By the time we begin part III in Martha Nussbaum’s brilliant The Fragility of Goodness (1986), it is clear to us that she—and we, if we have found parts I and II compelling—is searching for something. We perhaps cannot say precisely what this is, but we have some general idea. We seek a way of life that is stable enough such that we can live it purposefully and with some degree of control but that yet remains open to the intrusions of the world, to luck. This is the life neither of gods nor of animals, but of humans; a life which controls what it can in the world, yet recognizes that it should not control all, not merely because it cannot, but because so to control would be to lose the world, itself beautiful and mysterious in its separateness from and frequent hostility to our purposes, and, as well, to lose ourselves, that is, ourselves whose uniqueness resides in our passionate interaction with, adjustment to, and sometimes tragic defeat at the hands of this world which we can ultimately only partially understand or control. This is the life, the essentially human life, lived out in what must always be a fragile goodness.
To this point Nussbaum has woven her story of Plato and the tragedians around a pair of contrasting images and contrasting Greek terms: a plant and a stone, tuche and techne. For Pindar, the excellence of a good person “is like a young plant: something growing in the world, slender, fragile, in constant need of food from without.” This life is necessarily one susceptible to tuche (luck or fortune or, in a way, the capricious world), and so those who live it are always at risk, even of losing their good characters. In contrast, Plato (at least of the middle period) proposes an entirely different conception of the good life, one which he hopes will insulate us from the impinging world and guarantee the immutability of our good character. His was an ambitious and radical proposal: by “human reason to subdue and master tuche through the arts and sciences. Plato took it to be the task of philosophy to become the life-saving techne through which this aspiration could be accomplished—through which, then, the human being could make decisive progress beyond the ordinary human condition.” For Plato, Socrates, that god-like man of reason, is the paragon of moral virtue. Socrates, who “refuses in every way to be affected.” Socrates, who “is stone; and he also turns others to stone.”
Clearly Nussbaum’s sympathies lie with the tragedians. But Plato’s project is not, she thinks, to be dismissed lightly. We cannot live humanly without a techne of sorts, yet it must not turn us to stone. She hopes to discover a “non-scientific deliberation” which can help us see that and how “an epistemology of value and an account of the vulnerability of the valuable things go hand in hand.” And so, with these hopes, she turns to Aristotle.
Her treatment of Aristotle ends with a chapter entitled “The Vulnerability of the Good Human Life: Relational Goods.” This chapter itself concludes with a section on philia, or friendship as it is usually translated (although Nussbaum herself prefers to leave the term untranslated). It is reasonable to suppose, then, that friendship, which is granted this privileged place, is absolutely central to her treatment of Aristotle, just as Aristotle’s privileged place makes him central to her general thesis concerning the fragility of goodness. And friendship is central, as I hope to show. But as we shall see, difficulties arise (as well as insights) when we inspect Nussbaum’s treatment of Aristotle’s friendship, both for how she understands Aristotle and for her view about the fragility of goodness. It is these matters I propose to discuss in the following pages. I do not mean so much to dispute with her about how Aristotle is appropriately understood—although I shall do a bit of that. Rather my interest is in our further understanding of friendship and of fragility. And too, I am interested in where a Christian understanding of friendship and fragility (and tragedy, which for Nussbaum is essential to fragility) stands in light of all this.
Chapter eleven of The Fragility of Goodness, the chapter immediately preceding the aforementioned final chapter on “relational goods,” parallels it in title: “The Vulnerability of the Good Human Life: Activity and Disaster.” Both chapters have life’s vulnerability as their theme, but the first displays how it is maintained (or threatened) by external circumstances such as beauty, wealth, or health; enslavement, poverty, or death. Following Aristotle, we call these “external goods” (or external misfortunes) whose presence or lack in our own lives affects our eudaimonia (Aristotle’s term for happiness). Nussbaum wishes us to see that there is a “gap” between eudaimonia and good character opened by features of the world (such as bad health, enslavement, and the like) which we cannot insure against—hence life’s vulnerability. This gap is the birthplace of tragedy; it is also (and importantly) sometimes actually widened or made more likely to open by good character itself, or so Nussbaum thinks.
