Teaching the Classics

"No Chance Matter":
Philosophy and Public Life

Martha C. Nussbaum


There is a moment in Plato's Republic that is often taught, but rarely taken to heart. Discussing the nature of justice with his enthusiastic friends (who have squeezed in a little philosophy betwen a festival and an evening torch race), Socrates observes their rather uncommitted, playful attitude to the finer points of the inquiry, which they seem to regard as a competitive game. He reproves them. Remember, he says: "It is no chance matter we are discussing, but how one should live." More than four hundred years later, in Rome, Seneca again attacks those who pursue philosophy as a kind of logical game-playing. "There is no time," he says, "for playing around. You have been retained as counsel for the unhappy. You have promised to bring help to the shipwrecked, the imprisoned the sick, the needy, to those whose heads are under the poised axe. Where are you deflecting your attention? What are you doing?" (Ep. 48,8). Philosophy has a practical task, a task for humanity. So the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition holds, with remarkable unanimity. If it fails to perform this task, in its research and in its teaching, it will be rightly dismissed as "empty" and trivial. As Epicurus puts it, "Empty is that philosophical argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in medicine, unless it casts out the illness of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out suffering from the soul."

It is common in today's conservative rhetoric about the academy to portray the great tradition of Western philosophy, starting with the Greeks, as a tradition that opposes any sort of "political motivation" for academic teaching and research, a tradition that urges the internalization of monumental works of the past without concern for education's practical consequences. Of course such a program of acculturation would itself be political, in at least two ways: it would recommend certain values for adoption and not others, and at the same time it would demote the role of critical reason in the process of forming citizens -- a move that cannot fail, in a democracy, to have serious political consequences. But my concern in this essay will be with another aspect of the conservative proposal: the strange fact that, while appealing to the authority and dignity of ancient Greek tradition, it is false to the guiding spirit of that tradition, which insists that philosophy ought to have a practical goal, and that without such a goal philosophical research and teaching are more game-playing, trivial and self-indulgent. It also insists, as we shall see, that the critical scrutiny of tradition is a major element of the way in which philosophy pursues its goal; so in another way as well it opposes the conservative emphasis on the uncritical assumption of "timeless truths".

This idea of a practical and compassionate philosophy -- a philosophy committed to the good of human beings and to seeking that good through reasoning and argument -- this is the idea that drew me to philosophy in the first place, as a writer and as a teacher. I want, here, to say a little about the history of this idea, but above all to ask how one might pursue it today, as a teacher in an American university. It is important to recognize how foreign the ancient conception of a life-transforming philosophy really is to most students in university courses. Encountering philosophy as one more course among many, in an institutional structure that suggests that education is more a matter of mastering certain course material than of transforming oneself, they are likely to approach the works of Plato and Aristotle and Epicurus and Seneca as one more thing they have to swallow down -- not as challenges to the very way in which they live. On the final examination in my course in ancient ethical thought, I frequently ask students to imagine what a Greek or Roman philosopher of their choice would do were he suddenly to find himself at Brown: how would he approach students, what would his teaching consist in? The typical flat answer is to dream up courses that Plato or Epicurus would offer. Students have a hard time thinking of education in any other way. A deeper answer, by contrast, requires imagining how the whole interaction between student and teacher would go, how the very structure of courses and lecturing might be called into question, how connections might possibly be made between courses and other aspects of private and public life. In effect, then, I am going to try here to answer my own examination question, or to show some of the thinking that has shaped my practical attempt to answer it in my own teaching.


I have said that the job of a teacher and philosopher is to make human life better. But we need a more precise characterization of the ways in which this practical improvement is understood -- especially in order to understand why the difficult and rigorous activity of philosophical argument should be thought to be so important for it. Epicurus, speaking for most of his tradition, defined philosophy as "the activity that secures the flourishing life by means of reasonings and arguments." But how, more precisely, do arguments secure a flourishing life? And what elements of flourishing are thought to require the aid of arguments? What I shall say here will be a bit crude and simplifying (a summary, in fact, of a long book that I have just finished writing on the relationship between theory and practice in ancient ethical thought). But it will, I hope, be sufficient to provide a reference point for my discussion of teaching. Let me propose, then, that the practical goals of a philosophical education are two: rational self-examination and universal citizenship.

