Martha Nussbaum’s Socrates

Every so often, I come across a writer whose work compels me to read more of what they have to say – and quickly. Typically, this involves a sense of wishing to read more than just the particular book that’s gripped me: I tend to want to go beyond this with the aim of gaining access to the writer’s whole oeuvre, or at least to the interesting-looking parts of it. What will the insightful, intelligent and subtle approach I have chanced upon in one book reveal when it addresses other subject matter elsewhere? And what kind of life experience lies behind its arresting authorial voice? These are the questions that motivate me to find out more.

I’ve found that the experience of being gripped by an author can happen across a range of different types of writing: novels, historical and philosophical writing, literary criticism and theology – and, recently (and, for me, rather exceptionally), popular science. Obviously it’s exciting to find a writer who can capture the imagination: when this happens, it can leave a permanent impact.

By this I do not mean that the niceties of an author’s detailed arguments stay permanently fixed in my mind. That would hardly be realistic. It’s rather that something of their worldview becomes discernible in its broad outlines so that this in turn provides a set of reference points – both about the author’s personality and the subjects with which they deal – to which I can return in future. 

I first came across the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s work a number of years ago when I bought a copy of her book The Fragility of Goodness while I was a graduate student. This was a carefully written, precisely argued text, but it felt somehow too careful and too slow-moving at the time, and I didn’t get very far into it before feeling that it didn’t contain enough punchy passages to keep me fully engaged. That, I guess, could have been that: the end of my experiment in reading Nussbaum.

Not so. Late last year, when browsing some shelves, I came across a collection of Nussbaum’s reviews, Philosophical Interventions. Here was the same measured style that I remembered from her previous work. But the cool, level-headed approach to argument and the accompanying willingness to pick carefully through complicated (and controversial) territory somehow felt much more arresting than it had done previously.

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Martha Nussbaum

Perhaps my reading tastes had simply changed (matured?). Or perhaps I had found evidence of how Nussbaum’s talents were just more clearly and emphatically on display when she addressed herself to the task of evaluating others’ writing in her reviews. Perhaps a little of both.

The fact is that Nussbaum’s collection of reviews also keeps things interesting by addressing a vast array of different topics and personalities: ideals of women’s education, various works on feminism and philosophy including a cutting perspective on the work of Judith Butler, Allan Bloom’s notorious 1980s text The Closing of the American Mind, the philosophy of Charles Taylor (the Canadian professor, not the Liberian dictator), and a biography of the master expositor of 19th century utilitarianism, Henry Sidgwick.

On the strength of my enjoyment of these reviews, I bought another Nussbaum book: Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defence of Reform in Liberal Education, first published in 1997. In this book Nussbaum argues that the desire to pursue reform in the world of contemporary education is a desire that can be seen to have authentic roots in the ideas of ancient Greece – and, in particular, the ideas of Socrates.

In her opening chapter, Nussbaum suggests that three of the core values of modern-day liberal education – critical self-examination, the ideal of the world citizen, and the development of the narrative imagination – were all promoted by Socrates in fifth century Athens. If these core values are increasingly characteristic features of contemporary education in the humanities, she argues, then this should be seen not as a betrayal of ancient learning (as some, she alleges, are apt to assume) but as a development entirely in keeping with the spirit of both Socrates and a number of other distinguished ancient thinkers.

The opponents of this position whom Nussbaum has in mind are the likes of Allan Bloom, for whom ancient thought is something like a repository of timeless knowledge and wisdom, which gets skewed out of perspective and intellectually marginalised if it is filtered through or (at worst) replaced by the dominant cultural and political trends of the present moment.

Nussbaum is very much concerned to argue against this sort of position. She is anxious to demonstrate that Socrates and his ilk would not be on the side of any kind of staid traditionalism (such as that represented by Bloom) when it comes to critical self-examination. Critical examination doesn’t simply mean finding a way to become a reactionary, with a little help from Plato. That, she thinks, is how Bloom would have it. On the contrary, she suggests, Socrates would be in favour of vibrancy and development: being genuinely Socratic, she suggests, is about being able to combine philosophical questioning and self-awareness with working to effect good outcomes within your sphere of influence in respect of the big issues of the day.

For Nussbaum, this is not however a matter of left versus right: ‘tradition is one foe of Socratic reason. But Socrates has other enemies as well’. Risking the charge of anachronism, she continues by maintaining that ‘his values are assailed by the [contemporary] left as well as by the right’.

Nussbaum then confronts directly those who adopt the ‘fashionable position in progressive intellectual circles’ that ‘rational argument is a male Western device, in its very nature subversive of the equality of women and minorities and non-Western people’. Here, she writes, ‘Socratic argument is suspected of being arrogant and elitist’. The disinterested pursuit of truth, goes the argument, can function as a handy screen for prejudice.

Nussbaum counters that Socratic reason and argument, far from being the enemy of democracy, as many who adopt this dim view of it seem to assume, is essential to it, and essential too to the claims of excluded people. ‘In order to foster a democracy that is reflective and deliberative, rather than simply a marketplace of competing interest groups, a democracy that genuinely takes thought for the common good’, she writes, ‘we must produce citizens who have the Socratic capacity to reason about their beliefs’. The failure to do this, she maintains, leads people to talk at one another without ever having a genuine dialogue. In such an atmosphere, moreover, bad arguments pass for good arguments, and prejudice can all too easily masquerade as reason. ‘To unmask prejudice and secure justice’, she argues, ‘we need argument – an essential tool of civic freedom’. And argument relies on dialogue.

Nussbaum’s Socrates could thus be described as a kind of free-thinking liberal provocateur, one unprepared to embrace dysfunctional tribal politics and one determined to question and critique unthinking arguments, especially those that set little to no store by dialogue, whether they are advanced by voices on the right or left.

I have only just finished the opening chapter of the book and am now looking forward to seeing how convincingly Nussbaum manages to elaborate this thesis in greater depth. It has so far been interesting to see her understanding of the historical Socrates foregrounded in a dramatic way in her writing – not as a person accessible only in the context of past debates and events, but as a model of intellectual and civic life for the present.

This is far from being an unfamiliar approach, but Nussbaum’s version of it has so far felt particularly powerful. Equally, I know that for many contemporary Classicists (and educators more generally?) Socrates is by no means always regarded as the paradigmatic educator Nussbaum takes him to be. So I am looking forward to seeing how she addresses in detail the challenges that are sometimes voiced against him.

*The featured image is ‘Socrates Reproaching Alcibiades’, by Anton Petter.

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