Hecuba’s newly-learned melody: Nussbaum on philosophy learning from Euripides

Published in Critical Philosophy, 1988.

1. Introduction

Nussbaum concludes her recent book The Fragility Of Goodness with a chapter on Euripides’ Hecuba 1. She gives as her reasons that:

… the juxtaposition of this reading with our discussion of Aristotle will help us assess Aristotle’s attitude towards tragic events; and also to understand why he singles out Euripides as “the most tragic of all”, therefore the most suited for the educational function he ascribes to tragedy. (399)

The reader is brought to this point having been taken through a series of elegant and impressive chapters on works by Greek tragedians, Plato (the ‘middle’ dialogues), and Aristotle. Her interpretation of the texts is often striking, unorthodox, and challenging; sometimes to the point of distorting the balance and complexity of the work. Nevertheless, the book is a rich and comprehensive study of the aspiration to rational self-sufficiency in Greek ethical thought: the aspiration to make the goodness of a good human life safe from luck through the controlling power of reason (3). As Nussbaum sees it, this aspiration was at once nourished and constrained by how Greeks viewed human excellence (arete): on the one hand as something for whose possession and exercise a person is appropriately held responsible; on the other as something plantlike and fragile, in constant need of nourishment from without. Thus, the pursuit of rational self-sufficiency, with its effort to banish the effect of contingency from human life, is checked by a vivid sense of the fact that the beauty of human excellence is its vulnerability. The central ethical question becomes whether the effort to make life safe from contingency results in an impoverished life, a life that lacks; the special beauty of human excellence.

Nussbaum successfully brings out the continuity between philosophical reflection (in Plato and Aristotle) and the work of the tragedians as responses to this ethical issue: Plato heroically attempting to devise strategies for the defeat of luck, while fully recognizing the losses entailed by this ambition (an attempt Nussbaum regards as criticized in the Phaedrus), Aristotle returning to many of the insights and values of tragedy, articulating a conception of practical rationality that will make human beings self-sufficient but in an appropriately human way – a way that leaves the good life always vulnerable to external happenings because it places value on friendship, love, political activity, and attachments to property or possessions.

Nussbaum confesses herself an Aristotelian both in her method of investigating and assessing the texts she studies, and in her conception of ethical theory (which she defends in Chapter 8). The method claims to be fair to all competing beliefs and conceptions, and regards ethical theorizing as a ‘reflective dialogue between the intuitions and beliefs of the interlocutor, or reader, and a series of complex ethical conceptions presented for exploration’ (10). What allows Aristotle to regard tragic theatre as a source of moral learning is the emphasis his ethics place on deliberative choice and action as indicators of ethical value, of how well an agent acts and lives. Thus, though the kind of character and habitual response developed in an individual through upbringing is important, it is the capacity of agents to correctly discriminate the different weights to be placed on various components of their situation that determines whether they have acted virtuously and well. The stress on actions and events is replicated in Aristotle’s view of tragedy. In a crucial passage in the Poetics (quoted by Nussbaum on p. 378) he says.

The most important element is the arrangement of events. For tragedy is a representation (Mimesis) not of human beings but of action and a course of life. And eudaimonia and its opposite consist in action, and the end [the telos of tragedy] is a certain son of action, not a characteristic (poiotes). According to their characters (ta ethe) people are of such and such characteristics. But it is according to their actions that they live well (are eudaimones) or the reverse. (145a 15-20)

The educative function of tragedy for Aristotle, argues Nussbaum (391), consists in the fact that through the responses of pity and terror towards the pitiable and fearful things represented in it, we achieve a practical illumination or clarification (Katharsis); we achieve a greater self-understanding concerning the attachments and values that support these responses. We feel pity because we acknowledge the gap between being good and eudaimonia, ‘between what we are (our character, intentions, aspirations, values) and how humanly well we manage to live’ (382). And we feel fear because we feel vulnerable in the ways depicted. These feelings are valuable because through them we learn what we value in human life and the kinds of vulnerability to which it is susceptible.

One can hardly miss in this ‘we’ the universalizing tendency in Aristotle; or the fact that he has a teleological conception of the human animal as one whose full development requires a clear perception of where and how it differs from other animals and gods – a realistic appreciation of the limits built-in to its determinate ‘nature’. This ‘nature’ is made up of a hierarchically ordered set of potentialities for activity (rational, emotional, cognitive, productive, appetitive). Eudaimonia consists in the development and realization of these capacities in a way which enables the individual (circumstances permitting) to enjoy being what he or she is, to find enjoyment in how he or she thinks, acts and relates to others. Reason in its practical employment, itself one of the ‘natural’ capacities, is what enables a human being, in conjunction with a program of nurturing conducted in a context of stable institutions, to steer the difficult and perilous course towards this condition of flourishing. This course is perilous, according to Aristotle and Nussbaum, not merely because events not in the individual’s control might impede its progress, but especially because practical intelligence – that by which individuals steer their course – does not operate according to invariable truths. It has to attend to the particularities of a situation only knowing ‘what has seemed or appeared to be the case for the most part’. This probabilistic and conservative approach to the truths of human life implies that however good the character of a human being at any point of his or her life, and the degree of eudaimonia attained, both can be seriously impaired or destroyed by an action or response to a situation which is a ‘missing-of-the-mark’ (a hamartia). Human life is essentially open to the effects of contingency precisely because the values specific to human (in contrast to animal or divine) ‘nature’ depends on the exercise of practical reason whose exercise is open to such missings of the mark. Moreover, human eudaimonia and goodness is also vulnerable to luck because the good life is the life of good activity, and that life requires living with others in changeable circumstances.

