Bernard Williams’s brilliant, demanding, and disturbing book is the fifty-seventh volume of the Sather Classical Lectures, which are delivered annually at Berkeley on a classical subject. Its title calls to mind the work of a predecessor in the series, E. R. Dodds, who called the second chapter in his book The Greeks and the Irrational,1 “From Shame-culture to Guilt-culture.” The echo is deliberate; Williams’s preface makes admiring reference to Dodds, under whom he studied Greek at Oxford, as the author of “one of the most helpful and enduring books in the series, and…one of the closest in subject matter to the concerns of this study.”
It is true that in his first two chapters Dodds is concerned, as Williams is, with “ideas of responsible action, justice, and the motivations that lead people to do things that are admired and respected.” But Dodds, working with anthropological constructs such as “shame and guilt cultures,” saw the ideas of the archaic Greeks on these matters as very different from ours. A shame culture, such as Dodds believed existed in Homeric times, puts high emphasis on preserving honor and on not being publicly disgraced; it relies on “external sanctions for good behaviour.” The allegedly more evolved guilt culture emphasizes personal responsibility and relies on “an internalized conviction of sin.”2 Others have seen the ideas of the archaic Greeks as not just different, but inferior, or rather, as Williams puts it, “primitive ideas” which “have been replaced by a more complex and refined set of conceptions that define a more mature form of ethical experience.”
There are, of course, real differences between our outlook and that of the archaic Greeks, but Williams rejects firmly the now fashionable picture of Greek ethical ideas and their relation to our own, which is “developmental, evolutionary, and—in an ugly word that I have found no way of avoiding—progressivist.” He proposes to “stress some unacknowledged similarities between Greek conceptions and our own,” unacknowledged because “it is an effect of our ethical situation, and of our relations to the ancient Greeks that we should be blind to some of the ways in which we resemble them.” For in studying them we are not like cultural anthropologists who observe other societies to learn about “human diversity, other social or cultural achievements, or, again, what has been spoiled or set aside by the history of European domination.” The Greeks “are among our cultural ancestors” and to learn about them is “part of self-understanding” and “will continue to be so,” for the “Greek past is specially the past of modernity…the modern world was a European creation presided over by the Greek past.”
Yet this is not, in itself, reason enough to study the ethical ideas of the ancient Greeks; “it is too late to assume that the Greek past must be interesting just because it is ‘ours’.” Such study would have importance (and here Williams is quoting Nietzsche) only if it is “untimely,” so that what it does is “to act against the age, and by so doing, to have an effect on the age, and, let us hope, to the benefit of a future age.”
Such untimeliness can indeed, Williams asserts, be claimed for an attempt “to understand how our ideas are related to the Greeks’, because, if we do so, this can specially help us to see ways in which our ideas may be wrong.” And he goes on to make a challenging claim.
In some ways…the basic ethical ideas possessed by the Greeks were different from ours, and also in better condition. In some other respects, it is rather that we rely on much the same conceptions as the Greeks, but we do not acknowledge the extent to which we do so.
“…And also in better condition.” This surprising phrase seems to go beyond a mere rejection of the progressivisit view, to substitute for it what might be described, in an equally ugly but apparently nonexistent word, as “regressivist.” Coming from a professor of Greek it might well be dismissed as one more inflated paean to the glory that was Greece, but Williams is White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford and Monroe Deutsch Professor of Philosophy at Berkeley as well as the author of two books, Moral Luck3 and Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy,4 that explore, with brilliant insight and cogent argument, the moral dilemmas and ethical thought of our own distracted time.
He is not, of course, advocating a simple return to the ancient Greek “ideas of human agency, responsibility, regret, and necessity.” Their embodiment in literature, especially in tragedy, where the supernatural plays a part that is alien to our conceptions of divinity or necessity, demands “that we should look for analogies in our experience and our sense of the world to the necessities they express.” This, as he goes on to say, “would be a large task, both historical and philosophical,” one which in this book he hopes “to situate…and to help us, perhaps, to reach an understanding of our relations to the Greeks that will make clearer what the task means.” He has no illusions, either, about Greek society, as his fifth chapter, which deals with slavery and the subjection of women, makes amply clear. Nor does he think that there was no development, no evolution of ethical ideas in the centuries that separate us from the archaic Greeks. It is just that he does not think that the developments deserve to be characterized as progress.
