Bernard Williams Shame And Necessity Essays

We tend to suppose that the ancient Greeks had primitive ideas of the self, of responsibility, freedom, and shame, and that now humanity has advanced from these to a more refined moral consciousness. Bernard Williams's original and radical book questions this picture of Western history. While we are in many ways different from the Greeks, Williams claims that the differencWe tend to suppose that the ancient Greeks had primitive ideas of the self, of responsibility, freedom, and shame, and that now humanity has advanced from these to a more refined moral consciousness. Bernard Williams's original and radical book questions this picture of Western history. While we are in many ways different from the Greeks, Williams claims that the differences are not to be traced to a shift in these basic conceptions of ethical life. We are more like the ancients than we are prepared to acknowledge, and only when this is understood can we properly grasp our most important differences from them, such as our rejection of slavery.

The author is a philosopher, but much of his book is directed to writers such as Homer and the tragedians, whom he discusses as poets and not just as materials for philosophy. At the center of his study is the question of how we can understand Greek tragedy at all, when its world is so far from ours.

Williams explains how it is that when the ancients speak, they do not merely tell us about themselves, but about ourselves. Shame and Necessity gives a new account of our relations to the Greeks, and helps us to see what ethical ideas we need in order to live in the modern world....more

Paperback, 254 pages

Published October 19th 1994 by University of California Press (first published March 24th 1993)

Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity. Sather Classical Lectures, Volume 57. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Pp. xii + 254. $25.00. ISBN 0-520-08046-7.

Reviewed by Steven Salkever, Bryn Mawr College.

This book is based on Williams' Sather Lectures delivered at U.C. Berkeley in the spring of 1989. Williams is perhaps the most prominent of contemporary analytic philosophers specializing in ethics, and the concise but wide-ranging studies of Greek literary texts in this volume can be read with pleasure by specialists in literature and in philosophy, as well as by those who, like Bernard Williams, are inclined to resist separating these genres too sharply.

Williams has earlier argued that modern moral philosophy, under the spell of Descartes and Kant, has taken a seriously wrong turn, one which obscures some central features of our moral lives. Kantians and utilitarians alike, according to Williams in works such as Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985) and Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), focus primarily on the development of universally binding ethical rules and principles and ignore the centrality to morality of the varieties of human character, of the situated and social human self; modern moral philosophy systematically misinterprets the problem of human morality by asserting, falsely, that there are discoverable and trans-cultural universal rules for guiding conduct, and by maintaining as the greatest human good the illusory and abstract ideal of perfect human autonomy. In Shame and Necessity, Williams deepens his critique of the narrow abstractness of modern moral philosophy by claiming that modern moral consciousness itself, and not just the philosophy that tries to systematize it, is dominated by an unsatisfactory set of opinions, one that is both internally inconsistent and often based on illusions about human action. The project of the book is thus at once very ambitious and very practical: to show us that we would do well to ponder the conception of morality collectively presented by the Greek tragedians and poets, writers who are sufficiently different from us to challenge our presuppositions yet close enough to be understood in some way as partners in a dialogue about the way human lives should be lived. Williams, speaking through his interpretations of the Greek texts, urges us to reject our inclination to treat shame as a childish, pre-moral emotion, and to think that moral freedom and responsibility require the complete overcoming of all necessity. Shame properly understood, he contends, is a very good thing; we can accept a degree of necessity without bowing to fate; and reading Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Thucydides can help us see how these things might be so.

In his earlier books, Williams made skillful and learned use of Plato and Aristotle as part of his radically critical interrogation of modern moral philosophy. Nevertheless, in his attack on modern rule morality he has also rejected the possibility of any non-relative rationally justified standard of the good human life, whether rule-like or not, and to that extent has explicitly distanced himself from the naturalism of Greek moral philosophy. The consequence of this rejection is more strongly at work here than in his earlier books: Williams places Plato and Aristotle in the company of Descartes and Kant, as part of the problem; the "Greek" moral alternative he proposes for our instruction is to be found in Greek poetry, drama, and history from Homer through Thucydides, not in the writings of the Greek philosophers, who instead of providing an alternative to Kant represent the first step in the journey toward the illusory modern ideal of the autonomous triumph of human morality and rationality over context and over necessity. In both his diagnosis of our present moral discontents and in his proposals for a new reading of Greek literature to address those discontents, Williams has, surprisingly and self-consciously, much in common with Nietzsche, to whom he refers in the first chapter as "a writer with whom my inquiry has relations that are very close and necessarily ambiguous" (p. 9). In philosophically setting the stage for his modern readings of ancient literary texts, Williams rejects both the progressivist view that the Greeks were to us as mere children and the nostalgic picture of a lost Greek utopia. Instead, the current Monroe Deutsch Professor of Philosophy at Berkeley and White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford follows the approach to the Greeks opened by Nietzsche and pursued vigorously by Heidegger (who, unlike Nietzsche, is not mentioned by Williams), adopting the persona of a philosopher in a disenchanted and post-Christian world, seeking to cut through Greek philosophy to the wisdom preserved in non-philosophical Greek texts: "We, now, should try to understand how our ideas are related to the Greeks' because if we do so this can specially help us to see ways in which our ideas may be wrong" (4).

