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Morris, Herbert (1976). “Guilt and Shame,” in Guilt and Innocence (Berkeley:
University of California Press).
Piers, Gerhart and Singer, Milton (eds.) (1953). Shame and Guilt (Spring¬eld, IL:
Charles C. Thomas).
Rawls, John (1971). A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Schafer, Roy (1967). “Ideals, the Ego Ideal, and the Ideal Self,” Psychological Issues,
5, 131“174.
Statman, Daniel (ed.) (1993). Moral Luck (Albany: State University of New York
Stocker, Michael (1973). “Act and Agent Evaluations,” The Review of Metaphysics,
Tangney, June Price, and Dearing, Ronda L. (2002). Shame and Guilt (New York
and London: The Guilford Press).
Taylor, Gabriele (1985). Pride, Shame and Guilt (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Williams, Bernard (1981). “Moral Luck,” in Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), pp. 20“39.
Williams, Bernard (1985). Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press).
Williams, Bernard (1993). Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: University of California
Williams, Bernard (1995). “Moral Luck: A Postscript,” in Making Sense of Humanity
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 241“247.
Wollheim, Richard (1984). The Thread of Life (New Haven: Yale University Press).
6 Williams on Greek Literature
and Philosophy

Having studied Greek and Latin at school and in the Oxford Mods and
Greats curriculum, Bernard Williams received the philological and histor-
ical training that would have equipped him, if he had wished, to make a
career as a professor of classics. He chose instead to make his mark as an
exceptionally creative philosopher engaging with largely modern issues,
but his classical education, his interests in Greek literature and philoso-
phy, and his commitment to the history of philosophy, shine throughout
his illustrious career, especially during its later years.1 In 1989, as Sather
Professor of Classical Literature at the University of California, Berkeley,
he delivered a series of six lectures on Greek literature, ethics, and moral
psychology under the general title Shame and Necessity. Appointment to the
Sather professorship is regarded in the community of classical scholars as
the equivalent of a Nobel Prize. Williams™ lectures, which attracted a large
and appreciative audience, were published in 1993 in the book also entitled
Shame and Necessity.2
Because this volume is his most extended foray into the ¬eld of classics,
I shall concentrate on it in this study; but by way of introduction, I begin
with brief remarks about Williams™ re¬‚ections on Greek philosophy and
the Greeks in some of his other publications. Much of what he says in
these works anticipates ideas he develops in Shame and Necessity. This book
in its turn presupposes or draws upon numerous thoughts that Williams
explores in other books, especially Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy.3 While
the arguments and positions he advances in Shame and Necessity are self-
standing, the book™s force and signi¬cance can be most fully appreciated

1 Shortly before his death, Williams collected twenty of his essays on the history of philosophy
for publication in Williams (2006). I am grateful to Myles Burnyeat for sending me his
˜Introduction™ to this volume, before its publication. It gives an excellent appreciation of the
increasing importance that historical (especially ancient Greek) themes assumed in Williams™
thinking over the course of his life.
2 Williams (1993).
3 Williams (1985).

156 A. A. Long

when it is set in the context of the philosophical and historical interests that
chie¬‚y occupied him during the last three decades of his life.


In 1981, Williams published an extensive account of Greek philosophy for
The Legacy of Greece: A New Appraisal.4 He ¬nds the Greek philosophers
(by whom he means primarily Plato and Aristotle) not only starting but
also distinguishing “what would still be recognized as many of the most
basic questions” in almost all the major ¬elds of subsequent philosophy.5
As radical exceptions to this generalization he identi¬es perhaps “just two
important kinds of speculation”: idealism “according to which the entire
world consists of the contents of mind,” and historicist explanations of
mental categories, as in Marxism or historical consciousness.6
Williams focuses this account of Greek philosophy on metaphysics,
epistemology, and ethics. Starting, in the case of the latter, with Socrates™
attempts in Plato™s Republic to refute Thrasymachus™ “entirely egoistic con-
ception of practical rationality,” Williams observes that the Thasymachean
position derived some of its historical grounding and appeal from the “aris-
tocratic or feudal morality” evidenced in the competitive success highly
valued by Homeric heroes. For such a morality, he observes, “shame is a
predominant notion, and a leading motive the fear of disgrace, ridicule, and
the loss of prestige.”7 However, we should not suppose that shame is only
occasioned by failures in competitive and self-assertive exploits; for it may
also be prompted by “a failure to act in some expected self-sacri¬cing or
co-operative manner”:
The confusion of these two things [i.e. the value set on competitive success
and the occasion for shame] is encouraged by measuring Greek attitudes
by the standard of a Christian . . . outlook. That outlook associates moral-
ity simultaneously with benevolence, self-denial, and inner directedness
or guilt (shame before God or oneself). It sees the development of moral
thought to this point as progress, and it tends to run together a number
of different ideas which have been discarded “ or at least rendered less
reputable “ by that progress.8

