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Shame and Necessity (1994)

de Bernard Williams

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We tend to suppose that the ancient Greeks had primitive ideas of the self, of responsibility, freedom, and shame, and that now humanity has advanced from these to a more refined moral consciousness. Bernard Williams's original and radical book questions this picture of Western history. While we are in many ways different from the Greeks, Williams claims that the differences are not to be traced to a shift in these basic conceptions of ethical life. We are more like the ancients than we are prepared to acknowledge, and only when this is understood can we properly grasp our most important differences from them, such as our rejection of slavery. The author is a philosopher, but much of his book is directed to writers such as Homer and the tragedians, whom he discusses as poets and not just as materials for philosophy. At the center of his study is the question of how we can understand Greek tragedy at all, when its world is so far from ours. Williams explains how it is that when the ancients speak, they do not merely tell us about themselves, but about ourselves. In a new foreword A.A. Long explores the impact of this volume in the context of Williams's stunning career.… (mais)
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This is the best book I've read in some time. My only complaints are that 1) I wish it were longer, since I didn't want it to end; and 2) it diminishes some of the impetus I have for getting my Ph.D., since this is basically the book I've been wanting to write for a long time, except better than I could have done.

Williams' central claim is that our understanding of ancient Greek tragedy, moral philosophy and indeed their "world view" at large is distorted by certain modern misconceptions concerning the nature of morality, human action, and the will. Once we see at least the contingency of modern views about the relation between free will and action, between abstract, characterless universal reason and ethics--and indeed, Williams argues that the former in each of the previous dyad is not only the result of a contingent cultural formation but basically just a mistake--we will be both more inclined to see the Greeks as closer to us, as less exotic, and we will be better able to understand them at all.

If you are a diehard Kantian, or are loathe to consider that our ideas about free will might be just a bit confused, you will probably find this book disappointing, and feel like it just glosses over a lot of philosophical issues. It does. But its purpose is not strictly speaking philosophical in this sense. I think it is fair to say it is an application of more properly "philosophical" arguments Williams has made elsewhere concerning the will, morality, etc. to Greek tragedy and philosophy (see, for example, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy). If you read it as such, and approach it with at least some skepticism about Williams' critical targets, I think you will find it an immensely enjoyable and intellectually stimulating read. ( )
4 vote lukeasrodgers | Apr 17, 2011 |
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We tend to suppose that the ancient Greeks had primitive ideas of the self, of responsibility, freedom, and shame, and that now humanity has advanced from these to a more refined moral consciousness. Bernard Williams's original and radical book questions this picture of Western history. While we are in many ways different from the Greeks, Williams claims that the differences are not to be traced to a shift in these basic conceptions of ethical life. We are more like the ancients than we are prepared to acknowledge, and only when this is understood can we properly grasp our most important differences from them, such as our rejection of slavery. The author is a philosopher, but much of his book is directed to writers such as Homer and the tragedians, whom he discusses as poets and not just as materials for philosophy. At the center of his study is the question of how we can understand Greek tragedy at all, when its world is so far from ours. Williams explains how it is that when the ancients speak, they do not merely tell us about themselves, but about ourselves. In a new foreword A.A. Long explores the impact of this volume in the context of Williams's stunning career.

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