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Book Reviews Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Pp. xvii + 544. $19-95. The Fragility of Goodness is an important book. Throughout this massive work, whose three major divisions concern tragedy, Plato, and Aristotle, Martha Nussbaum explores one central question: to what extent is a good human life vulnerable to the contingencies of the external (and internal) world? Correspondingly, to what extent can human reason protect life from the vulnerability brought upon it by such contingency? Nussbaum's work has much to commend it. She shows, first and foremost, how classical Greek texts can be as powerfully informative of our lives today as ever before. Her book is a model of how these texts can be extracted from the hands of the specialist and made accessible to the general reader without loss of scholarly rigor. Her work should thus invigorate each of the three major subjects she treats. More specifically, Nussbaum demonstrates the significance of classical tragedy for ethical thought. Through her reading of the Agamemnon, Antigone, and Hecuba, she carefully shows that the vision of a tragic world is a coherent one rich in philosophical significance. She forces us to ask whether, almost paradoxically, we might not find in our tragic vulnerability to a world beyond our rational control the true source of human beauty and goodness. Nussbaum is superb on Artistotle. By this I do not mean she is simply helpful as she reads texts such as the Poetics..Helpful here she surely is; but her real achievement is to reveal more comprehensively what kind of thinker Aristotle is. For Nussbaum, he is the exquisitely sensitive observer, and protector, of appearances. He is the ultimate phenomenologist, a "professional human being" (~6 l) who can "show us the way back to the ordinary and.., make it an object of interest and pleasure" (~6o). Her commentary here is informed by love; she reads Aristotle as a living teacher, and not simply as the venerable inventor of logic. The Fragility of Goodness has a straightforward thesis. Greek tragedy discloses a conception of human life as vulnerable, necessarily precarious, and beautiful. It is a conception Nussbaum thinks is probably true. In his early and middle dialogues Plato attacks the tragic view. He proposes a practical techn~,a systematic mode of knowledge which would eliminate from life the ravages of tych~ (chance), the passions, and the body. In his later works, chiefly the Phaedrus, Plato modifies this theoretical optimism. Nevertheless, throughout her book Nussbaum refers to the Platonic view as her, and tragedy's, opponent. In contrast, Aristotle affirms tragedy. He "gives it a place of [309] 31o JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 26:2 APRIL 1988 honor, attributing to it both motivational and cognitive value" (378). Aristotle provides an "explicit theoretical articulation" (297) of tragedy's truth. In itself, this is not a novel thesis. Nietzsche proclaimed the fundamental antipathy between tragedy and Platonism, and more recently Pierre Aubenque has argued that Aristotle represents a welcome return to the tragic origins of Greek culture. (His La Prudence chez Aristotle is missing from her bibliography.) It is in its great detail, sensitive exegesis, and acknowledgement of complexity that we find the contribution of Nussbaum's work. She forces us to read seriously particular texts and not simply repeat vague characterizations. Her reading of these particular texts will be criticized by specialists. For example, her evaluation of the moral status of Agamemnon will be questioned as will her translation and textual criticism of Agamemnon 214-17. (See page 35 and her lengthy footnote on this passage. The issue is who or what is the subject of epithumein [line 216], an important question in coming to terms with Agamemnon himself.) Nussbaum will be accused of too superficial a reading of Hegel's interpretation of Antigone and of transforming Kant into a straw man. Her understanding of the "measuring techn~" proposed by Socrates in the Protagoras will (rightly) be attacked as a failure to appreciate the dramatic and ironic dimensions of this dialogue. Her (tentative) proposal that Plato's reappraisal of eros and the passions in the Phaedrus was caused by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 309-311
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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