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Shame and Necessity

4.6 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0520088306
ISBN-10: 0520088301
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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

This book is about ancient Greek ethical ideas, primarily of Homer and the tragedians. Denying that modern ethical understanding is merely a progressive version of Greek thought, Williams contends that the ancients' ideas can illuminate our own. His question is how to respond to a view grounded in supernatural conceptions we have long since discarded. He examines Greek ideas of agency, intention, practical deliberation, akrasia ("weakness of will"), necessity, and so forth, analyzing which motivations the Greeks found admirable and, especially, how shame, guilt, regret, and forgiveness interrelate. Significant contrasts concern whether the moral self is characterless, what warrants self-respect, and how to regard unintentionally caused suffering. Clearly written, well argued, and carefully documented, the book should interest classicists and philosophers alike.
- Robert Hoffman, York Coll.,
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Clearly written, well argued, and carefully documented."--"Library Journal

Product Details

  • Paperback: 254 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (October 19, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520088301
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520088306
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,764,111 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Bernard Williams was a philosopher of unique fascination. He was a classics prodigy in school but choose to pursue philosophy. He engaged in a life long debate with all major schools of contemporary philosophy and most of the history of philosophy. He was a member of no major school of contemporary philosophy yet read them all and learned from them all. And after absorbing that whole history of learning, he seems to have learned the most from the early Greeks, i.e., Homer to Thucydides as well as from Nietzsche. Like many others, he seems to have seen Plato and Aristotle as taking a turn that has led our culture down ultimately the wrong road.

The argument of Williams book rests on his assertion that:
"...we are, in our ethical situation, more like human beings in antiquity than any Western people have been in the meantime." (p.166) This is because Williams' believed that our situation is "not only beyond Christianity but beyond its Kantian and its Hegelian legacies" (ibid.).
Williams believed that in our situation we can learn much from the writings of the pre-Platonic Greeks, i.e., Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Sophocles, Euripides and Thucydides among others. These writers (along with the insights of Nietzsche and the tools of analytical philosophy) are deployed against several intellectual targets.

Early in Shame and Necessity (hereafter, SN), Williams takes on what he calls the `progressivist account', according to which "the Greeks had primitive ideas of action, responsibility, ethical motivation, and justice, which in the course of history have been replaced by a more complex and refined set of conceptions that define a more mature form of ethical experience." (p.5)
SN argues instead that there has been no progress made in these ideas.
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Format: Paperback
Did the Greeks of Homer's era have a complete sense of self and agency? Some critics have said no, claiming that these concepts were not developed till later (some say as late as modern times). Bernard Williams counters these arguments, and further claims that early Greek ethical ideas were in some ways in better condition than ours today.

Shame and Necessity is an exploration of the working theory of action informing the works of Homer and the playwrights of his day. In order to make his point, Williams roves over a range of related concepts. In so doing he teaches us something about Greek notions of body, mind, soul, responsibility, intention, will, shame, guilt, honor, power, necessity, and freedom.

The book is based on a series of lectures, and Williams' style is erudite, literary, and subtle. To fully appreciate his arguments, one needs a solid ground in Classics as well as philosophy of mind. Nevertheless, the general reader can, with a bit of determination, learn quite a bit about the Greek mind, regardless of how much else is understood.

In the first chapter Williams outlines his contention that the Homeric Greeks did have a working theory of action, as against "progressivists" such as Bruno Snell, who claim that a complete theory only developed later through gradual intellectual progress.

The second chapter is where he begins to show this. One reason critics claim Homeric people could not decide for themselves was because they supposedly did not have selves to decide for. The notion of a unified "soul" is not yet present in Homer; there are only various parts of what modern people would call the soul.
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The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus once wrote: "A man's character is his fate." (Ethos anthropoi daimon) This quotation could be the epigraph for this book of essays by the distinguished philosopher Bernard Williams, delivered as the fifty-seventh Sather Classical Lectures at the University of California, Berkeley in the spring of 1989.

Williams's death in 2003 was much lamented in the profession for Williams had the happy and exceedingly rare ability to express the most complicated thoughts clearly, without unduly reducing them or ignoring possible objections to them in order to make them more easily intelligible. (His colleague at Oxford, Gilbert Ryle, expressed it this way. When you talk to Williams, he said, Williams "understands what you're going to say better than you understand it yourself, and sees all the possible objections to it, all the possible answers to the objections, before you've got the end of your sentence.") Williams was primus inter pares in the ability to express his views in a manner pleasing not only to fellow philosophers but to interested laymen. This is not to say that what he wrote was always easy to follow, but it was never harder to follow than the subject matter required for it to be a faithful recounting. Williams didn't shun complexity, which he found meaningful and beautiful. For Williams, complexity was a normal symptom of human living.

Grace is not often a quality ascribed to serious philosophical writings, but it applies to Williams's best works, of which this is clearly one.

Shame and Necessity is an eloquent, carefully argued defense of the view that the ancient Greeks, whatever their differences in viewpoint from the modern one, did espouse a coherent ethics and that this ethics still has meaning for us today.
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