The Sather lecturers are invited by the Department of Classics at Berkeley, but they are not always Classicists in a narrow sense. Bernard Williams rightly and proudly points to the precedent of one of his teachers, E.R. Dodds, whose The Greeks and the Irrational, published in 1951, remains one of the glories of the series. When Williams says in the preface to his own lectures that he is not primarily a Classical scholar, this is not meant as an apology: it simply tells us that his perspective will be mainly philosophical, not philological or literary. In fact, Williams's project belongs to a philosophical genre exemplified most famously by Nietzsche: comparing 'the Greeks', our ancestors, with ourselves in order to discover whether the differences between their moral outlook and our own should be seen as improvements. Williams is not looking for a simple answer - progress, or decline, or much the same. He wants to show, on the one hand, that the Greeks were sufficiently similar to us to make a comparison instructive; on the other hand, that where we take ourselves to have different and perhaps more refined conceptions, we may be either deluded or not as far apart as we might like to believe. In other words, comparing ourselves to the Greeks may have the sobering effect of showing us that we have not advanced all that much, and that we might do well to reconsider some of the moral ideas alleged by philosophers and theologians to mark a decisive improvement.
LRB 19 August 1993 | PDF Download