Martha Nussbaum: The Renowned Philosopher on Stoicism, Emotions, and Must Read Books

Martha Nussbaum is one of the most renowned and respected philosophers living today. She is the current Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, where she is jointly appointed in the Law School and the Philosophy department. She has a particular interest in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, political philosophy, feminism, and ethics, including animal rights. She is the author of a number of books, has received more than 56 honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the world as well as the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy.

We were honored that she took time to respond to our questions on Stoicism, emotions, grief, book recommendations, her favorite quote from the Stoics and much more. She points in several instances where she disagrees with the Stoics on topics such as animal rights and grief, and as well as her reticence to tell people how to live their lives.

Enjoy our interview with Martha Nussbaum below! And of course, we’d like to thank her again for taking time out of her very busy schedule.

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You’ve said that your academic career essentially began in high school when you were thinking about a lot of the problems you deal with now. What do you mean by that?

I was writing about the role of emotions in the good human life, and also about the tension between justice and liberty — all apropos of excellent classes on English and French literature. I wrote a 3 act play in French on Robespierre that my drama group performed.

We read that you find two aspects of Stoicism to be particularly essential: The first is self-examination and the second is the Stoic idea of cosmopolitanism. Can you walk us through both of those and how they fit into modern life?

Actually the most fertile idea of the Stoics, in my view, is their analysis of emotions as containing evaluative thoughts about what is most important for one’s well-being. That view I find basically correct, though in need of a lot of further work. Their normative analysis of the emotions seems wrong to me, namely that we should get rid of them all, but they are pretty on target in their critique of anger.

As for self-examination, Socrates did that already, so I don’t find the Stoics so original in that regard.

As for cosmopolitanism, it is the view that one should give the interests of all humanity priority over more local interests. I think that no such view could ever be the basis of political principles in a pluralistic society, since such principles ought to be able to secure an “overlapping consensus” of all the major comprehensive doctrines, religious and secular, that people hold. That is why I endorse a weaker view: that we should show concern for all human beings (and I add all animals, which the Stoics would not approve of), and formulate political principles that show due respect for all. That is of course very vague, but in Frontiers of Justice I try to make it more concrete.

Do you have a favorite quote or passage from the Stoics?

Seneca: “Soon we shall breathe our last. Meanwhile, while we live, while we are among human beings, let us cultivate our humanity.” (From “On Anger”)

There is a fascinating profile on you in the New Yorker, and one of the more moving parts is about the passing of your mother and your grieving process. Obviously some of Seneca’s most famous essays are about this exact topic. How should someone who is practicing philosophy—and particularly Stoicism—think about grief as an emotion and how to cope with it?

Most of that profile is very inaccurate, so if you really want a good profile of me, look at the interview with Andrea Scarantino in the online journal Emotion Researcher. The anecdote you mention is an example of the problem. I told her that that narrative of my mother’s death was a constructed philosophical exemplum, and that I imitated Seneca in using my own life as a source of exempla. Just as it was foolish to try to write Seneca’s biography by reading his works, so it is foolish to write my biography by reading exempla that I use in the course of philosophical argument. It is all constructed to make a point.

As for what Stoics can show us about grief: they can help us analyze it, but their normative belief that one should never have grief was wrong and we ought to reject it.

Speaking of strong emotions, you recently said that you’ve changed your mind about fear and how it infects all other emotions. What was your original position, and why did you change your mind? And how does it impact all the other emotions?

I used to write about emotions one by one, but now I see that studying their interactions is fundamental, and my new book discusses the fundamental role of fear in infecting all the other emotions. I changed my mind by reflecting about the American political crisis. You will have to read the book when it comes out to see how I make the connections, since it is too complicated for an interview.

How would you define the role of a philosopher in today’s world?

I wouldn’t. There are so many good ways to engage with the world, and each philosopher should figure it out for herself. I don’t like telling others what to do.

You’ve said that the good life requires striving for a difficult goal. Aside from this, how do you define what constitutes a good life? And has that definition changed over time?

Again, I don’t like telling other people how to live their lives. I can talk about shared standards of justice, but about the flourishing life let people consult their religion, their family, their friends.

You’ve said that we are facing a crisis in education, and particularly the decline of liberal arts education and the humanities. A lot of our readers love the Stoics because many of their texts provide a great entry point into philosophy without being too difficult to grasp at first. What books or essays should they follow up with next? Particularly on issues where you might think the Stoics fall short at?

Well, Rousseau’s Emile is a great and puzzling continuation of Stoic debates on education. I hope that some will like my books on emotions! Other philosophers who engage the general public well are Bernard Williams, Hume, Adam Smith, John Dewey, Jean-Paul Sartre, and there are many others! Of course the dialogues of Plato are an invaluable resource. Try Rabindranath Tagore’s The Religion Of Man to see how a non-Western tradition approaches some of these topics.


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