This posture becomes explicit just before the end of this artfully constructed book: "We are in an ethical condition that lies not only beyond Christianity, but beyond its Kantian and its Hegelian legacies. We have an ambivalent sense of what human beings have achieved, and have hopes for how they might live... We know that the world was not made for us, or we for the world, that our history tells no purposive story, and that there is no position outside the world or outside history from which we might hope to authenticate our activities... In important ways, we are, in our ethical situation, more like human beings in antiquity than any Western people have been in the meantime. More particularly, we are like those who, from the fifth century and earlier, have left us traces of a consciousness that had not yet been touched by Plato's and Aristotle's attempts to make our ethical relations to the world fully intelligible" (p. 166). Williams' task, like Nietzsche's and Heidegger's, is to make those traces of consciousness intelligible to us.

The book consists of six chapters. The first, "The Liberation of Antiquity," makes the case for reading Greek texts with an eye to modern problems. Rejecting approaches that present Greek texts as either radically other or as simply an earlier version of ourselves, Williams associates himself to a certain extent with recent treatments of Greek tragedy by Vernant and Goldhill. But he goes beyond these treatments of the distinct character of fifth-century Athenian tragedy by raising a question which is central to his inquiry: How can these tragedies seem so modern to us when they arose in a very distinct and short-lived historical moment, and when they rest on a religion that is so unlike our own, especially with respect to the question of necessity? His answer, which recalls something like Gadamer's image of interpretation as the fusion of horizons, is that "What the tragedies demand is that we should look for analogies in our experience and our sense of the world to the necessities they express" (19). What the competent modern reader must bring to the ancient text is not only an openness to its strangeness, but also a willingness to analogize present to past, to look for what he later calls "structural substitutions" (164), for example by asking how our modern sense of economic and social necessity is like as well as unlike the supernatural necessity at work in the tragedies (165).

The second chapter, "Centres of Agency," begins to reveal the way in which we can learn from Greek moral conceptions. Homer's leading characters, he argues, exhibit all the qualities of responsible moral agents whose intentions, decisions, and actions are presented in terms much like our own. The fact that so many modern readers, following Bruno Snell, have rejected this similarity of Achilles and Odysseus to us rests, Williams argues, on "the accretions of misleading philosophy" (21). In particular, we miss the similarity between us and the Homeric figures because of our unthinking acceptance of a Kantian moral psychology that separates soul from body, and reason and will from the emotions. What we learn from Homer, Williams says, is that it is perfectly possible to imagine human beings who possess responsibility, intention, and the rest of the properties of mature moral action while rejecting our Kantian psychology and replacing it with a more attractive Homeric picture of human identity that unites soul and body, reason and passion into a single if complex whole. Homer, properly read, helps us understand ourselves better by giving us a way out of the straitjacket of a sense of identity imposed on us, to an extent, by Christianity, but whose source lies in pre-Christian Greek philsophy as well, in what Williams calls the "ethicising psychology" of Plato and Aristotle -- the distorting practice of constructing a psychology for the sake of satisfying some prior ethical norm.

The remaining four chapters explore different dimensions of Williams primary anti-Kantian point, that our freedom and responsibility are compatible with a variety of kinds of constraint and necessity. Chapter 3, "Recognising Responsibility," argues that it is perfectly possible to retain our familiar notions of voluntary action, responsibility, and intent while still recognizing that we are rarely in a position to act autonomously, and that we can sometimes be morally responsible for things we are in some degree constrained to do. Here Williams uses the Tetralogies ascribed to Antiphon and the bizarre Palsgraf1 case from twentieth century American tort law as evidence that there is nothing strange or incoherent, Kant notwithstanding, for either fifth century Greeks or we moderns to deliberate concerning degrees of responsibility and constraint. Similarly, he argues, with Oedipus; we understand the terror of Oedipus' self-discovery "because we know that in the story of one's life there is an authority exercised by what one has done, and not merely by what one has intentionally done" (69). Williams' thematic point here is the same as that underlying his critique of the philosophers' separation of soul and body, rational will and irrational emotion: that we human beings are the lives we lead and have led, and not simply the isolated deeds we have done in (impossible) circumstances of absolute freedom. Recognizing this, we may be inclined to take our lives as a whole more seriously, and not limit our attention to "moral" as opposed to "nonmoral" qualities and situations. The vital importance of calling into question our habitual distinction between moral and nonmoral becomes explicit in the next chapter: "There is perhaps no single question on which an understanding of the Greeks can join more helpfully with reflection on our own experience. We paralyse both that understanding and that reflection if we simply take it for granted that the distinction [between moral and nonmoral qualities] is at once deep, important, and self-explanatory" (92).

