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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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(p.vi) (p.vii) Preface

(p.vi) (p.vii) Preface

Wounded Heroes
Oxford University Press

Vulnerability is not often associated with virtue. Yet, to be vulnerable is central to human experience. Etymologically, ‘being vulnerable’ means capable of being wounded (from its Latin root, vulnus or wound). Thus vulnerability, as the capacity to be hurt, is distinct from the state of actually being harmed or suffering pain. Instead of communicating the actual experience of pain or harm, the term communicates the possibility of such experience, and self-awareness of its possibility. One can know of one’s own capacity to be wounded directly, by experiencing suffering, but may also know it in significant ways in the anticipation of harm, in its likelihood. To this extent, vulnerability concerns not only the present moment, but also the future. Vulnerability is a part of the human condition that is concerned with living as temporal creatures who undergo change and transformations of various sorts and who live with an awareness of the likelihood of change. At times these changes are joyful or satisfying, at times painful or needful. A self-conscious and aware person understands the meaning of his or her life in terms of a larger temporal whole, of which vulnerability forms one part.

Narrative is a central mode of expression through which human beings find and create meaning about the experiences and patterns in their lives. Such patterns are sometimes discovered or felt to be ‘found’ at the phenomenological level, but often only after the fact. Current incidents or experiences, whether positive or negative, often take on a different kind of meaning in human retelling of the events later; what was confusing or chaotic at the moment may later display a kind of sense or meaning. At the experiential level, this meaning is often found by making connections between events, persons, and larger purposes that were not before apparent. While the meaning of an immediate experience of happiness seems not to require explanation (in its pleasure and seeming ‘fit’ with our expectations of happiness), suffering seems to demand explanation. When people experience pain of their own, or witness it in others—especially in extreme cases—there is an experiential demand to understand its meaning, even when such meaning seems to be unavailable or difficult to discern. Such meaning is often developed through narratives, (p.viii) stories told about painful events, whether historical or mediated fictions. The historical existence of real suffering makes significant its performance in tragedy or other forms of μύθος‎. But μύθος‎ also reflects back on how we come to understand real human experience. Indeed, such experiences are reflected on by whole communities, and not only individuals, for the suffering of others, or its possibility, is also central to human experience. Not only my own, but also others’ suffering, is constitutive of my own vulnerability.

The contention of this book is that Greek epic, tragedy, and philosophy have important insights to offer about the nature of human vulnerability and how human beings might better come to terms with their own vulnerability. While studies of Greek paradigms of heroism and virtue often focus on strength of character, prowess in war, or the achievement of honour for oneself or one’s πόλις‎, there is another side to Greek thought that extols the recognition and proper acceptance of vulnerability. A number of Greek authors address the question of the political value of vulnerability. Homer takes on the dark side of war and does not shy away from descriptions of human suffering along with glory. Sophocles creates a supreme tension between the expectation of order and control, and the reality of convoluted and unexpected human experience. Philosophers seek to not only offer moral and political solutions to suffering, but also set out the limits of such solutions and even extol the virtues of acknowledging and accommodating human limit.

The range of works that might be chosen to display Greek engagement with vulnerability is nearly inexhaustible. Thus, my aim here has not been to develop anything like a comprehensive theory of ‘Greek culture’. Neither is the development of a ‘theory of tragedy’ the primary aim—indeed, two works of Sophocles would hardly suffice to develop such a theory. Instead, the larger purpose of the book is to analyse and interpret several important Greek works of epic, tragedy, and philosophy in order better to develop a philosophical understanding of vulnerability and its role in the life of the larger community. I have chosen literary and philosophical works in which the imagery of wounding is prominent, or in which the question of vulnerability’s relationship to ethical-political life is confronted directly. Physical wounds in these works are often accompanied by deeper questions about the meaning of suffering, mortality, or other forms of human frailty. The focus on works in which physical wounds are prominent features of the story thus serves as a trope for delving (p.ix) more deeply into psychological, ethical, and interpersonal vulnerabilities and their place in the community.

The overarching thesis concerns itself with the central philosophical questions: (1) Why is awareness and acceptance of human vulnerability important to the thriving of both individuals and communities? (2) How does narrative allow human beings better to become aware of and respond to their own vulnerability? I argue that awareness of one’s own and others’ capacity to be wounded, and the proper response to it, are a central part of virtue for successful communities. Not only individuals, but also political communities, must come to terms with and respond appropriately to the vulnerability that exists within. Indeed, vulnerability strengthens interpersonal bonds within a community, and is closely intertwined with a number of different facets of ethical life. I thus suggest that rather than treating vulnerability as something to be avoided, vulnerability is a necessary component of living a rich and authentic human life in community.

