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Martha Nussbaum CONSEQUENCES AND CHARACTER IN SOPHOCLES' PHILOCTETES l Greek tragedy provides us with important information about pre-Platonic moral thought. This most of us would agree. But on closer examination the agreement proves superficial. For, to many critics, this claim means not that the tragedies are themselves significant pieces of ethical reflection, but that, precisely because they are not, they give us insight into the popular views of the times, revealing cultural presuppositions which are "overlaid with philosophizing" in the works of Plato and Aristotle. So writes A. W. H. Adkins, in a study which remains a fashionable and influential account of these matters.2 Adkins holds, in consequence, that the best way for a philosopher to approach the tragedians is to study their use of important ethical terms, without much regard to the action or characters of the plays, as evidence of the way these terms could be employed in contemporary society. A close study of ethical terms is surely an important part of the analysis of these works. But pursuing the study while neglecting the job of interpreting the play as a whole is not likely to advance our understanding of a tragedian's moral views.3 The ancient critics do not help us here. Aristophanes criticizes "Euripides' morality" without considering who says the allegedly immoral lines, or with what result. Aristotle is sometimes equally careless about the distinction between a tragedian's view (or the view implied by a tragedy) and a view expressed by some character in a tragedy. Critics like Adkins, of course, do not claim explicitly to have elicited the view of Sophocles (or a Sophoclean tragedy) on some ethical matter. They speak instead of the popular view uncovered in the writings of Sophocles. But their project does, nonetheless, presuppose something about Sophocles: that he does not engage constructively in contemporary ethical debate, that he has nothing original to say about moral problems. He is the vox populi, who, because he was successful, can be used as the index of received opinion. And the lexical method Adkins adopts 25 26Philosophy and Literature as a result of this assumption does, indeed, prevent him from finding out what Sophocles' plays were saying, and how interesting that is.4 We all know that Shakespeare's plays were performed before an unruly, inattentive, generally unintellectual audience, and were received with approval. But most of us would recoil from the suggestion that the ordinary morality of this audience could be reconstructed from a study of King Lear (especially from the study of the use of "good" and related words in isolated lines of Lear), and that this is the only reason Lear is of interest to the philosopher. Perhaps it is an unexamined assumption that the Greek tragedians, unlike Shakespeare, are "primitive" which explains the widespread approval accorded Adkins's aims and methods. The best way I know to argue against that prejudice is to show that there is something expressed in a Greek tragedy which is remarkable, and far from primitive. That is what I hope to begin doing here. A playwright who did try simply to mirror the ordinary thought of his audience would in fact be of merely antiquarian interest. If Nietzsche had been right when he ascribed such aims to Euripides (as I believe he was not), he would also have been right to ask, as he does, "What strange consideration for the spectator led him to oppose the spectator ?"5—and to dismiss Euripides from the ranks of the great artists. A writer who merely "copies" (assuming there is such a thing) displays contempt where he seems to flatter. Great dramatic art addresses itself to our love of learning; it can overcome prejudices and preconceptions, and teach us to see the world and ourselves in a new way. "If they went there to find likenesses," Picasso once said of his audience, ". . . they couldn't have seen the paintings."6 The same is true of tragedy. We cannot assume, as Adkins does, that the spectator who could really see a play of Sophocles went only to find an image of his own face. Nor can we hope to "see" Sophocles merely by searching in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 25-53
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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