This next chapter, "Shame and Autonomy," makes perhaps Williams' most striking (and most Nietzschean) ethical point: that a sense of shame may be a better spur to human excellence than a sense of guilt. Using a reading of Sophocles' Ajax on suicide (and Homer's Ajax on manliness: "Dear friends, be men; let shame be in your hearts") to challenge Kant, Williams contends that acting out of shame need not mean acting out of a childish concern with how one appears to others. There is a distinction to be made between a childish desire for the approval of powerful others and a mature desire to be respected by those whom one respects and whose ethical sensibilities one has internalized as a part of developing a character and so becoming a human being. It is of course necessary to distinguish this idea of shame as self-respect from the idea of shame as mere social conformity, and Williams argues that "by the later fifth century the Greeks had their own distinctions between a shame that merely followed public opinion and a shame that expressed inner personal conviction" (95). His text here is Euripides' Hippolytus, and his argument that the play distinguishes between good and bad aidos is continued in a five page end note to lines 380-387. His use of Greek literary texts to urge the primacy of shame over guilt is in aid of the philosophic project Williams shares with Nietzsche, that of restoring the dignity and importance of the world of appearances against what both men see as the depreciation of that world by idealizing and absolutizing philosophers ancient as well as modern, by Plato as well as Kant. Unlike Nietzsche (or Heidegger), however, Williams worries that renewed emphasis on shame over guilt may make us less attentive to the victims of our misdeeds, but thinks this can be controlled by incorporating a sense of guilt within a sense of shame (93), and by incorporating a wide variety of onlooking others into our internalized aidos-monitor. Williams further develops his thoughts about moral psychology in a systematic endnote on mechanisms of shame and guilt (219-223). His central point is that to reject shame in favor of guilt is to accept (with Plato and Kant) idealistic moral universalism and to reject the idea, still alive though dishonored among us but vividly active in Greek literature, that morality is always contextual, always linked to a particular sort of character and to a particular vision of the good society. What Williams wants to reclaim from the literary texts for the sake of present-day practice are not the specific values of heroic or classical Greek society, but what he takes to be the non-philosophic Greek way of understanding the relationship between social values, whatever their content, and individual character.

The two concluding chapters, "Necessary Identities" and "Possibility, Freedom, and Power," take up the way Williams' Greeks understood the relationship between cosmic necessity and individual agency, again for the sake of proposing that this Greek way is both plausible and better for us than the modern alternative supplied by Kant and company. His central point here is that Homer, the tragedians, and Thucydides all give us textual worlds in which human action is affected and structured, but not determined, by both natural and supernatural necessity, and to which the appropriate human response is neither supine fatalism nor hubristic self-assertion but an acknowledgement of the ubiquitous possibility of contingency and accident in the universe ("There is a special indeterminacy about the operations of the supernatural and the ways in which it can generate necessities and suppress possibilities" [145]) and the consequent need for tentativeness in our own judgments. The necessity that we see acknowledged in these writings of, for example, unjustly imposed slavery or wretched deeds forced by a god is not to be read, Williams argues, as implying that there is an underlying determinism built into the universe, but only a sense of the limits of human powers. Within those limits, we are indeed free to reflect, to choose, and to act, as moral agents must be. Greek polytheism interestingly appears in this account to be more of a friend to modern liberty than later monotheism. To make his case against ascribing fatalism to the Greeks, Williams leans heavily (as does Heidegger) on Heraclitus' ethos anthropoi daimon (136). When textual necessities seem to imply determinism and fatalism, as especially in the tragedies of Sophocles, Williams puts that down to Sophocles' mode of claiming "authorial power" (146); when Euripides rejects Sophoclean tragic necessity in favor of bringing on stage the workings of pure chance in human life, Williams asks us to see Euripides' quarrel with Sophocles as over how to write a good tragedy, not over the relationship between cosmic order and individual agency (149).

