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Wounded HeroesVulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Literature and Philosophy$

Marina Berzins McCoy

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199672783

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199672783.001.0001

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Conclusion

Conclusion

Chapter:
(p.204) (p.205) 8 Conclusion
Source:
Wounded Heroes
Author(s):

Marina Berzins McCoy

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199672783.003.0008

Abstract and Keywords

The final chapter concludes the book’s argument and summarizes its main theses in an overview. The summary claims that human vulnerability is central to a proper self-understanding of human individuals and the communities in which they live. Vulnerability—understood not only as the capacity to be wounded but also as self-awareness and acceptance of being subject to harm—is not reducible to weakness or the absence of virtue. Instead, the right appropriation of vulnerability proves to be central to genuine self-knowledge and to the exercise of political virtue. The works of philosophy, epic, and tragedy in the previous chapters offer a variety of perspectives both on the nature of vulnerability and the best ways in which to be responsive to its presence in communities. Further, the audience’s encounter with such struggles with vulnerability in performed tragedy, epic, or philosophy invites the political community to witness and so more fully to incorporate the vulnerable into the body politic.

Keywords:   vulnerability, politics, virtue, community, Ancient Greek philosophy, tragedy, Ancient Greek literature, suffering, narrative, love, friendship, performance, limit

In this work, I have argued that human vulnerability is central to a proper self-understanding of human individuals and the communities in which they live. Vulnerability—understood not only as the capacity to be wounded, but also as self-awareness and acceptance of being subject to harm—is not reducible to weakness or the absence of virtue. Instead, the right appropriation of vulnerability proves to be central to genuine self-knowledge and to the exercise of political virtue. The works of philosophy, epic, and tragedy in the previous chapters offer a variety of perspectives, both on the nature of vulnerability and the best ways in which to be responsive to its presence in communities. Achilles and Alcibiades, for example, have distinct struggles with different forms of moral weakness. However, in each case a certain acceptance or even embrace of vulnerability becomes crucial to virtuous living. Characters within these literary and philosophical works struggle with the right appropriation of their vulnerable condition, and their capacity to do so well or badly is deeply affected by the responses of their friends, families, comrades in arms, or partners in dialogue. The audience’s encounter with such struggles with vulnerability in performed tragedy, epic, or philosophy invites the political community to witness and so more fully to incorporate the vulnerable into the body politic.

This book begins and ends with two works, the Iliad and the Poetics, which place the construction of narrative accounts at the centre of the appropriation of vulnerability. The Iliad links vulnerability to wounds and death to the very possibility of a teleological narrative of human existence, that is, to the development of a meaningful life story. In part, such meaning is made possible because the suffering of warriors is not solely an individual experience. Homer’s descriptions of the many men who are wounded or die on the (p.206) battlefield serve not only as an expression of the genuine loss inherent in human mortality, but also as the well-spring of the possibility of meaningful existence through narrative accounts that integrate the ‘end’ of life into a larger whole. Narrative ties together the experience of difficult events, such as impending death or the loss of a friend, with noble actions, or to instances of growth in understanding one’s own humanity. Agamemnon’s self-understanding is informed by Menelaos’ wound; he suffers along with his brother, and brings his brother’s suffering to bear upon his own attitude about the war and the meaning of its gains and losses. Achilles’ ability to live and to die well arises from his successful integration of the death of his beloved friend, Patroklos. Paradoxically, that ability to assimilate loss takes place through his shared meal with Priam, his enemy’s father, and his deepening of sympathy for Priam’s loss. Not only pity for the suffering but, even more intimately, a shared sense of mortality makes possible the deepening of human friendship and political commitments. Indeed, the renewal of such commitments to the living, in the light of loss, helps to provide for the forward motion of life in a world subject to flux and to decay.

Oedipus at Colonus provides its audience with a vision of the incorporation and integration of the suffering and ‘polluted’ man into the body politic. While in the Oedipus Rex Oedipus’ identity is that of a polluted man who must be excluded from the city, since he is the cause of its sickness, in Colonus he serves as the ξένος‎ who protects the city’s wholeness and integrity. Sophocles uses the plot device of περιπέτεια‎, or sudden reversal, to explore both vulnerability and its incorporation into the body politic. Oedipus becomes the welcomed stranger whose presence in Athens promises to provide the city with blessing instead of a curse. While moral blindness and ignorance are key vulnerabilities in human living, their reversal and resolution demand more than simply ‘seeing’ or knowing the truth. For Oedipus, only to know that he is the ‘polluted one’ is insufficient to solve the political problem he presents; even his exile does not solve the ensuing familial and political conflict that results for Thebes. Instead, a model of knowledge based on the faculty of touch—a mutual knowing and being known—and not vision as a one-way mastery of a distant object, guides Oedipus at Colonus. Moreover, Theseus’ own ability to identify as a ξένος‎ and to welcome Oedipus with hospitality as a result of his own appropriation of woundedness and exclusion allows for Athens’ protection. In the play’s action, this (p.207) takes place with Oedipus’ burial at the city’s edge, but that literary incorporation of his body also signifies Athens’ incorporation of vulnerability, the stranger, and even its accommodation of moral blindness and weakness. Through the figure of Theseus as the founder of democracy, the play expresses the centrality of the incorporation of the vulnerable and morally blind for Athens’ retention of a democratic political identity that includes a wide sense of the δέμος‎. Democracies, by their very nature in the inclusion of many people of varied characters and talents, must grapple with the inclusion of those at the margins in a way that oligarchies or aristocracies need not. Oedipus at Colonus suggests that a city’s willingness to so include strangers, outsiders, and even the morally impure constitutes part of its democratic strength.