His devastating case against the progressivist view5 begins with a discussion of Homeric man, or rather, as he is careful to point out, the fictional characters of the Homeric epics, whose thoughts and actions are described in the heroic style created by many generations of oral bards, a style rich in formulaic phrases shaped by the stringent metrical demands of the epic hexameter. Bruno Snell’s still influential vision of Homeric man as one who “does not yet regard himself as the source of his own decisions” is one of Williams’s targets here. It is a vision, he says, in which, “by an analogy to individual moral development, Homer’s characters are seen, in effect, as childish.” Critiques of Snell’s theories, from many different angles, have not been lacking in the years since the publication of his Discovery of the Mind, but none of them can claim the authority of a moral philosopher who sets out to show
that many of the most basic materials of our ethical outlook are present in Homer and that what the critics find lacking are not so much the benefits of moral maturity as the accretions of misleading philosophy.
His analysis of Snell’s vision of the “Homeric Greeks” as men who had no conception of the body as a unit or of the mind as anything other than “components” defined by the analogy of physical organs exposes the ideas that lie at its base: a distinction between body and soul and “the assumption that, not only in later Greek thought, but truly, a distinction between soul and body describes what we are.” However, as he remarks, “We do not, pace Plato, Descartes, Christianity, and Snell, all agree that we each have a soul.”
And the phrase “what we are” is a significant echo of some similar words he used earlier, in his devastating critique of Snell’s denial that Homeric man thought of the body as a unity. He there cited the passage in Iliad XXIV where Priam asks Hermes “whether my son still lies / beside the ships, or whether by now he has been hewn / limb from limb and thrown before the dogs by Achilles.” He receives the answer that Hector is still intact and uncorrupted—“the blessed immortals care for your son, / though he is nothing but a corpse.” Both of them clearly “grasp the body as a unit” as opposed to the separate limbs; their words clearly imply an idea of the body as a person, as a whole. Snell has, he says,
overlooked what is in front of everyone’s eyes; and in the case of Homer and others of the Greeks, this oversight is quite specially destructive of their sensibility, which was basically formed by the thought that this thing that will die, which unless it is properly buried will be eaten by dogs and birds, is exactly the thing that one is.
This use of Homer’s text to confute Snell’s theories is typical of Williams’s handling of the issues: it is evident again, for example, in his dismissal of the idea that
Homer does not know genuine personal decisions; even when a hero is shown pondering two alternatives the intervention of the gods plays the key role.
This is, as he says, simply not true; every reader of Homer will recall passages in which a hero deliberates and decides on action independently of divine admonition or advice. But even when a god does intervene, it is not, as he wittily puts it, a case of “simply making people do things—winding them up, so to speak, and pointing them in a certain direction.” The god gives reasons for one or the other of the courses the hero is weighing, or urges a course of action the hero has not considered,
but whatever kind of reason the god gives an agent, the question that the god helps to answer is a question asked by an agent deciding for reasons—and when the agent decides for those reasons and acts on them, he acts on his own reasons.
Normally Williams’s attack on the progressivist case takes the form of close philosophical analysis, but he can also bring to bear a mordant wit. Snell at one point refers to a passage in the Iliad in which Glaukos, wounded in the arm and in great pain, can no longer fight. He prays to Apollo—“make well this strong wound; / and put the pains to sleep, give me strength”—and Apollo “made the pains stop…and put strength into his spirit.” For Snell this is one more example of a missing element in the archaic conception of the personality. “We believe,” Snell writes, “that a man advances from an earlier situation by an act of his own will, through his own power. If Homer, on the other hand, wants to explain the source of an increase of strength he has no course but to say that the responsibility lies with a god.” Williams points out that Apollo eased Glaukos’ pain, healed his wound, and made him able to do what he very much wanted to do—rescue the corpse of his friend Sarpedon, who had just been killed by Patroclus. “If Snell really thought,” he goes on, “that these services would be replaced in the modern world by an effort of will, I am glad he was not in charge of a hospital.”
