“When you manage to pin down a philosophical issue and give it a fully precise answer, often the answer turns out to be boring. Philosophy is just like that. But it also makes possible the most beautiful dreams.” — Sarah Broadie.
No Limit to Goodness
Remembering Sarah Broadie
by Simona Aimar
I first met Sarah Broadie when I was twenty. I had left Italy and went to St Andrews as a visiting student. I knew nothing about St Andrews except that it was on the sea. Upon my arrival, they told me to go to the main hall. It was full of students queuing at desks at which people typed frantically at old computers. Each desk had a sign next to them, listing things that were of no interest to me: computer science, history, mathematics, English. A lady with a grey bob and pink coat was sitting calmly in the middle of the room. She was looking around with curiosity, waiting for some student to approach her. The sign next to her said: “PHILOSOPHY”. “That’s my lady”, I thought.
“Hello!”, I said with a big smile. I jumped into listing all the classes that interested me and waited for her approval. Instead, she put a hand behind her ear, moved her torso towards me, and said: “What?”. She had not understood a word of what I said. My Italian accent was really strong. Seeing my alarmed face, she tried reassuring me: “It’s not your English. I am on old lady. My hearing is no longer what it once was.” Her hearing was working just fine. But she managed to set me at ease. With renewed self-esteem, I repeated my course choices slowly and loudly: “PHI-LO-SO-PHY OF LANGUAGE, POLITI-CAL P-HILO-SO-PHY, AESTHETICS, META-PHYSICS, HUME, CHINESE PHILOSOPHY, PHILOSOPHY OF LO-GIC.” She looked unsatisfied again. “You listed four times the normal workload of one semester!”, she said with a grimace. Then someone called her on the phone to check on how things were going: “Nothing special. I had a student who wanted to take too many courses and had her drop most of them”, she said, giving me a stern look.
I met her again a year later. I had decided to complete my degree in St Andrews. The metaethics class was compulsory. I ducked into the last row with a cup of black coffee. Sarah entered.
“Neil, the instructor for this course, asked me to outline the historical background for you. So I’ll do the first four classes”, she announced.
(Luckily for Neil, Sarah was always ready to help.) She put down her orange computer bag and the pink trench-coat, looked up at us – a hundred students crammed in the amphitheatre – and got started:
“For the ancient Greeks, doing metaethics was to understand what goodness is. I’ll tell you the meaning of the word ‘meta-ethics’ later, yah? The Greeks assumed that goodness didn’t just have to do with human agency. The Good, with capital G, concerned everything…”
Forty minutes later, my coffee was cold. My eyes were shining. Sarah was in the middle of giving us a masterclass on the notion of Goodness. And it was good. “She isn’t just talking; she is reasoning!” I thought while frenziedly writing down everything she said. She was developing ideas, drawing distinctions and pulling out objections with as much ease as she did Sudoku. Her hands holding the sleeves of her patterned jumper, she looked at us, then looked nowhere, then at us again. She was standing still, her back fully straight, while moving from Plato to Hume and then back, to Aristotle. Normally jumps like these are a recipe for disaster, making one say all and nothing at the same time. But there was no chaos in her speech. Each move brought up surprising insights and was carefully argued for. Step by step, till the conclusion:
“…Because there is no limit to goodness”—she said, giving us a meaningful nod—“That’s all for today. See you next week”.
I would often tell her, years later, that that class had changed my life.
“Young minds are easy to impress”, she replied each time.
After her four lectures had come to an end, I asked her to audit her graduate course on Plato’s Philebus. I was too worried about getting good grades for my undergraduate classes to take as much time to do the readings for seminar as I wanted to. The graduate students in the room looked smart, serious, well-read, fancily dressed and intimidating to me. But my goal was to see more of Sarah in action. Each time she trotted into the classroom with her computer bag and a couple of books, I was there, sank in a corner and an oversized jumper, ready to witness what was about to happen. Sarah would start naturally treating conceptual issues as deeply important and relevant to our lives (I had never met someone who took them that seriously). She tackled them as if they were solvable (I felt I hadn’t met someone who did that either) and oftentimes she did solve them (how magical!). Nor was she always that serious when doing philosophy: as soon as she was facing some big philosophical problem, her face lit up like a kid in a candy store. (Once I told her: “What if moral relativism is compatible with naturalism about values?”. She clapped her hands and said: “Let’s find out!”) Philosophizing was to be done with joy. One day a student burst out laughing during one of her seminars:
“What are you laughing at?”, she asked with a smile on her face.
“Oh…it’s just that…Plato uses a funny Greek expression here. It sounds like an animal noise or something…”, he answered with a tint of shame.
“But this is nothing!”—she rebuked him—“Do you know what frogs sound like according to Aristophanes?”
“Brekekeks koaks koaks”—her pitch high and clear.
I would dive deeply into her writings only later. “Go to Ursula”, she had told me when I rushed to her to announce that they had accepted me for graduate studies at Oxford. Ursula Coope – an ex-student of Sarah – would give me a number of books by Sarah to read (Nature, Change and Agency; Passage and Possibility; Aristotle and Beyond…). They were key texts in the debate on ancient philosophy. “When I first read the Nicomachean Ethics, I thought it was superficial; I am now really ashamed of that”, Sarah had once told me during office hours. Her Ethics with Aristotle is part of the reason ethicists take Aristotle seriously today. But you would not learn that from her. She cultivated her ideas in complete modesty. (“Is this a prank?”, she asked when she received a call from Buckingham Palace, announcing the OBE award for her contributions to classical philosophy.) From her perspective, it was not about her. I think that is why, as an advisor, she did not tell you what to do. At most, she would tell you what not to do. Like when she insisted I had to drop the habit of using the expression “is relevant to” because it was “so ambiguous”. “Yes, I know, I was trying to be intentionally ambiguous!”, I pointed out in helpless defence. She suddenly turned her head, stared at me for a moment, her big green-blue eyes wide open, in puzzlement. Then she moved her gaze away: “Look, I agree, when you manage to pin down a philosophical issue and give it a fully precise answer, often the answer turns out to be boring”—pause—“philosophy is just like that”—pause…smile—“but it also makes possible the most beautiful dreams”—silence…no further explaining.
