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.

Democracy and the Totalitarian Threat, from Plato to Popper via Arginusae

Some heavy charges were laid against Plato’s political philosophy in the twentieth century. In the influential view of Karl Popper,* Plato’s conception of the ideal city-state in the Republic represents a totalitarian vision, an intellectual antecedent to the abhorrent totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.

A major element of the totalitarianism Popper identifies in Plato is that he thinks political power should be concentrated in the hands of an elite, chosen few (whose task, among other things, is to ensure the wellbeing of everyone else). The general population is offered no alternative to this specially groomed group of rulers, who are chosen not by popular vote but by selection on the basis of their natural characteristics, intellectual abilities and personal virtues.

Popper criticises Plato also for the unity his rulers aim to instil in the city-state. The rulers are required to ensure that all members of the city can enjoy a good life. To do this, they must use propaganda: this is necessary, Plato thinks, if citizens are going to accept that what is good for them as individuals is the same thing as what is good for the city as a whole. In a functional city-state, Plato maintains, everyone will be motivated to live and work as individuals toward the good and unity of their city. By doing so – and only by doing so, will they be able to realise their own personal happiness. The job of the city-state’s rulers (who are concerned with the happiness of everyone) is to maintain the conditions in which these aims can be met.

For Popper, Plato’s is a nightmarish vision. Its principal defect, he suggests, is that Plato just doesn’t take seriously enough people’s individual interests and concerns: he seems to be uninterested in personal autonomy as a requisite feature of the good city. Instead, he is happy for his citizens to be propagandised for purportedly benign purposes, and he wants them to align their individual interests with those of a given political unit and its rulers. If the disastrous totalitarian experiments of twentieth century history teach us anything, Popper proposes, it is that this is a kind of political philosophy that leads in a very dangerous direction and cannot be endorsed.

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Karl Popper, who argued against the totalitarian elements he identified in Plato’s political philosophy

Popper wants to distinguish, however, between the philosophy of Plato and that of Socrates – his teacher and the star character in Plato’s dialogues. This is difficult, as we only really have access to Plato’s views insofar as they are voiced by Socrates himself in the dialogues. But, for Popper (and indeed for many scholarly experts on Plato), we meet different Socrateses in different places in Plato’s dialogues: amongst these texts, we sometimes gain good access to what the historical Socrates himself thought and said; sometimes we gain access instead only to what Plato himself thinks.

In short, Popper blames what he identifies as the totalitarian elements in Plato’s dialogues on Plato himself, seeing those parts of the Republic in which Plato articulates them (using the voice of Socrates to do so) as a betrayal of the true thought of the historical Socrates. On this view, it is Plato – not Socrates – who is the totalitarian enemy of individual autonomy and freedom and critic of democracy, and (in Popper’s phrase) of ‘the open society’.

I do not share Popper’s confidence that the historical Socrates can be so straightforwardly excluded from the picture here. It doesn’t take an excess of imagination to see a clear fit between the political ideas which the figure of Socrates articulates in Plato’s Republic and some of the more significant moments we know about from the life of the historical Socrates. I want to point to just one, by way of example – not only for what it reveals about Socrates himself, but for what it reveals about a central problem that has often confronted democracy as a political form, from its earliest appearance in ancient Athens right up to its (quite different) instantiations in the present day.

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A bust of Socrates

In the aftermath of the naval conflict between Athens and its rival city-state Sparta at the Battle of Arginusae in the year 406 BC, controversy had ensued.** Although the Athenians had successfully defended themselves in the conflict, some of their generals had elected to press ahead to try to destroy some more Spartan ships, rather than to rescue some floundering fellow Athenians whose ships had been sunk. The water-bound Athenians unfortunately died as a consequence of this decision. When news of this reached Athens, many citizens were outraged. They wanted the death penalty for the generals and one of them – Callixenus – proposed a well-supported motion to this effect.