Philosophical education aims to produce a certain sort of citizen: in the first place, one who is not a slavish follower of custom, tradition, or popular rhetoric, one who can take charge of his or her own thought about the most important matters, conducting a critical scrutiny of received beliefs and becoming aware of how and whether they cohere, and how they may be defended. Socrates famously said that "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being" -- holding that the life lived sluggishly guided by convention and authority, is not a fully human life, and that the fully human life is a life of vigilant critical self-examination. Since the beliefs being scrutinized are, for the most part, beliefs one has been taught by one's society, this self-examination is a also a form of social criticism. And Socrates held that this criticism was essential to the healthy functioning of a democracy. He portrayed himself as a gadfly on the flank of the Athenian regime, which he characterized as a noble but sluggish horse.

The Greek and Roman Stoics developed this Socratic picture further, spelling out some of the ways in which the reasoned criticism of convention leads to the improvement of social life. They held, for example, that a serious and deep scrutiny of the ends of human life would convince us that money and social status are much less valuable than they are usually taken to be: not worthwhile at all in their own right, and of only limited usefulness in promoting the types of human activity that have real value. They saw that accepting the conclusions of such arguments would not merely change pupils' intellects: it would also transform their desires and passions. A person who is not obsessed with status is not angry at purported slights to her or his status; a person who is not obsessed with money does not want to use the labor of others to extract more money. Above all, the person who comes to understand that reason, and not money and status, is the true source of our human dignity will be likely to respect all reasoning beings equally, across barriers of class, gender, and nationality. This equal respect, if one could achieve it, would profoundly transform the whole of social life.

Aristotle, writing before the Stoics, added one more very important piece to this picture. He was aware that the teacher of philosophical ethics was training not just individuals, who would go out and live personal lives in the community, but also the leaders and planners of social life, who would be in a position to go out and make laws and even constitutional arrangements. He argues that it is extremely urgent for such people to get clear about what the most important goals of human life are. For if they are not clear about them, they can hardly do their jobs as leaders--which is, as he sees it, to provide all citizens with what they need in order to be capable of living in these most valuable human ways. Now Aristotle differs from both Socrates and the Stoics in believing that a certain level of material well being -- while not an end in itself -- is nonetheless a necessary condition of the performance of those activities that are important as ends in a human life. One cannot think well if one is hungry. One cannot act justly if one is denied the rights and privileges of citizenship. One cannot be generous if one has nothing to give. One cannot maintain friendships if one is enslaved or imprisoned. His elegant analysis of the ways in which material and institutional resources support our ability, as humans, to function in a truly human way has been extremely influential in political thought -- in particular, in the early thought of Marx concerning the alienation of workers from their full humanity. Aristotle's conclusion is that the designers of regimes need to know all of this, in order to make a design that guarantees to "anyone whatsoever" the opportunity for effective pursuit of the human good. But the way they will learn this is through a philosophical teaching that makes them capable of the reasoned criticism of tradition, the vigilant scrutiny of all they hold dear.

Aristotle tended to focus on the student's membership in and duties to a single community. The critical scrutiny he recommended, however, requires exhaustive cross-cultural study, in order to see what good ideas have come up elsewhere and what apparently good ideas have turned out badly. Aristotle famously commissioned his students to gather information about one hundred fifty-eight forms of political organization that had been tried in the world known to him, thus inaugurating the first multi-cultural curriculum in the history of Western thought (though perhaps Herodotus should actually be given credit for a pioneering effort in this area). But he still thought of the goal of good citizenship as that of membership in one's own city; he had little to say about how one should deal with human beings who live outside its boundaries.

The Stoics, however, held that this was too narrow a goal for philosophical education. The Roman Stoics, especially, for obvious reasons, stressed the fact that we live in a complicated and interconnected world, and that good citizenship in such a world requires the ability to transcend the narrow boundaries of one's own community. We ought to make students realize, they insisted, that each of us is a member of two communities: the community of our birth, with its deep affiliations but also its morally unexamined prejudices, its local and arbitrary preferences, and also the universal community of all human beings. The task of education must be to get students to perceive this larger community -- hidden from them as it frequently is by the weight of entrenched local identifications, the sheer vividness of differences -- and to understand themselves as members of it. This means that they must become able to recognize humanity -- by which they meant above all the ability to reason about the goals of life -- wherever they find it, in female and male, slave and free, "barbarian" as well as Greek or Roman. But to do this they must be able to converse in an intelligent and sensitive way with their fellow world-citizens; and meaningful conversation, as Seneca often shows, requires knowledge of the other party's history, preoccupations, and likely prejudices. So they must come to know something about the world beyond the Tiber.


