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It is an instructive mistake because it shows why, as intellectual histori-
ans, we need to wear two hats. On the one hand, to avoid anachronism, we
have to attend to the original language and concepts present in our texts.
Yet, we can only attempt to understand those texts by translating them into
our own terms and concepts. That is the dilemma of interpretation. In the
case of Snell versus Williams, one horn of the dilemma is embraced without
due attention to the other. The result is that Homer becomes either unduly
distant from ourselves or unduly modern.
If Homer has a perfectly intelligible and coherent understanding of
human agency, does he lack something else that has unfortunately led peo-
ple to ¬nd his characters strangely different from ourselves? The answer
Williams proposes is that both Homer and the Greek tragedians lack the
idea that “the functions of the mind, above all with regard to action, are
de¬ned in terms of categories that get their signi¬cance from ethics.”39
He attributes the invention of this idea, which he calls an “ethicized psy-
chology,” to Plato, illustrating it by Plato™s famous tripartite model of the
soul. With this model, partly adopted later by Aristotle, we get the idea of

39 Williams (1993), p. 42.
Williams on Greek Literature and Philosophy

a type of psychic con¬‚ict generated by a self divided between two kinds of
motive “ “rational concerns that aim at the good, and mere desire.” What
makes the model an ethicized psychology is not simply its imputing ethical
dispositions to the mind or its assigning an instrumental role to reasoning
(Williams has no quarrel with these ideas) but its taking reason to operate
distinctively and normatively only when it has full charge of the self and
controls non-rational desires.
Williams™ attribution to Plato of this ethicized psychology, and its sup-
posed absence from Homer and the tragedians, is a fundamental premise of
the argument of Shame and Necessity. On the one hand, he wants us to regard
Plato™s psychology as being both highly in¬‚uential on modernity because of
its adumbrating the idea of distinctively “moral” motivation, and hence of
an idea of the rational will. On the other hand, because Williams strongly
distrusts this idea, he approves the pre-Platonic Greeks for feeling no need
of it. Williams hardly justi¬es his pejorative assessment of Plato, but rather
than pursue that fully here I want to ask whether he is correct to claim that
Homer altogether lacks an ethicized psychology.
Williams fully recognizes that Homer is familiar with mental con¬‚ict
and with the kind of self-control in which persons restrain themselves from
instantly acting on their emotions in the interests of a long-term objective. A
case in point is when Odysseus, tempted to kill the servant women who have
been consorting with Penelope™s suitors, rebukes his “heart” (kradie) and
urges it (himself) to “endure,” with a reminder of how “intelligence” (metis)
has served him well in similar situations.40 As Williams observes, Plato cites
this passage in support of his own division of the soul into better (rational)
and inferior (nonrational) components.41 However, Williams detects the
following difference between the Homeric passage and Plato™s ethicized
psychology. Odysseus is simply pursuing his long-term interests, and so his
recourse to intelligence does not invoke a special kind of ethical (moral)
Two points need to be made here. Williams does not tell us in Shame and
Necessity how he de¬nes the domain of the ethical. In Ethics and the Limits
of Philosophy he says:

However vague it may initially be, we have a conception of the ethical that
understandably relates to us and our actions the demands, needs, claims,
desires, and generally, the lives of other people.42

40 Homer (1965), Odyssey 20.17“24.
41 Williams (1993), p. 38; Plato, Republic 4. 441b.
42 Williams (1985), p. 12.
168 A. A. Long

With this criterion of the ethical, it is far from clear that Plato actually
has an ethicized psychology. His tripartite division of the soul, and his
consequential analysis of the soul™s virtues, make no appeal to other-regarding
motivations. These doctrines are grounded, rather, in the claim that whatever
reason deems to be best is in the interest of the entire soul, without reference
to the lives of anyone else. Homer does not have an articulated concept of
rationality, but Odysseus™ recourse to “intelligence” is hardly as distant from
Plato™s psychology as Williams would have us think.
Furthermore, the goal that Odysseus is pursuing “ punishing the suitors
for their wanton disregard for appropriate conduct “ is one that Homer
persuades his readers to regard as not only humanly proper but divinely
sanctioned. The psychology he attributes to Odysseus and indeed to other
characters is ethicized if we take that property to signify the idea that mental
operations are not value neutral but inherently conceived in normative
terms. Homeric characters are constantly praised for having a “seemly” or
“sensible” or “prudent” mentality, where the reference for these attributes is
the social norms of Homeric conduct. And correspondingly, characters are
criticized for their “stupidity” in ¬‚outing these norms. I agree with Williams
that Homer does without a concept of an explicitly “moral” will, but I do
not agree with his claim that Homer differs from Plato because the former™s
implicit psychology lacks mental categories that get their signi¬cance from