Socrates, who happened to be acting as an administrative official, chosen by lot to serve the Athenian council (one of the prytaneis), at the time this motion was tabled, attempted to block it, refusing to allow it to be put to vote in the assembly. Xenophon, who records this story, writes that Socrates stated that he wasn’t prepared to allow the motion on the basis that it was illegal: it didn’t matter that a majority of citizens seemed intent on voting for it.

An alternative form of the motion was then tabled and voted through: rather than being tried as a group, the generals would each be tried as individuals. This in turn was overturned: Callixenus’ original motion, with Socrates no longer serving as one of the prytaneis and thus unable to block it, was passed.

Lived experience of this episode likely provided the historical Socrates with troubling proof of an obviously imperfect feature of the Athenian democracy: without much difficulty, a majority had managed to exert itself over and against the rule of law. Democracy itself, arguably, had turned authoritarian. Not only this, but in subsequent years, a good number of the Athenians who had supported Callixenus’ motion came to regret doing so: sometimes, as a democrat, you may find yourself regretting what you voted for.

Plato’s political philosophy in the Republic offers a critique of the whole idea of democracy.*** What Socrates’ experience of the Arginusae debacle offers, in my view, is a good indication as to why the historical Socrates himself may have shared (or come to share) the sort of criticism of democracy that Plato places on his lips in the text. Popper’s scepticism about this should, I think, be doubted.

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A depiction of Plato and his Academy, from a Roman mosaic

Plato’s vision of a good society in the Republic can be criticised in numerous ways and from many angles, especially for the totalitarian ideas it commends. Of course it is important that this vision took shape against the background of lived experience in a democratic society. To its tremendous credit, this was a society that was free-thinking and tolerant enough of free speech to allow dissenting views such as Plato’s, which questioned its very political foundations, to be aired.

Equally, however, the Athens of Socrates and Plato must be seen as a society always under threat. This threat was not just external in nature – from enemies like the Persians, or from the Athenians’ not always very willing allies. The threat to Athens’ democracy could also be internal: it might come from would-be tyrants who lurked in the wings, or from its own intellectual critics – like Plato.

But also, at times, as the Arginusae episode demonstrates, the threat to democracy (insofar as democratic governance must be distinguished from mob-rule, and insofar as the integrity of democratic institutions and the rule of law must form part of a cardinal set of values in any democratic setting) could come also from the authoritarian behaviour of large swathes of its own citizen population.

While it may be tempting to label Plato a straight-down-the-line totalitarian on account of some of the political ideas that are expressed in the Republic, it is worth remembering that it was Plato’s hero Socrates who stood against the authoritarian abuse of Athens’ democratic powers by its own citizens in the aftermath of Arginusae.

*As outlined in The Open Society and its Enemies, volume 1.

**A neat overview of this episode is presented here.

***In a subsequent post, I am going to take a look at one significant passage that forms part of this critique: the famous analogy of the ship.

Theseus the Democrat

Just as modern theatre, film and costume drama can contain elements of anachronism, whereby storylines are adapted and/or jazzed up to produce a contemporary resonance (or provocation), so the same could be true of the very earliest theatrical productions in fifth century Athens. A good example of one such anachronism occurs in Euripides’ Suppliants, a play first performed in 423 BC.

The play itself tells a largely sorry story. The king of Thebes, Creon, has refused burial rites to warriors from another city, Argos, who have been slain outside his city gates. The families of the dead warriors (the ‘suppliants’ of the title are their mothers) are distraught. They regard a third party, Theseus – the king of Athens, as the only figure who might be able to prevail upon Creon to change his mind, so they approach him and ask him to do so. Theseus agrees to do so but is unsuccessful and, with Creon thoroughly stirred up, battle between Athens and Thebes ensues. Theseus’ Athenians successfully overpower Creon’s Theban army; we then learn that Theseus manages to recover the corpses of the slain warriors. Theseus receives the gratitude of the warriors’ relatives and the lasting respect of Argos: the Argives promise that, in recognition of Theseus’ accomplishments on their behalf, they will never attack the city of Athens.