I have been deeply moved by this conception of philosophy's task. Indeed, I would probably not have been able to justify to myself the continued pursuit of philosophical writing and teaching as a way of life unless I felt convinced that it did have such a task. Otherwise this way of life, which gives me so much joy and in which I exercise the freedom of self-expression and self-definition that can be found only rarely outside the academy, would probably have come to seem to me intolerably self-satisfied and self-indulgent. But it does not follow automatically from the fact that one teaches philosophy in a university that one is pursuing the practical and political goals mapped out by the ancient thinkers. Indeed, the segmentation of the modern academy and its separation from the larger community -- characteristics that are in other respects very valuable, since the former promotes work of high excellence and the latter defends it from repression -- make it difficult to see how, exactly, such goals might be pursued. The problem is compounded by the fact that one is not at liberty, as the ancient thinkers were, to redesign the structure and mode of instruction; the fact that Socrates would have hated almost everything about our large lecture-course system does not free one to follow his example. It is compounded still further by the youth of the students many of us teach, since this militates against their having any extensive experience of life on which to draw, or any position of social power in which to realize the fruits of rational examination. (Aristotle declined to teach ethics and politics to people so young.) So I have had to think, while writing about these issues in the ancient thinkers, how their goals might to some extent be realized in my own activity. In this process their own observations about education -- especially, perhaps, those of the Stoics -- have been extremely helpful.

First and most important, I think, is that philosophical teaching about ethics must convey to students a sense of the urgency and complexity of ethical problems, making contact with their own questions about their lives and dramatizing them in a vivid way. And in fact this is one of the reasons why teaching the Greek and Roman philosophers is so good a way to begin the teaching of ethics: because writers like Plato, Seneca, and Epictetus have thought about the role of drama and urgency in philosophical writing in a way not since surpassed. One cannot read a work like the Symposium, or the Republic, and think of philosophy as simply a dry logic-chopping game. But the teacher must play a role here also: and much of my energy, when I lecture, goes into making the issues vivid for students, especially by dramatizing a deep human problem and then showing the tug of one or another solution. I want them to see that philosophical positions are attempts to solve problems, and that the conflicts between rival positions are not just an intellectual matter, but a matter of choosing how to live by choosing what road to take out of some vexing dilemma. I also want them to see that in many cases the solution proposed is too simple to do justice to the complexities of the problem. I want them not to be uncritical fans of philosophical problem-solving, but to keep going back to their own lives and asking what fits, what seems adequate -- in short, to examine themselves.

Arrian, who wrote down Epictetus' philosophical discourses, remarks that in writing he can capture only a part of Epictetus' pedagogy: for he communicated with his voice and gestures as well as with his words. And I have found, indeed, that the expressive equipment I developed in the years I spent as an actress are a non-trivial part of philosophical communication, especially in the modern university setting, where one does not have the option of talking to pupils one by one in the Socratic way. The particularity of engagement with each student's life that all major ancient schools recommend cannot be achieved directly in the lecture room. But I think that it can be approached (as, indeed, Seneca and Epictetus themselves approached it) by presenting one's arguments with sufficient human richness and drama to stimulate in each student a searching personal sort of self-confrontation. Sometimes this can best be done in Seneca's way, by using historical or contemporary examples to illustrate the question at issue. And my paper questions frequently ask the student to think about the question in connection with a particular example, drawn either from their own lives or from contemporary public life.