Certain valued excellences, particularly courage, political commitment, and love of friends, will take the good agent, far more often than the defective agent, into situations in which the requirements of character conflict with the preservation of life itself—therefore with the continued possibility of all excellent activity.
This is an important quotation. For it reveals to us the degree to which Nussbaum’s idea of fragility is dependent upon the elevation of the “relational goods” of chapter twelve to a status beyond that of the external goods she is discussing here in chapter eleven. For consider that a certain “openness” and “vulnerability” to the world is in fact a salient feature of a life which does not so much value human relationships but rather such things as wealth, bodily comfort, or sensual pleasure. He who values bodily comfort, for example, may suddenly discover himself in chronic pain, so he is cut off from his good (as he conceived it) by tuche. The world to which he was vulnerable has intruded, confirming the fragility of his good. But this is evidently not the good (or at least all of the good) to which Nussbaum hopes we are committed. Indeed, to sustain her thesis that the good character actually increases fragility (as she maintains in the above quote), it is essential that she claim that we have something other than our health or wealth (i.e., the external goods) to be courageous about, i.e., something such as the political commitment or friendship she mentions here.
But now we must turn to chapter twelve—the final and culminating chapter on Aristotle (and in the book)—to discover how Nussbaum conceives of the relational goods to which our fragile lives are given over. We find two sections in the chapter built around, interestingly, the two “excellences” just mentioned. Section one concerns “membership and good activity in a political community”; section two, friends and friendship.
But let us pause here for a moment. What of this division? Why does Nussbaum think friendship and political relationships can be treated separately? She herself says that what Aristotle called philia is a good deal broader than our term “friendship” and encompasses for Aristotle many more relations than those we today call by that name. Further, she notes in passing that political excellence is in fact perhaps best understood just in terms of friendship: “love and friendship, and the part of political excellence that is a type of friendship or love (if not, indeed, the entirety of political excellence), are in their nature relations.” The politics/friendship division is clearly not traceable to Aristotle. He treats them together in the Nicomachean Ethics.
We may see even in our travels how near and dear every man is to every other. Friendship seems to hold states together, and lawgivers to care more for it than justice; for concord seems to be something like friendship, and this they aim at most of all, and expel faction as their worst enemy; and when men are friends they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality.
Nussbaum opens herself to criticism at this juncture. Stanley Hauerwas has recently labeled Nussbaum as a liberal (a label those familiar with Hauerwas know he does not intend as a compliment) and Nussbaum’s attempt to separate political relations from friendship, particularly when explicating Aristotle in whose works no such distinction is to be found, constitutes evidence to support Hauerwas’ contention. Consider in this regard the following quote from Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (1981):
E. M. Forster once remarked that if it came to a choice between betraying his country and betraying his friend, he hoped that he would have the courage to betray his country. In an Aristotelian perspective anyone who can formulate such a contrast has no country, has no polis; he is a citizen of nowhere, an internal exile wherever he lives. Indeed from an Aristotelian point of view a modern liberal political society can appear only as a collection of citizens of nowhere who have banded together for their common protection.
Nussbaum, we recall, is interested in arguing that the “relational goods” are foci of the fragility of goodness. But she is drawn by the distinction we have just criticized—the distinction which is a modern liberal imposition on Aristotle—into having to do this both with respect to “political attachments” and friendship. Partly as a consequence, what she says about fragility with reference to the former is uncharacteristically trivial. She notes that Aristotle himself had “to leave Athens twice under political pressure” and was “barred because of his resident alien status from owning property,” and concludes that “he knew all too well that to attach value to the city and one’s role in it was to care about something highly unstable.” Further, she notes that despite possible disappointments, “competent and serious people [must] turn their attentions to legislation and political planning,” even knowing this increases the chance of further failures. This sounds like saying that by working for the Dukakis campaign we set ourselves up for the disappointment of watching Bush elected, but to do so is better than to throw up our hands and move to an uninhabited island in the South Pacific.
