I was delighted to see Martha C Nussbaum's The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics reprinted by Princeton University Press fifteen years after its first edition. Whilst an undergraduate a mere twelve years ago it was Nussbaum's work that introduced me and many others to the existence of Greek philosophers other than Plato and Aristotle. To my shame, other than Plato and Aristotle, all I knew (or rather thought I knew) about Greek philosophy was that Sextus Empiricus was the one that doubted everything and Epicurus was the one that talked about death all the time. Nussbaum's The Therapy of Desire lifted that particular veil of ignorance.
The first aspect one notices about The Therapy of Desire is that how well it succeeds in drawing the reader its world. Books on Greeks philosophy can often seem to be talking about issues that appear a world away from the concerns of the 20th and 21st century, and the fact that one is writing about Ancient Greece and Rome does not help. But Nussbaum succeeds in presenting the Hellenistic philosophers as talking about issues pertinent to our own age, not relics of a bygone age, now only of historical value. She achieves this partly by using a protagonist to go through all the philosophical schools, 'Nikidion' which means 'little victory', Nikidion is an imaginary student and courtesan. The second way in which Nussbaum wins the reader over is through the elegance of her writing, the arguments are complex but subtle, but they are not obtuse, one does not feel that the author is being complex merely for complexity's sake. It is ease with which one can read it and the amount covered that justifies the book's length, the work being five hundred and fifteen pages long excluding bibliography (five hundred and fifty-eight pages from the beginning to the index) it is not a short read.
The Therapy of Desire casts these so often overlooked philosophers in a particular light, they are shown to be philosophers actively engaging with the issues of human life, not armchair thinkers standing aloft from the world. Also, the author shows how these thinkers envisaged philosophy as analogous to medicine, that it was the philosopher's task to be as it were, a physician to the soul, enabling one to lead a good and flourishing life. The notion of philosophy as a kind of therapy, employing a 'medical model' of a sort is a theme which runs through the entire book.
However, it should be made clear that Nussbaum is not an uncritical reader of her subject. For example, Nussbaum takes great pains to point out the ambivalent and often confusing way in which the Epicureans and Stoics whilst analyzing the emotions also advocated their removal, as they do not contribute to a flourishing life. Emotions disturb us; they can lead to bad reasoning and therefore a bad life. Alongside their account she looks at Aristotle account of emotions, a thinker who did not advocate the removal of emotions, but saw them as offering the possibility of enhancing one's life and re-reads the Epicureans and Stoics in the light of Aristotle.
If I have any complaint, it is that Nussbaum could have written a whole book on any one of these schools of thought, and there were times when I was hungry for more information, but then it would not be the same book.
To summarize, this is a wonderful book, of interest to scholars of ancient philosophy, but also to those interested in medical philosophy and philosophy of mind. It would also be of great interest to those interested in the conception of philosophy as therapy that has grown from studies on Wittgenstein. I can heartily recommend it.
© 2010 Michael Gillan Peckitt
Dr. Michael Gillan Peckitt received his PhD from the University of Hull, UK. His research interests are in Phenomenology, German Idealism, Japanese Philosophy, particularly the Kyoto School and the Philosophy of Mind. Michael’s most recent publication was an article entitled ‘Resisting Sartrean Pain’ which appeared in Sartre and the Body, an anthology edited by Katherine J Morris of Mansfield College, Oxford, published by Palgrave Macmilan. He has also co-edited an edition of the journal SWIF Philosophy of Mind Review with Dr. Luca Malatesti. Michael is currently working on a comparative study of Continental and Japanese Philosophy, funded by the British Academy.