But the job I am engaged in is not simply to dramatize problems and to investigate solutions. It is to show the power of reasoned argument in getting individuals and societies toward solutions. Philosophy is not just any old technique of making people happy; it secures the flourishing life by means of reasonings and arguments. And this part of the job is not easy. Seneca and Epictetus depict the average philosophy student as a privileged dilettante who is overfond of logical game-playing, who pursues the liar paradox without thinking about his own lies, reads Chrysippus on logical puzzles without thinking about the puzzles of his own world. The resistance the philosophers have to overcome is the resistance of the oversophisticated to anything real. To meet this resistance they rely on drama and personal exemplification. They also know another sort of potential student, the person who thinks that convention is just fine and that philosophy has nothing to offer. Such a person rarely comes within their reach -- thus, in order to imagine a work about anger as a dialogue with such a person, Seneca must imagine himself talking to his own brother, who can hardly get out of the way of his words. In American undergraduate teaching we find many of the latter type of student -- though often they are brought our way, for better or worse, by required courses. We also find a few of the oversophisticated hyperlogical sort of student. But nowadays oversophistication is likely to take a different form: that of a contempt for reason and argument. One of my most persistent problems as a teacher of Brown undergraduates is not just to get the sophisticated student to think about philosophical problems as real, but, in addition, to get them to have respect for the techniques of logical scrutiny that philosophy offers. For all too frequently they have absorbed an ill-examined set of ideas to the effect that reason is all power, that truth and objectivity are the two dogmas of imperialism. Of course if they are willing to examine such ideas philosophically one can then dig in and inquire along with them into the philosophical credentials of various sorts of relativism and antifoundationalism. If they are too far gone to admit that such scrutiny is pertinent to their ideas -- and this sort of person is likely to be deeply resentful should an ill-reasoned jargon-laden essay not receive a high grade -- then one may still have some hope of getting through by showing, as I try to repeatedly, both in teaching and in writing, that the social goals this person wishes to promote (such as anti-imperialism, anti-sexism, anti-racism) are not well supported by a position that denies that one view is better than another, one position stronger than another. In short, often the urgency of philosophy's practical goal can win respect for its procedures and methods.

Philosophical teaching in today's academy must use books. And books, used in the right way, can actually be very valuable in promoting the student's own self-examination. The character Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus expresses suspiciousness about written texts, on the ground that they speak to all pupils alike, regardless of their differing backgrounds and needs, and on the grounds that they promote what he calls "the false conceit of wisdom", making students think that they are wise because they have mastered the contents of a text, rather than leading them to focus on their own critical arguments. Seneca repeats many of these points in his famous letter on liberal education. And yet both Plato and Seneca wrote books -- feeling, apparently, that there was a positive task for books to perform in education, despite their dangers. The danger of the written text of philosophical thought is greatest, I think, when one makes up a list of philosophical classics and labels these "The Great Books". For this honorific procedure suggests that the books, and not one's own reason, are the authority; and it urges an attitude of reverential deference that is very much opposed to the spirit of real philosophizing. But, as Seneca insists, books may also be used in a different way, as nourishment for the living process of argument. Aristotle adds that if we don't read the best of our predecessors we end up making the same mistakes over again; if we do read them, we will at least avoid the mistakes that they help us to avoid, and we may even, through a critical engagement with them, make a little progress beyond them.

It is in this spirit that I try to present the works of the Greek philosophical tradition when I teach; as noble and wonderful "friends", subtle and profound discussion-partners whose works train the mind to think for itself. But the goal is always in the thinking. Epictetus tells a story of a young man who came to him boasting that he had mastered Chrysippus' treatise on choice. Epictetus replies: if you were an athlete, and came to me saying that you had a new set of training weights in your room, I would not say, "Great! Now you've done it!" I would, instead, say, "Now show me what you can do with your weights." Books are like training weights for the mind -- of no worth unless one can show that with their aid one has managed to be a more thoughtful and subtle person.

We now arrive at the second goal, the goal of world citizenship. To a great extent, the study of the ancient Greek philosophers can promote this end as well, given that their works deal profoundly with problems that human beings face in many places and times. And we should also not forget that in studying the Greek philosophers we are making contact with a culture other than our own, and being forced to ask what we share with them and wherein we differ. But I think it is clear that the effective pursuit of world citizenship in the academy requires other strategies -- and that these strategies, far from subverting the study of "the Western tradition", actually render it far more precise.

In order to be effective citizens of a world in which debate on many of the most urgent matters is increasingly international, students need to become aware of the complexity of the other traditions that are participating in the debate -- both in other countries and within their own increasingly diverse country. They need to be able to converse with the members of these other traditions with sensitivity and not obtuseness; and this sensitivity requires learning about what is really shared among human beings and what is local. Now of course it would be foolish to try to make an undergraduate education give "equal time" to all the cultural traditions of the world. That way each student would get just a smattering of each, and no deep knowledge of any one tradition. But it is possible for a program of multicultural education, intelligently designed, to show students, at the very least, how local some of the received understandings of Western culture may be, and how to inquire into a new and different culture. Such a goal does not, as conservative critics often charge, imply cultural relativism, or the view that all positions are equally good and there is no room for the reasoned criticism of tradition. Students can easily make this error, if exposed to criticism of their own way in an atmosphere that derogates reason. That is one reason why I think that philosophy, which remains committed to reason and argument, has such an urgent role to play in the contemporary debate about multiculturalism. And in this debate the Greek philosophers make a valuable contribution; for they show, again and again, that patient attention to the pupil's way of life and its social origins does not entail the withholding of reasoned criticism, that conern for context is fully compatible with aiming at a universal human good.

