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Critical Discussion The Meddling Gods: Four Essays on Classical Themes, by Hazel E. Barnes; pp. ix & 141. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974, $8.50. Discussed by Martha Nussbaum In her preface to this lucid and stimulating book, Hazel Barnes writes, "The approach to the problems discussed reflects the particular outlook of one who has devoted many years to the teaching and study of the Classics while simultaneously working with contemporary existentialism ." This is an accurate picture of the role of Sartre's thought in the book. No reader should expect an "existentialist reading" of Greek works, in which they are analyzed using Sartre's technical vocabulary and bent to fit the shape of his philosophical views. Barnes's analyses are informed by Sartre's thought, not subservient to it. The book is characterized throughout by clear-eyed common sense and a refreshing lack of dogmatism. Her style is as direct as Sartre's is often fussy, leaden, and obscure. (She herself betrays her irritation in remarks like, "If we strip away the technical language and consider Sartre's intended meaning . . ." [p. 21].) Her work is able to draw on the best of Sartre—his insights into the structure of human relationships, his striking images for our experiences—without becoming encumbered by fidelity to a system. Thus it is neither surprising nor regrettable that Barnes nowhere provides a sustained theoretical account of what existentialism can bring to our understanding of Greek texts. But before we examine the ways in which she concretely shows us how Sartre informs her work, it does seem relevant to raise the question more generally—inasmuch as most of us are trained in a different phdosophical tradition, one which has had a particularly difficult time understanding and doing justice to Greek ethical thought, especially as revealed in its great literary works. This problem is not, of course, caused simply by our neglect of Sartre, nor does the cure seem to lie in becoming Sartreans. But some of our difficulties with the Greeks do arise from a failure to ask seriously 342 Martha Nussbaum343 some questions which Sartre's work makes central, and which no lifelong student of Sartre would be likely arbitrarily to exclude from the domain of moral philosophy. We need here to have a concrete example of an Anglo-American approach to the study of the ethical thought of Greek literature in order to set the issues in clearer relief. Arthur Adkins's Merit and Reponsibility1 is not comparable to The Meddling Gods either in scope (it is a much more systematic and ambitious book) or in content (its concern is with the Greek philosophers as well as with literary works). Neither is it a particularly good example of analytic philosophy. It is often unclear even about the central verbal distinctions which are the basis for its argument: "quiet values" and "cooperative values" are used interchangeably—although courage (for example), while not "quiet," frequently involves cooperative elements, and moderation, though "quiet," can sometimes be seen as an instrument to competitive success. The book rests on an undefended blend of Kantianism and prescriptivist metaethics; Adkins seems less a serious student of either Kant or Hare than a follower of certain prejudices which were in the air in the Oxford of the 1950's. Nonetheless, the book is a revealing one for our purposes, showing us how certain common assumptions affect our way of reading classical texts. (Adkins himself tells us that we can learn a lot about a culture from the crude and forthright way in which its popular writers voice their prejudices—as contrasted with the more cunning dodges of its philosophers.) In what follows, I shall try to separate Adkins's views about moral philosophy from his Kantianism , though these are thoroughly intertwined in his argument. Adkins accepts from Hare the principle that the most important task of the moral philosopher is to analyze the nature and function of moral language. (He also accepts Hare's general account of what that function is—although his version of prescriptivism need not be discussed here.) It does not seem to be a necessary consequence of Hare's position that the moral philosopher will stop feeling a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 342-353
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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