Sometimes Williams’s criticism of the progressivist view takes the form neither of philosophical analysis nor of scathing wit but of what can best be described as the revelatory radiance of plain common sense. As, for example, his second reason why “we cannot conclude from the role of the gods that Homer has no concept of deciding for oneself.” It is, he says, “embarrassingly simple.” It is that “the Homeric gods themselves deliberate and come to conclusions”: they do so in the same formulas of doubt and decision used by mortals when no god intervenes; and even if they always intervened in human decisions, “it would still not show that Homer lacked the concept of a deciding for oneself. He could not apply to the gods a concept of decision he did not have.”
If the reason is “embarrassingly simple,” the people who should feel embarrassed are literary scholars of the Homeric epics like myself, who should not have had to wait for a moral philosopher to produce from the text so clear and obvious an objection to Snell’s picture of Homeric man as innocent of the concepts of choice and decision. In his preface Williams warns the reader that he is “not primarily a classical scholar” but “someone who received what used to be called a classical education, became a philosopher, and has kept in touch with Greek studies primarily through work in ancient philosophy.” But in this book, though he does discuss Greek philosophy (Plato and Aristotle in particular), most of his exemplary texts are drawn not from philosophers but from poets, whom he tries to discuss “as poets, not as providing rhythmic examples for philosophy.”
He is aware that his book “does not stay within the limits that this experience might advise”; he can even refer light-heartedly to his classical expertise as his violon d’Ingres. He is over-modest. Time and again the professional classicist will find in these pages arguments drawn from Greek poetic texts and interpretations of passages in those texts that will command his respectful admiration—witness, to take one example, his masterly discussion of the puzzling distinction Phaedra, in Euripides’ Hippolytus, makes between the two kinds of aidos (“shame”).
Williams’s main purpose in these chapters is to expose the fallacies inherent in the claim that the Homeric mind, because Homer had no equivalents for such words as “intention” and “will,” functioned on a more primitive level than ours. “Beneath the terms that mark differences between Homer and ourselves lies a complex net of concepts in terms of which particular actions are explained, and this net was the same for Homer as it is for us.” He goes on to cite the passage in Book V of the Odyssey in which the hero, shipwrecked naked on the Phaeacian shore, considers in detail the alternatives open to him: to sleep where he is, by the river mouth, and risk death from cold and exhaustion, or to go inland to find shelter and risk death as prey to some wild animal. He finally decides to go inland. “Granted,” Williams asks, “that Homer has so much, what is it that he is supposed not to have? What is this concept of the will that…the early Greeks lacked, and perhaps no Greeks ever fully developed?” Homer does indeed have
no word that means, simply, “decide.” But he has the notion…. All that Homer seems to have left out is the idea of another mental action that is supposed necessarily 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.
In the two chapters that follow, he deals with the concepts of intention, responsibility, shame, and guilt with the same enlightening combination of careful philosophical analysis and thoughtful readings of Greek texts that distinguished his critique of Snell. An example of such reading is his discussion of “intention” in the lines of the Odyssey (XXII 154–156) in which Telemachus confesses to his father that he had left the door of the armory open, thus allowing his mother’s suitors access to the weapons with which they are now preparing to defend themselves. He obviously did not intend to do so; it was an oversight. “We cannot,” Williams comments,
…say that Homer has a certain concept simply because he presents us with an incident that we would describe in terms of that concept. It is reasonable, however, to say that there is a certain concept in Homer when he and his characters make distinctions that can be understood only in terms of that concept. This is certainly true of intention, with regard to what Telemachus says.
And there are other similar passages that strengthen the case, and “might well be enough to let us say that Homer had a concept of intention even if he had no word that was related to the general notion at all.”