Nor should we think, as classicists, that multiculturalism in the university subverts our own enterprise. I am often asked how it can be that I support the goals of multiculturalism while continuing to teach the ancient Greeks, as if there is some tension between the two concerns. But, as I have already argued, concern with the Greeks can actually show us sound arguments that advance the legitimate purposes of multiculturalism; and multiculturalism also enhances our research and teaching as classicists, by making us aware of that which is culturally specific and local in the classics themselves, sharpening our grasp of them by getting us to define them against something foreign to them. (It can also show us how much human beings actually share, across cultural and historical gulfs.) Giving support to multiculturalism can lose us a part of our clientele -- that part that came to our courses under duress because they were the only core requirements, that part that wanted to read the Greeks because they were supposed to be authorities. But that, I believe, is not real loss. We will have to seek students for the right reasons now: because these works, and our teaching of them, are vital and fascinating, because they illuminate the history of a specific civilization that has had enormous importance for us, and because they confront problems that most human lives share in one form or another, with arguments that are worthy of respect, close study, and independent criticism.


So far I have talked about teaching by talking about the classroom and the curriculum. But of course a teacher in a university is also a scholar and writer; and that part of her activity is closely related to her pedagogical role. For one way in which one teaches students about the close connection between philosophical argument and the improvement of public life is to be, oneself, an engaged citizen whose thinking informs her political role. If one teaches students that a major purpose of philosophical argument is the amelioration of the public culture, and then makes it evident that one does not have any interaction with the public culture, the student may well legitimately ask why not, and whether there is not some inconsistency here. Now of course the question might have a satisfactory answer. For one might find that, being the person one is, the best way one can contribute to the public culture is in fact simply by being a teacher, who will train future workers and professionals and politicians to think in ways that will be conducive to social justice. Or one might feel that the best way one can manifest the effect of philosophy in one's own life is by being a more reflective parent or citizen in ways that have little to do with one's professional philosophical activity, pursuing civic projects of various sorts, loving one's family, using part of one's income for causes connected with one's social and political goals.

But there is also, I believe, a job for a public philosophy to perform: the job that Plato and Aristotle and Seneca tried to perform in their own day. The job, that is, of clarifying thinking on matters of public urgency through one's own thought and writing. And this is a job that American professors of philosophy perform far too seldom nowadays, and have not performed well since the time of John Dewey and William James. There are reasons for this: America is a relatively anti-intellectual society, philistine and deeply suspicious of the contribution of any self-appointed "cultural elite". For this reason there are relatively few structures through which American philosophers can address the general public; and if they do they are not likely to be taken as seriously as their counterparts in Germany and France and Britain. Nonetheless, part of the blame must also rest with academic philosophy itself, which too often speaks a jargon-laden language and doesn't learn how to write in a way that would engage a non-specialist.

I have devoted a great deal of thought to this question, since it seems to me that what I fundamentally am is a writer; that is what I can do, what I know how to do well. I would be no good at all seeking public office, and I don't have very much money to give away. So if I am to make a public contribution, it seems to me that it would be excellent if a way could be found to do it through my work. And, on the other hand, I think there is a need for philosophical thought in public life that is not being sufficiently met, a need for critical reflection and closely reasoned debate on matters of human urgency. So I have felt it very important to devote a part of my work to this end, and I continue to feel that only doing this justifies me in indulging myself as I do in a way of life that I find so personally pleasing.