To her credit, Nussbaum struggles valiantly in this section on “politics” to appropriate a quote from Aristotle I hope in a moment to make more of. Says he: “The human being is a political creature and naturally disposed to living-with.” Yet the false division Nussbaum has set up between friendship and political associations makes this impossible; we must wait until her second section where she deals explicitly with friendship before we can begin, with her, to grasp its force. To that section we now turn.
John M. Cooper’s seminal article, “Aristotle on Friendship,” is perhaps the strongest effort in modern Aristotelian scholarship—prior, that is, to Nussbaum’s—to re-elevate friendship to a central place in Aristotle’s ethics. In fact, Nussbaum relies on Cooper heavily. I am convinced, however, that she outstrips Cooper in her arguments about the importance of friendship for an Aristotelian perspective on the moral life. For even after having made much of Aristotle’s arguments for the importance of friendship. Cooper says this:
It must be granted, of course, that someone who was so constituted that he could achieve these results [i.e., knowing ourselves and regarding our lives as worth living] without forming friendships would have been given no strong reason [by Aristotle] to form them. . . . Hence anyone who thinks that, nonetheless, such a friendless person would be leading a less than fully satisfactory life will not find in Aristotle anything to support his view.
I do not think Nussbaum can agree with Cooper on this point.
The strength of Nussbaum’s view on friendship becomes most apparent when she begins discussing what she calls Aristotle’s arguments defending the “intrinsic value” of friendship as opposed to those where he defends its “instrumental value.” To appreciate the force of the “intrinsic” arguments we need to view them against a backdrop of decipherably different levels of argument for the instrumental value of friendship.
For example, consider that Aristotle argues that friends are useful since they offer advice and correction which steer us along the way toward eudaimonia. Here friendship is an important instrument, but presumably not an essential one: there are other goads and prods that could do this equally well.
We move beyond this to another level of instrumentality with the “self-knowledge” argument, one which Cooper spends considerable time explicating. Here Aristotle implies that we cannot obtain self-knowledge, which is essential to living the good life, from any other source (even from our own reflection about ourselves) that is so accurate and telling as that we get from watching the friend, who is to us a sort of “second self.” So we must have friends in order to obtain self-knowledge in order to obtain eudaimonia.
But note that even here the value of the friend is yet one step removed from eudaimonia; friends might be necessary instruments, but they are still instruments. So friendship has yet to be thought of as having intrinsic value. To give it that one must put forward the thesis that friendship is rightly thought to be so closely tied up with the good life that the very description of the latter cannot be given (i.e., it cannot be conceived) without reference to the former. In this way, friendship is not just a necessary means to the good life, it is at least partly constitutive of it.
This is Nussbaum’s view. She wishes to lay claim to Aristotle’s frequent appeal to our nature as being essentially social. Further, following arguments put forward earlier about Aristotle’s appearances (i.e., that Aristotle is finally to be understood as nonreductively appealing to the way we see the world as the appropriate starting place for philosophical and moral reflection), she suggests that it is crucial, indeed decisive, that we cannot imagine our life without friends. So she translates an important passage as follows:
And surely it is peculiar to make the makarios [complete] person a solitary; for nobody would choose to have all the good things in the world all by himself. For the human being is a political creature and naturally disposed to living-with. And this is true of the eudaimon as well. . . . Therefore the eudaimon needs philoi.
And she comments:
Aristotle says that the opponent [he who supposes we can live well without friends] has a point only if we think of philoi as mere means to other solitary goods, and the solitary life which has these goods as a complete life. But in fact we do not think this way. We think that a life without them, even with all other goods, is so seriously incomplete that it is not worth living. So . . . philoi and philia will be parts of human eudaimonia and constitutive of, rather than just instrumental to, its self sufficiency.
Here Nussbaum thinks—and she thinks Aristotle thinks—that we have arrived at a level of moral argument that we cannot go beyond without losing ourselves and our morality. For this is just what we are—creatures who live-with. Indeed, in an important way, creatures who set this aside, who (perhaps) train themselves out of this important feature, no longer are us, even if they resemble us in virtually all other respects.
