Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Nussbaum: Immortal Mortals

In Chapter 6 of Therapy of Desire, Martha Nussbaum shows that Epicurus' argument for the irrationality of the fear of death is an incomplete one. Its weakness lies in the characterization of temporal values as invalid, for if we actually follow the arguments of Lucretius and Epicurus to their logical ends, as Nussbaum does, they too affirm mortal values. On the one hand, Lucretius admonishes us to re-evaluate the worth we assign to temporal goods; we need to recognize that our own finitude will frustrate our desires for such goods to last eternally. On the other hand, Nussbaum points out that "this is not what the mortal being usually attempts" (330). Instead, it is a matter of whether we can rationally value something with its end in sight. For as humans, we often fear that our present projects will be emptied of their meaning if cut short by death. But why should temporal ends deter us from imputing value on those projects?
Nussbaum suggests, although neither Epicurus nor Lucretius explicitly put forth this argument, that we embrace mortal values because they are precisely the sort of goods which cannot be had by immortals. For example, she says that the Greek gods cannot possess the virtue of courage displayed by Achilles, since they are impervious to death. Likewise, love and friendship develop over a period of time rather than being feelings realized from one moment to the next. But then, she implies that a friendship in which one party is not able to sacrifice herself for the other lacks a certain depth.
My question is not whether time affects our values but whether a temporal end is essential in their worth. In the instance of friendship: imagine that one friend cares for the other in such a way that she is willing to sacrifice anything for her, including her life, but she is never presented with the opportunity to lay down her life for her friend. Does this imply that her love for her friend is not as valuable? Certainly I can love my friend deeply and even sacrifice portions of my own life- my time, for instance- without giving away my life. So we can assign value to things that we appreciate as mortals even if we end up being immortal.
Nussbaum indicates that without ends, activities we treasure become objects of our boredom. However, I would argue that we do have the capacity for gratitude of the "same old, same old." I hope I never stop admiring the sunset, though it passes through my window everyday.
Certainly there are values which we would deem unconditional were we to know that they were eternal. Even Lucretius' theory proves this point- he says that humans should esteem the universe, rather than particular individual lives of which it is constituted.

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