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Martha Nussbaum: Intimacy is not a fusion but a conversation

Here’s a great mp3 by Martha Nussbaum on desire, passions and Hellenistic philosophy.  An excerpt from the transcript (same link):

Interviewer: There’s an Epicurean doctrine regarding death which finds perhaps its fullest exposition in Latin in the work of Lucretius. It goes like this, ‘It is irrational to fear that which we will not experience, death being non-existent, cannot in the nature of things be experienced, therefore it is irrational to fear death.’ I have to ask, is this really therapeutic? Are we really meant to be comforted by this?

Martha Nussbaum: You know, the first thing that Lucretius felt he had to do before he could comfort you, is to prove that there’s no afterlife. So before we get to the argument you’re talking about, there’s a whole long series of proofs of the mortality of the soul, because he thought that what most people are afraid of is being tormented in the afterlife. And so then once we get rid of the afterlife, then we still have people thinking that they fear death, and he thinks he can convince them that this fear is based on an irrational imagining that you are surviving yourself. So he thinks you’re standing there in your mind, watching the dead you and thinking ‘Oh, poor dead you, you’re missing all the good things of life.’ And so he thinks that if you can point out to the person it’s quite irrational, there’s no spectators gonna be there, there’s just nothing at all, then that will take away the fear.

At that time, people were just as divided as they are now and I’ve had a terrific argument about that recently in our law school at the University of Chicago, because I had a new paper on that topic. And you know, you can see that some people find this argument very appealing. If there’s nothing at all, well then it would be quite irrational to think that that’s a bad that’s happened to you. But because there’s no you there for whom something bad could happen.

Other people think differently and at the time people thought differently and at the time, people thought differently. Plutarch wrote a whole treatise talking about how bad this argument was. And I think to me, the way of attacking the argument has to be to think about what makes life worthwhile, and I think what makes life worthwhile are activities that have a structure, that persist through time, that go on into the future. And what death does is, it cuts off those activities and so it changes their shape so to speak, it’s like making them empty and vain because they never reach a completion, and it’s for that reason that even though there’s no you, it changes what you were in your life, if you see what I mean.

That is, suppose you’re in the middle of trying to build some elaborate structure that you attack great importance to you, and then put all your energy into that and put your time into that, you get your friends to help you, and in the middle of that before your thing is complete, you die, well then it’s not just the time after death that’s the bad thing, it’s what it’s done to the life, it cuts it off in the middle. Now I think what that shows is not that every death is bad, but that death would be bad whenever it does that, whenever it cuts off activities that are in the middle and people are still attaching value to their completion.

Here’s a terrific book review essay Nussbaum wrote about a book on romantic love and sexual politics. (The book being reviewed was Vindication of Love:
Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century By Cristina Nehring). Let me say that this is one of the most thoughtful (yet devastating )  reviews of a nonfiction title I have ever read. Here’s the meat of her philosophical disagreement (pardon the length):

But, says Nehring, love thrives on inequality. Here, of course, we have the two-theses problem. The first says, wisely, that real love should be prepared to overcome inequalities of power, class, and station. (That is the plot of more or less every Victorian novel.) The second says, foolishly, that real love requires inequality of power, class, and station. So confused is Nehring at this point that she interprets Pride and Prejudice as confirmation of her second thesis rather than her first: it shows, she says, that people always eroticize class difference and would never love people of similar station. What a trivialization of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy! Their deep moral and intellectual affinity, and their strong romantic attraction, gradually manage to surmount the obstacles imposed by rigid social norms and the internal dispositions (prejudice and pride) that they engender. It is true that there would be no novel without the distance: after all, there has to be a plot. It seems obviously untrue, however, that there would be no love without the distance. Far from social distance being eroticized, it is, until late in the novel, a source of erotic blindness. At this point Nehring’s argument loses all clarity, as, seeking confirmation for her anti-feminist thesis, she begins to treat any qualitative difference at all as “inequality”: the very fact of heterosexuality, she now says, shows that sexual desire thrives on inequality.