Chapters 3 and 4 of Shame and Necessity, “Recognising Responsibility” and
“Shame and Autonomy,” are the most successful parts of Williams™ book, as
reviewers have noted, and in both of them his main target is the progressivist
story with Adkins as its principal exponent.
According to Adkins, competitive values, premised on heroic status and
martial success, are so dominant in Homer that “quiet” and “cooperative”
virtues lack the social authority to exert a strong claim against an aggres-
sive agent who ¬‚outs them. “Moral responsibility,” he writes, “has no place
in [the competitive scheme of values]; and the quieter virtues, in which
such responsibility has its place, neither have suf¬cient attraction to gain a

43 For further doubts about Williams™ sharp differentiation of Homer from Plato in terms of
an ethicized psychology, see Irwin (1994), pp. 50“56, who extends his argument to include
Williams™ similar assessment of Thucydides.
Williams on Greek Literature and Philosophy

hearing nor are backed by suf¬cient force to compel one.”44 It has been so
widely recognized that Adkins™ distinction between competitive and coop-
erative values fails to ¬t the essence of Homeric ethics that Williams has no
need to argue this point.45 Instead, he focuses his attention on related claims
that Adkins makes concerning ¬rst, the supposed irrelevance of intentions
in Homer and, second, Adkins™ account of Homeric society as a “shame-
culture” in which public opinion is the only sanction an agent needs to
Williams shows brilliantly that Homer does possess all the basic ele-
ments necessary to a conception of responsibility, which he lists as cause,
intention, state of mind, and response.46 As for moral responsibility, he sug-
gests that the archaic Greeks™ supposed difference from our outlook is due
to the following thought:

[They] blamed and sanctioned people for things that they did unintention-
ally, or again . . . for things that . . . they did intentionally but in a strange
state of mind. We are thought not to do this, or at least to regard it as
unjust. But if this means that the Greeks paid no attention to intentions,
while we make everything turn on the issue of intentions, this is doubly

Such difference as there is between our allocation of responsibility and
Greek practice is not due to our having “a puri¬ed notion of something
called moral responsibility,” but to the way we moderns deal with “criminal
responsibility under the law” and how we conceive of the relation between
the punitive powers of the state and the political freedom of individual
citizens. Even so, Williams argues, our law of torts is suf¬cient to show that
like the Greeks we hold people responsible for damages they have caused,
irrespective of their intentions.
Williams clinches his anti-progressivist case by considering examples
from Greek tragedy, in which the protagonist, who has acted disastrously
but quite unintentionally, accepts responsibility for what he did in ways that
are entirely self-imposed and intelligible to us. When Oedipus acknowl-
edges that he unwittingly did the terrible things that prompted him to
blind himself, and when Ajax concludes that he cannot live with the knowl-
edge that he unwittingly slew livestock when he thought he was wreaking
just revenge on the Greek generals, “we understand . . . because we know

44 Adkins (1960), p. 52.
45 Long (1970); Cairns, (1993).
46 Williams (1993), p. 55.
47 Williams (1993), p. 64.
170 A. A. Long

that in the story of one™s life there is an authority exercised by what one has
done, and not merely by what one has intentionally done.”48 With great
sensitivity and perceptiveness Williams asks us to respond to the “manifest
grandeur” of these artistic representations. What they invoke, he proposes,
is “a type of ethical thought as far removed as may be from the concerns
of obligation.”49 It is not that Oedipus or Ajax is required by objective cri-
teria to respond to their situations in the way that they do, but that “their
understanding of their lives and the signi¬cance their lives possessed for
other people is such that what they did destroyed the only reason they had
for going on.”
Here we begin to observe Williams™ recourse to the “internal reasons”
the ethical signi¬cance of which he emphasizes so strongly in his other
work. We shall now see him develop an anti-Kantian argument along the
same lines in his analysis of shame in Homer and Greek tragedy.
Leading characters in these texts sometimes invoke “necessity” in
expressions of their attitudes and decisions. Ajax does so in Sophocles™ play
of that name when (line 690), determined on suicide, he tells the Chorus that
he is going where he has to go.50 What necessity is involved here, Williams
asks? If the question is posed in Kantian terms, the necessity should be either
the categorical imperative of morality or the non-moral and hypothetical
imperative of something necessary relative to satisfying one™s contingent
desires or avoiding what one contingently fears. Yet, the necessity that Ajax
invokes appears to be unquali¬edly categorical. Rather than concede that
this necessity, when properly scrutinised, is hypothetical after all “ which
would make Sophocles™ outlook “pre-moral” from a Kantian perspective “
Williams makes a claim that is central to Shame and Necessity:

