Tragedy and Justice
Bernard Williams remembered
Oct 1, 2003
36 Min read time
Bernard Williams died on June 10, 2003, at the age of 73, while on holiday with his family in Rome, after a long and often painful bout with multiple myeloma. To call him one of the few truly distinguished British philosophers of the 20th century is accurate but misleading. He was a philosopher of a unique sort, and he was never altogether at home in British philosophy, much of which he rightly considered narrow, dry, and in flight from some of the most important aspects of human existence. In a culture that valued explicitness above imaginative power, his work was suggestive and revealing rather than systematic and finished, reaching for imaginative insight rather than hobbled by conventions of analysis. Although nobody in the subject possessed the capacity for logical argument to a higher degree, and although he honored that capacity, he wanted more from writing, and his work was often more like poetry than like standard philosophical prose, illuminating by elusive compressed signs. He did not write aphoristically like the Nietzsche he so much admired, but his writing combined brilliant clarity with some of the properties of aphorism: vivid wit, terse enigmatic utterance, decoding left to the reader.
Williams made a large demand on behalf of philosophy: that it come to terms with, and contain, the difficulty and complexity of human life. He believed that much philosophy of the past had represented a flight from reality, a rationalistic defense against complexity, emotion, and tragedy. Utilitarianism and Kantianism, particularly, had simplified the moral life in ways that he found egregious, failing to understand, or even actively denying, the heterogeneity of values, the sometimes tragic collisions between one thing we care for and another. They also underestimated the importance of personal attachments and projects in the ethical life and, in a related way, neglected the valuable role emotions play in good choice. Finally, they failed to come to grips with the many ways in which sheer luck affects not only happiness but the ethical life itself, shaping our very possibilities for choice. A lover of both literature and opera, Williams asked philosophy to come up to the higher standards of human insight these other forms of expression exemplified. What was the point in it, if it didn’t? Clear obtuseness does not contribute anything to human life. “Writing about moral philosophy should be a hazardous business,” he wrote in the opening sentence of Morality—both because one reveals “the inadequacies of one’s own perceptions” more clearly than in other parts of philosophy and because one runs the risk of “misleading people about matters of importance.” But most writers on the subject avoid the second danger by “refusing to write about anything of importance.” Williams never refused.
Philosophers on the Continent during Williams’s lifetime had consistently addressed the deep questions that Williams found missing from the British scene; and yet Williams never made common cause with them. His intellectual precision and his keen sense of order made him unhappy with anything that seemed muddy or vague; and his liberal-democratic sympathies made him eschew obscurity, seeking a style that could be grasped by anyone who was willing to face the issues along with him. As I have already suggested, this clarity of style was compatible with considerable compression, even elusiveness, in argumentative structure. It was also compatible with a strong interest in literature and with the use of detailed, often powerful examples. Logical clarity was combined with a richer human precision, which required, in his view, at least some of the techniques of narrative. He relied on a sharp distinction between the methods and aims of science and those of ethics, which he saw as a human discipline with its own characteristic modes of inquiry, which ought to include a close attention to the complex realities of life. Thus, though something of a rebel in British academic society, he was also quintessentially British. If Nietzsche became a passion, he remained closer to Hume.
Williams grew up in Essex and received a strong classical education at the Chigwell School before entering Balliol College, Oxford. There he became a well-known prodigy, taking his degree in classics with “congratulatory honors,” a rare tribute. He showed brilliance in classical scholarship, but turned to modern philosophy instead, though the love of the Greeks was a thread that would run through his whole career. After military service flying planes with the Royal Air Force he won a coveted Prize Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. He married Shirley Williams (now Baroness Williams of Crosby), a rising star in the Labour Party, and eventually moved to University College, London, and then to Bedford College. The marriage lasted 17 years before being dissolved in 1974; a daughter from that marriage, Becky, survives him. Williams then married Patricia Skinner, a gifted editor and a most remarkable woman, to whom he remained very happily married until his death. Two sons from that marriage also survive him.
Throughout his career Williams gave evidence of being a really serious feminist. He not only defended women’s equality in politics and employment, and later their right to be free from sexual harassment in the university, but he also saw the importance of acting in ways that supported women’s aspirations. During both of his marriages, for example, he provided a lot more child care than was common among men at his level of success, and he always supported the careers of his wives, both women of immense achievement. I am grateful for his advice concerning an instance of sexual harassment in my own career. His advice was both sympathetic and tough: he insisted that women should not put up with anything that compromised their dignity.