But does passion even require qualitative difference? Here Nehring appears to endorse a view of sexual attraction that Roger Scruton popularized some time ago in his book Sexual Desire. Really valuable sexual passion, Scruton said, requires qualitative differences between the parties, because sexual love, when valuable, involves a kind of risky exploration of strange terrain, and we should think less well of those who stick to the familiar. Scruton could not advance this claim as a descriptive thesis about sexual choices, for nothing is more obvious than that people tend to choose people close to themselves in all sorts of ways–religion, class, education. But he did put it forward as a normative claim, and he used it to argue that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality, because it involves greater adventure and risk. Something like this is probably what Nehring has in mind, although she has no disdain for same-sex passion.

What should we think of this? Do people who choose qualitatively similar partners really lack courage? The most obvious problem with Scruton’s thesis was that it was capriciously and inconstantly applied: to sexual orientation, but not to romances between adults and children, between Protestants and Catholics, between the virtuous and the immoral. A more subtle problem with his argument is that it is not even clear how it could be assessed: for, as the philosopher Nelson Goodman showed in his great essay “Seven Strictures on Similarity,” the concept of similarity is so slippery that it has basically no content. Any two things are similar and dissimilar to one another in manifold respects.

But the real problem with Scruton–and Nehring, who speaks, Scruton-like, of the “enigmatic Other”–is that they both mislocate erotic risk. What is risky is not getting in touch with some trait that is dissimilar to some trait of one’s own. It is the whole idea of becoming vulnerable to an inner life that one cannot see and can never control. It is not qualitative difference, but the sheer separateness of the other person, the idea of an independent source of vision and will, that makes real love an adventure in generosity–or, if one is like Proust’s narrator, a source of mad jealousy and destructive projects of domination and control. And this has nothing at all to do with class difference, or gender difference, or even temperamental difference. It has to do only with the fact of human individuation–that minds and bodies never merge, that intimacy is not a fusion but a conversation.

There is a grain of truth in Nehring’s thesis about personal qualities: it is at least plausible to maintain that loving someone who is complicated, opaque, and in some respects concealed can be of particular interest or value. At any rate, we often think less well of people who are willing to love only people who are altogether obvious and lacking in complexity. Rightly or wrongly, we think that such lovers are refusing some challenge, or lacking in curiosity. And yet an erotic attraction to psychological complexity does not require pursuing class difference, career difference, power difference, or some other obvious kind of difference. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how one could ever pursue a relationship with persons as complicated as some of the artists and writers adduced by Nehring without a context of shared activities, commitments, or aspirations that would generate the kind of friendship and openness that make insight into another person’s complexities possible. The way she tells the stories of those complicated artists and writers, they understood this well.

I plan to read both Nehring’s book as well as Nussbaum’s book on Hellenistic philosophy and desire. (see a thorough review of it here by John T. Kirby). I definitely will report back.

As an aside, let me say that Nussbaum’s tone throughout the essay is a tad condescending but still respectful. She seems to be criticizing the author’s naiveté rather than the ideas themselves (as though Nussbaum herself had considered most of those ideas already, but had discarded them.

That said, I have to admit that Nussbaum’s book has sparked my interest in the two thinkers she criticizes.  I’d heard of Roger Scruton before, and his Sexual desire: a philosophical investigation sounds provocative at the very least. So do his other books: Beauty, Death-Devoted Heart, etc.  (Here’s a website of his published essays. He’s a resident scholar for AEI and has published lots of articles on various online journals and mp3 lectures). 

I like the idea that thinkers like Scruton and Nussbaum are able to write so generally. Of course, they rest at comfortable academic positions, and that must certainly help. But even tenured professors tend to write about their niche without addressing the world at large. I guess philosophers by definition need to be relevant and comprehensible (and so do writers).  It always is interesting when an academic type tries his hand at a book in a totally different field. With a complex subject like climate change, a generalist approach can render your arguments laughable, but in other fields. the cross-pollination is fruitful. What if a priest wrote a treatise on prestidigitation? Or a surgeon wrote a book about classical dance? Or a comedian wrote about Civil War slave owners?  The outsider can uncover assumptions which were never questioned by those in the field. I think I shall write a book about musicology.

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