A good deal of scholarship in philosophy focuses on the virtues, that is, human excellence. This attention to the virtues makes good sense, for certainly philosophers and even epic writers and tragedians seek to articulate the ways in which human beings can successfully pursue lives of happiness and ethical living. Careful attention to the virtues that allow the best aspects of human beings to emerge—or that assist us in combatting the worst—naturally focuses on human strengths and political resourcefulness. Nonetheless, the reality of human life often bumps up against the idealism of philosophy. The meaning of acute human suffering is difficult to discern. Moreover, in the course of everyday encounters with others, the question as to the proper responsiveness to others’ vulnerability arises. I offer this work on vulnerability not as an objection to the necessity of cultivating individual and political excellence, but rather as complementary. To be aware of and responsive to the vulnerabilities of oneself and others is just as important as our care for human excellence and strength. Indeed, the success of the political community already depends upon its own recognition and appropriation of vulnerability in its midst. The appropriate response to vulnerability is thus a key part of virtue.

My work builds on the scholarship of a few other key figures who have taken on the topic of human weakness. Martha Nussbaum’s book, The Fragility of Goodness, remains a formative work on moral luck in Greek tragedy and philosophy. Her insights into the role of (p.x) chance and contingency in ethical living are valuable. However, I take issue with her contention that Plato argues for a life of self-sufficiency and freedom from contingency. As I will argue in the middle chapters of this book, Plato displays considerable sensitivity to human vulnerability. Socratic questioning seems even to depend on a care for human weakness along with love of the good. MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals similarly argues that vulnerability and even disability are normal features of ordinary life. His attention to the links between human persons and animals, and especially our embodied dependencies, relies to a large extent on a thoughtful analysis of Aristotelian epistemology, as well as contemporary biology. His work on Aristotle’s theory of perception and the imagination especially plays an important role in the final chapter. Numerous other commentators have focused on the meaning of suffering in Greek tragedy and Homeric epic, both at the textual and performative levels. Still, suffering and vulnerability are not quite identical, and I hope that my own insights here build upon those of my predecessors.

In Chapter 1, I examine the descriptions of wounding in Homer’s Iliad for its insights into vulnerability and its meaning. Homer presents wounds and their signifying of mortality as central to the possibility of a meaningful, teleological narrative about human life. In contrast to the wounds suffered by the gods, human wounds increase the bonds of relationships within the community. While neither pain nor death are desirable in themselves, their anticipation and the narrative accounts offered in light of their existence contribute to political goods. Thus, the limitedness of human beings provides for the possibility of teleological meaning that the gods cannot possess. Achilles initially resists the vulnerability of both himself and the other Greeks, but is brought to face its reality through two key events: the death of Patroklos and the final encounter with Priam, in which Achilles agrees to return Hektor’s body. In the Iliad, awareness of vulnerability to death, injury, and even the inevitable ‘forward motion’ of time provide for the possibility of a meaningful individual human narrative. Narrative also links the meaning of individual lives and deaths to a larger set of patterns and meanings within the Greek story. Achilles’ meeting with Priam even allows Achilles to enter more deeply into the universality of human suffering and so to extend his community even beyond that of the Greeks.

Chapter 2 turns to Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. In the first play, vulnerability to ignorance constitutes a (p.xi) danger to the community, as Oedipus’ self-assurance about his own righteousness contributes to his city’s and family’s downfall. Oedipus initially refuses to accommodate weakness and vulnerability to uncontrollable forces into his vision of human life, and his refusal has grave consequences for those whom he rules and those whom he loves. However, Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus suggests an alternative approach to vulnerability, as Theseus displays compassionate hospitality for the stranger. The figure of Oedipus as a ξένος‎ in Colonus reconciles the split between his identity as a polluted man and as a political protector. His incorporation and elevation to protector of Athens displays the Athenian ideal of the πόλις‎ as the dwelling of ‘all together’, in which receptivity to the outsider and even to weakness becomes constitutive of the city’s good.

In Chapter 3, I examine Sophocles’ Philoctetes and build further on the notion that the excluded and polluted one is central to the city’s good. Here, Sophocles develops a picture of Philoctetes as one who is not only physically, but also emotionally, wounded. His presence at an ‘in between’ space on Lemnos, literally at the margins of society, further develops a picture of human vulnerability, especially the suffering born from social exclusion. The figure of Neoptolemus and his internal struggles also develops two political virtues in the play: first, pity as a political virtue and, second, the virtue of being able to accommodate unjust harm properly. Neoptolemus learns from Philoctetes both the importance of pity and a form of political citizenship that accommodates truthfulness and care for the weak, in place of mere political efficacy. Philoctetes learns the necessity of being able to return to his place in an imperfect Greek society that has not expressed regret for his prior abandonment. These two political virtues both concern a proper responsiveness and care for vulnerability—not only care for the weak, but also acceptance and care for one’s own city in light of the imperfections of political structures.