One of the weaknesses of Nussbaum’s book is that she does not question searchingly enough the concept of human ‘nature’ which underlies much of Aristotle’s writing on ethics, psychology and literature. For it is, after all, a picture of what human living and existence come to. A picture, moreover, which, unlike Plato’s, allows comparatively little room for the idea of ‘self-formation’. This is the idea that the self – the ‘soul’ whose care Socrates insisted was the fundamental ethical concern – evolves out of, and is shaped by, impersonal-like forces such as the desire or impulse to apprehend and impose order, the desire to be assertive, to stand out in a distinctive way among others and not to be overwhelmed either by their demands or their opinions, and, finally, but not least, the desire to feel satisfied, whether in one’s appetites or in one’s passions. It is precisely the marshalling and maintenance of such forces in their proper balance and order which, for Plato, constitutes moral excellence as a form of self-mastery or freedom (eleutheria). It is such mastery that constitutes a good self or ‘soul’. It seems that this idea is different from the idea of rational self-sufficiency she attributes to Plato, and which she finds in Sophocles’ Antigone (cf. Chapter 3) and, in a modified form, in Aristotle. The key difference, as I see it, concerns a disparateness in orientation between Plato and Aristotle concerning the point and value of virtue. Aristotle, like some of the tragedians, is indeed concerned with the extent to which virtue and practical intelligence can guarantee eudaimonia, how they can help to make life safe from contingency without undue sacrifice of what people – his ‘we’ – regard as valuable activities. But there is a human ‘nature’; it is such that in matters of value and practical assessment of how to act we cannot avoid error. In contrast, Plato does not operate with an Aristotelian (i.e., teleological) conception of human ‘nature’. The problem for him, therefore, is not whether virtue can safeguard a life or an agent from the effects of luck; rather, he is concerned with the ways (the strategies, the practices, the social arrangements) whereby a self, or the ‘soul’, becomes immune to corruption. And ‘corruption’ here means loss of self-mastery, the diminution of eleutheria (freedom), the becoming diminished as self of a human being. It is evident that luck and external circumstances can ruin a life or a human being without its being the case that the self of that being thereby has lost its immunity to corruption. Conversely, good fortune may be granted to human beings and they can still lose that immunity, without that loss becoming immediately manifest in their lives and actions. Nevertheless, such a being can ‘contaminate’ those around him or her in their judgement and perception of what is valuable and important. Plato explores the forms of this corruption and contamination of selves in Books VIII and IX of the Republic, and in Book X of that work, he mounts his notorious critique of dramatic poetry as corruptive of intelligence.

It is not my purpose here to defend Plato’s picture of what makes for the best human life as against Aristotle’s. I mention Plato because he may provide us with a reading of tragedy which, unlike Aristotle’s emphasis on events and actions, sees it as a representation of ways in which the psychic forces that construct a self operate in conditions of passion or conflict. It is this dimension of theatre which an Aristotelian reading of a tragedy may miss and which, Plato believed, does not present us with a philosophically unambiguous ethical lesson.

Nussbaum’s reading of Euripides’ Hecuba in the closing chapter of her book is Aristotelian in the sense that she takes it to show us the fragility of human goodness. I believe this is a misreading or, at least, a distortive reading of the play. In the rest of the paper I try to show the way it is so. My aim is to suggest that the essentially conservative character of how an Aristotelian regards tragedy glosses over Hecuba’s potentially radical or subversive effects – an aspect Plato rightly made room for in his view of tragic poetry.

2. Nussbaum’s reading of Hecuba

Viewed as a representation of events and actions, the play has a simple structure; it consists of two episodes. In the first we have the sacrifice of Polyxena, daughter of Hecuba, the captive queen of the fallen Troy. The angry ghost of Achilles demands the sacrifice as a condition for allowing the Greeks to return home. The highlight of the first episode is Polyxena’s nobility m death. Hecuba’s response to this loss is that of grief mitigated by pride; the knowledge of the firmness of her daughter’s noble character. The second episode is Hecuba’s discovery of the murder of her son Polydorus by her friend the Thracian King Polymestor in whose care she had entrusted her son. Failing to obtain help from Agamemnon she lures Polymestor and his two children to her tent where the children are murdered and Polymestor blinded. The last scene is a confrontation between Hecuba and Polymestor in the presence of Agamemnon. Agamemnon banishes him to a desert island. Polymestor prophesies that she will end her life in the shape of a dog with fiery eyes – when she dies in this form the promotory Cynossema (‘Memorial of the Bitch’) will be named after her and will serve as a mark for sailors.

Against critics who feel the play lacks unity, Nussbaum believes there is a deeper connection between the two episodes. By focussing on the question of good character and its stability, we will see that the first episode sets forth a view on this issue which the second episode will give us reason to question. At the same time it reveals to us, in the person of Polyxena, features of nobility on account of which it cannot possibly be as stable as Hecuba thinks, features whose violent removal will be the source of Hecuba’s degeneration in the play’s second half (406). Nussbaum, then, sees the structure of the play as an indirect argument or reflection against the ethical belief that good character is a stable and invulnerable value – a belief strongly put by Socrates in a number of dialogues (cf., especially the Gorgias).

