“Philosophy Does Not Compel, Threaten, or Mock”


This past Monday, Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, delivered the 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Jefferson Lecture at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.

You can watch a video of the event here. In her lecture, “Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame,” Professor Nussbaum holds that “anger is a poison to democratic politics, and it is all the worse when fueled by a lurking fear and a sense of helplessness” and argues “that we should resist anger in ourselves and inhibit its role in our political culture.” You can read the whole lecture here. Below is a brief excerpt.

Lucretius tells a grim tale of human anger and fear gone wild. He imagines a world not unlike his own, in which insecurity leads to acts of aggression, which do not quiet insecurity. (At the time when he wrote, the Roman Republic was imploding, and insecurity, mounting everywhere, would shortly lead to tyranny.) In an effort to quiet fear, he imagines, people get more and more aggressive – until they think up a new way to inflict maximum damage on their enemies: putting wild beasts to work in the military.

They even tried out bulls in the service of war.
They practiced letting wild boars loose against their enemies.
They even used fierce lions as an advance guard, equipped
With a special force of armed and ferocious trainers To
hold them in check and keep them in harness.
It was no use.
The lions, hot with blood, broke ranks wildly.
Trampled the troops, tossing their manes.

In a poetic tour de force Lucretius now imagines the carnage the animals unleash. Then he pulls back. Did this really happen?, he says. Maybe it happened in some other world out in space. And what, he says, did those fictional people want to accomplish? To inflict great pain on the enemy—even if it meant that they would perish themselves!

Lucretius’ point is that our retributive emotions are those wild beasts. People may think anger powerful, but it always gets out of hand and turns back on us. And, yet worse, half the time people don’t care. They’re so deeply sunk in payback fantasies that they’d prefer to accomplish nothing, so long as they make those people suffer. His grim science-fiction fantasy reminds us that we’ll always defeat ourselves so long as we let ourselves be governed by fear, anger, and the politics of blame.

There is a better alternative. Aeschylus knew it, and King both knew and lived it. Making a future of justice and well-being is hard. It requires self-examination, personal risk, searching critical arguments, and uncertain initiatives to make common cause with opponents—in a spirit of hope and what we could call rational faith. It’s a difficult goal, but it is that goal that I am recommending, for both individuals and institutions.

My argument has drawn on three prominent fields in the Humanities. For evocative images that illuminate political problems and the path to political goals, I have turned to literature. In order to show how such goals have already been pursued in our own place and time, I have turned to history. But above all, since I am a philosopher, I have turned to philosophy for critical analysis and structured arguments about justice and wellbeing. Philosophy does not compel, or threaten, or mock. It doesn’t make bare assertions, but, instead, sets up a structure of thought in which a conclusion follows from premises the listener is free to dispute. In that way it invites dialogue, and respects the listener. Unlike the over-confident politicians that Socrates questioned (Euthyphro, Critias, Meletus), the philosophical speaker is humble and exposed: his or her position is transparent and thus vulnerable to criticism. 

The whole lecture is here.

Detail of a Roman mosaic from Llíria

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