This point is itself an artful summation of all that has gone before in this remarkable book, and functions as a fitting conclusion. For Plato’s (middle period) ethics is an attempt to do just this, i.e., to provide us with a way of living self-sufficiently, alone, insulated by philosophy from the world and from our friends. To which, according to Nussbaum interpreting Aristotle, we can only answer that that person is no longer us; that life, no matter how skilled or interesting otherwise, can never attain human eudaimonia.
The opponent has asked us to choose a solitary life; we point out that this goes against our nature, implying in this way that no being identical to us would survive in such a life. To wish the good for oneself or for another, Aristotle has insisted, requires wishing a life in which that sort of person will still exist: not a life which, however admirable or godlike, could be lived by someone identical with me. In asking whether this solitary life can be the object of our highest wish, the first thing to ask is, whether it can be the object of my wish at all. If it is my nature to be a social being, the happy solitary will not be identical with me; so to wish for a life lacking in the value of philia is to wish not for the Protagorean “saving” of one’s own life, but for a (Socratic) transformation to a different life.
We have arrived at an important juncture in our treatment of Nussbaum, Aristotle, friendship, and fragility. In the final pages of her treatment of Aristotle, Nussbaum has offered a rich and convincing account of why friendship is crucial to Aristotle’s view of the good life. She has argued that his understanding of our essentially social nature leads him to suppose, even assume, that friendships and friends are essential to human living well. So “friendship,” however it is understood, is absolutely essential both to her own and Aristotle’s idea of the moral life.
But now: just how is “friendship” to be understood? For I have argued that Nussbaum wrongly treats political attachments separately from friendships; her two-part division between one and the other “relational good” is artificial. Indeed, more evidence for its artificiality has arisen even as she has made the crucial argument concerning our essentially social natures. For in order to make her point that friendship pervades Aristotle’s ethics such that any comprehensive understanding of it is impossible apart from friendship, she cites a passage from Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics.
The final good is thought to be self-sufficient. Now by self-sufficient we do not mean that which is sufficient for a man by himself, for one who lives a solitary life, but also for parents, children, wife, and in general for his friends and fellow citizens, since man is born for citizenship.
When discussing another passage on friendship she parenthetically refers back to this one in an interesting way: “It is conspicuous in this case as in the political case (and in fact the two arguments are very closely linked, as the last citation shows), Aristotle refers throughout the argument to prevalent ordinary beliefs” (emphasis added). My point is that it is not merely that the arguments are “very closely linked” but rather that they are one and the same.
Friendship for Aristotle is a politics. Or as Paul Wadell in his Friendship and the Moral Life (1989) comments, “The relationship between friendship and the city-state is not friendship removed from the polis, not even friendship over against the polis, but friendship within the polis.” But for Nussbaum friendship is not this, for she is a modern person—a liberal, as Hauerwas would have it—and so cannot conceive of political relationships in this way.
But there is one more feature of this quotation from Aristotle that we must not miss. For we recall that Nussbaum has premised her argument throughout on the idea that fragility as opposed to self-sufficiency rightly characterizes the good human life. But here Aristotle explicitly refers to self-sufficiency and quite clearly suggests that it is in fact a characteristic of the final good, but this is communal self-sufficiency rather than a solitary one. So now what does Nussbaum think of this? Is the fragility she wants (however that is understood) preserved in Aristotle’s communal self-sufficiency, or is it lost?
I suspect, actually, that a good bit is lost for Nussbaum. In her 1988 address before the American Academy of Religion entitled “Serpents in the Soul: Love and Anger in Seneca’s Medea,”’ she stated explicitly that she wished to revise the thesis of her book, for she had become convinced that the sort of fragility offered by Aristotle is not quite fragile enough, just because it is not finally sufficiently open to risk, not merely of loss and grief—to which Aristotle is open—but of evil, evil birthed by the anger that is a necessary possibility for those who truly love. For Aristotle supposes “we can have love and continue to be virtuous.” But as suggested by Seneca’s Medea, the text for the AAR address, “love is a dangerous hole in the self.” In so far as we stake our lives upon it, “love”—here quite clearly to be understood as erotic—will (and must) always remain open to the possibility of destruction, of the love, the self, and the other self.