I don’t think I would have ended up doing ancient philosophy had I not witnessed her ability to connect it with contemporary philosophy. She was above the ancient vs contemporary philosophy divide—a divide still as entrenched as the Berlin’s wall before 1989. It was all just philosophy to her, be it done with David Lewis, Kant, or Aristotle. She talked with these people as peers, made them talk to one another, and to us too. Only recently I discovered she distilled her approach in a blurb, written upon being elected fellow of the British Academy, for their website:
Given how our subject has been developing over the last or so 40 years there is real reason to fear that philosophy will die the death of dissolving completely into more technical sub-disciplines. The great challenge is […] to keep an active interest in more than one contemporary branch, and in some of the great past philosophers, and to be animated by an open ended love of adventures in ideas while fully maintaining their obsessional practice of critical clarification. The latter is essential for the subject to move forward, but without the former that subject risks ceasing to be philosophy.
No wonder she was unfazed when I told her my PhD thesis would ask Aristotle a question he didn’t raise explicitly, but contemporary authors did. “You’d better find some good answers”, she told me with a big smile.
I was wrapping up my PhD when we made an appointment for Sunday brunch in a coffee shop in Manhattan. She was there when I arrived, juggling a colourful cocktail. After some chitchat, I took the courage to ask her how she had managed to write two (amazing) books simultaneously, just after the end of her doctorate, in the 70s. She looked at me as if I had raised the silliest of questions, keeping the cocktail in mid-air: “There was just nothing to stop me”, she said shrugging her shoulders. Once our breakfast had arrived, I gave a challenging look and declared emphatically I that I knew who the best living philosopher in the UK was. She put her cocktail down and looked at me with great interest:
“Is it Tim Williamson?”, she asked with excitement for the new game.
“Tim is great of course. But no, it is not Tim Williamson”.
“Is it Mike Martin?”
“Another great thinker. But no, it’s not Mike Martin”.
“Who is it, then?”—she couldn’t hold her curiosity any longer.
“It’s Sarah Broadie!”, I burst out happily.
And there it was. The grimace she made when I listed for her the courses I wanted to take at our very first meeting. “Simona, you are a smart woman. But sometimes you do really say very superficial things.”
Some months later, while we were still both in New York, I was given tickets to a comedy show in Manhattan. I asked her hesitantly whether, by any chance, she might want to join me.
“We can pick the adult version or the family-friendly version”.
“By ‘adult version’ you mean dirty jokes?”
“Then I guess we should go to that one. Don’t you think?”
In the West Village, Comedy Clubs have the habit of telling you where to sit. “You go to that table in the centre of the first row”, we were told. My oversized jumper, her pink coat, and our age gap had made us look like promising joke material. The comedian went for us as soon as the show started:
“What are you doing in the Big Apple, my dear old lady and young lady?”
“I am a Professor”, Sarah replied, with a serious face.
“Me too”, I echoed.
“Oh, right; and where?”
“Well…I’ve heard of them…”, the comedian said, hesitantly.
Unsure of how to continue from there, he was assessing in his head whether he could still make some cheap joke about old ladies or not. He decided not, at first. But later on, running out of material, he threw in a line about sex-deprived old ladies, while smiling at us. Sarah’s reaction was priceless. She calmly smiled back, looked up at the stage, and made a joke about sex-deprived comedians. Everyone clapped and cheered. One hour later, we were slowly approaching the exit with the rest of the crowd. Sarah was greeted repeatedly. Then one of her new fans came to shake her hand and invited her to a synagogue in Long Island. “Thank you so much for a truly great evening”, she commented in the taxi on the way back. “I might well go to Long Island”, she added.
Fate brought us together one more time in London, as colleagues at UCL. She gave a seminar on materials that would later appear in her last book, Plato’s Sun-Like Good. I was thrilled to see her radical views in print. For centuries, Plato’s forms have been treated as perfect eternal objects, lying in their own special sphere or reality. This pushes the form of the Good far away from us. Sarah puts it back in our lives. To her, the Platonic Good is the interrogative that we raise each time we wonder whether something is morally good or not. “No doubt this idea is disconcertingly unorthodox—some might say wild”, she admits in the last chapter:
[I]n the massive ancient and continuing tradition of Plato-interpretation anything unprecedented is surely rightly viewed […] as having to earn any consideration […] without prior presumption of a sympathetic welcome. Even so, the decision has proved liberating. (Plato’s Sun-Like Good, p.206)
Convinced that this will earn her a hard time, she lets loose anyway, respectfully leaving centuries of tradition behind. Good-the-object is free to turn into a question-word: “Good?”. Now it helps us decide what the right thing to do is without telling us what to do. Just like the sun helps us see things without deciding what they are.
Sarah’s Plato is controversial, of course. Just like Sarah, he enters the philosophical scene of the time and does his own thing, surprising and astounding everyone. Aristotle, Plato’s pupil and Sarah’s other passion, would say that the best thing we humans can do is to imitate God. His God is so good that it moves everything else without moving itself: it moves by being loved. And this is exactly what she did.
She still does.