In the 1970s Williams, already famous for his dazzling lectures and interventions and for brilliant essays on morality and personal identity, began to publish the books that altered British moral philosophy: Morality in 1972, Problems of the Self in 1973, and, in the same year, his famous “A Critique of Utilitarianism” in the volume Utilitarianism: For and Against (paired with a “pro” essay by J. J. C. Smart). In these works we already see the basic outlines of the assault on both Kantianism and utilitarianism that he would develop in greater detail in his most systematic book,Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, published in 1985. (Many of his most influential contributions throughout his career were in the form of essays rather than books.)
As a group these works denounced the trivial and evasive way in which moral philosophy was then being praticed in England, under the aegis of those two dominant theories. Most work, he charged, was not only exceedingly boring but also utterly failed to confront some of the most significant ethical issues. Kantianism, as Williams understood it, was a theory that made the concept of moral obligation central while neglecting the contribution to the moral life of the emotions, personal relationships, and necessity. By making “What is my moral duty?” the salient question for ethics, he argued, Kant neglected the importance of starting from a much broader question—”How should one live?”—and attending to the variety of commitments that a full human life includes. Williams’s account of Kant is in many respects narrow and unsympathetic, ignoring, for example, Kant’s accounts of virtue and education; but it fairly represented a good deal of the influential Kantianism of that time.
The narrow focus of Kantian theories meant, for Williams, that even Kant’s account of moral obligation was wanting. In the important essay “Ethical Consistency,” in Problems of the Self, he argues that tragic dilemmas like that of Agamemnon—told by the gods that in order to save his men he must sacrifice his daughter—cannot be understood at all if we follow Kant’s insistence that genuine conflicts of obligation do not exist, a key point in Kant’s attempt to keep the moral domain pure from the effects of luck. Kant understood moral worth to be the sort of thing that retains its full splendor regardless of the ravages of chance, and thus he could not allow that the bad luck of being caught in a tragic dilemma could ever cause the moral agent to form morally bad intentions. But we have to acknowledge, Williams argued, that the world can sometimes force a person of good will to act in a way that is ethically heinous and violates a genuine obligation, even if one course is less reprehensible than the other alternatives that may be available. Such a tragic situation leaves behind both regret and remorse, and these emotions are appropriate even when the person could not have done anything to avoid the predicament. More generally, in “Morality and the Emotions” he assailed the silence of both major traditions on that topic, so important to the Greeks and to many other important figures in the history of moral philosophy.
Utilitarianism, with its tremendous influence on public life, came in for a variety of different criticisms at different times in Williams’s career. His most influential critique concerned its impoverished notion of the person and of human agency. According to the utilitarian the right choice is the one that maximizes total or average welfare. Because of this exclusive focus on the results of our conduct, the theory forces us to consider the world from a perspective outside our own lives. We are not permitted to ascribe particular importance to a consideration simply because it plays a salient part in our own life, or to an action simply on the ground that it is we who do it. In a famous and much-debated example, Williams imagines a scientist, Jim, doing research somewhere in Latin America. Suddenly confronted by the henchmen of a brutal dictator, he is shown a group of captive rebel Indians and told that all 20 will shortly be executed—unless Jim, as an honored guest, agrees to kill one of them himself. In that case the other 19 will be let go. For utilitarianism there is no dilemma here, because the only relevant consideration is the outcome. For Jim, Williams argues, there ought to be a serious dilemma (though in the end he thought Jim should probably accept the offer), because the fact of his own agency in wrongdoing—the fact that he will kill someone, and not simply that someone will die—makes an ethically relevant difference. In general utilitarianism makes the person only an engine to produce outcomes, but this is an impoverished conception of the person and cannot suffice for a plausible theory of human conduct. Williams made it clear that his argument was intended as an objection not only to utilitarianism but to all forms of consequentialism—all views, that is, that hold that an action is right just in case it promotes the best consequences.