The first thing that can be said is that the choice between pursuing one's own work and writing for the general public need not be seen so exclusively and so tragically. For in fact the general public is hungry for philosophical work addressing ethical and political issues -- so long as this work is written by someone who sounds like a person. There is little excuse for the horrible quality of writing in philosophical journals. It is lazy and often, even in its air of precision, imprecise. It is perfectly possible to write something intelligible, and even moving, that a college-educated member of the general public can read with interest. And I therefore always try to write even my most scholarly books in a human and humanly engaging way. Fragility of Goodness was hardly designed as a popular book. It has four hundred pages of text and over a hundred footnotes, in very small print, and is filled with references and citations. And yet it has in fact been read by a large number of non-academic people, as my mail and the sales indicate. (My correspondents report that they even like the footnotes, since this helps them locate other things they might pursue on a topic, and gives them some sense of knowing what the debate is about.) The reason for this, quite simply, is that it is written as if the issues matter; the depth with which they matter to me is soemthing that I have tried to convey, showing the reader my own motivations for doing philosophy. I hope that my recently finished book on Hellenistic Ethics, The Therapy of Desire, will reach a similar audience -- though it is more an uphill battle here, since it deals with less familiar ancient texts.

Meanwhile, I have allotted a certain portion of my time to writing pieces more directly addressed to the general public. Our public media do not make this easy: the book review is about the only way to reach a wide audience, and there are very few places that reach beyond the academy that will print serious substantial discussions of philosophical books. The New York Times Book Review sets it sights absurdly low, and does not seek serious intellectual discussion. (I was given 600 words to review Foucault's History of Sexuality!) The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and more recently, the literary portion of The New Republic, have become the leading contributors to Anglo-American public discussion in these areas. It is to some extent a matter of chance whether one gets asked to review for these journals. And once one is asked one must be willing to adopt new and more collaborative patterns of writing. These editors do not simply print what a writer sends, no matter how much they like the writer. They have definite ideas about what their audience will and will not understand, and there is usually a lengthy process of editing and rewriting for each piece. (TLS does this least, since in Britain the audience is assumed to share a common background and to be somewhat academic.) At first this is an unpleasant surprise to a person who cherishes her own words. But I have learned to have enormous respect for the command of language, the sense of audience, and the sheer common sense of editors such as Bob Silvers of the NYRB and Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic.

Scholars sometimes deride this activity as mere journalism. But I can assure them that, like a good undergraduate lecture course, it requires more mastery of the subject matter and not less, more precision and not less. Usually when I write such a piece I have all the material and arguments at hand for an extremely long and detailed academic review -- and then I must ask, what is really important here? And how can I express such a complex point in a way that brings it close to real life? It is an activity very much like undergraduate teaching; and just as I don't think one can teach philosophy well without doing it well, I don't think one can do public essays in this way well without having one's own ideas and developing them in a rigorous way.

American television offers very few opportunities for serious intellectual discussion. And yet, when the opportunity arises, that one can be an especially rewarding way of approaching the public, more closely connected to one's teaching than writing frequently is. I have done two television programs -- one on Aristotle for a BBC series on "The Great Philosophers", one a segment of "Bill Moyers' World of Ideas" for PBS. Both were in different ways highly rewarding experiences. The first was carefully planned out beforehand, and was like a lecture-by-conversation; the second was a more intense and searching spontaneous conversation about a variety of ethical issues. Each had its virtues, and each, I think, served a valuable pedagogical function. I have usually refused to do television if I think that there would not be the opportunity for serious discussion and sustained argument. The one thing I have planned for the future in this area is a program for a German television series on "tendencies and traditions in American philosophy," which will, I hope, give me a chance to address a new audience that (through conferences) I am just beginning to know. There are many hazards and pitfalls to this sort of public philosophizing. One is that, in reviewing, one may spend more time than one wants to on ideas that are not worth much, simply because of their influence, unchecked, is likely to be pernicious. Living for over a month with the mind of Allan Bloom was not a pleasant experience, nor did it advance my own understanding of any issue. On the other hand the public importance of criticizing his book was great, and if it was an intellectual sacrifice it was well worth it. A more troublesome hazard is that one may simply be devoured by the public and lose one's own integrity as a thinker. It is necessary to protect oneself in every possible way against invasions of one's time and space, if one does not want to lose oneself. And sometimes one finds, on a bad day, that the price is still rather high. I make a big effort not to give my phone number out -- and yet, during the past three hours I have had fourteen phone calls, in one case three during the writing of a single sentence of this piece.

