May 26, 2009

Excellence and fragility

The classical scholar Martha Nussbaum opens her book The Fragility of Goodness with a quote from the ancient Greek poet Pindar, who made a career for himself writing odes for victors in the Olympic and other sacred games. He wrote:

...human excellence
grows like a vine tree
fed by the green dew,
raised up, among wise men and just,
to the liquid sky.
We have all kinds of needs for those we love--
most of all in hardships, but joy, too
strains to track down eyes that it can trust.

In other words, most of the good things or qualities we have are not inherently ours--even if they are things we've worked hard to achieve or attain. They depend on many other and external conditions, all of which are changeable and subject to loss and reversal.

Nussbaum expounds on Pindar thus:

The excellence of the good person, he writes, is like a young plant: something growing in the world, slender, fragile, in constant need of food from without. A vine tree must be of good stock if it is to grow well. And even if it has a good heritage, it needs fostering weather (gentle dew an drain, the absence of sudden frosts and harsh winds), as well as the care of concerned and intelligent keepers, for its continued health and full perfection. So, the poet suggests, do we. We need to be born with adequate capacities, to live in a fostering natural and social circumstances, to stay clear of abrupt catastrophe, to develop confirming associations we other human beings.

We are all, in other words, subject to fortune and reversal. One of the functions of Greek tragedy, the theme these days at Goat Rope, is to remind us that no one is immune and to warn us against assuming that fleeting good luck is something we own.

50 HERBERT HOOVERS. This NY Times editorial talks sense about the fiscal crisis many states are facing.

GOD ON THE BRAIN. Here's a link to a recent NPR series on science and spirituality.

RELIGION IN THE WAR ROOM. Here's an item about how briefings for for former president Bush were laced with biblical language.

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT? Here's an item from Wired Science about why we stare.

TEXTING could be bad for teenagers'



Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

In seminary one of the most difficult lessons most of us had to learn was how fragile and vulnerable life really is.

The EDG said...

We miss you on Twitter, El Cabrero! Come back!

El Cabrero said...

Nick--roger that. It's kind of, well, tragic.

EDG. You're right, I'm way behind. I was worried about it messing with email delivery.