particular emphasis on Seneca (who tried to inculcate virtue in Nero and paid for his failure with his life). Besides being a very strenuous attempt to make Seneca seem both more coherent and more appealing than perhaps he altogether was, this does leave us with an unclear idea of how Stoicism typically understood the relations of theoretical philosophy to the therapeutic enterprise, given that Seneca shared the widespread Roman impatience and incapacity with abstract subjects. On one page, Nussbaum says of Chrysippus (the real founder of Stoicism) that he ‘clearly was one of the greatest logicians in the history of the subject’, and on the next, she tells us about Seneca’s endless abuse of logic as a waste of time. If we are to pay as much attention to Seneca as she would like, it is not clear where this leaves us.

Wittgenstein sometimes spoke of philosophy as though it were a therapy, but in his case the therapy was primarily against the need to do philosophy. Philosophical therapy was, in Karl Kraus’s famous phrase about psychoanalysis, the disease for which it was itself the cure. This conception indeed raised a problem of what philosophy might be like if it were to serve such a purpose. How could anything which was continuous with the practice of traditional philosophy assist the therapy of its own elimination? In fact, even in Wittgenstein himself, therapeutic philosophy looks quite a lot like other philosophy, in its concerns if not altogether in its style of presentation, and it is not surprising that Wittgensteinian themes are now developed in the usual academic manner, with no connection to any conception of therapy. There is not much alternative to this, if philosophy is to be a subject that is taught. If you really thought that philosophy was a therapy, and one that operated just against philosophy, why should you encourage anyone in the first place to acquire the disease? Inoculation is a useful technique only because it injects into the body a harmless version of a harmful bacillus which otherwise might attack one. The philosophical vaccine, by contrast, seems to inject at full strength a disease you are unlikely to catch otherwise. The Wittgensteinian may think that you might catch philosophy anyway, but even if there is such a risk, the best way to head it off is surely not to introduce the philosophical condition into people, but to encourage them (as Wittgenstein often did) to do something else.

The philosophical therapies with which Nussbaum is concerned raise quite different problems. The ills that they seek to cure are not philosophy itself or the products of philosophy, but universal human ills – despair, frustration, anxiety. Moreover, Nussbaum insists that the therapy should consist at heart of orthodox philosophy, with a proper place for rigorous argument (even if, as she also insists, it should pay serious attention to the rhetoric of its presentation). She is severe with the Epicureans for taking too instrumental a view of philosophy, and with the Sceptics, as I have said, for using bad arguments. In this insistence on the integrity of philosophy she distinguishes her own approach to these thinkers from Foucault’s, who saw them only in terms of techniques directed to the souci du soi.

But can we really believe that philosophy, properly understood in terms of rigorous argument, could be so directly related to curing real human misery, the kind of suffering that priests and doctors and – indeed – therapists address? How deep an insight do we have into a culture in which this could be believed? How many people can really have believed it? At the end of her long, intriguing, inventive book, she has left me, for one, feeling how strange it might be to see rigorous philosophy (Chrysippus’s logic, for instance) exclusively or mainly in this light, and also how great a distance separates these thinkers, inasmuch as they did believe this, from the modern world. Despite all the subtlety and insight that she finds in them, despite the fact that the Stoics, in particular, recognised unconscious operations of the mind that were unknown to earlier philosophy, we are surely bound to find the Epicureans too rationalistic, the Sceptics too procedurally self-obsessed, the Stoics (at least in their Roman incarnation) too unyieldingly pompous for us to take entirely seriously, not just their therapies, but the idea of them as philosophical therapists. Nussbaum indeed alleviates the formal implications of their use of philosophy by reminding us, often and well, of the literary dimensions of some philosophy, notably in the case of Lucretius. But this still does not locate the activity where we need it to be, since the relation of writer to reader is not for us, any more than that of teacher to pupil, the relation of therapist to patient.

Standing on the other side of so much history, above all of Christianity and Romanticism, we are bound to find these therapists very strange, in their aims, their tone and their methods: stranger, as it seems to me, than some thinkers who went before them, such as Thucydides or indeed Plato. Just because she has not sought to include any of that history, and has simply tried to bring these Hellenistic philosophers as close to us as she can while acknowledging their differences from us, Martha Nussbaum has given us a vivid sense of that strangeness. She may not perhaps have succeeded as much as she hoped in bringing them close to our concerns, but she has certainly redeemed them from celebratory entombment in the history of philosophy.