The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics
By Martha Nussbaum
Princeton University Press 558 pages, $29.95

In 1986 Martha Nussbaum published The Fragility of Goodness , a study of the ethics of Plato, Aristotle, and the Greek tragedians that won immediate acclaim, not only from philosophers but from the general public as well.

The book’s merits were considerable. Arguing roughly against the Iris Murdoch school of contemporary platonism, Nussbaum insisted on the superiority of Aristotle’s ethics, leveling the charge against Plato’s ethics generally that Aristotle raised against his politics specifically: that it was too idealistic and too divorced from the constraints of everyday affairs to be of use to real statesmen of real cities. Aristotle’s rootedness in common sense, on the contrary, made for both a politics and an ethic that could genuinely guide people in their everyday dilemmas.

But besides arguing this main point, the book went on to establish its thesis by adducing the example of the Greek tragedians, even claiming that Plato had personally been so unnerved by his encounter with Greek tragedy that he was well-nigh forced to ban tragedy and poetry from his ideal republic, whereas one would expect the author of the Nicomachean Ethics to have written the first, and still the most influential, work on tragedy, the Poetics.

Yet, ironically enough, Nussbaum’s treatment of the tragedians, particularly of Euripides’ Hecuba, seemed to undermine Aristotle’s ethics as much as Plato’s. Aristotle is nothing if not optimistic about human nature and its potential for happiness in the empirical world, but Nussbaum’s portrait of that same world through the eyes of Euripides produced a much grimmer picture than that depicted in Aristotle’s works. It is as if the Poetics was his way of domesticating the same terror that induced Plato to ban plays and poetry altogether.

This now seems to be the view of the author herself toward her earlier work, for in her penultimate chapter on Seneca’s Medea she avers that “the real danger posed by literature to philosophy is perhaps nowhere more evident than here.” At the heart of Nussbaum’s new position is her realization that “Aristotle has let the emotions into the good life without understanding how they operate.” His optimism is really a weaker form of the same wishful thinking that made Plato so anxious when confronted with the vision of the tragedians: “The message to the Aristotelian is, then, that there is no safe way of combining deep personal love with spotless moral purity. If you are determined to be a person who cherishes all the virtues . . . you had better omit erotic love.”

But Nussbaum does not abandon Aristotle because she realizes the dichotomy between virtue and erotic love and thus abandons virtue in favor of eros. Quite the contrary, she admits into her own vision the full force of the Stoics’ and Epicureans’ critique of eros, which maintains that “there is no erotic passion that reliably stops short of its own excess.” Epicurus-belying his own reputation among nonexperts as the first of the pleasure-seeking “Epicureans”-is particularly severe on the illusions of erotic love. Not only does Eros “pollute sexual relationships with quasi-religious illusions that prevent us from acknowledging one another as human beings,” it also is the reason there is an “adversarial relationship between sexual indulgence and the orderly conduct of the rest of life.”

In fact Epicurus is the first philosopher in the West to draw a distinction in the spectrum of human appetites that establishes the natural foundation for a possible life of healthy celibacy: he distinguishes among purely empty desires with no inherent basis in the human organism (such as the desire for wealth or fame), natural necessary desires (such as for food and shelter), and natural non-necessary desires (such as for sex) that are grounded in the human organism but are nonetheless dispensable. The latter can, as Nussbaum says, “be neglected without jeopardizing our happy undisturbed condition.”

In some ways, the Stoics, especially Lucretius, are even more critical of the lures of eros. Lucretius has always been a popular philosopher among atheists because of his atomic materialism, but Nussbaum cannot help noting how many of his devoted commentators maintain a discreet silence when it comes to his critique of erotic love-while others even accuse him of insanity or being an embittered old man. But as she wryly notes, love nowadays “has the status of a secular religion, and people often prove far more willing to give up god or gods than to stop making gods of one another.” This tart insight then gives the author the perspective to offer what I believe is a wholly convincing feminist interpretation of Lucretius, showing that the unhappiness of so many marriages comes from a lack of reciprocity and mutual recognition that has its roots in the over-idealization of the erotic other (“Does a goddess have needs?” she asks).

And Seneca is, if anything, even more withering than Lucretius in his critique of the ideal of sexual happiness. Not only does Seneca condemn all erotic passion toward one’s spouse, he also insisted, well before Augustine, that married people should have intercourse for reproduction only. But really he goes much further than Augustine would ever presume to venture, for Seneca insists that we can never safely guarantee that love will not give birth to murder. For it is love itself that provides rage with its most exquisite fuel-by exalting the loved one into a god or goddess. Medea, then, stands for all of us who seek religious refuge from the world by a flight into an idealized, eroticized other. According to Nussbaum, Seneca’s play claims that “none of us, if we love, can stop ourselves from the wish to kill.” Her analysis, I should note, is not remotely similar to those glib accusations one hears today that all erotic relationships, especially between men and women inside marriage, are inherently violent and exploitative. Actually, and ironically enough, it rather approaches the ancient Christian suspicion of the erotic appetite, with which Hellenistic ethics has so much in common-not surprisingly, considering the heavy borrowing from Stoic and Epicurean ethics by the Church Fathers. This is especially noticeable in Epicurus’ recommended cure for love. “By a passion for true philosophy,” he says, “every disturbance and burdensome desire is undone.” In other words, as so many ancient Christian writers knew, especially Augustine and the Areopagite, one sort of eros drives out the other.