A later discussion coauthored with Amartya Sen, the Introduction to their edited collection Utilitarianism and Beyond, usefully dissects utilitarianism into three parts: consequentialism; sum-ranking (a theory about how different people’s welfares are aggregated, namely that they are simply added together); andwelfarism (the view that the value of consequences is a function solely of human welfare). All three parts are independent, all contain serious problems, and all the troubles converge on a “narrow view of the person” as merely a container of satisfactions. No doubt because Sen did not accept Williams’s critique of consequentialism (he has argued that agency and the personal point of view can be worked into a complicated account of which consequences are in fact best), Williams did not repeat his earlier arguments. Instead, the coauthored piece focuses on difficulties with sum-ranking and utilitarian accounts of welfare. Sum-ranking fails to give sufficient salience to the worth of each person: it in effect permits one person’s large misery to be overbalanced by small benefits to a large number of others. If A has a miserable life full of pain and indignity, but B and C and D have extremely happy lives, then the sum of happiness may be greater than if A’s life were improved at the cost of small losses to B, C, and D. But politics should not only consider the total, treating a person as nothing but a function in a larger social system; it should also consider the claim that each individual has to be treated with decency and have his or her rights respected. In making this criticism, Sen and Williams were in strong agreement with John Rawls’s Kantian account of justice. These views about the importance of equal respect for persons were central to Williams’s engagement with politics; he was a lifelong social democrat and egalitarian. (His article “The Idea of Equality” remains one of the most important discussions of that political value.)
Sen and Williams also criticize the major theories of welfare in utilitarian theories: pleasure and satisfaction of preferences. These accounts assume that the good is single when in fact it is heterogeneous; they rely on preferences, which are notoriously malleable, adjusting to unjust background conditions, rather than adopting some more robust account of the good.
The role of luck in the ethical life—the idea that factors outside one’s control could affect the ethical value of one’s life—had been on Williams’s mind since his early essay on Agamemnon. In 1981 he published a collection of essays entitled Moral Luck, whose lead paper develops this theme in a controversial way. There are many ways in which luck enters the moral life. For example, the Greeks focused on the fact that certain choices of a way of life made one far more open to luck than others: to go in for politics or love is much riskier than to go in for intellectual contemplation. But Williams focused on a different and odder issue: the relationship of outcome luck to ex post facto moral assessment. Gauguin made a choice that looks morally reprehensible, abandoning his family to go off to paint in Tahiti. Williams argues that our judgment of Gauguin is appropriately dependent on matters that Gauguin could not have foreseen at the time and that were not fully under his control. If his artistic experiment had been a failure, he should have judged himself harshly; since it was a brilliant success, he may be excused. I have never been fully convinced by this example. In part, I actually prefer Gauguin’s pre-Tahiti paintings to his Tahiti paintings, which seem to me exercises in the crassest sort of racial and sexual objectification. Second, even if we grant that the experiment was a success, I think we should view the case as similar to Agamemnon’s: Gauguin faced a tragic dilemma, and made a choice that inflicted grievous moral wrong. He ought to feel remorse, and we ought to blame him. In any case, Williams’s remarkable treatment of the case opened up a vein of ethical discussion that had not been mined since the time of the Greeks and Romans, given the subsequent dominance of providential views of the universe. In so doing, he did moral philosophy a huge service.
In 1985, Williams published Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, which had occupied him for years. In this major book Williams assails all systematic theorizing in ethics, defining an ethical theory as “a theoretical account of what ethical thought and practice are, which account either implies a general test for the correctness of basic ethical beliefs and principles or else implies that there cannot be such a test.”1 Focusing on the aspirations of Kantianism and utilitarianism, he argues that the project of providing rational and systematic foundations for the ethical life is not only doomed to failure but also damaging, conducing to a narrow and simplistic understanding of the ethical life. Williams suggests that the whole enterprise of systematic theorizing in ethics is an attempt to deny the complexity of human life and the irrational aspects of human nature—including the fact that people find value, as he said in Morality, “in such things as submission, trust, uncertainty, risk, even despair and suffering.” He urged philosophers to return to the Greeks’ inclusive and general starting point, the question “How should one live?”, which invites consideration of all the salient aspects of human life. Instead of constructing systematic moral theories, ethical philosophers should be confronting life’s tough questions, presumably in a piecemeal way, with close attention to literature and to psychology. Williams believed that the central questions in ethics are practical—“What am I to do?”—not theoretical, and that success would require engagement with hard practical questions.
