The first aspect one notices about The Therapy of Desire is that how well it succeeds in drawing the reader its world. Books on Greeks philosophy can often seem to be talking about issues that appear a world away from the concerns of the 20 th and 21 st century, and the fact that one is writing about Ancient Greece and Rome does not help. But Nussbaum succeeds in presenting the Hellenistic philosophers as talking about issues pertinent to our own age, not relics of a bygone age, now only of historical value. She achieves this partly by using a protagonist to go through all the philosophical schools, 'Nikidion' which means 'little victory', Nikidion is an imaginary student and courtesan.
The second way in which Nussbaum wins the reader over is through the elegance of her writing, the arguments are complex but subtle, but they are not obtuse, one does not feel that the author is being complex merely for complexity's sake. It is ease with which one can read it and the amount covered that justifies the book's length, the work being five hundred and fifteen pages long excluding bibliography five hundred and fifty-eight pages from the beginning to the index it is not a short read. The Therapy of Desire casts these so often overlooked philosophers in a particular light, they are shown to be philosophers actively engaging with the issues of human life, not armchair thinkers standing aloft from the world.
Also, the author shows how these thinkers envisaged philosophy as analogous to medicine, that it was the philosopher's task to be as it were, a physician to the soul, enabling one to lead a good and flourishing life. The notion of philosophy as a kind of therapy, employing a 'medical model' of a sort is a theme which runs through the entire book.
However, it should be made clear that Nussbaum is not an uncritical reader of her subject. For example, Nussbaum takes great pains to point out the ambivalent and often confusing way in which the Epicureans and Stoics whilst analyzing the emotions also advocated their removal, as they do not contribute to a flourishing life.
Emotions disturb us; they can lead to bad reasoning and therefore a bad life. Alongside their account she looks at Aristotle account of emotions, a thinker who did not advocate the removal of emotions, but saw them as offering the possibility of enhancing one's life and re-reads the Epicureans and Stoics in the light of Aristotle. If I have any complaint, it is that Nussbaum could have written a whole book on any one of these schools of thought, and there were times when I was hungry for more information, but then it would not be the same book.
To summarize, this is a wonderful book, of interest to scholars of ancient philosophy, but also to those interested in medical philosophy and philosophy of mind.
It would also be of great interest to those interested in the conception of philosophy as therapy that has grown from studies on Wittgenstein. I can heartily recommend it. Luca Malatesti. Michael is currently working on a comparative study of Continental and Japanese Philosophy, funded by the British Academy. We feature over in-depth reviews of a wide range of books and DVDs written by our reviewers from many backgrounds and perspectives. We update our front page weekly and add more than twenty new reviews each month.
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Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Nussbaum) - Philosophical Vegan Forum
With some regret, then, I leave them at the periphery. In the case of each school, I have tried to give some idea of its Greek origins, as well as its Roman continuations. In each case I have tried to mention at least those portions of the cultural context that seem the most relevant. Where my account has gaps, I hope that there is sufficient methodological frankness that the gaps themselves will be visible, in such a way that they can be filled in by others. At the very least, I hope to have shown—by the incompleteness of my account as much as by what it does succeed in doing—how hard and yet how exciting it is to study the history of ethics in this period, when one understands it not simply as the history of arguments, but also as the history of practices of argumentation and psychological interaction aimed at personal and societal change.
Writing this book has also posed some delicate philosophical problems, which it is best to mention at the start. I undertook this project to get a better understanding of an aspect of Hellenistic philosophy that I enthusiastically endorse—its practical commitment, its combination of logic with compassion. This commitment is to some extent bound up with a more problematic aspect of Hellenistic thought, namely, its advocacy of various types of detachment and freedom from disturbance.
The two commitments seem to me to be, in principle, independent of one another; and to some extent this is so also in practice. But it is also plain that one cannot go far in understanding these accounts of philosophical therapy without grappling with the normative arguments for detachment.
When one does grapple with them one finds, I think, three things. First, one finds that to a certain extent the radical social criticism of the Hellenistic philosophers does indeed require them to mistrust the passions: not, that is, to take passion-based intuitions as an ethical bedrock, immune from rational criticism. If passions are formed at least in part out of beliefs or judgments, and if socially taught beliefs are frequently unreliable, then passions need to be scrutinized in just the way in which other socially taught beliefs are scrutinized.
Second, it becomes clear that at least some of the arguments that Epicureans and Stoics give for radically cutting back the passions are powerful arguments, even to someone who is antecedently convinced of their worth. In particular, their arguments against anger, and their further arguments connecting passions such as love and grief with the possibility of destructive anger, seem unavoidably strong.
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It is relatively easy to accept the conclusion that in living a life with deep attachments one runs a risk of loss and suffering. But according to Hellenistic arguments that risk is also a risk of evil: at the very least, of corruption of the inner world by the desire to harm. Confronting these arguments should occasion anxiety for any defender of the emotions. This book investigates that anxiety. Finally, however, one finds in at least some of the Hellenistic texts themselves—especially in Lucretius and Seneca—a greater ambivalence than is at first apparent about the emotions and the attachments that are their basis.
