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“our” view of his or her interests. Moreover, he continues, the complexity
and diversity of the modern world, together with what we don™t know about
psychological health, vastly complicate any prospects for an Aristotelian
harmonisation of internal ethical dispositions with external values and the
outside point of view. Williams concludes this chapter with the following

Aristotle saw a certain kind of ethical, cultural, and indeed political life
as a harmonious culmination of human potentialities, recoverable from an
absolute understanding of nature. We have no reason to believe in that. We
understand “ and most important, the agent can come to understand “ that
the agent™s perspective is only one of many that are equally compatible with
human nature, all open to various con¬‚icts with themselves and with other

19 Williams (1985), p. 19.
20 Williams (1985), p. 34.
21 Williams (1985), ibid.
Williams on Greek Literature and Philosophy

cultural aims . . . We must admit that the Aristotelian assumptions which
¬tted together the agent™s perspective and the outside view have collapsed.
No one has yet found a good way of doing without those assumptions. That
is the state of affairs on which the argument of this book will turn.22

In Shame and Necessity, to which I now turn, Williams looks back beyond
Plato and Aristotle to Homer and the tragedians, whose work was
untouched by philosophy in the sense of a special type of discourse and
inquiry that Plato was the ¬rst to inaugurate fully. In that material, he ¬nds
evidence for an ethical outlook that escapes his strictures against moral phi-
losophy in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy thanks to its ways of integrating
the agent™s perspective and the outside view.


Williams sets the scene for his project in the ¬rst chapter of Shame and
Necessity, entitled “The Liberation of Antiquity.”23 What he wants to liber-
ate the ancient Greeks from is a “progressivist account,” according to which
“the Greeks had primitive ideas of action, responsibility, ethical motiva-
tion, and justice, which in the course of history have been replaced by a
more complex and re¬ned set of conceptions that de¬ne a more mature
form of ethical experience.”24 Instancing moral guilt, moral agency, and “a
proper conception of the will” as ideas that the progressivist account ¬nds
the Greeks lacking, Williams argues that our own lack of clarity about these
ideas undermines the progressivist claim that we are thereby in better shape
for having them. He does not discountenance all progress, “notably to the
extent that the idea of human excellence” has been freed from determina-
tion by social position and gender.25 None the less he proposes that the
Greeks were actually better off for having different ethical ideas from those
instanced earlier, and, furthermore, that we shall be better off by coming
to realize how much we rely, though without acknowledgement, on their
conceptions rather than those of the progressivists.

22 Williams (1985), p. 52.
23 Throughout the volume, he looks back to E. R. Dodds, whose Sather Lectures of 1949 were
published in his remarkable book, Dodds (2004). Dodds, as Regius Professor of Greek at
Oxford, had a profound in¬‚uence on Williams (see his expression of homage in Williams
(1993), xi). Taken together their two books, though very different in their methodology and
assessments of where we stand in relation to the Greeks, represent and equally challenging
set of perspectives.
24 Williams (1993), p. 5.
25 Williams (1993), pp. 6“7.
162 A. A. Long

This is a very large and bold agenda. Before seeing how Williams works
it out in the succeeding chapters, some clari¬cations and questions are in
order. First, the Greeks whose ethical outlook Williams would have us
approve are a very small set of authors, predominantly Homer, the three
Attic tragedians, and Thucydides. In this book Plato and Aristotle come
in for as much criticism as the progressivist account, and partly for similar
reasons. Moreover, Greek re¬‚ection on ethics proceeded apace in post-
Aristotelian philosophy with the highly in¬‚uential schools of Stoicism and
Epicureanism. Williams™ Greeks do not include these later ¬gures at all, nor
does he draw on such major writers from the classical period as Herodotus,
or Aristophanes, or Demosthenes. He does not explain his selection of
material, but it soon becomes clear that his approvable Hellenes, notwith-
standing his many generalizations about “the Greeks,” are precisely and
only those early authors whom he takes to adumbrate the ethical outlook
he independently recommends.
A reader who knows the scholarship that Williams labels progressivist
will ¬nd his generalizations about it too breezy to do full justice to the
two ¬gures whose in¬‚uential work he chie¬‚y has in mind. One of these
scholars, Bruno Snell, we shall come to in discussing the second chapter
of Shame and Necessity. The other is Arthur Adkins, author of Merit and
Responsibility. A Study in Greek Values and other related works.26 Williams
makes it clear that Adkins is the leading target of his attack on the view that
our own moral outlook has greatly progressed beyond that of the (early)
Greeks. Yet, instead of letting Adkins speak for himself, Williams largely
con¬nes his mentions of Adkins™ work to footnotes, giving the reader of
his main text the impression that Adkins convicts “the Homeric shame
culture” of “basic egoism.”27 In fact, Adkins™ book is less grounded on
progressivist premises than Williams implies. Its starting point is not a claim
that we today are in better ethical shape than the Homeric Greeks, but the
proposition, which Williams himself more or less admits, that “we are all
Kantians now.”28 Adkins does not set out to justify our Kantian outlook,
but to understand why “there should exist a society so different from our
own as to render it impossible to translate ˜duty™ in the Kantian sense into
its ethical terminology at all.”29
Moreover, Adkins and Williams actually agree on the importance of
interpreting ethical concepts in terms of social realities as distinct from