Seeds for this new view, a view that evidently breaks with Aristotle rather than developing directions in his thought, are present in the epilogue of The Fragility of Goodness where Nussbaum explicates Euripides’ Hecuba. We have here less an erotic relationship that explodes (as in Medea), but rather a trust relation that is betrayed and so leads with a haunting inevitability to the violent destruction of Polymestor (the betrayer), Hecuba, and whatever relationship existed between them.
I think her treatment of Medea and Hecuba fairly clearly indicates the sort of fragility Nussbaum seeks; and it is not the fragility of Aristotle’s philia. For the fragility of philia, as Nussbaum herself portrays it, resides in that the relation is always susceptible to changes that are forced upon it from without, for example that one of the friends dies. Surely friendship can be cut off in these ways, and it is only with skill that any friendship is maintained and its growth over time fostered. Yet friendship itself does not so evidently contain within it its own powers of self-destruction. With eros, on the other hand, it is another matter; for here the possibility exists that eros itself will swallow the lovers up, from within. Friendship explicitly refuses to swallow up the friend or the self, and so in a way is less dangerous, less (or not at all) violent, and in a certain sense “self-sufficient.”
In fact, Nussbaum says much of this explicitly in her book, although one wonders if her recognition of it came too late, after most of The Fragility of Goodness was written and on its way to press. (Although clearly the comment she makes here is foreshadowed in her earlier chapter on Plato’s Phaedrus.)
The rhythm of philia in its best or highest cases seems to be steadier and less violent than that of Platonic eros; we do not find the element of sudden openness that is central to the Phaedrus lovers . . . Now is the time to admit that we do not find here, or do not, at least, find emphasized, the structure of tension and release, longing and repletion, that is so important in the Phaedrus’ view of true insight.
Nussbaum’s new book, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature, apparently is soon to be available. I do not think we should expect to find much in it either about Aristotle or about friendship.
There remains for us the matter of what Christians might have to say about Nussbaum and fragility, Aristotle and friendship. This cannot be a simple matter. For as we have seen, Nussbaum, while giving a compelling defense of Aristotle’s view of friendship, perverts it (or so I have argued) in at least one important way. Further, while initially she presents Aristotle’s view of friendship as sensitive to the fragility of goodness in ways that other views, such as Plato’s, are not, it becomes clear that she thinks it is not nearly fragile enough.
In considering all this from the standpoint of Christianity, let us consider each of the objections, mine about friendship against Nussbaum and Nussbaum’s about fragility against Aristotle, to see if a (hypothetical) Christian account of friendship and fragility might itself be able to answer them.
In my criticism of Nussbaum’s account of Aristotle’s view of friendship, I alleged that she had failed to see that politics and friendship in Aristotle are not to be understood separately. This is quite understandable for her; and perhaps this is what she should do given that she is an inhabitant of the modern world having, as MacIntyre would say, no country, “a citizen of nowhere, an internal exile wherever she lives.”
But this cannot be true of the Christian. For the Christian is a Christian in the Church; in an important way he or she does not know what it means to he a Christian—indeed, cannot be a Christian—apart from the community of friends who together form one another into selves who reflect the image of their God. In this way, Christians (and other groups who have something like what Christians call an ecclesiology) are in a position to appropriate Aristotle’s insights about philia as Nussbaum, who ironically has laid them bare, cannot. Aristotle, she has shown us, considered friendship to be of intrinsic worth since he thought humans were by nature beings who live-with; one cannot he a human alone. Friendships are therefore wrongly thought of as relations I might benefit from, or which I might decide to enter into, for apart from friendships there is no “I,” at least no human “I.”
When considering the implications of this for a Christian account of friendship, we might note that Christian thinkers from Augustine to Outka have struggled with the tension they presume exists between friendship and “Christian love” (usually agape). Behind this tension stands a presumption, namely that there is some solitary Christian self who alternatively enters into (chooses to enter into) relations which are philia or relations which are agape. But if we follow Nussbaum’s reading of Aristotle, this presumption must be denied.
