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Williams sets four great philosophers on the other side from Sophocles,
Thucydides, and himself “ Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. They and their
modern adherents encapsulate the progressivist outlook. Shame invites us
to contrast with the Greek “traces of a consciousness that had not yet been
touched by . . . attempts to make our ethical relations to the world fully


In Shame and Necessity, as we have seen, Plato™s moral psychology comes in
for such severe criticism that readers of the book might form the impression

76 Williams (1981b); Williams, (2002).
77 It is worth noting that some Greek philosophers, especially the Stoics, regularly interpreted
Homer and other poets as lending support to certain of their doctrines; and in later antiquity
Homer could even be regarded as a philosopher.
78 Williams (1993), p. 164.
Williams on Greek Literature and Philosophy

that Williams™ assessment of Plato was consistently negative. Such an
impression would not only clash with his earlier account of Plato™s phi-
losophy in The Legacy of Greece, it could also suggest a willful reluctance
to engage with the literary complexity of the Platonic dialogues and the
virtuoso range of Plato™s philosophical imagination. Like many reviewers
of Shame and Necessity, I ¬nd the book™s treatment of Plato unduly negative.
Happily, it was not Williams™ last word on Plato as he later published Plato:
The Invention of Philosophy.79 Here, in less than sixty pages, he offers a splen-
did account of Plato™s dialectical methodology and a remarkably compact
appreciation of the dialogues™ continuing vitality.
Appropriately to this book™s compendious purpose Williams is reticent
about his own philosophical positions, but reading between the lines we ¬nd
once again his scepticism about the practical value of ethical theory. Plato,
by contrast, has the distinctive idea “that theory, in one way or another,
must change one™s life.”80 But we do not need to share that idea in order to
¬nd Plato congenial company and a constant source of philosophical stim-
ulation. Plato speaks with many voices, and he tempers his other-worldly
aspirations with a deep sensitivity to the character differences between peo-
ple and to everyday realities:

The dialogues are indeed sometimes tendentious . . . but their faults are
almost always those of a real person. They speak with a recognizable human
voice, or more than one, and they do not fall into the stilted, remote compla-
cency or quaint formalism to which moral philosophy is so liable. . . . Plato
is constantly aware of the forces “ of desire, of aesthetic seduction, of polit-
ical exploitation “ against which his ideals are a reaction. The dialogues
preserve a sense of urgency and of the social and psychological insecurity
of the ethical.81

In the last sentence of this quotation, which is completely apt, we see
Williams acknowledging a strong af¬nity between himself and Plato, an
af¬nity which his agenda in Shame and Necessity conceals. We can only
regret that he did not have the time to turn Plato into a full-length study,
developing his conclusion82 that no other thinker has combined so many
of the qualities that constitute philosophical greatness.83

79 Williams (1998).
80 Williams (1998), p. 15.
81 Williams (1998), p. 43.
82 Williams (1998), p. 45.
83 I am grateful to Tom Rosenmeyer for reading this essay and giving me the bene¬t of his
helpful and encouraging comments.
180 A. A. Long


Adkins, Arthur (1960). Merit and Responsibility. A Study in Greek Values (Oxford:
Oxford University Press).
Cairns, D. L. (1993). Aidos: The Psychology and Ethics of Shame in Ancient Greek
Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Dodds, E. R. (2004). The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley and Los Angeles:
University of California Press).
Homer (1965). The Odyssey, trans. Richmond Lattimore (New York: Harper and
Irwin, Terence (1994). “Critical Notice of B. Williams, Shame and Necessity,” Apeiron,
27, pp. 45“76.
Long, A. A. (1970). “Morals and Values in Homer,” Journal of Hellenic Studies, 90,
pp. 121“39.
Snell, Bruno (1953). Die Entdeckung des Geistes (Hamburg 1948), trans. T. G.
Rosenmeyer as The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature (New
Sophocles, Ajax (1969a). trans. John Moore, The Complete Greek Tragedies: Sophocles
II, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago
Sophocles, Philoctetes (1969b). trans. David Grene, The Complete Greek Tragedies:
Sophocles II, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press).
Williams, Bernard (1981a). “Philosophy,” in Moses Finley (ed.), The Legacy of Greece:
A New Appraisal (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 202“255.
Williams, Bernard (1981b). “Moral Luck,” in Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press), pp. 20“39.
Williams, Bernard (1985). Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London; Fontana).
Williams, Bernard (1993). Shame and Necessity (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University
of California Press, 1993).
Williams, Bernard (1998). Plato: The Invention of Philosophy (London: Routledge).
Williams, Bernard (2002). Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy (Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).
Williams, Bernard (2006). The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy, ed.
Myles Burnyeat (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
Woodruff, Paul (1996). “Review of Shame and Necessity,” Ancient Philosophy, 16
(1996), 177“180.
7 Genealogies and the State of Nature

