Nussbaum's Jefferson Lecture

It's appropriately ancient, and as always with Nussbaum, I wonder how much more she knows about her goals than she makes clear to her audience. We must transform anger with honor, she says -- or, at least, that Athena did. She does not go on to conclude that we can, and yet it is the clear and correct conclusion from her argument.
As the drama begins, the Furies are described as repulsive and horrifying. They are said to be black, disgusting; their eyes drip a hideous liquid. Apollo even says they vomit up clots of blood that they have ingested from their prey. They belong, he says, in some barbarian tyranny where cruelty reigns.

Nor, when they awaken, do the Furies give the lie to these grim descriptions. As Clytemnestra’s ghost calls them, they do not speak, but simply make animal noises, moaning and whining. When they do begin to speak, their only words are “get him get him get him get him,” as close to a predator’s hunting cry as the genre allows....

Unchanged, these Furies could not be at the foundation of a legal system in a society committed to the rule of law. You don’t put wild dogs in a cage and come out with justice. But the Furies do not make the transition to democracy unchanged. Until quite late in the drama, they are still their bestial selves, threatening to disgorge their venom on the land. Then, however, Athena persuades them to alter themselves so as to join her enterprise. “Lull to repose the bitter force of your black wave of anger,” she tells them. But of course that means a virtual change of identity, so bound up are they with anger’s obsessive force. She offers them incentives to join the democracy: a place of honor, reverence from the citizens—but only if they adopt a new range of sentiments, substituting future-directed benevolence for retribution. Perhaps most fundamental of all, they must listen to the voice of persuasion.
Nussbaum says they are offered "places of honor," but also "reverence" -- and reverence is a form of honor too. In return, what must they do? They must "listen to the voice of persuasion" -- and that, too, is a kind of honoring. First, it is a kind of honor because it is a show of special respect to listen to the voice while being open to being persuaded. We don't take advice from just anyone, nor lay aside long-established habits. Athena is demanding honor from them, and offering them honor in return.

The effect is transformative, not just of the Furies but for Athens as well. Honor must be given to be received, and when one is brought into the community that gives and shows honor, peace becomes possible.

Yet then Nussbaum, later in her address, invokes honor in a negative way that seems to undermine her entire argument. I wonder why she does, aside from the clear intent to insult Donald Trump.
Elaborate codes of honor and status led, indeed, to constant status-anxiety and to many duels responding to purported insults. What’s wrong with the obsession with status is that life is not all about reputation, it is about more substantial things: love, justice, work, family. We all know people today who are obsessed with what other people think of them, who constantly scan the Internet to see who has been insulting them.
Indeed it is the biggest problem with Donald Trump that he does not know how to give honor, only how to demand it for himself. Yet reputation (another sort of honor: you have a good reputation if people say good things about you, which is a way of honoring you) enables the 'substantial things' she mentions. Consider work, as Louis L'amour often reminded his readers when he writes about why people might have killed over an insult like being called a "liar." Who will work with someone who is called a liar in the streets? In a poorer time when reputations tended to be well-known among smaller communities, such a name could mean the end of your ability to participate in work at all.

Who would bind their lives with such a person, as in love or the marriage that could bring out a family? The fight for what she calls status is not insubstantial, but rather, in earlier societies it played a crucial role in establishing the conditions for attaining the 'substantial things.'

Of course, some might love a man with a bad reputation -- or a woman, like the one John Wayne's character comes to love in Stagecoach. They might because they come to know the individual, and not just the reputation. But their election to trust the person in spite of his bad reputation -- that, too, is a kind of honor. And this honor, as honor does, transforms.


J Melcher said...

"But their election to trust the person in spite of his bad reputation -- that, too, is a kind of honor."

That is a kind of GRACE.

Grim said...

Grace is also a kind of honoring -- a demonstration of a special respect that is not deserved. In the paradigm Christian case, it's a clear demonstration of honor as sacrifice.

David Foster said...

"In a poorer time when reputations tended to be well-known among smaller communities, such a name could mean the end of your ability to participate in work at all."

But also, in a more connected time...such as our own...such a name could become known to everyone in the world who matters to your work, and also mean the end of your ability to participate in work at all.

See my post Freedom, the Village, and the Internet:

Grim said...

Good point. I only meant to raise L'amour's point, which has always struck me as an insight often lost on contemporary Americans. I don't mean to imply that one's honor is no longer important; just the opposite.