American philosopher Martha Nussbaum is consumed with the notion of how we should live our lives. Lucy Hodges finds out how she has lived hers.
As a child Martha Nussbaum spent solitary hours reading to herself, reading to her dolls and acting out stories. Until the age of nine she lived in American upper-middle-class opulence in an estate owned by the Earl of Surrey and translated to suburban Philadelphia brick by brick. "As a little child I had the complete run of all the forests and fields in this really quite romantic English-looking place, so I think my love of story-telling was very much increased by this," she explains. "I would drag my dolls around and find deserted corners of some little outbuildings where there were strange statues that had been stored for the winter and just hole up there and read books for hours."
Perfect training for an intellectual. Today, at age 48, with seven books and various prizes behind her, Nussbaum is still reading avidly. But her life is in flux. Having completed 11 years as a professor of philosophy, classics and comparative literature at the ivy-league Brown University in Rhode Island, on the east coast, she is moving west. Next term she takes up an appointment as professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago. It will be a big jump for her, away from the east where she was born, grew up and flourished, to a new frontier, away from a cosy niche in classics and philosophy to a more bracing and public role in the fearsomely intellectual law department at the University of Chicago.
She will find the change invigorating, and Chicago is likely to appreciate her. Martha Nussbaum has acquired a formidable reputation as an American philosopher who is as at ease with literary criticism as with Hellenistic ethics, who has more recently ventured into the world of development economics with Harvard economist, Amartya Sen, and who is consumed with the practical, if high-minded, notion of how we should live our lives.
Like so many American academics she defies labels. Her first book to set people talking was The Fragility of Goodness, published to mixed reviews in 1986. People either loved it or hated it. "It brought literature and philosophy together in a way that had not been done very often before and it really argued that you need to do this in order to see what philosophers are grappling with," explains Nussbaum. "You really need to set those problems in their cultural context by holding them up against the thought of the literary authors."
A supremely scholarly work, the book looked at what the various Greek thinkers thought about making human life immune from the slings and arrows of fortune. It asked the general question: how much chance do these Greek thinkers believe we can humanly live with? Our lives were threatened in various ways beyond our control, said the Greeks. And some bits of our lives were more susceptible to reversals of fortune than others, for example, political participation, citizenship, love, and having children.
"All these are parts of a life that seem valuable and seem to be included in many people's perception of what it is to flourish, but they are obviously very vulnerable to being upset by events that lie beyond our control," explains Nussbaum. "What should we say about that? Should that give us a reason for not including those elements in our conception of flourishing? Some philosophers would say yes, that we should define a flourishing life in terms only of things such as intellectual contemplation that seem much more within our control, to do or not do whatever we want."
But even when things seem to be within our power, there are often conflicts among them that are produced by luck, adds Nussbaum. For example, you love your family as well as your city, but you may find yourself unwittingly in the midst of civil war. You have to make the difficult decision whether to fight members of your family in order to do your duty to your city, or vice versa. "If you value more than one thing, that can put you at the mercy of luck because luck can throw up circumstances where you can't fulfil your duties to all those things," she says. The Greek tragedians appreciated the problem.
Nussbaum also looked at the question of uncontrolled forces within the personality, the various emotions and desires that seem to put us at the mercy of luck by making us true to ourselves and out of control. What did the various thinkers have to say about that? Was that a reason not to include those emotions and their satisfaction in the picture of a flourishing life? The Fragility of Goodness took a decade to write and perfect, and was followed in 1990 by Love's Knowledge. Large chunks of this book are spent analysing Henry James's The Golden Bowl and Charles Dickens's David Copperfield as Nussbaum shows us how wonderfully well novels tell us about human life and what is important in it - things that contemporary philosophical prose does inadequately.
In her latest book, The Therapy of Desire, Nussbaum examines emotion by looking at the Epicureans and Stoics who argued that many harmful emotions are based on false beliefs that are socially taught and that good philosophical argument can transform emotions, and, with them, private and public life. One of the themes running through her work is the notion that practical reasoning unaccompanied by emotion is not sufficient for wisdom.
Emotions are often more reliable than intellectual calculations, she says. That is why she became involved in development economics, led by Amartya Sen, with whom she was living at the time. One could not reduce how well a country was doing to its gross national product per capita, she thought. "Of course that doesn't even tell you how well income is distributed, much less tell you anything about some important other indicators of life quality that are not so well correlated with GNP per capita such as life expectancy, infant mortality, political liberties and so."
Today Martha Nussbaum has become interested in the law: "Over the years I have got much more interested in the connections between philosophy and law," she explains. "This is not really a new development in the sense that what the people in law have been interested in is finding accounts of practical reason that are alternatives to the accounts put forward by utilitarian economics.
"For that reason they have taken a great interest in Aristotle and his account of practical reasoning. I would find that law schools and lawyers would invite me to lecture, and I was very interested in being a part of that discussion and bringing some of my arguments against utilitarianism into that domain."
As an avowedly politically committed person, of feminist and compassionate leanings, Nussbaum is contributing in this way to public debate in America. And she will do so even more in Chicago. "It seems to me very appealing that I should have colleagues who are in the judiciary and teaching students who would right away go out and be clerks for judges involved in writing judicial opinions," she says. Brown had no law school, so it did not offer the same opportunities.