4 Williams (1981a).
5 Williams (1981a), p. 202.
6 Williams (1981a), pp. 204“205.
7 Williams (1981a), p. 243.
8 Williams (1981a), p. 244.
Williams on Greek Literature and Philosophy

This dense passage, when read retrospectively, can be seen as setting much
of the agenda for Shame and Necessity, especially that later book™s close
attention to Homer, the recognition that shame can motivate cooperative
as well as competitive action, the pejorative assessment of a Christian moral
outlook, and criticism of the progressivist moral attitude for being confused
and irrelevant to much human experience. But Williams devotes most of
his treatment of Greek ethics in The Legacy of Greece to a largely positive
appraisal of the view of morality defended by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
He seems to approve Plato for rejecting “an instrumental or contrac-
tual view of morality” and for trying to show “that it was rational for each
person to want to be just, whatever his circumstances.”9 Taking this project
to be neither “a moralizing prejudice on Plato™s part,” still less a Kantian
“autonomous demand which cannot be rationalized or explained by any-
thing else,” Williams takes Plato™s position to “be grounded in an account
of what sort of person it was rational to be,” or “to show that each man has
good reason to act morally, and that the good reason has to appeal to him in
terms of something about himself.”10 Here we already get a foreshadowing
of Williams™ insistence in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy on the necessity
for a satisfactory ethical imperative to address internal reasons, ¬rst per-
son deliberations and interests, and facts to do with an agent™s character,
as distinct from presenting themselves as external impositions and purely
objective obligations.
Williams in The Legacy of Greece ¬nds certain aspects of Greek ethics
problematic: for instance, the Socratic ideal that a clear-headed person
always has “stronger reasons to do acts of justice . . . rather than acts of mean
temporal self-interest,” or Aristotle™s “rational integration of character.”11
Summing up, however, he concludes that in many respects “the ethical
thought of the Greeks was not only different from most modern thought,
particularly modern thought in¬‚uenced by Christianity, but was also in
much better shape”:

It has, and needs, no God. . . . It takes as central and primary questions of
character, and of how moral considerations are grounded in human nature: it
asks what life it is rational for the individual to live. It makes no use of a blank
categorical imperative. In fact “ though we have used the word “moral” quite
often for the sake of convenience “ this system of ideas basically lacks the

9 Similarly, Williams (1985), pp. 30“1, although in this later treatment of the same points
Williams™ approval of Plato is more quali¬ed.
10 Williams (1981a), p. 246.
11 Williams (1981a), pp. 249“250.
158 A. A. Long

concept of morality altogether, in the sense of a class of reasons or demands
which are vitally different from other kinds of reason or demand . . .
Relatedly, there is not a rift between a world of public “moral rules”
and of private personal ideals: the questions of how one™s relations to others
are to be regulated, both in the context of society and more privately, are
not detached from questions about the kind of life it is worth living, and of
what it is worth caring for.12

Williams acknowledges that the Greek philosophers™ application of this
outlook is neither fully recoverable nor fully admirable: we cannot inhabit
a Greek city-state, and we certainly should not endorse Greek attitudes to
slavery and women. In addition, he ¬nds that Greek ethical thought, like
“most ethical outlooks subsequently,” rested upon an “objective teleology
of human nature,” which “we are perhaps more conscious now of having
to do without than anyone has been since some ¬fth-century Sophists ¬rst
doubted it.” Even so, he approves Greek philosophical ethics for repre-
senting “one of the very few sets of ideas which can help now to put moral
thought into honest touch with reality.”13
In the ¬nal page of his contribution to The Legacy of Greece, Williams
turns from Greek philosophy to tragedy; and here, as in his brief remarks
on the Homeric world, he adumbrates ideas he will strongly develop in
Shame and Necessity, and which will also resonate in Ethics and the Limits of
Philosophy.14 Whereas Greek philosophy, “in its sustained pursuit of rational
self-suf¬ciency” seeks to insulate the good life from chance, Greek litera-
ture, above all tragedy, offers us a sense “that what is great is fragile and
that what is necessary may be destructive.”15 This page, like parts of those
later books, is strongly marked by his quali¬ed endorsement of Nietzsche.
Granted the range, the power, the imagination and inventiveness of the
Greek foundation of Western philosophy, it is yet more striking that we
can take seriously, as we should, Nietzsche™s remark: “Among the great-
est characteristics of the Hellenes is their inability to turn the best into

