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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.

Review

"Clearly written, well argued, and carefully documented."--"Library Journal
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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: #477,481 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By greg taylor VINE VOICE on December 31, 2009
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 Verified Purchase
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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Bernard Williams's Shame and Necessity is a work of philosophy about what we could learn from the ancient Greeks. The book addresses moral concerns as well as issues of identity and human freedom. What is clear from the book is that the ancient Greek mind is not terribly different from our own but there have been changes and progress of course both in the sciences and our moral reasoning. Nevertheless, changes that have been made from the time of the Greeks to our time have not necessarily followed a linear path. It's of interest to me, for example, an issue that Williams addresses about how just as Aristotle was uncomfortable and equivocal in talking about slavery, we too find ourselves recognizing that because of social and economic conditions people experience similar forms of enslavement--and just as with Aristotle, we can't sit comfortably with these conditions, so we try to rationalize them or militate against them. This is just one of the many topics that comes up in Williams' book. It's a bit long-winded and rambling but a decent enough read.
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In shame based societies the concept of "free will" is missing. One of the great contributions of Paul the Apostle and Christianity is the foundation of volition or free will. Paul is said to have invented the idea of volition / free will / the willing mind. At least he well developed the idea of free will such that it has become a central topic of philosophy for the last 2000 years. Rather nice contribution to philosophy. Williams in this book, Shame and Necessity argues that free will is an illusion. That Sin based cultures have no more free will than to shame based societies. For Williams, free will is an illusion, and people who live in Sin based cultures have just as much a necessity to act as they do, as people who live in shame based societies do. The difference for Williams is that people who live in shame based societies recognize that they are trapped in their situation, while people who live in sin based societies "imagine" that they have free will. This argument that Williams makes in his book can be seen as an attempt to undermine or refute Protestant Christian philosophy.
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