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

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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.