The opening chapters of Bernard Williams™ Truth and Truthfulness are an
appetizing invitation, which I here gratefully accept, to re¬‚ect on a question
which in its most general form is of very wide application indeed: what kinds
of light can one shed on something by recounting its history?1 Restricted
to the philosophical tradition this becomes a question about the nature and
effectiveness of what are nowadays often called “genealogies” and “state-of-
nature theories,” and it is on these that Williams™ attention is concentrated.
The same is true of mine in this essay; but I shall not bother too much about
the limits set by those terms as they are usually applied, in the belief that
since this is an aspect of a broader issue a broader approach is desirable, at
least so long as there is any suspicion that our present borderlines, which
are certainly fuzzy, may be arbitrary, too.
Much that I shall say Williams has said already “ rather more succinctly
and deftly, the reader may feel “ and I doubt whether anything of mine
con¬‚icts with anything of his, once a few terminological matters are sorted
out. But his purpose in these chapters was to prepare the ground for a
speci¬c exercise of the state-of-nature and genealogical methods: his own
application of them, which forms the rest of the book, to the twin virtues
of truthfulness, sincerity, and accuracy. With nothing on my plate but the
methodological questions per se, I can afford to plod around the terrain a
little more widely.


Whether there is any important difference of type that we might mark by
selective use of the expressions “state-of-nature theory” and “genealogy” is
a question I shall shortly return to. (All of them, in the usage I shall recom-
mend, may properly be called genealogies “ and this appears to be Williams™

1 Williams (2002).

182 Edward Craig

preferred usage, too; but many genealogies make no reference to anything
that can plausibly be called a state of nature.)2 Drawing for the moment
no distinction between them, we may observe that they cover a range of
procedures employed for a range of purposes. They can be subversive, or
vindicatory, of the doctrines or practices whose origins (factual, imaginary,
and conjectural) they claim to describe. They may at the same time be
explanatory, accounting for the existence of whatever it is they vindicate
or subvert. In theory, at least, they may be merely explanatory, evaluatively
neutral (although as I shall shortly argue it is no accident that convincing
examples are hard to ¬nd). They can remind us of the contingency of our
institutions and standards, communicating a sense of how easily they might
have been different, and of how different they might have been. Or they
can have the opposite tendency, implying a kind of necessity: given a few
basic facts about human nature and our conditions of life, this was the only
way things could have turned out.
At the head of the subversive genealogists are Nietzsche, pre-eminently
in The Genealogy of Morals, and Foucault, in a number of works; though let
us not forget Hume and The Natural History of Religion, nor omit to ask
whether Darwin™s genealogy of man has any place in the genre. Specimens
of the vindicatory type are mostly found in political philosophy “ one thinks
immediately of Hobbes and Nozick “ but not exclusively: Williams™ own
book offers an ethical application.
We can distinguish between the intrinsically subversive and the merely
accidentally subversive genealogy. In the intrinsic type we have an account
of the history of certain attitudes, beliefs or practices that their proponent
cannot accept without damage to his esteem for, and certitude in, the atti-
tudes, beliefs or practices themselves. For one thing, it may in some cases
actually be a part of the belief-system that the belief-system itself had a
quite different kind of origin “ most religions are like this, perhaps all.
And that point quite apart, it would be a very well-padded Christian who
could accept Hume™s account of the origins of monotheistic belief and con-
tinue with faith unabated, for Hume presents these beliefs as arising out of
processes that have no apparent connection with truth, and in some cases
out of motives that are positively disreputable, such as the wish to appear,
to oneself and others, the kind of person so favoured as to be capable of
believing things that others ¬nd literally unbelievable. Nobody who accepts
what Nietzsche tells us in The Genealogy of Morals could continue in a calm
conviction of the sanctity of Christian moral principles, as he presents these

