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Victims and Agents

What Greek tragedy can teach us about sympathy and responsibility.

Martha C. Nussbaum

The principal characters in ancient Greek tragedy are often depicted as victims of circumstances beyond their control. They ask for compassion and help by pointing out that they are victims, that they did not bring disaster (enslavement, rape, hunger, death of loved ones) upon themselves. Consider one central case, Sophocles' Philoctetes, produced in 409 b.c., at a time when Athens, involved in a costly war, had good reason to ponder the toll taken on human beings by disasters not of their own making.

Philoctetes was a good man and a good soldier. On his way to Troy to fight with the Greeks in the Trojan War, he had a terrible accident. He stepped by mistake into a sacred shrine, and his foot was bitten by the serpent who guarded the shrine. It began to ooze with a foul-smelling pus, and his cries of agony disrupted the religious observances of the troops. The commanders therefore abandoned him on a deserted island, with no resources but his bow and arrows. Ten years later, having learned that they cannot win the war without him, they return, determined to trick him into rejoining them. Sick, lonely, hungry, exhausted from hunting his own food, Philoctetes still longs for friendship and activity. He greets his visitors with joy, delighted that he can interact with others after his long solitude. And he asks them to have compassion for him, seeing the troubles that life has brought him, troubles from which no human is safe:

. . . Have compassion for me.
Look how men live, always precariously
balanced between good and bad fortune.
If you are out of trouble, watch for danger.
And when you live well, then think the hardest
About life, lest ruin take you unawares.

Compassion proves crucial to the subsequent plot. The younger of the two leaders, Neoptolemus, witnesses an attack of Philoctetes' terrible pain. At this point, he is seized by what he calls "a fearful compassion," a compassion that strikes terror into him because it makes him see that the plan to snare Philoctetes into helping the Greek war effort by deceit is morally wrong. Reflecting, he recognizes that they ought not to use this man merely as a means of political ends. Seeing Philoctetes in his pain, he sees him as human and therefore worthy of respect. Sympathy for weakness and respect for human agency are allies, because once Neoptolemus understands the magnitude of Philoctetes' suffering, he can no longer regard him as simply a thing to be manipulated, or an animal to be pushed around. He cries out in pain himself, with a sharp cry of moral pain (guilt at his deception) that mimics Philoctetes' inarticulate cry of bodily pain. From then on he refuses to lie to him, insisting that Philoctetes must be treated as someone entitled to decide without being manipulated.

In our society today, we often hear that we have a stark and binary choice between regarding people as agents and regarding them as victims. We hear this contrast in debates about social welfare programs: it is said that to give people various forms of social support is to treat them as mere victims of life's ills, rather than to respect them as agents, capable of working to better their lot.

We hear the same contrast in recent feminist debates, where we are told that respecting women as agents is incompatible with a strong concern to protect them from rape, sexual harassment, and other forms of unequal treatment. To protect women is to presume that they can't fight on their own against this ill treatment; this, in turn, is to undermine their dignity by treating them as mere victims. For Katie Roiphe, for example, "the image that emerges from feminist preoccupations with rape and sexual harassment is that of women as victims,"1 an image that reinforces an antiquated perception of women as frail and helpless. Betty Friedan, similarly, criticizes the rape-crisis movement: "Obsession with rape, even offering Band-Aids to its victims, is a kind of wallowing in that victim state, that impotent rage, that sterile polarization."2 Naomi Wolf decries a "victim feminism" that "[c]harges women to identify with powerlessness."3

We hear the same contrast, again, in debates about criminal sentencing, where we are urged to think that any sympathy shown to a criminal defendant on account of a deprived social background or other misfortunes such as child sexual abuse is, once more, a denial of the defendant's human dignity. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for example, went so far as to say, in a 1994 speech, that when black and poor people are shown sympathy for their background when they commit crimes, they are being treated like children, "or even worse, treated like animals without a soul."4