What does concern us, and should concern the Kantian, is that in the Greek
nursery itself people were able to realise that mere self-indulgence and fear
were not all that were expected; they recognised, for instance, virtues of
courage and justice. If that is so, there must be options for ethical thought
and experience that the Kantian construction conceals.51

The option he proposes is the concept of shame (aidos). What motivates
Ajax, in his decision to commit suicide, is shame at the mess he has unwit-
tingly made of his entire life. As the hero that he is, he can at least exercise

48 Williams (1993), p. 69.
49 Williams (1993), p. 74.
50 Sophocles (1969a), Ajax, line 690.
51 Williams (1993), p. 77.
Williams on Greek Literature and Philosophy

the second disjunct of his code: “the necessity of either living nobly or dying
According to Adkins, shame in early Greek literature is entirely a feeling
generated by losing face in the scheme of competitive values; it is shame
at “what people will say” and at “mockery” or “indignation” directed at
one™s failings. He is quite right to highlight these Greek accompaniments
of shame. But, if that were all that there is to this concept of shame, a Kantian
would say that the values it underpins are heteronomous and the reactions
of the person they apply to are egoistic. To complicate and counter that
response, Williams makes several powerful points.
He acknowledges that “the basic experience connected with shame is
that of being seen, inappropriately, by the wrong people, in the wrong
circumstances.”53 However, this pertains no more to the values Adkins
calls competitive than to shortcomings in meeting the norms of so-called
cooperative values. It is also a mistake to suppose that shame is a purely
externalist sanction and effective only if those to whom it applies are literally
seen or caught out. Homeric characters can be internally motivated by
shame and they can evoke the gaze of an imagined other. Furthermore,
the identity and reciprocated values of the actual or imagined observer are
critical. Which is not to say that the other must be either an identi¬able
external individual or social group, on the one hand, or simply a clone of
oneself without an independent role to play, on the other:

The internalised other is indeed abstracted and generalised and idealised,
but he is potentially somebody rather than nobody, and somebody other
than me. He can provide the focus of real social expectations, of how I shall
live if I act in one way rather than another, of how my actions and reactions
will alter my relations to the world about me.54

In illustration of all this Williams returns to the Sophoclean Ajax. What the
hero meant, when he said that he “had to” leave life, was that “he has no way
of living that anyone he respects would respect.” And the internalised other,
in this case, is his father, or rather the standards of excellence represented
by his father with which Ajax himself identi¬es.
This is excellently said. Yet, Williams™ discussion of Ajax completely
omits the response of Ajax™s wife to the hero™s declaration of his necessitated
suicide. In her extremely moving plea, Tecmessa urges Ajax to reconsider

52 Sophocles (1969a), Ajax, lines 479“480.
53 Williams (1993), p. 78.
54 Williams (1993), p. 84.
172 A. A. Long

his decision.55 She begs him to consider her widowed plight, arguing that
his suicide will besmirch his reputation by leaving her helpless. She presents
to him a very different picture of his father “ not as an intransigent patriarch
but as a needy old man, whose loss of his son, notwithstanding Ajax™s motives
for suicide, should cause Ajax to feel shame. She beseeches him to have pity
on their young son and his orphaned future. And in conclusion, she offers
Ajax an alternative “necessity” to consider, namely, that of reciprocating the
bene¬ts he has received from her whom he seized as a bride from her home
and who is now without parents of her own. Ajax initially rejects all her pleas,
telling her that she is idiotic to think she can “train his character” at this
stage of his life. A choral interlude follows. Then, in a remarkable speech,
Ajax expresses a complete change of mind, strongly motivated by pity at
the thought of making his wife a widow and his son an orphan.56 He will
make his peace with the Greek commanders, and bury his wrath. Finally,
after we learn from a prophecy that Ajax will be safe if he can survive just
this one day, we observe him alone, as intransigent as before, and resolved
on the suicide that he then commits.
Does Williams™ omission of all this complexity matter? I think it does;
for Sophocles leaves us in no doubt that Ajax had responsibilities which he
not only discounts, in his initial response to his wife, but that were actually
required of him by his own principle of noblesse oblige. Williams admits that
Ajax™s “necessity” was grounded on “a narrow base of personal achievement”
and that the “demands of the honour code were particular and perilous.”57


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