Essays on Philosophy and Literature

By Martha Craven Nussbaum

Oxford. 403 pp. $42

WHAT IS one to make of a book called Love's Knowledge that offers detailed critical analyses of Platonic and Aristotelian ethical theory, critical discussions of Henry James's Golden Bowl, Ambassadors and Princess Casamassima as well as of Beckett, Dickens and Proust, and also calls in to support its argument such texts as Homer's Odyssey and Sophocles's "Women of Trachis," not to mention Nietzsche, Kant and Wittgenstein? The reader's first reaction may well be skeptical. To move with authority over so wide a range of intellectual history, the author must be an unlikely combination: an acute and sensitive critic of ancient and modern literature, a professional philosopher and a trained scholar of ancient Greek. In this case skepticism can be dispensed with; Martha Nussbaum is all of these things.

She has published a critical edition of the Greek text of Aristotle's treatise On the Movement of Animals, and provided it with a commentary and a series of long and philosophically rich essays. She is the author of a brilliant and much admired book, The Fragility of Goodness, which examines the ethical problems addressed not only by Plato and Aristotle but also by Greek tragedy; it argues that we cannot understand the work of the philosophers in isolation from the moral concerns of the tragic poets, who make a distinctive contribution to ethical thought. She has also, in the course of the last 10 years, published a number of essays on the relationship between literature, especially the modern novel, and philosophy. Twelve of them are included in the volume under review, together with two new essays and a substantial introduction entitled "Form and Content, Philosophy and Literature." Many of these essays, all written in her characteristically lucid style and addressed to the general literate public as well as to her professional colleagues, first appeared in periodicals the general public is not likely to come across; it is good to have them in a volume accessible to a wider audience.

This book is not, however, like many such collections, a roundup of whatever articles the author has happened to publish in recent years. She has omitted at least seven interesting pieces, some of them destined for a subsequent volume; those included have been revised and expanded, and also provided with end-notes that "make many specific remarks about the relationships of the articles to one another." And the long, thoughtful introduction serves to clarify the book's central themes and also to justify its intriguing title.

As a philosopher she is concerned above all with ethical theory, moral philosophy -- one section of her introduction is headed by a sentence from Plato's Republic: "It is no chance matter we are discussing, but how one should live." Plato rejected totally the validity of epic and tragic poetry as a medium for discussion of moral problems, pursuing what he called "the ancient quarrel between the poets and the philosophers" to its logical end: the banishment of the poets from his ideal city. Discussion of ethics was to be built on an intellectually sound basis of moral definitions, constructed according to logical principles and tested by dialectic -- and so, from Socrates until quite recent times, it has been ever since.

Nussbaum finds that this approach has serious limitations. "There may be some views of the world and how one should live in it -- views, especially, that emphasize the world's surprising variety, its complexity and mysteriousness, its flawed and imperfect beauty -- that cannot be fully and adequately stated in the language of conventional philosophic prose, a style remarkably flat and lacking in wonder. . ." She calls for a style of philosophical writing that will express its ideas "in a language and forms . . . more complex, more allusive, more attentive to particulars." And she is also proposing that ethical philosophy should concentrate its attention on the great works of the imagination as well as on the classics of its own discipline. Her aim is to "establish that certain literary texts . . . are indispensable to a philosophical inquiry in the ethical sphere; not by any means sufficient, but sources of insight without which the inquiry cannot be complete."

Whether or not she can establish that claim in the court of her philosophical colleagues, her discussion of "how one should live," based on a penetrating analysis of some of the great modern fictions, is fascinating reading, for without abandoning philosophical standards of argument she writes in a style that shows how much she has learned from the masters of our prose.

Perhaps the most unruly and disconcerting element of "the world's . . . flawed and imperfect beauty" is the complex of emotions we call "love." It is, as she says, a "strange, unmanageable phenomenon or form of life, source at once of illumination and confusion, agony and beauty." It can play havoc with ethical standards. So, in Nussbaum's perceptive reading of The Golden Bowl, Maggie Verver comes to the realization that "to regain her husband she must damage Charlotte . . . Her love . . . must live on cunning and treachery; it requires the breaking of moral rules . . ." Love, in all its strange manifestations and amoral imperatives, is the major theme of these essays; Nussbaum develops its full diapason from the high refinement of Henry James to the lower depths of Beckett's Molloy trilogy. And in one extraordinary essay, that is presented in narrative form, she uses as her text Dora Carrington's desperate love for Lytton Strachey.

But why, the reader may ask, do we need these fictions, however admirable, in addition to moral philosophy in our search for the good life? Nussbaum poses that question and answers it by citing Aristotle, the philosopher she most admires. We need fiction because "we have never lived enough." Our experience, without it, is "too confined, and too parochial. Literature extends it, making us reflect and feel about what might otherwise be too distant for feeling." Her purpose in these essays is "to suggest, with Aristotle, that practical reasoning unaccompanied by emotion is not sufficient for practical wisdom"; that emotions are "frequently more reliable and less deceptively seductive" than intellectual calculation. It is a bold suggestion, but these essays make an eloquent and, to this one reader, convincing case for it.

Bernard Knox, a past director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, is the author of many books, most recently "Essays: Ancient and Modern."