Interestingly, we do not take this attitude in all areas. Even if we believe that people are capable of much resourcefulness under adversity, we still hold that law should protect them against many of life's ills. We all know that writers and artists are capable of extraordinary resourcefulness and cunning when their freedom of speech is suppressed by a brutal regime: and yet we do not hold that we are undermining their dignity, or turning them into soulless victims, when we defend strong legal protections for the freedoms of speech and press, protections that make it unnecessary for them to struggle against tyranny in order to publish their work. Some people have held this: the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that liberties of speech and press undermine "the will to assume responsibility for oneself," making people "small, cowardly, and hedonistic." Calling John Stuart Mill a "flathead," he pronounced that "[t]he highest type of free men should be sought where the highest resistance is constantly overcome: five steps from tyranny, close to the threshold of the danger of servitude."5 But we do not accept Nietzsche's view about liberty. Legal guarantees, we think, do not erode agency: they create a framework within which people can develop and exercise agency.

Again, we do not believe that strong law enforcement in the area of personal property turns property-holders into victims without dignity. Laws protect citizens from theft and fraud; these laws are backed up by state power, in the form of a police force supported by tax money. Nonetheless, we usually do not hear arguments that such uses of public money turn property owners into victims. Even though we are of course aware that people are sometimes capable of fighting to defend their homes and their possessions from theft, we think it's a lot better for law and the police to get involved, so people don't have to spend all their time fending off attack, and can get on with their other business. Often, Americans support even stronger protections of personal property, without thinking that in that way they are turning property owners into helpless victims. Those who support a repeal of the capital gains tax do not hold that this handout from the government would turn investors into victims without honor. Even though they are aware that investors are quite capable of doing pretty well even with current tax levels, they do not regard this legal change as producing passivity or turning people into soulless animals. If, then, we hear political actors saying such things about women, and poor people, and racial minorities, we should first of all ask why they are being singled out: what is there about the situation of being poor, or female, or black that turns help into condescension, compassion into insult?

The Philoctetes, I believe, helps us to understand this issue better. Greek tragedy is preoccupied with the portrayal of human beings as victims. As Aristotle says, its governing emotions, the emotions that hold the audience to the plot, are compassion and fear. Compassion, as he tells us, requires three thoughts: that the suffering we see is significant, has "size"; that the suffering person did not deserve to suffer to this extent; and that we too share certain general human possibilities with the suffering person--so we too, or people we know and care about, may suffer similar catastrophes. The occasions for compassion that he mentions are the common bases of tragic plots: illness, old age, hunger, disability, solitude, loss of one's friends, loss of one's children, loss of one's citizenship or money or well-being. Sometimes people face such disasters because of their own wickedness: but, as Aristotle says, tragedy focuses on cases where this is not so, where a pretty good person gets hit very hard by life. Our compassion itself acknowledges that Philoctetes doesn't deserve to suffer as he does; and our fear acknowledges that something similar might happen to us, or someone dear to us.

So, that means, we are seeing Philoctetes as a victim. And so, commonly, we see a host of other tragic characters: women who get raped in wartime, little children who are sold into slavery, men who lose their families or see their loved ones being raped, and so on. When we see them as victims, we are seeing something true about them and about life: we see that people can be harmed on a large scale, in ways that even the best efforts cannot prevent. As the Philoctetes suggests, this gives people of good will strong incentives for doing something about such disasters, and bringing relief to the afflicted.

And further, the Philoctetes suggests that the victim shows us something about our own lives: we see that we are not any different from the people whose fate we are watching, that we too are vulnerable to misfortune, and that we therefore have reason to fear a similar reversal. But if we are ourselves vulnerable, we had better think about what we would wish if we were to find ourselves in a situation of tragic reversal. If people think themselves exempt from misfortune, they can easily harden themselves to the cry of the afflicted. But if they truly see their own vulnerability, they will move close in thought to the victims they see, and this very movement will lead them to want structures that provide support for people against life's ungovernable disasters. Rousseau puts it this way:

Human beings are by nature neither kings nor nobles nor courtiers nor rich. All are born naked and poor, all are subject to the misfortunes of life, to difficulties, ills, needs, pains of all sorts. Finally, all are condemned to death. . . . Each may be tomorrow what the one whom he helps is today. . . . Do not, therefore, accustom your pupil to regard the sufferings of the unfortunate and the labors of the poor from the height of his glory. . . . Make him understand well that the fate of these unhappy people can be his, that all their ills are there in the ground beneath his feet. . . . Show him all the vicissitudes of fortune.6

Rousseau thought that to focus on the pain of others, through stories that arouse emotion, was a good way of reminding people of the truth of their own condition and of giving them incentives to make the lot of the victim less bad than it would otherwise be.