Nussbaum’s analysis is particularly acute on anger. She avers that it was the issue of anger that first prompted her to write a second volume on Hellenistic ethics, hoping that the recommendations of the ancients for its extirpation would prove relevant today (hence her title). Her book does not conclude on a very hopeful note in that regard, partly because she still wants, after all is said and done, to cling to the wisdom of Aristotle despite the education she has given “Nikidion” (the fictional student who visits the various schools to learn from them and who must at times disguise herself, Yentl-like, as a male to gain admission-above all, in Aristotle’s lyceum).

Despite her intense immersion in post-Aristotelian thought, “Nikidion” (and obviously through her, the author) still fells drawn to the Stagirite and to his opinion on the legitimacy of anger: “For those who do not get angry at the people at whom they should get angry seem dense, without perception or pain. And a person who is not angry will not defend himself; but to allow oneself and one’s loved ones to be trampled underfoot and to overlook it is slavish.” Yet as Medea herself says in Seneca’s play. “Anger puts love to flight . . . . How difficult it is to turn the soul from its anger when once it is aroused.” This ambiguity is aptly depicted in the figure of the Furies, who are described by Seneca as legitimate avengers while simultaneously foul and hideous. “They bring their serpents,” says Nussbaum, “to the soul of the one who, with whatever justice, invokes them.”

Moreover, her pessimism also comes from realizing, as Aristotle never seemed to, that it is love itself that fuels the anger. He did once observe that the slights of those we love seem more cutting, and so we get angry at loved ones more than at strangers. But he never seemed to have reached the crucial insight of Seneca or Euripides that fury comes from love itself. As Nussbaum concludes rather grimly, “Now we know the deepest reason why the Aristotelian cannot say, ‘I shall have love in my life, but I shall get rid of murderous rage.’ It is because it is love itself that rages and does murder.”

This insight allows the spectator both to identify with and pity Medea while fully realizing the evil she has conjured forth: Seneca “shows that a betrayal that comes from the outside, through no fault of the woman’s own, can still produce evil in the woman’s soul.” In a passage of unsparing descriptive honesty, Nussbaum shows how Medea’s rage leads her to murder not only the children gathered about her hem but also the unborn child in her womb:

Enraged by the knowledge that he has been in her, that he might even now be in her, maddened by the thought of a piece of him, of their love, lodged in her own body, feeding on it, she retaliates with the wish for a murderous vaginal penetration, one that will pierce where he pierced, cancel his penetration with one controlled and managed by her alone: one that, ridding her body of love’s tumorlike growth, will restore her to the health of self-sufficiency. “My kingdom has come back,” she exults. “My stolen virginity has come back.”

A page later Nussbaum will insist that “no person who loves can safely guarantee that she, or he, will stop short of this story.” In fact the author explicitly applies the lessons of this story, and the lessons of Stoic morality generally, to the storms of contemporary “gender relations” in a way that might make many of her readers very uncomfortable indeed:

The idea that there is a morally appropriate way of leaving one’s family and children strikes the Stoic as quite self-serving. These things are bad. And the conflict of values that gives rise to the bad actions involved in divorce would not have arisen at all had the person not valued eros. So all this talk of unavoidable necessity, so frequently heard at these times, is so much self-serving cant. There are well-known and efficacious ways of changing one’s disposition toward eros, of forming a truly rational marriage. If a person doesn’t take them up, he is surely responsible for whatever wrongs ensue. As Phaedra says in Seneca’s version of her story, “It is mind, not chance, that produces infidelity.”

It is of course not the office of a reviewer to hope for a book different from the one intended by the author, but it should be noted in passing that Nussbaum’s book, brilliant and eloquent though it is, hews strictly to the division of labor now prevalent when academics research the mind of the ancient world: philosophers and classicists treat pagan texts only, while patrologists pretty much stick to the literature of the ancient Church. One cannot fault the author for her selection of texts in a book already quite long (even with her deliberate neglect of the Cynics, perhaps the most noticeable omission in the book). But the parallels with ancient Christian morality that she adduces are quite striking, so that the reader will gain a more stereoscopic view of how the world of Hellenistic antiquity approached these issues by reading Nussbaum’s book in conjunction with Peter Brown’s recent study The Body and Society . For one of the most arresting results of her powerful book is to realize how much Christian and pagan authors spoke with one voice in matters of natural ethics.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., is author of Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Continuum).