How Great a Scholar Was Judith Shklar?

June 23, 2019 Topic: History Region: Americas Tags: Judith SkhlarUtopiaPoliticsForeign PolicyGermany

How Great a Scholar Was Judith Shklar?

Utopian dreams that curdled into nightmares were a frequent theme and personal experience of Stalinism and Nazism infused Shklar's scholarship. She stands out for the wide range of her interests, literary and historical, enabling her to draw connections between authors separated by centuries and revolutions of thought.

The emphasis on human motivation makes for exciting drama. The spectators who turned up in the theater of Dionysus were the same men who gathered nearby to hear speeches and cast their votes as members of the ecclesia, the popular assembly. They were the government. They were aware that they got to decide on matters of life and death. The same holds for the law courts. The court that condemned Socrates had 500 members. They knew full well that they, not a god, were pondering to cast their ballots. Their relevance to the assessment of the tragic theater they frequented is unmistakable.

Shklar goes astray in declaring that “[t]he great fault of such men [and women] is hubris: excessive pride, immoderate willfulness that defies the gods, enrages them, and ends in disaster for the defiant male [and woman?]” Antigone, Ajax, Oedipus and other tragic “heroes” are arrogant types, but no god is punishing them for that. Ajax commits suicide because of his shame at being dishonored in the eyes of the army. Oedipus blinds himself at the discovery of his crimes. To see how jarring the intrusion of divine determinism is for the Antigone, consider the famous scene in which Antigone’s sister, Ismene, pretends that she has helped Antigone with the funeral rites for their brother so as to share in her punishment. Antigone retorts, “you can’t die with me; don’t try to claim for yourself what’s not yours!” Antigone had tried to recruit her sister for the “burial” and been rebuffed; now she alone can claim credit for defying Creon, the ruler of Thebes and her uncle, who forbade a proper burial for her brother, the rebellious Polyneices. However indifferent to her sister’s plight—a life of loneliness stretching before her—Antigone is right: she is the sole mover in attempting to defy Creon’s edict.

Sophocles has Tiresias, a blind seer, enter to denounce Creon for having forbidden the burial of Polyneices. Failure to inter him had, in perfectly natural ways, led to miasma, or pollution, as dogs and birds of prey scattered pieces of the unburied man throughout Thebes. This might seem to point to divine disapproval, but for the Greeks, strictly speaking, there was no supernatural realm opposed to nature. This is clear from Hesiod’s poems, which Shklar treated with insight in her essay on “Subversive Genealogies.” It is why Chateaubriand believed that Christianity had made modern science possible by clearing nature of a host of intrusive deities.

THE ISSUE of burial has a prehistory in the Iliad and in Sophocles’ Ajax. In the former, we see Achilles forced to abandon his wrath at Hector and return to his earlier common humanity in permitting the burial of his enemy. In Sophocles’ drama, the seemingly absolute polarity between friend and foe that characterized popular morality is overcome as Odysseus persuades the Atreid commanders of the army to permit the burial of a warrior who had attempted to kill them. Antigone takes a new line not only in introducing a young woman as the protagonist of burial and with her the entire issue of male supremacy, but also the polis as a crucial element. Creon is far from an absolute ruler; he cannot take the city’s loyalty for granted. That is why he is seen issuing his decree to a handpicked group of elders known for their loyalty to whatever regime is in power. The response of the chorus to him is equivocal: “Yours the power to effect this towards those ill and those well-disposed to the polis/to wield any law whatsoever is your prerogative/as regards the dead and the living.” Though Creon possesses the legal authority, the wisdom of his action is left up in the air. The granting of such carte blanche, as the British classicist H.D.F. Kitton once observed, smacks of the tyrant in the eyes of the Greeks. The tyrant instills fear in his subjects; the conduct of the Watchman, ordered to guard the corpse, alerts us to this pervasive fear. He shuffles in, mumbles, finds it’s hard to give a straight answer, feels sorry for Antigone but is relieved to save his own skin by arresting her. He is afraid almost to the point of inarticulateness. The chorus displays hostility towards Antigone without openly favoring Creon—are they also governed by fear?