But isn't this treating people as passive rather than active? Is this victim role compatible with being seen as an agent? Entirely compatible, as we see from Philoctetes' story. We see him as a victim, in the sense that we see his loneliness, his poverty, his illness as things that he did not bring upon himself. But we also are led by the play to see him as capable of activity of many kinds. We hear him reason, we see his commitments to friendship and justice. Seeing that he can't be active in some parts of his life is fully compatible with observing that in other ways he remains very active. Seeing this, we are led to admire the dignity with which he confronts these ills, and to notice the yearning for full activity that he displays even in the most acute misery.

It is precisely this combination of dignified agency with disaster out of which the tragic response is made. If we just saw the hero as a worm or an ant, a pathetic low creature grovelling in the mud, we would not have the intense concern we do have with the forces that have inflicted suffering on him. Sophocles takes great pains to show Philoctetes' suffering as fully human: even when he screams out in unbearable pain, his cry is metrical--a human cry of pain. What inspires our compassion (and also our self-interested fear) is in fact this combination of human dignity with disaster. It is because we respect his humanity that we come to hate the forces that bear down upon him, and to think that something ought to be done about them. It is precisely because Philoctetes is shown to be capable of a human use of his faculties that Neoptolemus eventually shrinks from treating him like an animal or a thing. Tragedy shows us that disasters do strike at the heart of human action: they don't just cause superficial discomfort, they impede mobility, planning, citizenship, ultimately life itself. On the other hand, when we see that such a disaster strikes a human being, it is then that we feel the sense of tragic compassion: for we don't want humanity to be wasted, or even callously pushed around.

Let me now return to the three contemporary issues, and see how tragedy helps us think about them. We should begin by observing that all Americans in countless ways receive financial assistance from government, and are highly dependent on that assistance. State money and state power support laws without which most of us would not know how to live: laws protecting public order, personal safety, private property, the ability to make a binding contract, freedoms of assembly, worship, speech, and press. Of course people could learn to live without the expenditure of public money protecting those rights, but as a society we have decided that we think human agency is worthy of a basic concern that involves protecting these rights as prerequisites of meaningful human action.

Take the case of poverty and welfare reform. There are of course many complex empirical questions in this area, and this is why every society must experiment with programs and policies to understand their effects. It's not evident that direct relief is the best way to promote flourishing lives, and we should explore other alternatives. But there is one thing we should not say. We should not say that financial assistance for basic food, child welfare, and other prerequisites of meaningful human life is a way of dehumanizing people or turning them into passive victims. Human beings can struggle against all sorts of obstacles; frequently they succeed. But middle-class parents typically reveal in their own lives the belief that young children should not be hungry or neglected, that they should have the basic necessities of life provided to them so that they can develop their agency richly and fully. It is strange that we so often speak differently about the poor, suggesting that cutting off basic social support is a way of encouraging agency in poor mothers and children and improving their character, rather than a way of stifling agency, or stunting it before it gets a chance to develop. If we do respect agency and its dignity, we owe it a chance to develop and flourish.

The late Justice William Brennan made precisely this connection between dignity and luck in one of his most memorable opinions--in Goldberg v. Kelly (1970), a case that established that welfare rights could not be abridged without a hearing:

From its founding the Nation's basic commitment has been to foster the dignity and well-being of all persons within its borders. We have come to recognize that forces not within the control of the poor contribute to their poverty. . . .Welfare, by meeting the basic demands of subsistence, can help bring within the reach of the poor the same opportunities that are available to others to participate meaningfully in the life of the community. . . . Public assistance, then, is not mere charity, but a means to "promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

It is certainly legitimate, and even desirable, for states to experiment with different welfare strategies. But something more sinister is currently in the air, a backing away from the "basic commitment" to dignity and well-being that Brennan finds, plausibly, at the heart of our traditions.