In the end, what Williams proposes is a sorting out of the European canon along Nietzschean lines. By following the interpretive path laid out in Shame and Necessity, Williams' post-Christian modern readers, who acknowledge uncertainty and the disenchanted world and who love freedom and moral agency, will find better guides to self-understanding in nonphilosophic Greek texts than in any philosophy: "Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel are all on the same side, all believing in one way or another that the universe or history or the structure of human reason can, when properly understood, yield a pattern that makes sense of human life and aspiration. Sophocles and Thucydides, by contrast, are alike in leaving us with no such sense" (163). However one may feel about the accuracy or usefulness of Williams' division between textual sources of moral enlightenment (Greek writers minus Plato and Aristotle) and of moral delusion (philosophers in general minus Nietzsche and Williams), one must applaud the sharpness and energy of his readings of Homer and the tragedians. By bringing modern moral and philosophic questions to those texts, he succeeds in making them vital and present to us in ways reminiscent not only of Nietzsche but of Nietzsche's great enemy among classical philologists, Wilamowitz, whose remark Williams cites early on (19): "To make the ancients speak, we must feed them with our own blood."

Such a project of revivification is likely to produce casualties, especially in a book as short as this one, and Shame and Necessity creates its share. Two seem to me worth mentioning. Too often, Williams makes his texts speak by the Hegelian device of assigning them to a unitary voice called "the Greeks," as though he were reading not individual texts that quarrel as well as agree with one another but the products of a unified and coherent Greek Zeitgeist. I do not think he always succeeds in making clear to us, as I believe he would want to do, that his use of the term "the Greeks" is to be taken as a provisionally useful abstraction and not as an ethnographer's claim about the essential beliefs of a collective moral agent or "culture". A second and more serious problem is the extent to which Williams' readings of Plato and Aristotle seem designed to force them into his bad-guy category of philosophers who are dead to the contingency and complexity of the world and who try to paper that complexity over with dogmatic and impersonal systems of their own.2 In sharp contrast to his sympathetic approach to the nonphilosophic texts, his demonizing readings of Plato and Aristotle are so unsympathetic and suspicious that he seems to keep what he thinks about the complexity and ambiguity of their writing out of his main text, while repeatedly acknowledging the dangers of over-simplifying Plato and Aristotle in parentheses and in footnotes at the end of the book.3

Finally, one pervasive feature of the book is the way the carefully modulated sentences of Williams the analytic philosopher seem to resist the heroic and romantic project he takes over from Nietzsche. Consider this early statement of the argument of the book: "In some ways, I shall claim, the basic ethical ideas possessed by the Greeks were different from ours, and also in better condition. In some other respects, it is rather that we rely on much the same conceptions as the Greeks, but we do not acknowledge the extent to which we do so" (4). Is Williams a Nietzschean prophet out to save the modern world from itself, or a workaday analytic philosopher out to show that he can have a good go at producing a more than acceptable set of Sather lectures even though not trained as a professional classicist? Rather both, he might say. On balance, I think the Nietzschean and analytic elements are helpful antagonists here -- the Nietzschean Williams resists the smugness and trivializing fastidiousness of most philosophical analysis, while the Analytic Williams keeps any inclinations to wretched excess of the Nietzschean or Heideggerian sort well under control.


  • [1] "Two men run for a departing train. A guard pushes them into it; in the course of this, one of them drops an ordinary-looking package, which, it turns out, contains fireworks. It explodes, throwing down some scales at the other end of the platform. The scales strike and injure a woman, who sues the railroad" (63).
  • [2] For more sympathetic readings of Greek philosophers by contemporary practical philosophers, see Martha Nussbaum on Aristotle (most recently in "Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach," in Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, eds., The Quality of Life, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), or Iris Murdoch on Plato (most recently in Metaphysics as a Basis for Morals, New York: Penguin, 1993). For a study arguing that texts taken from both Greek tragedy and Greek philosophy can help us better articulate a crucial problem of modern political practice, the problem of how to accommodate the contrary forces of social unity and diversity, see Arlene W. Saxonhouse, Fear of Diversity: The Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  • [3] A particularly striking example concerning Plato is found on p. 155: "A set of oppositions structures much of Plato's philosophy, and they are supposed to parallel one another: soul to body, reason to desire, knowledge to belief, philosophy to politics, and (at least some of the time) argument to persuasion. In each, of course, the first is superior to the second. But there is a deep and persistent ambivalence in Plato on what makes for this superiority (an ambivalence, that is to say, even in the works in which he insists on these contrasts; it is a further point that he does not always do so)."
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