26 Adkins (1960). Adkins acknowledges his strong indebtedness to the work and in¬‚uence of
Dodds (see n. 23), Adkins (1960), p. vi.
27 Williams (1993), p. 81.
28 Adkins (1960), p. 2; Williams (1985), p. 174.
29 Adkins (1960), p. 2.
Williams on Greek Literature and Philosophy

making them logically primary. Thus it is central to Adkins™ argument that
the shame culture he ¬nds pervasive in Homer is a system of values that
“suit Homeric society, inasmuch as they commend those martial qualities
which most evidently secure its existence.”30 Williams is able to show that
Adkins™ account of Homeric shame is far too rigid to capture the subtlety
and diachronic relevance of Homeric values, and he is right to character-
ize Adkins as someone who unsurprisingly thinks that moral thought has
“advanced” in the period since early Greek antiquity. But neither Adkins nor
the many others who share that position are as neatly captured by Williams™
progressivist label as his rhetorical use of it implies.
Another question that arises from Williams™ “Liberation of Antiquity”
concerns his claim that we modern westerners have a special relation to the
(early) Greeks:

They do not merely tell us about themselves. They tell us about us. They
do that in every case in which they can be made to speak, because they tell
us who we are.31

Strongly distancing himself from the anthropological fashion of emphasiz-
ing the Greeks™ “otherness,” Williams insists that “the modern world was
a European creation presided over by the Greek past” (3).32 Although he
grants “the formative in¬‚uence” and “overwhelming role” of Christianity
and the impossibility of thinking of people who would be ourselves inde-
pendently of Christianity, he ¬nds it worthwhile to imagine a route from
¬fth-century Greece to the present that did not run through Christian-
ity. This is a very curious thought experiment; for it is equally possible to
imagine a route to the present in which Rome shaped us more powerfully
than Greece did, as in fact it did for our pre-Renaissance ancestors. The
Greek bedrock of our modern identity is hardly more determinate than
our Christian heritage, and Williams™ claim about the Greek presidency
does not include the massively in¬‚uential Plato and Aristotle but earlier
authors untouched by philosophy. It is, then, a highly selective Greek past
that he wants us to ¬nd “specially the past of modernity.” Thus he gets a
basic premise for his argument that, by recovering the early Greek ethical
outlook, we can not only avoid the errors of progressivist philosophy but
also achieve a better grip on our basic human identity.
What he means by both these propositions begins to emerge most
clearly and eloquently in his introductory observations on Greek tragedy.

30 Adkins (1960), p. 55.
31 Williams (1993), pp. 19“20.
32 Williams (1993), p. 3.
164 A. A. Long

Rather than approach tragedy as if it were simply philosophy, he locates the
relevance of these dramas to his project in two related facts “ ¬rst, their rep-
resenting, but not expounding, such ideas as necessity and responsibility, and
second, their embeddedness in the historical context of Athenian society,
whose con¬‚icts, tensions, concepts, and images they re¬‚ect. I take him to be
saying that tragedy™s innocence of formal philosophy enables it to register
human experience in ways that cut directly to psychological data that we
can all recognize to be germane to ourselves. He meets the objection that
the tragedies draw on religious ideas quite alien to us with the following

What the tragedies demand is that we should look for analogies in our
experience and our sense of the world to the necessities they express.33

Undeniably, modern readers and audiences do respond enthusiastically to
the Greek tragedians, albeit generally through the treacherous medium
of translation. Williams is asking the fascinating question of how that is
possible in view of the cultural distance between us and them. The answer
he develops in Shame and Necessity is that, notwithstanding the cultural
distance, especially Greek concepts of supernatural intervention, “our ideas
of action and responsibility and other of our ethical concepts are closer to
those of the ancient Greeks than we usually suppose.”34