The Philoctetes further extends this political argument insofar as the character of Philoctetes exemplifies a dual value found in human vulnerability. First, through existing at the marginal space between society and isolation, between rejection and rejoining the war, Philoctetes has access to understanding his own humanity and especially his need of others in a way that more comfortable characters in the play do not. Experiencing a lack of what he needs gives him deep insight into the nature of human desire in a way that Oedipus seems to lack; vulnerability thus has an epistemological and moral value. Second, Neoptolemus’ encounter with Philoctetes develops the youth’s political virtue, especially his growth in the value of compassion and the ability to accommodate unjust harm. Both Neoptolemus and Philoctetes in their own ways must learn to reconcile themselves to imperfection and injustice in the political community, not through rhetorical manipulation (as Odysseus prefers), but rather through genuinely communicative speech and the development of a form of sympathy that can incorporate political reality. Philoctetes’ future possibilities for friendship after betrayal require an acceptance of injustice and the risk of further injustice, not through meek acceptance, but rather through the active development of reconciliation with political imperfection. The permanence of some degree of injustice in the community presents significant challenges for political communities, and requires both a realistic understanding of one’s community’s limits and the development of political and personal sympathy to bridge differences.

In Plato’s Gorgias, we turn to the consideration of self-wounding, and Socrates’ philosophical engagement of his interlocutor as a form of θεραπεία‎. Rather than reading philosophical questioning (p.208) as identical to the development of an argument for a particular moral or intellectual stance, a more expansive understanding of Socratic questioning includes how it becomes a θεραπεία‎ for the soul. Self-knowledge requires a certain nakedness of the self to judgement. So does the ability to judge and to address the needs of another justly: in the myth of the judged man, those who judge are, like Socrates, aware of their own limits and may even themselves have had to live with their own past self-wounding choices. Myth itself serves as an effective species of argument for producing greater self-awareness, since it engages the entirety of the soul, not only intellect or the passions alone. Through posing multiple images in argument to Callicles, Socrates attempts to reframe and to recontextualize the sort of life that Callicles values into a greater, cosmic whole. That greater perspective includes a recognition of the limits of human life, both the limits of death and the limits of freedom for the man who lives an unjust and unrestrained life. We are vulnerable not only to the loss of status, wealth, or life itself, but also to our own moral weakness and ignorance of our own nature. Such ignorance has political consequences, as those who avoid such vulnerabilities, like Callicles, treat politics as a means only to appetitive fulfilment at the city’s expense. But Socratic questioning serves as a kind of treatment of the soul, one that at times functions to uncovers the soul’s wounds and weaknesses in order that the soul might be healed and restored to balance. In this way, care of the soul and awareness of limit can prevent or repair harm to the city as well.

In the Symposium, attentiveness to vulnerability is crucial for the possibility of eros, widely construed. Love’s relationality and expansion from the relatively narrow love of one lover for a single beloved body or soul to the love of the larger community’s laws and institutions, and the creativity engendered through a more expansive love, requires vulnerability. Eros, in its highest forms, is not only about a lover and his or her object of love, but always about a lover, a beloved, and the creative acts that result from the encounter between lover and beloved. The source of this creativity, however, is in incompleteness and need, and a striving to be responsive to that need. While Diotima presents an idealistic notion of how eros can become increasingly creative in its responsiveness to incompleteness and need, Alcibiades represents a figure unable to reconcile to the vulnerabilities of aging, shame, and especially interpersonal need. His inability to recognize and to embrace his own limit also makes him unaffected (p.209) by Socrates’ attempts at a therapeutic care for Alcibiades’ soul. Instead, Alcibiades remains frustrated with his own limits, retreating into ever-greater attempts to assert political power, and so loses the capacity to deepen his own moral virtue, care for the city, and for genuine friendship.

Aristotle also suggests that vulnerability is needed for friendship, even with the possession of the moral virtues. While the possession of the moral virtues indicates a kind of development of positive capacities in a person, and so a degree of self-sufficiency, the virtues have political value precisely because communities are built upon need. The virtuous man is self-sufficient in a sense, but still needs other persons with whom to exercise the virtues and with whom to develop one’s most significant moral and political capacities. However, even more deeply, Aristotle’s account of the loss of a friend who has become morally bad shows that he understands the friend also to be valuable as a particular, irreplaceable individual. A friend is ‘another self’. While memory and narrative can continue to make a lost friend available in new and mediated ways, Aristotle displays sensitivity to the tragic in his admission that such memory is no substitute for a relationship with the friend himself. Moreover, those who lack moral virtue can only become better through the participation of the wider community in its educative functions, but no single friend, family, or political entity can fully satisfy this function. Political life, then, requires a complex set of interrelating social spheres of influence, from family and friends to political institutions that imperfectly address the needs of the vulnerable.

Tragic theatre is one such political institution: through the witnessing of suffering, audiences can become more aware of their own vulnerability and limits and more responsive to vulnerability in themselves and others. To this end, κάθαρσις‎ need not be understood as the mere purification of pity and fear as an end in itself, but rather as a kind of ‘re-balancing’ of the individual and also the community. Tragedy provides for a re-imagining of one’s own social and political reality and the place of those normally at the margins within it. Aristotle’s understanding of the imagination as a significant element in bringing thought to action suggests a powerful political role for performative art. Tragic theatre serves not only as entertainment, but also as a mode of mediating social and political relationships and reorienting the community’s epistemological and affective attitudes (p.210) to the vulnerable. Good political action depends on a certain understanding of human limit and vulnerability. Our own political communities would do well to respond in a similar fashion, not marginalizing the vulnerable, but instead recognizing a common bond between ‘the vulnerable’ and oneself.