12 Williams (1981a), p. 251.
13 Williams (1981a), p. 252.
14 Williams (1981a), p. 253.
15 Both in Williams (1981a), p. 248, and in Williams (1985), p. 34, Williams raises against
Plato™s Socrates the telling question that “if bodily hurt is no real harm” to the good
man, why are we strongly required by virtue not to harm other people™s bodies? Williams™
scepticism about the possibility of freeing morality from chance, ¬rst articulated in Williams
(1981b) becomes an important theme in Shame and Necessity.
16 Williams (1981a), p. 253.
Williams on Greek Literature and Philosophy

The Sather lectures that generated Shame and Necessity, as we shall
shortly see, gave Williams an opportunity to expatiate on Nietzsche™s dic-
tum, an opportunity he clearly relished; for the most notable feature of
that book is Williams™ sympathetic engagement with the implicit ethics and
psychology of Homer and the Greek tragedians. Equally notable in Shame
and Necessity, and in surprisingly sharp contrast to his chapter in The Legacy
of Greece, is the strongly critical posture he adopts in relation to the moral
psychology of the Greek philosophers, especially Plato. To understand this
shift, we need to take account of his sceptical challenges to what he calls
“morality” or “the moral system,” as articulated in Ethics and the Limits of
Philosophy, the book that he wrote after his chapter in The Legacy of Greece
and before Shame and Necessity.
Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, building on many of Williams™ earlier
studies, is a vigorous challenge to the coherence, psychological plausibility,
and practicality of contemporary moral philosophy. Although he discusses
numerous “styles of ethical theory,” the principal target of his critique is “the
special notion of moral obligation,” inherited from Kant, which he charac-
terizes as “the outlook, or, incoherently, part of the outlook, of almost all
of us.” The many problems Williams has with the concept of moral obli-
gation include its categorical claims to trump all other kinds of motivation,
its focus on a supposedly autonomous will undetermined by particular per-
sons™ dispositions, interests, and social roles, and, in sum, its insulation from
their lived experience as members of a community with an outlook that is
both partly shared but also meaningfully individual. This book presents a
wholesale challenge to the idea that philosophical re¬‚ection, just by itself,
can generate ethical norms and shape people™s outlook in abstraction from
their social context and psychological particularities.
Williams approaches his criticism of “the morality system,” as so char-
acterized, by contrasting it in the above respects with Greek philosophical
ethics. Yet, right from the outset of his book he raises doubts about whether
any moral philosophy, including that of the Greeks, “can reasonably hope to
answer” the question of “how one should live.”17 None the less, he identi¬es
that Socratic question as “the best place for moral philosophy to start,” in
as much as the question, in its generality, is noncommittal about any specif-
ically “moral” considerations or assumptions about duty or goodness.18 In
Williams™ terms, the Socratic question pertains to “ethics” rather than to

17 Williams (1985), p. 1.
18 Williams (1985), p. 4.
160 A. A. Long

“morality,” which he uses as his name for the narrow kind of ethics that
emphasizes the notion of obligation.
Williams grants, as he must, that the life approved in Greek philosoph-
ical ethics had to be a “good” life and a “whole” life, marked by virtues “
admirable dispositions of character. (In the time since he wrote Ethics and
the Limits of Philosophy, virtue, with strong in¬‚uence from Aristotle, has
become a major topic of contemporary moral philosophy.) What he espe-
cially approves in that book is that, in asking the Socratic question, the
Greek philosophers did not presuppose “respectable justifying reasons” in
answering it.19 However, because the “ethical,” as Williams uses the expres-
sion, pertains to considerations that go beyond self-interest, the Socratic
question is hardly as free from such presuppositions as he suggests.
Plato, and especially Aristotle, take centre stage in the third chapter
entitled “Foundations: Well-Being.” As in The Legacy of Greece, Williams
approves Greek philosophical ethics for its rational, non-religious appeals
to persons in terms of the structure of the self, showing that “it was rational
to pursue a certain kind of life or to be a certain sort of person.”20 Aristotle
in particular is singled out as providing in his Ethics “the paradigm of an
approach that tries to base ethics on considerations of well-being and of
a life worth living.”21 But what of persons who are not impressed by the
Aristotelian treatment of these considerations? Williams correctly observes
that Aristotle, owing to his teleology of human nature, must say that they
misconceive their real interests. Yet, that rejoinder, Williams plausibly says,
opens a highly problematic gap between the person™s own point of view and


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