Think now of women who demand more adequate enforcement of laws against rape and sexual harassment. They are asking the state to do something about this problem. Are they therefore asking to be treated as people who have no ability to stand up for their rights? Of course not. Women do manage to struggle against sexual harassment. Most working women of my generation have done so--sometimes with relatively little damage to their careers, sometimes with great damage. But should women be required to wage this struggle? Or do we think that a woman's dignity demands that she not have to fight this struggle all the time, that part of the respect we owe to a woman as an agent is to let her get on with her work in an atmosphere free from such intimidation and pressure? It seems plausible that women will be more productive in the economy and in their homes with these pressures minimized.

Finally, let us consider Justice Thomas's observations about criminal defendants. This is the most difficult of the cases we have before us; it requires us to depart from the comfortable framework of ancient tragedy. Sophocles shows us good people whose suffering was not their own fault. Even in tragedy, however, we now notice, the distinction between innocent and blameworthy conduct is not always terribly clear. Aristotle insisted that the hero should not be shown as falling through wickedness, or deep-seated defect of character. He preferred plots where the bad consequence came about through a chain that involved a mistake of some type made by the leading character, sometimes innocent, but sometimes at least partly blameworthy. His general attitude to such errors was that we should be forgiving of people who go wrong, seeing the difficulty of judging well in circumstances of great complexity. So we may begin our response to Justice Thomas by pointing out that even basically good people go wrong, and that a forgiving attitude may be appropriate to the general frailty and weakness of human judgment. In judging a person's blameworthy errors in a forgiving spirit, we record that we ourselves are not perfect in judgment, even when we have the best intentions.

But what if the person who is asking for our sympathy is a criminal who has done bad things from a genuinely bad character? Justice Thomas says that it is insulting to a black defendant to treat him as not responsible for his criminal acts on account of a bad social background. To deny responsibility is to treat the criminal as no more than a "soulless animal." And this claim seems plausible: if we were to say that people who grow up in the inner city will all, as a group, be treated as not guilty by reason of insanity, that would indeed be to negate their human potential.

But this is not the way the issue typically comes up in the law. The law typically uses a conventional standard of sanity when assessing guilt or innocence, and introduces the deprived background in a separate phase of the trial, the sentencing phase, in order to plead for some leniency. And in fact, there is a long tradition in the law that this sympathetic assessment of the defendant's life story in the penalty phase, far from treating people like animals, is an essential part of treating them as fully human. An opinion written by Justice Potter Stewart in a 1976 capital sentencing case, Woodson v. North Carolina, held that a process lacking this opportunity to hear the life story

excludes from consideration . . . the possibility of compassionate or mitigating factors stemming from the diverse frailties of humankind. It treats all persons convicted of a designated offense not as uniquely individual human beings, but as members of a faceless, undifferentiated mass. . . .

So Stewart is claiming more or less the opposite of what Thomas claimed: he says that when we do not take the opportunity to show compassion to a defendant's background, we treat that person as not fully human. What does he mean? The law's two-stage process asks us to assess guilt or innocence by looking to the state of mind with which the person did the act; if the person is not insane, he is responsible. But it says, as well, that people are not always fully in control of the factors that form their state of mind. And here we get back to tragedy. The standard tragic hero, like Philoctetes, grows to adulthood, becomes a good person, and then gets clobbered by life. But people get clobbered by life, sometimes, before they become good and grow to adulthood. The sentencing process recognizes that we may at times encounter a criminal who meets the conditions of basic responsibility, but whose moral development was subject to unusual hardships, and who therefore deserves to be seen as a kind of victim of life, one who did not get the support that life should have provided. When we recognize the "diverse frailties of humankind" and the way in which these are brought out by social circumstances, we recognize that few human beings are so firm that they can resist temptations to wrong, even under the prolonged effect of extremely bad circumstances. Sometimes they will make the type of error that is compatible with a basically good character. But sometimes damage has set in earlier, and the character itself is deformed by what it has encountered. Even this type of criminal defendant can be regarded as not a breed apart, intrinsically evil, but a human being like us, with diverse frailties and weaknesses, who has encountered circumstances--whether personal or social--that bring out those weaknesses in the worst possible way. And this, of course, creates incentives, once again, to think hard about those circumstances, so that we do not put people under pressures that many normal agents cannot stand.

