Martha Nussbaum Interview by Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers: The common perception of philosophy is of a thinker of abstract thoughts. But stories and myths are very important to you as a philosopher, are they not? 

Martha Nussbaum: Very important, because I think that the language of philosophy has to come back from the abstract heights on which it so often lives to the richness of everyday discourse and everyday humanity, and it has to listen to the ways that people talk about themselves, talk about what matters to them… and one very good way to do this is to listen to… stories.

Moyers: Is there, out of all this vast array of stories is there one that you find most gripping, that you think speaks most to us today?

Nussbaum: …I wake up at night thinking about Euripides’ Hecuba. That, to me, is a story that says so much about what it is to be a human being in the middle of a world of unreliable things and people. Do you know the story?

Moyers: Well, from a long time ago, but she was the queen of Troy whose country was destroyed by war and her whole life was changed…

Nussbaum: Right, right… She’s lost her husband, she’s lost most of her children, she’s lost her political power, she’s been made a slave, but up to that point she remains absolutely firm morally, and she even says she believes that human good character is something extremely stable in adversity and can’t be shaken. But then, her one, deepest hope, is pulled away from her. She left her youngest child with her best friend who was supposed to watch over him and watch his money too and then bring him back when the war was over. And when she gets to the shore of Thrace she sees a naked body that’s been washed up on the beach and… she notices that it’s the body of her child. And she realizes right away that what this friend has… murder[ed] the child for his money, and to do it in a callous and heedless way without even taking thought for burying the child, just tossed it out into the waves, and all of a sudden the roots of her moral life are undone. She looks around and she says everything is untrustworthy… because her moral life had been based on the ability to trust things and people that were not under her own control and if this deepest and best friendship proves untrustworthy then it seems to her that nothing can be trusted and she has to turn to a life of solitary revenge… We see her in the play… putting out the eyes of this former best friend and turning herself into what the Chorus says is in effect a dog, I mean, they predict that she will literally turn into a dog but we know that the story of metamorphosis from the human to something less than human has really taken place before our very eyes.

Now I think it’s pretty clear that this comes about not because she’s a bad person, but in a sense because she’s a good person, because she has had deep friendships in which she staked her moral life. And so what this play says is so disturbing – that the condition of being good is that it should always be possible for you to be morally destroyed by something that you couldn’t prevent. To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances… for which you were… not to blame. And I think that says something very important about the condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain, a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.

Moyers: But the other side of it… expressed by Victor Frankl, who survived the death camps… says, “I’m not responsible for my circumstances. I’m only responsible for my attitude toward those circumstances. That I may live in the degradation of the camps, I may be put upon by the beasts who are human, but I will not let them turn me into a beast.”

Nussbaum: Well, I think if you can maintain that separation, that’s a very fortunate thing. And actually here the tragedians do see that character itself, if the circumstances are crushing enough…can … be polluted, as Euripides puts it, by something that you yourself don’t control because however much she tried to live well in a world of uncertain things, she had to be able to trust something, and when by a rare chance… this very best friend, the one who is in a sense the basis of her connectedness to the world, proved untrustworthy, then it wasn’t her fault that she could not sustain the moral life.

Moyers: Is this what you meant when you wrote once that tragedy is trying to live well?

Nussbaum: Tragedy happens only when you are trying to live well, because for a heedless person who doesn’t have deep commitments to others, Agamemnon’s conflict isn’t a tragedy. Somebody who’s a bad person would go in and slaughter that child…or could desert all the men, let them die. But it’s when you are trying to live well and you deeply care about the things you’re trying to do that the world enters in a particularly painful way. And it’s in that struggle with recalcitrant circumstances that a lot of the value of the moral life comes in.

Moyers: You’re not trying to suggest to your students… that the lesson is not to try to live well? If you do that you should certainly avoid the pain of choice and of frustration and of denial.

Nussbaum: No, the lesson certainly is not to try to maximize conflict or to romanticize struggle and suffering, but it’s rather… that you should care about things in a way that makes it a possibility that tragedy will happen to you. If you never trust any people or if you don’t trust the political setting, which is certainly something I see very often in my students, then it doesn’t hurt you when things go badly, but you want to tell them to live their lives with such a seriousness of commitment that they’re not adjusting their desires to the way the world actually goes but they’re trying to wrest from the world a good life, the good life that they desire, and sometimes that does lead them into tragedy.

Full Interview:–c


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