Thus far we have the logic and the careful distinctions of the moral philosopher. But the case is then buttressed by the keen observation of the literary and philological reader. “In fact, he has such a word, hekon, which very often means ‘intentionally’ or ‘deliberately’ and in the Iliad rarely means anything else.” So, in Book X of the Iliad, Diomedes throws a spear at Dolon and misses him, hekon, deliberately. The spear goes close enough to him to frighten him and stop him in his tracks; he is taken alive, so that Diomedes and Odysseus can extract vital information from him before they kill him. “It is a very significant fact about this word,” Williams points out, “that it occurs in the Iliad and the Odyssey only in the nominative singular: it works like an adverb, attached to verbs of action. This in itself focusses its sense on intention.”
In the long and detailed discussion that follows, centered first on the concept of responsibility and then on shame and guilt, Williams still moves from texts, tragic as well as Homeric, to analysis of their underlying assumptions and comparison with our own conceptions, or, as he rather acidly puts it at one point, “what we think we think.” There is no point in trying to summarize his treatment of these difficult problems. He is a writer who never uses an unnecessary word and his skillfully constructed argument must be read in its entirety for full comprehension and appreciation. But his conclusion, on the subject of responsibility, echoes his basic claim that though in many of these matters our ideas are different from those of the Greeks, they are not necessarily clearer or better. In an analysis of two passages in the Iliad, for example, in one of which responsibility is admitted and in the other partly denied, he finds the concepts of cause, intention, state, and response. “These,” he says, “are the basic elements of any conception of responsibility.” These four elements, however, can be adjusted to each other in many ways and “there is not, and there never could be, just one appropriate way” of doing so—“just one correct conception of responsibility.” Not only are these elements not always related to one another in the same way; they can themselves be interpreted in many different ways. One has only to think of a murder trial in which it has been established that the defendant is guilty, definitely established as the cause. But intention, state (of mind at the time), and response are all debatable and interrelated matters.
Some of the ways that the Greeks had of interpreting and arranging these materials…are different from any that we now have or would want to have. Other ways they had are the same as some of ours, while yet others speak to concerns that we might do better to acknowledge. Above all, what we must not suppose is that we have evolved a definitely just and appropriate way of combining these materials—a way, for instance, called the concept of moral responsibility. We have not.
In his fourth chapter, “Shame and Autonomy,” in which many of his examples are drawn from Greek tragedy, Williams rejects the idea, “which is associated particularly with the work of A. H. Adkins, that in the Homeric shame culture individuals were over-whelmingly concerned with their own success at the expense of other people” and also the idea that the shame system “…supposedly pins the individual’s sense of what should be done merely onto expectations of what others will think of him or her.” In a demanding and convincing argument he confutes these two theories with examples drawn from tragedy (Ajax, Philoctetes, and Hippolytus) as well as from Homer; they show that the archaic conception of shame is much more subtle and complex than critics have been able to see or willing to admit, that the aidos “cannot merely mean ‘shame,’ but must cover something like guilt as well.” Which does not mean that “Homeric society was not, after all, a shame culture,” for
what people’s ethical emotions are depends significantly on what they take them to be. The truth about Greek societies, and in particular the Homeric, is not that they failed to recognize any of the reactions that we associate with guilt, but that they did not make of those reactions the special thing that they became when they are separately recognized as guilt.
This difficult chapter, with its important endnote, “Mechanisms of Shame and Guilt,” is the most professionally philosophical in the book, but it is also, in its sensitive discussion of the texts and its illuminating footnotes, the most rewarding for the literary and philological reader, for it exposes the inadequacy of most of the terms, such as “shame” and “necessity,” in which matters vital for an understanding of the epic and tragic texts have so far been discussed.