Some people who have attacked ethical theory have done so out of a confidence in conventional morality and people’s daily intuitions, but Williams later said that he had no such confidence; he was always dismissive of what he saw as a complacent moral conventionalism. In a reply to critics of the book he speaks of the “emptiness and cruel superficiality of everyday thought” and denounces as “wonderfully perverse” a “certain vulgar Wittgensteinianism” that seeks to return us to those everyday intuitions.2 But then it remains unclear why a theory like Kant’s, which seeks to remind us of what is least corrupt in our daily understandings, would be bound to be so damaging, except in the sense that Williams plainly disagrees with some specific parts of its content. Nor was it clear where Williams’s critique left a theory such as Aristotle’s, with whose content he could be presumed to be more in agreement.3
Another puzzling question concerns the relationship between the ethical and the political. Williams later maintained that his attack on ethical theorizing left intact the aspiration to constructpolitical theories, which might be valuable guides. But where does this leave those among the great Western political theorists such as Aristotle, Cicero, Rousseau, Kant, and John Rawls, who put a moral theory at the core of their political theories? Williams singles out Rawls as an example of the criticized class of moral theories; and yet his later statement suggests that after all he might admit the usefulness of Rawls’s theory, given its political nature. In any case the source of the distinction between an acceptable aspiration to a theory of political justice and an unacceptable aspiration to a theory of individual morality is left obscure. Williams’s general failure to engage systematically with Rawls’s ideas about social and political justice leaves such important issues unresolved.
More generally Williams seems to alternate between an extreme contemptuousness toward most everyone—neither the theorists nor everyday intuitions offer good guidance; both are superficial and distorting—and an extreme confidence. Somehow, without theories to guide us, we will manage to confront the complexities of life. But the great theorists in ethics, Aristotle and Kant among them, typically begin from an assessment of human beings that is, I think, both more generous and more realistic. Most people have an ethical understanding that is in many respects sound, but they are also hasty, self-serving, prone to self-deceptive rationalization. An ethical theory, then, might help to fix in a clear way the best deliverances of reflective self-examination, so that in times of haste or temptation we might have a paradigm to consider, which would, if the theory was a good one, represent the best part of ourselves. Kant’s idea that we must always treat humanity as an end and never as a mere means might in this way help us criticize many inclinations we have, in both personal and political life.
On this view ethical theory would not be an evasion of life—a device for “switching off the monitors to earth,” as Williams once described Robert Nozick’s ethical theorizing—but a considered response to its complexities and to our own weaknesses. To my mind Williams never adequately confronted this plausible account of the good in ethical theory.4 Perhaps this silence is to be explained by the very great importance he attached to each person’s grappling directly with the problems of life rather than taking off-the-shelf guidance. It may be that no corporate account of our good could satisfy because only a deeply personal search could count for much. This element of Existentialism in Williams’s thought explains, I believe, his equal hostility to theory and to convention. As a historian of philosophy I believe we should resist this stark contrast between the personal and the theoretical: sometimes, I believe, we get the best and most personal understanding of our lives by grappling with the great theories of the past.
Despite this major assault on Enlightenment rationalism, Williams never fully abandoned the Enlightenment. The rationalism evident in his early first-rate book on Descartes never fully left him, and it resurfaced dramatically in his last book,Truth and Truthfulness, in which he brilliantly defended the values of truth and objectivity against postmodernist and Foucauldian critique, arguing that any viable human society needs to make these notions central, to rely on them, and to honor the related virtues of accuracy and sincerity. In this book he also offers a general account of how to criticize corrupt social systems, in this way responding to some of the critics of his antitheoretical stance.
Of all of Williams’s contributions, the one that has always fascinated me most is his recuperation for modern moral philosophy of the patterns of action and thought inherent in ancient Greek literature. From his early essay on “Ethical Consistency” to the engagement with Thucydides in Truth and Truthfulness, the Greek poets and historians commanded his respect; he thought, along with Nietzsche, that they were more truthful about our condition than most philosophers. In Shame and Necessity he made an admirably lucid argument against various condescending progressivist interpretations of Greek culture, putting to rest once and for all the tired allegation that the early Greeks had no concept of deliberation and choice and a primitive notion of agency. He also argued powerfully that the Greeks did not have a “shame culture” in the sense in which that term is sometimes used, to mean a culture entirely focused on external reward. Shame for the Greeks, he argues, is an ethical notion connected with inner self-evaluation. Finally, he convincingly argued that the Greek poets show us a view of the world that we would do well to ponder: a world in which the things that matter most are not under the control of reason or indeed under human control at all, and we are exposed to luck on a grand scale.