2 For Williams™ preferred usage of the term “genealogy,” see Williams (2002), pp. 20“21.
Genealogies and the State of Nature

principles as an expression of hatred, resentment, and bewilderment. Not,
notice, just as arising out of these emotions “ which a Christian moralist
could construe in a sense that would make it quite harmless (see how the
Holy Spirit has transformed hatred into love!) “ but as being an expression
of them, and a self-deceptive expression at that.
Darwinism, by contrast, is only accidentally subversive. Those who
come to accept the Darwinian history of man can continue to lead a human
life without any trace of insincerity “ may indeed under certain circum-
stances feel that they are for the ¬rst time living it without insincerity. The
Origin of Species and The Descent of Man were subversive only because of
their con¬‚ict with a particular view of the status and provenance of the
human race, and one that was at the time widely and fervently held; only
where it still is are they subversive today. Some, as Williams points out,
might regard Hume™s account of the origins of justice as subversive, if they
begin by thinking that only being the embodiment of some kind of Platonic
absolute standard was good enough for it, and then ¬nd him presenting it
as a human solution to a human social problem.3
Some genealogies, by contrast, are vindicatory: the story they tell is in
one way or another a recommendation of whatever it is they tell us the
history of. Again, we can apply the distinction between the intrinsic and
the accidental. The genealogies “ by which I mean the causal histories “
of many of our beliefs are intrinsically justi¬catory in a very strong sense:
they give an essential place to the very facts believed in, so if that is how
they came about they must be true. Or a genealogy may vindicate a practice,
exhibiting it as arising out of the need to ¬nd a solution to a problem; and we
may then regard it as intrinsically vindicatory if the problem is one that any
human society (or any individual “ though in fact the best known examples
are social) will want to solve. (Although if that is all it does it would of course
be vulnerable to the appearance of another possible solution with additional
advantages “ “intrinsically” does not imply “conclusively.”) A genealogy is
accidentally vindicatory, on the other hand, when the increased prestige it
confers on its object is due to features that are relatively local, or of limited
timespan. That the history of a certain College custom began with the
express wish of the Founder may serve to justify its continuation “ in the
eyes of some people, so long as the Founder is held in high esteem. That
the royal line has an extremely ancient pedigree, preferably going back to a
demigod, is a political device which itself has an extremely ancient pedigree,

3 Williams (2002), p. 36.
184 Edward Craig

but it will not bolster the loyalty of subjects who think the present king a
scoundrel if they have an even lower opinion of his ancestors.
There may also be neutral genealogies, which give us a history of X
without either impugning or enhancing the standing of X. I doubt whether
there can be such a thing as an intrinsically neutral genealogy, if that means
one containing no feature which human beings could, even locally and
temporarily, ¬nd to tell for or against the item whose history it purports
to narrate. But I also doubt whether this is a very interesting class for
philosophy, and don™t propose to spend time or energy on it. Indeed unless
we use the word very broadly, genuinely neutral genealogies of any type
may be vanishingly rare. Williams is surely right that very many genealogies
work by ascribing functions to their objects, telling us what they are for.4
If the function is of some importance to us and the object performs it well,
we have to that degree a recommendation, if we ¬nd the function in some
way disreputable, then a critique. If the function really is one to which we
are indifferent it becomes unclear what the genealogist can be aiming for:
certainly not an evaluation of the phenomenon whose genealogy is offered;
but not even a neutral explanation of its existence either “ for how could
it explain the existence of any practice or institution to show that it has
a certain function, if it is a matter of indifference to us whether anything
performs that function or not?


What distinguishes genealogy from history more generally? To begin with,
a genealogy is the story of how something or other (a practice, a concept,
a system of beliefs, a political constitution) came about, the story of its
“birth” or of the processes leading up to it. A second minimal requirement
is that it should not just describe this “target phenomenon” as it formerly
was and as it is now, but that the historical narrative should throw some
light, descriptive, explanatory or justi¬catory, on the phenomenon in its
later shape. That means that the kind of history that describes successive
earlier versions of X until it reaches the one obtaining now, but without
conveying a sense of the development of the stages out of their predecessors,
though it may well be called a “history of X,” is not genealogy. The line of


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