Nussbaum assumes that Polyxena and Hecuba, through their actions and words – words that articulate how they reflect about their action as a response to a situation – represent ethical perceptions to be found in the culture. These are:

a. Human goodness and nobility (unlike the goodness found in nature or the soil) is stable because it comes from the standard of nobility incorporated in social nurturing: goodness of character is the internalization of the nobility implicit in the norms and practices of the nurturing social world. This is both how Hecuba responds to Polyxena’s death and Polyxena’s own assessment of her situation. It is expressed in Hecuba’s speech:

… And yet, the grief is not excessive, since I have heard that you were noble (gennaios). Isn’t it remarkable (awesome, deinon), the way that bad soil, receiving opportunity from god, bears a good crop, and good soil, if it fails to get what it needs, will give a bad crop; but among human beings the wicked is never anything but bad, and the noble anything but noble, and is not corrupted (dieptheir’) in its nature by contingency, but stays good and straight through to the end? … To be nurtured well does offer instruction in nobility. If once we learn this well, one also knows the shameful, learning it by the measuring-stick of the fine. (Quoted by Nussbaum, pp. 399-400)

b. But this conception of excellence has two features which harbour the danger that someone committed to it can be destabilized in their actions. These features are: the social and relational nature of Hecuba’s central value commitments, her reliance upon human practices and conventions of relationship which are fragile; and her anthropocentricity, her belief that ethical commitments are human things, backed by nothing stronger or more stable. Standards of nobility exist entirely within the human world. As Hecuba says,

The gods are strong, and so is convention (nomos) which rules over them. For it is by nomos that we recognize the gods and live our lives, making our distinctions between justice and injustice. If nomos is destroyed [or corrupted] … there is nothing else like it in human life. (Lines 799-805, quoted by Nussbaum, p. 400)

As Nussbaum points out (401-3), the play invokes the fierce controversy surrounding the questions about the origin and status of ethical value in the latter half of the 5th century B.C. – a controversy whose terms of reference Plato deeply mistrusted and sought to combat (e.g. in the Gorgias and the Republic). Hecuba expresses the belief that deep human agreements (as embedded in practices) concerning value are the ultimate authority for moral norms. If ‘convention’ is wiped out, there is no higher tribunal to which we can appeal, for the gods themselves are ruled by it and, in any case, they can be acknowledged within the human world only because such ‘convention’ exists.

c. Human nobility and goodness, as conceived by Hecuba, presupposes, or is to a large measure constituted by, to euethes, ‘guilelessness’, ‘openness’, ‘simplicity’. The contrast is with suspiciousness and inability to trust. Nussbaum emphasizes (404-6) the connection between the play, produced in 425 or 424 B.C., and Thucydides’ characterization of the ugly and violent end to the three-year old civil war in Corcyra in 424 B.C. After describing the total disintegration of a moral community and the corruption of its moral language, he concludes,

Thus did every type of bad practice take root in Greece, fed by these civil wars. Openness (to euethes) which is the largest part of noble character (to gennaion), was laughed down; it vanished. Mistrustful opposition of spirit carried the day, destroying all trust. To reconcile them no speech was strong enough, no oath fearful enough. All of them alike, when they got the upper hand, calculating that security was not to be hoped for, became more intent on self-protection than they were capable of trust. (Thuc. III. 82-3, quoted by Nussbaum, p. 404)

From a, b, and c, we can draw the inference that:

d. If the social and relational basis of nobility is destroyed, then, the largest component of nobility, openness, is destroyed. And, given the anthropocentric conception of excellence (in b.), one in which relational values figure prominently, there is nothing left but to act in a way that negates these relational values. On Nussbaum’s view the murder of Polydorus reveals to Hecuba precisely such a destruction of the social basis of nobility. She, thus, becomes locked in a single, new, value – that of revenge and the calculated exploitation of trust. The destruction of the openness of nobility leads her to replace it with the closedness of guile and revenge.

According to Nussbaum, Euripides draws a further corollary,

e. With the departure of openness comes not only a loss of goodness but loss of humanity itself; looking for betrayal behind every act of friendship not only destroys nobility, it, perhaps, renders a person no person at all – something more like a cruel and vicious animal like a dog.

3. Aristotle and Euripides

Nussbaum claims (418-9) that Aristotle’s ethical view about excellence developed in Nicomachean Ethics, ‘leaves open the same areas of risk and vulnerability’ that we find in Euripides’ play. Therefore, in acknowledging the possibilities of moral degeneration and decline displayed in the play, Aristotle would be committed to this view: that no account of the good life, and of the kind of reflection within it, is adequate which does not recognize the possibility that in response to certain extreme and, under some circumstances, regrettably none too rare events, it can become transformed into a beast-like form. In other words, what makes the Aristotelian tragic emotions (pity and fear or terror) appropriate towards Hecuba’s tragedy is that it presents us with a truth about what kind of things are goodness of character and practical thought. Experiencing these emotions towards what the play presents signifies a cognitive (as well as affective) ethical response: that human goodness is not an immutable sort of thing, but one capable of degeneration. Unlike the fixity and permanence of certain forms such as mathematical or natural ones (those, for instance, governing the motion of the basic kinds of matter or the movement of the planetary spheres), other forms allow for transformation or degeneration (wine to vinegar, for instance). The human life-form shares that possibility with the latter case. It pertains to its essence to be susceptible to influences that may transform its goodness and perfection. It is because a tragedy such as Euripides’ Hecuba plots and delineates such a transformation that it is for Aristotle (according to Nussbaum), a source of practical knowledge. Nussbaum, then, finds Aristotle the warrant for exploring the play as such a source.