The plot of the play plays out in mythical pre-history. The remote past of Athens seems to have been a topic of some fascination to the city’s fifth century inhabitants: this was a past in which they could find, among other things, their bearings in the present. What better way for a playwright to evoke this past for a fifth century audience, then, than to present it in ways which addressed matters of contemporary (fifth century) relevance?

Euripides self-consciously adopts just this approach in the Suppliants. The clearest case in point is an interaction between Theseus and a herald who has been dispatched by Creon from Thebes. The central matter at issue in this interaction is the topic of democratic governance – and herein lies the anachronism.

Democracy was a relatively recent development for the Athenians of the 420s BC. The central practices and institutions of what would only later come to be called ‘democracy’ had been a staple feature of Athenian politics only since the reforms of Cleisthenes in the late 6th century BC. Certainly the earlier figure of Solon also stands tall in what would turn out to be the Athenian move toward democracy. But Cleisthenes (depicted below) was the really decisive figure. All of which is to say that, in the context of the mythical pre-history that is depicted in the Suppliants, democracy is but a figment of the fictive world Euripides recreates for his audience.

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In suggesting that Theseus, king of Athens, stands for democracy, Euripides is creating not just an anachronism but an additional awkwardness. For is not Theseus a king? And isn’t fifth century Athenian democracy characterised precisely by its lack of (autocratic) monarchy? This self-evident wrinkle is not something that Theseus’ Theban interlocutor aims to exploit, in spite of the fact that Theseus himself surprisingly argues along the following lines:

‘There’s no heavier burden for a city to bear than a monarch. To begin with, a city like that has no laws that are equal to all its citizens’.

And this from a monarch, no less! Clearly, in the Euripidean vision of early Athens, things are a bit complicated and can involve a degree of doublethink on the part of its democratic monarch.

In any case, inserting a debate about the pros and cons of democracy into the Suppliants allows Euripides both to rehearse arguments for democracy and to air scathing criticisms of it. To what extent the playwright himself sympathises with these criticisms, we are left to wonder.

For the Theban herald, one noteworthy danger of democracy is that it can slip into the control of the eloquent but self-serving trickster. A democracy may have

‘men who speak well but who then destroy everything…men who [then] lie to hide all the damage they’ve caused and with those lies escape justice’.

Democracies, he continues, should be criticised for three further reasons. First, they are ruled by ‘mindless herds’. Such herds rush to quick decisions, where it is self-evident that patience and wisdom are required.

Second, many citizens of democracies are far too occupied with mundane affairs and staying economically productive to take a serious interest in governing their city. It is inefficient and unnecessary that such citizens should have a serious political role.

And third (a most objectionable complaint by modern standards), there is the ‘problem’ that humbly born citizens may rise – on account of their capacity to make eloquent political speeches – and surpass even a city’s nobles in their political influence.

Theseus’ response to these arguments is to dismiss them as ‘irrelevant little words’, without in fact directly countering any of them. Instead he extols what he presents as democracy’s attractions.

These include the equal treatment of rich and poor alike before the law; the right of the poor man to speak up in his own defence; the right of any citizen to air ‘good ideas for the city’ to see if he can gain praise for them; and, finally, the opportunity for everyone to flourish and thrive in pursuit of excellence, without fear of offending the ego of an envious autocrat. Under an autocracy, he avers, will not a man’s daughters be always at risk of being involuntarily co-opted into a relationship with a ruling figure? Will not his sons always be at risk of being culled?

It bears repeating that these words are spoken not just anachronistically, but by a monarch. This was an awkwardness Euripides was clearly ready to put up with when writing the play. The debate between Theseus and the herald, with its contemporary fifth century political slant, would certainly have registered with his audience.

Speaking to the deep-seated ideas and thoughts of this audience mattered: for each play Euripides wrote was designed to impress a panel of fellow citizen-judges, with the fundamental aim of winning an annual competition. And ‘doing politics’ in an interesting way, as the devisers of many modern-day productions can surely attest, is one well-trodden route to attracting the plaudits you seek.

  • the featured image is of a 6th century kylix (wine cup) which illustrates Theseus slaying the Minotaur.