The “mechanisms of shame,” Williams writes, impose on the individual “a necessity to act in certain ways,” a necessity “grounded in the ethos, the projects, the individual nature of the agent [i.e., the acting person], and in the way he conceives the relation of his life to other people’s.” But there is also a form of external necessity, one “at the other end of the universe, as one might say,” a divine necessity like the plan of Zeus that caused the deaths of so many heroes at Troy. What happens to an individual may indeed be the result of a divine decision or purpose, a necessity, anangke, but it may seem to him or her to be simply the effect of luck, tuche. Both words are combined in a striking phrase Sophocles puts in the mouth of Tecmessa in the Ajax. Warned that Ajax, who has gone off alone to the seashore, may never return, subject as he is to the wrath of Athena for the rest of the day, she implores the chorus to help her shield him from this “necessary luck,” anangkaias tuches—an expression that, as Williams puts it, “unnervingly combines most of the thoughts available about supernatural necessity.”
But earlier in the play she has used the same phrase to describe her own fate; “necessary luck” or “chance” has made her the slave, the possession of Ajax. This, she says, “was decided somehow by the gods, but most of all by your hand.” To be enslaved may be the result of a divine decision, or it may be just the play of chance, but for the victim it is the imposition of necessity, of force. In the ancient world there was no more dreaded, no more spectacular example of bad luck than to be enslaved, to be one moment free and the next moment the possession of another. It is with the prevalence of slavery, a radical difference between the Greek world and our own, that William’s fifth chapter, “Necessary Identities,” is mainly concerned, though he also discusses the subordinate position of women.
Slavery was so basic an institution that though occasional doubts about its justness were voiced, no free Greek could imagine that civilized life was possible without it. One feature of it that helped mask the ugliness of the relation between master and slave was the fact that, in Athens at least, the slaves were mostly foreigners, barbaroi, a word that simply means people whose native language was not Greek. In modern Athens, in the Epigraphical Museum and the museum of the Agora, visitors can study the broken remnants of an inscription that recorded, in 414 BC, the prices paid for the confiscated property of the men who had been denounced as responsible for the mutilation of the Hermae on the eve of the departure of the great expedition to Sicily. (The men concerned had either been executed or exiled, or, like Alcibiades, had avoided arrest by going or staying abroad.)
Among the goods auctioned off were forty-five slaves, and in thirty-five cases their origin is recorded. They were Thracians (the largest group), Carians, Scythians, Illyrians, Syrians, and a small group (three) of house-bred slaves. Colchis, Lydia, Macedonia, Phrygia, Messenia, and Cappadocia each contributed one to the total. But it could happen to Greeks too, especially in time of war; the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War, first at Scione and then at Melos, put the male population to the sword and sold the women and children. It may even have happened to Plato, and in peacetime; some writers report that Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, offended by Plato’s freedom of speech, had him sold into slavery, from which he was rescued by the generosity of friends. The sources for this story are late, confused, and contradictory,6 but even if it is not true, the fact that it was widely disseminated and evidently believed suggests that no one in the ancient world could discount the possibility of such “a contingent and uniquely brutal disaster.”
Williams’s main concern in this chapter is with Aristotle’s attempt, in the first book of the Politics, to define slavery as “natural.” Such a view, Aristotle informs us, is opposed to the opinion of “some people” who hold that it is “against nature (for it is by convention that one man is a slave and another is free, and in nature there is no difference); therefore it is not just, either; since it is imposed by force.” Williams analyzes, as political philosophy, Aristotle’s tortuous, and in the end contradictory arguments about slavery, and the analysis does indeed serve to demonstrate, as Williams announced that it would, “the truth that if there is something worse than accepting slavery, it consists in defending it.” The ancient Greeks did not try to defend it; the opponents of Aristotle’s view, those he described as “some people,” were in fact a large majority of his fellow Greeks. They recognized that slavery was based on the use of force against human beings who were unlucky enough to have been reduced to a servile condition. But they could imagine no alternative; the life of the citizens in the polis, the only form of civilized organization they knew or could imagine, would have been impossible without that leisure they prized so highly, leisure to haunt the gymnasium, the roofed porches where men congregated for conversation and dispute, the theater, the assembly, the courts, and all the varied, time-consuming duties and pleasures of the free male citizen.
