BOOK REVIEW / Greece is the word: 'Shame and Necessity' - Bernard Williams: University of California, 18.50

AT LONG last philosophers within the Anglo-American tradition are turning to literature. They have always been ready to quote from literature (a whole book could be written on the role of quotations from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland within this tradition), but literature has usually been a source of pithy examples rather than a particularly rich and interesting area of human endeavour. The continental tradition is quite different in this respect. From Hegel through Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Sartre and Derrida, some of the deepest insights have come from questioning literature (and of course painting).

Today the division is, thank goodness, no longer so clear-cut. Stanley Cavell's explorations of Shakespeare and Hollywood film, Bernard Harrison's studies of Fielding, Sterne and biblical parable, Martha Nussbaum's enquiries into the workings of the novels of Proust and Henry James - all these have not only enriched literary criticism, but philosophy itself.

The key area for the meeting of philosophy and literary criticism, however, has always been the ancient Greeks. From Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy to Nussbaum's The Fragility of Goodness, many of the most interesting philosophical works have started from an exploration of the problems bequeathed to us by Homer and Sophocles, Plato and Aristotle. For if Western philosophy is nothing but a series of footnotes to Plato, Plato himself can be seen as nothing but a series of footnotes to Homer and Greek tragedy. Eric Havelook wrote a whole book on Homer entitled Preface to Plato, and though not everyone was persuaded by his argument that Plato can only be understood in terms of his attempt to oust Homer from the central place he held in Greek culture, philosophers have increasingly recognised that key present-day philosophical issues can perhaps still best be tackled by trying to understand just what was gained and what was lost in the transition from Homer to Plato.

Bernard Williams's work has for some time now been moving in this direction, and here he has tried to face the issue head-on. With the care and circumspection of an Oxford philosopher, but with the belief in the continuing importance of Homer and the tragedians of a disciple of Nietzsche, he sets out to show that 'if we can liberate the Greeks from patronising misunderstandings of them, then that same process may help to free us of misunderstandings of ourselves.'

He argues that the beginning of the problems for ethics arose with the desire of Plato and Aristotle to distinguish the realm of morality from general questions about how we are to live our lives in a world of contingency and confusion. But his real target is Kant and his followers, who, according to him, have not only saddled ethics with many pseudo-problems, but have also managed to persuade us that as we move from Homer to Plato we move from the confused and naive to the sophisticated and precise. This, says Williams, is both bad philosophy and bad cultural history.

What is particularly disturbing about the Kantian inheritance, though, is that it is, on the face of it, so persuasive, so commonsensical. It therefore requires a lot of patient and painstaking argument and analysis to redeem Homer, Aeschylus and Sophocles from the taint of being crude, simplistic thinkers who to begin with did not even have a sense of the person and then, because of their belief in gods who direct events, were unable to develop any concept of human responsibility. Quietly and skilfully Williams demolishes these positions one by one, showing, in the process, the baselessness of our distinction between determinism and free will, for example, and between shame and guilt cultures.

If he is hard on Kantians like Snell and Adkins, he is equally reluctant to yield ground to thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre, who also rejects the progressivist view 'but treats modern outlooks, in particular liberalisms, as merely an incoherent assemblage of fragments from past traditions.' Williams wishes to defend what is best in the Enlightenment and liberal tradition, but his argument throughout is that we can only do so if we rid ourselves of false and unnecessary ways of viewing things, and that the pre-Socratic Greeks can help us to do so precisely because they were not prey to the dangerous myth that 'at some level of the world's constitution there is something to be discovered that makes ultimate sense of our concerns.'

This strikes me as true and important. Unfortunately the tone of quiet reasonableness, the hallmark of Oxford philosophy, in which Williams conducts his argument, tends to drain the works he examines of much of their power and tension. He correctly asserts that we cannot simply separate supernatural and dramatic necessity, and so must pay attention to the overall shape of the plays, but he constantly refers to these as 'texts'; though he has some valuable things to say about Eteocles' last line in Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes - 'When the gods decree it, you may not escape evil' - he quite fails to take into account the effect of this line as it is spoken in the theatre, an effect simultaneously of heroic affirmation and blind folly which is characteristic of the greatest tragedy from Aeschylus to Marlowe and Shakespeare, and which is not exhausted by even the most acute philosophical analysis.

Even so, Williams is more responsive to the tragedians than to Homer, whose poems he still uses as a source of examples of ethical issues rather than as living works. There is thus a great deal here about decision-making in the Iliad, and very good it is too, but absolutely nothing about the way the acceptance of death in that poem enhances life - and the central roles of mourning and forgiveness in life. Here, it seems to me, Williams falls into the trap he had accused the neo-Kantians of falling into, that of having a predetermined notion of what 'the ethical' is and looking only for what will fit in with that notion.

Literary critics have in recent years not been afraid to venture into the realms of philosophy, often with disastrous results. It is good that philosophers are beginning to return the compliment. Of course, in the end, as this book demonstrates so well, rigid distinctions between philosophy and literary criticism are a myth, invented in the universities and leading to bad philosophy and bad literary criticism. In the present climate of specialisation, and the encouragement of academic narrowness by people in power who have no understanding of the humanities, the fact that a Professor of philosophy at Oxford should have written such a book is of enromous emblematic significance, even if the book itself does not quite live up to its high promise.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?