And apart from the question of time, there is the question of persona. The public world wants to package people neatly, to make them into media figures, performance artists. One must, I think, decide: does one want to live that way, or does one want to be a philosopher? In concrete terms this means, I think, being extremely careful what invitations one accepts (I declined to go on the Oprah Winfrey show opposite Allan Bloom), and being very judicious about what one puts into print, making sure that it expresses one's commitment to reason and creates a persona who is a serious philosopher. This doesn't at all mean writing without pungency or wit; but it does mean not sounding strident and dogmatic. And since it is all too easy to get into print with a polemic, I think that it is especially important to make sure that one's piece has something positive to say, and shows a spirit of fair-mindedness toward the opposition. It is easy to make fun of a book one doesn't like; but the philosophical way to criticize it is something different. And it is in this connection important not to lapse into the easy sloganeering that all too often characterizes American politics, even in the academy. I am happy if my audience is not altogether sure beforehand what I am going to say -- and above all if those who know my work trust me not to say what I can't support by argument, and to follow the argument anywhere it leads. This was why it was important to me, for example, to publish my favorable review of Richard Posner's Sex and Reason (in an April issue of The New Republic). For many people on the left simply define Posner as a "right-wing" thinker and don't look at his arguments. (The review of the book in The New York Times was an egregious case of this.) I read the book carefully, and found that it was a highly complicated and subtle piece of work, in many ways extremely impressive. And I said so. I can tell you that my praise disconcerted a number of my friends on the left, and I am glad so to disconcert them. For one is no longer a philosopher if one is the committed agent of a particular set of political views, ready to impose them uncritically on every work one encounters.


I have spoken of addressing the general public. But there are many other ways for philosophers to influence the conduct of public life. The past twenty years have seen the flowering of "applied ethics", in which philosophers increasingly interact with doctors, lawyers, businessmen, to discuss ethical issues in those professions. My colleague Dan Brock is one of the leaders in medical ethics in this country; he does work (for example on the relationship between patient's interests and patient's autonomy) that influences the conduct of doctors in countries all over the world, and the writing of pertinent legislation in this country, at both state and national levels. He can have such a far-reaching influence only because he does not pontificate from a position of non-involvement: he spent an entire year going on rounds in a local hospital, and now spends part of every term teaching medical students and interacting with doctors. Here theory and practice are meeting in an especially fruitful way.

My own engagement has been above all with the field of law. By now I have given a number of major lectures and lecture series in law schools, and in 1993-4 I will be visiting for one quarter at the University of Chicago Law School, teaching their course on law and literature. This began almost by chance, as I found myself getting invitations to speak at law schools. I wondered what had led to this; and I soon discovered that the law today has a keen interest in finding paradigms of rationality that are alternatives to the narrow account of rationality put forward by economics. In this connection, they had been turning to Aristotle; and they had seen some of my work on Aristotle's account of "non-scientific deliberation". Once I got into the law schools, my anti-utilitarian appetite was whetted by the spectacle of a noble and highly influential profession denying the complexity of its own historical insights in order to pursue the alluring pseudo-scientific simplicity of economic utilitarianism. The opposition was, it seemed, unarmed: those who held that there was a plurality of noncommensurable goods were labelled irrationalists, and accepted the label; those who held that emotions played a role in good moral reasoning were accused of throwing out reason, and conceded the charge. There was a job to be done, clearly: saying what reason is, in a way that shows why economic reasoning may well be irrational, and Aristotelian reasoning rational. Increasingly I have found it fascinating to undertake this job -- for it appears that my professional qualifications and interests actually make me well-placed to do so.

In the law one is, for the most part, addressing only the problems of American life, and addressing them in an academic insider's way. This is in one sense good, since this means that through the usual academic channels of lecturing and publishing one may actually manage to have an effect. Judges read -- or at least some of them do. And what one writes, if read, need only change one or two minds in order to have a significant impact. I am not all sanguine about the judiciary at present. I think that judges like Posner -- academically talented, open-minded, sensitive -- are increasingly rare, not only on the Supreme Court, but at the lower levels as well. On the other hand, I have at least the hope that some change might come about through good thinking and writing on these issues, writing of a sort that by training and temperament I am well positioned to produce.

The situation in my other field of practical work is far more complex. This is the field of international development studies and policy making. For the past seven years I have been a Research Advisor at the World Institute for Development Economics Research in Helsinki, a research institute connected with the United Nations, whose function is to generate new interdisciplinary approaches to the economic problems of developing countries. I have been a part of a project that looks at different ways of understanding the job of measuring the "quality of life" in these countries, a project designed to bring philosophers together with economists in order to illuminate the problems further. And here my experience as a philosopher specializing in the ancient world converges in a fascinating way with some of the most urgent issues of development, as an approach to quality of life measurement based on ancient Greek thought, and especially on Aristotle, is joining hands with the best recent work in economics to generate new approaches to the issue.