Without questioning her understanding of Aristotle – doubts could be raised on this point – let us note that there are three assumptions underlying Nussbaum’s procedure: first, that Aristotle’s ethical theory is on the right track; second, that his view of tragedy, with its attendant epistemology of responses to tragedy, is plausible; and third, that, on the basis of the correctness of the first two assumptions, tragedy can serve not only as a source of moral learning but also provides a test of philosophical ethics – of whether an ethical theory makes room for the fragility of human goodness. It is important to separate two issues here. One concerns a question in moral psychology: whether a kind of emotional response to certain events is liable to corrupt a person’s ethical perception and judgement. The other is a question in moral ontology: whether action of a certain kind (Hecuba’s revenge, for instance) is a paradigm, a diagram as it were, of the liability of goodness to decline. The first kind of issue raises the question of how to develop a person’s intellect and will so as to enable that person to master destructive emotional responses. It is primarily an issue in moral education though it does have implications about moral ontology; for example, that goodness or ethical value lies precisely in the ability to face contingency such mastery affords. However, the second type of issue takes for granted that human goodness can be lost and asks whether, for instance, the logic of revenge makes visible a pattern of moral disintegration. Ii is only from the perspective of the latter issue that tragedy can be taken as contributing cognitively to ethics – as delivering an unambiguous moral message. From the perspective of the former issue tragedy may not deliver anything unambiguous and, thus, not anything that is clearly true or false. A play may be seen, for instance, as representation of complex emotional response with an added, implicit, ethical belief that the good person’s judgement can be defeated by the power of certain emotions. Thus, even if as representation of emotion the tragedy is accurate, the moral belief it suggests may be false. What, let us say, a Platonically good person (i.e., one whose judgement is already properly equipped) detects in such a play will be the structure of an illusion about the value of moral character. By contrast, the second perspective locates ethical value primarily in action. It does so because it considers the ethical value of a life to consist in how a human being deals with his or her Circumstances, with the contingencies an individual is subject to because of his or her relations to others. It is this other-relatedness, the social character of human nature, on which Aristotle bases his account of human excellence (including that of practical reason), which enables one to view tragedy as part of the moral ‘appearances’, the Aristotelian phainomena, that ethical philosophy lakes as its material for reflection.

Nussbaum’s reading of Aristotle reveals him, in opposition to Plato, as firmly located within this second perspective: he stresses that all excellence has an other-related aspect; that personal love (friendship) and political association are not only important components of the good human life but also necessary for the continued flourishing of good character generally; and that trust is necessary to reap the benefits of these associations. He acknowledges, therefore, even if implicitly, the possibility of moral degeneration. But even explicitly he agrees with Euripides and Thucydides (as they arc read by Nussbaum) as to the dangers. In a passage from the Rhetoric (1389 b13-1390a24), quoted by Nussbaum (338), Aristotle discusses the character of the elderly whose deficiencies result from just that experience of life that the trusting and hopeful young have not yet had. There is, then, an agreement between Aristotle and the tragedian and the historian: openness is an essential condition of good character, a mistrustful suspiciousness, which can come to an agent through no moral failing but only through the experience of bad things in life, can be ‘a poison that corrodes all the excellences, turning them to forms of vindictive defensiveness’ (418).

According to Nussbaum this is the basis of Aristotle’s argument against the opponents of luck, those who, like Plato, think that goodness of character is sufficient for eudaimonia. Even the goodness of character itself is not invulnerable. Its yielding and open posture towards the world gives it the fragility, as well as the beauty, of a plant’ (for the full argument, see p. 340).

For there to be this agreement between Aristotle and Euripides Nussbaum has to read Hecuba as the exploration of a certain kind of action or activity, not as the representation of the ways various psychic forces operating on Hecuba hatch her actions. In other words, we have to read the play as delineating what happens to the goodness of a character in the grip of the ‘logic’ of revenge – action that becomes appropriate to the events as perceived by that character. The play represents Hecuba as agent in the context of some events, not the effects of the events and actions of others on Hecuba as a person. I turn now to what, according to Nussbaum, is the ‘shape’ of Hecuba’s revenge.