What then of agape or caritas as distinctively Christian ways of loving? It would be foolish to suppose that this matter can be dealt with adequately in so short a space. Yet briefly we might say that philia in the community of friends we call the Church forms us to love in the way Christian thinkers have meant to enjoin us when pointedly using the term agape. But here it is important to hold tightly to the Aristotelian insight. For it is not that we are formed by philia to become individuals who can individually practice agape. Rather it is that we are formed by philia in the Church to become a community which in its corporate life in the world loves the world in the manner of agape, whose practice it has learned in seeking to conform itself to the God who was in Christ. (In an important way the Church is never a friend to the world, and so there is good reason to keep alive both the terms agape and philia in our vocabulary.) As Wadell says, “Agape is not just an act, it is a people gathered together in virtue of what they believe. . . . Agape is the community of those who share this common memory [of God’s presence in Jesus] and pledge to keep it alive.” So conceiving of philia as that which forms me into a communal self (which is really to give me a self), and agape as that to which we, as a community, are formed, allows us to see the importance and interdependence of both these concepts.
We turn now to Nussbaum’s accusations that Aristotle’s account of friendship ultimately lacks fragility. There is something of a problem here, for I am not sure Nussbaum is everywhere consistent about what sort of fragility she wants, even though, as I have suggested, it is clear that she finally seeks a “tragic fragility”—something I do not think Christians can offer her. Initially, however, I think Christians can go with her a long way; farther, in fact, than Aristotle.
As we noticed earlier, one point Nussbaum lodges against Aristotle’s friendship is that, unlike Plato’s eros in the Phaedrus, it lacks a “sudden and dangerous openness.” Her recent emphasis on love as a “dangerous hole in the self” develops the insight that what we seek in love is an openness in and through love to a radical transformation of ourselves at the very depths of our being.
I suspect this criticism is simply correct about Aristotle; no strong transformative element is evident in his notion of friendship. However, one does find it in his greatest Christian interpreter, Thomas Aquinas, who conceives of the moral life ultimately as friendship with God. As he says, “Charity signifies not only love of God but also a certain friendship with God, which consists in a certain familiar colloquy with God.” In interpreting what this could mean for Thomas, Wadell writes:
We cannot love God and remain unchanged . . . There is a terrible vulnerability in any love because to love is to become like the one we love. There is a loss of control in this, indeed a loss of self, because to love is to lose one kind of self and take on another . . . Charity fosters vulnerability to God, an openness so exhaustive that we ultimately become defenseless before the love that is our life.
It is true that we have no self apart from friendship, but the sort of self we receive in the friendships which form us is dependent upon the specific character of those with whom we are friends. And friendship with God is itself continually transformative of our human self, in ways we can neither control nor predict.
Of course Nussbaum would deny that friendship with God could make sense for humans. For humanness consists in—and friendship is had within the context of—our neediness, our fragility. A god by definition is one who is self-sufficient, neither needy nor fragile. But here she quite evidently carries forward assumptions about God she has learned from Aristotle or other Greeks and not from Christianity. For in fact the Christian God is one who is needy, who offers himself vulnerably to the world even as it rejects his Christ.
(In this context, I find a quote from Nussbaum—one which unfortunately remains underdeveloped—regarding the god Dionysus deeply interesting, even eerie. “He is the god who dies. He undergoes, each year, a ritual death and rebirth, a cutting back and a resurgence, like a plant, like desire itself. Among the gods he alone is not self-sufficient, he alone can be acted on by the world. . . . And yet, miraculously, despite his fragility, he restores himself and burgeons. This suggests that an unstable city, an unstable passion, might grow and flourish in a way truly appropriate to a god—a thought that has no place in the theology of the ideal city.”)