There was, however, more than this in his fascination with Greek tragedy. As time went on Williams pushed his interest in a Nietzschean anti-Enlightenment direction that I found increasingly unsettling, though whether it was a change in his view or a revelation of elements that had always been there is difficult to say. Certainly it involved a displacement, to me disturbing, of the constructive political side of his work that had been in evidence earlier. This element perhaps shows up most clearly in an essay he wrote later than Shame and Necessitycalled “The Women of Trachis: Fictions, Pessimism, Ethics.”5
Williams begins by announcing that moral philosophy typically aspires to give us “good news” about our condition—whether in the form of an Hegelian narrative of progress in which reason ultimately prevails, or that of Leibnizian theodicy in which all bad things are simply necessary evils in this best of all possible worlds. Even Kant’s insistence on the dignity of the good will under pressure of adverse fortune is itself a type of good news. By contrast, “stark fictions,” prominently including Greek tragedies, bring us face to face with “the horrors” inherent in human existence, offering “a necessary supplement and a suitable limitation to the tireless aim of moral philosophy to make the world safe for well-disposed people.” By showing us an ethically relevant space over which we lack control they ask us to cede that space to nature, fate, and the capricious gods.
Of course some tragedies do this. But I believe that Williams’s story is too simple, as is his distinction between “good news” and “bad news.” Consider the ending of Sophocles’ Trachiniai, his case in point. Deianeira’s well-intentioned plan of giving her husband Heracles a love potion has gone awry through the centaur’s malice. Heracles is stricken not by love but by horrible agony. Watching him suffer, his son Hyllus asks for suggnômosunê, fellow-feeling, from the human onlookers (and the audience), contrasting this sympathy with the callousness of the gods. The famous concluding passage is cited by Williams as his epigraph:
You see the great indifference (agnômosunê) of the gods
to these things that have happened,
who begat us and are called our fathers
and look on such sufferings.
What is to come no one can see,
but what is here now is pitiable for us
and shameful for them,
but of all men hardest for him
on whom this disaster has fallen.
Maiden, do not stay in this house:
you have seen death and many agonies,
fresh and strange,
and there is nothing here that is not Zeus.
Williams sees in these lines a truthful recognition of the inevitable limitations of human projects. Hyllus recognizes and accepts that the universe is fundamentally unjust and arbitrary, and that there is nothing to be done about that. Thus the “stark fiction” confronts us squarely with “the horrors” and immunizes us against the philosophers’ “good news.” But there are two problems with such a reading. First, it ignores the extent to which human moral judgment is prized and asserted, even in the face of disaster: the pity and fellow-feeling of the human community have a nobility that, in Aristotle’s words, “shines through” despite the horror, contrasting favorably with the indifference of the gods. That is not exactly the same as Kant’s good news about the will beset by the “accidents of stepmotherly nature,” but it is surely closer to Kant than Williams acknowledges.
Second, Williams’s reading makes too little, I believe, of Hyllus’s anger. Williams does not exactly counsel resignation, but it is hard to know what other moral attitude his perspective suggests. Resignation to tragic necessity, however, is certainly not what is conveyed by the words megalên theôn agnômosunên, “great indifferent thoughtlessness of the gods,” nor yet by the characterization of the gods as parents who sat by while terrible events transpired. Obviously enough the Greek family would view as profoundly reprehensible the conduct of any father who allowed such things to happen to his children when he could have stopped it. Such conduct is indeed “shameful” and, as Williams has insisted, shame in the Greek world is compatible with moral reactions of indignation and blame. We must take very seriously the idea that the gods are anthropomorphic agents, like humans but much more powerful. For such beings to have permitted this disaster is deeply culpable, especially when they purport to be caring parents. Such a world need not have existed; they permitted it.