4. The logic of revenge

As we saw earlier (sec. 2, above) in the outline of the play’s ‘argument’, a crucial premise is the thesis that openness or guilelessness constitutes in large measure human nobility or goodness. It is the destruction of this openness that results from Hecuba’s discovery of the treacherous murder of her son by Polymestor (one of her most trusted friends); it sets her on the path of revenge. There are two ‘moments’ in Hecuba’s tragedy: her reaction to the discovery of treachery, and the decision to enter the ‘logic’ of revenge. The first moment is reflection about the value of nomos (convention, or agreement in practices). When the body of Polydorus is brought to her she says, ‘I see indeed. I see my child Polydorus. The Thracian was protecting him for me’ (lines 681-2). Her language nearly failing, she cries, ‘Untrustworthy, untrustworthy (apiston – a word that also carries the meaning of ‘unlocked for’, ‘incredible”), new, new are the things I see’ (line 689). With that one word, says Nussbaum (408, note 36 – see 509), Hecuba expresses both her surprise and sense of betrayal. She sees that the deepest trust is not trustworthy: the nomoi that structured her world never were, for the loved friend Polymestor, binding nomoi. ‘Where is the binding claim of guest friendship?’, she cries out. If this best and deepest case of human social value, says Nussbaum, proves apiston, untrustworthy, then nothing is ever entirely deserving of trust. On this reading what Hecuba perceives is a dislocation, a rending of the human world, something that even language and its distinctions cannot grasp. As Nussbaum points out (408), Hecuba finds what happened ‘unspeakable, unnameable, beyond wonder’ (line 714), because as Hecuba had said earlier we make distinctions and cut up the world by nomos. Language is based on and embodies these nomoi. The treacherous cutting up of her child seems to Hecuba to reveal, according to Nussbaum, the groundlessness and superficiality of these ‘cuttings’. It cuts beneath them. Her response to the events is a ‘feeling of complete disorder, lack of structure. Tuche, luck or absence of human rational control, is contrasted implicitly with the rational and intelligible order of nomos’ (408-9).

Hecuba’s decision to revenge herself – the second ‘moment’ of her tragedy – is precisely a re-structuring of this lack of structure. As Nussbaum sees it, revenge appears to Hecuba as an appropriate strategy to restore some kind of rational order in the chaos left by her discovery that trust was never there. It is important to notice here how Nussbaum’s Aristotelian reading of the play forces an interpretation of Hecuba’s decision to undertake revenge which suppresses other, equally plausible, readings of that decision – for example, as a re-assertion of her dignity, of the fact that as a mother, and as the queen that she was, she is not as powerless to enforce justice as her captive condition would seem (particularly to her Greek captors) to make her. Nussbaum’s reading closes off these other possibilities of interpretation and, as we shall see in the next section, not without a certain distortion of the text and the drama as a whole.

The nub of Nussbaum’s interpretation is this. When Hecuba says to Agamemnon ‘I shall place everything in good order’ and launches her scheme she is engaging in an action whose rationale is to restore a certain kind of order in her life, an order previously occupied by the structure of nomos. Yet, ‘the disordering knowledge of the possibility of betrayal which comes to this woman from outside’, claims Nussbaum, ‘is itself a defilement of her and a poison against her character’ (409). Hecuba’s trust of her friend, like Polyxena’s nobility, rested on an unquestioning trust of the nomos she was nurtured in. But now, according to Nussbaum, ‘confronted with the failure of nomos, she seems to have two choices only. She can blind herself to these events, finding some way to distance the knowledge or to confine it [Nussbaum, oddly, takes this to be a path of self-deception] … Or she can accept the knowledge, touch it, take it in as something true of nomos, of social bonds in general. But then it seems impossible, in these rending circumstances, to escape the corrosion of that openness on which good character rests’ (409). Nussbaum concludes (without really showing why these are the only two options open to Hecuba) that ‘from now on the nomos of trust, and Hecuba’s trust in nomos, will be replaced by something new from these new events’ (409, my emphasis). Quoting Hecuba:

O Child, child

now I begin my mourning,

the wild newly-learned melody (nomos)

from the spirit of revenge (684-7)

Nussbaum claims that Eurpides’ play on the, word nomos (which can mean both ‘melody’ and ‘convention’) indicates what the rest of the drama will explore: ‘that the destruction of convention effects not simply an unstructuring, but also a restructuring: the void left by Hecuba’s discovery will be filled by a new trust and a new law’ (409). Revenge is the nomos that substitutes for the old, except that ‘unlike nomos, it will not require a trust in anything outside the thoughts and plans of the avenger … a solitary song for which no confidence in untrustworthy human things is required’(410).

It is more than dubious, as we shall see in the next section, whether Euripides’ lines can sustain the interpretation Nussbaum gives them. It also contains a distortive exaggeration – for, does not Hecuba succeed in her plan with the help of her fellow captive Trojan women? Before turning to a critical appraisal of Nussbaum’s reading, I want to conclude this section with a summary of how Nussbaum understands the re-ordering that the logic of revenge effects. It will serve as an introduction to the critical points in the section that follows. She believes that as an order-bringing project, Hecuba’s revenge plan has two distinct aspects: the retributive and the mimetic (for the full argument see p.410ff.). The retributive element is picked out as follows:

(Hecuba) seeks to right the imbalance in her world by bringing the defilement back to its source, by giving the giver the same pain and horror that he has originated for her. The child-killer must suffer child-killing; the person who abused xenia (guest-friendship) must suffer an equally ghastly abuse of xenia; the person who maimed her must be maimed. This retributive aspect comes out most clearly in the role played by hospitality conventions in the plan. Polymestor is assaulted while being entertained with every customary form; each element of the plot to secure control over his person and his children involves a false use of some feature of the old nomos. (p. 410)

Then with reference to the mimetic element:

There is another equally important part to the logic of this plan. This is the claim it implicitly makes to imitate and reveal the world as it always was, beneath the attractive trapping of nomos. Xenia is abused because xenia was false all along. The most apparently trustworthy prove untrustworthy here because the most trustworthy always were untrustworthy … We saw that for these people the eyes are the most intimate places of connection between one human being and another, the place where a human being most clearly expresses his or her trust in another human being and in the world of convention that joins them … (Hecuba) blinds (Polymestor) because blind is what he always was. He never really sealed a promise with a truthful look, never truly wept, never saw her boy. Nothing ever was trustworthy: not his good reputation, not his prosperity. The logic of revenge sets the world to rights, most of all by making it reveal the hidden nature of its former crimes. (pp. 410-11)

It is evident that this way of construing revenge – as a strategy to transform the world outside – curiously cuts it off from human motivation, from feelings as an expression of a self and its inner condition. Once revenge becomes a kind of nomos, as Nussbaum will have us believe, it is difficult to see the personal or subjective aspect of revenge. It becomes as impersonal as the tactics being devised in some subterranean council of military chiefs.

