Martha Nussbaum thinks we shouldn't lose our tempers. Good luck with thatby Julian Baggini / August 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
When a philosopher writes a book with five abstract nouns in a six-word title, you might justly fear a laboured tome of desiccating logical analysis. When the author is Martha Nussbaum, however, you can be reassured. Nussbaum is one of the most productive and insightful thinkers of her generation, though strangely undervalued in the UK. She combines a philosopher’s demand for conceptual clarity and rigorous thinking with a novelist’s interest in narrative, art and literature. The result is an impressive body of work spanning the overlapping territories of politics, ethics and the emotions.
Her latest work examines the significance of anger and forgiveness in the intimate and political spheres, as well as in the “middle realm” between them in which we interact with each other as colleagues, acquaintances and fellow citizens. It belongs to a genre entirely of its own, a kind of highbrow political-, social- and self-improvement.
Its core thesis is summed up in her opening discussion of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy. In its final part, The Eumenides, Athena brings the bloody cycle of vengeance to an end by establishing a court, judge and jury. This allows reasoned law to take the place of the Furies, the ancient goddesses of revenge, who are nonetheless invited to take their place in the city. Nussbaum says that many understand the play “to be a recognition that the legal system must incorporate the dark vindictive passions and honour them.” However, when the Furies accept Athena’s offer they do so with “a gentle temper” and change their name to the “Kindly Ones” (Eumenides). Anger and revenge are not reintegrated, they are transformed.