Think of an Indian onlooker, surveying the carnage after General Dyer’s massacre of thousands of innocent civilians at Amritsar. He might well have spoken such a speech, ending it with the line, “. . . and there is nothing here that is not the Raj.” In other words, how dare these powerful people come here claiming to be our superiors and parents, and then conduct themselves in this disgraceful and evil way?6 Because the Greeks saw their gods as anthropomorphic agents, and not as morally exemplary such agents either, questions about the justice of their actions were live questions and it was not inappropriate to press them—or, to the extent that some thought it was appropriate (Plato certainly did), it was regularly done anyway. (Imagine how shocking it would still be to see a play that depicted actions of Jesus as “shameful” and callously obtuse and you will see something of the difference between Greek and Christian perspectives.) The play does not say that such things must happen; far less does it say (what a Judaeo-Christian text probably would have said) that everything that has happened is just and good, although we cannot comprehend divine justice and goodness. It says the opposite, and it thereby blames the choices of the gods.
And notice what has now become of the issue of good news and bad. The news that the suffering we witness is the result of distant, unapproachable, implacable, unintelligent necessity would in a sense be bad news: for it would mean that it had to happen, and that similar things will go on happening no matter what we do. That is what Williams means by saying that such news is a corrective to overly optimistic offers of “good news.” But I think that there is another sense in which that kind of news is good: it means that there is nobody to blame and nothing more to do. We can sit back and resign ourselves to the world as it is, knowing that its horrors lie outside our control.
If, however, we think that malice, ignorance, and callousness may lie behind the suffering we witness, well, that is in one sense good news: it means that there is a hope of change. But it is in another sense bad news: it means that the suffering was perhaps not necessary, and that if we had worked harder or thought better we might have prevented it. At the very least it means that we had better get ourselves together to do whatever we can to avoid such things in the future; anything less would be shameful. In the case where the disparity of power between victims and perpetrators is that between mortals and gods, it is not very clear what can be done, although withdrawal of worship is at least one thing that is regularly tried in both tragedy (the end of the Trojan Women) and comedy (The Birds); short of that, angry demands for acknowledgment and reparation must be pursued and pursued again. Even if the gods are relatively obtuse, they are not altogether deaf to human accusations. Given that their obtuseness frequently seems to arise not from profound malice but from a real lack of understanding of what mortal beings experience, making the cost of their actions clear to them is at least a hopeful stratagem.
But certainly in the case, very common in tragedy, where the perpetrators are, like General Dyer, human, the consequence of recognizing wrongdoing as the source of tragedy is clear: the witness must oppose such evil at great cost and denounce it to others. One way to do that would be to write a drama revealing the evil to the entire citizen body of a democracy. And tragic dramas frequently allude to their own capacity to recognize the suffering of outcasts, fostering a more adequate ethical vision. To take just one example, the oozing sore on Philoctetes’ foot, in Sophocles’ tragedy, makes him an object of avoidance to the commanders, who simply deny the suffering that their behavior perpetuates. The drama, by contrast, constantly alludes to its own determination to see his suffering and take its measure, connecting this imaginative activity to the goal of morally appropriate action. Since such actions are much more difficult than contemplating the horrors of existence, the news that evil and not necessity lies behind suffering is bad news. For Neoptolemus, the awareness that he can choose to act justly is as painful as Philoctetes’ attack: he uses the same expression, papai, to signal the agony of recognized agency.
I believe that the “stark fictions” of the Greeks challenge their audience to just such difficult reflections on the causes of disaster: is the cause immutable necessity, or is it malice and folly? Where should we draw the line between the one and the other? We gain understanding from the subtle and frequently indeterminate way in which tragedies pose that question, and from the challenges they give us to confront the role of blameworthy agency even in what seems as natural as breathing. We must never forget that tragedies were vehicles of political deliberation and reflection at a sacred civic festival—in a city that held its empire as a “tyranny” and killed countless innocent people. For that audience tragedy did not bring the good news of resignation; it brought the bad news of self-examination and change. (In 415, the year that Euripides’ Trojan Women was produced, the Athenians killed all the male citizens of the rebellious colony Melos and enslaved the women and children.)
In short, instead of conceding the part of ethical space within which tragic events occur to implacable necessity or fate, tragedies often challenge their audience to inhabit it actively, as a contested place of moral struggle, a place in which virtue might possibly in some cases prevail over the caprices of amoral power and in which, even if it does not prevail, it may still shine through for its own sake. In our contemporary world, in which it is a good assumption that most of the starvation and much of the other misery we witness is the result of culpable negligence by the powerful, metaphysical resignation would, again, be relatively good news for the powerful, letting them off the hook. But the truthful news of Greek tragedy, for us as for the Athenians, is far worse than that: for the bad news is that we are as culpable as Zeus in the Trachiniai and the Greek generals in The Trojan Women and Odysseus in Philoctetes and many other gods and mortals at many times and places—unless and until we throw off our laziness and selfish ambition and obtuseness and ask ourselves how the harms we witness might have been prevented. It is this injunction to a socially active compassion that Williams omits from his story of Greek tragedy. And that, for me, means that his story of the bad is just too good to be true.