Some of the doubts one might have about Williams™ project, as announced in
the ¬rst chapter of Shame and Necessity, are brilliantly resolved in the book™s
second chapter, “Centers of Agency.” Here he argues, with excellently cho-
sen examples, that the Homeric epics invoke an ethical outlook and implicit
psychology that we intuitively recognize to be coherent and salient, pro-
vided we do not complicate our responses by worrying about concepts that
are absent. These concepts include (1) the distinction between soul and
body, (2) the idea of the will as a mental action mediating between decision
and doing something, and (3) the notion that mental functions with regard
to action derive their signi¬cance from ethics. Such concepts, Williams
argues, are all “accretions of misleading philosophy.”35 Far from Homer™s

33 Williams (1993), p. 19.
34 Williams (1993), p. 16.
35 Williams (1993), p. 21.
Williams on Greek Literature and Philosophy

being ethically primitive because he lacks these concepts, his treatment of
his characters and their actions is profoundly on target precisely because he
does without them. Williams™ argument is cogent with respect to the ¬rst
two concepts, but I shall question whether he is right about the third.
He acknowledges that Homeric characters are often subject in their
thoughts and actions to divine intervention. However, that is far from
always so, and even when it is so the gods frequently give the characters rea-
sons for acting; they do not simply manipulate them like puppets. Williams
attributes to Homer an implicit recognition of a “system” of action, accord-
ing to which human beings behave on the basis of deliberation, reasons,
desires, beliefs, and purposes. “If it is a theory of action at all, then it is the
same as ours,” by which Williams means the theory that a modern thinker
would or should endorse.36
Setting aside for the moment Williams™ claims about the misleading
philosophical concepts, I ¬nd his argument about the coherence and expe-
riential accessibility of Homer™s characters completely persuasive. Why was
it even necessary for him to prove this? The answer is an in¬‚uential tradi-
tion of scholarship, chie¬‚y associated with the work of the German scholar
Bruno Snell, which had found Homeric characters to be fragmentary as
distinct from unitary individuals and unable, in virtue of this fragmenta-
tion and also in virtue of divine intervention, to be capable of regarding
themselves as the source of their own decisions.37
Williams is not the ¬rst scholar who has shown why this account of
Homeric characters™ mentality lacks credence, but his refutation of it is
more philosophically penetrating than most previous criticism. What Snell
and his followers found lacking in Homer was principally a clear distinction
between the body as such and the soul construed as the unitary centre
of human agency. These scholars took Homer™s lack of a single word for
the body and his use of many different words to designate the sources of
thought and feeling to indicate a conception of human beings as a disunited
assemblage of parts. In doing so, as Williams tartly remarks:

Snell overlooked the whole that they, and we, and all human beings have
recognised, the living person himself . . . and the thought that this thing that
will die, which unless it is properly buried will be eaten by dogs and birds,
is exactly the thing that one is.38

36 Williams (1993), p. 33.
37 Snell (1948/1953).
38 Williams (1993), p. 24.
166 A. A. Long

Williams™ rebuttal of Snell serves his larger purpose. His exoneration of
Homer™s conception of human identity and agency turns on his own rejec-
tion of body/soul dualism. What was supposed to indicate Homer™s prim-
itivism proves to be a Cartesian concept of the mind that we have every
reason to reject.
Williams™ rapier thrusts against Snell hit their target, or rather they
mainly do. Yet, there are points to be made on the other side. What primarily
interested Snell was the “discovery” of what he called Geist, taking this
in the Hegelian sense to connote not simply mind, as in everyday English
usage, but explicit recognition of self-consciousness, intellectual autonomy,
spirituality, and scienti¬c inquiry. In his discussion of Homer Snell muddled
his arguments by con¬‚ating Geist with “person” and “character.” Naturally
¬nding no Geist in the Hegelian sense, he reached the absurd conclusion
that the Homeric ¬gures are mentally defective. If he had not made this
con¬‚ation, he could respond to Williams that the unity Williams offers
him “ that of the whole living person “ is not the unity he was looking for and
missing. What Snell was not ¬nding in Homer was explicit recognition of
the “mind” as the unitary locus of action, practical and theoretical thought,
and consciousness. He is quite right to contrast Homer in that respect with
“discovery” he attributes to the Greek philosophers. Snell™s mistake was to
suppose that mind of this kind is the prerequisite for persons to have an
explicit conception of their identity.


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