Be that as it may, for Nussbaum in the nomos of revenge – nomos that transforms Hecuba into a dog-like creature – the traditional virtues of character still exist, but each in an altered form. Outside regard for community and relationship, they all become instrumental to the ends of power and personal safety. Revenge takes over the entire world of value, making its end the one end. Thus it embraces Hecuba’s attempt to use Agamemnon’s infatuation with Cassandra (her other daughter) to get him to help bring Polymestor to justice. One wonders in what precise sense one could speak of virtue in a world governed by a convention of revenge. Nevertheless, Nussbaum’s claim is that excellences of character subtly alter when cut off from trust and association. She proposes for example that in the context of revenge:

Courage, now based on no communal commitments, serving only a solitary goal, becomes a kind of brazen daring that yells, ‘Rip! Spare nothing!’ (1044). Prudence or moderation becomes a solitary cunning which has no respect for any decency and trusts no man’s respect for hers. Justice becomes an instrument of personal punishment and personal safety … Wisdom is simply the clever plotting that ‘will put everything in order’.

Unless this point is granted, the whole Aristotelian construction of the play as showing the fragility of Hecuba’s goodness collapses.

Nussbaum requires this crucial idea of a nomos which is a counter-nomos to substantiate her claim that Hecuba’s transformation shows us the deep truth in Aristotle’s view that justice, broadly construed, is like the entirety of excellence – meaning by that ‘that every virtue has an other-regarding and communal aspect that cannot be severed from it without destroying its character as virtue’ (415). Nussbaum believes that the play shows us this by showing us the virtues (as capacities for action) stripped of communality. And it also shows how language, too, changes: words cease to be bonds of trust and become instruments of power: ‘communication is replaced by persuasive rhetoric, and speech becomes a matter of taking advantage of the other party’s susceptibility’ (415). So, what Euripides shows, on Nussbaum’s view, is that ‘our self-creation as political beings is not irreversible. The political existing by and in nomos, can also cease to hold us’ (416). Nussbaum’s understanding of the ‘logic’ of revenge, then, sees it as destructive of a noble character because it requires the cutting off of that character from its communal and conventional web of activities; cut off in this way, none of a person’s capacities for action can count as virtue.

She consequently finds herself in disagreement with Nietzsche’s astute analysis of the motive-structure of revenge (even though she finds his discussion impressive). Nietzsche, it seems, is at fault for not seeing that the person of noble character is, if anything, more open to the corrosion of revenge than the base person because ‘it is the noble person, not the base, who has unsuspiciously staked a world on the faith and care of others. It was Hecuba’s very strength, in terms of the traditional virtues, that contributed most to unseat her … In the wake of her friend’s act, she must have revenge not against some personal or sectarian weakness, … but against human life itself and the very conditions of virtue in the world’ (417-8). The object of Hecuba’s revenge has, in Nussbaum’s hands, become very abstract and general indeed – so much so that revenge appears nearly objectless. Nietzsche, you will recall, talks of the ability of revenge to revalue all values, and of its connection with the desire of the wounded for safety and power; its capacity for disguising itself as love or justice. But his justification for thinking this is precisely that the project of revenge is that of an abased or deprived people, as the reflex of the base or weak. This is a very far cry from Nussbaum’s claim that in the face of adversity (extreme adversity in Hecuba’s case) a noble person may not only resort to revenge but do so as a re-ordering project, as a scheme to restore order in her life. If they are noble why would someone else’s betrayal of trust lead them to adopt a strategy capable of revaluing all values? There is a serious tension in Nussbaum’s acknowledgement of a Nietzschean analysis of revenge with her Aristotelian wish to show how goodness and nobility are vulnerable to luck.

5. An alternative reading of Hecuba

Perhaps the best way to focus my criticism is by considering how Nussbaum construes Euripedes’ notorious interest in women. She takes the play – whose central character is a woman – to be stressing the transformation of human being into an animal, a bitch. And she interprets this to mean (413) that women are creatures who, because of their social position, stand most vulnerable to chance. His interest in women, then, is not in their special character as women, but as revealing ‘this condition of exposure, this powerlessness before the affronts of war, death, betrayal’. So, thinks Nussbaum, ‘if we are looking for a situation in which good character is corrupted by external circumstances, then we do well to look at human beings who, on the one hand, can grow up just as good as any … but who on the other hand, are exposed more clearly than others to the extreme in fortune. Through the not uncommon social reality of a woman’s life we come to see a possibility for all human life (413, my emphasis).