Others describing Bernard Williams’s life, after his death, have spoken of his dazzling quickness, of his sometimes devastating wit, and of the intuitive understanding of human issues that made him a precious friend as well as a deft subverter of philosophical obtuseness. He was such a personal presence on the philosophical scene that it seems inappropriate to separate the writings from the impression made by the man. I certainly could not do so if I tried, so I had better put my memory cards on the table so that you can ponder the complex sources of the criticisms I have just made. When I first met Bernard, in New York in the winter of 1973, he was standing in a dark hallway outside the seminar room at the City University Graduate Center where a monthly Greek philosophy discussion group was about to begin. His vivid, rapid existence eclipsed everything around him. I was not surprised to learn later that he had been a daring and successful pilot in the RAF. He had just performed a showy crash landing into our world, and the philosophical landscape would never look the same again.
It will tell you a great deal about that moment that I remember both his dark green sports jacket and precisely what I myself was wearing: a pink minidress from Bergdorf Goodman and black fishnet stockings. The feeling of being attended to by a magical force of nature was as powerful as the impression of witnessing such a force in action. Later that week, after listening to the first lectures in his visiting course on Descartes, I had an epiphany while sitting in rollers under the large bonnet hair dryer that was still my habit in those days of still-nascent feminism (I was in the ’70s, but not yet of them). Reading under said dryer the correspondence of Descartes with Princess Elizabeth, I thought to myself that the most wonderful relation in the world would be that of corresponding in her way with the dazzling intellect of Bernard Williams. The subservience latent in that wish has shaped my thoughts and dealings with Bernard ever since, making our eventual friendship risky and uneven. And if I recall with pleasure some things he sometimes said about my work, I also recall, and perhaps with more verbal exactitude, the time I ran past his King’s College provostial window in orange running shorts with a pink top, only to be told later that the primary qualities were acceptable, but the secondary qualities rather off. (This was the furthest he would ever go, as a man very much in love with his wife, and it was characteristic of his somewhat self-delighted style.) As Catharine MacKinnon writes: women live in objectification the way fish live in water.
For some years, albeit not right at the start, I have wanted to dislodge these feelings of passionate inferiority, to establish some basis of equality, proving that I had something that was just as good as that jet-pilot velocity. And since, as I said, he was as close to being a feminist as a powerful man of his generation could be, and since he was indeed an understanding friend, I have not even had the solace of blaming him for the subordination his presence always elicited. So: anger to which I knew I had no right, desire to destroy the power that radiated over me, guilt at being the person who harbored such anger against a friend, joy at the sight of the friend when he turned up, blocked longing for love, desire to make reparation for hostile wishes (especially when he received an honorary degree from our University)—all these feelings have been simmering in my thoughts for years, not least during his illness. Caveat lector.
Nietzsche wrote that when a philosopher harps very insistently on a theme, that shows us that there is a danger that something else is about to “play the master.” Nietzsche was talking about rationalists and their desire to suppress the irrational passions that threatened to take over. But his insight may be applied elsewhere. When Bernard denigrated the aspirations of philosophical reason in human affairs and harped so insistently on the importance of irrational passion, what might have been in danger of playing the master? I believe that much of his interest in Nietzschean pessimism and irrationalism was in the service of warding off a powerful depression, even perhaps despair. Over the years I began to notice that he was never angry (whereas I am angry more or less all the time). Contempt, world-weariness, cynicism, even an irritability linked to the world-weariness, but never just anger, the sense that wrong has been done and that one had better go out and right it. I think his non-angry attitude to tragedy was of a piece with his critique of the Enlightenment: doing good for a bad world did not energize him, because his attitude to the world was at some deep level without hope. The world was a mess, and there was no saving or even improving it. It was childish, naïve, to suggest that improvement was possible. (His liberal politics were difficult to reconcile with this view, and this perhaps explains his increasing withdrawal from politics and even political thinking in later life.) Nietzsche called this attitudeamor fati and connected this embracing of necessity with a kind of cheerfulness, the cheerfulness that comes when we abandon the hope of real change. Similarly, what energized Bernard, cheered him up, was a kind of elegant assertion of the hopelessness of things against the good-newsers, a contemptuous yet brilliant scoffing. As a mutual friend once said to me, “Bernard is like the sun: a lot of light, but very little warmth.” (A remark that, apart from its incompleteness about Bernard, showed that the speaker must have spent his days in England.)
