Love and Justice for Each: An Appreciation of Martha C. Nussbaum by Henry Richardson
Henry James once offered the following advice to would-be writers: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” Martha Craven Nussbaum is one of those people on whom nothing is lost. Keenly observant, fascinated by life, and analytically brilliant, her memory locks everything in. She is not a novelist, of course, but a philosopher and a renowned public intellectual of extraordinary range. She engages with constitutional lawyers about human rights and debates policy with economists. And she has always been deeply committed to the humanities; few have championed the field as well as she has in Cultivating Humanity and Not for Profit.
Martha began her academic career in classical philology. It is telling that she has always admired Aristotle, who was unusual in being curious rather than repulsed by the wet embodiment of the animals he studied, from mollusks and octopi to humans and other “political animals.” Martha’s first book translated and provided searching commentary on Aristotle’s De Motu Animalium, which is about animals that move about—whether slimy or scaled, furry or smooth, but all of them vulnerable. Her interpretation emphasized that, as they move, animals depend on an ability to perceive the world interpretively—to see something as dangerous or delicious: a primitive form of imagination. Her second book was The Fragility of Goodness. It drew on the ancient Greek poets and philosophers to explore how bad luck or ill-fated circumstance can force us to choose between tragically clashing values—for example, as Agamemnon was forced to choose between the life of his daughter and the good of the state.
I first got to know Martha through studying Aristotle with her at Harvard. She combined a classicist’s formidable memory of texts with a philosopher’s passion to question them. Even after moving to Brown University, she continued to lead a Greek reading group in Cambridge. Years later, encountering passages in her writings that elaborated ideas she had floated in that informal setting, I came to realize that her memory also locks onto her own thoughts, sorting her many observations and pieces of argument for later use.