Slaves at Athens worked not only as domestic servants and farmhands but also in industry. Cephalus, for example, the wealthy old man whose house Plato chose as the setting of the Republic, owned a shield factory that employed 120 slaves. And the Athenian state treasury, the source of those silver coins—“Attic owls”—that became the most prized currency of the Greek world, depended on slave labor for the exploitation of the silver mines at Laurion. Individual slave owners leased their property to the state for a fixed period and made a handsome profit. Nicias, the wealthy statesman whom Thucydides, commenting on his execution by the Syracusans, characterized as a man who “of all the Greeks of my time least deserved such a fate, since the whole course of his life had been regulated with strict attention to virtue,” owned a thousand slaves who worked in the mines at Laurion.7
The silver mines there, long since worked out, are still in good condition and can be visited. The mine shafts, two meters by 1.30, go down as far as 130 meters; the miners climbed down on ladders and carried the ore up in baskets. The galleries along which they had to crawl to get to the work face are one meter high and from 0.6 to 0.9 meters wide. I once crawled into one of these galleries, not, needless to say, one that ran off a shaft—it was at ground level, cut into a rock face. In five minutes or so I was round a sharp bend and in total darkness. By this time my hands and knees were badly scraped by the scarred surface of the rock floor; to get out I had to crawl backward. I got stuck in the bend and for a few moments wondered if I would ever get out, but finally did, with badly scratched knees and hands and frayed shirt and trousers. How anyone could work in such conditions, with the crude oil lamps that were all the ancient world could provide, I cannot imagine. But the Laurion miners worked ten hours on and ten hours off.
When, in 413 BC, the Spartans, following the advice of Alcibiades, established a permanent fort on Attic territory at Decelea, twenty thousand Athenian slaves made their way there in the following years, and there can be no doubt that many of them, perhaps most of them, were runaways from Laurion. In fact Thucydides pictures Alcibiades assuring the Spartans that one result of fortifying Decelea would be the Athenian loss of the revenues from the silver mines.8
Slavery was unjustifiable, and nobody but Aristotle seems to have tried to defend it since “considerations of justice and injustice were immobilised by the demands of what was seen as social and economic necessity.” But Williams allows us scant grounds for complacency. “We have social practices,” he writes,
in relation to which we are in a situation much like that of the Greeks with slavery. We recognise arbitrary and brutal ways in which people are handled by society, ways that are conditioned, often, by no more than exposure to luck. We have the intellectual resources to regard the situation of these people, and the systems that allow these things, as unjust, but are uncertain whether to do so, partly because we have seen the corruption and collapse of supposedly alternative systems, partly because we have no settled opinion on the question about which Aristotle tried to contrive a settled opinion, how far the existence of a worthwhile life for some people involves the imposition of suffering on others.
It is a point made in vivid and personal terms by Sir Kenneth Dover in his short but intriguing book The Greeks,9 where he discusses the injustice of Greek slavery. But Dover continues:
What are we to say of conditions which are very different from slavery in the eye of the jurist or the economic historian, but not all that different at the receiving end? I think, for example, of my great-grandfather, orphaned in 1848 and going to work in a factory at the age of eleven, where he was lashed across the back by the foreman if he grew dozy at the end of a long day.
“Slave” and “free” were one pair of “necessary identities”; the other was “man” and “woman.” Aristotle had to work very hard to try to prove that the first pair were “natural” identities; the second presented no problem since it was “received opinion” and “the conventional view” that men and women had different social roles to play. A respectable woman’s place was in the home, the oikos, where she raised the children, trained and supervised the domestic slaves, managed the storage and distribution of grain, oil, and wine, and helped to spin the wool and weave it to make the family’s clothes. A woman at the loom, in fact, was an artistic cliché of the vase painters and a literary cliché of the poets; in the Odyssey not only does Penelope weave her never-to-be-finished web but even the goddess Circe, when first seen by Eurylochus, was “singing while she went to and fro on her great loom.”