A second criticism Nussbaum considers against Aristotle’s friendship (she follows Bernard Williams here) is that it “is cozy and insular: that by concentrating on the love of people similar in character it removes the element of risk and surprise that can be a high value in an encounter with another soul.” This is perhaps best reflected in “the sort of cozy defense of the status quo” and the “notoriously crude and hasty investigation of the potential of women for excellence” for which Aristotle is so frequently maligned. Here Nussbaum briefly defends Aristotle’s “appearance method,” maintaining that his blindness on these points arose not from it but from his own failure to follow it consistently. But I am inclined to believe that there is strong substance to the charge. For as Nussbaum has helped us see, Aristotle appeals continually to the commonly held “way we see things,” and in fact the “we” in his time wrongly and falsely saw women as inferiors. I do not see that Aristotle’s appearances can save him from this. For happy slaves, light-minded women—these were his appearances.
Is there a check in the Christian community of friends to this sort of biased misperception? Historically, it is quite obvious that if one was available it was infrequently used. Yet in so far as the Christian community of friends continues to offer (and understands that to remain Christian it must offer) hospitality to the stranger, then there is hope that it can escape this trap. As Thomas Ogletree has written in Hospitality to the Stranger (1985):
To offer hospitality to a stranger is to welcome something new, unfamiliar, and unknown into our life-world . . . Hospitality designates occasions of potential discovery which can open up our narrow, provincial worlds. Strangers have stories to tell which we have never heard before, stories which can redirect our seeing and stimulate our imaginations. The stories invite us to view the world from a novel perspective. They display the finitude and relativity of our own orientation of meaning . . . The stranger does not simply challenge or subvert our assumed world of meaning; she may enrich, even transform that world.
Earlier I stated parenthetically that the world can never be thought of by Christians as friend. Ogletree’s comments above qualify this in an important way. For although “the world” is rightly thought of as an enemy to whom they offer themselves in agape, Christians must be guarded in their designation of just what “the world” is. For continually we discover in what we are wont to call the world, friends disguised as enemies.
I believe Christians have found such a friend in Nussbaum. Like Ogletree’s stranger, she tells a story that redirects our seeing and stimulates our imaginations. However, there are at least two central facets of the story she tells with which I believe Christians must disagree. The first of these I have already stressed. If Hauerwas is right that Nussbaum is a modern liberal (and I believe her treatment of Aristotle reflects this at crucial points) and if MacIntyre is right that the modern liberal is a citizen of nowhere, then Christians, who are “citizens” of the Church (or, much better, friends in the Church) must disagree with those parts of her story that reflect this alternative citizenship.
A second point of difference resides in the matter of just how fragile we understand goodness to be. I have tried to point out ways in which Christians are open”essentially open” to this fragility. Their openness can and should exceed Aristotle’s. But I do not think it can extend to the point I suspect Nussbaum wishes. For the fragility she finally seeks is the fragility of tragedy. But the story Christians tell of God, humans, and the world is not and cannot be a tragedy. Or put another way, if Christianity is a tragedy, someone else besides Christians must tell it.
It should be pointed out parenthetically that there are different ways in which the term “tragedy” is used. I mean here for my claim that Christianity is not a tragedy to be interpreted in the light of Nussbaum’s use, which will become apparent in the discussion which follows. (I do not think her usage is peculiar, hence the generality of this claim.) So my denial that Christianity is a tragedy should not be interpreted as a denial of tragedy of any sort, or as a claim that the literature of tragedy is unhelpful for ethical or theological reflection. Further, I only wish to say that Christians need to deny that ours is a “tragic world” in a certain sense. I do not find myself disagreeing with, for example, Hauerwas when in his Community of Character (1981) he says: “It must be admitted that the Christian willingness to accept existence amid the dividedness of the world means that we cannot live without appreciating the tragic character of our world.” Here he is making the important point that the world is sometimes resistant to all our (Christian) moral efforts and is not fully captured by even the best of our (Christian) explanations. Tragedy brings this before us forcefully—and it is important that we see this and learn from it. However, I do not think that he, qua Christian, can make the unlimited point I take Nussbaum to be making: that this could mean that the world is finally resistant to all action and explanation—“explanation” in a broad sense, including narratives—even God’s.