How did Nussbaum reach this point? How come her overriding quest has been the ethical and moral question: how shall I live? She first become interested in ethical questions, she says, growing up in upper-class Philadelphia. What struck her was the gap between that upper-class milieu and the big changes that were taking place in America in the 1960s - the civil rights movement and women's liberation. It was a contrast between the unreflective life she was being brought up to lead, which never asked what was really worth caring for, and the changes that were taking place around her.
The territory on which she conducted her search was ancient Greece, because, she says, she found the Greeks really grappled with the basic question of how to live. And she discovered the Greeks in high school. She attended Baldwin, a private school for girls, which played a big part in her intellectual formation, she thinks. It had a "feminist, intensely intellectual atmosphere" and impressive teachers.
At that time Nussbaum had set her sights on becoming an actress. "I found it very rewarding emotionally," she explains. "I thought I could express things in acting at that stage in my life that I couldn't express otherwise." She acted the parts of heroines in Greek tragedies. And her passion for drama continued at Wellesley, the all-female liberal arts college outside Boston, Massachusetts, where she went as an undergraduate, her father having vetoed what he called the "pink" colleges of Oberlin and Swarthmore, which were co-educational.
At Wellesley, already loving ancient Greek literature, she also began to learn ancient Greek. But Wellesley was probably not the right place for her, she thinks. It was too much a pale imitation of her high school. She was ready for something else. Half way through her second year she received an offer of a job, acting Greek drama in repertory. So she threw in Wellesley and went off to act, having secured a place in drama for the following autumn at New York University's new school of the arts. It didn't take long for reality to hit. "When I got into the world of the theatre I saw that it was a very bad atmosphere for being creatively expressive because there was no job security and no sense of a permanent repertory system," she says.
She decided she was better at thinking and writing about plays than acting in them, so she transferred back to the regular part of New York University, and finished her degree there studying classics. At NYU she made the decision to go to graduate school. And at NYU she met the man who was to become her husband in a Greek prose composition class.
Until that time Martha Nussbaum's name had been Martha Craven, a good white anglo-saxon protestant name to go with her striking, fair-haired WASP looks. On marriage, she converted to Judaism, and still feels herself to be Jewish. That is one reason she never reverted to her WASP name, despite the ending of her marriage in 1987. Back in 1969 before they exchanged wedding vows, Martha Craven and Alan Nussbaum were the two classics majors at NYU doing advanced courses. After marriage they attended Harvard graduate school together, and today Alan Nussbaum is a professor of classics and linguistics at Cornell.
At Harvard, Martha's attention shifted pretty swiftly from classics to the ancient philosophy programme. Her abilities were clear, and at the end of her third year she was awarded the junior fellowship in the Society of Fellows at Harvard. It was a terrific break, because it carried kudos and money. Nussbaum was the first woman to be awarded the fellowship which had been restricted to men until that year, 1972. She had already published two articles on Heraclitus, and had plans for a PhD thesis on Aristotle's De Motu Animalium, so now she could beaver away to her heart's content, without having to worry about where the money was to come from.
As well as working on Aristotle, Nussbaum began to write material which would eventually lay the ground for The Fragility of Goodness. It was a frenetically busy time because she also had a baby daughter, Rachel, to look after, who was born as she took up her fellowship. But Martha Nussbaum remained unfazed. In fact it was a good time to have a baby, she says, because she had three years with no teaching responsiblities and a flexible schedule. In a burst of enlightenment Harvard also decided to attach a stipend for child care to the fellowship.
Back in the autumn of 1975, when Rachel was still a toddler, Martha Nussbaum was offered, and accepted, a job as assistant professor at Harvard. There began eight years of teaching at that university. But she faltered at the ultimate hurdle. She failed to win tenure, because, she says, Harvard's classics and philosophy departments disagreed about whether to award it. Philosophy was in favour, classics against, by a very narrow margin.
As Martha Nussbaum relives her own tangles with fate, one can almost hear the pain in her voice. Some colleagues urged her to bring a grievance against the university for sex discrimination, she says. But there were so many factors clouding the issue. "Anyway I'm just a very non-litigious person by temperament, so I decided whether wisely or not, I'm not sure, not to bring a grievance." In any case, the offer from Brown was appealing because that university's classics department was more enthused by the role of philosophy inside classics.
It was while she was at Brown that her career began to take off. In 1990 she won the Brandeis Creative Arts Award in Non-Fiction. Three years later in Edinburgh she was invited to give the Gifford lectures, called "Need and Recognition: A Theory of the Emotions". These are being reproduced in a book to be called Upheavals of Thought: A Theory of the Emotions, a quote from Proust.
Nussbaum will spend the next year on the shores of Lake Michigan revising that for publication. She is also taking on a more political task, writing a book about some of the controversies in America on diversity in higher education. She has been drawing on the Stoic idea of world citizenship, the idea that one should not be a citizen of some local or narrow group but a citizen of the whole world. And she has a small book coming out in January next year, based on lectures she gave in 1991. Called Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination in Public Life it looks at literature and, in particular Charles Dickens's Hard Times (a favourite of hers), to defend a non-utilitarian conception of the public imagination. That is an uphill task in America, but Martha Nussbaum is undaunted.