Bernard’s world-weary attitude made me angry, because it seemed a waste of a chance to do some good, however small, through his enormous philosophical talents. (This was an anger to which I thought I had a right, although it was always difficult to disentangle it from the other sort of anger.) My do-good engagéeattitude irritated him, as if I had become Major Barbara when I might have grown into someone interesting. (It was only when the postmodernists showed him the excesses of his own position that he brought out, against them, his old Cartesian rationalism and his always deep commitment to truth, along with an equally strong commitment to social criticism. The dialectic between his Enlightenment self and his Nietzschean self makes his last, enigmatic book especially precious to me.)
Thus a strain developed in our friendship, under pressure of my criticisms of his Nietzschean turn and his reaction to those public criticisms.
One could never get the better of Bernard in an argument. He was always several steps ahead, modifying his position to circumnavigate the objection. Even now, when he cannot respond, his capacity for response is so powerfully present that all one can do is to pose to him some questions, such as:
Isn’t it perhaps all right to try to engage one’s philosophical energies so as to make things a little better in the world, and can’t one do so without being duped by any teleology of progress? Or: Isn’t Kant’s sort of “good news” worth working for, even if Hegel’s sort may indeed be a delusion?
Isn’t it not boring but rather exciting to see what one might do under the aegis of anger and hope? (Or: Isn’t Dickens more exciting, really, than Nietzsche?)
Is despair possibly a sin, as well as a psychological problem?
It is but one mark of Williams’s depth and greatness, as a philosopher and as a human being (as a philosopher who insisted on bringing his humanity into philosophy) that he understood those objections to himself, their human urgency, and theimpossibility of answering them, except by living life and thought in one’s own way. As he so briefly did.
1 As I argue in the article cited below, n. 4, this definition proves too narrow to accommodate everything that Williams himself takes to be theory: he includes Rawls’s theory as an example of ethical theory’ and yet Rawls insists that justification in ethics is holistic and that there is no single “test” for the correctness of beliefs; rightness is seen only in the fit of particular judgments and theoretical claims in the system as a whole.
2 “Replies,” in J. E. J. Altham and Ross Harrison, eds., World, Mind and Ethics: Essays on the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams (Cambridge University Press, 1995), 218.
3 See my essay in World, Mind and Ethics and Williams’s equivocal reply. Williams always disliked Aristotle, whom he found boring; nonetheless there are many points of agreement between Williams’s approach to ethics and Aristotle’s.
4 See my “Why Practice Needs Ethical Theory: Particularism, Principles, and Bad Behavior,” in Steven J. Burton, ed., ‘The Path of the Law’ and Its Influence: The Legacy of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 50–86, and in Brad Hooker and Margaret Little, eds., Moral Particularism(Clarendon Press, 2000), 227–55.
5 In R. B. Louden and P. Schollmeier, eds., The Greeks and Us(University of Chicago Press, 1996), 43–53.
6 In his Autobiography Nehru describes an encounter with General Dyer on a train in 1919. Unobserved, he took the vacant upper berth of a crowded compartment and overheard the loud conversation of a group of British officers. “One of them was holding forth in an aggressive and triumphant tone and soon I discovered that he was Dyer, the hero of Jallianwala Bagh, and he was describing his Amritsar experiences. He pointed out how he had the whole town at his mercy and he had felt like reducing the rebellious city to a heap of ashes, but he took pity on it and refrained. . . . I was greatly shocked to hear his conversation and to observe his callous manner. He descended at Delhi station in pyjamas with bright pink stripes, and a dressing-gown.” If the last touch belongs more to Aristophanes (Poseidon at the end of The Birds is about right), the rest is on all fours with Euripides. Indeed, Dyer’s speech could have been extracted from the opening dialogue of the gods in The Trojan Women. (Once again: think of a play that put Jesus in pink striped pajamas, and you will see the large difference between Greek piety and its Christian analogue.)
October 01, 2003
36 Min read time