The situation is this. When governments want to figure out how they are doing, or when international agencies want to figure out how different countries are doing, they need to know what to look for. So they need some adequate conception of human well-being, and of the methods that are most likely to elicit reliable data about well-being. Usually economics has proceeded in a haphazard and superficial way. Opulence, in the form of GNP per capita, is the most common measure of how things are. But it is obvious that this measure does not even ask about the distribution of wealth and income; far less does it go deeper, to ask about the role of wealth and income in promoting flourishing human lives. Aristotle insisted vehemently that in order to see whether a city was doing well, one had to look not just to one class, but to the situation of each and every one; and he was aware that some extremely wealthy citizens may deprive their poorer members of the bare minimum for basic human functioning. It was for these insights that his work was so important to Marx.

One step up in level of sophistication, we have an approach that measures life quality in terms of utility, asking how satisfied people feel with what they have. This approach has the merit of focusing on people, and the role of resources in human lives. But it neglects a fact that was fundamental to all of the Greek philosophers -- namely, that people's desires are not always a very reliable indicator of what is good for them. The rich and pampered become accustomed to their luxury, and view with extreme dissatisfaction a situation in which they are treated like anyone else. The poor and deprived adjust their sights to what they have -- particularly if they are deprived of education, and particularly if, as is the case with many women in these countries, traditional gender norms represent to them that a lower level of functioning is right for them. Our project promotes, as an alternative to both of these approaches, an approach based on the Aristotelian idea of human functioning. We argue that what governments should really be asking is how well citizens are actually able to function, in a variety of important areas of human life.

This approach raises the specter of paternalism; and so we have spent a good deal of our time thrashing out the arguments about cultural relativism and objectivity that are currently on the scene, and trying to argue that the legitimate concerns about sensitivity to diversity do not undermine our attempt to bring to bear a general notion of human functioning. We have also refined our approach to make it more sensitive to cultural diversity. Currently we are looking at its implications for the future of the family and of sexuality in the light of new progress in reproductive technology. If the Institute's new director (currently being selected) proves supportive of these philosophical approaches, we will continue by looking at possibilities for implementing the approach in the actual design of social programs in various parts of the world.

This work has been extremely exhilarating to me, and also extremely frustrating. Exhilarating, because I can enter a diverse international world in which the arguments of philosophy might actually count for something where need is most urgent. The issues -- especially those connected with the lives of women in developing countries -- seem to me so urgent that I am all the more frustrated that it is so difficult to make progress with them. The countries in question are so many and so diverse that it is unclear how any intellectual approach -- especially one that is internationalist and secularist -- can hope to have a deep influence. At any rate, the question of its influence is one that depends on factors that I neither understand nor control. And the resistance of mainstream economic thinking to any modification of this sort is so dogged that there are many barriers to getting a fair hearing, even on the intellectual front. Philosophers, meanwhile, do not, in general write well enough to be persuasive in this arena. So my best hope is that over the course of the next five years I can write a book that will have a broad impact on public policy, even without altering the direction of mainstream economic thinking. Even then, its implementation depends on politics, and politics, at this time, is increasingly centrifugal and ethnocentric -- tendencies, I might add, that are extremely ominous for the lives of many of the world's women.

At this point I might seem to have strayed very far from the topic of teaching. But I believe that one's whole life is in one or another way present in the classroom -- in the way in which one's commitments infuse one's personality and one's ways of looking at the world, and also in the way in which experiences like this give one a rich store of urgent examples of ethical and political issues with which to illustrate an abstract moral point. I know, in particular, that what I have learned about the world from working in India and in Helsinki has altered the way I present the work of the Greek philosophers to my students, and has made me more able to pursue the goal of world citizenship in my teaching of the traditional material of "Western Civilization". Most of all, I think, I want to be, and I want my students to see me to be, a person passionately immersed in the ethical issues of life, one who does not shrink from taking risks for those commitments, but also one who loves philosophy and believes that the best way to address these commitments is through the very sort of reasoning and study that I am asking them to do, which I see as something extremely joyous and deeply delightful. Epicurus said, "Through the passionate love of philosophy, every bad human suffering is undone." This is no doubt excessively optimistic. But as a guiding ideal and "political motivation" for teaching, it is not so bad.

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