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The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, by Martha Nussbaum; xiv & 558 pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994; $29.95

For three decades now interest in Hellenistic philosophy has been gaining among philosophers both in England—and its philosophical colony the United States—and in Europe. The principal documents of the Hellenistic schools have now been made available in both scrupulously edited Greek and Latin texts and fine English translations by A. A. Long and David Sedley in their The Hellenistic Philosophers (1987). Conditions are right for the latest assimilation of this philosophical culture, whose conventional dates are those of the Hellenistic age—from the death of Alexander of Macedon in 323 B.C. to the suicide of the last of his successors, Cleopatra VII of Egypt in 31 B.C., but which in fact extends through the second century A.D. In the fracturing of the autonomous Greek city state and the new empires and cosmopolitanism that grew up in its place, in the turning inward of ethical thought and the simultaneous turning outward of science, the Hellenistic age holds up a mirror to our own. Especially congenial to philosophers in this country and in England is the radical skepticism that reaches from Socrates in the fifth century to Sextus Empiricus in the second century A.D.

Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire is very much a book for this age. Her topic is the “compassionate medical philosophy” of three of [End Page 501] the Hellenistic schools, the Epicurean, the Skeptic, and the Stoic. In focusing sharply on therapy, she leaves to the side—and on the outside—the connections that made Epicurean and Stoic philosophy systematic. But her awareness of the psychiatric possibilities of modern philosophy and what Michel Foucault called a technique de soi provide the contemporary context for the project of this book, at a stage when Freudian psychology is preparing to make its exit at the end of its century. Medicine is the only science that enters this book’s field of vision. Its thirteen studies (some already familiar) concentrate on the practical and therapeutic aims of Hellenistic philosophy and what the author terms the therapy of the passions, particularly the passions of erotic love, anger, and aggression, and fear of the gods. In The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (1986), Nussbaum took the side of Aristotle against Plato. Here she takes the part of the Epicurean, Skeptic, and Stoic against the ethical theory of Aristotle, who is impressed to illustrate the practical turn in ethics which Nussbaum explores in Therapy. Plato is glimpsed on the horizon of this book “standing on the rim of the heavens” (p. 23). What links the intellectual program of both Fragility and Therapy is Nussbaum’s keen and sympathetic attention to poetry as a vehicle for philosophy or as a provocation to philosophical engagement. Four of the chapters of this study are devoted to poetry: three to Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura; one to Seneca’s Medea.

The ethical project illustrated throughout these studies is formulated by Democritus, who first enunciated the claim: “medicine heals the sickness of bodies; but wisdom rids the soul of its sufferings” (DK 68B31). Each of the Hellenistic schools Nussbaum studies repeated this claim. Unexplored is the medical end of the analogy and the degree to which this much invoked analogy (whose terms are fused in our word psychiatry) conforms to actual medical practice, with its pathology, consultation, diagnosis, and treatment (therapeia). Nor is not clear from the Greek record that desires as opposed to the individual who harbors these desires are regarded as the object of therapy. The Hellenistic philosophers were clearly concerned with “extirpating” desires and disruptive passions, but the object of therapy was usually not desire but the individual who is disturbed by desire (as Philodemus, On Plain Speaking 84.11 Olivieri makes plain). But occasionally by extension the passions are described as the objects of therapy (as they are in Diogenes of Oenoanda, fr. 4.II.3 Smith).

No one who has read Fragility will be taken aback by Nussbaum’s [End Page 502] invention of a...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 501-505
Launched on MUSE
1996-10-01
Open Access
No
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