At one point Antigone responds to Creon’s dig that she is the only person in the polis who thinks as she does. Looking at the chorus, Antigone replies that so do they but are afraid to say so. Shklar notes this without comment. It deserves to be noted since in a few minutes Creon’s son, Haemon, soon appears to persuade him to rescind his decree. He fails. One of Haemon’s main arguments is that public opinion in the polis is increasingly on Antigone’s side and that the citizens are sotto voce praising her valor. Summoning the memory of his country’s past, a German critic has compared this climate of fear to the squelching of independent thought and speech during the Third Reich. Creon is flummoxed that a woman, his niece, could offer principled opposition to him. Her impassioned defense is beyond his mental horizon.

Antigone was no civil disobedient in a strict sense. However, she resembles one in the nonviolence of her defiance and the fact that, as Shklar notes, she hurts no one apart from herself. She champions the age-old rights and rites of the family, the group anterior to the polis. By driving Antigone and Haemon to their deaths, Creon has deprived himself and the polis of the progeny it requires for survival. It turns out that Antigone, not Creon, is the true defender of the polis.

IN PLATO’S Crito, Socrates engages in a dialogue with Crito about the nature of justice and injustice. Socrates is imprisoned and awaits his execution. Crito is an older, wealthy hanger-on who was in court when Socrates was tried on charges of impiety and corrupting Athenian youth. Convinced that Socrates will be executed on the following day, he bribes a jailer to win entry into the cell before the official opening hour. No one else may know of the visit. His intention is to persuade Socrates to flee during the next night. He can easily pay off the prison guards and the “sycophants,” the semi-official prosecutors who rake in cash by the barrelful by blackmailing the Athenian one percent. Socrates refuses.

This might seem confusing. In his defense speech—the Apology—Socrates, as Shklar points out, had struck a defiantly independent note that at first blush might appear to be backing Creon’s inflexible position. But we are dealing with a dramatic composition that centers on a character known for his irony. Appearances may be deceiving. Plato’s drama has Socrates engage Crito in a dialogic interchange of the sort familiar from other early dialogues, though this one is more superficial. He reminds Crito of the agreements to which they have come earlier to the effect that it is better to suffer than inflict injustice, something he would perform in seeking to escape. To demonstrate to Crito that it would be unjust, he pretends to be summoning the august voice of the Laws of Athens, which proceeds to develop a doctrine of unqualified obedience or something close to it.

Shklar’s narrative runs smoothly with an important exception. Socrates often mentions his daimonion which warns him against some action he is on the point of undertaking. When the sign does not appear, he is confident that his action is proper. There is reason to believe that the charge of impiety was linked to Athenians’ suspicion that Socrates was indulging in some kind of private worship. This renders dubious Shklar’s conjecture that impiety was merely a cover for political motives. More serious is the conversion of the daimonion into daimon. It may refer to a minor god. The diminutive form daimonion distances itself from a full-scale daimon; it is more playful, a bit like the English diminutives of puppy or kitten, almost begging to be petted. Whatever kind of sign Socrates believed he was receiving, it was not, as Shklar would have it, his conscience. Its signals are negative; it provides no explanation for that signal or for its absence nor is it the outcome of any thought process. Socrates does not remain in prison because of his conscience. To say that “he stays in prison because he is doing what it (the sign) commands” is misleading since the sign issuing a positive command is never mentioned in the Crito.


It is evident that Shklar does not like Socrates. Crito’s first argument that Socrates should not submit to the court’s verdict is that in so doing he will abandon his companions. “At no point,” says Shklar, “does Socrates make the slightest gesture of friendship to the grieving Crito… It is as if friendship were entirely insignificant… Socrates comes across as a perfectly awful man.” Not exactly. Plato makes good the omission by recounting the last day of Socrates’ life in the Phaedo, when he has Simmias complain that in consenting to die with such equanimity, Socrates is abandoning “us,” which would naturally include Crito. Socrates’ response? “I gather that I shall have to defend myself as though I were in court.” The proofs to be given for the immortality of the soul and his philosophical biography are the reasons he provides for leaving his friends.