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In Lucretius, commitments to the world extend more widely, including, it seems, not only friendship but also the love of spouse and children and city or country. This leads to a complex position, where love, fear, and even anger are concerned. The position of Stoicism is apparently simpler. But Seneca qualifies his anti-passion view in some ways even in his dialogues and letters; and in his tragedies, I believe, one sees a deeper ambivalence, as Stoicism confronts traditional Roman norms of worldly effort and daring.
These complexities should be recognized in any critique of Hellenistic norms of self-sufficiency. Further difficulties are raised by the role of politics in Hellenistic thought. The major Hellenistic schools are all highly critical of society as they find it; and all are concerned to bring the necessary conditions of the good human life to those whom society has caused to suffer. They are, moreover, far more inclusive and less elitist in their practice of philosophy than was Aristotle, far more concerned to show that their strategies can offer something to each and every human being, regardless of class or status or gender.
On the other hand, the way they do this has little to do, on the whole, with political, institutional, or material change. Instead of arranging to bring the good things of this world to each and every human being, they focus on changes of belief and desire that make their pupil less dependent on the good things of this world. They do not so much show ways of removing injustice as teach the pupil to be indifferent to the injustice she suffers. But Aristotle then assigns to politics the task of bringing those conditions to people: the good political arrangement is the one in accordance with which each and every one might do well and lead a flourishing life Pol.
Epicurus urged a complete withdrawal from the life of the city, Skeptics an uncritical obedience to forces of existing convention. I shall conclude that this criticism has some merit. For in fact both Aristotle and the Hellenistic thinkers insist that human flourishing cannot be achieved unless desire and thought, as they are usually constructed within society, are considerably transformed.
Both hold, for example, that most people learn to value money and status far too highly, and that this corrupts both personal and social relations. Nor does the more insistent and elaborate attention to such inner changes in the Hellenistic schools seem inappropriate, given their powerful diagnosis of the depth of the problems. Any viable political approach—now as then—must also be concerned, as they are, with the criticism, and the shaping, of evaluative thought and preferences. Furthermore, the Hellenistic focus on the inner world does not exclude, but in fact leads directly to, a focus on the ills of society.
One of the most impressive achievements of Hellenistic philosophy is to have shown compellingly and in detail how specific social conditions shape emotion, desire, and thought. Having shown this, and having argued that desire and thought, as they are currently constructed, are deformed, these philosophers naturally concern themselves with the social structures through which these elements have been shaped, and with their reformation.
Above all—like Aristotle, but with more detailed arguments—they are preoccupied with education. Their philosophical therapies both describe and model a new approach to the design of educational practices; and in their representation of the relation between teacher and pupil, they represent, as well, an ideal of community. Here, at least, they appear to achieve an egalitarian result that would have been unachievable in the world around them. In other respects as well, they reshape social institutions that seem to them to impede human flourishing.
Epicurus and Lucretius conduct a radical assault on conventional religion; Lucretius reconstructs social practices in the areas of love, marriage, and child-rearing. Since their arguments claim to be not only correct but also causally effective, they claim to contribute to the revolution they describe. In the Greek Stoics we find ideal political theory that attempts to eliminate differences of gender and class, and even to do away with the moral salience of local and national boundaries.
In the Roman Stoics—along with several different types of political theory, both monarchical and republican the latter very influential in practice, both at Rome itself and in much later republican revolutions —we find arguments that confront entrenched political realities with bold criticisms, on the topics of slavery, gender relations, ethnic toleration, the concept of citizenship itself.
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The idea of universal respect for the dignity of humanity in each and every person, regardless of class, gender, race, and nation—an idea that has ever since been at the heart of all distinguished political thought in the Western tradition—is, in origin, a Stoic idea. The relationship of this idea to Stoic detachment needs close scrutiny. But in the meantime, we can say that to study the inner world and its relationship to social conditions is at least a necessary, if not a sufficient, task for a political philosophy that aims to be practical. Hellenistic philosophy gives us distinguished help with that task.
For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sicknesses of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul.
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The Stoics vigorously endorse this picture of philosophy and develop the analogy between philosophy and medicine in elaborate detail. The great Greek Stoic Chrysippus, describing his philosophical art, proudly announces:. It is not true that there exists an art called medicine, concerned with the diseased body, but no corresponding art concerned with the diseased soul.
Nor is it true that the latter is inferior to the former, in its theoretical grasp and therapeutic treatment of individual cases. Galen PHP 5. There is, I assure you, a medical art for the soul. It is philosophy, whose aid need not be sought, as in bodily diseases, from outside ourselves. We must endeavor with all our resources and all our strength to become capable of doctoring ourselves. Philosophy heals human diseases, diseases produced by false beliefs. They can heal, and they are to be evaluated in terms of their power to heal.
As the medical art makes progress on behalf of the suffering body, so philosophy for the soul in distress. And for all, the medical analogy is not simply a decorative metaphor; it is an important tool both of discovery and of justification. The rival schools debate with one another in terms organized by the analogy, commending themselves to prospective pupils as doctors belonging to rival schools of medicine would debate, proclaiming the merits of their differing conceptions of the art.
As such debates developed, the analogy became both more complex and more concrete. Specific strategies of the doctor were compared with specific philosophical techniques.