For most Greeks the biological identities were also social identities. “There was by nature a position to be filled, and there were people who by nature occupied it. In trying to show that being a slave was a necessary identity, Aristotle was, up to a point, suggesting that if slavery were properly conducted, slaves would become what women actually were.” But, again, Williams does not allow us to congratulate ourselves too loudly.
Quite apart from the fact that prejudice based on traditional religious conceptions flourishes in the contemporary world, the idea that gender roles are imposed by nature is alive in “modern,” scientistic forms. In particular, the more crassly unreflective contributions of sociobiology to this subject represent little more than continuations of Aristotelian anthropology by other means.
The final chapter, “Possibility, Freedom, and Power,” though it too bases its argument on detailed and enlightening discussion of Greek literary texts, is, at least for those who, like the reviewer, are not initiates in the analytic school of moral philosophy, the most difficult. It is also the most rewarding, for in it the themes of earlier chapters—“necessity imposed on some human beings by others” and “the necessity encountered when an agent concludes that he must act in a certain way” are linked to a different and more mysterious necessity: What was “meant when an ancient Greek said that something was brought about by a god.” This is a necessity that is “not part of our world.”
It is, however, a necessity by which many Greek tragedies, as he says, are “shaped” and his discussion begins with an examination of two passages that have given rise to much scholarly controversy, both of them from tragedies of Aeschylus: Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter at Aulis, and Eteocles’ decision to fight against his brother at Thebes. Agamemnon’s decision (and Williams points out that he does not, as some have translated the phrase “submit to the harness of necessity” but puts it on “as someone puts on armour”) is a choice between two evils, a choice imposed by the goddess Artemis.
For reasons not explained in the play, Artemis decrees that only the sacrifice of his daughter would enable his stalled fleet to sail. In the care of Eteocles the “necessity” is not suddenly imposed; it has been in the background for some time. Eteocles decides to fight his brother, and answers the attempts of the chorus to dissuade him by sounding the themes of justice, shame, and honor. But at the same time he realizes that he is fulfilling the curse of his father, Oedipus, and that what he is doing has been decreed by the gods. Neither of these situations, Williams claims, involves “immediate fatalism or anything like it.” Necessity here “presents itself to the agent as having produced the circumstances in which he must act, and he decides in the light of those circumstances.” But it may also shape events without presenting itself at all; it may be recognized only after the event, or announced beforehand but only in riddling, ambiguous terms, through omens or oracles.
In such cases the agent may, like Laius and Jocasta when they exposed their child on the mountain, or Oedipus, when he turned his back on Corinth and walked toward Thebes, take steps designed to avoid fulfillment of the prophecy that nonetheless have the effect of bringing it about. For those involved, the “necessity…applied to human actions was purposive or at least had the shape of the purposive.” And this notion “introduces…the idea of being in someone’s power.” In the archaic and tragic vision of the world the purpose was not seen as benevolent; it belonged “to an order of things” that had “the shape and the discouraging effect of a hostile plan, a plan that remains incurably hidden from us.”
Williams sees Euripides as a dissenter from this view, but hardly along optimistic lines; he abandons “these expressions of a shaping necessity” and subjects “his audience as much as his characters to the uncertainties of an unnerving chance.” Unlike Tecmessa he sees no connection between necessity and chance, for him tuche (or luck) is not anangkaia (or necessity). Between these two views of the universe as shaped by external necessity and subject to blind chance there stands, “revealingly,” says Williams, a more optimistic one, “associated with Protagoras”—that we may hope to control the political and practical world by empirical, rational, planning. It is a view implicit in the first of the speeches put in the mouth of Pericles by Thucydides in his history of the Peloponnesian War, though he himself had “a powerful sense of the limitations of foresight, and of the uncontrollable impact of chance.”