But is this really so? One could claim, with equal justification, that Euripides’ play alerts men to the powerful and destructive emotions likely to be unleashed in women by the relations that men, as sanctioned by the very nomos of sexual relations in Greece, could carelessly and arrogantly come to have with women. I do not see here a pattern for all human life. This somewhat astonishing generalization of Nussbaum’s matches the slide in her interpretation of Hecuba’s desire for revenge we noted earlier: that her loss of trust in the nomos of trust leads her to substitute for it a different kind of nomos, that of revenge. But is not Nussbaum putting the can before the horse here? Is it not because of her reduced status as a captive woman and a slave that Hecuba finds herself powerless to bring Polymestor to justice? Revenge looms as the only possibility for Hecuba not (or not merely) because of the betrayal of trust and the thought that nothing is beyond defilement, but because of the failure of the socio-political structure of her situation (Agamemnon declines to help for reasons of political expediency) to secure justice for her. Cut off from access to the power of justice she can only turn to an exercise of power that is liable to push her beyond the limits of civilized action. For even if (as happens in the last scene of the play) people come to see the justice of her cause, and the vileness of Polymestor, she has performed an act that puts her beyond nomos – in a place that is very hard, if not impossible, to return from. The perception of betrayal by a friend does not bring about a loss of nobility in Hecuba. Rather, an overwhelming sense of powerlessness blinds her to the fact that, though her situation is desperate, certain acts are liable to deprive a person of membership in a human community. And such membership is the context of the exercise of virtue, not as Nussbaum seems to suggest, a condition of virtue itself.

It may be replied that, whatever the sources of Hecuba’s decision to take refuge in revenge, once caught in its logic her actions cannot but exemplify the loss in value inherent in abandoning social virtue. Her act by its very nature closes off and negates the value of sociability. Revenge is by its very nature solitary and makes one brutish like a dog. To the extent that circumstances force Hecuba to take up revenge, to that extent her goodness is destroyed – and, similarly, for any of us.

But the judgement that the goodness of a person has been destroyed requires more than ascertaining whether that person has performed a certain type of action whose ‘logic’ entails the abandoning of social virtue. We also need to know whether the motive structure within which that act was hatched is of a certain sort. Granted that revenge hits at the social fabric of trust. But a lot depends on how and in what spirit that act was entered into before we see in it an exemplification of loss of goodness of character. We might think so if we assume that the sense of power vengefulness generates became attractive to Hecuba, that her resolve became a source of value and delight, just as earlier her commitment to the nomos of friendship and trust was such a source. And this is how Nussbaum needs to interpret Euripides’ portrayal of Hecuba – as a woman attracted to revenge because it offers structure and plan in her life without vulnerability. It would not be enough, for Nussbaum’s thesis about the fragility of goodness, to maintain that it was Hecuba’s position of weakness that propelled her to bring a horrible criminal to justice in the only way open to her. For, even if the decision to so act is a moral mistake, it is not a mistake which requires the postulation of a transformed motivational structure directed at the world outside her. Nussbaum’s case rests on taking Hecuba’s action to be itself a rejection of the life of trust because she saw trust to have become bankrupt. The thought here is that because the old nomos has failed the idea of persisting with it has become intolerable. Thus, on Nussbaum’s view, Hecuba’s choice of revenge is a response to how she is, from now on, going to live her life. Since she cannot live and plan feeling like uncontrol (Tuche) itself, sense demands that she take refuge in the control and plan afforded by revenge – a project that can give purpose and content to her life.

But is Hecuba attracted to revenge this way? To answer in the negative we do not have to deny the point that Nussbaum makes so much of – the point, namely, that Hecuba’s newly-learned melody/nomos comes from the spirit of revenge. All we need to deny is that her motive for revenge is a vengefulness that is power-seeking, the desire to hit back not merely at Polymestor but at the value of the nomos of trust itself – that is, by instituting as a value an alternative, anti-social, kind of nomos. It is only by treating Hecuba’s desire as one which transforms justice from being that for the sake of which the trapping and punishment of Polymestor is undertaken, to an instrumental means whereby she restores order to her life, that we can infer a transformation of goodness of character in Hecuba.

An act of revenge by itself does not bespeak such a transformation, however much vengeance as an attitude may, as Nietzsche noted, effect a revaluing of values. It is only when vengefulness becomes the basis of a mode of life, a disguised and self-deceptive manner of coping with a debased or weak status (like Nietzsche’s Christians), that it signifies a debasement of value. But for that to be the case in Hecuba’s case we would have to interpret her concern to bring Polymestor to justice as a piece of self-delusion, as a cover for her desire to be free and queen again. If this were so, however, then her feelings towards Polymestor, the murderer of her child, would be just murderous feelings; not merely feelings of outrage at the betrayal of trust. And it is these murderous feelings she would be self-deludedly using as a means to restore to her life its previous sense of safety and order.

And is it not precisely this ambiguity, this uncertainty, about Hecuba herself, rather than her act, that Euripides is trying to convey? For we do not know that Hecuba, or anyone else for that matter, is a genuinely good person. Certainly, Hecuba was conventionally good as a mother and wife. And she was scrupulous to the point of generosity in her attachment to the nomos of guest-friendship (note her protection of Odysseus earlier in Troy). Nevertheless, her status as woman would have, even at the best of times, deprived her of the life of decision-making (like engaging in that silly war) and rational self-shaping vouchsafed to men in the life of a polis. What remains unclear in Euripides’ play (and that may have been deliberate) is whether to take Hecuba’s tragedy as showing a flaw in the traditional absolute reliance on the power of nurture (according to societal nomoi) to generate incorruptible goodness; or whether we read it as exploring an illusion about the capacity to bring about something good once one assumes the absolute power to dispense justice – an illusion all the more difficult to see through because born of the impotence constitutive of a weak and dependent status.