There are at least three ways in which this is evident. First, with Jews, Christians affirm that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all those who dwell within it” (Psalms 24:1). Further, they claim to know something of the character of this Lord, of his promises and his will for the world he created. When Nussbaum speaks of “openness to the world” and understands this in the light of tragedy, I believe she is making the point that we cannot and should not insulate ourselves against the possibility of utter meaninglessness. We must be open, even, to the possibility that not only our meanings but any meaning at all may be tragically wrenched from us by the world and destroyed before our eyes. By contrast, Christians think they know that this finally cannot be the character of the world, for it is a creation of a gracious God. This point can perhaps be distilled as follows: the Christian’s affirmation of the fragility of goodness must always be qualified by his or her eschatological convictions.
Second, as Nussbaum (following Aristotle) notes, one of the tragic emotions, pity, cannot be felt by all people: “In the Rhetoric he [Aristotle] makes the interesting observation that the person who is too pessimistic about human nature will not feel pity at all—for he will believe that everyone deserves the bad things that happen to them (a remark pregnant with implications for the question of Christian tragedy).” Here I believe Nussbaum is correct in her implication that Christians cannot feel pity, but for the wrong reason. For as she goes on to say, pity arises when we see that only luck stands between us and the sufferer, the victim of the tragedy. But Christians do not allow luck of this sort so to stand. Indeed, as Hauerwas puts it, “they rage against fortune.” But they do not replace luck with blame, as Nussbaum thinks, but with compassion, with “suffering-with.” This they have been taught to do by their God, who does not stand apart from his human creatures, pitying them, but enters into their tragic world, suffering and dying with and for them. Reinhold Niebuhr captures this point in Beyond Tragedy when he says, “Christianity is a religion which transcends tragedy. Tears, with death, are swallowed up in victory. The cross is not tragic but the resolution of tragedy. Here suffering is carried into the very life of God and overcome. It becomes the very basis of salvation.”
Finally, as Nussbaum displays in her treatment of Hecuba, the possibility of tragedy arises from the strong loves and commitments upon which the protagonist stakes her life, for she has bonded herself in trust relations with others which they might betray. Once betrayed, however, the bonds are irreparably broken and, as in Hecuba’s case, she is doomed to live out her life according to a new law which insures her self-sufficiency: revenge. Indeed, this is the “tragic fragility” which Nussbaum ultimately affirms: that in genuine tragedy, humans, who are human just as they enter into and sustain trusting relations with other humans, will inevitably create for themselves a new private world of violence and destruction.
There is for Nussbaum a frightening darkness that is part of the very structure of the deepest human trust relationships. It emerges with a kind of stark inevitability when tragedy strikes, devouring the relationship and the humanness of those in it. This occurs for Hecuba when she discovers that her friend Polymestor has betrayed her trust and murdered her child Polydorus. Nussbaum describes this moment as follows:
Now confronted with the failure of nomos, she seems to have two choices only. She can blind herself to these events, finding some way to distance the knowledge, or confine it . . . Or she can accept the knowledge, touch it, take it as something true of nomos, of social bonds in general. But then it seems impossible, in these rending circumstances, to escape the corrosion of that openness on which good character rests. She cannot escape being caught up in a questioning and suspicion . . .
From now on the nomos of trust, and Hecuba’s trust in nomos, will be replaced by something new from these new events: “O child, child/ now I begin my mourning,/ the wild newly-learned melody (nomos) from the spirit of revenge.”
Aristotelian friendship lacks this violent underside. And so for Nussbaum it is not finally open and fragile enough; it is not capable of the depths, so neither is it capable of the heights. It lacks the fragility that is open to tragedy.
Christian friendship, which is the friendship that forms a community of selves capable of agape, also lacks this openness. But this is because it breaks the connection Nussbaum sees here as indivisible. It refuses her either/or by offering another way: forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration.
Can Polymestor be forgiven, reconciled to Hecuba, their friendship restored? Christians must always claim that the final dissolution in their lives and loves after tragedy is not inevitable. These things—forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration—in fact are real possibilities for fragile humans like Hecuba and Polymestor, just in so far as they have already become actual in the God who was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.
Charles Pinches is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Central Arkansas.