Sophocles, in whom Dodds saw “the last great exponent of the archaic world-view,” and Thucydides, in whose book the gods play no part and who had nothing but contempt for oracles and prophecies, may seem at first sight to have little or nothing in common. But Williams sees them as similar in their refusal to believe, as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel did, that “the universe or history or the structure of human reason can, when properly understood, yield a pattern that makes sense of human life and human aspirations.” Different though they are in so many other respects, they stand, together with Homer and other archaic poets and thinkers, apart from
all those who have thought that somehow or other, in this life or the next, morally if not materially, as individuals or as an historical collective, we shall be safe; or, if not safe, at least reassured that at some level of the world’s constitution there is something to be discovered that makes ultimate sense of our concerns.
Though we can join Thucydides in his acceptance of the possibility that “the actual turn of events may proceed on just as stupid a course as the plans of human beings,” the Sophoclean necessity, with its gods and prophecies, is not “part of our world.” This sort of necessity “is like the operation of an effective agent, but this agent, unlike the Homeric gods with their individual schemes, has no characteristics except purpose and power…he has, so to speak, no style.” So, in our world, “social reality can act to crush a worthwhile, significant, character or project without displaying either the lively individual purposes of a pagan god or the world-historical significance of a Judaic, a Christian, or a Marxist teleology.”
The last pages of the book spell out what Williams meant by his initial claim that the ethical ideas possessed by the Greeks “were different from ours and also in better condition.” The justification of that startling phrase turns out to be that most of what are commonly regarded as improvements on the ethical ideas of the archaic Greeks, that “complex and refined set of conceptions that define a more mature form of ethical experience,” are illusions or “myths,” conceptions that do not stand up to philosophical examination. In the centuries since Homer, Sophocles, and Thucydides, we have acquired a lot of intellectual baggage that we would be better off without. “The Greeks,” Williams quotes Nietzsche’s brilliant paradox, “were superficial—out of profundity.”
“We are in an ethical condition,” he sums up,
that lies not only beyond Christianity, but beyond its Kantian and its Hegelian legacies…. We know that the world was not made for us, or we for the world, that our history tells no purposive story, and that there is no position outside the world or outside history from which we might hope to authenticate our activities. We have to acknowledge the hideous costs of many human achievements that we value, including this reflective sense itself, and recognise that there is no redemptive Hegelian history or universal Leibnizian cost-benefit analysis to show that it will come out well enough in the end. In important ways, we are, in our ethical situation, more like human beings in antiquity than any Western people have been in the meantime. More particularly, we are like those who, from the fifth century and earlier, have left us traces of a consciousness that had not yet been touched by Plato’s and Aristotle’s attempts to make our ethical relations to the world fully intelligible.
Our world is of course very different from the world of Sophocles, and Williams is not countenancing nostalgic fantasies. But if, as he says, “we find things of a special beauty and power in what has survived from that world, it is encouraging to think that we might move beyond marvelling at them, to putting them, or bits of them, to modern uses.” And he closes the long argument by quoting, in his own elegant translation, an apposite image from Pindar:
If someone with a sharp axe
hacks off the boughs of a great oak tree,
and spoils its handsome shape;
although its fruit has failed, yet it can give an account of itself
if it comes later to a winter fire
or if it rests on the pillars of some palace
and does a sad task among foreign walls,
when there is nothing left in the place it came from.10
November 18, 1993
University of California Press, 1951. ↩
The quotations are from Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), where the terms shame-and guilt-culture were first used. ↩
Cambridge University Press, 1981. ↩
Harvard University Press, 1985. ↩
It has often been attacked before, from different perspectives. The most thorough assault is that of Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, The Justice of Zeus (University of California Press, 1971). The second edition (1983) contains a characteristically vigorous reply to criticisms of the first. ↩
See Alice Riginos Swift, Platonica (Leiden: Brill, 1976), pp. 86–92. ↩
Xenophon, Vect., iv. II 14. ↩
VI, 91, 7. ↩
University of Texas Press, 1980, p. 28. The book is based on his participation in a BBC television series of the same name. It is a lively and stimulating introduction to Greek civilization. ↩
Pythian, iv., 264–269. ↩