I submit that it is not possible to disambiguate the play in the way required by an Aristotelian reading. For, the play could be read as an investigation of motivational structure just as much as it can be read as a comment on the beliefs in the culture. In neither case, however, can we obtain anything as unambiguous as the corruptibility and fragility of goodness of character. Nussbaum pushes things in this direction by her odd rendering of the lines concerning the ‘newly-learned melody/convention’. The immediate context of the lines is Hecuba’s gradual and painful discovery that the body brought in by her attendant is that of Polydorus not Polyxena’s (or, as she momentarily thinks, Cassandra’s). Her response at this point in the text is,

O child, child [then follows a word expressing wailing] I

begin my bacchic [frenzied] melody (nomos), having

but recently learnt about bad things from the spirit

[goddess or daimon] of revenge.

The chorus takes her as saying that she already knew of the fate of her son. To which Hecuba exclaims,

Untrustworthy, untrustworthy, new new things I see.

What she sees, of course, as she herself puts it, is the true significance of her earlier dream – of a dappled fawn cruelly dragged from the protection of her lap by a wolf’s fangs and slaughtered, and of Achilles’ ghost clamouring for a maiden’s sacrifice. She now knows that Polymestor has turned out to be an utterly false friend, a self-seeking murderer. Now, even if we could be sure that Euripides was playing on the two meanings of nomos, the text would have to be seriously distorted to yield what Nussbaum takes it to mean – that her mourning melody is a newly-learnt revenge song, a new nomos to take the place of the old. For, as the Chorus’ question indicates, what she has recently learnt is not the nomos but that the bad tidings contained in her dream have now, unbelievably, been confirmed. Nussbaum makes her extraordinary reading possible by unaccountably shifting ‘newly-learned’ to a place before ‘melody’ (nomos) rather than having it after as it is in the text. Clearly, what Hecuba begins is a frenzied mourning melody which has its origin in the recent frightful confirmation of her foreboding. There is nothing here about the betrayal of convention effecting a restructuring, a new nomos, of vengeance.

In spite of her many illuminating insights about the text, Nussbaum’s reading is flawed (not just in the instance just mentioned) in her effort to glean an Aristotelian message about the fragility of goodness in Euripides’ play. Lack of space prevents me from pursuing this line of flaw throughout her reading of the play. Perhaps I can conclude by looking at how she assesses the position of the two antagonists, who have radically harmed each other, at the end of the play. Nussbaum takes it that having both betrayed convention, they both become bestial like dogs. ‘The annihilation of convention by another’s act’ she says, ‘can destroy the stable character who receives it. It can, quite simply, produce bestiality, the utter loss of human relatedness and human language’ (417). Polymestor’s end ‘serves the more horribly to underlie the extent of her crime. He is made beast by her acts, as she is by his’ (ibid.). Thus, Nussbaum interprets Hecuba’s fate (to turn into the rock Cynossema) as being ‘a solemn mark, perhaps even a pledge or solemn guarantee. So, too, the possibilities of this play stand in nature: as markers of the boundary of social discourse and as warnings against catastrophe – but also as pledges or guarantors of a specific human excellence. If that rock did not stand, we would no longer be humans.’ (421)

But Hecuba is not transformed into a dog – only into a stone, a warning beacon for sailors, even if it is dog-shaped. Furthermore, it is not clear that Hecuba’s acts turn Polymestor into a dog-like creature. He is gagged and cast out into the desert through the agency of Agamemnon, who having failed to bring Polymestor to justice now ‘declares’ that he has received justice at Hecuba’s hand. The gagging and casting out of Polymestor by Agamemnon is not due to the former having become dog-like because of Hecuba’s act. Polymestor was already dog-like when he murdered and cut-up Polydorus. Agamemnon is annoyed by Polyestor’s prophecy of his own murder. But what about Hecuba’s end? Once again, it is not Polymestor’s but her own act that turns her into a warning beacon. And if I am right in thinking that she does not reject nomos, then another possibility is that, her act having placed her outside the human community, she can only become frozen into a symbol – one that warns sailors (i.e. men) of the terrible and murderous forces that can be unleashed in those who are rendered powerless to secure justice because others (for example, the Greeks), who are supposed to uphold and enforce nomos, abandon it for low and expedient ends. But no one can live frozen into a symbol. Hecuba’s is a desperate act, and it is tragic precisely because she is led to think through it she might bring men to respect justice and nomos. This is an illusion, since only collective deliberation and alert political action can achieve this. Hecuba’s act, hints Euripides, can only constitute her into a signifying stone; so the political and moral reflection necessary to avoid the constituents of the tragedy lie, as surely they must, outside the play.

But is this not precisely what Plato was worried about? There is danger in having powerful destructive emotions represented in a way that does not tell us how they might be circumvented or show us what son of social and psychological order will anchor an abiding respect for nomos; the danger is all the greater when the representation may even convey the grim, but perhaps morally deluded, message that such respect cannot be securely achieved by human beings.

Australian National University

  1. Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and ethics in Greek tragedy and philosophy, Cambridge, U.P., 1986. Page references to this work are given in brackets. []