Plato’s dialogues include both a literary and philosophical dimension. While Plato is often interpreted as an author who advocates philosophy as a way to overcome vulnerability, I argue that the Gorgias and Symposium both display considerable sensitivity to vulnerability and its importance in human life. Chapter 4 focuses on the myth of judgement at the end of the Gorgias and its image of a wounded, unjust man. There Socrates uses a μύθος‎ and, in particular, the language of wounding to communicate with Callicles, who has so far failed to be responsive to abstract argumentation. Just as the (p.xii) judges of the myth can judge well only because they are naked, as are the ones that they judge, Socrates emerges as one who is able to excel at questioning others because of his self-awareness of his vulnerability. Socrates not only is vulnerable to the judgement in the courtroom, but also displays an epistemic vulnerability that guides his questioning of others. I also argue that Ancient Greek medicine and its recognition of a healer’s own limits have significant parallels to Socratic practice. Socrates is not only responsive to the ‘wounds’ of those whom he attends, but is also self-aware of his limitations as a practitioner. He thus displays a consciousness of the finite power of Socratic logos to transform an interlocutor. Plato emerges not as a perfectionistic thinker who desires to avoid tragedy and human frailty, but rather as a thinker who is aware and accepting of human limitation and vulnerability.

Next, I turn to Plato’s Symposium. Chapter 5 examines the links between eros and vulnerability. Against those who read the Symposium’s ‘ladder of love’ as a move away from loving the ordinary and imperfect, I advocate an understanding of philosophy that retains a care for the imperfect and ordinary. Diotima’s speech describes eros, at its last stage before reaching the finality of eternal contemplation, as the place where human creativity takes place. Reproduction in not only a physical, but also an intellectual and creative, sense is part of the human response to our own need and lack, as we strive for but cannot yet reach the eternal. The fruitfulness of eros depends upon a lack and need in human beings, and their responsiveness to the neediness of one another, and not an other-worldly or perfectionistic orientation. Alcibiades’ entrance into the party as a drunk, erotic, and frustrated young man who speaks of suffering from a Socratically-induced ‘snakebite’ also suggests a tragic dimension to eros. While Alcibiades displays a greater sensitivity to his own vulnerability than any other Socratic interlocutor in the dialogue, he fails to be able to move from such self-awareness into action that transforms his life accordingly. I suggest that Alcibiades is unwilling to take responsibility for his own limits and wounds, choosing instead to blame Socrates. Socrates, in contrast, remains aware of his own limit, responsible for it, and so takes his neediness and eros into his actions. He thus stands as a practitioner of not only good philosophy, but also political care for others.

The final two chapters analyse Aristotle’s thoughts on vulnerability in the Ethics and Poetics. Chapter 6 carefully analyses Aristotle’s (p.xiii) discussion of the loss of a friendship of virtue in which one’s friend has become bad. While Aristotle argues that a virtuous man will only love what is truly good—and so not a friend turned bad—his discussion of the loss of such a friend displays how friendship itself makes us vulnerable. While we need friends to practise the virtues and to reflect ourselves back to us, a friend is also valued in himself, as ‘another self’. The loss of friendship entails a concomitant loss of an aspect of one’s own self. Aristotle suggests that such friendships can be retained to some extent in memory, but even memory retains the pain suffered in loss, as well as the goods, of the friendship. Aristotle also posits the relative limits of not only friends, but also family, civic institutions, and laws in rehabilitating those who have fallen away from virtue. One way to understand those who lack virtue is in terms of their moral vulnerability. But no single form of familial, personal, or civic care is entirely sufficient to attend to such a state of soul. A wide range of forms of moral care and nurture are necessary for the sake of moving those who lack virtue toward its acquisition.

The last chapter turns to Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy and narrative in the Poetics. I especially look at the public, performed aspect of tragedy and what meaning witnessing tragedy as a political community might have for the body politic. I suggest that one political function of tragedy is to enable a community to become more responsive to the vulnerable in their own midst. I then take up Aristotle’s notion of κάθαρσις‎ and argue for κάθαρσις‎ as a form of ‘rebalancing’, not only of an individual soul, but also of the community at large. Tragedy can enlarge a community’s vision of its own identity and the realities of its own citizens, including vulnerable citizens. Tragedy and other forms of narrative thus possess not only an aesthetic, but also a political and philosophical, function.