In November 1996, I was mugged while walking from my office to a meeting on the other side of the Midway at 5 o'clock in the evening. My assailant was a short, timid, young black man, only about 5'2", wearing a thick parka and a blue wool hat. He said he had a gun, although I wasn't sure this was true; he seemed very inexperienced and tentative in his actions. After a certain amount of negotiation, I managed to get away losing only the cash in my wallet. But I spent some hours the next day in the police station, looking a hundreds of mug shots and talking to Officer Queenola Smith about the crime. I didn't find my suspect, and Officer Smith was not surprised. Given the recent cutbacks in welfare support and the high unemployment, she said, so many people have no money for their families, no warm clothes, and not enough food as winter approaches and the holidays draw close. So there are many new offenders.

Officer Smith was a very zealous officer; she boasted to me of the dangerous felons she had apprehended, the high-stakes chases she had conducted with aplomb. But she also had a sense of tragedy. And she saw these criminals not as a breed apart, but as members of her own community and her own race, who deserved a chance to exercise basic human agency, and therefore deserved the basic support to make that possible. Most who lose that support are like Philoctetes, good people hammered by circumstances, and it is--or at least it should be--easy to sympathize with them. But some get pushed harder and earlier, and don't resist the temptation to commit a crime. She did not deny that the mugger was responsible for his act. But she thought it was a humanly comprehensible act, an act many of us would have committed had we faced similar pressures. She saw my assailant as both victim and agent: someone trying to get a job, to support a family, someone hit hard by all kinds of circumstances, from the welfare cuts to unemployment to the harshness of the Chicago winter. She said in effect, see how hard it is to be good, with adversities like these. Now Queenola Smith didn't think we should stop arresting these criminals--as I say, she was proud of her work. But, she argued, we should think hard about our own responsibility in creating a situation in which some people so unequally face poverty and closed doors, and also, therefore, the temptation to do wrong. That's what it would mean to take their human agency seriously, and not to treat them as animals who could not help being bad.

A few days later the president of the university phoned me and said, "I heard about this terrible thing that happened." And I felt that we were talking about the wrong event--for the loss of $40 by a professor was a trivial thing, compared to the tragedy that was going on all around us in our community. Who is the victim, and who the agent?

As a society we are in grave danger of losing our sense of tragedy. I am arguing that if we lose this sense of tragic compassion for people who unequally suffer the misfortunes of life--including both those who remain good and those who turn to the bad--we are in danger of losing our own humanity. We are in danger of forgetting something central about ourselves--that we don't become agents automatically; that our own relatively comfortable lives typically need, but also get, much support from government and from the material world; that we too would suffer terribly, and perhaps even become worse, were that support to be withdrawn. By thinking like the audience at an ancient tragedy, we may possibly move closer to building a community that does indeed "foster the dignity and well-being of all persons within its borders." "Thus from our weakness," Rousseau observed, "our fragile happiness is born."


1 Katie Roiphe, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993), p. 6.

2 Betty Friedan, The Second Stage (New York: Summit Books, 1981), p. 362.

3  Naomi Wolf, Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How to Use It (New York: Fawcett, 1993), p. 136.

4  "Justice Thomas blames `rights revolution' for increase in black crime," Chicago Tribune, 17 May 1994.

5  Friedrich Nietzsche, "Skirmishes of an Untimely One," from Twilight of the Idols, in The Viking Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Penguin, 1959), 38.

6  Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979), pp. 222, 224. I have altered Bloom's translation in several places, in particular substituting "human being" for "man."

Originally published in the February/ March 1998 issue of Boston Review



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